Glory of the open road meets reality

Friday, September 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Nearly every year since the millennium began, I’ve set out on a road trip. A beat-up Volvo, a few dollars in my pocket, a job that wouldn’t miss me — and I was gone. A day, a week, a month … The duration didn’t matter as long as I switched the scenery.

Some years brought me to the best of Americana, from Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate to the Grand Canyon. Other years took me one town over, like last year’s hop to Hannibal, site of Mark Twain’s boyhood home. Some trips brought along friends or a girlfriend; others were excuses to look up friends and exes along the way.

In many minds, road trips are the stuff of Jack Kerouac novels and Hunter S. Thompson memoirs, with cheap drugs and sex with strangers. But my motive had less to do with hedonism than a journalistic desire to see America as it is. Forget planes and trains. The way to witness the countryside is in the driver’s seat. The whizzing trees and farmlands remind me that there's more to life than my day-to-day routines. It’s remarkably easy to get to places even in my clunker that, over the years, gasped and wheezed from California to South Carolina before the engine blew out right here in mid-Missouri.

To be sure, many don’t have the luxury of time or finances to hit the road for pure pleasure. My cross-country trips often happened during periods of “transition” from one job to another, or when I was living at home to cut costs. Others consider the dangers. A former roommate who is black said he would never road-trip across unfamiliar states for the same reason he won’t go jogging at night — the risk of inviting an unpleasant confrontation with law enforcement should something go wrong.

But even for those of us who can appreciate a deserted highway that begs the accelerator, as we secretly hope to pay real-life homage to flicks like “Road Trip” or “Easy Rider,” I doubt that we’ll harbor such fantasies for much longer.

For one thing, many highways are becoming as congested as cities. I don’t need to cite statistics to prove that contention because I’ve seen it firsthand. This past August, I drove through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Due to an unholy combination of construction, traffic accidents and summer tourists, I spent more than half the trip driving under the speed limit. "Rough Road" is not a sign I remember seeing in years past, but apparently it means driving atop unmarked gravel and emitting a sound so grating that it can't be doing anything good to my car.

The reason for this trip was more networking than vacation, as I crisscrossed states to meet face-to-face with potential employers. Along the way I managed to check in with my elderly grandparents, but any plans to sightsee for its own sake were quickly scrapped.

Gas prices, while not as bad as a year or two ago, are still high enough to feel the pinch. But even if they miraculously dropped to $1 a gallon or General Motors released a wave of solar-powered vehicles, the net result would be more cars sharing the same space. And more cars mean more wear and tear on the highways, which means more construction. On it goes.

The average family now owns two to three vehicles as compared to one vehicle a generation ago, and it shows. More cars than ever line our streets. Already some of America’s most notable freeways, such as Southern California’s 405, are referred to as parking lots. If the trend continues, that glorious stretch of open road forever romanticized in car ads will soon be found only in commercials.

You might be thinking: So what? The world is crowded. The economy sucks. Gas and oil are no longer cheap commodities with bottomless reserves. Cars should be for utility, not joyriding. Stuff changes. Get over it.

Besides, the Internet generation can obtain satellite or digital pictures of the world’s wonders from our laptops. How necessary will we view the prospect of going out of our way to see Mount Rushmore up close?

And what, really, do we lose as roads become more and more crammed with behemoth trucks, obstructive pylons and unsightly billboards?

Even in journalism, there are some things you can't put into words.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU and a producer for the "Global Journalist" radio show.

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