The Freedom of the Open Road: Car Commercials & Travel Writing

“Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.”                                       ― Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here

William Warby. Desert Road. 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2015.

There’s something to be said for the untrammelled emptiness of the desert: its taupe-tinted sheen, the discomforting absence of neon light even in the middle of the night, a flatness that lends itself to the infinities we are capable of imagining in ourselves. Both the endless road and the cacti that reach desperately out allude to the possibilities of life, like they are holding a fist up to the face of eternity.

I’ve experienced the waking dream that is conjured up by the desert and the open road many times in my life, but there’s nowhere that boundless freedom is captured with more intensity – at least in urban life – than in car commercials. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but from the visceral feeling of movement to the flood of emotion that comes with a few carefully chosen notes of music, it’s easy to be momentarily intoxicated by the illusion that a vehicle can propel one into ultimate freedom. The nature of such advertising can be exploitative and deeply cynical, but the ruse is so commonplace now.

While the idea of leasing or buying a car that pulls at us from car commercials seems to play on our intrinsic desire for freedom, the only times I’ve ever felt the sort of buoyant freedom depicted on the television screen was when I was on the move. I couldn’t fathom the day to day required to make travelling the world by myself for 7-months a reality, but there’s no explaining the weightlessness that automatically comes with such a choice.

Travelling or seeking or trying to stumble across any kind of individual insight often lends itself to the kind of knowledge that is impossible to translate into words, yet the emotions associated with such seeking can be easy to simulate. In car commercials and bank advertisements, I see it; I hear it in the chorus of pop songs by artists that I could never confess to having on my iPod. But, where the freedom experienced as a result of seeking actually occurred, the conjured feeling exists only until the advertisement is over or the song has trilled out its last descending notes.

There are specifics in every culture that can be cornered and jotted down. From the donkeys that trundle down the crammed, narrow streets of Morocco’s medinas to the Vespas so profuse in Rome they require their own parking plots, there are a million things to be shared. However, even if I could, in perfect descriptive language, describe what it’s like to peer out at the satellite dishes that dominate the skyline of Marrakech from the top of a building as the sun dips down over the Atlas mountains, spreading purple and red, the best aspect of the journey remains almost wholly absent.

The feeling that is present in the best car commercials and pop songs – the experience of life, sweetened and condensed – can be surmised at, but explaining draws borders around an experience that is borderless. For the marrow of any experience, translating it is akin to trying explain the way a song sounds or the way a pineapple tastes: the experience becomes something else entirely.

The collection of illusions that car commercials can draw up can be deeply moving, and can in some ways replicate the powerful feeling of freedom, but it’s often the freedom of having nothing – of letting go of the familiarity of objects – that enables us to focus on the road. When the only thing you can do is feel it, it’s all you really have.


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