Road Trippin’

I’m sure you’ve been just as inundated as I with ads for the shitty remake-although-they-aren’t-admitting-it’s-a-remake movie Due Date, which is of course limply redoing Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which is of course making me think of how road trip movies are always shown as wacky jaunts shot through with soul-searching and character changing. But then, I think of my most favorite road trips, and they all involved comic capers as well as a solid layer of bonding with friends or reflecting on self. That’s the eternal appeal of the road trip.

various road signs in Chicago

Which way? (photo by me)

There are three distinct phases of a person’s road tripping life: childhood vacations, high school wanderings, and adult road trips. When you’re crammed into the backseat of your parents’ car with obnoxious siblings and no rest stop for the next 200 miles, the journey is a trial to be endured until you reach Walley World. You have no control over the car, and very little voice in when you’ll stop to eat or sleep, so you must content yourself with playing the alphabet game and poking your sisters til they shriek. But then when you’re a high schooler, everything changes. Now you’re borrowing that same car and out with friend. You can take whatever side road strikes your fancy, because you have a game of MASH going, your best friend’s sixteenth birthday mix tape is playing, and shit, you aren’t paying for your own insurance and you’re certainly never going to die, so take that curve as fast as you like. Who cares where you’re going, so long as the radio works and school’s out.

2-lane highway in the desert

The open road (photo from

I’m about to make a morbid leap here, but bear with me: When you’re an adult, the pleasure you derive from road tripping comes from a sense of your own mortality. Horribly aware of just how lethal cars are, you don’t drive quite so fast or recklessly as you used to (usually), and you have to wait til spring break or save up your vacation days to take the trip in the first place, so every moment matters — the journey and the destination. You can still meander from point to point, or drive through the night just to make your next stop, but either way, time is more precious now so you pay more attention to how you’re using that time.

As with most things, I have fond memories of my childhood and adolescent road trip experiences, but I like the ones I’ve had as an adult the best. It’s no secret that knowing you only have so much time here on earth can cause either a sense of panic or a sense that everything is to be savored before it’s gone. Road trips are a great way to come down on the side of savoring; hopefully you’re with people you like, and going somewhere you’ll enjoy, and in the meantime, you have time to talk, gaze at the scenery, and reflect or make jokes as you like. This isn’t the whole “it’s not the destination but the journey that matters” BS — it’s even better because they both matter! Having something to look forward to doesn’t have to distract from the excitement of the present, and enjoying where you are now shouldn’t mean you can’t plan for a great time in the future.

And yes, I just made that a bit life lesson-y, and I apologize. As penance, here are some funny road trip memories of my own.

  • pulling over under an underpass to avoid driving headlong into a tornado (yes, a real one)

    tornado forming on the horizon from the viewpoint of a car

    Less than ideal weather conditions (photo by me)

  • taking a huge, and awesome, detour with my mom to Gettysburg on our way to Washington, D.C. during my student driving days
  • swerving off a two-lane highway on that detour to avoid a police car barreling straight at us, lights flashing and driver ignoring the fact that he was on the wrong side of the road
  • losing my innocence in a Kentucky Dairy Queen at the tender age of ten — I saw my first cockroach
  • singing the entirety of the “Graceland” album at maximum volume with Pam as we moseyed into Memphis
  • skipping Lubbock, Texas (although we do love Buddy Holly) so we could visit Cadillac Ranch and spray paint our names on the cars
  • approaching Mount Rushmore at dusk as the famous presidential heads glowed above us
  • managing to avoid certain death on Route 1 on pitch-black roads
  • steering with my feet from the passenger side of the car on a dirt road in rural Michigan (kids, don’t do it) (yeah, it was fun)
  • giving unclear directions so half our caravan for Senior Skip ended up 10 miles away from our designated rest stop and very confused
  • driving all night back from visiting Liz in Ithaca, New York, and then sitting in the parking lot of my freshman dorm having a heart-to-heart with my ex and incurring my mother’s wrath as the car was decidedly not returned in time for the twins to get to school
  • zipping along at 74 mph with Pam until a helicopter landed on the roof of her mom’s minivan — and then realizing that the helicopter was actually us with an exploded tire

Okay, so half of those were life-or-death experiences, but hey! I told you the appeal of road trips is a bit morbid. What about you — what are your favorite or just most memorable road trip memories?

Dark Moments on Pitch-Black Roads

Entirely too many words have been written about America’s love affair with the open road. Some of the these words are pretty damn decent (Blue Highways and, yes, On the Road) and some are self-important “journeys of the soul” (I hope these quotes indicate how little I think of that phrase). So I won’t add too many, just enough to say that I, like every red-blooded American, find a distinct pleasure in turning up the radio and heading for points west in my very own gas guzzler.

P and I lived this dream in 2002, of course, and although we would both do it much differently now, I think we fared well on that trip. We were pretty good at balancing joint activities with solo ventures, and we weren’t bad at compromise.

