The Art of the Road Trip

I’ll admit, in my younger years, my idea of a vacation was to get from point A to point B as quickly and painlessly as possible, and the fun part was the time between airport arrival and departure. The planning, prep-work, and inevitable hassle of half a day or more spent dealing with flights and lines and baggage and hurrying up and waiting, were all just necessary evils. Then I was talked into a road trip.

Going wholeheartedly against my grain, I squeezed my bag into a tiny two-seated Honda CRX, alongside that of my first husband’s (I also had a second husband – nuff said about both) and a cooler filled with car-friendly groceries. Our plan? Take three weeks to meander from Florida over to the west coast and up into Alberta, Canada, then back home again via a different route. We’d stop when and where we felt like stopping. So, that’s over 6,000 miles squished in the car. SIX THOUSAND MILES. Just in case you thought you read that wrong. You might begin to understand why my grain was running in the other direction.

But, you know what? Those three weeks changed my mind and opened my eyes. Not that it wasn’t a royal pain at times, between legs wanting to stretch and getting grumpy from too much time together with another person – who, by the way, got some sort of thrill out of seeing me grab for the grab-handle as we whipped up and down and around curves on California’s Highway 101. But, I got to see something you don’t get to see when you’re rushing from point A to point B: all the little points in between!

Take the middle-of-nowhere burger stand in the Arizona desert, where the creepy-ish outdoor decor consisted of recycled plastic everything, hanging from the trees and stuck in the dirt – think old baby dolls, plastic cutlery, Christmas ornaments, etc. It had us both wondering if our bodies would be found later by the police. However, the burgers were amazing, and the odd proprietor seemed so thrilled to see a customer that he couldn’t stop with the jokes… which were equally odd. (I thought he had just squirted mustard on my shirt, but when I looked down, it was a yellow string he had tied to the end of the mustard bottle. Yep: odd.)

Going through Death Valley, which was about the last place on earth I thought I wanted to see, was such a cool experience. The first half, before we got to the endless white dunes, had us passing rocky cliffs on the right, grooves opening here and there begging to be explored. Stopping to park in the shade of one cliff for a sandwich from the cooler, we grabbed the camera and decided to see where one of the grooves went. These slot canyons wind up through the rock, the sun’s rays stabbing down but not quite reaching you as you climb up and up, always wanting to see what’s around the next bend. The sandwich bread, by the way, dried in the desert air to a toasty texture before we even finished eating.

Exploring one of Death Valley’s many slot canyons

Highway 101, as I’ve said, was a real roller coaster of a time (and I actually do like roller coasters – as long as a husband of mine is not in charge of the thing). We were constantly informed by road signs how steep each hill was graded, and when I saw short gravel offshoots of the downhills, which all angled steeply upward, I learned that they’re called runaway truck ramps, and when an 18-wheeler becomes out of control careening downhill or its brakes burn out from near-constant use, the driver can swoosh the truck off the road and is immediately slowed not only by the uphill motion, but by the deep gravel bed which the wheels sink into. Unfortunately, the truck must then be towed out, but it’s a pretty clever system!

We stopped at a winery in Sonoma for my first-ever winetasting; traveled through the breathtakingly beautiful Redwood Forest; peered straight down sharp edges into the deep blue crashing Pacific; snow-skied in Banff National Park; and were absolutely and indescribably dwarfed by the enormity of the surrounding Canadian Rockies, white and somber and eternal. You don’t mess around driving through the Canadian Rockies.

On the way back, North Dakota had me laughing at the simplicity of its rural road system: even in the pitch-black night in the middle of nowhere, you could have found your way without headlights – just go straight and you’re sure to get where you’re going, because the roads don’t curve in that flattest of flat lands. I was mesmerized by the frozen, glittering landscape of Missouri’s rolling hills and trees sparkling blindingly in the sun. And the lush green hills of Georgia had me wanting to return some day to explore more. It was the trip of a lifetime, and my appetite for the road was forever whetted.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a winding trail through the Smoky Mountains from Texas to Pennsylvania, complete with the best crunchy-sweet farm-stand apples I’ve ever had; get lost in Germany, just me and my dog and a paper road map; day-trip from San Francisco to Carmel with my mom and sister, passing the rocky blue shores of Monterey and the golf course at Pebble Beach; drive south through Florida with my sister, to hip, artsy Sarasota; search for cenotes in Mexico; take a day-drive through south-central Oregon to the vast wilderness of Crater Lake and its chilly blue depths; and even spend days exploring different Caribbean islands by car, stopping whenever and wherever serendipity decides. These road trips have never failed to leave me with one-of-a-kind memories, of the sort which you just can’t plan.

For over a week now, I’ve been under the weather. Adventure has not been on the menu. But, as I begin to make plans for a road trip coming up this fall, as well as a few other road adventures hiding up my sleeve, I’m reminded of the excitement I get from my car-ventures, and looking forward to where the road takes me.

Crater Lake, Oregon