On the Road and Female: Theory and Practice

Debbie says:

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.


12 thoughts on “On the Road and Female: Theory and Practice

  1. I disagree with your conclusion. I would totally recommend such a trip to the right young woman.

    I’m going to start with a somewhat related issue about independence and free movement, how do you feel about the free-range kids movement? Should a ten-year-old be on the NYC subway alone? Should parents let their seven-year-old walk to school alone, given that a couple of children have been murdered in that circumstance?

    One possible answer to that is: it depends on the kid. I think the same is true for a solo cross-country drive by a 21-year-old. Is the young woman self-possessed and aware, rather than naive and vulnerable? Does she have a reasonable threshold of suspicion about other people? That is, reasonably cautious rather than reckless? Does she understand who it might be safe to have a sexual encounter with – a friend’s sibling or someone met in a social context, rather than in a coffee shop or bar? What are her family and financial resources? And so on.

    There are also potential mitigating factors, some of which weren’t there forty years ago. There are cell phones. A young woman could (and surely should) take a self-defense class before such a trip. And a 21-year-old may well have friends all over the country owing to the internet and friends made in college if she went to college. Yes, luck and privilege were among the factors that meant you had a good trip, unscathed. I believe that to be entirely possible now.

    I’m just not convinced that the deaths you point to are a reason not to take a trip such as this, any more than the fact that so much violence against women is by loved ones is a reason not to have loved ones.

    1. I think your points are well-taken, and at the same time, I think if I encouraged any woman to take a trip like this, I would feel too guilty if something did happen to her. You can choose your loved ones, but you can’t necessarily choose the predators you’ll meet on the road.

      Of course, anyone has the right to make their own risky choices, and I would happily talk to someone who was considering it about what the risks and rewards might be, but I wouldn’t encourage.

  2. I’ve taken several long car trips by myself and never had any trouble either. Though I was considerably older than 21. I don’t think I’d want to encourage either exactly. Everyone needs to make their own choices. But, yes, certainly I’d talk to them about it.


  3. Boy, have you brought me back. I spent the summer after my graduation from college as a tech apprentice at a dance festival. Early in September I drove from Massachusetts to LA, where my mother was visiting her mother. I had a rider as far as Denver, but then I was on my own. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I felt oddly small, but with each small obstacle conquered–going over the Rockies, crossing the desert, sleeping under an overpass at noontime to avoid the worst of the early autumn heat, dealing with replacing shock absorbers in the car–I felt bigger and more like an adult. When I drove back east I was so happy to be alone and at liberty in a way I hadn’t been on the trip out. I was pretty much left alone, except when I ran out of gas on I-95, and was picked up by a trucker who gave me a lift. When we reached a gas station, I thanked him and started to get out of the cab, and he asked me what he got for being such a gentleman. It was the first time on the trip that I had felt uneasy in a sexual sense; I asked him what it was he wanted. I must have sounded disapproving rather than frightened; he balked at asking for more than a kiss. He got the kiss, I got out, got a gallon of gas, and the Highway Patrol took me back to my car.

    Thirty years later, I’m both impressed with my bravado and terribly grateful that I didn’t encounter the serious danger I know were out there. Some of my luck came from anxiety–I always believe that if anything is going to happen to anyone it will happen to me–which probably made me more cautious than I might otherwise have been. But I was damned lucky. (And a month later I went to Europe on my own–a much bigger, scarier trip, and I was damned lucky there, too.) The narrative of the time was that youth would somehow overcome everything — youth and beauty and a free spirit. Even when I was young I yearned for that, but didn’t believe it. Maybe that’s what kept me safe.

    I wouldn’t suggest that one of my daughters take a long car trip or travel Europe on her own. If she meant to do it, I would tell her the same thing I’ve told them all their lives–to stay aware, to remember that bad things could happen to them if they weren’t. To remember that heading off danger is much, much better than getting out of trouble later. Maybe that’s just New York street sense; I don’t know.

