The Great American Road Trip

Author: Andrew H. Malcolm

It starts—or should—in the predawn darkness of the first day of vacation. You get up earlier than usual not because you must but because you want to. For the first time in many, many months you relish not knowing what you will do or see this day, where you will go, what you will eat and learn, and what place you will sleep that night.

This is the start of an old-fashioned car trip. The liberation from routine is intoxicating, as if you’ve youthed (isn’t that the opposite of aged?), lost weight and gotten new glasses. No protocols, no meetings to define a day’s artificial accomplishments, little conscious action required beyond buying gas and staying in one lane through the gorgeous, inviting, empty vastness of the West. Or wherever your personal journey leads. As the speedometer climbs with the sun and the temperature against the flow of inbound commuters still tethered to routine, the realization of Vacation hits. An anarchic excitement fills the car—why, no one can articulate—which is why it’s so fun.

Many families fly on vacation now. It’s easier, perhaps cheaper, certainly shorter, surely higher. But they see nothing between the airport and their destination. Which is fine, efficient and very 21st century.

But for me, it’s always the in-between that draws, that fascinates, that teaches. For me, the long car trips are the gemlike seminars of life, those motorized moments of family togetherness when memories get made with no planning or schedule and, therefore, survive far longer. Yes, at times families have car-bound frictions. Such frictions can happen back home, too.

But traveling carries also the unexpected. The local radio stations serve as passing windows into foreign domestic cultures and priorities. New foods, sights, expressions. Miles of corn (who or what can eat all that?). Miles of sunflowers beyond count. Vast fields of growing things, real cowboys, crop dusters. And, to be sure, kitsch too.

There’s also the unshaven truck driver, sitting high in his belching chrome beast, responding to the hand signals of eager youngsters he’ll never see again. In the middle of nowhere he blasts his air horn and smiles a mile with the childish cheers he sees silently erupt in the passing car.

And there’s the stranger with his family who nods in passing fellowship as your cars, well, pass. And pass. And pass each other all day the same way. The contained energy bursting from young bodies freed at day’s end to leap into a motel pool. The unfamiliar foods tested with gusto. The time the dog ate the leftover vanilla milkshake so generously left out during the rest area stop.

It’s all right on these motorized odysseys to have a general objective—Glacier National Park, say, or the Great Smokies. But the schedule must be loose to let the mind, the imagination and the car wander. It is, after all, the freedom from obligation that produces the relaxing joy of discovery on the road to somewhere. There may be a routine to car trips, to any vacation, but it’s a different routine. Which is the entire point.

Over many years, it seems, much of the serendipity somehow has been sucked from American life. The wandering. The dropping in. The sudden impulse to go without reservations. Perhaps serendipity is too hard to spell or too difficult to process without concrete lesson plans for each day’s labors and leisures. Maybe 14-day advance-purchase rules shape too much now. It just happened.

Being carefully scheduled became another unintended consequence of our chaotic computerized progress into a future that is amazingly easier and stunningly more complex than more primitive times when channel knobs required turning by an actual hand, if anything so ancient can be imagined.

Consider for a moment just your daily decisions. Time was you needed three numbers for life: your Social Security, your license plate and your home phone that began with a word like OLympic or BEacon. Today you need how many PIN numbers to survive? How many milks, chips, sodas, fat-free, salt-free, lo-carb brands to choose from? You can blow an entire Saturday now just deciding stuff.

Once, as a society we wandered here and there as individuals and groups, going where the road, the stream, the moment or curiosity led us. Today engineers want the straightest line. Not me. Not on vacation.

Because of its size, America has always been restless. We move, therefore we are. Especially if it’s West. Always somewhere new to go. The westward push started with Pilgrims leaving Europe, continued with that step onto Plymouth Rock and on and on. Now we’re driven, literally and figuratively, throughout lives and leisure. You need reservations for doctors, dinners and golf, visits with friends, even family. Even kids today are programmed to plan. A Maryland county plans to ban pre-kindergarten naps because there’s too much to learn to allow daylight snoozing.

Now, the family car trip is threatened by year-round schools, required summer school/camp, the financial necessity of teen jobs, dual-job schedules, gas prices and the perceived hassles and costs of long-distance land travel. Those trips, conceived to relax, are printed out to the tenth of a mile by MapQuest. And you better have a reservation number when entering the motel.

Once, it seems, we could look in new places just to look, the default quest. Casual, comfortable, natural. The discoveries could be interesting or not, but always fresh, unexpected. Now, who’s got time?

For that aging generation that grew up without TV, having free time caused you to do something, not watch someone else do something. Family car trips in those days of the late 1940s and early ‘50s unfolded a few hundred miles on two-lane highways that didn’t seem like back roads; they were the front roads because no others existed.

