The Great Race: An Author, a Coupe, and the Thrill of the Ride

Steven J. Chandler

 

Dina Bennet has an interesting take on American literature’s classic road trip. In her book, Peking to Paris, she recounts the 8,000 mile classic car rally which she undertook with her French-born husband Bernard in a 1940 GM LaSalle coupe nicknamed “Roxanne.” The race brought them from Beijing to Russia, across Central Europe and finally into Paris. It was a road rife with possibility for social, political and cultural insights. We don’t get much further, however, than the author’s anxieties and allegiance to a husband bent on winning gold at all costs. The images of the Chinese, Mongolian and Russian frontiers flash by in misshapen vignettes, harsh descriptions of a dystopia more likely resembling the uneasy geography of the author’s psyche than the rally’s landscape.

 

This is certainly not the journey of Jack Kerouac hitching rides across the highways of America or Hunter S. Thompson straddling a Harley while traveling the California coast with the Hells Angels. Bennet and her husband go to sleep as the other rally teams celebrate in their tent. They wake up early to make repairs on the car and notate changes to the race itinerary. They have the type of foresight that likely ensured that they received the best and warmest of the camp breakfast, the first shower and the use of a pristine toilet in the morning not yet sullied by some bleary-eyed driver with a headache and bad aim. In short, the converse of what we would have expected on road trip through parts of China and Mongolia.

 

 It’s the type of responsibility that many of us much more reckless and boozy travelers wish they would have practiced on the road. Maybe the story the next morning isn’t as exciting, but at least there’s no headache. The reliability of Bennet and her husband is important to note. It’s directly contrasted by the unreliability of their vehicle, Roxanne. As Roxanne deteriorates, the road begins to open wide. Her husband steadfastly at her side like a force of gravity, she may never untether herself and find the independence which the open road can offer. Still, there are times of lightness and introspection. Bennet’s writing is most interesting in these moments when she realizes the value and beauty of being elsewhere. The rally ultimately becomes secondary to the author’s inward journey.  She competes not with other drivers and navigators, but against the anxiety and self-doubt which this rally has magnified. 

 

This story is also about classic cars -- classic being the operative word as we find that Roxanne, as well as many of her counterparts, is in constant need of repair. Roxanne’s malfunctions prove to be the key divergence from the course, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. The interactions Bernard shares with the local mechanics are humorous episodes that touch upon the universal language of cars.

 

The author takes these opportunities to let the men be men and discuss aspects of an ancient machine which they may or may not fully understand. In these instances, Bennet takes on the challenge of ordering lunch from a foreign menu. In another moment of Roxanne’s infirmity, the author interacts with a mechanic’s family in Mongolia, his wife sharing with her tea and family photographs. Normally so concerned with whether she’ll ultimately fail her husband as a navigator and a wife, this moment of kindness in the book is a welcome reprieve from the author’s inner-turmoil.

 

 

Roxanne’s unreliability ensures that a gold medal is out of reach. As a result, Bernard steps off the gas a bit and allows his wife, and himself, the luxury of leisure. Bennet is continually vacillating between acquiescing to her weaknesses and compensating for them. For example, when they cross into Siberia from Mongolia, Bennet recounts a trip to Russia years prior and a conversation she shared with acquaintances regarding her ethnic background. She failed to go as far as to describe her Jewish ethnicity and the forced exodus from Russia of her grandparents, suggesting the relationship with the associates was too tenuous for what she considered to be merely cultural unpleasantries. She juxtaposes that timidity with her approach to the Siberian countryside during the rally. Although not proclaiming Judaism, she enters a roadside diner, steps into the kitchen and orders lunch with the boldness of a woman unashamed of her history. From where do these bursts of courage arise? A sense of duty. For all his automotive acumen, Bernard is helpless when ordering lunch in a foreign country on his own.

 

There’s an inverse relationship between the way in which the rally’s path unfurls and the direction of the couple’s evolving values. As Roxanne and the course head west, Bennet and her husband move closer toward an Eastern way of thinking. They don’t reach a point of inner peace, but they do begin to let go. The race, the itinerary, the friends they first made are all given up for something far more rewarding: freedom.

 

This isn’t the book to hit the road with, and I doubt many will find in these pages the inspiration to seek out life elsewhere, but it’s interesting to consider the motivation of a woman who undertook a road trip across continents simply for the sake of her husband’s automotive whimsy. Some may call it devotion, others obligation. She calls it love. Whatever it may be, it puts the concept of dedication into perspective. For whom would we drive through Mongolia?

 

Author Bio:

Steven Chandler is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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