The “Great American Road Trip” has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. There’s something monumentally alluring about the idea of loading up a car with a few friends, some supplies, and a destination in mind— probably because the scale of it is indeed monumental. The United States is a massive country, where distances between cities in my home state of Tennessee are comparable to those between countries in Europe. It makes sense that we would want to traverse these considerable stretches of the country as quickly as possible. If it’s the destination that matters to us, why not just fly?
There are simple answers to that question, like that it’s expensive, or that we don’t even have an airport. Still, 88% of Americans had cars as recently as 2015, and we very much like to use them. In fact, 73% of us said that we planned to take at least one road trip this summer. The more staggering numbers within that statistic are that of those Americans, nearly two-thirds (64%) say they’ll be driving more than 300 miles on their road trip, and almost one third will venture at least 900. Even if driving is the only way to reach these places — and the most efficient — those stretches of miles translate to a long time in transit. It’s a considerable commitment that is often made with the drop of a hat: it’s simply a fact of life here.
But looking back on my childhood and adolescence, even without the Great American Road Trip,” such trips have indeed been a fact of my life. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to Florida on school breaks and moved from my college dorm room back home more times than I’d have liked. These are testing, grueling drives at the best of times, but the payoff is almost inexplicably immense. The sense of relief at finally reaching your destination is simply incomparable, especially if you were the driver. It wasn’t a pilot behind a closed door who got you there. You did — you went up against the endless road and you won.
That satisfaction comes from the great singularity of purpose. Having shut the car door for the last time and taken your spot on the porch or around the fire, you possess an unshaken faith that you spent the last, uncountable hours and miles heading in the right direction, toward the one thing you needed and wanted. Everything else can fade from your mind, including what you left behind or what might lie on the other side of the trees from those long, straight interstates. And while we know there will be pitstops, detours, and maybe even pitfalls, the road tells us we’ll eventually get to where we’re going. That’s what happens at the end of the movies, no matter what happens in the middle: the hijinks and absurdities of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” or “National Lampoon’s Vacation” somehow make the idea of the road trip seem more appealing, not less.
I think one reason we’re so willing to hit the road is that the disaster tropes of these movies, whether we expect similar experiences or not, are tied to an innate sense of adventure that America’s sheer size creates. Wherever you live in this country, it feels like you sit on the doorstep to the rest of it. Being from Memphis, I’ve looked out across the Mississippi River and often wondered what awaits me in the lands beyond it. I know I could find out at any time, and whether I do or not, just knowing there’s more to be discovered brings me relief.
On the surface, that sounds like a description of traveling in general, but a few hours in the car in Europe will bring you road signs in a different language and the sense of being an outsider. While different states have their own cultures and quirks, I know that I could drive from sea to shining sea and belong anywhere I stopped my car, whether amongst the Texan mesas or the forests of the northwest. It is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, to be truly putting yourself out there while, in a sense, staying right at home.
There’s also the versatility of the road trip, the feeling of freedom it gives to go your own way for whatever reasons you or your companions might have. You can go it alone to find yourself, take your pet to explore the parks and trails, or go with the goal of creating a film from what you find. You can go on a ghost town tour, a culinary tour, a music tour, or a magic tour. Almost anything you can imagine a trip could be, it can be, as soon as you roll out of the driveway.
The American Dream is in a fragile state these days, as our community questions the morality of economic and social policies that have made us a more divided nation than ever in recent memory. The unbridled possibilities of life on the road, when it starts to feel like you’ll never stop moving, are intoxicating and probably as close to realizing the dream as we can come right now. But in between these trips, the only place we can find to stand is on shaky ground.
After all, if we are to contend with American identity moving forward, we must remember that we are constantly exploring and building on ground that was not ours in the first place. There is no road trip that exists in a vacuum, and especially if one sets out to explore, coming face-to-face with our history is inevitable. Whether we choose to see it, though, is something different altogether. On an American road trip, one has the chance to peel back the layers of mass-media confusion, look at what America once was, and maybe to decide for ourselves how we’d like it to be.
All photos by @sylvie_9 on Instagram.