Images and Text (C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved
“Come away with me, Lucille,/In my Merry Oldsmobile. . .” (C) 1905 by Gus Edwards (music) and Vincent P. Bryan (lyrics)
Although American history cites Nellie Bly as the first woman to go on the road in 1889, discovering the world as a reporter for the New York World newspaper, I’d like to point out that perhaps history is not all that precise. I think that distinction should go to my Great-grandmother, Metta Ursula Woodward Olds (b. 1864) and her daughters, Gladys (“GaGa,” b. 1892) and Berenice (“Bun,” b. 1896). They weren’t exactly pioneer drivers nor reporters, but instead accomplices to my Great-grandfather’s publicity schemes.
Ransom Eli Olds (b. 1864), his father Pliny Fisk Olds, and some business partners began Olds Motor Works (later Oldlsmobile) in August 1897, in Lansing, Michigan. Before it became part of the fledgling General Motors, the company became the makers of the Curved Dash Oldsmobile. Among the many documented publicity stunts performed to entice the public to “go horseless” was the use of the Olds family and their friends to prove how simple and safe it was to drive a Curved Dash. A family picture from the period shows GaGa and Bun in their white Sunday best dresses smiling happily (gleefully, in fact) as they “drive” down an unpaved country road.
But note: In those days, according to my grandmother GaGa, one drove wagons. But with the horseless carriage, one motored.
For another stunt, R. E. Olds packed his wife and daughters into a Curved Dash and motored off to New York City, to attend one of the first auto shows ever held. My grandmother remembered it as interesting, scary, exhilirating and uncomfortable. There were no paved roads; not everyone was intrigued or friendly; the coats, hats with veils and gloves worn by women to protect their hair, skin and clothes from the elements could be stifling hot and bulky; the sense of wandering off a beaten path, following Father into the great unknown–none of their friends had done anything like this before, ever. Would they ever return to Lansing, safe and sound? They must have asked themselves that more than once during the trip.
Were my grandmother and great-aunt making history?
Did they care?
Probably not at the time.
But they did it, more than once. My Great-grandfather had homes on Belle Isle, Michigan, and in Charlevoix, as well as his residence on South Washington Avenue, in Lansing (after 1905). How do you get from one place to another?
On the road, my dear, motoring.
Eventually, my grandmother did learn to drive, but gave it up and preferred to be driven. There may have been practical reasons for this, but being driven in no way took the fun out of travelling by car.
GaGa’s son and daughter learned to drive, but neither had the zest for the open road that my mother had. I suspect that, when she found out that Olds Anderson was the grandson of R. E. Olds, she might have hoped their relationship and marriage would give her unlimited access to all kinds of cars. But it didn’t. In fact, after their divorce and re-marriages to other people, my stepfather (not in the “car biz”) kept her supplied with a string of new cars.
My father’s wife, however, just went from one “practical” station wagon to another about every five years.
My mother was genuinely an excellent driver, never having even the tiniest accident during at least 70 years of being licensed (in Texas, Michigan and Arizona). On the other hand, she racked up several speeding tickets in Arizona, always in the same place–a clear, level stretch of blacktop around Florence, Arizona, between Tucson and Phoenix (to the suburb of Carefree). Having driven through there with her, I can attest to the area’s subliminal invitation–immense expanse of clear blue sky, flat land in lovely shades of red and yellow ochre, sagebrush and ocotillo in beautiful green tones, and that long immaculate stretch of smooth asphalt straight ahead.
“go-o-o-o-o. . .” it whispers. . .
My mother is gone before anyone can finish saying the word.
Growing up in Houston and going to Bandera, Texas, in the summers, it’s easy to see why Mom’s theme was always “Song of the Open Road.” If possible, with a V-8 engine.
