When the ‘great American road trip’ goes south
There are many genres of road trips. Trips out west, trips back east, road-tripping along the Pacific Coast Highway, trips to meet the parents, trips to flee from those parents, one-way trips to the slammer. They are in the zeitgeist of the country’s culture. Just last month, the White House used “the great American road trip” as a way to sell a nationwide charging network for electric vehicles.
The problem with all these trips, for a purveyor of fine living like myself (owner of not one, but two seasonal bedside candles), is the inevitable deprivation of the luxurious lifestyle I enjoy in my ancient house (which is quite lovely when the sewer line is not backing up into my bedroom). Yet, despite my misgivings, I was recently coaxed into a drive from Salt Lake City to Colorado.
Ideally, a winter road trip should feel like an eight-hour sleigh ride to the charming mountain town of your choosing. I imagine sitting snug and warm, protected from the icy winds that shake the car as it cruises over steep passes and through canyons.
In this dream, I wipe the condensation from the window of the 4X4, gazing mindlessly at the snowdrifts and bleary smokestacks. I might whisper a line from Wordsworth, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” A thrumming peace consumes me.
Reality is a different story.
My gang of road-trippers crowded into a five-seat SUV, punched “Colorado” into the GPS and hit the gas. Just me and my buds, hitting the open road. No responsibilities and no worries. As the legendary Jack Kerouac said, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
But like Kerouac’s “On the Road,” it started out promising but quickly became a grim slog.
Our journey could be broken up into three distinct and theoretical phases. The first phase was all about logistics and lasted around 30 minutes. We mapped out where to go, how many miles until empty, what we’d do when we arrive. Some planned to ski, others to softly pad through wooded glen while quietly listening to Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” Maybe in the evenings we’d gather for some freshly pulled pasta and decaf espresso before nodding off by the fire. The weekend brimmed with promise.
Then began Phase 2 — what can only be described as a waking nightmare. It lasted the next seven hours.
The history and magic of the great American family road trip
This phase began as I sat rubbing my foggy window (in accordance with my dream) to see the view. I was in the back seat, among spare backpacks and tubs of Dum Dums because I have petite hips and am not one to complain of material discomforts. (Aloud, anyway. In my head, a storm was raging.)
This is fine, I thought. The ride was not yet ruined.
I pulled out a book of classic short stories (surreal, existential) and started to read. It turns out, our driver was a big Formula One fan. He took mountain corners with the urgency of a maternity ward nurse, skirting the bumpers of semis and laying claim to the fast lane. Soon, my hands were clammy, my stomach was curdling and my face took on a grey hue. Literature was out of the question.
I rubbed my foggy window yet again, amazed by the jagged beauty of Glenwood Canyon. Snow squalls battered the windshield as I laid prostrate, nestled among mittens, boots and lollipops, fighting the urge to vomit.
Do you have the snacks? The front seat passenger called back. I have a refined palate, if you must know. This is where the road trip falls apart for me. No one thinks of munching a nice antipasto in a moving vehicle.
I reached around the floor, wet with melted snow and mud, to find a carton of Goldfish and some pretzel thins. Is this a preschool or an adult vacation? Why did we pack children’s food? I distributed these embarrassing snacks, to the delight of my grown compatriots.
My legs were falling asleep, a dull podcast droned through a low quality portable speaker, and the smell of everything-bagel spice and my companions’ bodily emissions grew alarmingly strong. I was sick to my stomach, over both the lack of creature comforts and the winding roads. But I had to remain optimistic. “To live without hope is to cease to live,” as Dostoyevsky once said. So I soldiered on.
My last refuge in that car — filled to the brim with degenerate food items and a swirling nausea — was my own mind. My thoughts could provide edifying entertainment for far longer than this trifle of a road trip.
All of a sudden, vile pop music punctured my mental fortress. One of my (soon to be former) companions, bored of the podcast industry, had become the in-car DJ. The other passengers cheered and sang along. I tried to cry out in anguish, but my protestations were drowned out by Taylor Swift’s catchy chorus: “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.”
Song after song, hit after hit, bop after bop. The formula never changed: lazy rhyme schemes, off-putting accents never used in the real world, and the same hand-clapping misery throughout. Three hours into this psychological torture, my identity had been erased. I was a shell of a man, hurtling toward my destination in a metal shell of a car — my soul as vacuous as the AI-generated Top-50 lyrics.
Cabin fever — the condition of being trapped in confined spaces with familiars for unhealthy amounts of time — is a mild sniffle compared to full-blown SUV-irus.
At 7 hours, 32 minutes into the drive, Phase 3 commenced.
We were close to our destination, and the driver turned down the music in order to concentrate. In doing so, he freed my mind from that prison. I opened my eyes, realized I’d been drooling and chanting along with the playlist, and wept in shame.
We quietly navigated unfamiliar streets to pull into the snowy driveway of the Thomas Kinkade inspired mountain cottage. The five of us tumbled out into the snow and the fresh air, the glittering stars above. We were thankful for the weekend, and the time we got to spend together. I was thankful this ride was finally over, that my life was no longer an endless asphalt treadmill.
For one brief moment, I forgot about the return journey awaiting me on Sunday. Another plunge into the depths of despair. Another great American road trip.