Taking a cross country road trip had always been a bucket list item in my mind. From a young age, I had romanticized the notion of seeing the country by car, of exploring America’s small towns, speeding through the heartland prairies, visiting national parks across the nation, and discovering quirky attractions along the way. I proposed the idea of a cross country road trip to my then-boyfriend, now-husband Mike after we had been dating a mere two months. After a dinner date early in our relationship, we excitedly relocated to Barnes and Noble, ransacking the travel section and drawing up lists of potential routes, must-see vistas, and little towns to hit. In the past, such planning sessions would have ultimately seen no follow through. I remember speaking with a friend during college about touring the nation by train the summer after graduation – an idea we enthusiastically discussed once, then never brought up again. But with Mike, things were different. Though my family didn’t think it would actually happen when I first shared the idea with them, five months later we were hitting the road and proving everyone wrong.
My first taste of road tripping came as a young girl when my family would make the long drive from Baltimore, Maryland to Englewood, Florida each summer to visit my paternal grandparents. Unlike my more recent road trips, these vacations were more about the destination than the journey. My memories of actually spending 12-plus hours in the car with my parents and two sisters are hazy, except for the time when our van broke down just after crossing the Georgia state line and I had to spend the rest of our long ride home squished between my two sisters in the back seat of a rented sedan. But for the most part, I enjoyed the prospect of spending time at my grandparents’ place in Florida, rendering the car trip less painful than it might otherwise have been. I still cannot imagine what my parents were thinking when they decided to spend so much time in a car with their three daughters who almost never got along, but more power to them for taking on the challenge.
Though I took a handful of three hour drives to the beach with friends throughout my high school years, it wasn’t until college that I ventured out on my first legitimate, parent-free, long-distance road trip. My friend Meghan and I trekked from Baltimore to Chicago for Lollapalooza, an annual music festival held in Grant Park. My most fond and clear memory of the entire trip is when we sang along in perfect form to a medley from Moulin Rouge, Meghan taking on the Nicole Kidman lines and I taking on the role of Ewan McGregor. We never spoke about who would sing which lines or set out to deliver such a spot-on karaoke performance. I’m fairly confident that the exhaustion and tedium of driving for so long fueled our silly rendition of the song, complete with tearful laughter at its conclusion. This moment occurred long before we made it to Chicago and remains one of my absolute favorite memories of the entire trip.
Because there’s something about being in a car with another person for unnaturally extended periods of time – it breeds good conversation, ridiculous antics, unanticipated confessions, side-splitting spells of laughter, and a wildly unique bond between driver and copilot. Which is why I always knew that I wanted to hit the road on an extended road trip, even if not a coast to coast one, with my future husband. It was the kind of adventure I yearned to have but an experience that I recognized as best shared with the people most special and stable in your life.
That’s why Meghan and I hit the road again one more time before Mike and I set out on our epic trip – and this time, we had my younger sister in tow. We took on Bonnaroo, a four day camping and musical festival in Tennessee, the year following our Chicago trip. The festival itself stands, once again, less defined in my mind, but the drive is nice and clear. Sure, plenty of the things that happened to us at the festival were hilarious, like haphazardly setting up our tent in the midst of a nighttime thunderstorm. But the most fun happened when we didn’t have much entertainment besides one another – when we were on the road. We kept a notebook handy at all times in order to record all those little moments that had us laughing until we almost peed ourselves. From time to time, the three of us take a look back at the notebook and can’t help cracking up all over again. But the majority of the hysterical events recorded in that notebook took place driving to and from Tennessee. I guess sitting in an eleven-hour line of cars just to enter the festival provided us with an excess of time in the car for antics to be had. Nonetheless, we made our own fun while driving, made observations on the bizarre things we saw, sang along to the best and worst songs we could find on the radio, and created a whole lot of fun for ourselves in the process.
