The New Landmarks of the American Road Trip

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Road Trip

“What did it matter? I was a young writer and I wanted to take off. Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

– Jack Kerouac

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.”

– Robert Prisig

Jack Kerouac. Robert Prisig. Hunter S. Thompson. These authors helped define the road trip and the idyllic voyage into the American countryside. We’re fortunate in America to have such vast and varied landscapes that make road tripping so captivating. Of course, this isn’t just an American phenomenon. Two of my favorite shows are Top Gear/The Grand Tour and Long Way Round. The draw of the open road is truly ubiquitous.

And as we are in the summer of COVID-19, this was supposed to be the summer of road trips. With international travel banned and people grounded, it seemed like the only escape. And, in some ways, it has been. I’ve driven up and down the west coast a few times (before you COVID-shame me, I did so in a very socially distanced way) and managed to find some solace in those trips. But in 2020, road trips don’t quite have the same appeal they once did.

This past Labor Day, I decided to take a camping road trip with some friends (yeah, I know, us and the rest of the US). The plan was to head down to Mt. Adams in Washington for a few nights and then head down to Oregon’s Sisters area.

Scenic byways took us through mountains, forests, lakes, desserts, and small towns; a nice reprieve from the concrete monotony that is I-5 (west coast readers will know what I’m talking about). We passed a “Hobo Inn” where you sleep in makeshift train cars. We drove through rolling hills and lush forests. We even ventured through a Mordor-Esque landscape forged by thousands of years of volcanic activity. And not to mention, the camping sites were just as lovely as promised. Mountain tops are reflected in tranquil lakes. The road trip was beautiful.

But that wasn’t all we passed by. We drove through dilapidated towns, depressed by COVID-19 or the realities of the 21st century, hard to tell which one at this point in time. We went through rural America, where Trump signs abound and reckless individualism in full force. We even passed a fire in central Oregon, on our way to our second campsite. These seem to be the new landmarks of road trips nowadays. Or at least in 2020.

No longer does it seem possible, or realistic, to enjoy the rituals of the road trip. A pitstop stop at a roadside diner for a quick bite. Getting drunk at the local watering hole. Or meandering around a small town, window shopping, and marveling at the quaintness of it all. Even one of my personal favorites, brewery or distillery tours, don’t quite have the same appeal if they’re even an option at all.

One particular incident stood out to me. We were driving back to Seattle through central Oregon. Needing gas, we stopped by an old-time gas station. Ya know, the completely analog kind where you have to pay inside (crazy, right??). Surrounding the gas station was a group on motorcycles. Inside the gas station, maybe half the people were wearing masks. On the side of the road, a likely homeless person was clearly on drugs. The police were called and showed up while we were still getting gas.

At the start of this article, I said those great authors helped form the road trip’s grandiose idea. But the more I think about it, this might be backwards. Maybe the road trips helped define _the authors _more then anything else. So what does that mean for us today? How are we being defined by our road trips right now? Personally, every time I pass a Trump sign, I find myself becoming increasingly callous. It’s getting more difficult for me to put on the rose-colored glasses when all the roses are being burned by wildfires.

We don’t need another article spewing hellfire and brimstone about the state of affairs in today’s world. That’s not really the point. I’m actually not trying to make a point. This is more of a reflection and introspection rather than an indictment of our current situation.

Despite it all, we still need to be optimistic, right? We still need to imagine a world that we want to be a part of in the not-so-distant future. Maybe we’ll re-imagine the roadside dinner, eating locally inspired grub while our electric cars are charging. Or perhaps we revive old train networks that will help carry us from town to town.

Nobody can be sure what the future holds for road trips, or for any of us. All I know is something is going to give. Something has got to give.

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