July 26, 2021 by Neely Tucker
This is a guest post by Joshua Levy, a historian in the Manuscript Division.
In 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a months-long road trip to reacquaint himself with his country. He returned not with clear answers but with his head a “barrel of worms.”
The America he saw was too intertwined with how he felt in the moment, and with his own Americanness, to permit an objective account of the journey. “External reality,” he wrote, “has a way of being not so external after all.”
Pandemics aren’t the only reason Americans have found sanctuary in our homes, or the only anxious times we’ve itched to escape them. The American road trip was first popularized during the auto camping craze of the 1920s, with its devotion to freedom and communing with nature, but it was democratized after World War II.
The golden age of the American family vacation came during the very height of the Cold War. It was a time when, according to historian Susan Rugh, the family car became a “home on the road… a cocoon of domestic space” in which families could feel safe to explore their country.