When it came time for Mike and I to tour the country from the seats on my Toyota Corolla, we were beyond excited to explore corners of the country we’d never seen – and probably more than a few we had never even heard of previously. Though this trip contained destinations galore, it was the type of drive that wasn’t so much about getting where we were going, but rather about what we encountered along the way. This was by far the road trip on which I learned the most, about myself, about the places we were traveling to and through, about my companion – both by virtue of the two week length of the trip and the rather spontaneous way in which we approached each day.
Despite our eagerness during those early planning sessions, we left our home with little direction other than “West” and only a mere handful of must-see stops. I would have been disappointed in the trip had we skipped over Yosemite or Redwood and Chicago had long held the position of our last major stop before heading home. But the fluidity with which we set the majority of our course made for the beauty of the trip. We were able to detour to Rockville, Illinois, hometown of the band Cheap Trick and to Belleville, Illinois, hometown of Wilco’s lead singer Jeff Tweedy entirely on music-inspired whims. We found ourselves in Georgetown, Colorado, a devastatingly quaint town nestled in the valley of the Rocky Mountains, in search of postage – and because of our schedule, or rather our lack thereof, we made a day of it in Georgetown. Skipping the Grand Canyon allowed us to visit Joshua Tree. We didn’t get much sleep while camping in the park since we arrived well after midnight, slept tent-less under the stars (with a meteor shower in effect), then were woken up by a breathtaking sunrise. It was one of the most remarkable natural experiences of my life – to wake up in the humbling beauty of the desert park’s sunrise, never having seen the boulders and cacti of Joshua Tree by the light of day. Remaining open to the spontaneity of the road allowed us to embrace Mike’s sudden suggestion of visiting the less crowded park in lieu of the overrated Grand Canyon.
I could post about this road trip (as well as the second one we took for our honeymoon) ad nauseam. But the point isn’t to share the experiences Mike and I had – and it would be impossible to do so – but to focus on the beauty of road trips themselves. Road trips are suited to those spirits that believe in the oft-unexplored fun of the journey, not just the pursuit of a destination. Our trip was replete with destinations, but half the fun was finding them while on the road, of giving into the moment when a highway sign advertised an odd, alluring, or beautiful sight we couldn’t pass up, of allowing mazes of conversation to emerge along the way, of finding excitement in every new experience. Even the motels were a source of joy – Motel 6 was our go to source of lodging and we got quite a kick out of seeing the previously identical decor change to a new tropical standard midway across the country. Though the entire two weeks certainly were not spent in total harmony, Mike and I did have an opportunity to talk about things we never had previously even touched upon, to do things together that our typical daily lives would never have allowed for, and to share an experience that created a bond far more permanent than the trip itself.
Most of the time we spend in cars nowadays is full of stress and anxiety or finds us lost in our own thoughts. Commuting to work rarely makes for a pleasant drive, especially when traffic and the dread of another day at the office are added to the mix. Everyone always seems to be speeding to some destination, rarely aware of their surroundings (a scary thought when they’re operating a vehicle), oblivious to the world they’re tearing through. I’m certainly one of the first to admit that cars are not the most efficient or earth-friendly mode of transportation, but I also think they are one that can be quite a treat from time to time. Hitting the road is an experience often romanticized and ripe with nostalgia and the prospect of untold adventure. It can never be planned to a t as traffic, detours, vehicle troubles, the weather, and so many other elements can quickly force things off route. But I think we all need a bit more spontaneity in our lives, something that is required of any road tripper. Road trips teach us how to be a little less boxed in, a touch more daring, and ridiculously ourselves with our companions. They make an adventurous experience out of the entire trip, not just the planned excursions or structured sight-seeing. Long distance car travel is the kind of thing that has to be tried at least once – it provides the most unique and nuanced perspective of our country but also leaves road trippers with a shared experience that is purely indescribable. And there is no better recipe for a ridiculously good time – even when it makes no sense to be having such fun stuffed in a hot car for hours on end.