Every summer when I was little, my aunt, Nana, and I would take two- to three-week road trips across the country to visit family. My aunt is a teacher, so she had summers off, and we’d spend much of July on the road. Later, when my cousins were born, they went too.
My grandparents’ families were spread all over the Midwest, and so I spent a lot of time visiting old folks in old houses or nursing homes. I also went to a lot of cemeteries, which explains more than a few things.
Summers in Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa were a strange turn for me. I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, where summers meant four months of dry heat and most of the houses were tract homes from the eighties. To leave the city and drive across endless expanses of dry desert, open ranch spaces, and finally cornfields, among houses that had been standing for a century, was nothing less than magical.
For some reason, I remember stopping in Wyoming one time. After about twelve hours in the car, we finally had to stop at a little roadside motel, the kind that is nearly extinct these days. So we stopped there, checked in, and even though I didn’t see anything wrong with it (keep in mind, I was six), my aunt and nana – hardly Lady Grantham and the Dowager Countess – were aghast at the state of the place. I think they made me keep my shoes on in the room.
I also remember one summer driving all the way to Upstate New York, to visit one of my great-aunts. On the way through Chicago, we were stuck in traffic and it was boiling hot. We’d just come from some other relative’s house, and we had bags of shelled green peas in the cooler. I put the bag of peas on the back of my neck, immediately spilling bright green water all over the backseat. This caused my aunt to exclaim that I’d gotten pea water everywhere, to which my nana really freaked out, because she thought my aunt was saying I had wet myself.
I remember Aunt Loretta’s rosary collection; Grandma Porter’s house with one bathroom and an old-fashioned wringer washer; my great-uncle and his weird wife and their llamas. I remember basements and the Laura Ingalls Wilder House and sifting through the collapsed farmhouse my nana’s family used to live in.
I was thinking about this on my recent road trip, how much traveling has changed since then. It’s difficult to get in a car and drive across the country. I don’t actually own a car. I bike, bus, walk, or hitch rides from friends to wherever I need to go. For my recent trip to Reno, I rented a car and it cost me well over $600 in the flat rate, the liability waiver, and gas. I wonder, even though I normally don’t drive, if it was even ethical of me to do so. I burned through a lot of dinosaur bones to drive all over Nevada and California for a week. This wasn’t something I thought about as a kid.
I took my cousin along with me on my adventure. He lives in Reno, and I needed a companion – particularly after my friend Daniel canceled on me at the last minute. But sitting in the car with a real live Millenial – not a hypothetical one from a NYT think piece – I thought about how he’s almost twenty-three, and he probably couldn’t do a trip like that with friends. I went on plenty of road trips in my early twenties. I went to Los Angeles quite a bit, San Diego, up to Oregon before I moved here. When I got my first car in 2001, a white Dodge Neon that sadly crapped out on me two years later, it cost me about ten or fifteen dollars to fill the tank. That will barely get you across town these days, never mind across several Western states.
It makes me sad for myself, for my cousin, and really for everyone that we haven’t figured out a less harmful way of transportation. Or, at least, the oil companies aren’t relinquishing that hold on the energy market. At any rate, road trips are good for the soul and we need to be able to take them, safely and ethically. On this trip, I took smaller highways and byways to get to and from Reno, and it was incredible. I drove through multiple state parks and national forests, and I got to see the landscape change from lush, green Pacific Northwestern finery to the Spartan forests of Eastern Oregon, and on into the deserts of Eastern California and then Nevada. I drove a hundred miles out of Reno into the middle of the Nevada desert to camp in the Shoshone Mountains. Seven thousand feet up, forty miles from anywhere. It was incredible.
Particularly for people younger than me, road trips with friends are crucial. You learn about yourself on road trips – how you respond to stress, how you problem solve, how you deal with people when they are on your nerves. You do stupid things, like spend too much money on sugary snacks or go to drive-thru liquor stores.
It’s so crucial to have experiences like this when you’re young. It allows you to grow and get some foolishness out of the way before truly becoming an adult. With all the problems and bad news that we have in our world right now, we need these kinds of simple pleasures. I don’t want to see road trips disappear. And I don’t know if I’m ready yet for the bike RV.
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