Road Trips and “Alice Isn’t Dead”

Alice Isn’t Dead is one of my favorite podcasts, and it’s starting back up again with Part 2 after a hiatus, so I thought I’d write about why it’s one of my favorites. As you can tell by this intro, I started writing this months ago, when Part 2 Episode 1 was just being hinted at, but then I went on some road trips and now we’re at Part 2, Episode 7. Go figure.

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Alice Isn’t Dead is produced by Nightvale Presents and follows Keisha (voiced by Jasika Nicole), a woman who took a job as a truck driver in order to search for her lost wife (who definitely isn’t dead) across America, and is pursued by monstrous Thistle Men and falls into haunted and surreal parts of the landscape of the United States. Each episode is her broadcasting part of her travels over the truck radio, in the hopes that her wife is listening.

At its base, I love this podcast because I love road trips. I have family who live one state over from me, so I’ve taken a lot of eight to nine hour road trips in my life, stacked on top of vacation trips ranging into the double digits for the drive. American road trips are amazing. You enter a liminal space once you’ve spent three hours driving across flat, empty plains. The podcast so amazingly accurately captures the sublimity of driving through the United States. It’s the scenery of Frankenstein, the castles of Dracula for a modern American audience, complete with its own uniquely American monsters.

 

Cityscape in the United States

Alice Isn’t Dead gets all the little details right, and expands them into surreal horror. Like the absurdity and terror of simple road signs – Jesus is watching, the jaws of a prehistoric monstrosity at the Sternberg about to close around a boy, ads for massive gun emporiums, signs that say “Secede.” The horror inherent in these real-world signs are elevated even further into signs with nothing but the names of supernatural murder victims.

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The sameness of cities – the repetition of Subways and Conoco’s and Targets and McDonald’s – is touched upon and examined time and time again. Keisha chooses to face down the Hungry Man in the imagined safety of a Target parking lot early in Part 1. It does not offer her the sanctuary that such a familiar sight tricks us into believing in. Keisha returns to this theme later in Part 2, Chapter 4: “Every place looks like every place.” And then Alice Isn’t Dead expands on this absurdity of the United States landscape – a diner that follows the protagonist across cities, always the same diner, always the same name, and always the exact same two people working in it.

 

A History of Violence

I have family in Europe, and road trips there are different. Drive through three countries in like, four hours. Drive through maybe half a state here in the same time. The landscape is expansive.

I’d say one of the few failings of this podcast is that it has yet to acknowledge why space in the United States is expansive. I’m a white American with European roots, so it’s important that I pause my celebration of this podcast, to acknowledge that emptiness here, and to do it upfront.

The United States has vast empty land because of genocide. That emptiness comes from the fact that the indigenous people who lived here were murdered in mass genocides, and regulated to tiny pockets of land, and that is why you can drive across vast uninhabited swaths of the United States. The podcast acknowledges the American landscape of slavery and it’s mass death, as it should and must. In Part 2, Chapter 3 Keisha even muses on the Bosnian genocide, and how that event changed the landscapes and cities, but this musing is only extended to genocides abroad, and not yet to the genocide of indigenous populations in what became the United States, nor is continued violence mentioned.

I’d say the closest the podcast comes to really stare this hard fact down comes at the conclusion to Part 1, but it pulls a hard swerve: “I wonder if the weirdness of this emptiness is specific to the American experience, like are our prairies and deserts special somehow in their distance and is that why so much of the unreal crops up around them.”

 

Forward Momentum

Alice Isn’t Dead is at its weakest when the road trips stop. When Keisha breaks into a police station, or during the showdown with the Thistle Men, the truck is stopped. The landscape stalls. Action and forward motion still occur, but are unmoored from their roots in the natural landscape, from the specific forward movement of the road.

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The strength of the truck’s movement is apparent in the episodes that, at least currently, do not tie into the overarching story. The town of Charlatan traps people who are driving through the open expanse of prairie country. A black boat on a river that no one will acknowledge, with a damned crew of those who did acknowledge it. These episodes are some of my favorites, even outside of the plot of Keisha solving the mystery of her wife’s disappearance, of the Thistle Man, of the shipping company she works for. These episodes contain the forward movement of the road, and the beauty and horror of the American landscape.

 

A Diverse Landscape

Beyond my love for road trips, I love this podcast because I also love other women. “Quintessential” American road trip stories tend to be about straight men finding themselves. But Alice Isn’t Dead subverts this, and acknowledges the vast wealth of peoples who live in the United States. I love this podcast because it’s inclusive. The main character Keisha is a Black gay woman, searching for her wife, who amazingly, miraculously, so rarely for gay women’s relationships in media, is still alive.

