This may seem strange coming from someone who has made his living for the past 30-plus years writing about cars, but while working on Our Favorite Roads series, I realized that what makes the trip isn’t the car you’re driving but the roads you’re traveling.
In most cases.
Certainly, there are exceptions. There are roads best-appreciated in a sports car, or at least in a convertible with the top down. There are roads you best not even consider unless you have a serious sport utility vehicle, I’m talking here about the likes of a Jeep Wrangler or Hummer H3 or a Land Rover or at least a 4×4 pickup truck, and perhaps the next-generation Ford Bronco, though that is yet to be determined.
There also are exceptions involving traveling companions and destinations, or in some cases the people awaiting your arrival at your destination make the drive worthwhile regardless of the roadways.
Nonetheless, as I wrote the recent stories about a few of my favorite roads (or most meaningful trips), I realized that, with a couple of exceptions, I had no recollection of what vehicle I was driving when I traveled those roads. That realization led to the recognition that it’s the road, not the vehicle, that really matters.
And it’s not just the road but the places it’s taking you, the things you see and experience along the way. And that includes the people you meet along the way.
A note of thanks here to my father, who demonstrated the joy of travel on our annual family vacations and who never met a stranger, at least not anyone who remained a stranger for very long.
Travel guides and websites can be helpful, but it was someone my Dad met who suggested we detour to a drive to a mountaintop in Massachusetts to better view the fall colors, it was a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman who didn’t give us a ticket for fishing without a license but who climbed down to the rocky riverbed to show us how to find grubs under rocks to use as bait, and it was a shopkeeper in Utah who told me where to leave the pavement to find a cliffside structure built centuries ago by indigenous peoples.
A key to enjoyable road trips is being open to such serendipity.
Sure, you might simply jump on an interstate highway and reach your destination as quickly as possible, and in some cases you can take in some spectacular scenery along the way. I-70 in Utah or I-80 through the Delaware Water Gap come to mind, as does that amazing section of I-10 in Louisiana that lifts you up and across the Atchafalaya Swamp.
And yet, I prefer to avoid the interstates if possible and to take what William Least Heat Moon termed the Blue Highways, though in my road atlas they tend to be thin red rather than blue lines, the old roads that pre-date the interstate super slabs, the roads that connected towns large and small, and their people, to each other.
(A note about my road atlas: I prefer paper maps to GPS. If I’m on a road trip, I’ll write down my routes for the following day and keep them handy as I drive, though I’ve learned to appreciate GPS to help keep me on my intended route, and especially when traveling through metropolitan areas — St. Louis and Kansas City come to mind — with their spaghetti-bowl interchanges.)
Some of Moon’s blue and my red roads are rural 4-lane highways with U.S. numbers and some are state routes. But they have intersections rather than cloverleaf exits. (Travel secret: I find that because of all the reconstruction work taking place on interstate highways, I often can get to where I’m going just as quickly on the country roads.)
In some cases, these roads used to have names, not numbers, names such as the Lincoln Highway or the Yellowstone Trail. Many take me through towns bypassed by the interstate and thus choked off from the traffic that used to support local businesses.
Sad to say, I’ve been in towns where I could not find a motel, except those turned into apartments, nor a place to eat, not even a place to buy gas; these might have been thriving communities, but now are in the process of becoming ghost towns.
But there also are communities that have found a way to thrive without a nearby interstate, and they tend to be delightful places to visit and filled with enthusiastic people.
While the vehicle may not matter as much as we’d like to think as we travel our favorite roads, the music we hear does make a difference, and it likely also makes a difference whether you’re traveling alone, with a companion or, especially, with children, though nowadays those tend to be attached by earbuds to their own song list.
Regardless, I’d encourage you to tune into the AM radio dial from time to time and listen to local stations as you travel. I particularly enjoy this when I drive across what are considered the fly-over farm states, those between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, where people buy and sell on what amount to broadcast swap meets, where you might luck out and hear a broadcast from a county fair or as I did once, a Norwegian heritage festival, and where the ag report, with its crop and livestock prices, is much more important than any numbers coming from Wall Street.
To date, I’ve driven in all 48 contiguous states, on three of the Hawaiian Islands, as well as in parts of Asia, Australia and Mexico, much of Europe, and have driven or ridden through much of Canada, from the Yukon Territory to Nova Scotia (I was away at college, or maybe already graduated and working, the year my parents made it all the way to Labrador and Newfoundland). I need only to get to Alaska to complete my goal to visit all 50 states.
Along the way I’ve seen amazing scenery, met remarkable people, and even discovered who I am.
Regardless of the car, I hope you will take time to enjoy your road.