Why summer road trips are anything but vacations

I am writing this column from a dark, cramped, nauseating purgatory. It is 10:30 p.m., and my mother, father and I are in our tenth hour of driving through the American South in a rental car overloaded with bulging suitcases, bags of half-eaten food and empty, squashed water bottles.

Despite the 85-degree weather outside the car, I am currently experiencing a deep remorse about my ill-fated, though understandable, decision not to bring a fluffy sweatshirt and flannel sweatpants since my dad keeps the temperature around 50 degrees in order to remain awake while driving. Plus I can’t drive because apparently you have to be 25 to operate a rental car, and my parents have expressed their utter disinterest in committing a minor legal infraction.

They consider it a summer vacation. For me, it’s a twisted, masochistic brand of family overkill.

Road trips can be wholesome, relaxing bonding experiences. They can also be exhausting, will-sapping, fight-breeding pilgrimages to scattered tourist magnets through which the miserable road-trippers frantically rush so as to avoid a treacherous drive in the dark for their next four-hour stretch.

Of course I am fortunate to have a family and an opportunity to experience a part of the country that I have never before visited. But I find myself yearning for the glorious tranquility of my summer job. Plus, by day two, I am approaching these excursions as though I am a competitor in “Survivor,” except a million dollars probably won’t be awaiting me once we at long last pull into the Budget Car Rental parking lot. In that spirit, I present seven points to consider before you equate “road trip” with “vacation.”

1. We spend a pitifully large amount of time unloading the car, checking into the hotel (four hotels in five nights, to be precise), setting up the room, packing back up the next morning and reloading the car. There’s no “What a beautiful view!” “I’m so relaxed,” “I could do this all day” and “What a fond family memory this will make!,” but an awful lot of “If you stack the suitcases that way, I won’t be able to see out the rear. Gotta reload them,” “Where’s the one with my clothes in it? Did we leave it behind in Atlanta?!”, “My toe!” and “My back!!”

2. We spend even more time driving. This has the potential to be an exciting and culturally enlightening experience. But America is becoming increasingly homogenized, and whether you’re in Georgia, Alabama or Arkansas, the highway signs are green with white lettering and the billboards for Bass Pro Shops, Marriotts, Paneras, Burger Kings and Cracker Barrels are identical.

3. We spend very little time at our actual destinations. The moment you stumble wearily out of the car is undeniably a relief. The human body is not intended to be crammed into a confined space for hours on end, and so stretching those spasming, aching hamstrings sure is a refreshing feeling. But after that, things go “South” as you scurry through the place you’ve driven hours to reach.

“Most people spend approximately two hours,” announced the affable woman at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. We allotted 45 minutes and skipped half the museum. (Don’t worry, we spent a solid three hours at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.) But in other cases, 45 minutes may be all you want. For example, at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Dixie Chicks exhibit, we overheard an imposing woman with a thick Southern accent declare, “Look what happened to them. Why don’t more folks today get in trouble for talking down on our fine president?”

(If the early 2000s aren’t your era, check out: http://theboot.com/natalie-maines-dixie-chicks-controversy/).

4. To road trip is to play with death. Foreign regions often feature unfamiliar, and potentially car-totaling, traffic quirks. In Nashville, for instance, my father found himself in a left-turn lane that blocked the flow of oncoming traffic. As cars barrelled toward us, my mother exclaimed, “We have had so many close calls!!” She sounded surprised. She shouldn’t have been. As my grandmother warned my 16-yearold self, “A car is a death machine.” Driving is dangerous. It is more dangerous than such sensible means of long-distance transportation as trains and planes. Sure, it might be less expensive than several round-trip plane tickets, but plane tickets are typically less expensive than new cars. And caskets.

5. Even if you don’t perish in a fiery crash, you’re liable to vomit. For example, to turn left off certain roads in Nashville, you have to cross several lanes of traffic. But you have only 100 feet to do so. And if that doesn’t make you nauseated, then some other aspect of navigation in unfamiliar territory probably will. For example, pulling in and out of a stranger’s driveway to change direction after your GPS tells you to drive onto the on-ramp 10 feet after you’ve passed it, or nearly drifting off the highway on the wrong exit and then frantically swerving to get back on.

6. Indeed you might have to forcefully expulse your lunch, or at least empty your trash and bladders, and fill your tank. Enter the seedy gas station. We urinated while watching cockroaches circle our feet. We were greeted by the intimidating glares of seven brawny men, standing by their motorcycles, in the dark of night in backwoods Arkansas. We were so eager to escape that we inadvertently attempted to pull away with the gasoline nozzle still inside the tank.

7. Packing a small group of people into a rolling efficiency apartment sans bathroom, bed and kitchen for 25 hours engenders annoyance, snide remarks and exasperation. If you spend enough time with virtually anyone, that person becomes irritating. And you’re utterly trapped until Siri asserts “You have reached your destination,” which offers only a few hours’ hiatus before you must resume the compulsory enmeshment. I love my parents, but a little less now than before we began the trip. Similarly, a relatively surefire means by which to break up with your best friend or significant other is to embark on a lengthy road trip.

But even when we’re hunched over the hood with two strangers at a gas station in rural Alabama trying to figure out where precisely to reinsert the oil gauge (yup, it was a rental and it was hard to find) or conversing with the cop who is giving my mother a citation for driving precisely eight mph over the speed limit, I find myself wildly amused—you don’t get stories like those from splashing around in chlorinated water with a jumbo swan floatie. Plus, assuming you’re not mutually disowning one another, returning your engagement rings or tossing your BFF bracelets in the recycling bin, you’ll probably have a proud, bonded sense of survived-it-togetherness at the end of the whole debacle.

P.S. We’re currently driving through rural Oklahoma. We heard a gunshot, and a “splat” on our car roof. Rest in peace, little birdie.I sure hope we have rental car insurance.

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