What can road trips tell us about the good life?

They’re a North American icon, after all. Most of us have some tale to tell about a great road trip. Every generation seems to produce at least one classic movie about them, from Thelma & Louise to The Hangover. What is it about the open road that’s so appealing?

Albert is a thirty year old contractor with his own business. He used to race bikes semi-professionally, and he’s traveled all over the world for training and competitions. He’s at once a sound guy and rather roguish: in his wilder years, you’d have trusted him with your firstborn but maybe not your sister. Now he’s married with a baby of his own and he’s a little more sedate, although there’s still mischief in his eyes. I asked him to tell me about a really great time in his life and he told me about a road trip.

“One of the best times I ever had was driving across the country by myself. I’d never spent that kind of time alone. I bought dozens of CDs, thinking I’d have listen to them non-stop to keep me going. But as it was, I gave them all away at a gas station only twelve hours into the trip. I was having too much fun just driving and thinking.”

I asked him why it was fun.

“I guess you’d call it soul-searching fun. I’d been partying pretty hard on the West Coast, and I realized that it was turning a little negative for me. I decided to drive all the way back home. Two thousand miles. I knew it was going to be hard. It was winter. There were places that were dangerous. But I wound up planning my whole future over those four and a half days. It was like a rite of passage.”

Now Albert loves travel and adventure, so it’s not all that surprising that he loved his trip, even if it was in the dead of winter. But then I ran into someone else who also said that a road trip represented one of the best times in his life. And this was someone unlikely. This was my father.

When I was last home, I asked my father to tell me about times in his life that he’s really had fun. Knowing him, I figured it was a slam dunk he’d talk about the fun he has investigating and buying new gadgets, I mean, technologies. My father has always been the quintessential early adopter. He has subscriptions to technology magazines so arcane, most engineers haven’t heard of them. He’s the guy who shows the cool twenty year olds how to use the functionality on their iPhones. Indeed, one fateful year, he upstaged one of my best friends at her own wedding by showing up with the first digital camera anyone had ever seen. (She has since forgiven me: he took wonderful pictures, and she thought the camera was cool too.)

But my father surprised me. Instead of describing the joys of shiny new devices, he told me about a road trip.

In the mid-1960s, my Dad needed to get from Vancouver to Toronto to take up a training position in public health at the University of Toronto. He and my mother owned a silver 1960 Sunbeam convertible, an excellent specimen of the genus “beloved but temperamental English sports car”, and they decided to see if they could coax it across the thousands of miles they’d need to cover between the two cities. They set off in the middle of summer:  my Dad drove, my mother rode shotgun, and John, my then two-year-old brother, sat in the back with Fred, our large and extremely vocal Siamese cat. They ambled across the country over three weeks, stopping wherever their fancy took them. They explored national parks, small towns and interesting attractions, and, since they didn’t have much money, they ate a lot of picnics. To look at a picture of the car, which was minute, it scarcely seems credible:  a toddler and a cat? In an English convertible? Three weeks?

I told my father that it sounded like a recipe for hell.

“On the contrary,” he said. “I think it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. We had a real sense of adventure, of exploring the unknown. And sharing the experience with your mother was a lot of fun. I really liked it because it felt like we were partners in this adventure. I look back on it as one of the happiest times of my life.”

By this point in the story, I thought my father was pulling my leg. He’s not much of a traveler, and my mother frankly hated it. Case in point: we had never gone anywhere as a family when I was growing up.  I helpfully pointed this out to him.

“That’s true,” my father acknowledged. “But, you see, there was necessity involved. We had to get from Vancouver to Toronto. And once we realized that we had to do it, we got right into it. We went for it and we loved it.”

Setting aside the fact that one of the happiest times of my father’s life was before I was born, I was struck by the fact that both Albert and my father described a cross-country road trip as the most fun they ever had.

It seems to come down two things. The first is exploration. Exploration is a powerful kind of fun. Road trips are gripping metaphors for discovery precisely because they overlay literal, geographic exploration with interior journeys. In Albert’s case, he was exploring himself vis-à-vis his past and desired future. In my father’s story, he was exploring a new side of himself and my mother, and indeed of their relationship. We instinctively recognize that exploration is fun, whatever the guises in which it comes: a child exploring his or her neighborhood, a reader exploring a bookstore, or a lover exploring the body of a beloved.

The second theme is connection. In my conversations with my father and Albert, both said that they loved the sense of experiencing and somehow connecting to Canada as they drove across it. The country is so big, it’s difficult to hold one sense of it in one’s imagination. But crossing a big chunk of it connects you to the reality of it. Suddenly, you’ve logged those miles, seen what it’s all about. As Albert said, it’s like a rite of passage. And crossing those miles with someone, as my father did with my mother (and John, and Fred), connected them powerfully too.

Sunbeam Rapier 1963