I can’t quite remember how I stumbled upon Erika Lopez’s Flaming Iguanas in the first place. I must have typed something like “road novels written by awesome hardass women” into Google, and seen it pop up first thing on the results page.

Now, there don’t seem to be that many classic road novels out there that haven’t been committed by a male. And don’t get me wrong, male writers have produced damn good pages about swallowing up miles. But if you read between the lines of beat (and most of beat-inspired) literature, it’s shocking to realise how advanced, free, anti-conventional — revolutionary even — these boys were… except in one area, and one area only: the traditional repartition of gender roles.

Kerouac, Cassady and the likes may have been speeding cross-country in stolen cars, popping up benzedrine for breakfast and frantically chasing the it in smoky jazz clubs — but when they got home they always had a wife / girlfriend / mother welcoming them with kind words and a warm meal. Hell, in On the Road, one of the boys even marries a chick for petrol money, then leaves her stranded for weeks without a phone call in Bill Burrough’s heroin den.

Which got me to wonder: where the heck are the writings of the women who hit the road? Do they struggle to get published? Are their books not included in the ‘best road novels’ lists because these lists are written by men with narrow patriarchal views? Do women just not get on the road and write asphalt-inspired tales at all?

It was a relief to find out that Erika Lopez felt the exact same way:

“Ever since I was a kid, I’d tried to live vicariously through the hocker-in-the-wall adventures of Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Henry Miller. But I could never finish any of the books. Maybe because I just couldn’t identify with the fact that they were guys who had women around to make the coffee and wash the skid marks out of their shorts while they complained, called themselves angry young men, and screwed each other with their existential penises.”

Right?

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So, back to Flaming Iguanas. When I first landed on the obscure literature blog that had a small paragraph about the book, I felt my excitement level peak straight up, to the point that I almost passed out. Had I finally found the witty, road-conquering, tough-as-nails female travel writer role model that I was yearning for?

I immediately ordered the cheapest second-hand copy I could find on the web, and waited. Well… the worn-out, coffee-stained, gifted by someone called Mano to their “darling” on Christmas ’97 to “keep the fire burning” copy I received a few days later didn’t disappoint. I downed it all in one go, paired with ultra-strong coffee as my fuel and angry 90s hip-hop as background music, a combination which I can only highly recommend.

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The book starts like this:

“Magdalena and I are gonna cross America on two motorcycles. We’re gonna be so fucking cool, mirrors and windows will break when we pass by. We’ll have our own hardcore theme music that makes us throw our heads back and bite the sky, and women wearing pink foam curlers in passing RVs will desire us and we’ll slowly turn to them at seventy-five miles an hour and mouth “hello” back. Bugs may stick to my burgundy lipstick, but I’ll just spit them back and they’ll look all the prettier for it. (…) We’ll be riding the cheapest motorcycles we can find / stopping every forty-five minutes for gas. Truck stop waitresses will wink and jam dollar bills in our happy little beautifully tanned fists, but we’ll whisper “no thanks” because we don’t need it / we’ll live off the fumes from our estrogen. And we’ll be spitting out mango pits like fucking bullets if anyone says anything about our huge Latin American breasts.”

Boom.

At the beginning of the novel, Tomato Rodriguez — Erika Lopez’s alter ego — has no idea how to ride a motorcycle, certainly doesn’t have a license (or a bike, for that matter), doesn’t like her riding partner much and is terrified /reluctant at the thought of the cross-country road trip that she’s put herself on. But she knows she looks damn good in her biker jacket (the back of which reads FLAM — she gave up halfway through embroidering her gang’s name)… and most of all she can’t flake out of the trip after telling everyone about it. So, she just ends up going.

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A few days into the trip, she gets rid of the annoying Magdalena, and finds herself riding across America as a gang of one, trying hard not to wipe out every time she starts her donated bike, and wishing for a legit excuse to not have to get back on it every morning (but can’t find any, so she just ends up riding across the country anyway). She sings the national anthem on repeat in her helmet to keep her spirits high, makes up a cat guardian angel with a Greek persona to provide her with prophet one-liners, and chain-smokes “because if I lived long enough to get cancer, I’d be lucky”.

Reading Flaming Iguanas feels like being punched in the face on every page (and there’s 300 of them). Erika Lopez writes with merciless honesty and the energy of a machine gun. She’s brutally lucid about everyone she meets, and most of all about herself: she speaks with no shame of the delusional visions of personal progress (and plain wanting-to-look-cool) that inspire so many a road-trip… and of how these visions get crushed when actually on the road. Erika Lopez is also a cartoonist, so the text is sprinkled with funny / weirdly poetic illustrations that make this “illustrated all-girl road novel thing” a travel book unlike any other.

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Flaming Iguanas is not a classic coming-of-age-on-the-road story. It’s not a tale of personal transformation through the grand experience of travel. It’s not a life-lessons-dispensing parable. If anything, it’s a punk manifesto. Which makes Erika Lopez exactly the kind of witty, road-conquering, tough-as-nails female travel writer role model that I was looking for.

Now before I let you rush out to get your own copy of Flaming Iguanas, let me conclude with Lopez’s excellent advice for women hitting the road solo:

“One thing that won’t work on the road is acting vague. Vagueness isn’t cute on a woman away from home and it can get you involved in some cute misunderstandings. / Basically, don’t giggle when you say, “I don’t know”. I talk to anybody. I forget I’m a girl, and I’ll go out with some truckdriver I met on the side of the road and have a few beers. And when he smiles at me with that glassy-eyed look that says he wants to blow out his chakras, and invites me to the back of his cab, I go “Yeah, sure, right. That’s real classy” and wave good-bye. The louder you laugh and the farther apart you plant your feet, the more respect you’ll get. Take up space because it’s not a school dance.”

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Erika Lopez, Flaming Iguanas (Simon and Schuster, 1997), available here
All photos by Marie Colinet

mariecolinettravelettesMarie Colinet was part of the Travelettes team from 2013 to 2015. Originally from Toulouse, France, two years lived in Australia left her speaking English with an awkward Fraussie accent. In September 2015, Marie is starting the epic 6-month-or-who-knows-how-long road-trip along the Panamerican Highway that she’s been dreaming of since her teenage years — all the way from the U.S. to the very tip of South-America. You can follow her on Instagram @mariecolinet!