Last summer, my family departed on what is, as of now, the longest single road trip of my life: 8 days, 9 states, and 2000 miles. At some point, about the time I drove across the state border from North Carolina into Virginia, I realized that I was pretty far away from my house, which is in Missouri.
Now, it isn’t the farthest I’d ever been from home. I’ve been to both Florida and Colorado by car, and my wife and I traveled to the United Kingdom by plane for our first anniversary. But there was one important difference about last summer’s trip: it was the farthest I’d ever been from home as the driver. In those other trips, I’d been a passenger, either in a car or a plane. In this trip I was behind the wheel. We had journeyed there by my hand … and it was by my hand that I would get home.
Fortunately, I didn’t make the journey alone. My family was there, for companionship and assistance. My wife, as the front passenger, was a second pair of eyes and a navigator, but she also took the wheel to let me rest for a couple of hours after we survived a brutal downpour in the mountains of West Virginia during the return trip.
The whole experience — the distance, our stops along the way, and my traveling companions — reminded me of the theme of distance in fiction. Distance is a theme close to my heart, as it plays a central role in my as-yet unpublished novel, Into the Void, but it is also a theme that has played in many a beloved book and movie.
Different Kinds of Distance
Distance is often, but not always, a component of the “hero’s journey,” the narrative archetype of the hero who ventures into the unknown, faces down challenges, overcomes them, and invariably returns home, usually changed. The distance may be voluntary or involuntary, and it may be for all kinds of reasons.
War is probably the most common examples, going back to Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey; I remember feeling an acute sense of distance reading both, whether it was watching good warriors fall in a distant battlefield or wondering if Odysseus would ever escape Calypso’s island. I also think about Frodo and Sam crossing into Mordor during the third Lord of the Rings novel, or William Mandella beseiged by Taurans in the science fiction novel The Forever War. In the case of Lord of the Rings and The Forever War it was a case of art imitating life, as J.R.R. Tolkien and Joe Haldeman were veterans of World War I and Vietnam, respectively.
Other examples can be exploration, treachery, conflict, or even a freak accident. I won’t readily forget following the crews of Star Trek: Voyager or Master and Commander trying to survive against foreign foes as far from home as a ship could be, or the exiles of Gladiator or Quantum Leap trying to find their way back from a separation they never wanted.
I’ve also been struck by the fact that the distance is not always merely physical. In The 13th Warrior (and the book that inspired it, Eaters of the Dead) and The Last Samurai, the distance is also cultural, heroes trying to find their way in a foreign land with foreign customs that amplifies the loneliness of distance. In The Forever War and the cartoon series Samurai Jack the distance is one of time, protagonists thrown into a future with seemingly no way back.
One crucial aspect of distance is the question of success or failure. Does the protagonist make it home, either literally or even figuratively? Or is the tale an inevitable tragedy of heartbreak and eternal separation. How that facet of distance plays out is, for me, one of the most powerful moments in any story involving distance. I love, for example, the way Tolkien plays out the return of the Hobbits to the Shire, complete with a subplot omitted from the movies that shows just how far the Hobbits have come. By contrast, I remember the profound sadness of the The Mission, where the main character sacrifices his life in a faraway land trying to save the innocent.
The worst outcomes of all, though, are the unresolved ones. The TV series Sliders ended with the characters still trapped in parallel worlds, while the 2001 iteration of Planet of the Apes ended with Mark Walbirg’s character trapped in an alternate timeline and no sequel to be found. Samurai Jack seemed all but destined for this end until, unexpectedly, the showrunner revived the series for a loose ends-tying Season 5 this year.
And I’m still waiting for that Blake’s 7 follow-up.
In my own trip, I vividly recall pulling into the driveway after that long journey. That home — the thing that was, most other times, the most mundane thing in my life — was at that moment the most beautiful sight. My body was weary after days of sitting in the car and sleeping in foreign beds, but my spirit was high.
I may or may not have kissed the driveway.