The myth of the American road is one of the oldest and most patriotic stories ever to be told in the United States, featuring lonely, wandering characters trying to find purpose in the wasteland of the desolate country. Wide, endless and sprawling, these American back roads and highways represent a poetic landscape rife for self-discovery, led by the inspiring muffled vibrations of the music of the liberating car stereo.
Much like the classic American Western, the road movie relies on an exploratory narrative where characters explore their own frontiers whilst pushing the physical borders of discovery. Such journeys take characters across the length and breadth of America, encountering hitchhikers, strange, desolate locations and surprising challenges, each weaving together to create one, all-encompassing story of personal revelation.
Such stories are peppered throughout the history of American cinema, from the early tale of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 to the same story’s modern reimagining in 2019s Queen & Slim, with the core narrative of self-discovery in the context of cultural change being pertinent to the subgenre.
For the ultimate American movie road trip, simply follow our guide, below, taking in the sights inspired by the most iconic movies of the patriotic subgenre.
The ultimate American movie road trip
Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) – From South Dakota to Montana
Our journey starts by tracking the movements of Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), two rogue teenage youths who decide to dump their suburban lives living with their neglectful parents to pursue crime on the open road.
Naive and deluded, be careful not to slip into their headspace as you travel from Fort Dupree in South Dakota up to the badlands of Montana. If you feel so inclined, follow in the footsteps of the two lead characters and build a remote treehouse and go wild fishing for your dinner, though we’re not sure if we recommend stealing chickens like Kit and Holly in the film. With an adolescent bravado, Kit insists that he looks a lot like James Dean and Holly is willing to go along with his alluring power even if that means plummeting headfirst into danger.
This danger follows the characters as they head northwards across Montana to Saskatchewan, Canada with the police hot on their heels. Whilst Holly becomes bored of their own hot pursuit away from authority, turning herself in, Kit continues his journey before getting arrested on the border by National Guard troops.
Their journey takes you through the wild American wasteland before coming to an abrupt stop at the border, though fear not, your journey is just getting started, even if it means a long drive through Idaho, Nevada and into California.
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) – From L.A. to New Orleans
Dennis Hopper’s counter-cultural classic is perhaps the most definitive road movie of all time, featuring three iconic characters of 1960s America traversing the trials and tribulations of a tumultuous contemporary nation.
Finishing up a drug deal, the journey of the lead characters goes from L.A. to New Orleans by motorbike, so it’s time to swap out your car for the two wheels of a heavily modified 1952 Harley. Journeying through Arizona and New Mexico, Easy Rider chronicles an epic journey that takes in all the sights, smells and noises of ‘60s America.
With 2589-mile Easy Rider motorcycle tours available for true fans of the original film to purchase, more easy-going riders might want to consider simply saving their money to follow the open roads of the three characters, visiting iconic spots from the film such as the La Contenta Bar in El Prado, California. Also on your hit-list for this stretch of your road trip should be the ghost town of Ballarat in Death Valley as well as several sections of Route 66 that the film features between Needles and Flagstaff.
Eventually, you’ll pass through Louisiana and end up in New Orleans, though instead of seeking the same fate as the characters of Dennis Hopper’s film, head North instead to the sights of Arkansas.
Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) – From Arkansas to Grand Canyon
Ridley Scott’s entertaining feminist masterpiece became a pop-culture phenomenon when it was released in 1991, with the film receiving six Academy Award nominations, including one win for Best Original Screenplay.
The journey itself begins in Arkansas where we find two friends Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) who are seeking time off from their mundane lives in a light blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird. After mistakenly killing a man in an act of self-defence, however, the two friends find themselves on the run from police as they head toward the Mexican border to seek safety.
Heading through Texas and into New Mexico, although the journey of the characters in the film is a straightforward drive eastwards, much of the film itself was actually filmed in the states of California and Utah, with many of the interior scenes captured in L.A. Despite this, Ridley Scott does a convincing job to make it seem Thelma and Louise are indeed heading for safety across Eastern America.
Their journey ends at the Grand Canyon in Arizona as they hurtle their Ford Thunderbird off the jagged cliff edge to evade law enforcement, though we advise stopping the urge to recreate this iconic moment and instead head to the start of Route 66 down in L.A.
Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) – From California to East Tennessee
Though Two-Lane Blacktop may miss out on the list of the most famous road movies of all time, it is certainly one of the very best, carrying the prominence of American subculture on its shoulders upon its release in 1971.
The film itself follows two quiet street racers the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), who live on the road in their highly modified, primer-grey, 1955 Chevrolet 150 two-door sedan drag car. Living a simple existence, the two drift from town-to-town challenging residents to spontaneous races for cash. Starting in California on Route 66 heading Eastwards, the characters set out on a wild trip right across the American West.
It’s in New Mexico that they encounter another driver who challenges them to a lengthy race to Washington, D.C, agreeing, they embark on a wild journey that passes through Oklahoma and Memphis, embracing all the sights of the country. Sometimes diverting to other race tracks, you can be as direct as you like on your own journey to East Tennessee, especially considering that the characters of the film care little of where they end up and when it happens.
It’s strange really, considering there’s money on the line, but the film ends abruptly when James Taylor’s driver is racing against a Chevrolet El Camino on an airstrip, meaning you can make your way to Atlanta Georgia by whatever means necessary.
Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007) – From Georgia to Alaska
The final leg of your journey is no doubt the most sprawling adventure of the lot, following in the footsteps of adventurer Chris McCandless as he escapes the demands of modern-day life in search of a far simpler existence.
Adapted from Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book of the same name, the film follows the real-life travels of the American adventurer, with director Sean Penn doing well to recreate the epic journey by taking part in a marathon two-year shoot that visited 35 different locations. Without cutting your credit card into a thousand pieces as McCandless does, make sure you do tell someone where you’re going as you make your way to Lake Mead on the Colorado River.
Taking in some of the most stunning landscapes in all of America, Penn’s film goes from Lake Mead to Northern California to South Dakota and back to LA. It’s a massive, sprawling adventure that McCandless takes by train, bus and bike, getting across the country by whatever means necessary with all roads leading to Alaska in the far north. Moving far from the familiarity of mainland USA, the ultimate American movie road trip is about to take a wild turn.
Taking in some of the most legendary hiking trails in all of America once you’ve finally made it to Alaska, fans of the 2007 movie might want to tread carefully if they’re planning to recreate the steps of Chris McCandless. The dangerous Stampede Trail near Healy, that once passed by the iconic ‘Magic Bus 142’ that features at the end of the film, is not to be taken lightly, with many naive walkers having to be rescued from Alaska’s Denali National Park after having gotten lost in the dense, remote wilderness.
Having driven thousands of miles across the USA and even momentarily through Canada, your ultimate movie road trip is now complete. Ditch the car and take a flight back home, you deserve it.