Article: Birth of the American road trip?

It often seemed to me that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort…But discomfort, after all, is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. 

This essay in the Smithsonian magazine takes a look back at the road trips of self proclaimed Vagabonds Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone.  What starts as a summer camping vacation turned into an annual road trip between 1915 and 1924 as the four friends explored America by car.  

These were not basic camping trips.  As the photos in the album below show (click on the photo), the group travelled in some comfort and formality, with chefs and up to 50 vehicles in their convoy and the Vagabonds rarely removing their jackets (at least while the camera was present):

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are near the center car, 1921

John Burroughs described the group as “joy riders with a luxurious outfit calculated to be proof against any form of discomfort” when he wrote about their 1918 in trip in A Strenuous Holiday.

Burroughs was a naturalist and nature writer who was active in conservation.  Initially opposed to the automobile, he became friends with Ford and joined the annual road trip.  A Strenuous Holiday appears in Under the Maples, a collection published the year that Burroughs died.  

John_Burroughs_1909

A short read at only 17 pages, Burroughs (then in his 80s) paints an idyllic picture of the road trip as it travels through Pennsylvania and West Virginia, before heading south.  There is something charming about his account, from the little girl with a bucket of apples to his descriptions of titans of industry at play; whether it be Henry Ford challenging people to races, Thomas Edison’s unkempt appearance, ‘delicious humour’ and his ability to turn vagabond “very easily”, or sitting around the campfire listening to Edison discussing chemistry or Ford discussing mechanics.

There is an irony to three industrialists enjoying touring a bucolic landscape which their inventions and labours were to change so radically but maybe that is no more inconsistent than a “luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort.”  Although, as Burroughs notes:

discomfort, after all, is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. We grow weary of our luxuries and conveniences. We react against our complex civilization, and long to get back for a time to first principles. We cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more. 

Whatever the discomforts, Burroughs realised, as does every traveller, that: 

It is after he gets home that a meditative man really makes such a trip. All the unpleasant features are strained out or transformed. In retrospect it is all enjoyable, even the discomforts. 

A Strenuous Holiday is available to read for free online at Gutenberg and also at the Internet Archive

This youtube documentary has some more footage and background to these early road trips:

Book: No Hurry to Get Home, Emily Hahn

No Hurry to Get Home
by Emily Hahn

Published by Open Road Media (2014) 

“The old euphoria of the traveller, a sensation I’d almost forgotten in the forest, was stealing over me—that keen expectation of something happening soon, something fascinating.”

“Lazy, that’s your trouble” announced Emily Hahn’s surveying partner while she was studying engineering.  This memoir, however, reveals that Hahn was anything but.
 

No Hurry to Get Home opens with chapters focussing on Hahn’s childhood years.  Hahn reveals that at an early age the urge to get away was manifested itself in running away from home, probably as a result of a “hangover” from reading books with protagonists who “scorned the stale air of indoors”. 

Following Hahn from this early experience through her upbringing in St Louis and Chicago in the first two decades of the 20th century, we encounter a father who was careful to ensure that his daughters conversations about clothes remained practical and never became vanity and sisters who were competitive and poached boyfriends.  Hahn moves on to encounter the male chauvinist environment of engineering school and the joys of drinking homemade gin during Prohibition.  

Hahn’s first real travel experience was a road trip heading West across the States in a Model T Ford in 1924 when such a journey involved “virtuous, healthy discomfort” because of the lack of roadside services and “people still behaved as if motoring was a passing fad.”  The trip changed Hahn who became increasingly restless and recalled thinking:

It was awful to think of everybody in that big place getting up at the same time every morning, taking the same bus or streetcar to work, doing the same things every day at the office. Where in the world were people who did things simply because they wanted to—because they were interested? Did no one ever strike out along new paths? 

Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic inspired Hahn to new challenges and she quit work and headed West again to become a Harvey Girl.

 Emily_Hahn portrait

Subsequent chapters follow Hahn around the world as she travels to the UK and Africa before heading to Japan and China, where she stayed for 8 years and was at the time of the Japanese invasion and the first part of the Second World War before she headed back to the US.   

