Everybody needs to make at least one great road trip in their life. I don’t mean the kind that are a means to an end, like a trek to see relatives across the state or an attempt to cram five college visits into three days. A real, true-blue, hit-the-road-Jack road trip cuts right to the heart of travel and draws out the process just for the pleasure of the experience. As a veteran of both the practical (returning to college), the frivolous (three-day scavenger hunt for giant fiberglass landmarks while in costume), I believe young adulthood–any time between getting your license and getting your PhD–is the perfect time to strike out on one. It’s more than just a chance to go to cool places or see weird things–it’s kind of a rite of passage.
When I had finally showed my parents that, yes, I could be trusted with the station wagon for trips longer than to school and back, I remember feeling a kind of magical transfer of power. The keys were, literally and symbolically, in my hands, and suddenly, I was itching to get out there and drive. Gone are the days of sing-along tapes and coloring books in the backseat: it’s your turn to explore.
Get a destination. Even though the driving part is the point, you still have to be going somewhere. So pick something! And don’t feel limited to just the Grand Canyons and Mt. Rushmores of the world: I’ve made voyages to see abandoned mining towns, drive-in movie theaters, minor league baseball parks, and the Creation Museum. Be creative!
Go with friends. This is obvious! Spending time with your personal merry band of thieves is the best part, and it’s always a good idea to swap out shifts driving. But keep in mind that you’ll be spending long hours in an enclosed space with these people. I guarantee that even if you love and respect your best friend like a sister, you might be tempted to throttle her when she snaps her gum for the millionth time.
Get a car. If you (or your friends) have your own, lucky! You’re all set. If you need to borrow your parents’, assure them that you will be responsible and take good care of it–and then do that, duh. Also, it’s not a bad idea to let everyone who will be driving take a test spin in the car to get a feel for it before you hit the road. If you’re used to a Honda sedan, a Volkswagon campervan will feel like driving a school bus (I speak from experience).
Plan your time. Multi-day odysseys across several states are awesome, but even a day trip out to somebody’s cabin in the woods can be great. If you’re overnighting it, figure out when and where you’re going to sleep: cramming five people into a Motel room? Putting up a tent in a state park every night? Crashing in a cousin’s rec room?
Gear up. Besides the usual duffels of stuff, also make sure everyone’s got their licenses, insurance info, and contact numbers all in a line. Car chargers for cell phones are handy. Snacks are always a good idea. It’s also not a bad time to figure out the gas money situation (my usual solution is to keep a kitty of cash that everyone contributes to, twenty bucks at a time) and what you’ll do in case of a breakdown (AAA? Parents? OnStar?)
Pick tunes. Load up someone’s iPod with a massive playlist of driving music, plug it in on shuffle, and hit the gas. Or, alternatively, have everyone craft a their own mix CD and take turns, with explanatory commentary optional. No stereo? Do what we once did on a voyage through Wisconsin: sing Taylor Swift’s Mean a cappella as many times as everyone can stand it (see second point). Do yourself a favor and avoid the earworm that is the theme song from National Lampoon’s Vacation, even though it seems thematically appropriate. It’s maddening.
Be spontaneous. When it comes to weirdo attractions and extended scenic routes, I’m a firm believer that you should let your ADD run rampant. Spot a roadside fruit stand or a historical marker for some battle you’ve never heard of? Take a break, get a snack, stretch your legs. Think about all the groovy things you’d be missing if you just took a train or plane everywhere.
Be flexible and keep your cool. Things are going to go awry. You might end up driving your boyfriend’s 12-seater van down a winding mountain road in the middle of a downpour. You might get to the International Clown Hall of Fame and find out it’s closed for the day. You might be treated with undue suspicion by the Border Control agents on your way back from Montreal. Relax. Breathe. You’re taking the road for its bumps, remember? Everything can make a good story later.
Be safe. Not to sound like your mom, but please, please, please, don’t drive if it’s late and you’re tired or you’ve had something to drink. Treat strangers with respect, but a healthy dose of caution. Don’t trespass anywhere you don’t belong (except mayyyybe the ghost town of Centralia, PA), and pay attention to the speed limit. And no more people than seatbelts, ever.
Make memories. No, seriously. You’re going to want to remember this. Bring your camera, diary, sketchbook, whatever, and record things. Not just the big photo-ops by the World’s Largest Six Pack, but also the attempts at reading the ancient road atlas, the cramped and drooly naps in the backseat, the elaborate games of MASH you play to pass the time. Pretend you’ve traveled in time from 10 years later in your life, and notice all the little things you love about these days. You may not always know where you’re going, but you’ll always want to know where you’ve been.