The great American road trip. It’s a keystone of American culture. Driving coast to coast seeing the tranquil forests of the eastern U.S. and the plains in the breadbasket of America and the regal mountains of the Rocky region and the lifeless deserts of Great Basin that once again leads into serene greenery. This voyage is as American as the aroma of a freshly baked apple pie, or a suburban house with a white picket fence. It is a symbol of American independence and freedom, but one that may be going out of style.
The road trip is an American tradition that has roots in the literature and lives of some of the most famous American writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald. He and his wife, Zelda, embarked on perhaps the single most famous American road trip in their 80-horsepower 1918 Marmon Speedster Touring, one that would go on to inspire The Great Gatsby. While Fitzgerald’s writing on this pioneering journey is often referenced, he was far from the first to embark on the great American road trip. The first documented road trip across the U.S. occurred in 1903. In the spring, after partaking in a $50 bet on the matter, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson began his road trip in San Francisco bound for the Atlantic Coast. The car was rudimentary, a 20-horsepower Winton, and the journey would be long. There were only 150 miles of paved roads in 1903, and all of them were within cities. Although Jackson’s trip took 63 days, it inspired many Americans to invest in the automobile and, in some ways, is responsible for the road-tripping culture we have today.
I have been at my school for 14 years; Will, 14, too; Thomas, six; Ned, five. Eighth grade was our first year as a group of four, and we definitely spent our fair share of time together. We would hang out every Friday night playing video games, mostly “Call of Duty,” or watching classically terrible movies like “Soul Plane” or “The Room,” or just talking about how weird it would be to be freshmen in the fall. High school seemed like it would be so foreign, so different than what we were used to. We always imagined it would be far more different than it actually turned out to be. By the time the summer between eighth and ninth grade rolled around, we had spent an incalculable amount of time together. Last year we had similar conversations as in eighth grade, conversations about being seniors and how weird it would be to be somewhere completely different the following fall, somewhere where we would no longer be together. That evening we decided that we needed one last big adventure as a group, something to bring us closer than ever before – a road trip.
The U.S. interstate system is a magnificent beast. A tangled web of 47,856 miles of roads spanning all 50 states and Puerto Rico. The long, wide roads of the United States are often romanticized in literature and film, but they have simpler beginnings than these stories let on. The program was championed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, for which the road network is named.
Our plan was to drive out to California, San Francisco specifically, then traverse Highway 1 down the coast to Los Angeles, where we would stay for a while. Then we would make our way back through the lower states and turn north when we hit Texas.
Sea turtles are known for their beauty, but they are also renowned for one particular skill, and it’s a weird one: navigation. Turtles are born on the same beach their mother was born on, and they will return to it throughout their lives. As the baby turtles break out of their shells, they begin to take in the world around them. The smell of the air, the feel of the sand under their flippers, and even the appearance of the water, all of which they commit to memory within the first few hours of their lives.
The first car journey was nothing like Dr. Jackson’s adventure. It had more humble beginnings. In 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of Karl Benz, the inventor of the automobile and the two-stroke internal combustion engine, embarked on a short road trip of only a few miles with her two teenage sons, Eugen and Richard; many say the trip was to her mother’s house for a visit. They set off one August morning at around 5 a.m. They had to leave so early because the car was very slow. It produced less than one horsepower and had a top speed of under 10 mph on a gentle downhill. This long trip to Grandma’s house was the first ever car journey, a trip devoid of the romance that road trips eventually became synonymous with.
Eisenhower saw the importance of a cross-country road system for our nation’s security, a realization that became apparent during World War II. The Nazis were able to move weapons so efficiently because of the Reichsautobahn, a highway system well known for its lack of speed limits on many sections. My dad had the opportunity to drive a sports car on the Autobahn, saying, “The roads are like silk ribbons of tarmac, unbelievably smooth, even above 150 mph, and they are designed to keep drivers engaged with gentle corners.” Eisenhower’s final plan was modeled after Germany’s Autobahn; the plan was authorized on June 29, 1956, and construction began soon after in August. The initial construction lasted 35 years and cost nearly $530 billion, inflation-adjusted for 2017. While expensive, the advent of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as it is formally known, served its purpose as a conduit for travel across the United States.
