“Most stories begin one of two ways,” book author and immersion journalist Ted Conover once said. “A stranger comes to town, or the hero leaves home. Either way, they tend to go by road. The road contains the excitement of the unexpected. There’s a quote from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring that I love: ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.’ ”
Chances are that no matter where you live, you, too, have been swept off—at some point in your life—at least once by a road trip. You may remember a summer, family road trip to a national park as a child, or a long haul across country to take on a new job, driving with all of your belongings in a rental van. Perhaps you tend to hit the road on holidays; maybe you’ve just returned from a last-of-the-summer fling over the Labor Day weekend.
Not only are some of our road trips epic but some of the roads themselves. California’s breathtaking, coastal Highway 1 through Big Sur comes to mind, as does the winding Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina and Virginia. The Historic Columbia River Highway, poised on the side of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, oversees spectacular waterfalls; and Alaska’s Denali Highway climbs steeply up into the foothills of the central Alaska Range.
But whatever way that you prefer to take yours, a road trip—even with all of its detours, frustrations and inevitable serendipities—always leaves you with some kind of understanding of life that you didn’t possess before setting out; some sort of meaning.
Life writ large—and small—on the blacktop
Some say that the road trip was invented after World War II when the Greatest Generation piled the baby boomers into the back seats of their station wagons and set out to see America. For the first time, the end of wartime gas rationing, new interstate highways and paid vacation time came together to make it possible for scores of people to take to the open road, guided by free maps from the big oil companies, such as Shell and Standard Oil. Fast-food restaurants and “kids-stay-free” motels made road travel even more appealing.
Others give American writer Jack Kerouac the credit for the birth of America’s love affair with the road. In his 1957, now-classic book On the Road, the two main characters are the narrator, Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s alter ego), and his friend Dean Moriarty, a free-spirited adventurer eager to explore all that life has to offer and the catalyst for Sal’s travels. The novel contains five parts, three of them describing road trips with Moriarty, set against a backdrop of drug use, jazz and poetry.
The escapades that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty engage in on the road are often momentous and big: relationships, marriages, births, jobs, divorces and illnesses. Personally, however, what I tend to find on the road are things that are much smaller. But, I’d say, they are just as full of significance.
For example, recently, on what I like to call my “Final Summer Spree 2018″—a road trip from my home in Wisconsin to North Carolina, where my brother lives—it was the welcome signs I saw when I crossed those imaginary lines we call state borders that warmed my heart and that told me something about the places I was just about to enter. They caught my attention because you don’t run into those gracious greetings when you travel across states by plane. So, unexpectedly, I felt delighted every time we met new territory: Welcome to Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. Welcome to West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful. Tennessee, the Volunteer State, Welcomes You. Welcome to Indiana, Crossroads of America. And, my favorite: Ohio. Find It Here. (Where else would it be?)
Admittedly, during my recent Wisconsin-to-North-Carolina road trip, there were some less enchanting aspects regarding automobile travel. In a corner of West Virginia on I-77, the East River Mountain Tunnel traffic on the other side of the road was experiencing an extremely long backup—and it was all uphill. On the return trip, through Kentucky this time, I encountered congestion that stretched for more than 10 miles—again, on the opposite side of the interstate. On the bookends of this trip, I was never so happy to be going in the direction that I was. A road trip, I thought, certainly teaches the art of patience and how sweet a bit of good luck can taste. Nothing makes us feel so fortunate as narrowly avoiding a nightmare of a traffic jam.
These very small pleasures put me in mind of other road writers, one of which is Charles Kuralt. Between 1967 and the mid-1990s, he filed more than 600 pieces for his On the Road TV segments for the CBS Evening News. Balding and a bit rumpled-looking, Kuralt had a melodious voice, an engaging manner and a folksy, heart-stirring way of writing.
Traveling in a motor home with a small photography crew, Kuralt headed off onto America’s back roads, finding upbeat stories about “people not from the front pages, but people you know from next door and down the block.” His first story, like all of his subsequent ones, was simple: children in New England romping about in autumn leaves. But he found a universal truth in it; and after it aired, it almost jammed the switchboard at CBS. Viewers, tired of the bloody news from the Vietnam War wanted relief, and that meant more stories from Charles Kuralt. During the course of his On the Road series, he wore out six recreational vehicles.
We should all be so lucky.
Do you have a favorite road trip or road-trip book? How did it shape your views or who you feel you are today? Let me know in the comment section, below.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,