Why Take a Road Trip?

November 16, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

I claim to be a traveler. But I don’t travel for business. I work from home, so there is not even a daily commute. I have been on only two commercial jets trips in the last decade. So how can I claim to be a traveler?

My wife and I take road trips. During our most recent one, we distinctly experienced the disconnect between “travel” and “vacation.” Recall National Lampoon’s Vacation, but a longer trip, no kids, and most of our destination sites were (barely) still open. Had we left a few days later, and we would have missed much more.

This latest trip (click on the map for more details) was an effort: We drove 6,000 miles in 22 days, across thirteen states, in a sedan that I’d bought new for $12k in 1998. It now has over 185,000 miles on it, but still averaged better than 36 mpg for the journey.  We took some stretches of older roads to better see America.

My narcissistic self photo-blogged as we went. At least on days when there was enough time left for writing and digital darkroom work. About half of the trip got posted only after we got back. But my subscribers could keep track of where we were because I’d skip days and back fill rather than writing from beginning to end. I didn’t report certain points in my travelogue, in the interest of time.

A tour guide under Seattle asked the group how far we’d traveled. The farthest was from Japan. I mildly resented the question, because the farthest of these “travelers”  simply walked into an aluminum tube and were delivered to this city a few hours later. Practically teleportation. But our trip was a journey of several days longer than that of any of these other folks. We worked harder to get here, and know the route.

Travel, to me, is a process in the spirit of the Odyssey. Popping to a new town by jetliner isn’t really travel because there is no transition. A flight to New Orleans is exactly like a flight to San Francisco.  But if you drive, one route traverses woods, bayous and moss forests, and the other covers mountains, deserts, and ferny rain forests. When driving, you know that you are in a different world, and get a feel for why the endpoint is how it is.

We do hit the road with a destination in mind, but remain open to seeing what we can see. As in “The bear went over the mountain” song, the target is the mountain. But the goal is yet to be determined. Yes, this song was stuck in my head a few times on the trip. But some of the best stops were unplanned detours.

In my youth I was a poor candidate for a road tripper; I got car sick. Any ride more than a half hour, however smooth, had me heaving. I survived family trips to Florida and Michigan, and an annual week at Bull Shoals Lake (about 8 hours away back before I-44 was opened). By the end of each trip my car sickness would subside. We even drove all over Europe when I was 11, so I decorated roadsides in many countries. Travel was not a good word to me.

But I had enjoyed reading Henry Reed’s Journey so much when I was 8, that I re-read it annually till I was as old as — and even a few years older than — the protagonist. I’ve also read several other classic road trip books.  And there was the TV Series “Route 66“. I even have a cousin featured in a chapter of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. So my early nauseated travel disposition was largely trained and enticed out of me.

Sadly, the tradition of a road trip grew until 1960’s, and then withered up. I think that three major factors did it in:

  • Dropping air fares made flight cheaper than road travel except for the largest families and shortest trips. Figure in gas and motels versus car rental, and a trip longer than a couple of hundred miles became cheaper to fly.
  • The Eisenhower Interstate system created level and straighter and restricted access routes, often replacing or bypassing the WPA Roosevelt Federal Highways. This turned travel from adventure to boredom. How can you stop for the cutie in the produce stall when they are forbidden to be within 100′ of the road on which you are forbidden to park? At 75mph, a tourist attraction needs to be advertised miles in advance on huge and expensive billboards, and is expected to provide every amenity.
  • And television brought the world into your living room in living color. The producers want you to feel as though you’ve been there. But until you actually go to these places, you don’t know how much you are missing. Now the internet lets you view almost any place you want to, real time and on demand. Why go anywhere? Here’s the Colorado River in Canyonlands. But you cannot feel the breeze, hear the subsonic rumble of the water, or smell the piñon pines. Even IMax is a poor substitute for actually being in the Grand Canyon.

