Stellastarr Week: Road Trips

I was a late comer to the idea that cars represent freedom. In high school, while a lot of my friends were scrambling to get their learner’s permits and driver’s licenses, I realy felt I could not be bothered. In the nicer months, I was fine riding my bike everywhere. During the not-so-nice months, I would get rides from my parents or friends. I never really felt the need to rush into driving. After college, I was still not in a terrible hurry to get a license. I got a learner’s permit, and occasionally my parents would let me drive the car when they were dropping me off for shifts at Price Chopper, the grocery store my Dad worked at. I had a job as a cashier there after college, but I never cared about driving. It wasn’t until after my job at Price Chopper ended (badly) and I eventually picked up a job working the overnight sort at RPS (what is now FedEx Ground) that my parents finally insisted that I learn to drive. Mostly they were sick of picking me up at 4 in the morning.

So, at twenty years old I finally learned to drive and got my license. But “the open road” never called to me. Driving was a way to get from point a to point b. It wasn’t something I enjoyed so much as it was a means to an end, literally. So while almost everyone I knew loved driving or loved their car, the only thing I cared about was getting there. I never took much joy in the journey.

Over time, that has changed. I’m sure the amount of long trips taken between upstate New York and central Ohio helped change my mind a little. Driving somewhere in town is easy to overlook. You’re in the car for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, so you really don’t have time or need to settle in and try to enjoy it. Driving for six to eight hours across multiple states, however, can become tedious if you’re not having a good time. And so, while I could really care less about my driving experience most days (as long as I get there in a timely manner), I learned to love the road trip.

Some of my love comes from comfort. You see, even though a plane is frequently a much quicker way to get from place to place, it is not a comfortable experience for me. First, I am essentially trapped in a “room” full of strangers. As someone who suffers from a decent amount of social anxiety, that is never a comfortable idea. Second, it is physically uncomfortable. I’m pretty tall, measuring at 6’5″, and planes were not built for my frame. Maybe it’s different up in first class, but I’ve always been in coach, so I have no idea. All I know is that even an hour long flight from here to Chicago is a cramped and disquieting affair that I would just as soon avoid. Given the choice, I would rather drive there.

Driving also allows for some other conveniences. You can stop whenever you like, be it for a restroom break or to grab a snack or possibly something more substantial. Plus the scenery is better. The view from a plane is interesting on take-off and at landing, when you get to see the layout of whatever city you are coming from or going to. Other than that, everything looks the same from a plane window. The ground looks pretty similar from 30,000 feet up, whether it’s California or Kansas. That or you just get the endless white of the tops of clouds. Driving provides for more visual stimulation, for the most part. I think I’ve mentioned the pine tree walls of northern Maine.

These are all reasons to drive, and to enjoy a drive. But these are not the components of a road trip. Road trips require companions. I’ve driven by myself quite frequently from Ohio to New York, and I would never call it a road trip. If someone else is with me, then I would. A road trip is a shared experience.

Done right, a road trip is an adventure. Regardless of your destination, it’s all about enjoying the journey. Even if you’ve done the route before, you can always see something new on your journey, or bring the adventure inward and have a huge conversation about an interesting topic while you drive the hills of northern Pennsylvania.

I’ve rambled for a bit here, but the point I want to get to is this. There are a few keys things that a good road trip has to have:

1. Companion(s)

Again, this is a shared experience. You need people there for conversation. You need people there to confirm the weird shit you just saw. Sometimes you need someone to help you stay awake. You even need to have stupid arguments. Driving alone is fine, and over lone distances can give you time to think about…well, whatever. But it’s not a road trip unless you have someone to talk/share/fight with. I’ve gone on road trips where it’s just me and a friend heading to New York City for a weekend (story later). I’ve gone on road trips with me and three other guys going to New Orleans for a bachelor party (also story later). Most frequently, and unsurprisingly, my most frequent road trip companion is my wife Heather.

