Road to Nowhere
by Christopher Pike
I first read Road to Nowhere when I was 10, and oh boy was I way too young to handle significant parts of this subject matter. I just remember seeing an awesome book cover on a classmate’s desk and seeking it out at the library. I was thrilled when I came across the (very minor) swearing. All of that context aside, this is a really good book and one of Christopher Pike’s best. It’s a bit of a slow mover, but the ending is more than worth it. I really liked all of the main characters, both the ones in the car and the ones in the stories they were telling. The “campfire” style of the narrative allowed for each story to take its time and resonate. There was also a really powerful message here aimed at the teenage target audience that I think was tastefully done. I appreciated that it wasn’t too heavy-handed with themes that could easily get sappy and sanctimonious. In total, Road to Nowhere scratched my nostalgic itch, turned out better than I had remembered, and made me want to dive even deeper into Christopher Pike’s twisted canon.
Recap & Observations:
This was my third time reading this book. The first was when I was 10 and way too young for most of these themes. I revisited again at some point in high school because parts of it had really stuck with me. Then finally I read it again earlier this year. What’s interesting is that it stuck with me over the years, but I don’t think it particularly scared me as a kid. The scares are more existential than overt, and I think a lot of the subtext went right over my head. I have also driven this exact route up Highway 1 since my first two read-throughs, so that was a fun bit of scenic context this time around. I can safely say it has held up really well and shares the top spot with Monster for my favorite of Christopher Pike’s books so far.
Road to Nowhere opens with Theresa Chafey picking up two hitchhikers in the rain. She’s angry at her boyfriend Bill and just wants to getaway. She doesn’t have a destination, so she just gets on the highway and heads north along the California coast. The two hitchhikers are a man and woman who claim to be a magician act and need to get to the Bay Area for a gig. Lucky for them, that is the exact direction Theresa is heading. Their names are Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn. Free is very warm, friendly, and talkative. He takes up residence in the passenger seat. Poppy quietly chain smoke in the back seat. Quirks aside, Theresa appreciates their company. To pass the time, the three of them start swapping stories.
Free pressures Theresa to start with her story. Why was she driving? What was she so desperate to get away from? Theresa met Bill while Christmas shopping. She had just spent all of her money saved up from giving piano and guitar lessons when they bumped into one another in line. They hit it off and he asked her out on a date. The first date went great, and back at his place later that night, Theresa let it slip that she wrote songs. Bill asked to hear one, and Theresa reluctantly played. The songs were very private and she had never shared them with anyone before. Bill was taken back at how good the song was. She told him she had just written it that morning, and he picked up on the fact that it was about him. Theresa ends this part of the story by telling Poppy and Free that Bill was just using her. When Free presses her to elaborate, Theresa tells him it’s his turn to tell a story. Guess we’ll have to wait for the drama on that one.
Free starts off by telling the story of his friend John. John was a smart kid from a broken home. In high school, he fell in love with a girl named Candy. Candy was an amazing artist but didn’t do well in other subjects. So they worked out a system of cheating. John helped Candy get good grades so she could go away to UC Berkeley with him after graduation. Their plan worked splendidly until it didn’t. They got caught. Candy froze up. John reacted by assaulting their chemistry teacher. The incident landed him in juvenile detention, and his acceptance to Berkley was rescinded. While he was locked up, Candy never visited. By the time he got out, she had gone away for her first semester at Berkley without him.
The turn in storytelling returns to Theresa. Bill got it in his head that Theresa really ought to be performing her songs. He believed she was that good. But she had no confidence and felt too shy about sharing her music publicly. Then Bill recorded her without telling her and played it for a nightclub owner. At first, Theresa was pissed that he went behind her back (with good reason, I might add). But the nightclub wants her to audition right away. She reluctantly agrees and lands a weekly gig. The night of her first show, she brings along her best friend Rene. Even though she broke a string and had a few awkward fumbles, her first set went great and the second set went even better. After the show, she picked up on something going on between Bill and Rene. They had spent the whole night together while she was on stage. Theresa tells Free and Poppy that he was already in love with Rene at this point. Free enthusiastically takes Theresa’s side in condemning Bill, but Poppy insists that he doesn’t seem like a bad guy. Theresa is not a fan of this hot take.
