In Los Angeles, the jacaranda trees have started dropping their lavender blossoms, and they’re covering the cement sidewalks in color, like Prince painted the streets with purple rain. Those fallen flowers always indicate to me it’s officially the end of Spring and summertime is here. Now, if you’re a parent this means it’s time for you figure out what to do with your kids since they won’t be in school. And thank you sweet Baby Jesus, I’m not one of them. If you’re like me and you don’t have children, the arrival of summertime means something totally different. It’s time to get out on the road, because summers are made for road trips.
My mother gave me gypsy blood. She loves to travel but like a penguin she keeps to the ground. You see, she refuses to fly. So to satisfy her wanderlust she’s always criss-crossed the country like a long-haul trucker. Every year, soon as school ended, my sister and I both knew it was time to load up the car and hit the highway. Thanks to our mother we’ve visited nearly all 48 contiguous states of America. And after seeing so much of this country, I strongly recommend you get to know the highways and freeways and see those purple mountains’ majesty and all that promised beauty for yourself. An American road trip is something of a birthright. You have to go see the country, you’re a damn fool if you don’t.
Traveling around Europe, I did what the locals did and took trains. And consequently, I feel like I missed a great portion of, and possibly the best parts of, Europe. You don’t stop and eat from as many bakeries when you go by train. There’s really no comparison to how it is when you’re traveling by road. For me, there’s a fundamental difference between planes, trains and automobiles. Planes are way too fast. They feel weird like time-travel. Trains are too limited. They feel like speedy sightseeing tours. But automobiles, are kinda like Goldilocks’ porridge, they’re just right. You really feel a journey when you travel by car. You can actually smell the world. I like that.
The greeting card industry is really keen on the idea: It’s not about the destination but your journey. And you know what? They’re right. It’s totally true. And the novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, the guy who wrote Treasure Island, he phrased it in a far more eloquent way, one I always liked, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Before this summer ends, go get some of that great affair and move. Tear up some open road. Even if it’s just a long weekend. Grab your significant other, or a few friends, maybe your sister, your brother or your favorite cousin and set out for the horizon and some destination you’ve never seen.
If ever there was a country made for road trips it’s the States. America boasts numerous regions so distinctly different from each other they really ought to be their own countries. But thanks to a violent history, we’ve remained one grand experiment stretching from sea-to-shining-sea across a vast and still rather wild continent. And unlike say, Australia, here in America there are people everywhere, so there’s plenty to do, plenty to see, and plenty of help if things go wrong. Also, unlike Australia, we have very few animals that’ll try to kill you. But I recommend you watch your ass, if you go down to Texas. Anyone who’s been there can tell you, Texas is a lot like Australia… just without any of the class.
Speeding across America, the best thing you can do is get happily lost. Take that road less traveled Robert Frost advertised in his poem. Because no matter how far you wander from the freeway, you’re never more than an hour away from a good cup of coffee, and/or a tow truck, which makes traveling a lot friendlier. But that is the one thing about road trips you must remember… shit will go wrong. And really, in a backwards way, it’s part of the charm, the question of how you overcome unforeseen bullshit.
Like, I once ruined a car engine climbing a mountain grade out of Salt Lake City. Something about the gas pump and how I kept the engine in overdrive as I floored it for miles and thousands of feet of our ascent up a rather steep incline. The engine didn’t like that and crapped out. While we waited in Park City, Utah for someone to deliver a matching fuel pump and install it, we spent the afternoon, sliding down zip lines and riding snow-free summery slopes on luge sleds, which was an absolute riot. Would’ve never planned to do it but we were stoked to enjoy some Olympic-style sports while we waited for our broken car to be fixed.
That’s how road trips constantly surprise you. They remind you it’s crucial to stay open to whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Road trips are great practice at what Zen Buddhists, life-coaches and New-Agers like to call “living in the moment.”
The trick to an epic American road trip is pick destinations and places to stop that are absolutely ridiculous. Like, when else are you gonna see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas? Or a nearly abandoned amusement park filled with life-size Flintstone houses? Or a real-live rattlesnake round-up? And eat foods you can’t pronounce but you’ll probably never forget?
When you share odd memories with your partners on the road, your experiences cement in your memory because they’re such specific stories. And if you get to be old-and-grey and you’re struggling to remember where you put your teeth and your house keys you’ll still remember the time when you vomited blueberry pancakes outside that Waffle House in Pensacola. Memory is funny that way.
The shit you experience when you’re living outside everything you normally do, while you’re free of it all for a brief spell, because it’s like some weird non-time, your memory gets filled with those rare experiences. We tend to easily recall four aspects of our lives: the most, the best, the worst and the least. Road trips are filled with all sorts of those moments. The most you ever laughed. The worst place you ever slept. The best meal you ever ate at four a.m. somewhere under the stars. And the least you ever paid for a new pair of cowboy boots you absolutely love and can’t believe you lived so long without. We write those moments a little more deeply. And it’s why road trips etch lasting memories.
It doesn’t matter if you’re bumming it this summer, broke as a public pay phone, there’s always a way to enjoy a road trip. Borrow a car, plan with friends, save up for a month and then take whatever money you have, throw it into gas, groceries and sleep in KOA campgrounds, or if you’re totally strapped, sleep in the car…. but get out there on the highways and byways of America, you’ll never regret that choice. Be curious. Wander like you’ve escaped and some authority was dumb enough to give you a driver’s license. It’s one of the greatest perks of being alive and able to drive… the reckless abandon of a Great American Road Trip.