“… On the road again … just can’t wait to get on the road again …”
I can often tell which way my mood is trending based on the song that’s currently stuck on repeat in my subconscious.
And these days, as we wait out the coronavirus, all I hear is Willie Nelson’s jaunty, jazzy refrain, “… on the road again … just can’t wait to get on the road again … .”
Can’t blame my brain. We have been locked inside for quite a while now. It’s been six months since my family hopped in the car and drove somewhere … anywhere.
The road trip is built into my DNA after growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when it dominated pop culture. Sometime later, flights to Las Vegas and Ibiza shouldered the road trip aside in our popular consciousness and it became as popular as a marathon of bland Chevy Chase “Vacation” reruns.
As summer rolls into full swing, though, that’s about to change, big time. As we slowly reopen, just about everyone in the tourism industry agrees the road trip will be the spark that (eventually) restarts travel in the wake of the pandemic.
“That’s how people can control their environment,” said Ali Daniels, Visit Seattle’s vice president of marketing. “When you’re in your own car versus getting on a cruise ship or getting on an airplane or a train, you’ve got all of your hand sanitizer and everything that fits within your own little travel bubble. So it (offers) that comfort level. And I think people are going to ease back into it with the comfort of doing that first, right? We’re going to have to retrain our brains on how to travel again.”
As we hit the road, though, we must confront another reality: That bubble of safety doesn’t exist for all of us. The idea of the Great American Road Trip is just another myth, another example of unequal access for all.
Consider the multiracial family that was chased out of Forks by a mob of would-be militiamen a few weeks ago. And all the other families over the years who’ve encountered similar hostility, just not on camera.
A road trip is supposed to inspire feelings of freedom and independence. But those feelings have been a privilege that doesn’t extend to all. As I was dreaming of an open road while bombing around my rural neighborhood on a go-kart as a boy growing up in the South, my Black neighbors often feared making a wrong turn down the wrong country road and had to refer to the Green Book for safe passage.
The incident in Forks shows us that not much has changed. Footage of that event is alarming, and I hope the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests will spark a hard reset in our country this summer. Because everyone should have the right to take a road trip without worrying about whether they will be discriminated against, far from home, with no one to call for help. Everyone in America should have the opportunity to set out in their car seeking the fancy-free feeling that comes with the best of road trips.
Some of my earliest memories are of riding down the highway with my mother in our vintage white Volkswagen camper van. I spent days at a time in my tweens and teens lying in the back of an Oldsmobile station wagon — complete with fake wood paneling on the sides — as my dad rolled up the interstate at a then-awe-inspiring 56 miles per hour, destination Disney or Miami or Nashville.
Since, I’ve driven across the continent three times, once selling almost everything we own and driving from south Florida to Interior Alaska in 12 days. That was 25 years ago. Eighteen months ago we packed up a ridiculously large U-Haul and drove to Seattle over five gloriously exhausting days. I’ve crossed truly wild spaces by boat, plane and dog sled, and logged tens of thousands of miles on what the author William Least Heat-Moon called “blue highways” in his book of the same name, the two-lane blacktops that serve as the nervous system of rural America.
Most recently, I did a week on the Pacific Coast Highway in January with my family — redwoods and sea lions and bears, oh my. We caught false spring and after a day of storms we saw nothing but sunshine, calm waters and empty forest cathedrals.
Everyone was happy to see us on that trip, from the waitstaff who gave us tips on local customs at a half-dozen restaurants to the owners of motels and the full-service attendants at gas stations in Oregon. The chain saw artist on the Avenue of the Giants was downright chatty as he brushed sawdust off his shoulders during a soliloquy on winter weather.
My 15-year-old son slept through all the best parts, just like I did when I was a kid. (Must be a family tradition.) It was as relaxed as I’ve been since … ever.
Would a Black family have been received in the same way at all of those same destinations?
For that matter, with the coronavirus still omnipresent, will road trippers be as well received outside their own towns today? It’s unlikely, because some communities are wary of tourists who could spread the virus.
Yet, in many ways, the road trip metaphor is perfect for our times. It’s about exploring new places, new cultures. It’s a never-ending quest to see what’s over the next rise. And I’d love for everybody to get to feel the same way I do about the open road.
I grew up on a steady diet of road. Pontiac Firebirds were a special obsession for a decade of my life. I remember sitting in the balcony of the old Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, enraptured by “Smokey and The Bandit” and Burt Reynolds’ black supercharged Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Books and movies like “On the Road,” “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Easy Rider” found their way into popular culture.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vision of an interstate road system changed transportation in America. We could do something almost unprecedented in human history: travel thousands of miles without encountering a border checkpoint, let alone a stop sign or red light.
As speed limits have risen, however, the road trip has become more about making time than making time to stop and visit.
The pandemic has slowed the pace of modern life again and forced us to reevaluate the things that are important to us. As our country fights against the dual threats of coronavirus and racism, this presents us with an opportunity to remake that myth of The Great American Road Trip, and to allow everyone to fully experience the road regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.