The return of the Great American Road Trip

By Hunter Estes
May 26, 2020

For many, the idea of a road trip induces a strong sense of nostalgia, a beckoning to a begotten era in which one jumped into the family vehicle and pushed out on an adventure. 

If nothing else, many will recall visions of Clark Griswold strapping up the Wagon Queen Family Truckster and heading out on that quixotic quest for Walley World. Amidst the current coronavirus crisis and rising concerns over air travel which will take months, if not years to subside, we might just be on the precipice of a revival of the great American road trip.

A recent Harris Poll noted that 77 percent of women and 62 percent of men are currently unwilling to travel on an airplane. These concerns do not disappear as soon as society is given the all clear on this outbreak. Only 15 percent of Americans say they’d be willing to fly in the month after officials signal that the coronavirus pandemic is on the downturn. Still, only 49 percent of Americans think they might be willing to fly after six months of being cleared of coronavirus concerns. 

While this data suggests troubles for the airline industry, it presents opportunity for others as Americans will continue to find ways to get to family for holidays and use vacation time.

It is the road trip’s time to shine. Americans already preferred the idea, with 73 percent saying they would prefer to drive somewhere over taking a train or a flight, if possible, according to a OnePoll study from last year. However, new trepidations over flying in the coronavirus era added to the existing concerns of long security processes and lack of comfort now makes driving an even more attractive option by comparison.

The current worries over flying may even change the current trajectory of travel decisions for an entire generation. Furthermore, new technology such as AirBnB has made it all the easier for people to travel, and to do so on a budget. There’s an app for everything these days including trails at national parks, geocaching destinations, and maps custom-made for road trippers. 

Young people today are driving at far lower rates than previous generations, but this crisis coupled with the rising potential for technology integration into the modern road trip may force an alteration in that data.

The road trip itself is something of an American icon, each one a Jack Kerouac-inspired tale. Perhaps it is the liberty of the open road or the sense of destiny in the journey, but to cross this American landscape is to partake in a tradition that our forefathers began years ago. 

From Lewis and Clarke to the Oregon Trail, ingrained into our very psyche as a society is a call to head into the relative unknown. While the wilderness of the American heartland and West has been all but tamed today, the call has still perforated through to this century.

Whether it’s a trip with family, friends, or anybody in between, the love of the game that is travel is one that has bound Americans for years. Countless epic American novels, films, and songs have been inspired by just such journeys. Whether one’s heading home via country roads or just traveling with Charlie, American popular culture is deeply defined by tales of traversing the open road.

Robert Louis Stevenson once said that he travels “not to go anywhere but to go,” he travels “for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Indeed, a road trip necessitates a destination, but only in the loosest sense. The true grandeur of the travel is that experience which is found on the journey itself.

Like a religious ritual, the road trip mandates a special set of procedures that necessitate strict observance. The driver, in perhaps the most important role, sets the pace of the trip and ultimately controls the journey. The occupant of “shotgun” takes charge of navigation and music. Other passengers ensure energy supplies remain high by taking command of snack acquisition from the gas stations and keep out keen eyes for any particularly noteworthy local destinations that are deserving of a detour.

As the pandemic turns much of society on its head, including travel, a chance has emerged for the revival of a quintessential aspect of American society, the road trip. As people increasingly turn to alternative means of travel over the coming months and years, only time will tell how our popular culture will be newly shaped by the future travelers of the open road.

There’s a subtle beauty to be found in this potential revival. As technology changes societal habits in new and profound ways, it is wonderful to imagine that we too might be able to pass onto our children and grandchildren that relic of ages past, the love of the open road, just as our parents passed it on to us.


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