Since the invention of the Ford Model T in the early 20th century, cars and highways have played a major role in shaping American society. English professor Joe Essid took his students on a semester-long journey through popular culture to examine how writers and filmmakers have reacted to roads and cars in his course, The Road.

In the midst of reading classic road novels like On the Road and Into the Wild, and viewing everything from old car commercials to Thelma and Louise, it seemed only fitting that the students should experience life on the road as well.

Thus, Essid required each student to take an overnight road trip that would take them at least 100 miles away from Richmond, and to document the experience in a scrapbook. Where they went and the purpose of their trip was entirely up to them.

Thomas Davant, ’16, spent his road trip rambling through the back roads of South Carolina with his grandfather. “We were driving through tiny little towns so small that I don’t even think they show up on the map,” he says. Along the way, his grandfather talked about growing up in the small town of Holly Hill, South Carolina, about being a spotter in the fields during World War II, and how he spent his summers selling peanuts. “He was telling me all these great little stories that sounded like something straight out of Andy Griffith,” Davant says with a laugh.

“That day, the road was a place of discovery for me, while for my grandfather it was a place of memory and his life story,” Davant says. “For him to say ‘this is my story and it’s written on these back roads’ and to share that connection with me was something special.”

Andrew Jones, ’14, packed his sense of adventure when he picked up a friend in Charlottesville and headed for the Monongahela National Forest on the border of Virginia and West Virginia. “It’s an off-the-grid national forest with a huge radio satellite dish that monitors things in space, so there’s no cell signal anywhere,” Jones says.  

Along the way, the pair stopped to Staunton, Virginia, and walked the grounds of the shuttered Western State Lunatic Asylum. “I’m not much of a risk taker, but my friend is, and I’m glad he talked me into exploring,” Jones says. “We found a series of unmarked tombstones that I later learned were graves for patients who had died; for privacy reasons, they could only put patient numbers, not names, on them. Now the numbers have rubbed off leaving us to wonder who is buried there.”

For Jones, the most memorable part of the trip was the people he came into contact with along the way. “The people I met — at the inn run by an 87-year-old astrophysicist who was tired of the D.C. rat race, and in restaurants and diners —  hearing their stories was what made the trip,” he says.

Getting out on the open road also helped the students make a connection to the classroom material. Jones likened his experience of hearing stories of those he met on the road to William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. Davant related to Chris McCandless’ thought process in Into the Wild, as he attempted to be present during the road trip with his grandfather, rather than trying to capture the moment perfectly with a camera.

Though their trips were only overnight, they left the students yearning for more adventure in the future. Davant says, “Dr. Essid’s really energetic. He’s such a car person and he’s been on all these great trips. After you leave class, you just want to go!”