I’ve been conspicuously absent from the blog lately. (You didn’t notice? That stings.) This is partly because I’m a lazy bum, but partly because I've been driving. This is America. When someone yells, “Road trip!” I am legally obligated to buy a family size bag of chips and assemble a driving playlist. There’s nothing I can do about it—it’s in the constitution. In this case, the person yelling “Road trip!” was my mother. You know you’re aging when your friends react with, “Wow, a week in a car with your mother? That sounds great!" And so it was.
Contrary to popular mythology, Americans travel a lot. The Department of State issued 15.5 million passports last year. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Cambodia. We’re certainly not the homebodies people take us for.
But the majority of our travel happens on a road. Cars are essential; in most communities, it's difficult to survive without one. In daily life, this irritates me. But for long distances, it’s exhilarating. You can literally jump in an automobile and go—no passports or paperwork, no weighing of baggage or waiting in lines. Just pick a horizon and see what’s over it; like the explorers, the pioneers, the cowboys of legend.
Americans love the open road. Most of our formative adventures are car trips: family vacations with in backseat crammed with siblings, college adventures in second-hand junkers, moving cross-country in a rented U-Haul. The United States is designed for road travel: it is huge, diverse, enthralling, and abundantly paved.
I didn't appreciate this until we moved overseas. Koreans don't do road trips. Why would they? They have an incredible public transportation system. Besides, they can't drive more than a few hours in any direction without hitting ocean (or DMZ).
The US lacks a lot of things, but space isn’t one of them. From where I’m sitting I could drive at least 750 miles east before running out of road, 1,800-ish if I headed west. No passport required. If I drove the same distances from Berlin, I’d need a Russian visa or water wings, respectively. (That far west I’d be mid-Atlantic, halfway to my parent's house.)
Mom and I went south. This is the best direction to flee Wisconsin, where spring is cold, grudging, and changeable as the DMV. When Mom picked me up, I was trembling inside two coats and a sweatshirt. By the time we hit Nashville, I was glad I’d packed a tank top.
As an adult, traveling with parents is a little different from my kid-in-the-backseat days. For starters, there was booze. (No, not while we were driving - we aren't insane). My mother has a regrettable preference for healthy snacks, but wine and chocolate featured prominently in our evening meals. This was a huge upgrade.
And Mom must have been relieved not to listen to that atrocious Paddington Bear singalong tape my sister and I used to demand on every trip. (Though unfortunately, I forgot to bring any music at all - we were stuck with a forgotten stack of Christmas CDs.) She even let me drive once, discretely clutching the door handle as I readapted to American roads.
And what an adaptation! We hurtled down the freeway, wind in our hair, our minivan revving like an overeager colt.* I felt like a cowboy heading for the horizon. Or rather, the Roadside Oasis, where we stopped for coffee and a bathroom. They had a donut shop too, which would have made the great cowpokes of old more than a bit jealous.
*..within the speed limit. I was sitting next to my mother, after all.