Return of the Road Trip

The great American road trip is resurgent. Hallelujah.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley    Photo: Jeremy Woodhouse/Photodisc/Getty

LAST YEAR in these pages I said the road trip was dead. Is it OK if I say the opposite now? Yes, the road trip has revived. In fact, it's fine! We Americans respond to the price of gasoline the way a person suffering from dehydration does to the IV needle—that is, instantly. Last summer, when gas was four dollars a gallon, we drove in pain, wincing at each splinter of the gas gauge's descent as our $60 tankfuls bled away. Now, thank God, we can be Americans again. In this country, we have to drive—it's as simple as that. If we're not on the road, who are we? For me, propulsion begins in the easy chair in my third-floor office as I look out the window into the upper stories of the trees, and a deepening of the shade brings on an old longing, and I want to be out west again. I must add, as a caveat both to the reader and myself, that I live in New Jersey. This means that when the mood for heading west in actuality, not just in fantasy, comes over me, I have little choice besides Interstate Highway 80. I gas up (400 miles for $22!) and take the nearest entry ramp. As the poet Richard Hugo wrote about another western road trip, "Never has your Buick found this forward a gear."

Now people are driving again with their hearts in it, full-out and having fun. Everything and its brother is roaring down I-80. When did every third semi start having Logistics painted on its side? Across New Jersey, the traffic jams and unjams in the familiar accordion pattern, trying to break free of greater New York. The highway pinches down through the Delaware Water Gap, then climbs into Pennsylvania. For 300 miles after that I-80 is a mountain road, beset with windings and bad weather. Pioneers in the 19th century, when crossing these Alleghenies a little farther to the south, used to stop at overlooks to admire their first view of "the West," which at that time began in central Pennsylvania. They used to shout things like "Onward to Illinois!" and "Hurrah for Ohio!"

When the highway leaves the mountains and straightens out across the glaciated plain of eastern Ohio, there's an unleashed quality to the traffic as it strains westward even faster. A cartoon would show us all in profile, frozen in flight, our ears back and our noses stretched toward the horizon line. I mean, everything is rushing down this road—houses, nuclear-reactor parts, coliseum ceiling beams, yachts (Is that fair? Shouldn't they find some water route to where they're going?), Danielle Steel the romance novelist's tour bus, high-school bands, turbines, fiberglass golf-cart bodies, cell-phone-tower segments, convoy after convoy of New York City garbage destined for a central-Ohio landfill. Someday, we're supposed to believe, all this massive freight will move around our country driven by—what? Sunlight? The wind? Well, someday is not quite yet. Open the window, turn the music up, put the pedal down.

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