One now can cross the country on the ground without ever seeing a town smaller than a big city. The older roads were slightly slower, but much more interesting to drive. One had to slow down for towns and see things by the road. Even in between towns, you were only feet away from the cows and trees, not 1/4 mile away.

As Piet Hein put it in his 1960’s Grook

Click to Shop for Grooks books

Road Sense

God save us, now they’re murdering
another winding road,
and another lovely countryside
will take another load
of pantechnicon and car and motorbike.
They’re busy making bigger roads,
and better roads and more,
so that people can discover
even faster than before
that everything is everywhere alike.

I disagree that everywhere is alike. Sure, the near-instant transportation that the end of the 20th century took for granted is homogenizing culture. So too is the media endorsement of multiculturalism making all products available in all cities. But there is still regional pride. But you may have to get off the interstate to find it.

Also, some of the improved divided Federal Highways are not quite as bland as interstates. Yet. These sections of  road have one direction on modern, flat, straight pavement, and the other way is still the old, scenic roller coaster road. US-36 in Missouri is still like that. If you are going east, it is almost like taking the old roads.

Alas, our country is now full of ghost towns. Not just the old wild-west and mining boom towns that were tourist stops half a century ago. A few still are. But now most of the highway tourist boom towns of the 30’s through 70’s are largely boarded up. Some states worked to preserve the old highway life. As did Oklahoma with its turnpike paralleling US-66. But the old classic motels and diners of the heyday of mid 20th century travel are dead or dying where the old road drifts too far from free interstates.

Road travel is a somewhat poignant experience, as I feel nostalgia for the era I missed. But there is still a living culture of travel.  TV shows like Rare Visions Road Trip and websites like RoadsideAmerica.com try to keep it alive. But relatively few people actually go to these locations. Too many are satisfied to see them on their HDTV, not knowing what they miss.

And the only way to find out is to travel. Knowledge may be what you read or are told. But wisdom is what you find out the hard way; what you work to learn. The serendipitous adventure of a road trip, however well planned, brings wisdom and understanding of our country, its culture, and its destiny.

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Category: Education, Meaning of Life, Quality of Life, Whimsy

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (4)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    I'd hesitated to post this for a while, but when I saw that Jim posted Road Trips, Nertz and ADD, I plunged ahead with this disjoint rejoinder.

  2. Jim Razinha says:

    Disjointed or not, the nostalgia was well worth the journey!

    Much the same as you can't truly know a culture (other country) unless you live there. Your description of typical air "travel" as transition is dead on. As with all things, there is a time and place, but if you have the time, the USA certainly has the place.

  3. Robin says:

    So much of this rings so true! In the past 30 years, I have done much of my road traveling alone (though I treasure trips with like-minded souls). When I can, I choose winding overland "shortcut" routes rather than longitudinal/latitudinal interstates, or I periodically get off the major highway and take a parallel road that passes through small towns, where I can find a real diner for lunch or an ancient fabric store or some other little local marvel. Not so easy when I traveled with small kids, or even now if I'm on a schedule, but as the kids have gotten old enough to be more independent, I've been doing road trips with each (singly) every summer, and we get more experimental every year.

    (A few other familiar notes: I got carsick as a child the same way you did. And … I think I have all the Grooks books.)

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    A few years ago, my older son was in a group home in Jacksonville Florida. We drove down several times (from Nashville, about 800 miles) and quickly found that on I-75 south of Atlanta, no one seemed to understand the concept of "merge". Every time we neared an on ramp, traffic would slow to a crawl The average speed was around 25 mph. When I had my chance, I got off I-75 and crossed over to US 41, which runs parallel to the interstate at least to I-10 where we drove into Jacksonville. On 41 we averaged about 40 mph, and enjoyed a much more pleasant journey.

    On subsequent trips, we worked out a route that left the interstate at Macon and followed several US routes south-eastward, eventually hitting US 1 just a little north of Jacksonville.

    This seemingly complex route reduced the trip by about 100 miles.

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