It was 2am. We’d just passed through Salt Lake City. The beaming metropolis quite suddenly appeared from behind the dark curtain of Utah’s night sky. It was like an oasis in the most cliché sense of the word. We had been driving for what seemed like days (really, we had left northern Colorado seven hours earlier).
The city seemed odd and huge after staring into a rural void for hours; we were hoping that rest and HBO were just around a corner or two. But our search for a cheap motel or even a gas station in the greater Salt Lake area proved unsuccessful (the one open hotel we found had been booked for some sales convention out by the airport). The small Saturn’s gas gauge fell steadily. Its “check engine light” had been on since I had first stepped foot into the passenger seat four years prior, but it still made me nervous. The little car was increasingly feeling like a straightjacket.
We drove. And drove still. The salt flats hauntingly appeared and we were surrounded by a vast extraterrestrial-like world that we could just barely see. Then, when I was getting panicky and my roommate was getting grumpy, Wendover, Nev., materialized like a knight in neon armor. There we found cheap motels by the handful and a gas station open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We slept like babies in beds covered with unthinkable dander and awoke refreshed and ready to make the last leg of our road trip to the Bay area.
That trip was filled with stress, strain and even some good old-fashioned drama.
And it was awesome.
Road trips are marathons (though, admittedly, I’ve never done a marathon, but I think it’s maybe what a marathon might be like if I could run one). The kind of marathon you’d repeat despite the pain.
I’ve driven back and forth between Colorado and California countless times. I’ve done many a trip through New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas and Wyoming. All of them adventures: as a child with the engine of my mom’s station wagon hemorrhaging dark smoke; a trip in which my dad won hundreds of dollars playing slots in the Casablanca Casino in Mesquite, Nev.; the drive out to college with my mom in the passenger seat, snow falling in New Mexico; and the solo trip back to Colorado in my ’89 Camry after my college graduation. During one particularly awful road trip up to Yellow Stone with the family, we got into a car accident and stayed at a “bed and breakfast” that did not serve breakfast, had shag carpet in all the rooms and bragged that its cages of chickens in the parking lot were a “petting zoo.” Later, I twisted my ankle getting out of the car to see a moose on the side of the road.
Long hours, late nights, dirty hotel rooms, the landscape of the Great Plains, power napping in the cramped back seat, all take a toll on weary drivers. Then there are speeding tickets, flat tires (or smoking engines), fast food, gas stations along vast stretches of deserted highway and countless attempts at re-folding the road map. The threats of “don’t make me turn this car around” and “are we there yet?” on repeat.
It can be nasty out there on the road.
But then again, a road trip is absolutely exciting: inside jokes, wacky mishaps, unexpected views, mix tapes (i.e. iPod playlists), license plate or “I spy” games, and the occasional sing-a-long with the whole brood. No matter how difficult they seem in the moment, how stressful or annoyed or tired you are, you almost always look back with a smile.