The Significance of Road Trips


Grand Canyon on one of my family’s western road trips
Badlands of South Dakota
Mt. Rushmore

Road trips are an American tradition. Every family tries to take at least one western summer road trip that goes to either the northern sights–Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and if you are lucky, Wall Drug and the Corn Palace in South Dakota–or the more southern sights like The Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Pikes Peak, and Cave of the Winds.

These road trips serve to solidify our identify as Americans, and perhaps unify our families.  Well, maybe not unify our families–probably most of us fought with our siblings most of the way.  But we still share the memories of the trip, having forgotten the wounds.  During the time we were gone on these trips, we were out of touch with our friends and extended family, exhausted each day by the open windows and the hot temperatures of the road.

These road trips taught us about the expansiveness of the country and gave us some small sense of what our ancestors experienced as they went west.  I remember the wonder of seeing the Rocky Mountains arise on the horizon, and my father pointing out the rain falling in the distance across the wide expanses of the Great Plains.  This was the same man who endured the road trip with the largest amount of patience he could muster–which was very little!  (When we took my father’s ashes to Minnesota for burial in the summer of 2011, someone commented on the fact that my father had been unusually patient on this trip.)  My family often refers to our bonding experience of seeing the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest at seventy miles an hour.   

Often these trips also involved meeting and staying with relatives, or friends of your parents, that you had never met before.  Far off places and sights became associated with sleeping on the floors of houses owned by people who were somehow connected to you, or in tents in their yards.

One of my best road trips as an adult happened the summer after I finished my first year of teaching.  With no dissertation to finish, and a decent car after a year of full time employment we left our home in Iowa and headed toward the Northwest.  We gave people only a general sense of when we might arrive at their homes to stay.  Our first stage involved staying with my mother’s cousins through the Great Plains.  We found the land where my grandfather homesteaded in Montana, several miles off any gravel road;  we had a Great Plains breakfast of both steak and eggs at my mother’s cousin’s home in Big Timber, MT.  We moved from staying with my relatives to staying with my husband’s relatives by the time we reached Washington State after driving through Glacier National Park while listening to the music of John Michael Talbot.  From the northwestern-most edge of the country–Whidby Island, we progressed down the coast through Washington and Oregon passing through the Redwood Forest of northern California, searching for Victorian architecture near Eureka, California. We spent time in Berkeley, California and the Bay Area among my husband’s family and friends and then switched back to my family in Southern California, going as far south as San Diego.  Then we headed east to Louisiana to visit the Houma people among whom I had worked.  We kept extending our stay in Louisiana, not wanting to go home.  I remember considering heading toward Florida…  Five weeks after the beginning of our journey we arrived at home.

Missouri River, ND

Glacier National Park

Pugent Sound

California Coast
Houma Crab Feast

These road trips of the past are different than what we experience today.  Today we have cell phones with internet.  We fly across the Great Plains rather than drive.  I’m thankful that when I took my “traditional” trip with my daughters, cell phones were merely for rare communications and safety.  We managed to enjoy our road trip primarily to states and provinces that started with M–from Michigan through Iowa to Minnesota, through South Dakota to Manitoba, through North Dakota to Montana.  My daughters stayed in a camper in the yard of my friend in Manitoba with children of my college friends who had all gathered together.  We took a hike up to a waterfall in Montana when staying with another friend there.  We had several awesome days in Yellowstone where my younger daughter earned her Junior Ranger badge and learned to find her way from our room at the top of Old Faithful Lodge to Old Faithful (and read the board that told when it would go off).  I encountered the wonder of Yellowstone through her eyes.  We had no internet.  AND my daughters fought like cats and dogs the entire way.  We did have a van with air conditioning, but I still considered strapping one child to the top to stop the arguing. And we brought home great memories.

Swan River. Manitoba with College Friends

Now days, when I dream of a vacation, I dream of a road trip. While my Hong Kong friends find the idea of the open road frightening, I find it comforting, a sign of freedom and the possibility of having space for just thinking my own thoughts, or thinking nothing at all while staring out at the landscape as it passes. One friend and I talk of getting a van called “Leisure Way” and just heading out with no particular goal or timeline.  Such times are few and far between for us both at present.

Soon I am going to take a road trip with my mother because I am moving from Michigan to just north of Boston. We are going to take our time and stop by Seneca Falls, NY and learn about the history of the voting rights movement for women (actually stop rather than going by at 70 miles an hour).  We will go down highways that I have not traveled before–always of interest to a geographer.  We will stop for coffee, or to explore, as we wish.  There will be no arguing daughters, though there is always a chance that I will get a text message from one of them, or hear the GPS voice tell me that I am off course and need to readjust.

If only we could just never reach our destination…but as we all know, road trips would not have the same magical quality if they never came to an end.

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