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The Death of the Road Trip

Arts & Culture | October 4, 2010

May 23, 2010. I’m driving down thin, spiraling roads in Yellowstone National Park on the fifth day of a cross-country road trip with my best friend from high school. It’s snowing heavily, and at ten o’clock, the sky is so black I can only see five feet in front of the car. The weather prevents me from driving more than 10 miles per hour, and we’re still 15 miles away from the campground where we’re supposed to sleep for the night. Stubborn condensation clouds the windshield.
Fred, my friend, has the passenger window open and is dusting off the snow with his hand, trying to salvage some sort of visibility for either of us. I’m not panicking too much, but I’m alarmingly out of my comfort zone, as is Fred. We have to adapt, roll with the punches, stay safe, find somewhere with warmth to sleep for the night. But at this very moment, all I can think of is, how the hell did I get into this situation?

This same thought has circulated the heads of many travelers faced with the unfamiliar. Since Jack Kerouac galvanized young Americans to see their homeland with his 1951 novel On the Road, the cross-country road trip has been a fundamental part of our national culture. It offers a way to see the unknown, and perhaps more importantly, a chance to feel vibrant and young before the daily grind of jobs and family life test the limits of our spirit.

I know a few people who have taken the trip, most of them now 50 or 60 years of age. With great clarity, they recall their memories from the journey—not just anecdotes, but also how it shaped their perspectives of America as a whole. However, when it comes to members of my generation, I know only a handful of people who have taken a cross-country road trip. When Fred and I told friends and family of our plans, the usual response started with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of surprise, as if to say, “Who does that anymore?”

And then again, who does drive across the country anymore? The very thought of it is outdated, connoting images of hippies cruising on the highway in a yellow Volkswagen van. The culture of our generation favors the quick interaction—the email, the text message—over the slow journey. It’s not a question of one being better than the other; it’s just a difference of philosophy.

Think of how our current society is designed to integrate young men and women into adulthood. A college degree has become a necessity instead of an advantage. Summer breaks between semesters are now extensions of the school year, full of internships and classes. There’s little time to take an expansive road trip. By the time schooling is over, one is expected to enter the work force immediately—after all, those massive student debts aren’t disappearing by themselves.
But the economics of a cross-country road trip can be overwhelming as well. Fred and I each spent over $2,000, mainly on fuel, food, and shelter, and even then we were quite conservative with our spending. One night, we camped out a quarter-mile off the highway by the Grand Canyon simply because it was free. Then the added expenses, such as parking, tolls, and attractions, make the grand total even higher. Money may not be an issue for a select few, but for others, it makes a cross-country trip seem daunting.

However, time and money are not the only important issues. Having a compatible travel partner is just as critical. Fred and I have been best friends since the seventh grade. He is the Ricardo Tubbs to my Sonny Crockett, or perhaps more accurately, the Dean Moriarty to my Sal Paradise. Neither of us is too domineering and we are both able to be honest with each other. And on an 8,000-mile trip, honesty is crucial. Even so, we had problems, disagreements that we needed to overcome. The idea of being with the same person for every waking moment of a three and a half week span can be too taxing for some, regardless of how many cool Miami Vice references you make about friendship.

Finally, the road trip has also become obsolete because of a lack of patience in modern teens and young adults. A cross-country trip is a grind, full of ten-hour drives in the middle of nowhere. Generally, we perceive the means of transportation and the destination as separate entities with regards to a vacation. Yet, on this type of trip, the transportation becomes a large part of the experience. It’s not necessarily fun to drive fourteen hours in one day from New Jersey to Chicago, but doing so offers the traveler a chance to venture through parts of America that aren’t normally seen. With plane tickets easily accessible and cheap, driving thousands of miles might not be appealing. It’s a challenge on both the body and the mind that many young Americans appear unwilling to take on these days.

Many factors prevent young people our age from taking cross-country road trips. And while it might not be as sexy as a Caribbean beach vacation, I will say without equivocation that my drive across America with Fred was the most significant event of my life. If anyone has the chance, I strongly suggest taking the trip. Seeing the whole country without interruption is an inimitable experience.

Take, for example, a four-day stretch Fred and I encountered towards the beginning of our trip. Our fourth day started in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where we had camped the previous night. We left early, heading west, and visited the Badlands. We drove through the Badlands National Park, gawking at the mountainous rocks in 80˚ heat. We continued west, arriving at the unimpressive Mount Rushmore by nightfall, by which point the temperature had cooled to 40˚. Our fifth day ended in Yellowstone during the aforementioned snowstorm, where we booked a hotel room in a lodge six minutes before the computer system shut down for the night. When we finally arrived in San Francisco, we found ourselves in the ghetto—beautifully named The Tenderloin—and booked a motel for the night. (It should be noted that at 2 a.m., a prostitute in a sundress mistakenly knocked on our door, which we did not open during our entire stay).

The experience was not only thrilling, but also risky, rewarding, and enlightening. Something of this magnitude taught me how to mature by taking care of myself without the protection of my parents or the safe enclave of a college campus. Being on the road, navigating, caring for oneself, and, ultimately, making quick decisions and adapting to unfamiliar surroundings are life lessons that cannot be taught; they must be experienced. Regrettably, members of our generation are largely unwilling or unable to take advantage of this opportunity. If the road trip is dead, then let this serve as its eulogy.