If Peter Pan collars and scrunchies can both make comebacks, then I am calling for a revival of the great American pastime: the family road trip. After all, nothing screams fun like eight hours strapped into a seat amongst claustrophobic family members while listening to your mom’s Top 100 hits from the 70’s. And yet, the road trip used to play a quintessential role in the American family household. It was the first choice vacation, the last resort vacation, the I-forgot-to-find-Fido-a-babysitter-so-he’s-coming-with-us vacation. It was a rite of passage for every family that owned a station wagon. Writers like Kerouac in On the Road and Steinbeck in Travels with Charley immortalized it, movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation satirized it, and eventually, everyone started doing it.
This includes my family, who still practices the tradition of road trips. When I was four, my bookshelf solely consisted of Dr. Seuss books and road atlases. My mom never bought me coloring books. Instead, she would arm me with highlighters and direct me in coloring in the rivers, mountain ranges and highways on our collection of maps. In the weeks before a family road trip, everyone had their own specific jobs. My dad was the human GPS, committing our route to memory right down to the exit numbers and side streets. My mom was the magician, miraculously managing to cram fifteen days’ worth of clothing, food, and drink for three people into the trunk in an organized fashion. And I was the cheerleader, always making sure to motivate and provide pep talks when general morale proved low. This was how we prepped for the road trips we made, always taking care to assume our positions well in advance.
My family was determined to reach every national park that a full tank and just serviced automobile could get to. Our attempts to do so led to us climbing the sand dunes of Death Valley without sufficient water, burying our dead pet fish on national park grounds, and nearly running over a brown bear that was trying to leave a campground. Outlandish as these tales might seem, they all occurred at some point or another during a road trip. The beauty of road trips lies in their innate ability to create stories, to weave recollections that will endure many seasons. No other method of transportation is more conducive to creating memories. It acts like an empty journal, waiting for you to pull a Didion and record your observations of new surroundings and old family members. It inspires you to notice the ordinary, to make sense of the nonsensical, and to continually push the boundaries of your sanity.
And by push the boundaries, I mean eliminate them completely. I learned this firsthand when we tried to scale a mountain mid-blizzard without snow chains on our tires. In November of 2003, we decided to visit Crater Lake National Park. To provide some context, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. To provide even more context, we decided to visit on the night of Thanksgiving because that meant no wait to view it. On our ascent up the mountain, we quickly came to the realization that our game plan did not factor in snow. Sadly, it was not the kind of soft white fluff that Michael Bublé crooned about in his rendition of “Let it Snow.” Instead, Mother Nature was feeling especially generous on Thanksgiving and offered us a raging snowstorm, complete with biting winds, flurries of snow, and a spontaneous bout of hail for good measure. On my mother’s insistence that we didn’t come all this way for nothing, we forged ahead towards Crater Lake. I wish I could tell you that the view made up for everything, but the truth is, I didn’t even see Crater Lake. When we reached the vista point, for the approximately two minutes I was outside of the vehicle, I saw nothing but darkness and snowflakes. It wasn’t until this past summer that both my mom and I saw Crater Lake for the first time—via the even blurrier airplane window while en route to Seattle.
Regardless, that memory of us fumbling around the surroundings of Crater Lake has forever cemented the love for road trips in my heart. The sheer novelty is their spontaneity, the unpredictability of what is coming and what will come, something I never appreciated until after this particular disaster of a trip. You can spend hours poring over routes and pinpointing rest stops, but they are all subject to external factors that are simply out of your control. For a control freak like me, it is incredibly terrifying. But in a world where order and monotony reign supreme, the road trip is a wild card; the much needed element of surprise in an otherwise predictable plot line. And I swear, once you start, you can’t stop. You will find yourself continually reaching for the keys, for the wheel, for the nearest city.
So the next time you are planning to take a vacation, skip the plane. Don’t go through the hassle of trying to book an already overflowing flight just so you can spend four hours in economy seating in between a crying baby and an angry businessman who keeps side-eyeing you as if the crying baby is your fault. Don’t fall victim to a thorough pat down because your belt set off the alarm. Don’t sit through an entire flight without a water bottle because TSA regulations require all carry on liquids to be under three ounces. Instead, revel in the fact that you don’t need to book a seat in your own car. Instead, wear as many belts as you want (one of them being the seatbelt, of course). Instead, say to hell with the three ounce policy, pack your 32 ounce Nalgene, and hit the road.
Grace Shu is a college freshman who’s still trying to figure out what it means to be an adult. She takes pleasure in library hopping, listening to Bon Iver and Rainy Mood simultaneously, and complaining about cold weather. She specializes in 2000’s hits karaoke, walking her Jack Russell, and making apple pie. Her Tumblr is located here.