My mom drove one of those giant Buick station wagons for a while, the kind with the fake wooden panels. It was an enormous land yacht of a car and it probably got a mere nine miles to the gallon. Every summer when we were kids, we would climb into this massive car at daybreak and barrel down Interstate 5, leaving before sunup.
Our destination was Orange County. My dad had a friend who lived not far from Disneyland. His kids were about the same age we were and, summer after summer, we would go to Disneyland together. I don’t remember a lot about the Disneyland trips; my brain holds some fuzzy lo-fi footage of riding “It’s A Small World,” of singing along at The Tiki Room, of getting mouse ears with our names embroidered on the back.
But I do remember the journey. In the darkness of an early California morning, we would shift from our own bunks to the back of the Buick, a space roughly the size of a queen bed. I remember watching the light come up, seeing the dry, grass covered hills, the massive electrical cable towers straddling the landscape. I can picture the reflections of the Pea Soup Andersen’s neon sign in the curved glass of the back window, The Nut Tree, also — roadside restaurants designed to suck you off the freeway and into a deep vinyl booth, where you’d navigate a menu many inches tall and many pages thick. We always wanted to stop, and we hardly every did; perhaps this is why it takes me so long to get anywhere now. Now, I always allow myself to stop.
Not so long ago, I drove from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree well before sunrise. I wanted to see the sun come up in Joshua Tree National Park, plus, it had been very hot, triple-digit-high temperatures and I wanted to be done before the mercury peaked. It’s not the same highway, but watching the sky shift to light as I drove Highway 10 to the south entrance of the park, the view from the back of the Buick came rushing back. It was the same golden grass hills, the same wire-carrying giants, the same shift in the color of the sky in the early morning light.
My dad liked to drive just for the hell of it, I think, but I prefer to have a purpose in mind. The car isn’t the point, driving isn’t the point. The point is everything you find when you’re out there.
Recently, I turned north after seeing a brown “Historic District” sign and found myself on a two-lane road lined with Trump 2020 flags, and then in a self-declared ghost town that was once a mining district. The dog and I got out of the car and wandered around reading various plaques about what used to happen here. There were 10 or 15 homes, draped with bunting for the 4th of July holiday. It was quiet. The few people sitting on their front porches couldn’t have been less interested in me, though a curious dog came over to sniff my dog’s butt.
“Huh,” I thought, “you’re out of the bubble now.” Who knew the edges were so close to home?
A few years back, I drove around the Mississippi Delta on my own for 10 days. I ate at a Waffle House late at night — we don’t have Waffle House where I live — and I stopped my car on the edge of some muddy, fallow fields to listen to the wind.
Another time, another trip, I drove over McKenzie Pass in Oregon the day before it closed for the winter. I was hammered with hard pellets of snow and hail. It was bitter cold, and the black lava landscape looked like I imagine Mordor from “The Lord of the Rings.”
Later that same day, at a less inclement altitude, I stopped at a roadside diner and talked with the owner about how diners are getting farther and farther apart. The more we can chew up hundreds of miles on one tank of gas, the fewer diners we have. I have gone on great looping road trips down the California coast and up the middle, and zig-zagged across the Continental Divide, and traded shifts at the steering wheel from Seattle to Chicago and back, stopping at Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower and the Corn Palace and a giant cow placed on a hilltop so’s to be visible from miles around.
When you travel by train or bus, you stop when scheduled, not when you want to, and for only as long as it takes to pick up passengers. The view from a plane window is spectacular, air travel is marvelously efficient, but you cannot see the sign that says “Homemade Pie” from so high up, much less stop for pie.
But when you drive, you can decide that yes, you do want to turn up that two lane country road, or stop to take photos of the light hitting the underpass, or find out what’s at the foot of the towering “EAT HERE” sign. You can change your route at will. You can meet the guy who tends the goats at the goat cheese place or buy an 1800s world atlas for a mere fifteen dollars at a small town rummage sale or spend an hour trying to eat a cinnamon roll the size of your head — and yes, I have done all these things.
It is good to have some idea of where you are going and for how long, but it’s not required. It can be nice to have reservations, but in my many years of road tripping, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve not found a place to pitch my tent or had to try my luck elsewhere because the roadside motel was full up.
There is, for my money, no better way to meet America than to get in a car and drive. But it’s not about the driving itself.
I can’t count the diner breakfasts I’ve eaten, but I do have specific memories of huckleberry pancakes and gooseberry pie and an Oreo cookie milkshake slurped under the awning of a drive-in on a hot summer day. I have other specific memories of the people I’ve met, odd little interactions like “Are you here for the glow-in-the-dark mini-golf?” Or, “Hoo-wee, lookit you city girl! All the way from Seattle!” Or, “I’m a fire dancer at the luau, check out my tattoos.” Or, “Did you know he’s going to increase taxes on everyone who earns over 200k? Can you believe that?” That’s true, it’s 100 percent true. At a gas station in Montana, a random man got out of his pickup in a gas station, walked directly over to me, and opened a conversation with … that.
There is, for my money, no better way to meet America than to get in a car and drive. But it’s not about the driving itself. It’s never about the driving. It’s about the reflections on the windshield, the way the cool air hits you when you enter the mini-mart on a blazing day, the way the waitress tops up your terrible coffee before you’ve asked. It’s about parking lot politics and adding an hour to your route because you had to go find out if the sandwich in that small town joint was really as good as you remember it from the last time you went through, was it that long ago?
Road trips are the answer to the question, “What’s out there?” They’re how you find it, even if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You might indeed be there for the glow-in-the-dark mini-golf. If you don’t go on a road trip, how will you ever know?