Betty and Ralph Rat had called a meeting of everyone who worked at the college. Ma and Pa Mouse were there, along with several other mouse and rat families, some guinea pig clubs, and three hamster clans.
Ralph called the meeting to order, saying “The reason I’ve called you all here tonight is to introduce a gentleman with a fascinating idea. He’s an entrepreneur, he’s seen a need, and he thinks he might be able to fill it.”
“What’s an ‘onter”… and ‘onter-prenner’?” whispered Pa to Ma Mouse.
“I’m sure I don’t have any idea,” whispered Ma back. “I thought an aunt had to be your father’s or mother’s sister. It’s probably just another one of the new-fangled ideas we keep learning about around here.”
“I guess it’s all part of the college experience,” whispered Pa.
By then Ralph was finishing his introduction by saying “…Franklin Cat.”
A large, handsome cat came up to the front amid polite applause. He was dressed casually in worn blue jeans and a faded hoodie.
“Thanks everybody,” he said. “I’m honored to be invited here tonight. I’m not much of a talker, so let me get right to the point. All of you — or at least most of you — moved here to the college for the jobs, am I right?”
Nearly everyone nodded. “And you left behind your previous homes in the forest, along with your friends and maybe even some of your families,” continued Franklin. “Now, everyone likes to visit friends and family, but my team has done some research and discovered that when you work at the college and your friends and family are back in the forest, visiting isn’t easy. Would you all agree?”
Everyone nodded again. One of the hamsters — Ma thought it was Harry, but she often got him confused with his twin brother Horace — spoke up to say “Our dear old mum tells us all the time that we should visit more often, but it’s a whole day gone when we do.”
Harry’s twin brother Horace — or possibly Horace’s twin brother Harry — added “she depends on us to bring all the news, you know.”
“And those oatmeal cookies she likes,” continued Harry. Who might have been Horace.
“Yes,” said Franklin smoothly, “that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make.”
Ma Mouse whispered to Pa “I’m not sure Franklin was quite right about not being much of a talker.”
“As an entrepreneur…” said Franklin.
“There’s that word again,” whispered Pa.
“I’ll ask Betty about it later,” whispered Ma, “she’s been taking all those classes; she’s probably up on all the new things.”
“…I like to find solutions to problems, and I believe I’ve found a solution to your visiting problem,” said Franklin. “If you’ll just direct your attention over here, please.”
He stepped to the side where there was an easel covered with a black drape. He lifted the drape off with a flourish, revealing a large picture showing two cats — neither one was Franklin — evidently trotting along a path. They both had some sort of structure on their backs, and there were chairs of various sizes with an assortment of mice and other college workers sitting in them.
“It’s my pleasure to announce Cat Transit,” said Franklin. “My team of transport cats is ready to initiate regular transportation service between the college and the forest. All you’ll need to do is get a ticket — we’ll also offer weekly and monthly passes — and jump on the next cat. Our schedule is still in flux while we assess traffic patterns and demand, but for our initial startup period there will be cats leaving and arriving every two hours for a trip that will take only thirty minutes. You’ll be able to ride to the forest on the morning cat, spend an hour and a half with your friends, and be back in time for lunch! Or if you want a longer stay, your ticket is good on any cat, even on a different day. Transportation service is seven am to seven pm, seven days a week!”
The room was suddenly noisy as everyone started talking at once. “How much are the tickets?” shouted one voice, which might have been Horace. Or Harry.
“Our rates haven’t been firmed up yet,” said Franklin, “but for our initial test period a ticket will just cost one something.”
“One what?” asked Ralph Rat.
“One something,” said Franklin.
“Um…that’s what I thought you said,” said Ralph. “But my question is, what is the something?”
“Oh, it could be anything,” said Franklin. “A piece of a cracker. A colorful bead. A picture of a sunset. Anything. We haven’t established the details of our revenue model, so our first task is to build up a loyal ridership; we’ll figure out how to make it profitable later.”
“Oh,” said Ralph, “but how…”
“And now,” announced Franklin, “I’d like to introduce my team. Transit Cats, please step forward!”
As the Transit Cats came to the front, Franklin introduced them: “Stove…Mint…Roosevelt…Sedan…and last but not least, T. Turtle!” The Transit Cats, already wearing their seat harnesses, bowed to the audience. Franklin continued “Cat Transit begins tomorrow morning at seven AM sharp! That’s all, folks. If anyone would like to come up and meet the Transit Cats or try the seats, please go ahead!”
Franklin clearly enjoyed the big round of applause he received, and stayed to answer questions and chat while everyone met the Transit Cats. They were all quite pleasant, but in contrast to Franklin really didn’t seem to be professional talkers. Pa Mouse found himself talking to Sedan.
“That’s an unusual name,” he said.
“I know,” said Sedan. “I’m named after a car, you know.”
“A car?” said Pa. “One of those huge dangerous things?”
“I think the one I’m named after wasn’t so bad,” said Sedan. “It was a long time ago. It was called the Franklin Sedan.”
“Wait, the FRANKLIN Sedan? Is that one of Franklin’s businesses?”
“No, no, the Franklin Sedan was around long before our Franklin was born. No, the Franklin Sedan was built in Syracuse, New York, and it had an air-cooled six-cylinder engine.”
“Oh,” said Pa, “what’s that?”
“No idea,” said Sedan. “It’s just what Franklin told me. Our names are just Cat Transit names. My real name is Cuddles.”
“So you’re named ‘Sedan’ because it goes with ‘Franklin’?”
“Yup,” said Sedan. “Same as the other Transit Cat names. ‘Franklin Stove, Franklin Mint, Franklin Roosevelt, and Franklin T. Turtle’. I think the T stands for ‘The’.”