2. A Far Away Destination(s)

This one is a little trickier, because there is a variation. I’ll address that in a second. Most of the time, however, the road trip is just a fun way to get to somewhere not nearby. Driving, though faster than walking or cycling, is still not the fastest way to get places. planes and trains have that pretty well beat. However, in the struggle between comfort and convenience, the latter is frequently the victor. To offset this, you have to add fun. Comfort combined with fun will beat convenience every day of the week for me. Now the journey is about the journey, not the destination. But you still have to end up somewhere. The previous examples, New York City and New Orleans, are good examples of having a specific reason to go somewhere. I took a road trip with Jeremy and our friend Reagan to Chicago once to go to Wizard Con. But sometimes, it’s not about the place you’re going so much as it’s about going someplace. Jeremy, Reagan and I took a road trip to Chicago a year before that just to go to Chicago. Heather and I went to St. Louis this summer just to go. We went and saw the Gateway Arch and had lunch down by the Mississippi River, but the point wasn’t actually to go to St. Louis, but to go somewhere.

I’ve done a road trip as a whole vacation before. Many years ago, when I started to realize that Heather and I were pretty serious, we took a week long road trip to visit my extended family and some of hers. We went from Ohio to New York to New Hampshire to Maine to Connecticut to Pennsylvania visiting people. It was great seeing my family and meeting more of hers, and it was great introducing her to everyone, but the best part was all of the time we spent together in the car, going from place to place.

As mentioned, there is one variation on this that messes with my hypothesis. There is a road trip where there is no destination. You leave home and end up back at home, with a five hour drive in the middle. In this case, the destination is really “home, the extremely inefficient and long way,” but I think it still counts.

3. Music

This is important. For me, music on a road trip serves a lot of purposes. It can be the source of conversation, similar to how music was the source of this blog. Music brings up memories and stories, and being stuck in a car with someone for multiple hours is the perfect chance to tell those longer stories you can never find the time to otherwise. Also like this blog, you can just end up talking about the music or the band itself. Conversely, music does not inhibit conversation. On recent trips to my or Heather’s parents houses, we’ve taken to listening to podcasts or audiobooks. It’s hard to start a conversation when you’re listening to a story from someone else. Music can be foreground or background as required. And finally, since it’s very rare that you and your companion(s) are going to talk the whole time, music is there to fill in what would be uncomfortable gaps of silence otherwise. Plus, if you pick the right music, you’ll end up singing along occasionally.

Music on the road trip, for me at least, has evolved a lot in my years. Now, I have so much music on my phone at any given time that it’s easy. Plug in to the auxiliary jack, hit shuffle and I have enough music to get me to the west coast and all the way home without hearing a repeat. Even before that, sizable standalone mp3 players were the norm. Long ago, when most music I owned was on CD but all cars just had tape decks or maybe even just radio, things were a little more difficult. Unless you were cool enough to afford an adapter and a good no-skip CD player, you were stuck with local radio. You would scan for a good station or at least a familiar song, only to have to repeat the exercise an hour or two later (if you were lucky). But there was a fun, golden period in the middle of these two extremes. Cars came with CD players standard, and the music you brought was carefully curated but never complete. Sure you could bring the big binder of CDs, but I always hated those things. I prefer to leave my CDs in their jewel cases. So, a frequent companion of many a road trip for Heather and I was a crappy, cheap wicker basket that used to hold lotions or cheese or something as part of a gift set. It was the right width to comfortably hold CD cases. It only fit about fifteen CDs, and it was always an agonizing decision as to which CDs you would bring with you. Sure, you may think a certain album is awesome, but is it something that you alone find awesome? Will your driving companion hate it for the entire 40-60 minutes it’s playing? Is it even good to drive to? Heather and I would always pick an equal number of albums to bring, but there was always some crossover. One of us almost always brought a Stellastarr album.

I still enjoy a good road trip. It’s fun to have a little adventure with a friend or a wife or a group. I’ve seen some really odd and crazy things along the highways of the North East. Like anything good however, it loses some of its wonder if overdone. A road trip every weekend makes them less special and more of a chore. Plus, gas is expensive. But every now and again, driving the highways, seeing the sites, eating junk food from gas stations and having long rambling conversations is good for the soul. Just make sure you have the right music.


Mr. Tooduloo

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