As noted by hip-hop band Atmosphere, road trips “become head trips.” It’s as if you’re in your own movie, the constant forward motion lending a cinematic effect, a built-in narrative paced by whatever plays through the speakers and the constantly changing scenes, the dips and rises of terrain and towns and freeway exits, the tunnel of road that becomes a screen for your imagination.
What’s interesting is how looking back on these trips, events tend to arrange themselves around certain moments. And these moments are almost always the same archetypes.
Usually the inspiration for a road trip is unremarkable, which in itself can become a good story later: “I just saw this picture of Mesa Verde National Park (or Denali or the Badlands).” Sometimes it’s an objective like reaching Burning Man or Coachella.
There’s no logic to how it starts coming together. Where you’re going. Who is going. But the one question that’s always key: Which vehicle are you taking? You dream for a second about a friend’s VW bus or Vanagon. Call her up. She’s saying it needs the clutch replaced. What about your old beater of a car? There’s not as much room. Would it even make it all the way? And then it’s almost as if “she” (your car) is talking to you. She’s saying she wants to go, needs to go. We can do this. Let’s do it.
And then you start to get serious. You’re checking atlases and Google Earth. Inventorying camping gear, envisioning which objectives you can hit on the way out and back. If you’re doing it right — calling out place names over your second pitcher at Mamacita’s or sitting with your crew and maps spread over the coffee table, fans blowing on a warm night in early June — it can almost feel as if you’ve started traveling already.
There’s always one person who wants to take too much, and there’s just not that much room; that’s the issue, especially if you’re taking the dogs (and you have to or it wouldn’t be right). Hardcore decision making ensues. If you focus on just surfing and kayaking, it’ll all fit, won’t it? But there’s still summer glacier skiing in the Rockies. What about the snow gear? Bikes? How many guitars/mandolins/harmonicas/hand-drums are allowed?
5. Departure stoke
You finally figure it out. And then you come up with ambitious plans to leave at 6am before traffic even starts in Atlanta, but damn, you stayed up too late and end up sleeping in a couple hours. Who cares? You’re on the road. You realize your partner has truly epic music-selection skills for starting a road trip. Who knew that “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis could sound right at 8:15am on Georgia 400?
But after a few hours the departure stoke wears off. You realize what you’re in for: a lot of driving, a lot of sitting down looking out the window and thinking. It triggers some strange memories of taking trips as a child, seemingly endless hauls up to Richmond, Virginia, to visit your grandparents, the feeling of sitting down forever. You wonder now how you did it before smartphones.
7. First night
But after enough time driving, there’s something ceremonial and catalyzing about the first night, as if having passed through some kind of portal. Maybe your crew decides to just keep powering through Kansas or Texas or wherever it is, everyone synced up and head nodding through some 10-hour dubstep marathon. You keep debating whether you should stop, wondering if the campgrounds in the national forests are worth it. And maybe, serendipitously, you pull off the road into some empty grasslands. There’s nobody around, and it seems right to break out the instruments and start jamming, thinking how it was almost impossible you were still back at home 15 hours earlier.
8. First morning
It feels different when you wake up on the road. You crawl back to the truck all stiff and bleary-eyed, wondering who else has woken up in this landscape and how it would almost be worth it just to chill out this morning, to throw the frisbee and explore a little more. But you’ve got to keep moving.
9. First sight of the gateway
After another big push and the sense of hitting some kind of wall to your patience, there’s that first sight of whatever it is: the Front Range looming across western Kansas, the first badland formation in South Dakota, the shift from prairie to rolling hills of Appalachia. The threshold or gateway to your objective. Maybe it means you still have another two days to travel. But you have all this new momentum now, and this moment — down to the song that was playing — affixes itself in your memory.
But inevitably there’s some kind of twist. A breakdown, a blown tire, an overheated radiator, a lost wallet, a near accident, a change in weather, a rockslide closing I-40. Something that completely shuts down the flow. Now you have to detour. Pause your plans. You end up spending the night in some unlikely town. Gardnerville, Nevada. Watkinsville, Georgia. But after having seen the mountains or whatever gateway it was that you passed through, it seems almost scripted that you broke down here. You end up at some completely unexpected house party. And you end up staying the next day just because.
11. In the flow
But after getting back on the road, and heading wherever it is, you slowly become aware that a kind of sweet spot has emerged. You don’t say anything about it, as that diminishes it somehow, but you just enjoy how you’ve become much smoother and faster at packing and repacking the car, at getting your timing for stops down perfectly with your crew. It’s as if you’re no longer trying to hurry and in this way have become super “productive” in the way you’re camping, cooking, cleaning, traveling.
Maybe it’s some single event, that culmination of having driven all the way from Boston to Malibu, and as you roll up to the wave you see the point just firing. Or maybe it’s an extended week of madness at Burning Man or some original meet-up with your friends to section-hike the Pacific Coast Trail. Whatever it is, the climax comes in that moment where you’re not in the car anymore but with your feet on the ground someplace that feels like a completely separate world from where you left days before.
13. Turning the corner
You try to keep from thinking about it (and especially talking about it), but you know that the target dates for starting back home are fast approaching. You think about touring musicians, travel filmmakers, and journalists and fantasize about what it must be like to stay on the road forever. At this point your crew — which is now speaking in a vernacular created on this trip — decides to head back tomorrow. Staying one more day will only make it harder.
14. The big push
But you change your minds. You decide instead to stay out in the Rockies or the Playa or the Olympic Peninsula for as long as you can, and then attempt some marathon push back across the US in a single blowout with the dogs splayed out half-dead in the back. Strangely, when you recall this miserable, over-caffeinated time, it might be the one moment that stands out the most. You’ll feel some strange satisfaction that you decided to just go for it.
If you did it right, when you reach the outskirts of your city, it will seem as if you’re entering it as a traveler. Your streets, your flat, your room: Everything will seem a bit smaller, possibly off-kilter. If you got it right, you’ll have left something in the refrigerator, bottles of whatever, something to put your bleary eyes to bed, something for a final ceremony. By now, the vehicle has been renamed. At least one or two new additions to the gear have been acquired, as well as tattoos. Of course there were things lost along the way as well. Overall the unpacking goes a lot smoother and faster than the pack. You’ve relearned how to be self-contained. There’s something sad about it; you already want to be planning the next trip. And you will.