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The Great American Road Trip

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What is the great American road trip?

It's when one or more people pull up roots and decide to see a part of the country. It can be a vacation road trip or a permanent move to a new location but generally it always entails traveling by car or bus. Taking a road trip is great way to see "the guts" of America. It gives you a sense of the nation's topography as well as a sense of the people who live there, something that can not be done with air travel. A good road trip also helps you to understand differences in the world. Road trips need not be expensive, either, although they were certainly a lot cheaper in the 1970s when hitchhiking on America's highways was a common sight.

When I was in western Colorado last year I was shocked to see that hitchhiking was still alive and well. Hitchhiking, of course, is pretty much of a male thing. It was the same in the 1970s and it continues to follow this pattern. In the small Colorado towns I visited I spotted guys with knapsacks standing on the side of the road holding signs with the names of different cities spelled out. Seeing this was a revelation because hitchhiking has all but disappeared on the East Coast. There was a time when you couldn't drive down Lancaster Pike on Philly's Main Line without seeing a string of people with their thumbs out. Sometimes you'd even see couples (that was the way that females could hitchhike safely). Some would hold signs that said Lancaster, Pittsburgh, Reading or Los Angeles. Driving my mother's blue Mustang in those days, I felt no fear picking up these road travelers and giving them a lift. My experiences were always safe and pleasant, too. I was never robbed and the Mustang was never highjacked.

It helped that I was also an avid hitchhiker and knew the poetry of the road. For an entire summer I hitched a ride to and from work on Lancaster Avenue, going from Paoli to Frazer in the morning to work at a local lumber mill. I did the same thing going home at night. There was never any question of not being able to obtain a ride. Somebody always stopped for me. Usually the drivers that give me lifts were men, but there were a few women, like the waitress who stopped for me and insisted that I stop at her house and meet her kids. (I got the sense that she was looking for a husband or a date, although I had other ideas.) There were always surprises when hitchhiking. One time I got into a car only to hear the driver say, "We are going straight to Hell." As I felt the blood drain from my face, the driver laughed and said, "Only joking."

Of course, hitching a ride every day along the same route, you become a familiar "safe" face to regular drivers so sometimes two rides would stop for me at once and I'd have to choose which one to accept. As a shy kid, these no longer than 15-minute treks forced me to communicate and hold conversations with strangers until I felt comfortable enough to initiate conversations on my own. For me, hitchhiking was a life education.

My big bohemian-adventure dream in those days was to hitchhike across country, from Philly to LA or San Fran. Many guys were hitching cross country then. This rite of passage was inspired by Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I decided against seeing the U.S. this way because at heart I think I finally accepted the fact that I wasn't that adventurous. Raised in the suburbs, I had too much affection for showers and soap. Somehow the idea of going without a bath for days didn't smell good to me. I did the next best thing and bought a cross-country Greyhound ticket, but even this was challenging. While I got to see the U.S. -- Utah's Great Salt Flats, the Rocky Mountains and the vast desert in Nevada -- sleeping in a Greyhound was challenging.

Last week I saw my sister "C" and her boyfriend off for their cross-country RV road trip to Los Angeles. The RV they rented was a house on wheels, complete with a spacious double bed, shower, kitchen, sofa, TV and more. The impetus for the trip was a job transfer; C was told, "You either get laid off or we can transfer you to LA." C is an adventurer, as is her boyfriend G. They welcomed the life change -- they were getting tired of East Coast cold and the idea of palm trees everywhere seemed pretty seductive. Of course, California has its share of problems. There's the never-ending two-year drought, which is getting more serious by the day. Their new LA apartment includes a spacious dirt yard. The yard has no grass because there hasn't been rain to grow grass. G, who once lived in California, was at first skeptical about leaving Roxborough. "Look at the beauty of the Fairmount Park area," he said. "The change of seasons, the sloping hills, the farms."

Lucky for her, C's company paid for the cross-country odyssey, even for the RV rental. Their furniture and even their two cars were shipped out in advance, which meant that they would only take personal items and the two pets, Bella, the dog and Sweet Pea, the finicky cat. Sweet Pea is not a lap cat but one of those hide-and-seek cats, often afraid of its own shadow. Try to take Sweet Pea into your arms for a cozy coupling and you'll probably wind up with a scratch. Bella, on the other hand, is an old dog with arthritis. She has a bobbed tail (which makes her look weird from behind) and a high maintenance, whiney personality. I think she was born with a worried look on her face. .

C and G planned to take a southern route and then head west gradually so as to avoid snow and ice. The countdown to their planned travel day, last Sunday, came with a lot of fanfare. For a short time they even entertained naming their trek but everyone kept coming up with variations of Westward Ho and that seemed too much like a cliché.

Naturally, helping C and G load their personal items on the RV last Sunday put me in mind of my own trips out West. I thought of my Greyhound bus trip, especially the return ride from San Fran to Philly, when I shared seats with Mormon missionaries and several Native American women carrying crying babies. I thought about the long nights with the bus moving through small western towns, or racing across the plains of Kansas and stopping at East of Eden-style towns with only a gas station, a diner or maybe a strange-looking motel. Riding the bus, I was always too shy to talk to strangers, and so I never said a word to my seat mate. I sat quietly like someone without a tongue, my face buried in a book or looking out the window, all the while dying of loneliness inside and wishing that somebody -- anybody -- would draw me out of myself. It was terrible being that shy. During that bus trip I didn't say a word to anyone for five days.

Ironically, very soon after this road trip, I began hitchhiking on Philly's Main Line. Hitchhiking, as I've noted, blew the lid off my shyness. It was the catalyst that forced me out of myself.

Both C and G, who are the opposite of shy, no doubt conversed all the way to their new home, although poor Sweet Pea, shy to the point of psychosis, did not emerge from hiding until the happy "Westward Ho" duo had reached Arizona.