Hahn is humorous and candid without being sentimental as she encounters the Kurtz-like anthropologist, Stewart, in the Belgian Congo, makes her way overland to Lake Kivu with a party of bearers, is confronted by racism in Dar es Salaam and recounts a Japanese air raid while she was in China.   In one of the best known essays, The Big Smoke, Hahn recounts her experiences with opium (“I was quite determined. It took me a year or so to become addicted, but I kept at it”).  

Throughout, Hahn reveals common travellers’ preoccupations: communicating with home, the joy of first travel, conversations with other travellers, doubts about the suitability of traveling companions, concerns about the creeping commercialisation of popular travel destinations and the nuisance travellers can be to their families and friends when they return from travels full of anecdotes and extravagant habits. 

No Hurry to Get Home was originally published as Times and Places in 1970.  Originally intended to be an autobiography, the introduction records how Hahn’s enthusiasm for the project waned as she became preoccupied with new projects but had spent the advance.  

The end result became an anthology of articles which had been published in the New Yorker, the magazine to which Hahn contributed over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those).  The chapters in No Hurry are therefore stand alone which makes it an an ideal collection to dip in and out of.    

Hahn’s surveying partner at engineering school might have perceived recycling previously published pieces as a further example of laziness.  That, however, would be grossly unfair.  During her prolific career, Hahn wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects and made her final contribution to the New Yorker at the age of 96.  Selecting previously published pieces was simply a way of meeting a commitment.  In many ways, a memoir made up of pieces published in the magazine with which Hahn was linked throughout her professional life is a fitting testament and an ideal introduction to Hahn’s life and travels.  

The New York Times obituary of Emily Hahn is here.  Read more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here

Book: Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities

Fleming Thrilling CitiesThrilling Cities by Ian Fleming

Vintage (with an introduction by Jan Morris)

“All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns.”  Ian Fleming

After the Second World War, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond and brother of travel writer Peter Fleming), joined the Sunday Times newspaper as Foreign Manager.  He was responsible for sending correspondents around the world and seeing that they delivered “intelligent stuff”.

In 1959, it was his turn and Fleming was urged by his editorial board to “do something exciting and write about it.”  He did and so made two journeys around thirteen “thrilling cities of the world.”  The resulting essays, which Fleming referred to as ‘mood pieces’, were serialised in the Sunday Times in 1959/60 and then published as Thrilling Cities in 1962.

The book follows the two journeys.  The first half recounts a 30 day round the world air trip in 1959 taking in eight ‘exotic’ cities. The second, a six week, six city and 6000 mile trip around Europe in a seven litre Thunderbird made in the spring of the following year (1960).

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1963, Fleming was asked by presenter Roy Plomley whether there was much of him in James Bond.  Fleming laughed and replied:

I hope not…people do connect me with James Bond simply because I happen to like scrambled eggs and short sleeved shirts and some of the things that James Bond does but, err, I certainly haven’t got his guts nor his, err, very lively appetites.

That may be but, as the title suggests, what Fleming records are not the ‘tourist sights’. Instead, he uses his “tin-opener” to “find out what goes on behind the facade” of his stop-offs and reveals the exotic, shady and, at times, seedy background of his James Bond thrillers.

Whether describing Hamburg’s nightlife or Berlin’s transvestites, having tea with Lucky Luciano in Naples, spending time with fortune tellers and geishas, dining with Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin, meeting Hollywood producers or crime reporters in Chicago, Fleming is always in his element and moves effortlessly between respectability (and his Establishment friends and contacts) and the more unusual side of his destinations.

Some encounters, like that in Macao with Dr Lobo, a multi million pound gold dealer, and his “powerfully built butler, who looked more like a judo black-belt than a butler” could almost have come straight from the pages of his novels.

Fleming is equally at ease with a champagne and jet-set lifestyle and provides interesting glimpses of what travel used to be like – smoking on aircraft, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics handed out to passengers, refuelling in ‘the’ Lebanon and flying your car across the Channel rather than using a ferry.  They convey the excitement and glamour of travel at the start of the jet age and also Fleming’s enthusiasm for travel and delight at “hammering out the miles” driving across Europe in the post war period.

