There’s a lot to hate about road trips: hours and hours seated in the same position, the possibility of flat tires and overheated engines, the threat of being squished by a careless trucker, the constant quaffing of caffeinated beverages and the subsequent frequent need to pull over and pee. And from the perspective of plane travel, road trips are slow; automobiles take days to accomplish what hours can in a 747.
But I love road trips, and I have ever since I was old enough to drive a car myself, when the radius of my possible adventures extended suddenly so much further from myself than my own two legs could have carried me.
There’s definitely a road trip culture in America, born of our pioneering past, lines of wagons pushing forward to new frontiers, the famed wide open spaces upon which our country was built and peopled. That tradition has grown and evolved, no longer comprised of horse drawn wagons but formed instead of VW vans, motorcyclists, RVs and Airstreams, and fueled by writers like Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and films like Thelma and Louise.
I drove across the country twice in college, once from west to east, and once from east to west, and those trips are among my fondest memories from those four years. Whenever people in Europe asked me where they should visit if they came to America, I always told them that they should take all the time they could, rent a car, and drive from one coast to the other. And they’d say to me, “Really? Not just New York and LA? Maybe Miami, D.C., or San Francisco?”
And as I shook my head, arguing for our national parks and great plains, I realized that road trips are a reflection of the way I understand my country, and its culture (its many cultures). Road trips are a reminder that America is not simply its coasts, or its cities, but all the small towns and lingering wide open spaces which fill so much of the maps, painted Red and Blue come election
time, maps that seem to open up the further west you go, stretching out, reaching toward the Pacific.
Road trips help to remind me that travel isn’t simply about where you’re going, geographically speaking—it’s about what you’re traveling through, the places, lives and cultures you’re moving through, the emotions you’re experiencing, the memories you’re forming.Sometimes I wonder if I’d feel differently about road trips if I’d been born on the left coast. If I’d feel, through some kind of right-handed, leftward-headed bias, that I’d already reached the end, the destination. Maybe I’d view road trips differently, as a way backwards, a way into the past.
I’ve been reading Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, part of which is set in Paris. At one point, the narrator, Jake Barnes, is taking a bus along Boulevard Raspail on the left bank, and he notes to himself that he always ignores part of the bus ride because it makes him feel “bored and dead and dull.” He imagines that it is “some association of ideas that makes those dead places in a journey,” and this says something important, I think, about the way we relate to our surroundings, the way our memories and experiences shape our experiences of the world around us.
I walked up Boulevard Raspail every morning when I lived in Paris. My favorite boulangerie was off one of its side streets; I ate at its cafes, and shopped at the open air market by metro Raspail. For me, that part of the bus ride wouldn’t have been dead space at all. It would have been a trip through a bit of the world I was familiar with, a place I’d come to know a little.
If you think about them the right way, road trips give you the chance to build this kind of familiarity
on a large scale, to trace a moment in your life along a map for a distance of hundreds and hundreds of miles. The trips I’ve made at 19, 21 and 23 may be repeated when I’m 44, 57, or 70. And road trips make me welcome that possibility, make me daydream about crossing the country in an Airstream in my 60s, when I’ll be able to look back and think how different the world is, and yet how the same.
At this point, it’s obvious that I think too much about these things, and it’s likely because I overanalyze the “meaning” of everything, that I was excited when my sister and I decided, to drive, instead of fly, to Michigan for our father’s birthday last week. In terms of Great American Road trips, Rhode Island to Michigan isn’t a long journey, and we had to do it fast, going there and back (more than 12 hours, each way) in just over 72 hours, much of which was spent on interstates, a different kind of culture entirely from the “small town America” I advocated to my friends in Europe.
Instead of passing directly through things, so much of where you are and what you’re passing by is filtered through those brown signboards announcing local attractions, monuments, museums and national parks. But tired and cramped as I was throughout the trip, I want to say that this is just another way in which road trips can mirror your life: you’re on a highway to somewhere, presumably somewhere you want to be. But all along the way there are choices, exits you can take, stops to make. And at the end of the trip (be it through the American west, or through your twenties, or what have you), I promise you’ll look back upon your journey more fondly if you pull off the interstate at least once, not just to refuel, but to see something or to do something, or just to to be, for a few moments, somewhere you’ve never been before.