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On the Road...

Professor Jurg Siegenthaler

"Being on the Road" has always been a powerful metaphor for Americans. The equivalent in small Switzerland is probably the mountain hike.

The road trip experience is for Americans imbued with historical significance and even today inspires many works of popular culture.

Penetrating the continent, the early English- and French-speaking settlers defined their very existence as moving from one place to the next, from east to west and south.

We can only marvel at the determination with which René-Robert La Salle (1643-1687) so early, and repeatedly, explored the Great Lakes and the length of the Mississippi River. Yes, he was asked to by the French King, but how could he prevail over such a distance?

It is also hard to imagine how an early expert observer of the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, could have obtained his rich information on "Democracy in America" (1831) without journeying from place to place, taking in life in diverse communities, and then generalizing about the nature of American political culture and society from notes taken "on the road."

Almost simultaneously, the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, travelling along with Prince Maximilian of Baden in 1832-1834, impressively recorded for posterity the surviving way of life of Native Americans on the Great Plains.

Westward bound

As the century advanced, the westward movement became a mass phenomenon; the wagon trails and later the railroads channeled hundreds of thousands across the prairies and over the Rocky Mountains to seemingly unlimited promised lands. Along traveled the historian's interpretation of American frontier existence as "exceptional" and was built the ideology of "manifest destiny."

We might think that in the 20th century, with the continent essentially settled, the road metaphor would have lost its power. But some key modern writers and makers of popular culture ingeniously discovered that Americans still preserve - or suffer - their rootlessness.

What a powerful message by Thomas Wolfe that "you cannot come home again," in his novel of the same title (1940): a successful writer is ostracized by the family and friends of his hometown; he embarks on a worldwide search for his identity.

Even stronger turned out to be the impact of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" (1957): it was literally "rolled out" as a manuscript typed on a single sheet of paper 36 meters long. The message was to become liberated from the peril of ambition, materialism and ideology by travelling. "...[T]here really began for me that part of my life that you could call my life on the road."

Road movies

A sure confirmation of the lasting influence of what we have been looking at is the popularity of "road movies," those innumerable films whose story line is mainly sustained by the protagonists journeying from place to place.

Now while many of these films are very lightweight, there are those that have made a lasting impression on me and many others: "Easy Rider" (1969),"Thelma and Louise" (1991), or "My Own Private Idaho" (also 1991).

Without giving away their story lines, may it just be suggested that the 20th-century version of the American road experience got its power significantly recharged by ending tragically. Kerouac offered the key, Thelma and Louise drove the car into the abyss.

No thrill

Can there be a road trip experience in Switzerland? A recent attempt of mine was not very encouraging. In September, starting out from the Seeland (west of Bern), I decided to visit friends in Schaffhausen, Zurich and Chur. But I made the mistake of going via national roads A1, A4, A3, and A13. No thrill there.

Moreover, my friends did not see much sense in my going to so many places so far apart in so little time. I had forgotten how much I was used to American-scale distances by now. "Being on the road" seemed to require a whole continent. Or more: consider the Swiss Nicolas Bouvier, who set out on a photographic odyssey by Fiat Topolino to Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ceylon in 1953-1955. The treasure trove of his pictures is at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne.

Swiss equivalent

If you stay put, I re-thought, the Swiss equivalent of a road experience is the hike. I remember from my scouting days how one year we abandoned our summer camp in the Emmental due to four days of steady rain, bought a group ticket to Val Blenio in the Ticino, and, without any money left and only our bags on our backs, hiked that valley for a week, had only cocoa and bread for breakfast and potatoes in the evening, lay in the sun every day and slept in barns at night with the stars shining over us. Now that was the road!

I recently received a message about the attractions of the Chasseral region (www.parcchasseral.ch). Since the Jura mountains are my favorites, my imagination started jumping about the prospect of hiking from the Weissenstein to the Chasseral and on to the Chasseron, or beyond.

What a trip that would be, what stark beauty, what history, what an adventure! I would not meet that many people on the way, but the ones I might encounter would have stories to tell that mirror the life in the West, the frontier. Which is what that region is, after all.

As Kerouac said, "... the only thing to do was go". In the spirit of the beat generation, his gang feared that "death will overtake us before Heaven". On the mountain hike, though, one might be just a little closer to heaven.

Jurg Siegenthaler

The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of swissinfo.

Biography

Every month retired professor, Jurg Siegenthaler, compares and contrasts aspects of life in Switzerland with that of his adopted homeland, the United States.

He emigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1967, and is now a retired university professor living close to Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Bern University (Dr.rer.pol., 1966).

His fields of teaching and research encompassed economic history, social theory and social policy analysis. Throughout his career, he has maintained close comparative research interests in the US and Switzerland.

He is associated with the Institute for Socio-Financial Studies, a research non-profit that has done a lot of work improving financial literacy at the community level.

Since his retirement, Jurg Siegenthaler has broadened his involvement in community organizations and in the arts. He is married and lives with his wife in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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