I doubt there is a better analysis anywhere of the lack of female road narratives than this amazing piece by Vanessa Veselka. It is not a pretty story:
By 2004, so many women had been found dead along the interstates that the FBI started the Highway Serial Killers Initiative to keep track of them. There were girls found in dumpsters, behind truck stop diners, off the side of the road on truck turnarounds—the national database listed over five-hundred Jane Does in or near rest areas and truck stops alone. Some of these were the very truck stops I was now passing through, and yet I couldn’t uncover even rumors of past murders. The strangeness of this crystallized when I visited a Pennsylvania truck stop where I knew for a fact that two women had been killed, one found only yards from where the woman I was speaking to worked. Still, she “had never heard of anything like that.”
… in a society as obsessed with celebrity as ours, where people claw their way to a camera or a microphone and serial killers breed fascination rather than disgust, someone should have remembered something. Who forgets the body of a murdered teenaged girl found at their place of employment while they worked there? There is no doubt that the social invisibility of these women contributed to their predation. But what exactly was that invisibility made from? These women weren’t remembered, it seemed, because they hadn’t been seen in the first place. And they hadn’t been seen partly because there was no cultural narrative for them beyond rape and death. As such, women on the road were already raped, already dead. Whereas a man on the road might be seen as potentially dangerous, potentially adventurous, or potentially hapless, in all cases the discourse is one of potential. When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends.
Veselka is not just on to something here, she’s on to practically everything. She’s on to why rape culture is acceptable, why Zerlina Maxwell gets horrifically threatened for simply saying she doesn’t want to be required to carry a gun, why we attend to reviving Ophelia and not civilizing Hamlet. She’s also on to a piece of my own story that I rarely talk about.
The year is 1972. I have just graduated from college and I have decided, rather than either going to graduate school or getting a job, to take the comparatively little money I have left over from my parents’ college fund, buy a car with it, and drive around the country, from New York to the West Coast and back again. A combination of life circumstances and unrecognized privilege coalesce to make me completely physically fearless about this: including growing up culturally fat, believing I was largely outside of the sexual sweepstakes, and having been raised by a mom who gave lip service to what was not then called “stranger danger,” but basically believed in the humanity of individual people and raised me that way. My mother is, nonetheless, terrified about this trip, especially when I refuse to promise her that I won’t pick up hitchikers. “You could wind up bludgeoned in a field,” she says, and I make fun of her to my friends for such an over-the-top image.
(More than 40 years later, I can see all the reasons to be terrified, and all the ways this could have gone horribly wrong. I absolutely could have wound up in a dumpster. And I’m still, though much more chastened about it, really glad that I didn’t understand the risks at the time.)
Although not the least bit afraid of being raped, attacked or killed, I am in fact terrified of wandering out on my own, of my ability to navigate the world completely by myself at 21. Not yet even out of New York, I am nearly seduced by the opportunity to “live off the land” in a hippie farm in a community actually named Freedom, and only my promises to myself and my fear of looking scared get me out of that alternate history. After that, I am completely on my own, except that I have several names and phone numbers of my parents’ friends along the way.
At least four or five times, in Kansas City, in Denver, in Colorado, I call one of them and stop for a meal or a night’s bed. Invariably, the woman of the couple makes time to pull me aside. She is green, jittering, speechless with envy. The thought of having an adventure alone makes her regret her whole semi-conventional life, and wish she could have lived in a time when she could do what I am doing. She never warns or discourages me, she just shares a great deal of wistfulness. She probably knows, as I do not, that I am taking an enormous risk, but she is too caught up in her own dreams to deter my fearlessness. And I wouldn’t have listened anyway; maybe she knows that. During the conversation, we both believe that times are changing for women, that her daughters and grand-daughters will be as safe as I believe I am.
Most nights alone are just that; nights alone. My little car is my best friend. When I stop in a city for a couple of weeks, I get a temp job and a room in a single-room-occupancy “hotel,” where I learn a lot about people on the margins, about hookers and johns, transients who aren’t privileged like me. No one ever bothers me in these places. One night in a park, a lonely man around my own age propositions me, and I end up giving him a hand job. It wasn’t until 20 years later that I can see the way this edged up against forced sex, but I didn’t experience it that way at the time. I’ll never know what he would have done if I had said a flat no; 21-year-old me thinks he would have wandered away, but 61-year-old me is far less sanguine.
In Colorado, I’m adopted by some hippie men who give me weed and miso soup (the former familiar, the latter exotic), but read me the way I read myself, as generally sexless, and “nothing happens.”
I land in the San Francisco Bay Area four months or so after setting out, and stay a long time. In a pick-up bridge game in a student union, I find the man who will be my partner for the next fifteen years. A couple of months later, I head home to see my mother through surgery.
I have had my own one-girl road trip, and never (as far as I know) come within shouting distance of violence, never come within speaking distance of rape, never been scared of anything except my own ability to navigate my story. I finish it up feeling somewhat proud of myself, shivery excited about my new potential relationship, confident that girls (women) can now do this. In other words, while I have learned some very important things, I somehow managed to miss learning what most females will learn on the road: how many predators are out there, how deeply unsafe it really is, and how I somehow managed to avoid the monsters.
Some of this is about 1972 and open hippie culture (though I was never really a hippie). A lot of it is about privilege. A lot is about luck. A lot is about the way one’s own optimism can (but will not always) color the outcome of one’s story.
Looking at it from 2013, I’m simultaneously deeply grateful for the experience and really amazed that I came out unscathed. I am heartbreakingly sad that I cannot in good conscience encourage other women, young or old, to do what I did. I deeply get the envy that my mother’s peers had of my experience. One thing I took away from it, and still have, is the image of a world where a female-bodied person taking that trip has the same range of potential experiences that her male-bodied counterpart might have–road adventures where gender does not control the narrative.