The charm of the 21st century American highway strip

November 14, 2017

I’ve never been a resort person. There are a lot of reasons for that, but principal among them is this: you don’t make memories by the pool.

I understand the appeal — it can be nice to lose track of time drinking margaritas and lazing on deck chairs — but nobody has ever returned from a trip like that with stories (unless it’s hepatitis-related). You don’t learn anything about culture on a resort, and beaches are all the same. If you really want to experience the culture of place, you have to hit the road.

Now, when people talk about road trips, they tend to nostalgize: they talk about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; they imagine Polaroid photos and long, dusty highways. That’s nice, and taking road trips does, at times, evoke those things, but in the 2000s, road trips look slightly different: less like a crinkled map and more like a GPS; less like a musty 1957 novel and more like, well, the Internet.

Like the Internet, highways offer us immediate and spontaneous choice. If we’re reading a fascinating article that hyperlinks to a referenced study, we can take a short detour, read that study and return to where we were before; if we’re halfway through an article we’re not enjoying, we can type in a new address.

Being on the road doesn’t have to be about escapism, and it doesn’t need to be about the kind of destination-less “freedom” that Kerouac offered. You can, and probably should have a destination planned. But the old adage remains true: it’s the journey that matters.

So it was when, in autumn of 2012, I road tripped from Los Angeles to Toronto. After 24 years of living in and around Toronto, my then-partner was offered a year-long contract in California; she moved down alone in September 2011, and after she returned briefly for the holidays, we flew to L.A. together in January 2012. I can’t remember the plane ride.

The way back was different. By September of that year, we were ready to return to Toronto. Our plan: to pack a van with whatever we deemed worthy of keeping and embark on a road trip. We had three weeks to get from Southern California to Southern Ontario, so we planned to head north up the West Coast, hit Vancouver, and then drive east across Canada until we were home.

We learned a lot.

First, it’s important to have a destination. It’s a lovely notion to “just, like, be on the road forever, maaaan,” but chances are you have a job and a life to return to.

That doesn’t mean you’re limited; how you spend that amount of time is totally up to you. For us, that included certain priorities, one of which was sticking to the Pacific Coast Highway, as close to the ocean as possible, for as long as we could. We’d seen San Francisco a few times, so we basically skipped it; we’d never been to Portland, so we stayed there longer, and spent less time in Seattle as a result. When we got to Vancouver, we stayed for almost a week.

Neither was by chance; we stayed longer in Portland and Vancouver because we knew friends there. Staying with people you know isn’t just a nice way to cut costs, but a huge help towards unlocking a city; travel guides are great, but they’ll never beat locals in terms of knowing the holes in the wall and secret nooks that make a city special. Have a friend in a far-off city? Plan your route through their neck of the woods.

That said, try to strike a balance between a full schedule and a free-for-all. Having too many things planned can make your road trip feel more like a chore, but playing too fast and loose can be perilous, too; there’s nothing worse than realizing, as the sun sets, that you don’t have a place to sleep.

To return to the Internet simile for a moment: it really is nice to treat the highway like your main longread, but leave yourself time to go on hyperlinked tangents, too. See a sign for caves? Go exploring! There’s bound to be a small museum that catches your eye, or freshly baked, regionally/seasonally specific pies for sale. Stop for them; you might never drive past them again.

You’ll also be happy you stopped when you come to the essential part of road trips: the long stretches of lonely asphalt in between destinations. Being on the road often just means literally being on the road, and there isn’t much you can plan for here. Music helps; some people like satellite radio, and you should definitely scan the AM/FM airwaves every so often to pick up local culture. We brought a CD sleeve full of classic albums, but when music wasn’t enough, we played guessing games and, as the non-driver, I read aloud to keep my partner entertained. (We finished Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Charlotte’s Web — and yes, I did voices.)

Which leads us to maybe the most crucial aspect of planning your road trip: who to go with. Road tripping is wonderful, but it’s not easy. It can be boring, and it can be stressful. You’ll lose your way at least once, even with a GPS. But that’s the point; you can’t get lost by the resort pool, or on the beach, and you won’t be challenged. You won’t grow.

Before you plan your road trip, choose the right person to be behind the wheel, or in the passenger seat, someone who can roll with the punches, who wants to savour that journey. You can do anything and go anywhere on the road, but they’ll be your constant, and you’ll need them — particularly when you return to recount your adventures to friends. Who else is going to fill in the details when you’re telling those stories?

Getting there

Ready to hit the road? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to the United States here.

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