While on a recent cross country trip, I found myself stuck in a remote hangar masquerading as a "regional airport" for three hours, delayed by the always mysterious, if not apocryphal, "mechanical issues."
Few things can match the excitement of going on vacation in another time zone, and nothing can deflate that excitement quicker than when "going" degenerates into "staying."
Add to that stasis the obvious schadenfreude of the airline employees, the designed-by-a-dominatrix airport furniture, and the willful malice of charging $8 for a Bud Light at the terminal bar, and suddenly the "convenience" of air travel begins to feel a lot more like punishment. But punishment for what? I found the answer as I stared longingly out the window, past the tarmac, where gleaming cars zipped gleefully along the interstate. Like Icarus, I had made a fatal error: man was not meant to fly — man was meant to drive.
If, as many believe, the automobile is the symbol of modern American ingenuity and industriousness, then the cross-country road trip is an American birthright. Sure, the road trip has existed since Odysseus and his buddies took a booze cruise around the Mediterranean, but the entire American experience is oriented around movement and exploration. We manifested our destiny by wagon train and connected the coasts by railway. Discovering the dramatic vistas, endless plains, and ancient landscapes of our country from the ground imparted both boldness and humility to our forebears.
Yet it is the road, the car, and its occupants that have continually captured our imaginations, and delivered one of American's great cultural exports of the 20th century. Jack Kerouac's On The Road, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's Easy Rider, Simon & Garfunkel's America, and countless others have examined, deconstructed, and reconstructed that foundational American experience: not just the discovery of ourselves, or the discovery of a new landscape, but rather the discovery of ourselves in the landscapes that whirl by a rolled down window. That is simply not an experience one can have at 30,000 feet, wedged between two snoring strangers.
Therefore, my fellow millennials, I urge you to ignore the siren call of "convenience," at least one time. Although the great American road trip is hardly age restricted, the endurance and audacity of youth can make for a pivotal experience. Based on my experience criss-crossing the country behind a steering wheel, here are three other essential elements to act out your own road movie.
1. The Perfect Partner(s)!
Sure, you could pack up the Volvo and try to conquer the American interstate system by your lonesome, but the opportunity for adventure there is limited. Would anyone care about Bonnie without Clyde? To find fear and loathing in Las Vegas, you need Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo.
However, not just anyone makes for a good complementary road tripper. If you like country music but your pal packs the entire Tupac discography, things could get uncomfortable by Kansas. If you're planning to stop off in Amarillo to eat the world's biggest steak but your spouse is vegan, then you might find yourself sleeping in the car that night.
Of course, it's not really a road trip without a little dramatic tension. That old college roommate whose older sister you fooled around with during family weekend of freshman year? That's the guy you want to invite. Just wait until mid-way through Montana to come clean about your tryst; the heat will make him sluggish. Which brings me to my next necessary element ...
OK, there are such things as winter road trips, but they are rarely much fun. Rather, the true season of the road trip is summer. If you're not traveling through Nebraska in the middle of July cursing your broken AC and wondering how many clothes you can strip off before things get weird, then you're not doing it right. Think of the the ol' four door like a sweat lodge barreling down the highway at 70 mph; just be sure to find the nearest rest stop when the visions start.
All the hallmarks of the American road trip are possible during the summer months: the wind in your hair, roadside camping, supermodels in red convertibles.
And how about that! We're smack in the middle of summer. But if you're worried that a good road trip requires months of planning, have no fear ...
3. Just Wing it!
If you have the ability, set the destination, but resist setting a strict time line. Doing so will free you up to visit historic battlefields, national parks, and of course, the obligatory "world's largest." Exploration, not expediency, sets the Great American Road Trip apart from regular travel.
Road trips are not about getting from point A to B; that's what airplanes are for. Instead, road trips capture our imagination because the destination is ancillary to the places we can discover along the way, they are closest to true adventure that most of us will ever get. Undoubtedly, road trips are a chance to encounter elements of American culture unencumbered by neon, corporate veneer.
Trust me when I tell you there are no adventures to be found just off the exit of the interstate. No adventure ever included McDonald's, or a Holiday Inn Express. Thankfully, we live in the age of the smartphone, so there is no excuse for not seeking out the local greasy spoon diner or the best dive bar in town. Be bold and patronize the locally-owned store or restaurant you'd otherwise never step foot in. This is where you find America. Cracker Barrel is not America.