In a little while I’ll be driving west, squinting and cursing into the setting sun, to get to Tampa for the Louis C.K. show this evening. This particular drive can be a slog — there seems to be an eternal traffic jam that develops for no reason near Disney World, most likely preparing visitors for waiting in long lines — but in general, I dig road trips. Have ever since I was kid, when my sister and I would drive our poor father crazy by reading every single road sign, reminding him that, yes, it’s 375 miles until New Jersey, and hey, now it’s only 370. Somehow, he didn’t find that all that helpful.
There’s a certain allure to a long road trip (not that the drive to Tampa is all that long, but go with me here). You’re pretty much throwing yourself onto the mercy of the interstate highway system. Sure, you could get off and drive a few miles away from the exit to find a place to sleep or eat, but that feels like it’s against the compact of the drive. It’s got to be right there off the interstate or it doesn’t count. Even if that means using a bathroom that looks like they just got finished filming The Exorcist inside of it and eating at every Waffle/Huddle House on I-95. You’ll get there faster than if you took the surface roads, but a price must be exacted.
I also find something comforting in billboards. They’re so full of eager promise. “This thing is absolutely the best thing in the world … on this particular stretch of interstate in this particular state.” I have to admit, after hundreds of miles of signs promising me South of the Border, I always feel a little melancholy when I finally pass it. My constant companions for the last few hours are now behind me. I’ll see them again on the way back, of course, but leave them behind again as well. But not to worry, there’ll be some giant fireworks store or truck stop announcing its presence for the next hundred miles any moment now.
There’s also just a great sense of freedom. You can just get in your car and go. Okay, you have to get the time off from work and have gas money, but that’s it. Want to drive to the Mississippi River? The Grand Canyon? Fine, go ahead. And that’s something the people who want to wean us away from our personal cars and onto mass transportation don’t seem to get. We crave that independence a car gives us. We’re on no one’s schedule but our own, we’re not sharing a seat with some stranger who leaves the light on and flops on your shoulder when they fall asleep, and you can check as many bags as you want for free. What’s more, a drive makes travel an experience. You get a sense of the vastness of the country, and of its idiosyncrasies. Something you don’t get 35,000 feet in the air. Plus, no one ever crashed 35,000 feet to the ground from a car either.
I might feel a little differently a few hours from now when I hit Tampa and it’s still rush hour and everybody appears to be in a big hurry to go nowhere. But for a while on the open road at least, with the right music and the right attitude, it’ll be an absolute joyride.