Deeply embedded within the American cultural DNA lies the American Road Trip motif. The idea of taking off on a journey, shucking off old entanglements, and making a discovery harkens back to some of the earliest American literature and arguably among the most American of poems – Song of the Open Road.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
But because there’s much about this American motif, most of the literature and related media about the travels tend to have a Very Big Message.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that type of writing; Blue Highways still holds up as enjoyable reading, and I loved the shaggy-dog story with wry observations of Ian Frazier.
But much of this writing seems to have a bit of melancholy mixed in the messages. Very little of the literature seems to encapsulate the joy and humor found while on a journey. The ridiculousness that any traveler, be it backcountry or front country, encounters. And can only laugh at the end.
In modern times (but over twenty years at this point!), A Walk in the Woods by Bryson captures much of the humor with travel. (When he wasn’t padding his book to fulfill a contract, IMO!) Many people still get irate over this book that makes light of hiking the Appalachian Trail. On the one hand, a journey that’s about minimalism, but people seem to obsess over buying yet more things to enjoy this minimalism! 😀 Sure, the humor’s broad and no doubt exaggerated at times, but reading a book for comedy and with no more important message is just fun.
And that brings me to a forgotten post-World War II gem – The Long, Long Trailer by Clinton Twiss.
Twiss, a well-known Los Angeles radio personality through the 1940s, did what many middle-aged men decided to do when burnt out in a job – downsize, sell belongings, and travel the open road. Along with his wife Merle, Twiss decided that a trailer would make the perfect vehicle to explore America from sea to shining sea and down to Mexico and up to Canada.
Some of the opening lines of the book sum up the romanticism of traveling that still holds sway today:
We would clip along the shores of mountain lakes wallowing in fresh air and scenery; we would scale the highest mountains and there, in majestic solitude, shut out the telephone and radio and television and bill collectors and yes, even the mailman. We tortured ourselves with the thoughts of shucking off the old life and taking on the new.
As you can guess, though, the romanticism of travel quickly gave way to the realities. Money, of course, loomed large from day one. The adage of “take half the stuff and twice the money” quickly went out the window with the cost of the trailer itself (a 1950 Airway Zephyr at 28’x8′ and 2.5 tons, $4200), the furnishing insisted upon ($1600), a new car to tow the trailer (Chrysler New Yorker convertible, $3500), and so forth.
Consider these statistics meticulously complied by Twiss:
I surveyed the wreckage. Trailer with extra gadgets, $4750—Furnishings, $1600—Total $6350. Budget, $2750—Deficit, $3600.
…thirty-five hundred dollars into the hands of a man standing in a doorway and we owned a brand-new Chrysler New Yorker convertible.
Original cost, $11,001.95 [before starting the journey]. To this I added our twelve months’ expense of $4,856.00
In 2021 dollars, that’s about $126,000 just for the car, trailer, and furnishings and nearly twice over the original budget. And over $55,000 in one year of traveling. The Twisses did not travel cheaply, and no wonder their planned two-year jaunt turned into one year!
The ledger-like quotations do not do the text justice, though.
The book is plain funny, and many times I laughed out loud. The tales of trying to back up “The Monster,” taking the wrong way and somehow winding up on the Mexican border, less-than-desirable travel companions, and the over-the-top triumph with fellow “trailerites” as Twiss went up a mountain pass and became celebrated as a hero of the hour. And the many scenes where Twiss tried to save time but ended up creating mini-disasters make for some enjoyable reading.
I finally should add that any couple will instantly recognize the “spirited discussions” that seem to come with traveling, especially in tight quarters. (I, of course, know nothing about this motif! 😉 )
Twiss did give a peek into his more sensitive side when recounting the fellow travelers on the way – people who would not be out of place in a van, a camper, or a similar RV, today. People whose budgets rivaled the Twisses or people doing it on a shoestring.
There were dozens of others. Some on pensions who were going to spend the rest of their lives traveling. Some who were just taking a year off “to get away from it all.” Some who were writing poems for greeting cards and some who were doing it just for the fun of it. It was the most varied, interesting, sound group of people we’d ever met.
Does not sound very different in 1950 or 2021.
Overall, the book reminded me of Bryson’s better-written bits in A Walk in the Woods and just as funny. The book offers no great lesson, no great insight into the human condition, and could be the story of many people traveling (well, if they had the budget of a well-known radio personality). It’s an enjoyable read, well worth your time, funny, and still holds up over seventy years later. Read it; you’ll like it.
Where to get it? Despite being a best-seller, The Long, Long Trailer has been out of print for years, and used copies cost a lot of money. Luckily, you can download the book for free in PDF, txt, epub, or other formats via the Internet Archive.
Also, there’s a 1954 movie version of the book starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The overall arc of the book made it to the screenplay but with broader humor. Ball’s mastery of physical comedy makes parts of the book come alive in a way hinted at in the text. Worth a look at as well. Currently streaming on Amazon