Elegy for the Road Trip

by Tami Winfrey Harris

A version of this post was originally published on What Tami Said [www.whattamisaid.com] in May 2008.

When I was a wee Tami, I didn’t play with dolls much. Oh, I had the requisite Barbies and baby dolls, but they didn’t really capture my imagination. Instead, my best friend Carol and I spent a lot of time playing with our vast collection of Fisher-Price Little People. Remember those things? Between us, Carol and I had two A-frame houses, two traditional houses, two farms, a Holiday Inn and a McDonald’s—enough for an entire Little People town. We would stretch our little homes and buildings along the long, shaded deck behind my house and create stories for our little families: we would take our little parents to work; take the little kids to school; engineer little family squabbles; and—this was the most fun—take the whole little gang on road trips. The woods behind my house became Yosemite National Park. The drop from the deck to the lawn below became the Grand Canyon.

My Fisher-Price travel fantasies eventually matured into a new way to play road trip. My friends and I would position card-table chairs to create a faux station wagon. The rear tire of my mother’s old three-speed bike turned upside down served as a steering wheel. (Do kids still do this stuff?)

If my family and pop culture are any indication, road trips were popular in the 70s and 80s. I have fond memories of traveling “down South” to visit my paternal grandparents in Mississippi, or north to the Wisconsin Dells. My family always hit the road at the crack of dawn—station wagon loaded with luggage and a cooler of fried chicken, fruit and sodas for sustenance on the way, radio stations fading in and out as we passed through major cities, and crayons baking in the back car window. I loved the adventure of it all, peering out the window at strange places unlike my home: the red clay and pine trees of Mississippi, or the deep woods and towering rock formations of Wisconsin, or the expanse of tiny towns and flat farmland in between. I just love road trips.

Unfortunately, the road trip may soon be dead, what with gas prices through the roof, the environment in peril and Americans with less and less free time. And that’s too bad, because I honestly think there is no better way to see America.

My dream as a child was to one day drive all the way across the country—from New England to California. I haven’t done that yet, but when I was in my 20s, my friends and I took annual girls’ road trips. We would pick a direction—north, south, east or west—and spend several months plotting our destinations and our route. Then, the first week of every August, we would pile into a rented van—the five of us—and hit the open road. There were only two rules on our road trips: You get the speeding ticket, you pay for it; and if we spot a sign for someplace interesting along our route, we check it out. While heading down to New Orleans, we detoured to see Ole Miss. Out West, we stopped at the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert and spent some time on historic Route 66. We did this on the cheap, mind you–Piling five folks deep into hotel rooms, dining in cheap local eateries and snagging every discount ticket we could find.

I cherish those road trips and appreciate them as a life experience. I remember vividly driving through southern Texas and New Mexico really late at night, a full moon hanging low in the sky, bathing the deserted road and the nearby rock formations in blue light. The moment seemed unreal, like we were on a movie set. I recall finally standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, drinking in its majestic beauty. (The Canyon really is something everyone ought to see. To say it is awe-inspiring is an understatement.) My friends and I stood at the gates of Graceland in Memphis, retraced the steps of early Patriots in Boston, drove through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, strolled through Soho in New York City, admired the eerie-and-desolate-but-beautiful Utah terrain, stood at the site of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, participated in a Witch Trial re-enactment in Salem, and stood outside the Birmingham church where four little girls died. And we bonded. True, we were glad to get away from each other after 10 days in a cramped van, sleeping, eating and sightseeing together, but we were always ready for another adventure the following summer.

I miss those road trips like nothing else about my single life. Those adventures meant freedom—freedom to roam and explore all the secrets and surprises the world holds. My friends and I always lamented that we were usually the only black faces to be found wherever we went. Black folks, especially black children, should have the experience of visiting all of these historic places, these amazingly beautiful places, in the country our ancestors paid with their freedom and lives to build. (Why I think we didn’t see more black travelers is a topic for another post. But I will say it is not all about economics.)

My friends and I are on the other side of 40 now. We have mortgages, jobs with heavy responsibility, husbands, kids and pets—we’re real adults and not so free. But I hope someone is still taking road trips. $4/gallon gas be damned. What you learn, what you see, what your experience on the road is priceless.

Do you road trip?

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  • http://reverieslice.wordpress.com Reverie Slice

    I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of taking a grand road trip.
    I loved going on drives with a friend of mine, and I really hope that past time doesn’t die out in America. If alternative fuels and more eco-friendly cars would become part of our lives, I don’t think it would have to do that. But, that’s a conversation for another day.
    But I still dream of the Great American Road Trip. :)

  • Bunny

    SO TRUE! Road trips are the best bonding experiences! Thankfully, I still take many road trips with my friends for my roller derby team…not so thankful for the gas prices. But hey, it’s easier when it’s split 4 or 5 ways

  • Dreaming

    No road trips for me. I don’t own a car.

  • AL

    I thought I was the only one who felt this way about road trips; I loved them as a kid. Sadly, now that I am I grown up with many responsibilities, I don’t do them anymore. Gas is too expensive. This article has renewed my longing to take a road trip adventure with my own family. Niagra Falls here we come!

  • KB

    A road trip has been on my to-do list for years. I just can’t find the friends willing and able to go with me. One day, I’ll get there. In the meantime, I’ll just reread this post.

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