Hello CEP readers! I’d like to talk, for at least a little while, about road trips. Actually, I’d like to pose a question to you all. I don’t know I have an answer myself. I think I MIGHT, but, with this post, I’d actually like to get some thoughts from all of you! “Now, what is the question?”, I can hear you all asking! Well, here it is: Why do people like road trips so much?
Now, a little background, because I’m sure that question is a little shocking from someone who co-hosts a car podcast... I recently returned from a road trip that went all the way from Southeastern Wisconsin to Central Florida. My family and I have a long history of making this particular pilgrimage. This time, it was just my girlfriend and me. We went from the Milwaukee area to Savannah, Georgia to visit my sister and then to Orlando. This made for a leisurely, 20-some hour trip, spread out from Friday evening through Monday afternoon. Not too bad, right? Except by the sheer luck of deciding to sleep in one day, we missed a lovely bout of freezing FOG (something that I've never even heard of, much less seen) in Indiana. We just missed a large-ish landslide in Kentucky, and a multi-car pileup in South Carolina. This type of luck wasn't unique to the trip down. On the way back up, I miscalculated the distance to one of our stops, and that allowed us another morning of sleeping in, which saved us from a horrendous ice storm that had the interstate looking like a semi-truck graveyard. Truck trailers looking like they had been hit by RPGs with cargo strewn all over the road, 5th wheel campers flipped over and destroyed, etc. And all of this was what we missed by an hour or two. If we had been one day earlier, it would have been widespread flooding we would have had to deal with.
Now, some of that can be attributed to simple bad or good luck (depending on how you look at it), and that's certainly a part of it. However, I am still in search of why the road trip has been idealized so much. On previous podcast episodes, we've made a road trip music playlist. We discussed some dream road trips. The road trip I just went on was a particularly tough one weather-wise. However, there are some features of all road trips that are present, no matter what the weather: In general, most road trips east of the Mississippi go through a fair number of large metropolitan centers. My co-hosts know that I have a particular... fondness... for the Rust Belt Region (northern Indiana, around the tip of Lake Michigan, for those of you not from around here) and Atlanta. The first one is the home of every possible inclement weather and the second one is the Land of Eternal Rush Hour. If the road trip is a means to an end and you're not lucky enough to have the vacation time to go on a journey for the sake of the journey itself, then the road trip is a monotonous affair (if it decides to not be harrowing). 70 mph droning and no real road curvature to be spoken of. Even in my particularly shift-happy WRX, the torque band is wide enough to put it in 6th and leave it there. For hours. So, there's very little joy in the actual act of driving. What else could it be? Could it be the scenery?
Sometimes. Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia. Those can all be quite beautiful to drive through, much less some of the majestic stuff out west... but what do you have to drive through to get there? Indiana and Illinois to the east and every flat state from the Dakotas to Texas if you head west. I dare say that they bring the average scenery enjoyment to a negative number, despite the beauty of where you end up. So, at the very least, the scenery is an inconsistent lure to the road trip. Could it be the food?
Again, sometimes. If you have the time to take the journey for the journey's sake? Then yeah, you can seek out interesting local stuff to eat. However, of the people that I've spoken to about this, most people don't have the time to do that. Most of them feel the need to turn and burn to their destination as quickly as possible. That leaves either fast food or car snacks. As one who has lived that 18-hours-to-Texas-in-one-run life with Nick, I can tell you that a life of fast food, energy drinks, and beef sticks (if Nick doesn't eat them all...) leaves you with an ACTUAL hangover. Even the more sedate run I just completed to and from Florida was so awash in fast food that I felt uncomfortable upon arriving at my destination. My girlfriend was "chickened out" we had eaten so much Southern fast food. So, it's not that.
That only leaves one possibility that I can see: the company. Now, I’ve made road trips with my CEP co-hosts (alone and all together), my family, and my girlfriend. I think, to sound like an old man for a while, the enforced togetherness that a road trip demands is something that we only get, otherwise, when the weather is so cold that we don’t want to go outside and the internet starts to freeze (which I’m sure is what happened a couple weeks ago in Wisconsin). Talking to people, sharing music with people like Andrew talked about in his blog, sharing favorite podcasts or audiobooks with people, having your navigator look up what the weird landmarks on the brown signs are, all the little things that add up to filling 5, 10, 20 hours of road trip time. All of these things let you make connections in an environment that would almost seem cruel if it weren’t framed as a vacation instead of being trapped in a small space for hours on end.
Even when you’re traveling alone, the company is a factor. You get a relatively rare chance to just sit, alone, with yourself. Sure, you may have music on, a podcast playing, or an audiobook narrator droning along in the background. You may also have the good luck of having people who are willing to talk with you on the phone for a little while during your drive. However, it won’t be the whole time, they’ll have other things they’ll need to run off and do. You? You won’t. You’re stuck in the car with just you and your thoughts. And snacks. This environment is where I’ve made some pretty big life choices, like going back to college part time. Again, for some, being alone in a room, without access to various entertainments like video games, movies, social media, even texting, would be seen as torture. But hey! It’s fun! It’s vacation!
So, we’ve established that, barring some special circumstances of the road trip as vacation scenario, being stuck in a car for hours is physically uncomfortable, boring, and potentially quite dangerous. Therefore, my only hypothesis as to why the road trip is something that people seek out is this: The road trip slows down life and gives us the opportunity to accomplish something while not really having anything to do. You do end up arriving at your destination and going on vacation and arriving home at the end. However, while you’ve done this, you don’t have access to any of the normal diversions available to us when we’re not driving. Even the passengers might only have limited access to some of these things, dependent on cellular plans, coverage, etc. So, instead, you get to spend time on things you wouldn’t otherwise. Talking to your friends and loved ones. Getting to know yourself. Big, important, and, often, otherwise neglected things. I think we crave it and often don’t get it. And THAT is why people like road trips so much. What do you think?