Back in my 20s, when I had my first, badly paid, job, I would indulge often in fantasy road trips. One of my favourite reading genres was the drive-across/around-America journal, from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie to William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways via Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and of course, variously, Kerouac. North America wasn’t my only fantasy. I also pored over the maps and pages of Slow Boats to China and dreamed of booking a ticket on the Orient Express.
In 1983, I did embark on a European road trip, taking the 24-hour ferry to Spain and then motorcycling (as pillion) up from Santander to Rotterdam. It was around 2000km (1200 miles), and it taught me a few things about myself. First of all, my dreams of sea voyages and slow travel were shattered by the immediate sea sickness I experienced on the ferry. Not only could I not sleep in the cabin we’d booked, but I was barely able to stand upright. I spent the crossing horizontal on the deck of the ship. The second thing was that I (specifically my bowels) really don’t like roughing it, so wild camping was most definitely out of my life.
I did eventually meet America, in the summer of 1992, when I spent some weeks at the University of Illinois as part of my first degree. And it was there I learned a few more things about myself that crushed my travel fantasies for good. The first was that I got startlingly homesick, hated being away from my Common European Home. The homesickness had its roots in a hatred of the local food and the hopelessly parochial American media, as well as the dysfunctional relationships within my small group of Nottingham University students. Then there was the humidity, the mosquitoes, and have I mentioned how awful the food was?
The greatest blow was my own inability to have money in sufficient quantity to finance even the most basic road trip. Even if I could stand the food and the weather, even if I didn’t mind roughing it, I couldn’t afford it. Even with an “unlimited” visa stamped in my passport, I was screwed.
And so I flew home. Give me a European street with a European tram and a European bicycle, thank you please.
My oldest daughter is off to Copenhagen in September, to start an MA, and I envy her that excitement and couldn’t be prouder of all she’s achieved so far. Meanwhile, my youngest, 18, is currently in a small state park in middle of the New Mexico desert, on the road trip of a lifetime with a friend she met last year in Germany.
If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I’d have suggested that my introverted youngest, who is so similar to me she might be a clone, would suffer homesickness, just like her dear old dad. But no. A month on her own in Germany last year, and she seemed to transform into a funny and confident, sociable and sophisticated world traveller.
So she started planning her US road trip, which concerned me. I was afraid it would be too expensive, too dangerous, that she wouldn’t be able to deal with being so far from home, or that the car would overheat in the desert, that she would end up crushed and disappointed when the trip didn’t happen. I suggested the Amtrak option, something involving less driving, more staring out of train windows. Meanwhile, she got up on weekends at 5 a.m. for the best of two years, and saved half of everything she earned. In the end, she not only had the money for the plane tickets, but was able to book accommodation and have gas money too.
A week later, and she’s already in her third time zone, and has sent back extraordinary photographs from an itinerary chosen as much as possible to fit her own nerdy agenda: locations inspired by Bob Dylan, The Band or Bruce Springsteen, or civil war battles, or books (Big Sur, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). It’s all the more incredible when you consider that many of her school contemporaries were looking forward to a hedonistic week in Spanish nightclubs and bars.
On the subject of extraordinary photographs: she has a Nikon film camera with her, but the pictures we’re getting back are being taken on an iPhone 7. And what a brilliant bloody camera it is. It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that. I’m uploading the pictures to my Flickr account, so I can vicariously take the credit for this vicarious road trip.