Few journeys are more North American than the road trip. This fact was immortalized by Jack Kerouac, who wrote, “All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road.”
This summer there will be more “hands on wheels” than we’ve ever seen. A survey by the AAA found that nine out of 10 Americans intend to drive to their vacation spots. The same survey discovered that traffic during this past Memorial Day weekend was up 52 per cent over 2020.
In Canada, COVID-19 has magnified this fever one thousand times. Unable to fly abroad – heck, unable to even drive to the United States – Canadians are packing up the automobile, the mobile home, RV or whatever other four-wheeled transport they can find and heading off into the great beyond. According to a May, 2021, survey by CARFAX, 84 per cent of Canadians are considering taking a summer road trip. Top reasons? They’re the big three: visiting a new city, connecting with friends and family or hitting the great outdoors.
Road trips are so iconic they have inspired great literature – as well as Kerouac’s On the Road, you’ve got John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They’ve been made into great films – Easy Rider, It Happened One Night, La Strada. Road trips also inspire laudable stupidity. Recently, for instance, three dudes drove from Illinois to Alabama while listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama on repeat the entire trip. That’s approximately 94 plays. They streamed the journey on YouTube. The voyage ended with one of the three screaming, “Turn it off. Push the button. Turn it all off,” as they reached the Alabama state line.
“No one would do that in their right mind,” explained 20-year-old Robert Carpenter, one of the trio of Skynyrd-marathon enthusiasts. “Everyone said it was stupid, and it was, but we did it.”
Car lovers think any season is a good season for a road trip. Autumn? Look at those leaves! Winter? Isn’t the snow beautiful! Spring? Hey it’s no longer freezing! To the average driver, however, summer is the perfect season. The skies are blue. The temperature warm. The breeze gentle. Summer road trips are the pinnacle. This means we are about to enter peak road trip travel. The first day of summer (the longest day of the year) has passed. Do you ever wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it. But I digress.
Of those questioned, 17 per cent said the journey was the most important part of a road trip. Twenty-four per cent said the destination and, in the spirit of true Canadian compromise, 60 per cent a bit of both. If you ask me, road trips can be divided into four categories.
The Four Road Trips
Road trips you take with your family when you’re a kid
July 1976: My family travelled to see Civil War battlefields. Highlights included ripping the paper off the hotel toilet, Gettysburg and American fast food.
Road trips you take with your friends when you’re young
August 1988: My friends and I embarked on a “No Stress Tour” from Ottawa to Kennebunkport. We were required to drink beer and eat at least four lobsters a day. The tour was as filling as it was relaxing.
Road trips you take because you’re trying to escape something
August 1997: Toronto to Flushing Meadows in a day to see the U.S. Open after a messy breakup. One rain delay. Over-priced wavy fries. A five-setter between Frenchman Guillaume Raoux and American hothead lefty Jeff Tarango in which Tarango asked the crowd (whom he felt wasn’t giving him enough support) “Isn’t this America?” To which a woman replied, “No, this is New York.”
Road trips you take when you have your own family
June 2014: Toronto to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Two days, few stops, three arguments and one spat, soft-shell crabs, fried scallops, hush puppies (more soft-shell crabs).
Given the roads will be busy, what can drivers do to prepare?
The web is full of practical advice. Get your car maintained. Bring a safety kit. Top up oil and windshield cleaner. Check brakes. These neglect the more esoteric necessities. There are vital road trip essentials that are not in the realm of pragmatism. These are my top five.
- A novel you’ve already read three times
- A cooler full of ice and chocolate bars
- A second pair of sunglasses in case your mood changes
- A novel you’ve tried to read three times
- Toilet paper (okay, this one’s practical)
And so we’re off on the Summer of 2021, the “Summer of the Road Trip.” Keep in mind, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”
Apparently, Ralph Waldo Emerson never drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco to have dinner at the Hog Island Oyster Company on the pier in the Ferry Building. Too bad. Looking out over the scalloped waters of the San Francisco Bay and the shimmering lights of the Bay Bridge, I bet he could have come up with terrific stuff.