The road trip: a tradition more intractably American, more ingrained in the culture and history of this country than any other. The Germans may lay claim to inventing the concept of long-distance travel by automobile, but only in these United States, unique amongst the industrial giants of the early 20th century for her undeniable immensity and physiographic diversity, could the idea become so inextricably linked to the ethos of a nation.
By returning agency to the hands of the individual traveler, the road trip put the adventure back into the process of Getting There in ways that trains, with their rigid timetables and fixed tracks, could not. At the same time, there developed unprecedented comfort and safety in road travel. A hot meal and a bed to sleep in were never far away, and itinerant crime like banditry was almost wholly a plague of yesteryear, a relic of the stagecoach era.
As the decades passed, as car ownership became more and more ubiquitous, two lanes turned into four, which multiplied into six, eight, ten, completely sealed off from the surrounding world and accessible only via sporadic, predetermined airlocks. I have a hard time arguing with the bare necessity of a transcontinental autobahn network as prescribed by Eisenhower - though I will happily listen to and even endorse quibbles about the actual execution of the project in numerous places - but the fact remains that long-haul auto travel has become increasingly sterilized and homogenized because of it, reduced to a mere means to an end.
I started writing in this vein to hopefully serve as a reminder that it doesn't have to be so, even in today's world of extreme automation and algorithm-devised routing directions. I believe that there is a latent nostalgia for the golden age of road trips buried within the id of the American populace-at-large, sensed and revered even by outsiders. After all, there's a reason hundreds of thousands of visitors, many of them foreign, flock to the cracked old alignments and dusty outposts of what was once Route 66, in search of the chintzy motels and diners, the quirky sequential billboard ads, the bizarre and questionable roadside tourist traps ("World's Largest ______!") of road-tripping's heyday.
The tricky part is coaxing out that long-lost curiosity. I never fail to feel almost intentionally insulted when I hear, for instance, someone gripe about the dreadful monotony of Interstate 5 through California's Central Valley. If such complainers weren't conditioned to inherently believe that the entire raison d'être of roads is to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time possible, they wouldn't think twice about spending an extra three or four hours to roll down the Pacific Coast Highway instead and get one of the world's greatest drives out of the bargain.
Yet I am not surprised by how often I am met with genuine intrigue upon regaling someone with the tale of a hidden gem stumbled upon in a bypassed town or of a breathtaking vista that would never be known to the astronauts of the Interstate. We as a nation bemoan the loss of "Middle America" while expressly avoiding ever coming into contact with it, all in the name of progress. The irony is, if more people were willing and able to consciously act on a desire to see more of the "real U.S.A.," these vanishing places might be hurting that much less.
It's edifying on a personal level, too; when haste is the primary motivating factor in route choice, your expectations get artificially jacked to the point that you instinctively feel like you ought to be, you deserve to be inviolably going as fast as you want. In that frame of mind, every minor slowdown morphs into a major irritant. Although you're still moving faster on the whole than you would be off the highway, that one guy hanging out in the left lane and not fucking passing that truck is the bane of your existence. Blood pressure skyrockets on a hair trigger.
A strange thing happens, however, when urgency is permitted to take more of a back seat. That presumption of utmost speed fades away, so getting stuck behind that baler for a couple of miles suddenly isn't such a big deal. Heck, you can even afford to take a look around you. Funny, you hadn't ever noticed how heart-achingly picturesque that stately farm manor is, with the sun beginning its descent beyond. And now you're already slowed down a bit, so why not stop and have a quick stretch in this quaint little town? Embarking on a brief hike down Main Street, all is serene except for the diner on the corner, which seems to be packed with locals. You know, you haven't eaten since this morning . . .
And now you've arrived at your destination, maybe an hour or two later than you could have, but it sure doesn't feel like it because you were engaged, you were immersed in the landscape, you were discovering, you were encountering real life. This is why I proselytize riding the "Blue Highways," why I extol the virtues of following the old two-lane blacktop at every opportunity. One lane coming, one lane going, and an inexhaustible wealth of experience in between for those open to taking a different way home.