Last time I went to the movies (a rare occasion for me), I found myself in a surreal situation. Halfway through the film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the down-on-his-luck folk singer protagonist hitches a ride from New York to Chicago to see if he can score a gig in the Midwest. As Llewyn traded stories with his ragtag companions and ate fast food at an oasis on the screen, my own memories of partaking in that very same journey flooded back to me. Two years ago, I was fast asleep, curled up in the passenger seat of a borrowed Prius while my boyfriend drove us out of New York City before dawn. I woke up somewhere in Pennsylvania, grabbed a coffee at a gas station and took the wheel. It was the final leg of my first real road trip without my parents. From Chicago to Oberlin, OH to Washington, DC to New York City and back to Chicago in the span of a week, catching up with dozens of friends (and sleeping on plenty of friends’ couches—thank goodness) along the way. So many more than I could ever have seen on a plane trip. As the sun set on the Windy City skyline at the end of our final twelve hour drive, Sufjan Steven’s “Chicago” played through our speakers, telling the story of that exact same drive “in a van with my friends.”
The fact that I can name a film and a folk song that both reference a road trip I myself took is a testament to the iconic nature of these drives. The inter-city road trip is utterly universal. It’s a thing you do when you’re young and need some adventure, then when you get married and you’re moving to a new state, then when you’re taking your family to see the great landmarks of this nation, and even when you’re several years down the road (pardon the pun) and trekking perhaps for the last time, across the country to visit your grandchildren. The road trip is a shared experience of Americans from diverse income levels, races and creeds, and it is an unforgettable adventure.
If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you know the feeling: that it’s just you and America, that if you wanted to, you could keep driving until you hit someplace totally unexplored and make a home there. Perhaps you go into it thinking you’ll see nothing but cornfields or desert for seven hours, but I bet by the time you’re finished, you’ve witnessed something quite remarkable that speaks to you in a new way. A yellow farmhouse with white linen billowing in the afternoon breeze; a rusted truck collapsed in a ditch with a tragic story resting in its engine; a roadside stand selling apples and antiques; your best friend singing along to her favorite song on the road trip playlist; or some ancient little diner that’s been cooking with the same burger recipe for the last fifty years. These aren’t sites you’d make a destination of, but they’re something to see along the way. I’m glad I had those farms and tunes and rest stops to keep me awake and engaged during my travels.
The other thing I like about road trips is the part where you’re not on the road—the part where you get out of the car and look at the new place you’ve landed in. If you’re lucky, it’s a totally new-to-you metropolis with an inviting cityscape, bursting with adventure. And the best part is, when you’re in a car you have the opportunity to see not just one city—as you might if you were flying or traveling by train—but many. I started my journey in Chicago, had a relaxing day with family, then hit the road to the miniscule college town of Oberlin, OH where we made it in time for late night drinks at the town’s only bar. We had breakfast with several of my good friends in the morning (at the same bar, of course) and then made our way across Pennsylvania and Maryland into the heart of Washington DC. Besides the undeniable grandeur and awe that always comes from being in the seat of American governmental power, we also hold a special connection to the place because it’s where we met and spent some of our most formative months. It felt like coming home. Of all the people who have shaped me and supported me in the last few years, a large percentage reside in Washington DC, and I was able to spend time with several of them, and even make some new friends during my short time back in DC. Not to mention, I got to hit up some favorite bars, restaurants and rooftops, getting the true experience of the nation’s capital, in my mind.
Next it was off to New York City, at the time, a place still quite new to me, but a place I was quickly growing fond of. We saw more friends, family, climbed to the top of the Columbus statue, walked through Central Park and ate breakfast at the same Polish coffee shop in Green Point three days in a row. It was also Thanksgiving, so we enjoyed a bounteous spread prepared by my boyfriend’s brother and his fiancé. Our only responsibility was procuring extra wine glasses, which almost resulted in a trip to IKEA (Liz and Kriss style, where my 30 Rock fans at?), but thankfully we were spared the trouble when we found glasses at a local liquor store. That night, we sat around a table filled with people we loved and gave thanks for peace, good food and safe travel. Then we awoke at the crack of dawn the next morning to make our way back through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana toward the grand Midwestern city of Chicago.
Besides the opportunity to see the vastness of American country sides and cities, road trips also give us space to learn about ourselves. When I was making plans for this particular adventure, a friend cautioned me that road trips are the ultimate test to a relationship. She told me her mother had gone on a road trip many years ago with her then-fiancé and that they had broken up shortly thereafter (which was a good thing because otherwise my friend would never have been born). I was mostly unperturbed by this warning. However, I did get curious as to how two people might handle a week in the car together. For us, it was a space to figure out what excited us in the new places we saw, how best to balance our priorities, and also how we handled moments of exhaustion and stress. I think we came out better on the other side.
So, once I finish my year in New York, I’m banking on another road trip to get me and my stuff back to the Midwest, and I have to say, I’m quite looking forward to it. Provided I don’t have to do it alone, I’m always up for an adventure on the open road, and I much prefer it to shoving all my stuff into suitcases and cramming it onto a plane for hundreds of dollars. Besides, I might be able to schedule some stops along the way.
What’s your favorite road trip memory?