Since we first began planning our road trip, the itinerary has changed dramatically. We have cut out our two big stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco entirely. We now want to do a National Parks tour. We hope to spend the first day driving to Mount Rushmore and camp there for the night. It seems criminal to skip Rushmore, a quintessentially American monument. The next morning, we will have to wake up early in order to make it to Yellowstone, where we will stay for a few days. We want to spend our days driving to trailheads and hiking to the secluded areas of the park. After that, we will move on to California’s natural treasures – Half Dome, the Redwoods, and its breathtaking coastline. Finally, we will, as previously planned, make our way back on the scenic route through the south, taking in Monument Valley and some of the natural wonders this region has to offer. We also want to attempt to go through part of the trip with no maps and no guidance at all. To wander aimlessly through nature, navigating by impulse and a craving for adventure and exploration.
The baby sea turtles eventually reach the water, where they first get their beaks wet. They take off into the deep blue, but as they travel, they begin to create a map of where they have been and where they are heading. The turtles’ memories of the location supplement their natural ability to tell their longitude. These natural abilities enable a turtle to travel hundreds of miles yet always be able to find its way back to its home beach through instinct.
The interstate system also created a demand for an entirely new product for Americans – roadmaps that offered a view of the 48 states they could now drive to. Many mapmakers rushed to fill this demand, each of them using cartographers to map out the entire system. Once the first map was published, however, it would be easy for others to copy it and resell it as their own. To protect against this, mapmakers created paper towns: towns that existed only on paper as a copyright trap. Perhaps the most famous example of this is a fictitious town called Agloe in New York. Esso owned the rights to the map that contained the paper town of Agloe, but it soon showed up on a Rand McNally map of the area. Esso threatened to sue, however, a few years prior, the Agloe General Store had been erected where Agloe was supposedly located. Rand McNally pointed out the existence of the store, which proved that the town of Agloe was now real. Esso dropped the lawsuit, but paper towns still live on in all maps.
Grand tours, the predecessor to the modern road trip, were usually taken by affluent young men in search of the finer things in life. Exquisite works of art, beautifully crafted poems, and mesmerizing sculptures were all factors that drew these men into the European countryside. After the advent of the railroad and train, the grand tour became accessible to many Europeans and gave birth to a sector of cars built with the purpose of road tripping in mind: the GT (or grand touring) car. Eventually, writers began to document this experience of touring Europe, an experience that inspired many of the pioneering Americans to begin road tripping in the 20th century like Fitzgerald in his grand tourer.
A turtle’s ability to detect longitude is based on it knowing how far it is from the North Pole. That said, the magnetic North Pole, which the sea turtle can sense the location of, and the true north pole are not in the same place. This means that slowly, as magnetic north shifts, the turtle’s map does too. Even though the map shifts, it shifts the same for each turtle, so a turtle and its family will always end up together, with one another, at the same beach. A dive guide I once had claimed that he “helped a turtle get out of a net and onto its home beach, and every few years when that turtle returns [he] meets it on the beach to say hi, and [he] likes to think that the turtle remembers who it is.”
As an alternative to our road trip plan, my mom offered to take us to the Bahamas, saying, “Do you actually want to be sleeping on dirt? That doesn’t sound very fun to me …” But glamour isn’t the point. We plan on tenting most nights, not staying in hotels, and maybe not even showering. We are all hoping for slightly different things, but above all else, we want to end up closer than ever before. Locking yourselves in a car for 7,500 miles surely brings you close, but the road map of memories that we will create by exploring the tranquil forests and the plains and the regal mountains and lifeless deserts and, once again, the serene greenery as a group will help keep us together even when we can no longer spend every day and every mile by one another’s side.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.