In 1919, U.S. military leaders who witnessed with strategic alarm the World War I chaos of France’s medieval highway infrastructure dispatched an Army captain in a crude array of motorized wagons to drive across North America. He was to advise Washington on what needed doing about highways from a national security perspective.

The painfully basic trip was taken through livestock-laden lanes, mud-bogged byways and streets still littered by horse litter. A thoroughly ambitious plan was suggested—and thoroughly ignored —that called for a national system of highways, linking every state and major city.

More than three decades later that Army captain, whose name was Dwight David Eisenhower, inaugurated the vast Interstate Highway System that eased national commerce, created cement ribbons of economic development as the old railroads once had, established ersatz communities of transient residents at numbered interchanges, permitted multilaned urban bottlenecks and forever changed family travel.

These freeways and expressways eased and lengthened the motorized meanderings of vacationing families and improved the chances of spotting rare Arkansas or Nebraska cars for endless family games of license plate bingo (and good luck finding a Rhode Island). Nineteenth-century horse-drawn travelers thought 15 miles a day was fantastic progress. Today, that’s not even one exit.

Never mind gas prices, human fueling has changed too. Before Howard Johnson’s and McDonald’s homogenized national dining, eating on the road was an adventure. A hamburger tasted different one town to another. With only Duncan Hines guides to help, you took your chances on no-name eateries with homemade rules like, “Never eat anywhere the sign has ‘Liquor’ printed larger than ‘Good Food.’”

Once, air conditioning meant tilting the front windshield and then a little side window to channel passing winds onto a passenger. You could stop for a roadside picnic on those old two-lane roads lined with hand-painted Mail Pouch barns and corny Burma-Shave jokes and eat right there with no fear of being sucked into a passing jet stream. Not long ago, no car travelers could take movies or music with them; you took what you were served over the crackling airwaves.

But always and still the automotive glass remains a familiar window out onto their world for restless Americans, always moving, always looking for something, rarely realizing that always-looking has itself become the psychic destination. Who wants to arrive when the going is the goal?

The essence of family travel has remained. People who live together all year with their conflicting schedules suddenly find themselves still together, only free of excuses not to relate. It can be peaceful and feuding, inspiring and depressing, enlightening and mind-numbing, all in the same day’s drive.

Parents are around all day. Dad, unbelievably tieless in short sleeves, eats an unfamiliar pile of pancakes. He buys a soon-to-be-useless cowboy hat and relates childhood stories you never heard because who has the time to tell or listen at home? Mom is relaxed, laughing more, less inclined to inquire about homework or chores.

At the wheel, for once, America’s motorists feel in complete control, kings atop their vinyl throne changing directions with the turn of a wheel, music with the punch of a button and climate with the flick of a switch. Ruling thusly, the modern pioneers passing through virgin-to-them landscapes can share many lasting discoveries made during these moving days within the vehicle’s metallic confines.

To the only-child who stared intently out the backseat window for so many miles so many years ago and now, with his own brood, still savors every nanosecond zipping along unfamiliar highways, it’s the landscape that fascinates. Whether it’s the tidy, compact, well-coiffed countryside of the East or the sprawling vastness of the American West, it’s the place that inspires, awes, dwarfs, instructs.

At home on the crowded commutes with so many others, pretty much everything you see was made by the hand of man or woman— the towering buildings, the congested concrete, the endless acres of housing, the soiled green freeway signs. It is impressive, not in its maintenance, but in its skills, scales and diligence. And many in their way come to feel impressive within it. But you rarely see a real horizon.

Out of there, however, on the road in the car, where the cell phone says Roaming, it’s the scale of places that relaxes and inspires. Everything seems so much bigger, deeper, wider, taller, bluer, greener, even friendlier. Not coincidentally, almost everything there is made by the hand of God. It is so very much larger than we are. Wilder. Untamed. Grander. The mountains, their ranges stretching beyond the horizon, the forests, high plains, roiling rivers, all have stood through here for eons. There are no straight lines out there, except county roads following property lines in Kansas. And, of course, there’s the weather, which is also larger in the countryside and comes at the start of radio newscasts, not the end. You can actually see the weather coming out there.

One day, following fading Oregon Trail signs into Guernsey, Wyoming, on a whim, we made the stunning sundown discovery of covered-wagon wheel-ruts from 150 years ago, mute testimony to the travails of previous family travelers there. The wagons were so very narrow! Nearby, just 14 miles outside the protective log arms of an Army fort, was their overnight stop by a protective cliff, with the hand-hewn messages those long-gone wayfarers left behind.

In western Michigan, sensing a familiar feel from a childhood vacation long ago, I led my modern family to the eternal screaming joys of high-speed dune buggy rides. The memories still cause my stomach to float. We tried the handmade hamburger in a railcar restaurant in Hamilton, Montana, and stopped for a buffalo burger and butterscotch pie in Chamberlain, South Dakota.

