November 15, 2011

The Art of the Road Trip

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With Thanksgiving just around the corner, everyone is gearing up for a much-needed break. But this column isn’t about home, it’s about how you’re gonna get there.  Too often, the journey gets no glory in comparison to its more revered counterpart, the destination. So as you scroll through your phone half-heartedly, trying to decide to whom to either offer a ride or mooch a ride off, here’s an unofficial guide to what should be considered the main event: the road trip.

The first thing to consider is with whom you’re going to be road tripping. There are few relationships as complex as the ones interwoven between those taking on the open road together. Each person fills a different need, providing the group with anything from music, snacks, and pillows, to a sense of direction and philosophical discourse.

A car is at once the best and worst place to have serious conversations.  On one hand, it’s a private atmosphere in which you aren’t obliged to look directly at any other person, but be warned — if by chance the conversation turns sour, you have no way out. Awkward silences are confined and magnified, ever-present and imposing, diffusing throughout the car like a bad smell that no amount of air freshener or open windows can cure.

The very nature of the road trip lends itself to an unnatural amount of bonding, as its participants must essentially live together for an extended period of time in a very small space and attempt to synchronize their bodily functions in order to ensure efficiency. No one wants to be that guy who realizes he is “literally going to burst” forty-five minutes before reaching the destination. Personally, I absolutely hate stopping and would much rather throw you an empty Gatorade bottle than lose 10 minutes in my race against the GPS’s estimated arrival time.

Once you have your team assembled, the battle for seating begins. The game is afoot as soon as someone calls “shotgun!” and is found to be compliant with the shotgun rules previously set by the driver.  When calling shotgun, it is important to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. The passenger seat position is not only coveted but also one that is essential to the success of the journey.   The front seat occupant is literally the driver’s right hand man, his own personal house-elf, in charge of keeping the driver awake, well fed, and sane.

Back-seaters are detached enough from the task at hand to justify passing out, but falling asleep as co-pilot is akin to standing up an important date. You’re supposed to be there to entertain and converse and romantically hand-feed nibbles of food, but for whatever reason, you dropped the ball.  Sleepy time in the front seat leaves your driver feeling alone and under stimulated, a dangerous combination for someone who may only have telephone poles and roadkill as company. At the very least, wear sunglasses so no one can actually tell if your eyes somehow close.

After you get the seating settled, the next step is to figure out the tunes.  Even if you’re planning to have a heart-to-heart, it’s always nice to have some background music.  For most, the go-to soundtrack of choice is a handcrafted mix CD with tracks that are carefully selected based on the personalities of the passengers, expected travel time, and driving conditions.  For example, a sunshine-filled daytime jaunt is going to necessitate that dreamy Corinne Bailey Rae song while a late night redeye power drive will need something a little more aggressive.  Sing-a-longs are almost always a good pick, except when no one else besides you knows the words.  Embarrassing for you, unbearably annoying for everyone else.

Another aural option is the iPod. This requires a significant amount of effort for the co-pilot as he must play DJ, a highly criticized and pressure filled position, while paying close attention to and subsequently monitoring the quality of sound.  Also, with every song the iPod owner’s musical taste is placed under closer scrutiny — you really cannot press NEXT quickly enough when the first few bars of Aaron Carter’s hit single start blasting through the car speakers.

The classic, yet underrated, option is the good ol’ radio.  While cons include poor transmission and commercials, the radio brings back a degree of spontaneity that reinvigorates any drive.  Even when your iPod is on shuffle, there is a certain degree of predictability; when the “perfect” song plays premeditatedly, it’s significantly less epic than the moment when the radio just happens to throw on “Empire State of Mind” right as you’re crossing the George Washington bridge.

Just thinking about a long drive makes my tummy rumble, which is why snacks are so important.  A variety of sweet and salty treats makes those long hours in a car bearable and also can settle your stomach.  Snack time is another arena in which the front-seater can really shine.  A well-maneuvered French fry can make all the difference in a driver’s stamina and can be quite a challenge especially on bumpy roads — extra points for proper condiment use!

So, here you are — mix CDs made, snacks provided, GPS configured. But there’s one thing completely out of your control, which no amount of prep can prepare you for: traffic.  Fortunately, the activity informally known as the Chinese Fire Drill, traditionally executed at red lights, is revered for its ability to exercise and stretch the exact muscles that remain unused when sitting in traffic.  It also redirects the flow of energy, like feng shui for the automobile.  While none of that is scientifically proven, running around on a highway in standstill traffic will definitely give you a rush of adrenaline.   It sure beats playing the License Plate Game.

Original Author: Rebecca Lee