The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 26 asks: “‘Tis the season for road trips—if time and money were out of the equation, what car-based adventure would you go on? (If you don’t or can’t drive, any land-based journey counts.)” I do not know if what follows answers the question or not, in that I do not name a place. Everywhere?
If the photo above is not the actual car my family owned in 1979, it is the model Chevy Malibu station wagon that my memory has chosen to remember as the car that my parents drove to cart my sister and me around that summer and every other summer, before 1979 and after. (My memory is not what it used to be; it is better!) Our family road trips over about two decades included weekends in Vermont (family), on Cape Cod, in Pennsylvania, along the Connecticut shore. We were not a wealthy family, so our family vacations were always road trips to a destination that we could reach in one day of driving. My father was the only driver, so this was more than fair. The long(ish) car ride was simultaneously unendurable and somehow, sometimes the only part of the trip that was worth remembering.
Given the unspoken assignment to “entertain ourselves,” my sister and I did just that. Her vast collection of dolls, the majority of which always traveled with her, were hired by the two of us to put on plays, which my parents for some reason tolerated, as we would put up a blanket in the back window as a curtain and move the dolls around in front of the curtain for the entertainment of drivers behind us. We were never pulled over.
For many of the trips, for long hours, I would allow my mind to wander and imagine life in each street sign name we passed under. Seen that way, the world beckoned with possibility. Upon arrival at our destination, I was usually discombobulated, as I often am on leaving a movie theater, and miffed at rejoining real life.
In 2000, I landed a job and moved partway across the country, from the Hudson Valley to East Central Iowa. Poughkeepsie, New York, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by bus. It was a 36-hour-long journey, across all the states required for that journey. In anecdotes, I probably make it sound like something I accomplished, when in fact all I did was sit and sometimes stretch my legs. The population of the bus was whittled down, layover by layover, because what for me were layovers for most people were destinations: Cleveland, Gary, Chicago. From Joliet on, the conversation took over the bus; we were all leaving the bus in Iowa, some in Davenport, some in Iowa City. Only two of us were going all the way to Cedar Rapids, and I was the one moving there. I was not imagining things on an epic road trip.
I cherish the memory of traveling across country by road, even if the road was an interstate, which gives one a very particular image of the nation: “This country is wide open!” punctuated with cityscapes. From my apartment in downtown Cedar Rapids, I could hear the shoosh of I-380 at night, all night.
A recent work by filmmaker Evan Mather, “From Sea to Shining Sea,” depicts the one great road trip, from the Atlantic to the Pacific in one hour and forty-seven minutes.
As we speedily travel the entire country, photographed with an iPhone, the effect is not one of rushing anywhere, but of a dreamy slowness. It is the only film I have seen so far that brings me back to my childhood travels in the backseat of a Malibu station wagon, imagining life, here, then here, always here. Never there.