Before I get started here, I just want to assure you that this post is, indeed, about history regardless of the introductory paragraphs. It’s just that I am a mom, and I have 3 small humans within inches of me for most of my waking (and non-waking) hours. They are bound to weasel their way into my post inspirations every now and again. This post is one of those times.
The other day, my 3-year-old announced that she had urgent need of the restroom. Mind you, this information was conveyed just as I had merged into a traffic jam with my van full of youth freshly strapped into their respective child restraining devices. And also after I had asked her no less than 4 times if she needed to go before we left.
Thank you, oh motherhood, for never failing to test my capacity for frustration.
In order to avoid catastrophe, I made my way to the nearest gas station, where, upon walking in, I was hit with the familiar scent of floor cleaner, fried food, and preservative laden snacks. The scent sparked something in me. I’ve heard that smell is the sense that is most strongly linked to memory, and in this case the scent of that gas station filled me with memories of countless road trips. And I have to admit that instead of disgust when I entered the… let’s just say poorly maintained bathroom, 3 kids in tow, the thought that dominated all others was this: we need to go on a road trip. Yes, even as my 5-year-old came within inches of picking up and trying out the remains of a discarded and slightly furry sucker on the disgusting floor, my thoughts were with the great American treasure of road tripping. I guess gas stations just have this effect on me.
Bladders emptied and children once again restrained (no small feat, I’ll just leave it at that), I was free to ponder the road trip further. When did the phenomenon begin and why? What have been the cultural effects of it? What is it about road trips that has turned them into part of the American identity? So, as a history geek that must be satisfied, I did some research. Here’s the scoop:
The first “road trip” on record took place in Germany in August 1888. A little lady by the name of Bertha Benz (yes, as in Mercedes-Benz), travelled from Mannheim to Pforzheim, 66 miles, in the third experimental Benz motor car. The pretense of the trip was to visit Bertha’s mother, but she was really after the promotion of her husband’s motor car, and the freedom and convenience that came with owning one. The trip wasn’t fast, the max speed of the car was 10 mph, but I assume she got in some quality time with her two sons, who came along for the ride. Oh, by the way, her husband, Karl Benz, had no knowledge of the little adventure at the time. After this maiden voyage, the sales of Benz’ invention expanded, and his company evolved into the Mercedes Benz we all know today. Nice job, Bertha.
In 1903, Americans got on board with making long distance trips in automobiles, with the first North American road trip, coast to coast, made by H. Nelson Jackson, Sewall K. Crocker, and most importantly, a dog named Bud. The three travelled from San Francisco to New York in a 1903 Winton Touring Car. For 63 days and a total cost of $8,000 (including the cost of the car), the 2 men and Bud the dog made their mark as the first American road trippers. And oh, how we have followed their lead ever since. Here, I also have to mention Alice Ramsey, who was the first woman travel across the United States by car, from Manhattan to San Francisco, along with three female passengers in 1909. Way to rock the first girls’ road trip, ladies.
Early in the 20th century, new highways made automobile travel an option for citizens in the United States. In 1926, U.S. Route 66 was commissioned, and by the late 1930s, it was completely paved and operational; Americans were free to get their kicks. The 1940s saw an increase in the modern road trip, which is defined by dictionary.com as “a journey via automobile, sometimes unplanned or impromptu.”
The popularity of the road trip was helped along as the sale of automobiles to American families increased greatly in the 1950s, and when construction of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or the Interstate, was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the road trip was assured a place in American culture. The original Interstate plan was completed in 1991, with small modifications, and has continued to grow. In 2013, the total length of the Interstate was measured at 47,856 miles.
In response to the needs of Americans “road tripping,” these many miles are now populated with roadside attractions, novelties, gas stations, and cheap motels. These businesses have sprung up along the sides of the Interstate as communities used to spring up along waterways. The miles of Interstate are all different, but familiar, due to the frequent conveniences and unique strangeness that greet you along the way. The various road side attractions and businesses are so interesting and unique, that I think they deserve their own post, which is exactly what they will get in the next few weeks.
There you have the historical nuts and bolts of how the American road trip became possible, but to me, the historical relevance has much more to do with the why than the how. Why does anyone choose to drive to a destination that can be reached more efficiently by, say, air travel? Why do we choose to get in our cars and drive with absolutely no destination in mind at all? What is it that is so appealing about traveling the open road?
Taking a road trip is not fancy. It isn’t luxury-laden vacationing. It doesn’t make you feel pampered. It does however, make you feel free. I believe that this is the appeal. You could choose, if you wanted to, to just keep driving…. for as long as you wanted. You may only choose to do this in your wildest dreams, or if you don’t mind losing your job and forsaking all responsibility, but the point is that you could. If you wanted to. You would end up who knows where? Or you could turn around. The possibilities are up to you and your car.
The road trip also facilitates the creation of bonds between us, the people we take them with, and the places we pass through. Hours spent in an enclosed space with others forces us to acknowledge and communicate with each other. It also forges a connection between us and the world we live in. The more of the world that we see and experience, the more we can appreciate. When we take a road trip, we discover things that we would never see otherwise. Travel through towns we would never mark as destinations. Discover the world in its mundane, everyday beauty. To me, the road trip is of historical relevance because of the way in which it has opened our world to discovery.
Perhaps because I’m a mom, the phrase that I most closely connect with the road trip has to be, “Are we there yet?!” And although at the end of a sticky, long, cramped day in the car with sometimes carsick, sometimes crying kids, I may want to be “there,” I do hope that most of time, my answer is no, we still have a long way to go, lots of places to see and experience. We aren’t there yet. And a part of me hopes we never are. Metaphorically, of course. I mean, a person can only take so much crying in one day…