The Elements of a Road Trip Part II: The Companions

I’m not sure why, maybe because a road trip can hold such a lasting place in your memory, or maybe because its one of the few times in your life that you are in such a confined place for a significant amount of time, but choosing the right person or persons to ride shotgun on your trip is crucial to having a successful adventure. Choosing the right persons will be the single most important decision you can make when planning a road trip. And the longer the trip, the bigger the impact this decision will have. Not just for the length of the trip, but potentially for the rest of your life.

There are essentially four ways to go here. You can take your best friend on the planet, in the hopes of sharing an amazing experience with someone you know well. You can take an acquaintance, someone you are friendly with, perhaps they are a friend of a friend, but basically someone you think s you can tolerate and who can tolerate you. You can take your girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse (who in most cases is also your best friend on the planet). Finally, you could decide to take a total stranger, and though the stories might be hilarious, you would really be rolling the dice here. If you do go this route, absolutely DO NOT believe them when they say, “Oh this chainsaw?  No-I just use it for tree-felling emergencies.”

So lets explore these scenarios shall we:

Scenario 1: The best friend. This seems like the most logical of logical choices. They are someone you’ve known forever and with whom you’ve been through thick and thin. (I dont totally know what that expression means, but am proud not have ended that sentence a preposition with). This best friend may share your taste in music, food, your sense of adventure and they are someone with whom you know you will have great conversations. Who else would you want to share this life-changing experience with? Its a no-brainer right?

Not so fast friendo.

Not to be all Donnie Downer here, but if things go wrong on a trip with your best friend, they can go very wrong. After a few days on the road, a tiny debate with your good friend over whether you should turn left or right off the highway to look for food, can dredge up once-dormant feelings about why they made out with your ex in high-school. Just a few bad days, sometimes even a few bad hours, or even one bad incident  in a car with someone that shares all this history with you and with no escape, can snowball into a problem you might not be able to get past once the trip has ended.

Scenario 2: The acquaintance. This is a more low risk, low reward scenario. If you are traveling with someone across the country who you don’t know very well, you can rest assured that by the end of the trip you will know them much better. The risk is that you could come to find out that knowing them better might mean that you never need to see that person ever again. Not such a big deal since they weren’t someone you needed to see that often before the trip. Best case scenario, the two of you create a bond on the trip and it actually begins a long-term friendship. Worst case, you kick them to the side of the road somewhere in Iowa and hope for the best.

Scenario 3: The significant other. Because my wife reads the first sentence of every paragraph I write, I feel it’s important to note that there is no better way to experience a road trip than with the person you care about the most in this world at your side. Ok, she likely skimmed ahead by now, so the truth is this: It’s definitely possible to enjoy a road trip with your significant other, but it can get scary out there (see scenario 1). Road trips with the opposite sex are tough to begin with due to the ongoing gender debates about appropriate road trip hygene and urination frequency that have spanned the ages. Throw on top of those debates, any other subtle conflict in your relationship and you’ve got yourself a recipe for some long-term couch sleeping. But don’t worry, after sleeping in a car in the middle of the desert, the couch is really a significant step up.

Scenario 4: The stranger. I’ve rarely heard of a situation where two strangers went on a trip and came out the other side as best friends forever. That kind of thing makes for great movies, but those instances are few and far between. If you are anything like the average American, you are only going to get a few chances to take a significant road trip, so make it count. Do your best to take someone you know will appreciate the ride as much as you will. And if you can’t find someone to take, that just means you’ve got extra room for snacks.

To sum things up here: When successful, a road trip can create the type of bond between friends that is nigh unbreakable. (“Nigh”, by the way, is pirate talk for near… Blogwriting 101: know your audience). By way of example, I can relay this story. I recently spoke with a friend who went on a road trip with a relatively new girlfriend. He has since told me that he’s considering marrying this girl. I asked him what tipped the scales and he said ” you know, the road trip was a big deal. I’ve never spent that much time with a girl in the car and had such a good time.” so there you have it, a real-world, practical example of how road trips, when executed properly with the right companions, can make your life complete.

three friends screaming in a minivan while traveling across the countnry

The Elements of a Road Trip Part I: The Reason

Whenever you meet someone who is planning a road trip, they can always give you some explanation as to why they wanted to take to the road. (Really though, there’s a thousand better questions to ask someone who is on a road trip…like “how many car wash showers have you taken?”) But if you do ask, and they do give you a reason, that reason can almost always fit into one of the following categories: an escape, a mission, or an exploration.