How can so many friendly people, overpowering things and places be so simultaneously inspiring, intimidating and comforting? Are we missing something even as we are feeling so in control in our man-made, climate-controlled environments? Do we finally sense something humbling in the peripheral vision of our minds amid the immensity of this grand land?

“No Services Next 62 Miles” is a good thing, if you’ve got gas and a spare. That’s a lot of time to look—and think about things that have no time to creep into thoughts when prescribed weekday destinations are office or home.

Can any city resident recall empty hillsides so large that an entire July cloud can’t cover them? What city dwellers need to notice clouds? But on a family car trip you make time to watch a cloud’s shadow ease across that immense space, providing its assigned momentary cooling for foliage and livestock before moving on somewhere to evaporate. Just watching gives a sense of accomplishment.

Do you see that grassy mountainside way up ahead? Imagine mowing that baby with a walk-behind Briggs & Stratton. Then, miles later, a realization creeps aboard: That’s not grass on the approaching mountainside. Each vertical piece of green is a full-blown tree. Each of those towering firs has been growing in that very same spot since before the invention of world wars. And those communities of needles will likely be there in that spot doing their growing and evergreening long after you’re gone again far, far away.

Humility is something that struggles to survive in urban areas where lone trees struggle surrounded by sidewalk cement. What’s to teach humility in the city, other than muggers? It’s easy to forget in a big electrified environment of streetlights and stop lights, escalators and elevators, powered garage doors and dishwashers. But on vacation in a car, moving or not, you can’t avoid feeling tiny. It’s good.

Stop along the back road in the silent spaces of rural America some summer night. Real darkness won’t come till later. Turn off the motor, the lights, the radio, the cell, which is deaf and mute out there anyway. Then get out and look up.

There are more stars hanging over those places than you ever knew or could ever imagine existed. They’re spread out in skywide swaths of galactic gases, silent, sparkling, numerous beyond numbers. And know this: That twinkling starlight hitting your eye this night left the closest of those distant stars before you were born. Ever since, it’s been on its own journey to this very same spot.

Know too you see only a fraction of stars present. Each is separated from another by several lifetimes of flight as earthlings know it. These stars hang over our cities too, of course. But there’s too much competing ground-bound illumination and tunnel vision. And who’s got time to pause from important work to look up anyway?

Years ago I set out on a long family car trip exploring Americans on the move on vacation. I talked with a dentist who’d driven sleeping children and one quite annoyed wife through herds of stampeding antelopes seeking the summertime motherlode, a motel vacancy after dark. I talked to families incapable of speech at the sight of four presidents’ faces on one mountainside. I watched two boys spit a mile at the Grand Canyon. I talked to motel clerks and maids, to truck drivers and campers, and to gas station owners who watched the varied panoply of wandering Americans pass inexorably through and by, as they will once more this summer.

These travelers were very American to my mind, full of hope, a good dose of innocence, portaging an incoherent perpetual dream, it seemed, about what might be around the next turn. Few knew exactly where they were going on a meandering route back home by a date certain. But each knew they were going somewhere good with a refreshing energy fueled by optimism and curiosity.

Then on a quiet roadside in Montana I spotted a lone cowboy on his horse, riding north through the thin air of a warm Rocky Mountain afternoon. He was a 19th century sight on a 20th century road. We stopped to chat. He did not dismount. He had somewhere to go.

Months before, he’d decided to ride that horse from Down South up toward Canada come summer to see what there was to see along a paved Lonesome Dove_-type trail. He had seen much and met many in long weeks atop his steed. He’d been photographed and honked at, stared through and waved at, mostly with five fingers. He had cooked some meals, bought a few and been offered many. He’d slept on grass in fields, on browned needles beneath green trees, on baled hay in barns and in the cozy confines of soft beds in hospitable homes.

The cowboy liked the grass best, he said, because he could see more in all directions, especially up.

After a long, admiring conversation I looked up at his brimmed, weathered face and his old-fashioned body in flannel, bandana and jeans, his hands covered with worn, blond leather. He moved gently as the impatient but obedient horse snorted and shifted feet, fretting with the travel pause. I told the old cowboy I envied his private journey to wherever the road leads.

He looked down at me a moment. He tilted his head and smiled a little.

“Well,” he said simply, “C’mon along. The trail is wide.”

So it is in America in the summertime. So it should be for travelers in this grand land. And so it always will be for me.

_Andrew H. Malcolm is a veteran national and foreign newspaper correspondent who prefers cars to planes. He’s written 10 books, two on travel: U.S. 1, America’s Original Main Street and Mississippi Currents: Journeys Through Time and a Valley_. He now lives in California where he writes editorials for the_ Los Angeles Times_ and secretly plots more car trips_.