Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip

A century ago Horatio Nelson Jackson’s famous road trip began much like many road trips do today: on a whim. Unlike today, however, 1903 America offered few paved roads and even fewer cars, and not even reliable ones at that. But those obstacles, and many others, failed to dampen Jackson’s enthusiasm or stop him from making the drive from San Francisco to New York City, a journey Ken Burns chronicles in his new film Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip.

A “whim” is probably an understatement for the motivations behind Jackson’s trip – upon listening to a discussion about the passing fad known as an automobile, he makes a $50 bet to prove that the “horseless carriage” is more than an “unreliable novelty” by making the trip in less than three months. Some men take him up on it, and Horatio spends the next four days hiring Sewalle A. Crocker as a mechanic and co-driver, purchasing supplies, and even buying a car. He puts down $3,000 (on a $50 bet, remember) for cherry red Winton touring car, with a two-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine that could reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. The car has no roof and no windshield, and Horatio christens it the “Vermont” in honor of his home state. Loaded up, he and Crocker leave San Francisco on May 23, 1903, for their cross-country journey. As the narrator too grandly describes it, “It was the beginning of America’s first road trip, a trip that would collect a thousand impressions of a country and a people on the cusp of an extraordinary change.”

Burns’s film, then, is primarily a whimsical but meticulous travelogue of the two men’s trials and tribulations they experience on the trek. They encounter numerous problems along the way – mechanical issues, road and weather issues, navigational problems, and even gas price gouging, to a small degree. Like most cars of the time, the Winton is not reliable, and it breaks down constantly with blown tires, cracking screws, and breaking springs, among other things. But Horatio and his partner are traveling at a time when Autozone and Pep Boys, not to mention car dealers, are nowhere to be found, so replacement parts come, ironically, either by stage coach or by train. Roads also prove an issue – of the nation’s more than two million miles of roads at that time, only 150 are paved. Add that to wet weather, and the drivers spend a good deal of time pulling the car out of mud and puddles, and through rivers. Just as much as mechanical failures and weather cause problems, so do directions. Roads are not marked with highway numbers and directional signs, and often Horatio finds himself backtracking several miles here and there before going in the right way. And one opportunist in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, charges Horatio $5.25 for five gallons of gas. But 5,600 miles, $8,000, and 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes later, Horatio arrives in New York City, well ahead of his 90-day deadline. He wins the bet but never collects on it.

The film features Burns’s usual mix of techniques: voiceover narration, talking heads, voice reenactments, period music, archival photographs and motion pictures, old postcards, newspaper clippings, and, of course, the migrating camera. Keith Head provides the narration, and several famous names give voice to the people and the newspaper clippings. Tom Hanks dramatizes Horatio’s voice through readings of his letters, while Tom Bodett, Philip Bosco, and the late George Plimpton, among others, read clippings from the old newspapers. Usually, the amount of voices is overwhelming in a typical Burns film, making it difficult to discern who is speaking as what voice and when. Here, however, by minimizing the talking heads, both in number and in frequency, more of the history gets to speak for itself.

The newspaper clippings provide the best insight into the novelty behind this road trip and offer the best observations about people’s reactions to seeing a car for the first time. One newspaper in awe calls it, “A Real Live Automobile,” and another refers to it as a “whiz wagon.” “People surrounded the Vermont as flies surround a keg of molasses,” writes another. Dramatized by Hanks, Horatio’s letters home to his wife reveal not only his endless enthusiasm for his road trip, but also his enduring love and affection for his wife.

One of the fundamental problems of doing a documentary about era when the motion picture industry was still in its infancy is finding pictures to show with the commentary. This problem is one Burns has faced in most of his other work as well. Here, a wide variety of still photographs illustrate the towns and their people, not to mention Horatio and his dog, Bud. Throughout the entire trip, audiences wave to the drivers from their fields, from the streets, and even from the trees, and some offer them food and other niceties in exchange for a ride in it. The narration mentions that Horatio takes along a Kodak camera, but it never mentions where the still shots come from – are they from the driver himself or from other archival sources? Other recreated shots of the touring car bumping down muddy roads attempt to establish a sense of authenticity, though their repetition gets wearisome after a while. Color photographs of dynamic plains storms seem out of place in a film that attempts for historic authenticity in its look, done notably well through its used of title cards, iris-in and iris-out transitions, and sepia tones. An animated map, similar to ones used in World War II documentaries, even charts Horatio’s progress across the country with red lines.

In some other ways the film tries too hard to universalize the experience as truly and uniquely American. The elevated rhetoric in places attempts to place the road trip a little too squarely as fundamental to American culture – as William Least Heat-Moon states, “There is no thing that we can do that is more American than getting in a car and striking out across the country” – but fortunately these grandiose statements are few. Quotes from American poet Walt Whitman open and nearly close the film, though their use seems superfluous, as does the inclusion of “Stars and Stripes Forever” on the soundtrack.

The film also does not seem to know when to end. After returning to Vermont with the Winton, Horatio parks the car in his stable – a small bit of irony that speaks to the transitions about to come. About a month later, in October 1903, Horatio is arrested in Burlington, Vermont – for speeding! He is charged with going more than six miles per hour and pays a $5 fine and court costs. Instead of ending on this humorous note, the film keeps going, with another Whitman quote; a list of other technical advances of the age; follow-ups on Horatio, Crocker, and Bud; and commentary from the talking heads, all of which feel tacked on.

These issues aside, the film’s key strength is its humor, something Horatio definitely needed in order to cope with all the problems that arose during his trip. The humor comes through in the voiceover and in the letters. For example, in referring to Bud, Horatio comments, “He was the one member of their trio who used no profanity the entire trip.” Other moments come in the details used. In one instance, the Winton needs towing, and a cowboy comes along, ropes the car, and uses his horse’s strength to pull it out to safety. These moments of whimsy and irony make what could have been a dull timeline amusing and engaging.

A road trip today requires almost no second thought – just get into a car and see where the road takes you. But 100 years ago, it was not so easy, and this film invites us along for that pioneering – and bumpy – ride.