That means Poppy is next up. It turns out she knew Candy better than Free did. She picks up where Free’s story left off. Poppy explains that Candy did try and reach out to John, but her parents wouldn’t let her visit him while he was locked up. When she tried to find him afterward, he had vanished. She did poorly in school without John’s help and started having an affair with a married art professor. When she got pregnant, the professor wanted her to have an abortion. She decided that she wanted to keep the child. So she dropped out of school to raise him as a single parent. She named him Johnny, after her first true love that she never stopped thinking about. When Poppy reaches a nice stopping point, she says she’s tired of talking. There’s an obvious tension growing between her and Free, so Free takes back the reins to tell them what happened after John got out of Juvi.
It was hard for John to get into any school or find work with a criminal record, but he finally landed a gig cleaning factory equipment at a major baking and food distributor. He used his smarts to innovate the factory processes and was content to quietly do so until his boss started taking credit for his ideas. When he called his boss out on it, he was immediately demoted to working in the hottest and most dangerous part of the factory. But even there he found a way to innovate. When it came time to demonstrate his new methods, things went horribly wrong. John ended up losing two of his fingers in the accident. He suspected, but could never prove, that his manager had sabotaged him by lowering the blades a critical few inches. While in the hospital, John developed an addiction to morphine. He tried to sue the factory but they used his record and lack of proof against him. He was left broke, disabled, and addicted. When his morphine supply got cut off, he switched to heroin. Theresa wants Free to keep going with his story, but Free insists that it’s time to stop for some beer and snacks. I can relate to Free here in this one specific instance. It is always appropriate to hit pause in the name of drinks and snacks, even at critical moments.
Theresa gets some snacks, but couldn’t get Free the beer he wanted so he goes in to get it himself. Theresa and Poppy have an intense conversation while Free was in the store. Poppy starts to poke holes in Teresa’s story and reveals a bit more about herself. Theresa can’t understand why but she feels that Poppy cares deeply for her, and doesn’t know what to do with that information. Free returns with beer; it’s heavily implied but never confirmed that he robbed the gas station to get it. They get back on the highway. Here is where it starts to become clear that Free and Poppy have very different agendas. Now, I thought it was pretty obvious from the jump that Free and Poppy were talking about themselves when telling the stories of John and Candy. This was more of a wrinkle than a plot twist, but it gave the story an interesting tension.
They return to telling stories, with Theresa explaining what went down at her second performance. Her parents came, the show was great, but there was clearly something brewing between Bill and Rene. Theresa called their bluff by forcing them all on a double date, inviting her lab partner for Rene’s date. It went horribly. At the end of the night, Bill finally confessed to Theresa that he and Rene had fallen for each other. They had been struggling with how to tell her because they both still really cared for her, and hadn’t planned on it happening. Theresa was furious and demanded that Bill leave. Then she got in her car, picked up two hitchhikers, and started driving. At least, that’s how she remembers it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Theresa is perhaps not the most reliable narrator. And I’ve gotta say, I love me an unreliable narrator.
Next up, Free insists that they stop at his Mother’s place. It’s a strange castle that somehow exists where it shouldn’t, along a side street off Highway 1. Poppy warns Theresa that she shouldn’t go in, but Theresa chooses to trust Free. He says his mother is a fortune teller, but she can only see the past. The castle is super creepy. Theresa finds Free’s mother to be horrible and invasive. She tells Theresa that Bill and Rene were afraid of her because they didn’t understand her. It struck me as a really cryptic way of saying “they’re basic and you’re a weirdo.” Theresa walks away frustrated. She and Free retreat to a bedroom where she loses her virginity to him. Yes, this part was as abrupt in the book as it was in my summary. Her experience is euphoric; it changes something in her. She can clearly tell that something is not right, but she stops caring. I’m pretty sure this part of it went right over my head when I was 10 but also maybe it made me gay? I mean, Free was that cocky hot older badass type I used to always used to (sometimes maybe still) go for.