Between 1949 and approximately 1990, my mother made the following trips:
–Lansing, MI to Houston, TX, and back, at least four times, and always with my brother and me; twice in a 1949 Olds Hydramatic two-door convertible in light blue, with navy blue leather interior;
–East Lansing, MI to Washington, D. C., and back (Easter 1957), in a new Ford Fairlane, which turned into an adventure when Mom decided to take a shortcut someplace in Pennsylvania;
–East Lansing to Tyrone, PA, and back in a new 1960 Thunderbird, dark green with pale green leatherette interior, after a snowstorm in the Alleghenies;
–East Lansing to Tucson, AZ, twice in 1972, with me; once in a metallic green Camaro, fully loaded and customized (Continental hubcaps, white vinyl top and white leatherette interior), with little trunk space, but a great car to drive; someday I have to write about the women’s restrooms along the Texas Interstate; and then, in the fall, in a brand new Oldsmobile Cutlass, canary yellow with white vinyl top and white leatherette interior. She made a couple more trips between Michigan and Arizona a few years later, with her third husband, in his Thunderbird (which was not even close to the Thunderbird of her dreams, but it was a bronze late Seventies model with a V-8 engine). In fact, it was pretty close to the Thunderbird used in Thelma and Louise, which came to such a sad end in that movie. Had my mother been the director or producer, those two women would have landed in a horribly bloody mess on the valley floor, while the Thunderbird would have survived in pristine condition.
My own experiences are much more limited, I’m afraid. Numerous long distance bus rides in Colombia, especially in the 1970s, but not much in the U.S. I drove from Tucson to Los Angeles, CA, twice, in 1978, in a burgundy-and-bisquit Jaguar XJ 7 two-door with black vinyl top; it got exceptional gas mileage, too.
In the summer of 1980, I drove it from Los Angeles to Chicago, alone; then to Ohio with my friend Rebecca, and back to Chicago, before driving to East Lansing, Michigan, by myself. That Chicago Sky Drive does go on forever and ever, doesn’t it?
In all, very prosaic travel.
But then I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, transcribed from the original typewritten roll, followed by four essays on the book and its author, written by Howard Cunnell, Penny Vlagopoulos, George Mouratidis and Joshua Kupetz. These were published in the Penguin Books 2007 edition of On the Road: The Original Tyewritten Roll. Bewteen Kerouac’s observations and stories and the analyses or explanations given by Cunnell et al, I kept thinking, “But don’t women drive, go ‘on the road’ in their own way? And if they do, how is it different?”
I am excluding women who drive for a living and women who have to move because of external conditions (the films Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Thelma and Louise; the women in The Grapes of Wrath, book and film; following a spouse who has taken a job or because the woman has taken or is looking for a new job). I also have to exclude (politically incorrect as this may be) camp followers, prostitutes and female criminals. I do that because Kerouac himself was not in any of the above categories and I want to level the highway a little bit.
Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and had a reasonably stable childhood. He went to school, suffered loss and kept growing as a person. World War II left a mark, as it did on virtually everyone in his generation (he was born in 1922). What I personally regret is that he died at a relatively young age (47). To put that in perspective are my father (August 1916 – February 2003) and my mother (January 1919 – May 2006), who would have experienced and witnessed many of the same events as Kerouac, but with different interpretations of them. On the Road was written when Kerouac was young, but he did not get to the point in life where he might have re-traced his steps or re-thought his original impressions. As it stands now, Kerouac’s vision is strictly “a guy thing.”
My mother and both my grandmothers had a great love for the open road. My maternal grandmother was born in Brazoria, TX, but moved to Houston before she married. She and her British husband lived there all their lives, and their house was also Nana’s little base camp for constant trips to Brazoria and Galveston (to go crabbing) and to her friends’ and relatives’ homes. That’s not “on the road,” strictly speaking, but it is a far cry from being stuck at home all the time.
My aunt, Mom’s sister, also drove, but watching Nana and Mom argue over who’s going to drive conditioned both Baba and me to shut up and get in the back seat.
I’ve lived in a foreign city and country (Bogotá, Colombia) for most of my adult life. When I arrived in 1966, very few women drove. It was, they were told, very risky, very dangerous. The insinuation that also lingered in the air was that it was not ladylike. A LADY was driven, to show the world that her husband could properly keep her away from all that lurked dangerously in the street.
This situation has changed enormously in forty years, but even now, I can not imagine how many Colombian women silently envied the American and European women in movies, on TV and in real life who so nonchalantly picked up car keys and, in a whoosh! hit the road. ANY road.
But I think that what a road means to women is freedom and liberation, even when it’s momentary. It’s an adventure, even on a small scale, that can’t be had any other way.
Kerouac was looking for something and observing a country that changed from one place to another yet remained “American,” the same country (the United States). Seasonal differences had more impact than daily life.
