I Went On A Solo Car Trip. Everyone Thought I'd Get Murdered.

In this excerpt from her new book, Blythe Roberson reckons with the irrational fears the true-crime industry has given us all.

by Bustle Editors
A photo of Blythe Roberson with her book 'America the Beautiful?'
Courtesy of Harper Perennial/Blythe Roberson
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In Blythe Roberson’s new book, America the Beautiful? One Woman in a Borrowed Prius on the Road Most Traveled, the writer and comedian recounts her solo car trip across America, blending reportage with insightful cultural commentary. Below, read an excerpt from the book’s first pages, in which Roberson previews her plan to drive across the country — and fields many a concerned comment from her friends and family.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, they say, but they’re wrong: a journey of a thousand miles begins with figuring out what you’re going to pack.

How does one pack for an open-ended trip across a continent? I’d be gone for a spring and a summer, visiting both snowy mountains and deserts. I wanted to bring clothes that made me look hot and made me feel like myself, but I’d also be living out of a duffel bag and going for long stretches without showering. I’d be hiking and swimming and getting caught in the rain; I couldn’t bring anything that couldn’t get wet or dirty. It was a tall order; I can barely throw together a coherent outfit on days I have access to my full closet.

Every choice was fraught. Like: which of my baseball hats would not mark me as an East Coast elitist? A New Yorker hat was an obvious no. My Yankees hat marked me a little less obviously as a New Yorker, or at least marked me a New Yorker who enjoyed “Sports” instead of “Long Articles by Jill Lepore.” I had a Harry Styles hat, a simple black cap that just said “Harry” — this could have gone either way if not for the fact that people who saw me in this hat uniformly assumed it referred to Harry Connick Jr. Though I wasn’t sure what kind of chaotic energy these people were picking up on when they came to that conclusion, it wasn’t the energy I wanted to lead with during my trip.

The question I asked of each thing I packed was: will this item of clothing get me killed? When I told people I was about to drive around America alone, the first thing each person told me was that I was going to get murdered. Sometimes, very occasionally, they wouldn’t tell me I was going to get murdered and would instead give me a tip for not getting murdered. They became even more sure of my eventual demise when I told them I planned to mostly free-camp in the middle of nowhere. They were convinced that this would lead to headlines like “Woman Murdered While Free-Camping”; or “Body of Missing Woman Finally Found, Murdered, after Detectives Asked Themselves Where the Dumbest Place to Camp Would Be and Then Checked There”; or “New Details: Murdered Camper Clearly Hadn’t Shaved Legs in Weeks.”

Among the “Blythe gonna get murdered” truthers was TB, who spent the weeks before I flew into Chicago to start my trip trying to convince me not to borrow his old black Prius. This wasn’t because he was afraid I’d hit something with it (that I would eventually hit something with it was just assumed). It was because he believed the Prius would not sufficiently protect me from getting myself killed.

TB is obsessed with murder; predicting my death is something of a hobby for him. He is the kind of person for whom multiple children independently decided to buy I’ll Be Gone in the Dark as a Christmas gift. On the phone TB told me that I should take the motor home he had somehow recently acquired.

“Don’t take the motor home,” my mom interrupted. “It’s disgusting, and the mileage is bad.”

“It’s not disgusting, it’s very nice inside,” TB protested. “It gets 12 miles a gallon.”

Ideally I would have made the trip in something compact and easy to maneuver, something I could drive through rough terrain and that got good gas mileage. It would be a plus if the car would instantly inform all the strangers I’d encounter that I was, in fact, cool. Had I my druthers, I’d road-trip in a Jeep or maybe a Geo Tracker, a car I knew almost nothing about except that it looked like a Jeep and that the impossibly hip purple-haired woman who cut my hair had one. But the thing about my druthers is I never get them, and I was willing to settle for “easy to maneuver,” “gas mileage above 12 miles per gallon,” and if not “able to drive through rough terrain without harming car,” at least “already beat up enough that you can gently run into a couple boulders and it won’t look the worse for wear.” To this end my stepdad’s Prius, which had visibly survived a hailstorm and at least one collision with a car-shaped object, was exactly what I needed.