Back on the road, Poppy picks up where Candy’s story left off. Candy had gone back to school to become a nurse. She had worked her way up from poverty as a single mother to actually making decent money. She met a new guy who was great with her son, and after a long time, they eventually got engaged. Then one night, after a long day working at the hospital, Candy needed another carton of cigarettes. Despite everything else going well and the years of nursing school, she had never been able to kick the habit. She pulled up to the mini-mart she had been to countless times. When she got to the door, she saw John inside. He was robbing the store. She opened the door and stepped inside. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to wait because Free interrupts Poppy to insist on taking over. But the moral of this plot twist is clear: smoking cigarettes will kill you.
Free talks about John’s descent into heroin addiction. He had run out of settlement money and had started robbing middle-class houses and pawning off their valuables to maintain his habit. Being high was the only time he couldn’t feel the pain of his injury, and as he developed a tolerance he needed more and more to get high. He finally landed in the hospital with Hepatitis, and that’s when he saw Candy. She didn’t see him, and he didn’t want her to. She was with her son and fiance, and his heart broke seeing them. He needed a fix to escape the feeling, and so he fled the hospital. He was broke, so he got a gun from a friend and decided to rob a mini-mart. He was jittery and inexperienced with this sort of robbery. He finally got the nerve to pull the gun, and that was when Candy walked in.
Candy tried to talk John down, to get him to go back to the hospital. But he was in too deep to back out. He too angry and hurt to listen to anything Candy was saying. He could hear sirens getting closer, and when the police entered he took Candy, hostage. One of the overzealous officers shot John twice, getting him in the stomach. Then John used his last bit of consciousness to shoot Candy. Free muses that maybe he did it for revenge, or maybe he did it so he wouldn’t die alone. He asks Poppy if he left anything out; she sarcastically confirms that he told it beautifully. It’s more clear than ever that John and Candy are Free and Poppy. But what this means for Theresa, and why they are hitchhiking together, remains anyone’s guess.
Finally, they make a stop at Poppy’s father’s house. It’s another mysterious side road off the highway along the Pacific Ocean. This time it’s a creepy old church. Theresa goes in with Poppy while Free waits in the car. The place is weird and a bit creepy, but Theresa finds that Poppy’s father is warm and friendly. He knows her name before she says it, and his line of questioning unearths something that Theresa has been holding back. After Bill left, she grabbed a knife from her kitchen and drove over to his place. She didn’t have a plan; just rage. I’ve been there and I know the feeling. When she got there, she saw Bill and Rene sleeping in each other’s arms by the fire. She dropped the knife and left. The priest presses Theresa on that last detail and warns her that she is in serious trouble. He tells her that the worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. Theresa freaks out and leaves before he can press her further.
Poppy seems disappointed in Theresa’s decision, but Free is supportive. Theresa realizes she still has the knife in her pocket. They make another stop for food. Theresa is caught off guard when Free pulls a gun on the store clerk. Free instructs her to take the only other customer hostage with her knife. She reluctantly goes along with the stick-up, not knowing what else to do. Then Free shoots the cashier in the face and instructs Theresa to slit the other woman’s throat. Theresa hesitates, but the nurse tries to get away and the knife clips her jugular. Theresa is in shock as Free leads them back out to the car, sirens sounding off in the distance. This time Free drives. When he finally gets off the highway, Theresa realizes they are back home. It doesn’t make any sense, they had been driving north all night. And yet they pull the car up to her apartment building and go inside. Theresa is exhausted and needs to lie down. I, on the other hand, needed to frantically read the next chapter so I could find out what the fuck was happening.
