The term “road trip” has the power to conjure a wide variety of images. To some, it’s a wacky adventure that plays out on the expanse of one of America’s endless highways. To others, it’s hours of chaotic boredom that can only be cured once the vehicle is parked for the day, and all occupants are safely outside. To me, the first image sits somewhere between the two extremes: I’m in the passenger seat, just settling back against the headrest. The air still holds a haze of the last conversation. My eyes travel over the uninteresting terrain that slips away on the other side of the window. My chest swells with gentle relief when the next song on the radio is familiar. It feels like it’s been 3 o’clock for hours.
It’s oddly specific, I know. However, if you’ve been lucky (or unlucky, depending on who you ask) enough to have been on as many road trips as I have, I think there’s a good chance you know what I’m talking about. It’s not so much a specific memory, but a continuum of moments so similar the feeling goes hazy at the edges. I’ve taken road trips in a plethora of directions over the years: Minneapolis to Bozeman, Minneapolis to New York City, Minneapolis to Miami, Miami to Key West, Miami to Phoenix (twice), Seattle to Whistler, and Phoenix to San Diego, to name just a few. While I think it’s justifiable to call anything over a 6-hour drive a road trip, a majority of these took a day or more. These are next level road trips. These are drives where you’re in it for the long-haul. Once you start, there’s no going back. These are the kind of drives people make movies about.
Speaking of, what’s the deal with all those road trip films anyway? Growing up, I remember seeing at least a dozen movies that fit into this genre. (They’re actually called “road movies.”) While the stories often swing widely in different directions, (It’s a bit difficult to compare Thelma & Louise with Little Miss Sunshine.) there’s always the prerequisite that several characters spend significant time traveling by vehicle over the course of the film. That, and a smorgasbord of goofy, dramatic, and implausible shenanigans to occur along the way. At its simplest, the trend is to take a plausible minor event, and blow it sky-high (sometimes literally). Sure, getting a flat tire is an inconvenience, but what if an RV you rented was slowly and completely destroyed over the course of the trip? Or you accidentally blew up a biker bar?
Hollywood is excellent at transforming the mundane into the extravagant, but why road trips of all things? Well, my best guess is that a modern epic journey template is easy to make relatable to audiences, yet flexible enough to inject with the preposterous. There’s just enough shades of the truth in these films to keep us coming back to try the latest flavor. In addition, after speaking with some international friends (and spending more than enough time on the internet) I’ve realized the road trip adventure is a very American story.
Amusing posts I came across suggest that some Europeans are under the impression that Americans take road trips all the time, but can’t begin to wrap their brains around hopping in a car and driving for a solid eight hours. That’s probably why filmmakers can get away with such outrageous ideas (I’m looking at you National Lampoon’s Vacation.) because inherently, the American road trip can be a bizarre travel experience. Cities seem normal enough, but journey far enough into the countryside and, to paraphrase one Tumblr blogger’s experience I read years ago, there are towns where horses run free like stray dogs. They then proceeded to only recommend the experience to those who could survive within the Mad Max universe. That’s an obvious overstatement of reality, but things I’ve witnessed on these long-haul drives include, but are not limited to; a giant sculpture of a lobster, dust devils, a monolithic gas station with 50 pumps, Bourbon street, and 8 hours of West Texas where I swear the landscape didn’t change once. Maybe Americans are the only ones crazy enough to undertake such journeys.
Pop culture aside, the real reasons behind many road trips are rather anti-climatic. Air travel is still a luxury for many, and despite hikes in gas prices over the past 20 years, driving is still a cheaper alternative. As the daughter of a pilot with airline benefits, I’ve been incredibly lucky that frequent air travel has been a huge part of my life. If that were not the case, I would probably be writing about something else! There’s also an aspect of practicality to consider. When it came time to move out to New York City for my senior year of college, I had too much stuff to fit in two checked bags. So, my mom and I rented a minivan, filled it up, and drove. A road trip wasn’t originally in the cards, but was decided to be the best way to make sure I had everything I needed. The only “for fun” road trip I recall in recent memory was when my family I drove from Miami to Key West for the weekend in January 2018. So if such mundane circumstances are the reason we subject ourselves to multiple days of endless driving, why has the road trip been hyped up for decades?
I can think of a few reasons. It’s the adventure of the everyman. Hop in your car, get on the open road, and you have the freedom to go wherever you choose. (That’s also a very American sentiment.) It’s a travel experience where the journey blends with the body of the trip itself. In an airplane, you get on at point A and get off at point B. On a road trip, you experience that distance traveled at a much closer level. You can feel those miles tick by, when usually, they’re held at arm’s length from consideration. As cliché as this sounds, it’s the little moments of magic in a stretch of many that make it worth devoting a little space in your memory. If you go in with the practical mindset that a road trip is going to be hours punctuated by ill-timed bathroom breaks, endless miles of unchanging scenery, cramps from sitting too long, and some boredom, those moments will overshadow everything when all is said and done. The rest of it has a funny way of disappearing as one of them comes along. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the high Hollywood’s been chasing.
Obvious are the hours when the traveling has ended and you can finally relish the feeling of being still. Maybe you try your first Hurricane off Bourbon Street in a bar you’re convinced might exist in a parallel world. Maybe you get that quintessential snapshot in front of the Alamo on a gentle September morning. Or maybe, you discover the best barbecue you’ve ever had at a ramshackle gas station outside San Antonio. They come to mind in a loud sort of way, like the climaxes of so many road movies, but they fade just as fast.
Less obvious are the small memories, sometimes so minuscule they join up with others to make those continuums I mentioned before. They’re doing crossword puzzles as the South slips by outside the window. They’re catching the moment the car clock resets as you cross into a new time zone. They’re fierce competitions of who can spot the most waterfalls alongside the road. They’re scoring a free ice cream cone from McDonald’s when you ducked inside while stopping for gas. They’re hours filled with conversation and music and silence. They’re the haze of a story that lingers after the credits roll.
They make you ask: Where are we going next?