100%.

Alice Is definitively Not Dead.

Keisha’s love for Alice becomes the American landscape. In 3 (North Rim), Keisha’s “I love you’s” to Alice are entwined with the landscape of the Grand Canyon, with the cold of the North Wind.

Keisha’s love for her wife carries her across the United States. Her anxiety is acknowledged as something that both hinders her life, and something that helps save it. Her Blackness is not downplayed by the podcast, and neither is the violence Black people in America faced and continue to face ignored.

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The setting of the story – the landscape of the United States – is in service of a story where Lesbians Live. The podcast pushes back against the traditional narrative of the American road trip, and also the traditional narrative of the dead lesbian. Keisha realizes Alice isn’t dead because she sees her on the news, a bystander at the reporting of a murder. This scene is a push-back – both women are alive, and looking at a crime scene that so many narratives would have populated with their bodies. This audio-format story subverts the misogynistic, homophobic gaze.

Where an audience would normally be watching a gay woman die, and absorbing the message that death is the only narrative for women who love other women, Alice Isn’t Dead has a woman discover her wife still lives from the televised sight of death that belongs to neither of them.

*It’s never explicitly stated in text how Keisha or Alice identify. I’m calling them lesbians because that is how I relate to them, and because of the way the text of the podcast works in conversation with and against specific forms of violence done against depictions of lesbians in broader media. This does not mean I’m saying that a reading of Keisha and/or Alice as bisexual or pansexual is incorrect, just that, again, I am reading them as lesbians because of how I relate to them and how I read the text in the context of a broader media landscape.

Surreal Horror, Lived Horror

Keisha is a Black gay woman with anxiety navigating the monstrousness of the United States in search of her wife. The podcast acknowledges how scary it can be to drive through a town, through a state, through a landscape when you are the Other. The fear and disgust that plantations as tourist destination instills in a Black woman. The fear of police made manifest in their collusion with literal monsters. The fear of being attacked for being Black or Jewish or Arab or butch or trans when driving through rural Oklahoma, Montana, through large capital cities like Denver or Atlanta. Safety is imagined, but you can find solace in other people, and in the majesty of the places you are passing through. In Chapter 2, Episode 5 Keisha overhears a man at a diner say “I lived through Nixon and I never lived through anything as scary as this.” The American landscape is beautiful, and deeply, deeply terrifying. More so than the Thistle Men, than the monsters and stopped time and death Keisha faces, the very real human element is the scariest, biggest threat in the podcast, and on real road trips.

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Quintessential American Narrative

In the podcast Expanded Perspectives‘ April 9th, 2017 episode, “A Road Less Taken,” (another podcast I love) the hosts Kyle Philson and Cam Hale discuss ghostly hitchhiker sightings, and where some of those sightings might stem from, starting at 55:43.

“This is something that I can tell that’s stuck in Americana. It’s stuck in us, like we’ve talked about apple pie and baseball here in America, it’s, this is something that’s stuck in our history, of these hitch hikers. People picking them up, you know, them vanishing in thin air, I think about another one, another song “The Ride” written by David Allan Coe about Hank Williams Senior, you know him picking up the ghost of Hank Williams Sr. All of these things are something that is, it’s…, caught up in our collective minds, and I know when you drive down the high way, ‘cuz I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all – especially late, late at night you may think you see some stuff that’s not really there. You’re tired, you know, you and I have talked about it before when we’ve gone up into the mountains…And you start seeing things, like, did I see those lights? Did I see on the side of the road? What are…?”

I’m taking this a little out of context; what Kyle and Cam talk about is how some cryptid and paranormal sightings are a function of being alone and tired in the middle of nowhere on a long road at night. But still, some of these urban legends align consistently with each other, and may be an indication of something out there, and the importance of keeping an open mind. So forgive me sort of removing this quote from it’s context.

What’s important to me from this quote is how it strikes at the commonality of that experience of the highway, of a road trip through the U.S. Road trips and the weirdness sometimes attached to them are a quintessential piece of Americana, rooted to the landscape, the way the environment is, the way cities were developed, the very vastness of the continent.

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And the wonderful, wonderful thing Alice Isn’t Dead does is it takes this bit of Americana, the fun of the road, the weirdness of driving alone on a long highway at night and maybe seeing something, all while acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of the American landscape.

It fulfills the promise of quintessential road trip story at last, and makes it accessible. And that’s such a rare and marvelous thing.

 

That Ending Music Fade-out

Alice Isn’t Dead is also just a great, frightening and very moving podcast, and I love the synth that ends every episode.

 

 

 


Excellent Podcasts:

Alice Isn’t Dead

Expanded Perspectives

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