On the Road to Riverdale
Say the words “road trip” and each person will get a different mental picture. Having just read that sentence, I bet you are imagining specific road trips of your own.
The words transport me back to Australia in the 70s and 80s, to the countryside on the outskirts of Perth, where the car is stinking hot and air-conditioning is something they only have at cinemas. I’m wedged between two older siblings on the back seat and the radio has AM only.
I’m too small to see over the dashboard at the road ahead and I feel constantly queasy, yet I’m told motion sickness is something I will grow out of (not true). The kilometres tick over slowly. The roads are straight, the speed limit is 110 km/h and it feels like we’re crawling. Arriving seems like a distant fantasy.
On these early (TV-less) road trips, my father encouraged me to pack a few of his battered Biggles books, so I could enjoy daring escapades like Biggles Goes to the Loo. My mother suggested the Famous Five, so I could lose myself in the mystery of Five Go through Puberty. But what I read were Archie Comics. And while the characters never ventured far from their small town in the U.S.A., each time I cracked one of those comics, I went on a road trip to Riverdale, and it was a trip far more interesting than the one I was on.
Then, I was seven years old, wanting to be seventeen. I also wanted to see America, presented in the squares as colourful, interesting and changing. There was snow, there were love triangles, there was weird football played wearing padding and helmets. They had lockers at school. And there was humour. In the Archie Comics, America was a place that was exciting and fun, and I wanted to go there.
This is what great road trip literature does: it makes us want to go along for the ride. Sure, it’s a stretch to call comics literature, but bear with me. At the very least, I was “reading” when I was a kid, rather than trying to master Donkey Kong.
Road trip novels might even succeed in getting us to one day travel down those very roads, which is what happened to me. As a young adult, I ventured across America, looking for Riverdale. That is, I was trying to find the place that would fulfil my childhood fantasies of Riverdale. What came closest was Ashland, Oregon.
I eventually grew out of the Archie Comics (though I’m loving the sublime absurdity of the TV series Riverdale), but the books I was drawn to as a young adult remained stories involving the road. Not simply someone jumping into a car and driving from A to B, but someone embarking on a journey that changes them, or perhaps even defines them. From these books, I think it was the escapism I liked the most.
A road trip, as participant or reader, starts off as an escape. It’s packing a bag in the middle of the night and then jumping in a buddy’s car at dawn before anyone can stop you. It’s busting out and breaking free. It’s windows down and the stereo up. It’s throwing stuff out the window. It’s pure freedom. Open roads and unknowns. It’s reckless and haphazard, maybe without a specific destination; just get me away from here, from this job, from this town, and give me back some hope.
That’s important: hope. It’s what comes after the escape, because that feeling can’t last forever. Hope says that down the road things might be better. I can reinvent myself at the town just around the next corner. I can wipe the slate clean and start again. Or I’ll keep going, keep moving, keep experiencing, keep myself open to the world and to whatever opportunities might come.
Because somewhere, up ahead, is Riverdale.
How to write a road trip novel
I could easily fill this space by lauding the road trip books I’ve enjoyed over the years (thank you, Maugham, for all those great stories), and by slamming the ones I didn’t like (Kerouac, I’m looking at you). But these are opinions, and let’s face it, the internet has enough of those.
Instead, I’m going to confess that it is very hard to write a road trip novel. The crux being: how do I make this person’s journey special and interesting enough that others will want to go on the journey with them?
My latest book, Rowan and Eris, is my attempt at a road trip novel. Whether I succeeded at writing a good one, well, I’m too close to it to judge. I did, however make some creative choices in the hope of making Rowan’s journey more interesting for the reader.
Yes, it starts with an escape, a mad dash to the airport to catch a flight to America. Rowan, an aspiring musician, is glad to leave Perth, to break the routine, to get a change of scene. But rather than blazing a well-worn trail, Rowan’s American road trip takes him to places like Little Rock, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Salt Lake City, Utah; Bozeman, Montana; and Dinosaur, Colorado.
His trip has an objective: to find Eris, who may or not be his daughter. But the journey matters just as much as the destination, if not more so. Because it’s on the road that Rowan grows as a musician. Inspired by his adventures, he writes and records his first album.
When writing the book, I knew that Rowan’s songs had to be produced, somehow. Because what’s a road trip without a soundtrack? Melbourne musician and fellow Hamburg resident Joel Havea took on the challenging job of bringing Rowan’s music to life. The resulting seven-track CD One Hand Clapping is absolutely brilliant. It’s more than a soundtrack; it’s an extension of the book. Readers have said it’s wonderful to listen to the songs, before, during and after reading the book.
And maybe one of those readers will tuck the book and CD into a pocket of their backpack, and set off in search of the places that inspired Rowan. Maybe, like Rowan, they’ll end up at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, wondering what on earth they are doing there, or dodging Highway Patrol on the back roads of Idaho and Wyoming in a car full of dope, or hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up with a dead deer. And in doing so, they’ll have a memorable road trip of their own.
I hope so.
Rowan and Eris by Campbell Jefferys is published by Rippple Books and is out now.
It’s a simple story, a journey, a search, a pursuit. There is a man from Perth, an American woman, their daughter. The woman is intent on creating chaos wherever she goes, through urban art, and her work extends to creating chaos in her own life by having a daughter. The man is intent on finding his daughter and in doing so finds himself and the songs inside him. It’s a road trip novel, starting in Perth, Australia, and traversing America, Canada and Europe. It is also a meditation on art, creativity, success, growing up and taking responsibility.
About Campbell Jefferys
Originally from Western Australia, Campbell Jefferys backpacked around the world working for prestigious travel publishers and as a journalist. He now lives in Germany where he runs a media company working in film, music, TV and books. His journalist has appeared in the likes of the Sunday Telegraph, the Globe and Mail, Decanter and Adventure. He has won four independent publishing awards. A keen athlete, Jefferys represented Australia in triathlon at the World Age Group Championships in London in 2013 and is a dedicated cricket tragic.
Joel Havea is a singer songwriter who cut his musical teeth playing live from a young age on Melbourne’s eclectic music scene. He developed his own brand of reggae and soul-infused accoustic songwriting with pop sensibilities, influenced by his mixed Tongan and Dutch heritage. He is now based with Hamburg and touring with his album, Setting Sail.
Beate Kuhlwein is a Hamburg artist who studdied at the Armgardstraße in Hamburg