On his way, Fleming makes absorbing observations about travel and tourists.  He complains in Honolulu about the “high-pressure tourist atmosphere and the uniformity of the tourist and retire population.”  He prefers his hotels “unsullied by the tourist smear” and accuses tourists who pay to hear the Vienna boys choir of only “collecting the occasion, like a postage stamp.”  In Italy, he avoids Venice, refuses guides and guidebooks at Pompeii and makes wry comments about the country and its people.  In a post-imperialist lament, he notes the decline of British cultural and commercial influence around the world and exhorts younger people to show more interest in the ‘Orient’ and to travel more.

Bond is never far off, whether in the Las Vegas gambling tips courtesy of Fleming’s ‘connected’ contact, the advice on how to drink sake or in the casino at Monte Carlo.  At times it feels as though Fleming is playing to the gallery but perhaps there is more of him in Bond than he admits.  (A distinct possibility for a man whose idea of a literary gaffe is making reference in his novels to half bottles of Pol Roger champagne, when Pol Roger does not in fact produce half bottles.)

Fleming modestly claimed that he was not in the “Shakespeare stakes” and had no ambitions to more serious writing.  However, he was obviously well travelled and had an eye for the interesting and unusual combined with a lust for life and foreign travel.  As a result, Thrilling Cities is never boring but is an enjoyable whistle stop world tour seen through the eyes of James Bond’s creator just before that world was presented to cinema audiences in the first of the Bond films.

It is worth pointing out that Thrilling Cities was not Fleming’s only contribution to the travel writing genre.  In the late 50s while still Foreign Manager at the ST, he sent Norman Lewis to Cuba to report on Castro’s chances against the Batista regime. While there, Lewis interviewed a Dubonnet-soaked Hemingway, an episode recounted by Lewis in The World, The World.  But that, as they say, is another story.

Book: Overland to Singpore by Landrover, Tim Slessor

First Overland SlessorFirst Overland: London – Singapore by Landrover by Tim Slessor
Signal Books Ltd, 2005

 

 The good road ended like all good roads do
In 1955, six Oxford and Cambridge graduates, confident “almost to the point of arrogance” set out on an 18,000 mile journey from London to Singapore which lasted just over 6 months.
Styling themselves the The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition (only one of the team was in fact an Oxford graduate), they set off in two factory fresh vehicles provided by Landrover, with money sufficient to buy a clockwork camera and some film provided by the BBC (thanks to Sir David Attenborough, producer in charge of he BBC’s Exploration Unit at the time) and sponsorship from 8 other firms (including a distiller, cigarette manufacturer and Brook Bond tea).
They went because they wanted to, explains Tim Slessor in his preface.  Although he is not drawn into trying to explain or justify the expedition more deeply he points out that their motives were not simply superficial.  No doubt with 6 participants there were a variety of reasons and motives but they could hardly be blamed if the opportunity to turn names on maps into places they had seen and to undertake an epic overland journey not previously completed were not reasons enough.
The film Sir David Attenborough provided them with was put to good use and was turned into three programmes broadcast on the BBC after the expedition returned.  Surviving  footage gives a glimpse of the expedition:
It is hard not too look at the footage and see that, in many respects they travelled through a different world.  Two years before they set off, Hilary and Tensing had summited Everest.  Only months after they completed their outward journey, Nasser had renationalised the Suez Canal and by the time they had returned home, Britain had launched its invasion of Egypt.  Within another couple of years Lebanon and Iraq were both engulfed by civil war.
Making their the post war period, they witnessed the closing  They are assisted on their way by representatives of the Brook Bond tea company  Within months of  different to a world As they prepare in Calcutta and set off from Assam into Burma along the Stilwell road and into naga territory there is a sense of the real adventure beginning, recalling the importance of the area in WWII as they listened to radio reports when they wee young and heads no doubt full of reports if Hunt/Hillary Everest expedition they call their last stop in India ‘base camp’ and in their last telegram home before setting off use a code word in the manner of James Morris reporting to london that Hilary had successfully conquered Everests summit.

 

 

 

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