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road sage

The Globe’s Drive section recently ran a piece that offered readers six playlists curated by regular contributors. The playlists were created to compliment physically distanced road trips. They are excellent collections of music and podcasts. I’m sure they would be a terrific accompaniment to any journey.

Of course, I object to them completely.

I do not disapprove of the playlists themselves. I object to the assertion that “playlists” – which are, by their very nature, bespoke digital creations – are the best way to enjoy a long road trip.

I object to playlists because they are predetermined. Even when you shuffle your favourite music, you know you’re going to get something you like. You get what you expect. After all, it’s your device, you loaded the music on it. There is no surprise. Should that really be what you’re shooting for on a road trip?

You head out on the open road, turn on the sound system and listen to exactly what you planned on hearing or someone else planned on hearing? Where’s the unpredictability?

I’ll tell you where – terrestrial radio. FM, baby!

I had the chance to put this preference to the test recently on an eight-hour solo drive from the Kootenays to Calgary. After helping my eldest child move to British Columbia, I hopped in my rental Toyota Corolla, with no playlists and no CDs. I had the radio, the “seek” button and my index finger. Those – and a sense of adventure. My friend Micah Lax’s favourite song is Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He’s never owned a copy. He feels that would ruin the rush of exhilaration he gets whenever it comes on the radio.

That about sums it up.

When you opt for road-trip radio accompaniment, you know you are in for a decidedly chaotic and random experience. I never bother with AM radio; the signal is never strong enough, most of it is talk radio and I’m not interested in other people’s opinions, especially those of people who are home during the day listening to talk radio.

On my Kootenays trip, I divided my attention between four genres:

  • Rock: Stations named after animals (The Goat, The Bear, The Wolf) or a single consonant, (“Q”) or something related to cars (The Drive.)
  • EZ Rock: Stations with monosyllabic names (Kiss, Jack, Juice) or for those who are easily confused, simply “EZ Rock” followed by a number.
  • All Hits: Generally came in from the United States. (Key 101 from Spokane)
  • The CBC: Despite the fact it came in crystal clear, I never listened to CBC Radio. I have a severe allergy to earnestness and was only carrying three EpiPens.

The key to rewarding road-trip radio is to keep searching. You station-hop until you find something you a) like or b) can tolerate. Radio allows you the chance to hear something you didn’t know you wanted to hear. When I drove from the Kootenays, I had no idea I wanted to hear (in no particular order) an Under My Thumb cover by Streetheart, Lunatic Fringe by Red Ryder, Working Man by Rush, Lonely is the Night by Billy Squire, De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da by the Police and Oh Yeah by Green Day.

Radio also reminds you what you hate. You hear music you would never willingly play. I lost count of the number of times I thought to myself, “I’d forgotten how much I hate that song.” There’s something empowering about feeling that negative surge and then changing the station.

When you find a song you really like, the challenge becomes how long you’re willing to listen as the signal fades. Should I stick with Take It Easy by the Eagles, even though the static is pouring in, or should I switch to Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl (with its gratuitous reference, “the point is probably moot”)?

Listening to radio on a road trip also helps you reconnect with how much you appreciate silence. Can’t find anything? Can’t find a signal? Turn it off.

And on any road trip, there is always that one song that you really want them to play. You’re Captain Ahab, and the elusive tune is your white whale. By the eighth hour of my journey, I was within range of Calgary stations. I kept searching but never did get to hear what I’d been hoping for. No one played The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Maybe next time.

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