Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip

We have a late entry to the "race across the country" marathon!

Things start as though we're in a Jules Verne novel. Or maybe P.G. Wodehouse: a bet in an oak-panelled gentleman's club. Horatio Nelson Jackson wagered fifty dollars he could drive a horseless carriage all the way across the continent, from San Francisco to New York, in less than three months. This was in 1903, and Horatio Nelson Jackson would be the first person to drive a car coast to coast. And in 2003, Ken Burns made a documentary about it.

This is a great documentary about a great subject. Even before Horatio sets out, there's great stuff, owing to Burns's tendency to show fascinating pictures while a narrator explains the context. The really early horseless carriages looked great, and everyone's wearing driving goggles and capes.

Early cars were a full-time hobby, as I learned from the recent reprinting of early Walt and Skeezix. As an aside, it turns out that "Gasoline Alley" used to be a lot more interesting. And gasoline-related. Anyway, if you wanted to drive around, you needed puncture repair kits, spark plug regappers, and any number of other things to keep the car going. Even when you weren't driving, you spent a great deal of time tinkering.

So Jackson faced two basic challenges: first, the reliability of the car. Second, the reliability of the roads. Not only was this before interstate highways, it was before most of America had paved roads. And what paved roads existed were only inside city limits. And there certainly weren't road maps. Also, he didn't own a car and had no real experience driving.

But four days after making the bet, he had a car, supplies, and a Kodak camera. This makes him ideal for Ken Burns, because he took a lot of pictures, which look great on the screen while Tom Hanks reads Horatio's letters home.

If I say any more, I'll just end up narrating the whole documentary. It's awesome and people should see it, because "Is it even possible?" is a much more interesting challenge than "How quickly can it be done?". Also, there should be more oak-panelled gentleman's clubs where people make outrageous wagers.

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