Kerouac and Neal Cassady finally go to Mexico and discover what appears to be a genuinely different environment. Had they stayed and become fluent in Spanish, they might have seen a curious thing–Mexico was also in transition, trying to modernize, educate its people, become part of the larger world. Mexico had also been affected by World War II. The “authentic” Mexico they felt they had discovered was as in flux as its North American neighbor, but in a more subtle fashion.
But again, we’re dealing with “a guy thing”–prostitutes and flophouses and extreme poverty in what is a physically beautiful country. Even Kerouac acknowledged this aspect of Mexico, and seemed at times to run out of words. Nevertheless, the guys walk and drive through it, whoring, drinking and pissing every step of the way.
How would a woman deal with this, in the same context of driving through that country?
In fiction, you can do it a lot of ways–straight comedy, romantic comedy, mystery thriller, sociological documentary, et cetera.
Reality can be a lot more interesting.
I’ve done it.
1977, October, Tucson, Arizona. I had moved there in February to “start a new life,” stupidly listening to my mother’s siren song while I was going through a period of personal indecision. By March, I found myself completely alone and unemployed in a beautifully-decorated condo (which I had foolishly bought in January) on the far west side of town, on the road to Gates’ Pass and Old Tucson.
By summer, the arrival of a Colombian man with whom I’d had a long on-again/off-again affaire seemed to be the rescue I needed. Of course, he moved right in. He actually had no other reason to be in Tucson except to see me; I took that for true love. I chose to ignore his alcoholism, drug-taking and fluctuating depressive states.
Desperation can make you masochistic.
Let’s call this guy Julio.
Julio César. . . something-or-other.
Tall, dark, handsome and “damaged” in a romantic way.
So Julio gets bored with the Tucson lifestyle and suggests we drive to Mexico in my car (at the time, a new blue-and-white Olds Cutlass four-door, but with few options; this was later traded for the Jaguar, as per Julio’s whining suggestion that I needed something that would accommodate his long legs). We would take my brand new Chinon Super-8 camera (with sound capabilities) and my new Mamiya 645 medium format camera. I could take pictures and later sell them. This was all the rage in Germany, he said. (He’d been living there for a few years with an upper-crust German girl.)
So okay, I’d have pictures to sell. To whom? Who knows?
All at my expense.
I had misgivings, but I did it.
WE did it.
We drove south to Nogales, crossed the border and went on to Guadalajara and Mazatlán and a couple of points in-between.
We stayed in clean but second- or even third-rate hotels, dined at clean but very modest restaurants. I had been to Mexico City in 1969 with my mother, staying in a five-star hotel on the Reforma in the Zona Rosa, shopping in equally classy places and, naturally, eating in beautiful restaurants. This particular change in tourist class was not lost on me. I hated it all, but hey, I loved the guy. I keept telling myself.
In Guadalajara, Julio told me he was seriously thinking of ditching me because I wasn’t being nice enough to him. He had planned to call his German girlfriend collect (she was then in Los Angeles, CA), so she could wire him some money for airfare and a hotel. Or maybe she could join him in Guadalajara.
And then he changed his mind.
In Mazatlán, we were charged a tourist tax usually applied only to Mexicans because, the hotel desk clerk told us, he thought Julio was Mexican.
Not only was this a very serious insult to the scion of a politically prominent Colombian family, even I thought the desk clerk was crazy if he could not distinguish between a Colombian and a Mexican accent. More so, since Julio spoke pretty much cachaco, which is a clearly-defined Bogotá accent.
In a small but beautiful town above Mazatlán, we stayed at a lovely hotel that had once been a convent. (We had to stay there, regardless of money. There were no other hotels in the village.) But one night, Julio got drunk at a bar in the town and told a Mexican man that if he started a fight with Julio, I would beat the crap out of him. (As a gentleman, Julio would hold my camera for me, of course.)
At the US-Mexican border, at Nogales, Immigration did not want to let Julio back into the country. He had a legal visa in his Colombian passport, but it was from the US Consulate in Germany. I had to call the man who managed my trust fund to vouch for Julio, whom he had never met.
This smoothed over everything, and in the firsts bathroom we came to in Arizona, I was acutely relieved to find that I was not pregnant.
And so on.
Did Kerouac ever have to worry about details like that?
I’ll probably elaborate on these things at a later date.
What happens to women when they go on the road might be so incredible that no one would ever believe them if they wrote about it later.
Consequently, we praise Kerouac for his observations, but we’re only getting one lane of the highway.
Text and images (C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved