VIII. Road Trips Across America


“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957

For many Americans, road trips are pilgrimages, undertaken with family, friends, or even alone. Travelers set out to see something particular, to eat at a famous restaurant or to experience a certain freedom. This rite of passage began with the American version of the Grand Tour in the nineteenth century, although it was then reserved for those with a large disposable income as such adventures were not inexpensive. Following the opening of the railroad, travel became more affordable and more readily available to the average American. The railroad opened the west to those who would not have been able to reach it otherwise, but its operation was rigidly scheduled–not allowing for freedom of movement and individualization of travel. Automobiles democratized travel, making road trips available to a new class of tourists.

Today, despite the rising cost of gas prices, road trips live on as an integral part of the American experience for many people. For many Americans, road trips are pilgrimages, undertaken with family, friends, or even alone. They act as a rite of passage, a time when teenagers are set free from their parents’ watchful eyes to push physical (rather than behavioral) boundaries, while others turn to the road in their old age, buying RVs for retirement trips that often take them chasing moderate temperatures between north and south without the hassle of finding accommodations along the way.

In the years since automobile travel first began, there have been innumerable changes to the way that people move from one place to another, as well as what they encounter along the way. Today, paper maps have largely been replaced by portable GPS systems that guide drivers, turn by turn, much like the tour books of the early 20th century, but even such detailed directions can go wrong, leading travelers to the correct town in the wrong state, or the correct address in the wrong city. Winding roads that–like Route 66–took drivers through the hearts of small towns and big cities have been replaced by interstates with ring-roads to avoid downtown areas and that bypass smaller, more isolated towns entirely. Many stretches of non-interstate routes, like US 1 from Maine to Florida, resemble strip malls–long lines of fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, and gas stations. Divided traffic that doesn’t allow for left-hand turns means that chain business appear directly across the road from one another, and few independent businesses survive. Gone, for the most part, are the family operated motor-courts, replaced by Holiday Inns and Radissons. Traffic makes driving on these routes unbearable, and even some of the smaller towns in tourist destinations are drawing attention from those who wish to build bypasses around specific locations that tend to produce back-ups. But still, despite the changes, road trips persevere.

Congestion remains an issue for many towns today, particularly those along Route 1 on the east coast. Plans are, even now, being proposed for bypassing town centers that are over-burdened by the increased traffic of the tourist season. With such plans come great debates over the fate not only of a stretch of road, but of the way of life that exists along it.