Everyone’s secret motives finally come to a head. Theresa finally remembers that she had returned home after seeing Bill and Rene together, drawn up a bath, and then slit her wrist. She’s there now, bleeding out in the tub. Free has been on a mission from the jump to claim Theresa’s soul, while Poppy has been on a mission to save them both. Poppy reveals to Free that John didn’t shoot Candy. Candy was killed in the crossfire by the same shitty cops who shot him. She tells him that he doesn’t have to suffer for that sin any longer. He doesn’t need to be the demon he’s become. After a long night of tension, she finally cuts through Free’s tough demeanor and gets through to him.
Theresa, meanwhile realizes she wants to live. As hurt, as she is, she can’t stay mad at Bill and Rene. But Free and Poppy aren’t physically there. They can’t pull her from the tub, and she will be dead before her parents can find her. So Poppy and a newly redeemed Free join forces. They decide to make a spark. Theresa asks Poppy why she was sent to save her. Poppy keeps it cryptic: “let’s say you’re important to someone who’s important to me.” Across town, a spark leaps out of the fire that Bill and Rene are sleeping beside. It strikes Bill and wakes him up. He sees the front door open and Theresa’s keys inside. Sensing something is wrong, he rushes over to her place.
Theresa wakes up in the hospital a few hours later. There is a young med student tending to her. There’s a bandage on her wrist. She feels an unearthly calm. She’s not ready to face Bill, Rene, or her family yet so she asks the med student why he wants to become a doctor. He says he wants to help people like his mother did. He’s about to tell Theresa his name when she beats him to it. He’s Johnny, Candy’s son.
It was hard to gloss over the details of this one when recapping. With the overlapping narratives and perspectives, not to mention all of the secrets and motives. This book holds a special place in my memory, but it also just really stands out among its contemporaries. Remember Me and might get more love in Pike’s bibliography, but Road to Nowhere is a better book with a much more powerful message. There are parts of it that are dated, namely the attitudes around suicide being a sin. I don’t think this book could be written today without addressing how mental health issues are at play. At the same time, I think it handled the subject matter better than the far more popular 13 Reasons Why. The reason it works for me is the strength of its core message: to love and be honest with yourself and to not let other people define your self-worth.
Theresa lost sight of herself in her pain. She lost all sense of her worth in her anger. She almost lost her soul to her own denial. The lesson she needed to learn is that she is worth so much more than a revenge fantasy. She deserves to be loved by someone who actually loves her for who she is. That was never going to be Bill, whether or not he met Rene. The target audience for these books were teenagers, and one of the hardest things for teenagers to do is see outside of their own experience. I’ve got a pdf of my very melodramatic livejournal to back that claim up. No, you may not see it. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when you’re wrapped up in your own drama. To be fair, plenty of adults never learn how to do that either. But I appreciated the message that Christopher Pike was trying to send. I liked that he kept it weird and creepy while still having a lot of heart. And I honestly cannot wait to dive deeper into his canon of work.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each. I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are Concept (the overall idea), Execution (the mechanics of storytelling), Character (the protagonists, antagonists, and villains), Scare Factor (from a childhood standpoint), and Originality (subversion and reliance on genre tropes).
It was a simple concept, but it was solid and it worked. Pike added plenty of weird creepy details that gave it depth and grit.
It was well-paced, the twists were hinted at but never obvious. It’s hard to say if I might have guessed the ending if I were reading it for the first time as an adult, but Pike is rarely predictable.
All of the characters in this were vivid and full of quirks and flaws. They were crackling with life, even as they existed in this void between life and death.
Scare Factor: 2/2
Suicide, fingers chopped off in a meat machine, drug addiction due to physical injury, that creepy witch who could see the past and future, and the bizarre church. There were so many creepy little things, overtly scary things, and generally upsetting subjects. This definitely delivers on the scares.
I liked that Jack and Poppy weren’t your traditional demon or guardian angel types. Jack was charming, Poppy was off-putting. The story itself is simple and similar things have been done, but I found this take to be quite original.
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Lael Littke’s Prom Dress