One thing I didn’t compromise on too well was speed. P is a cautious driver, and while I wouldn’t consider myself reckless, I do take to heart my dad’s (certified driving instructor!) advice to take the speed limit as a minimum, except in inclement weather. I had the most fun with the gentle ups and downs of US-95 through the desert of Nevada, and with the serpentine twists and turns of Highway 1 on the California coast. P, I’d like to apologize again for shaving about three years off your life on those roads — but hey, at least it wasn’t as bad as that railroad crossing in Idaho, right? Yikes. (As of this writing, P is still speaking to me, but never in a moving vehicle.)

If you’re prone to flashbacks, P, read no further. This past March I went to California for a week’s vacation. I visited my friend J in the Haight in San Francisco, then rented a car and took Highway 1 down to Los Angeles. What was meant to be a leisurely exploration of the coast ended up being a frantic experiment in just how fast I could take stretches of pitch-black asphalt curves without ending up in a dazzling explosion on the rocks of the Pacific.

(I should add that any romanticism inherent in this type of adventure was severely undercut by the fact that the first car I ever rented turned out to be a PT Cruiser — the one that looks like a bowler hat. Unsexy.)

Still, it was just me, my car, and that breathtaking expanse of rolling blue water, and all was right with my world. It was a beautiful day, the sun shone on the ocean, spring flowers were blooming all along the road, and I was in high spirits. I’d planned to drive from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, stay the night in a hostel, and complete the other half of the drive to LA. This is where I should have done more planning and investigation — not usually a problem for me. Usually, I write an itinerary including time slots for each event/place visited. It’s laughable, sure, but I’ve learned it’s what often works for me. But on this trip, I decided to be less strict. See the coast, take pictures, sleep, repeat. I found out, however, that the SF-SLO leg of the trip is not only twice as beautiful as the SLO-LA leg (half of the latter is inland and the rest is in traffic by rich houses in Malibu), it also takes twice as long.

very pretty

very pretty

not nearly as pretty

not nearly as pretty

I had to be at the hostel at 10pm or they’d lock me out and keep my $25. This was March, so the sun started setting at 7pm, which put me three hours in the dark. As I sped merrily along on the increasingly empty road, I admired the sunset, oblivious to my time/distance problem. But when the sun dipped below the horizon, I pulled over to take a picture and consulted my map.

Well, shit. I had 92 miles to go and 3 hours to do it in — easily doable on just about any road in the States but this one. The charming curves of Highway 1 demand you keep to about 30 mph. Basic math says this is cutting it very close. Also, there were about two gas stations between me and my destination.

Suddenly, my relaxing solo ramble turned into an intense, exhausting race. I wished for a companion — so I could switch off driving and rest, but also so we could consider pulling over and sleeping in shifts for safety. Rarely in my travels have I felt so alone and vulnerable as I did that night, and I started to feel foolish, a woman alone in the dark. I couldn’t pull over by myself and spend the night in my car. That’s how people get attacked, right? I’m still not sure I’m that untrusting of the world, but at the time, I was in a feverish state and not really able to rationally weigh pros and cons. I couldn’t evaluate just how bad things were or were not, because I was fixated on making it to the hostel by 10.

The minutes ticked by, the radio only tuned into one station (talk radio, which I can’t abide), and I felt a little desperate. It was now totally dark, I was the only car on the road, and holy hell did I have to pee. I’d already passed Big Sur, so that was one of the two gas stations gone, and the other one wasn’t showing up nearly soon enough. Finally, I pulled over at a lookout, at what must be a magnificent vista in daylight, walked to the edge of the cliff, and popped a squat.

Apologies, dear readers (especially parents, other relatives, and past and future lovers) for using my fourth blog entry to discuss pissing in the ocean, but it was the turning point in my night. After I used the one napkin I could find in the car and put myself back together, I looked out at the sliver of moonlight slicing across the waves, and I said to myself, “Well, Lisa, it sure was stupid not to have planned this better, and you sure did come close to falling apart earlier. But your mind and body are still in working order, your car has enough gas to get you to the next station, and you just peed off the edge of a cliff rather than insist on waiting for a bathroom. I’d say you’re fully prepared for any and all eventualities. And admit it, you like proving your self-sufficiency like this.” Okay, I admitted it. I like the challenge of taking discomfort on the road and turning it into a triumph, or at least a good story. And if I had been traveling with someone, they likely would have pushed me off the cliff by this point for such poor foresight, so it’s just as well no one was there with me. I decided that if I didn’t make the hostel in time, it wouldn’t be the end of the world; there are motels and I’d just have to eat that $25. I didn’t have to wait for an appointed bathroom to pee, and I didn’t have to stick to the original plan if it simply wasn’t going to work. (As it turned out, I did make the hostel in time, and slept soundly all night, but that seemed almost incidental by that point.)

I got back in my car and sang loudly to myself, careening around corners with just enough control to keep on the right side of the glimmering yellow double lines, and just a few feet away, the waves continued to crash in rhythm, steady and alluring as rubber on the road.