The escape often comes at some sort of crossroads in a person’s life: a change of career, an end to a relationship, some life-altering news, the pile of dishes in the sink just got too high, etc. The escape-inspired traveller seems to find some comfort in the distance that a road trip allows him or her to put between themselves and whatever it is they need a break from in their real life. Maybe there will be something new, some distraction, a dishwasher perhaps, when they get to their destination, but really the point for the escapee is to get away from something.

The traveler who is on a mission has a specific goal that they are looking to achieve. It might be something as simple or innocuous as wanting to find a taco joint in Indiana that also serves cereal, or some more far-reaching endeavor such as visiting every National Park in the U.S. Whatever the case, The mission often just serves as a medium for people who need to have a reason and can’t be as spontaneous as the next type of person.

The explorer sets out on their trip to see and experience something they’ve never seen or experienced before. They are usually the person who will tell you that they chose to go on a road trip for the maddeningly simple reason: “just because.” This is the most romantic, and in my opinion, the best of all reasons to take to the road. Road trips may not always turn out to be the dramatic stories or wacky adventures we see in movies or tv shows or read about in books (or blogs) but at worst they create lasting memories and at best cathartic ones. The one thing that binds together these different travelers and their reasons is that no matter the initial purpose, the point isn’t the destination, but the journey itself that shapes who we are.

For my first trip in 2001, my reasons fell squarely into the explorer category, as I simply wanted to see what there was to see in this country. Joel and I would have to give the lion’s share of the inspirational credit to our high-school American History professor, Gerry Miller. (And Adam would have to give the lion’s share of the credit to me…well because he’s not writing this blog so I can make whatever claims suit my fancy.) Mr. Miller would dedicate a large portion of his lesson plan to regaling his students with tales of a magical time in the sixties when the United States had just been discovered by some fella named Kennedy who drove a Cadillac across the country with the rest of The Beatles (or something to that effect). His required reading assignments of Kerouac and Steinbeck and Kesey played an important role as well in shaping our view of the country. And he would often remind us of how easy it used to be to hitch a ride, or just “up and leave” when things got too boring. Mr. Miller was, by all accounts (including his own), selling an “in my day” version of traveling around the country but his stories were enough to start the wheels turning on a plan that eventually came to fruition for us two summers later.


How to Say Hello from the Road

Two days ago, as I sat down to begin the long, tedious process of scanning photos (i.e. turning paper into ones and zeros) from my first trip across the country in 2001, I wasn’t sure where I was going to begin. I thought that maybe if I took a look through the album of pictures I put together just a few months after the trip, that I might get some ideas as to how to tell the stories in a way that makes sense. So after a brief treasure hunt through cabinets I forgot existed, I found the album teeming with photos and to my surprise, four postcards tumbled out. They were just four of the many postcards we sent to various people from the road and they seemed like as good a place to start as any. Post cards, though archaic in today’s world of instant contact, are a fantastic way of communicating from the road. The lack of available writing space can force you to say what you need to say in the most concise (and hopefully interesting) way possible. Coincidentally, the first post card I found, which was sent from Sioux Falls South Dakota, was dated June 23, 2001, exactly ten years ago to the day.

postcards and notes from a 2001 road trip across the United States




There and Back Again…Again

Hello! My name is Ben Weldon. I am a photographer who lives just outside Philadelphia, Pa. In the summer of 2001, two friends and I piled into an old van we had purchased for $500.00 and set out on a much-hyped and long-awaited trek across the United States. Our mission was to see as much of this country as we could in a month. We had just completed our sophomore year of college and had nothing keeping us tethered to our homes in the suburbs of Philadelphia. In the span of thirty days, the three of us logged 10,600 miles, traveled to 31 states, visited all 4 borders of the United States, explored 11 National Parks, almost died 4 times, showered in 3 car washes, had several run-ins with the law, and waited patiently on the side of road a countless number of times for our van to decide if it had had enough.  It was and still is the single most influential endeavor I’ve ever undertaken and it sparked an ambition in me that I’m finally able to fulfill ten years later: to visit all fifty states.

Ten years after my first road trip, I will be traveling to the final state on my list, Alaska. Though I’m excited to complete the mission, I’m even more excited to do it all again. My plan for this blog is to impart some of the stories about the best (and worst) things that I’ve encountered in the country, but also to invite others to share their interstate traveling experiences: crazy things that happened along the way, must-see places, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that aren’t to be missed, tourist traps to avoid, etc. etc. So please, if you’ve taken a road trip or traveled anywhere and you have an interesting story or suggestion, send it my way and I will find a way to work it into the site. Hopefully this blog can become another source for the travel-minded or for those who simply dream of being on the road…