At the end of this semester I will drive home to St. Louis. I am not
sure what route I will take to get there, but I am confident it will be a rewarding
trip. I think of my previous journeys to and from Los Angeles and the
crossing of deserts, mountains and prairies. I remember the feeling of
hours fading into one another and a vast continent unfolding itself
linearly through my windshield.
By the time the semester comes to a close in May, hundreds of students
from outside Los Angeles will make arrangements to return home.
Though most students will fly home, making the trip by car can turn a simple flight into an unforgettable adventure. Compared to a flight or a train ride, a road trip can serve as a vacation and personal journey while still moving the traveler from point A to point B. With America’s vast interstate highway system as a canvas, the road tripper can craft a journey which reflects their personal interests.
For students with cars, a road trip home is a chance to take in any number of spectacular natural sites found along the interstate highway system. Traveling by car, either with friends or by oneself, is a chance to discover new places and new aspects to life at a cost comparable to a flight.
It is important that more young people take to the road and explore our public lands. Though the number of visitors to national parks is stable, the share of young people visiting has declined across the country. In 2012, USA Today reported that the median age of visitors to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming was 54 (the country’s median age is only 37.6 years).
If public lands and the natural spaces they support are to be maintained for the future, more young people must form emotional connections to parks. If more young adults do not visit national parks and form emotional bonds to the natural world, these vital spaces will lack devoted champions and their preservation will be threatened.
Students should not be intimidated by the prospect of taking a road trip home this summer. Even with a destination across the
country, planning and executing a journey by car is a relatively simple
endeavor. My first step is inputting my point of departure and
destination into Google Maps. I then pour over the calculated route, noting green areas on the map that indicate public lands.
Using Google, I determine which parks and wild areas I would like to
visit and adjust the route accordingly. After a few hours of Internet
research, I can outline a rough itinerary and calculate total mileage.
The most direct route to St. Louis is about 1,800 miles, but a proper road trip does not much regard direct routes. The beauty of the American road trip lies in the accessibility of wonders along the way; it is half about driving and half about deciding where to stop. In the past I have found the most rewarding of distractions near the Interstate 15 and Interstate 70 junction in Utah. Traveling east or west along this coast-to-coast highway, a driver passes within a hundred miles of dozens of some of the country’s most spectacular national parks, state parks and designated wildlife areas.
Excursions into parks and roadside attractions should fill a road trip, making what would otherwise be an arduous 20-hour drive into a week-long combined camping, driving and hiking expedition. The accessibility of major trails at national and state parks make it easy to pepper a 2,000-mile journey with many scenic hikes. The road trip, interspersed with hiking and camping, creates the perfect combination of appreciation for a large swath of land and the up-close examination of specific canyons, mountains and basins.
Public lands also offer a critical way to save money. Land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service usually offer either free or cheap dispersed camping or campgrounds, sometimes charging a few dollars a night. In a pinch, one can park and sleep in the parking lot of a rest stop or a rural Walmart, which, by national policy, allows the practice. Additionally, more money can be saved by stocking up on groceries rather than relying on more expensive restaurant food sold on the road.
By traveling thriftily, the road tripper can minimize the cost gap between traveling by plane and car. According to Travelmaps.com, the fuel cost of my trip last August from Denver to Los Angeles, with side trips to Canyonlands National Park, Great Basin National Park and Death Valley National Park, would have been about $175. The cost of a flight, if booked well in advance, would be $112 on Orbitz.com. According to the site, one would spend $250 more driving to New York from Los Angeles than flying. But with multiple people paying for gas and supplies, driving can even be a cheaper means of transportation.
But looking at travel from a simply budgetary perspective ignores the real benefits of a road trip. Leaving school by car can be a vacation in and of itself, an adventure which could stand out as the most memorable of the summer.
Spending days on the road is an experience fundamentally different from the normal goings-on of student life. Every new place and activity is an opportunity for growth and personal understanding. The road is open and the car gives independence. There is no reason to be deterred by lack of experience; any student who knows how to use Google Maps and drive a car will be able to find their way on the road. If lacking a traveling companion, consider the depth of self-reflection presented by solitude, shifting landscapes and beautiful scenery. On most of my extended trips I traveled alone, contently.
Despite its enduring value, the road trip has retreated somewhat from
the forefront of the American culture. Students I have spoken with find the idea of a road trip outlandish. Many more are discouraged by their parents from even considering taking interstate journeys. In August 2012 Motor Trend reported on, “Why young people are driving
less.” In the same year, the International Business Times asked, “Is it the end of
the great American road trip?” It is a shame that the trend of taking road trips and visiting parks is in decline among the younger generation.
We are in the midst of widespread decline in interest for road trips and the parks and wild areas that they make accessible. Such trends must be defied. Students interested in independence, new experiences and natural beauty should consider the feasibility of the road trip and the immense rewards it can offer.