“What about Franklin himself?” asked Pa, “Is he Franklin Franklin?”
“I don’t think so,” said Sedan. “He’s just plain Franklin. He just likes his name. A lot.”
“That’s a little weird, don’t you think?” said Pa. “But maybe it goes along with being an aunt…and aunter…”
“Entrepreneur,” said Sedan. “Probably does. Not that I’ve met any others. Maybe there aren’t any others; he’s one of a kind.”
“He does seem to be pretty unusual,” said Pa. “Well it’s getting kind of late for me, so it’s been nice chatting with you, Sedan. Do you have to get up early?”
“Nope, Mint has the early trip,” said Sedan. “My turn isn’t ’til eleven.”
“Oh, that’s not so bad,” said Pa. “Will it be that way every day?”
“Not sure,” said Sedan. “We’ll probably rotate shifts so everybody has the early one sometimes.”
“I’m sure we’ll meet again,” said Pa, “Ma and I have been wanting to pay a visit to the forest.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Sedan. “See you soon.”
Pa found Ma and they headed home. “This sounds pretty nice,” said Pa. “Shall we plan a visit to the forest?”
“That would be lovely,” said Ma, “let’s visit on the weekend.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Pa. He took Ma’s paw in his as they strolled home.
Hitting the road is a central part of American culture. Even if you’re not much for road trips yourself, you may have read On The Road, Jack Kerouac’s novel that he famously typed out on single roll of teletype paper without stopping — just like he was doing a writing road trip. Then there’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book not exactly about either of those things, that uses an extended road trip on a motorcycle as an organizing framework for what it really is about. No spoilers here, by the way; if you haven’t read it, it’s worth a try.
American movies often have a “road trip” aspect too. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, like Thelma and Louise, Mad Max, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, or Rain Man. Other times the theme is there, but not quite as obvious, like Star Wars.
I think you can see a thematic distinction between American literature and other genres just by looking for the road trip theme. English novels, for example, often take place in a single location, even over a period of time that dwarfs most American fictional time spans. Russian novels tend to be as big as Russia and incorporate enormous themes and trends and character arcs — but they don’t tend to feature road trips. That actually wrecks my first theory, which was that American fiction features road trips because the size of the country involves travel. But Russia is far bigger, so never mind.
Another pet theory is that road trips come from the popularity of cars in America. I’m not sure cars are any more popular here than they are elsewhere though — cars are pretty universal. And if you look at American stories from the 1800s — Huck Finn would be one example — you can find road trips and road trip themes predating cars. People boarded their Conestoga wagons and travelled west long before anything was motorized.
Maybe that’s the source; the American history of relentlessly stealing territory and assuming you have a right to it. Except that road trips are not inherently exploitative. Stories about conquest and confrontation are easy to find, but they’re not road trip stories.
A good road trip story, at least in the American tradition of those, is propelled by what’s fairly close. What’s just around the next bend, in the next town, as far as you can go before the next stop for gas. While you’re on that short portion of a longer journey you and your companions discover small things, about where you are or about each other. Over the course of the longer trip, and the longer story, those small revelations combine and blossom into larger and deeper truths. That’s a road trip story; it’s a gradual unfolding — but for the most part, what unfolds is not the epic scope of a Russian novel, not the intimate internal secrets of an English novel, and not the insights about people and places of a real travel story. A road trip unfolds little things, but little things that resonate with you as you read.
That’s what makes road trip stories uniquely American kinds of tales. They’re like the standup comedy that’s so popular here (inexplicably to me, I have to admit). In the midst of our isolation in an alien land where we protest, maybe too loudly, that we belong, what we reach for is a small bit of connection, or at least some feeling or message or experience we recognize. Something to grasp in the darkness, to keep from slipping down into the barely conscious knowledge — or maybe it’s fear — that we’ve really arrived in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and we don’t belong here at all. Else why do we protest so much?
You might not know that today, September 17, is the anniversary of several things. That time we, the US, invaded Canada. It was in 1775, part of the Revolutionary War, and as you might surmise from the existence of the country to our north, it failed. The very next year, in New Spain, the Presidio was founded. More recently we call New Spain California, and the place where the Presidio was founded we call San Francisco. A couple of years after that, at yet another fort (Fort Pitt, which we call Pittsburgh now) the US signed the first treaty with a native American tribe. The US lied to the Americans about what was in the treaty. It lasted less than a year before the US murdered the native leader who had signed the treaty, and then the next year slaughtered 96 members of the tribe in the Gnadenhutten massacre— who, by the way, had converted to Christianity and were pacifists.
And you might not know that all of those things happened before the US had a constitution. Today is the day it was signed, but not until 1787. It was not a document that benefited everyone, or possibly even a majority — it was 52 years later, to the day, that Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery. She worked to end slavery, but it wasn’t for another decade or so that it was declared ended — and you could argue that it took a while after that for the last slaving nation in the western world to effectively give up the practice.
You could blame a lot of these things on the government of the US, and many did. It might all have changed on this day in 1859 when Joshua Norton, in the same San Francisco that used to be New Spain, declared himself Norton I, the Emperor of the US. He also became “Protector of Mexico” a few years later, and although nobody acted on most of his edicts and commands, he was evidently beloved in his city. I can’t help wondering how this will compare with England’s new King Charles.
How important are any of these things? I have no idea. Their only connection is probably that they all happened on the same day of the year — but even so, it probably looms much larger for millions of people that it’s also the day the National Football League was formed, in 1920. Teams are crisscrossing the nation even now, playing road games. But are they embarking on road trips to those games? Somehow I doubt it.