Something about the fact that I would be a woman alone, going on the road for months, made everyone I talked to — friends, coworkers, randos — think of violent death. And these people were seemingly normal! They could not, as TB could, hear a GPS coordinate and tell you about a young woman much like yourself who was recently killed within a 10-mile radius. But they all agreed: I would be alone, I would be unsafe, I would be killed. Unless! I bought any number of incredible products designed to prevent that exact thing. Just as we give women tips for not getting raped instead of giving men tips for not raping women, people not only deluged me with tips for not getting murdered, they introduced me to the “don’t get murdered” industry.

One major category of the Don’t Get Murdered Industrial Complex is location-tracking devices. Almost everyone I told about my trip recommended some sort of location tracker to me. Letting everyone in the world track me like a Domino’s pizza would, of course, not prevent me from getting murdered. At best, it would let them figure out that I had been murdered as quickly as possible.

Then there were the products that would prevent me from getting murdered, or at least make murdering me slightly more inconvenient. When I described my trip to two women over drinks, one told me about a website called Damsel in Defense, from which her mother had bought her a pastel-hued stun gun. I pulled up the website; for 70 dollars you could buy a stun gun that, photographed in soft lighting and nestled on a couch next to an array of throw pillows, looked exactly like a sex toy. You could buy rape whistles or, as the website called them, “hermergency necklaces.” They also sold a striking tool with a baby blue body and sleek silver tip. I turned my phone screen to the women to show them.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m not supposed to put this in my butt?”

Constant predictions of one’s impending violent death are not only an emotional strain that men don’t have to deal with before going on the road. They’re a financial strain as well. Men aren’t told they’re going to be murdered on their solo trips, so they don’t have to spend 70 dollars on a stun gun. They don’t stock up on Mace. They bring things to protect them from the wilderness — a knife or a canister of bear spray (a kind of pepper spray used to deter bears, not, critically, something you apply to your body like bug spray) — but not to protect them from other men. I don’t have a single male friend who owns a stun gun or a rape whistle, or whose family suggested they get those things before setting off on solo trips. Certainly I don’t have any with stepdads who, like TB did to me, offered to get them a gun. I decided that I wouldn’t spend any money on any of those things men wouldn’t have to spend money on. Bear spray would be enough to keep me safe.

Ultimately I forgot to pack bear spray.

I knew that I would not get murdered on my trip. It was obvious to me! At the same time, it’s hard to overstate how at peace I was with the idea that I could die on this trip: I could get in a car crash, I could fall off the side of a cliff, a deer could kill me. Or I could get murdered, sure. It took a lot of time to grow comfortable with the idea that the trip would be planned only a few days at a time in advance; after that, accepting my own mortality was easy. Everyone has to die sometime! If a deer feels the need to kill me, we should respect the wishes of the deer.

Some people assumed that I would be riding the rails or hitchhiking across America, both of which admittedly are more dangerous than going on a long drive; I wasn’t doing either of those things. That I had access to a car I could borrow and money to pay for gas was a privilege. I wasn’t going to make things harder on myself just to try to seem more legit; I long ago came to terms with the fact that I am not legit. I didn’t want to perform authenticity like that type of man who feels so weird about his trust fund that he hitchhikes into the wilderness to die. I don’t have a trust fund, but if I did I would simply use it to buy a Geo Tracker.

But it wasn’t like the world was really so dangerous. The murder rate in the United States was falling — at least before Covid made us throw the social contract out the window. It was just that the murder shows my mom and dad and friends would quote to me, while explaining exactly how I would get dismembered, made it seem like we were in more danger than ever before. “We” meaning a very specific slice of the population; as my friend Madelyn put it to me once, when all my other friends were convinced I would be murdered going on an out-of-town hiking-centric first date: “The true-crime industrial complex wants white women to fear everything.”

Being a woman entails certain risks, but I had learned ways to look out for myself, and I couldn’t see why those risks would be greater on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by no one, than they are in my normal life in the middle of Brooklyn, surrounded by drunk men of all ages who stand in front of my apartment talking all day and talking loudly all night. Our culture is just as invested in the idea that cities are dangerous for women on their own as it is in the idea that the road is dangerous for women on their own. If I had beat the odds on one for so long, could the other really be as dire as society made it out to be?

Adapted from AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL? Copyright © 2023 by Blythe Roberson. Reprinted here with permission from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.