Recently I got a message from my buddy Zach’s wife inviting me to a surprise birthday party she was planning for him. Not altogether an unusual invitation, at first blush, until you consider that they live in a podunk town in southeast Kansas called Pittsburg (with no “h”) and I live 600 miles away in Minnesota.
Was Megan expecting me to make a 600-mile trip just for Zach’s birthday? Not necessarily. She just knew that I had a habit of making cross-country road trips, and thought it might be high time for another one.
I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself and think that she’s got me pegged. I do love a good, long road trip, and not necessarily to anywhere in particular. But when the end of the road trip means visiting a good friend of mine? As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get much better than that — even if it does mean visiting podunk southeast Kansas.
The road trip as a family vacation
It all started as I suppose many of these things do: in my childhood. My dad’s great love for the outdoors and disdain for busy city life meant that our family vacations were all taken out West — as in, Rocky Mountains west. Throw in his income level and modest Midwest sensibilities and that meant we got there by car.
And by car, I’m not generalizing: even when our family grew to six members, we still got by without the luxuries of SUVs, minivans, or even those big long station wagons — at least at first. Yep, you’ve got that right: six of us all piled into an Oldsmobile sedan. With two car seats and my older sister in the back seat, that meant I was riding in the front middle. For thousands of miles. And I lived to tell about it.
Eventually, my dad splurged on a Dodge Grand Caravan, which afforded us something called elbow room. And as much as we complained — some of these trips lasted as long as three weeks — there was something poignant and even strangely enjoyable about it. Life became simpler — and richer — on those trips. Some of our most memorable family moments occurred on the road, and we were able to see some of the most beautiful sights America has to offer, both of which I’ll not soon forget.
The road trip as a vision quest
When I earned my driver’s license and gained freedom from my parents’ supervision, it was only natural for me to take up the tradition of cross-country road trips. That’s not to say, mind you, that I’ve inherited all of my dad’s vacationing habits and preferences. As much as I love America’s beautiful mountains and open spaces, I actually prefer cities to national parks. And while my dad would rather bring along a companion even if he wasn’t bringing the whole family, I’ve come to prefer road trips to visit my friends rather than traveling with them.
My cousin, Zachary, actually gave me the idea of road tripping when he set out on one of his own. His mom (my aunt) jokingly dubbed the trip his “vision quest” because it seemed like he was looking for something on this trip — yes, new sights and experiences, but also looking for greater wisdom, understanding, perhaps even inner peace.
I was plenty amused by the term “vision quest,” but intrigued by the idea of taking a long trip by myself. What would I expect to find? I don’t think I knew, and I’m not sure it mattered to me. But I’ve always appreciated time alone, and I love traveling and adventure, so it seemed like a great combination. And, last but not least, I’d be able to plan a road trip to include visiting a number of friends and family members along the way. As much as I enjoy time by myself, I’m very much an extrovert and gain energy from being around other people, especially those who make good company.
The road trip as a way to stay in touch
I took my first road trip when I was teaching and had a two-week spring break to work with. I set on a 17-day journey from Minnesota through Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, Arizona, and California. (Note: I recommend taking more than two days to drive from L.A. to Minneapolis.) Along the way, I caught up with cousins, college buddies, friends, and my sister and grandparents.
It’s possible that the trip did lead to some sort of existential change in my interior life, although I don’t remember anything dramatic taking place. What I do remember, however, is that America became a little bit smaller for me, even as I was able to experience, mile-by-mile, just how vast the highways actually span. The road from Texas to California (by way of Phoenix) is a long one, for example, but it’s rather direct.
Much more profound for me, however, were the relationships I was able to strengthen on that road trip. I met Megan in Pittsburg when she and Zach were still just dating. Dan in Little Rock became a little less my brother’s buddy and a little more my buddy. On that visit to Texas, my brother-in-law, Karl, and I really bonded over karaoke, which has now become a staple any time he and I are in the same zip code. Zack (with a “k”) and I have become much better friends since hanging out then in Phoenix when we were still more like acquaintances. And my visit to Larissa in L.A. took us from cousins who enjoy each other's company to cousins who hang as friends and even travel together.
For whatever reason, it’s been my experience that the relationships I have with friends and family members become much stronger when I visit them away from home. They do say that traveling tends to lower your inhibitions and expand your horizons — and I think both of those phenomena help people bond. I also think there’s something about somebody hosting me in their city — often in their own homes — that deepens the relationship because I learn more about their lives and rely on their hospitality.
The road trip as introspection
Finally, there’s also something about driving alone in a car for hours on end immediately after spending time with someone that contributes to the bond that you feel with them. It’s made me realize the importance of taking time to reflect on my life, and in particular the people and things I’m most grateful for. It makes memories more vivid and lasting. And subjects in conversation that may have challenged me in some way can be brought to more clarity with further reflection.
It’s not exactly revolutionary to say that quiet reflection is good for a person. But that’s not to say it comes easily to me, or to most other people I know who live a fast-paced lifestyle. That’s why there’s something so attractive to me about hopping in a car and driving someplace far away. I know it means that I’m going to be forced to be alone with my thoughts for a while.
Sure, it’s many times quicker to fly someplace. But there’s so much to be experienced along the way — visiting people as well as new places and experiences — as well as some good, old-fashioned quiet and alone time. Not to mention solid road trippin’ tunes.
To me, there’s just something about the open road — in its quiet, its simplicity, its solitude — that has a great calming effect on me. And there’s something about seeing old friends, especially those I haven’t seen for a while, that is greatly edifying to me and generally warms my heart.
So if I’m looking to find peace, oftentimes I’ll just pick a week (or two), call up some friends — preferably who live in a warmer locale — change the oil in my trusty old 2003 Mitsubishi Eclipse, and hit the open road.