  4. I hitched around the country without a thought through the early 70’s, looking like a stereotypical male hippie. I never had a problem and still consider it one of the best ways to travel.
    Regarding the envy/scary balance, I would offer one generic piece of advice: Most people are good. A few people are Very Bad. If you need help, and approach someone, they’re almost certainly one of the good ones. If someone approaches you, they may be a Bad one (or not!); be wary.

  5. I agree with Lisa both that I’d totally recommend this kind of trip to a young woman I thought could handle it; and that it’s amazing I’ve never heard you talk of this before. It’s a fascinating story, especially the parts about stopping for a few days and doing temp work. I’ve gone on road trips with other people but it was always about getting from here to there, stopping only to see things that interested us.

    When I went away to college I was terrified of being raped walking around on campus or in San Francisco. At night if I was alone I’d run from the classroom to my dorm. I got less fearful as time went by and nothing happened to me. I don’t think I’d have been interested in a trip like this because the idea of being alone for so long would have been unappealing, not for the thought of danger.

  6. I think this sort of adventure is a fabulous “coming into adulthood” exercise. At a similar age, my college roommate and I spent a summer hitchhiking through Europe. Not exactly the same, since a dear strong friend had my back at every turn, but still I came away from it with a knowledge of my capabilities and a confidence in myself that I had not previously known.
    As for the scarey part of traveling alone….. it is a fallacy to think that we are safer in known surroundings. The dangers that accompany womanhood are everywhere.
    That same summer, while we were getting into cars and trucks with strangers in strange lands who sometimes made assumptions about our morals and proclivities based solely on being women travelers yet emerged unharmed, another friend was raped at gunpoint in the bathroom at our university while taking a break from her lab work and moments after a male friend left the lab for the library.
    I try sometimes to imagine a world in which the “vulnerable because I am a woman” vibe does not accompany us everywhere, but I can’t, really. I don’t think about it all the time, or let it hold me back (at least, not consciously). But it is endemic, I think.

  7. There’s someone I’ve argued with for years, in apas and on Facebook, about the “vulnerable because I am a woman” vibe. She simply doesn’t feel it and never has. I envy her, but it is most strange to me.

  8. A couple of belated follow-up comments. I took another look at Vanessa Veselka’s article, and realized she’s talking primarily about what happens to hitchhiking women, while this blog posting talks about a trip taken driving one’s own car. I would say there are vastly different degrees of risk involved and that if you have a car, you have choices and options open to you that someone hitchhiking does not. I think the blog posting elides different situations, using the risk of one to warn against the other.

    Also, I’m under the impression that the FBI started its highway serial killer project knowing of several hundred killings over a long period. The City of Oakland has a high murder and crime rate. I was wondering if you warn people against moving here. I am reasonably sure that on an absolutely basis one has a much higher chance of being killed living here than driving on the interstates, but the particular neighborhood you live in and your activities and associates have a large impact on the degree of risk.

    1. I’m not quite sure why you’re feeling so challenging about this, but I’m happy to respond.

      I do agree that there are differences between hitchhiking (which I never did alone) and driving one’s own car. While driving, the dangerous times for me were staying in parks, public places, and roadsides (and to a much lesser extent SROs). I never felt unsafe in my car, and in fact I picked up hitchhikers on several occasions.

      It wasn’t my intent in the blog posting to “warn,” but to discuss my own experience and how different it looked then and now. I would hope that young women (and everyone else) would make their own decisions, theoretically after consulting folks with experience, but not necessarily.

      Finally, I don’t advise people against living in Oakland, and I love my city. At the same time, I’ve been in mortal danger in this city once unambiguously, and perhaps more times. I think when you talk about “driving on the interstates” versus living in Oakland, you are engaging in the very eliding you fairly criticize in my post. Far and away at the most danger in the city of Oakland are young black men; far and away in the most danger outside of their cars on the interstates are women traveling alone. I might very well advise a young black man to think twice about moving to Oakland and to measure his risk against his reasons for moving here, just as I would advise a young woman who would be spending time outside her car along the interstates to consider her risk.

  9. Also meant to add, about choosing one’s loved ones: and yet it’s common for women to stay in abusive relationships. Women don’t always choose to get out, and the greatest danger is at the point where they have decided to leave.

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