Nobody is traveling. Everybody is traveling. In a Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” year, it seems we’ve all rediscovered the joys of a road trip. I was thinking about this recently while sitting in traffic as I waited to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, on my way home from what had started out as a fun weekend adventure. Road trips always start out as fun ideas. There’s something so alluring about having the freedom to explore the open road and not being tied to a departure schedule or security lines. You can pull over if something catches your eye, discover a hidden gem of a diner, or come across a quirky roadside attraction. Road trips have always felt like a rite of passage, particularly in the U.S.
But road trips can also be really boring. And exhausting. I was reminded of this watching the new Ewan McGregor series Long Way Up. This is the third series in which he and his buddy Charley take their motorcycles on a multi-country road trip. In this version, they ride electric Harley Davidson motorcycles from South to North America, and the need to charge the bikes becomes a central focus. At one point, Ewan worries out that he’s making travel by electric vehicle seem unappealing and thereby invalidating his message in support of sustainable travel. I was stressed as I watched him, while at the same time thinking that I really want to take a road trip through Patagonia now. That’s the thing. Even with the challenges, road trips can still entice us.
When I was growing up, road trips were the primary mode of travel for our family. We lived in Colorado, which is an ideal state for a road trip, with its majestic mountains and canyons, indigenous cave dwellings and old cowboy towns. I loved road trips around Colorado. I loved road trips to New Mexico. But I dreaded our yearly trips to visit family in South Texas, a fourteen hour journey that from my adolescent perspective may as well have been a trip to the moon. When we made our regular stop at the gas station in Raton, New Mexico, my sister and I knew that this was our last chance to load up on snacks, Mad Libs, and anything else that might entertain us before we crossed into Texas and began the twelve hour drive through a long stretch of nothing. I would try not to think about how we would have to do it all over again on the return. With no iPad and no podcasts, making that trip year after year, you’d think I’d become averse to long-distance road trips after that. And yet….
College road trips always made sense when we were planning them. But inevitably I’d find myself at a point where I couldn’t remember why I had agreed to the trip. Who had convinced me that a winter break trip from D.C. to Cape Cod would be fun? There is no reason to go to Cape Cod in January. It’s freezing. A spring break trip to Florida made more sense. We set out from D.C. on a Friday night, ready to drive straight through to Jacksonville, our first stop. I’m not sure anyone anticipated that our designated late night driver planned to blast Jimmy Buffet from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. in order to keep himself awake. Even worse, I was scheduled to drive the next shift and had not managed to sleep a wink, stuck as I was in Margaritaville. Although, I would later find that this paled in comparison to setting up camp near a “Beware of Alligators” sign. I ended up sleeping in the car. I should have asked more questions throughout the planning process.
I thought these experiences had prepared me when I accepted an offer to drive cross-country with my sister and two of her friends. They were moving from Chicago to San Diego and needed a fourth driver since they were taking two cars. I secured hotel and motel reservations for each night of the trip, determined that there would be no overnight driving, no camping with wild animals, and enough opportunities to get out of the car and explore a little. We set off from Chicago, excited for the adventure we knew awaited us. But after two days of driving through corn fields and open plains, we were still waiting for the adventure to begin. Entering southwest Colorado, we found ourselves in the middle of a biker rally and wondered if it would be asking too much to find a middle ground of adventure, Goldilocks-style. Fortunately, things did balance out once we continued on to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Southern California. But that road trip taught me something important. Sometimes it is about the destination and not the journey.
What I mean is that the road trip is frequently romanticized in our culture. We highlight the experience of it, and how the mishaps can make or break relationships among the passengers. But while I appreciate an ideal road trip playlist as much as anyone, I’m guilty of considering my view out the window to be a similar form of entertainment. It took me a long time to realize that I needed to reconsider my attitude towards all those in-between places, those places between mile-markers, attractions and natural wonders. Instead of whining over the long stretches of nothing, I needed to try and imagine what life was like well before I got there. I needed to try and understand how these places shaped the culture of America as well as the cultures that were there before America. What I saw as nothing was a place where for centuries people had chosen to put down roots and create a home.
This new perspective has made for far more interesting road trips. One of my favorite experiences was driving from Napa to San Diego and for the first time becoming aware of the Missions Trail. The drive along the coast is beautiful, but looking the other direction tells you a lot more about the history of California, one that began long before Haight-Ashbury and Hollywood. On a road trip from Asheville to Baltimore, I learned about The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, during a stop at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. As I continued driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains, I couldn’t help but wonder which came first, the music or the mountains. They’re so intertwined. On a trip from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, I was able to understand the development of industry in America, as we followed the path of the first roads, train tracks, tunnels, and mines. These trips have told me a lot about the story of America, filling in the gaps by providing that missing transition between chapters in the textbooks.
I took these things for granted when I was younger, back when the original “purple mountain majesty” – Pikes Peak – was practically in my backyard. Perhaps my newfound appreciation has a lot to do with where I live now, which is either the beginning or the end of the road, depending on where you’re going. I live near the start of the National Road, the first highway built in America nearly two centuries ago. Interstate 70 is its modern replacement, and it is one of my favorite drives, taking me through beautiful scenery as I run my errands locally. When I get onto I-70, there’s a sign showing the distance to other cities. That sign always makes me feel like Dorothy starting out on the yellow brick road. Instead of going to the grocery store, I could stay on this same road for 1647 miles to Denver. It’s always so tempting to keep going.