I was raised in a road trip household. Hitting the highway for summer vacation wasn’t uncommon when I was a kid, but I think in my family’s case it was a matter of practicality. Gas was 35 cents a gallon, after all, while cross-country flights were $300 per round trip ticket. A family of five could save a lot of money driving from Denver to Orlando, and they could save even more if they never stopped for anything but gas and restrooms.
Those road trips were living hell for me. As the youngest I was wedged into the cargo area of the family station wagon, ice chest on one side of me and luggage on the other, with nothing to do but watch all of the great roadside attractions whiz past. I dreamed of the road trips I’d take when I was a grown-up, luxurious rides where the journey rather than the destination was the thing. My kids would gorge themselves on Stuckey’s pecan logs and squeal their way around Flintstones-themed miniature golf courses that appeared like oases along the highway.
In my early twenties I almost bought a ’62 Caddy to drive cross-country. My plan was to purchase a silver paint pen and keep a road journal on its hood and fenders. When I arrived at the opposite ocean, I’d have an art car. That plan fell through when I test drove the tired old land yacht and saw that it had no oil pressure, but the seed was planted: Someday I’d own the ultimate road trip car.
That never happened. Airfare was cheaper than gas when my kids were little, so there was no practical reason to subject them to epic cross-country road trips. My daughter and I eventually took one before she finished high school, and that experience rekindled my dreams of owning a good road trip car. My priorities have changed quite a bit since my early twenties, though. Looking good as I barrel down the interstate is nowhere near as important as a few other priorities.
My road trip car needs to be relatively new so that if I blow an alternator outside of Boise I can pick up a new one at the local Auto Zone. I guess I just defined a second criterion: It needs to be a common enough make and model that I’m able to find what I need at a parts store. Cruising across the country in a ’62 Cadillac would be cool, but I don’t want to be stranded in the Mojave for two weeks while I wait for mail order parts.
The gas mileage on that Caddy would be miserable, too. Gas is close to four bucks per gallon in some parts of the country–double what it was when I was a kid in inflation-adjusted terms. Meanwhile, I can get from Sacramento to Atlanta for as little as $350 if I fly, which is about 1/5th the cost of the same ticket 40 years ago. In order for me to beat the spread and make this road trip thing at least comparable to airfare, my new ride needs to rock the gas mileage.
But I don’t want to give up that Cadillac comfort. If I’m going to be putting in 12-16 hours per day behind the wheel, my ride better be smooth, quiet, and climate controlled–everything an airline isn’t. As Patrick Henry once said, “Give me leg room or give me death, and don’t tilt thy damned seat back until thy head is in my lap, else I will beat ye with yon tray table.” Anyway.
My road trip car needs to be able to handle all sorts of terrain, too, be it the flat, seared expanses of the southwestern deserts or the soaring, oxygen thin altitudes of the Rockies. I want to be able to navigate the rough roads of national parks, too. What’s the point of taking an epic road trip if I don’t stop along the way and enjoy the epic road sights?
Some of those sights aren’t along the road but above our heads. The night sky is an endangered species where I live. Light pollution long ago eradicated any chance of me spotting a satellite flying overhead or eyeballing any but the brightest of Messier objects from my driveway, but somewhere like Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument still has plenty of dark sky. My road car should allow for spontaneous car camping–ample room to crawl into the back seat or stretch out in the cargo bay. And speaking of stretching out, I need room on the roof or the hood to lie back and star gaze.
It’s not all about parks and skies, though. Imagine all of the great junk out there waiting for me–the books, records, art, bicycles, and pop culture ephemera. I’m going to need some room for stuff, but not too much: If I can’t park the beast in a regular parking space it’s too big. No RVs or campers for me.
I don’t want to worry about my road trip car. If it gets dinged so what, and it should be so nondescript that no thief gives it a second glance. That’s a big change from my ’62 Caddy daydreams. Implicit in this requirement is affordability: If I spend some insane amount of money on a Mercedes SUV or wagon I’m sure as hell not going to beat it up.
That’s all I want: A reliable, comfortable, affordable ride that gets great mileage and is big enough to sleep in but small enough to park on a city street. That shouldn’t be too hard to find, should it? Send me your suggestions, and I’ll see you soon at the Flintstones mini-golf just off Exit 83.