“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
— John Steinbeck
I used to love that quote from John Steinbeck and always imagined it to mean that it’s not just the starting place and destination that are important, but also the simple act of traveling that yields a transformative magic. I used to love traveling so much that I even owned a t-shirt with those words printed upon it.
Like my father, I would get out my pencil and maps and plan a trip because the map contained a limitless supply of possibilities. And I never minded the hours spent behind the wheel because it didn’t matter if I was traveling east, west, north or south, my trusty maps and the open road itself were intoxicating drugs that could transport me from the mundane to the magnificent.
But my, how things have changed. Fuck you, Steinbeck! You weren’t traveling through New Jersey when you penned those words, were you?
You see, on the East Coast, right off the bat, you’re limited. Oh, you may start out heading east, but there’s this big old ocean in that direction, and it will ultimately sweep you into a north-or-south direction like a riptide to hell.
That’s because driving north or south in New Jersey probably means you’ll be traveling on the Turnpike, and with its white-knuckle speeds, tolls and heavy traffic, that’s a fate worse than death.
I used to take enjoyable road trips where I had real choices, exciting choices. Should I take Interstate 27 north up to Lubbock, then I-40 west through Tucumcari? Or should I travel northwest along U.S. 84 through Muleshoe, Clovis, Fort Sumner and thus up to I-40 that way?
Of course who wouldn’t want to go through Muleshoe, but the thing was, I didn’t have to because I had choices.
Driving along the New Jersey Turnpike, the only real choice you have is whether you’re stopping at the Molly Pitcher or the Clara Barton. And for those of you who don’t know what that means, count yourself among the blessed!
And lest you think this is just a rant about New Jersey, it isn’t. No, it’s not just the crowded roads themselves that are the problem, but also new technologies and expenses that have turned trips and trip planning into a joyless, sucking hole.
Who has maps anymore? Used to be you could get them for free at your friendly neighborhood gas station, but now you need to make a costly trip to one of a dwindling number of bookstores to peruse their limited supply. And young drivers today probably wouldn’t know how to read a map — much less fold one. How can you plan a trip when all you can see of the “map” is the 3.5 inches of your iPhone screen?
Growing up, reading maps was a tradition in my house. My sister and I — every summer — would sit with our souvenir copy of the Six Flags over Texas map spread out on the bed and we’d plan our next trip.
Would we hit the Missile Chaser first, or if we just followed the path in that direction, maybe we could get on the Sombrero Ride before the crowds made the lines too long! And, oh my god, is that a shortcut we could try on our way to the Log Ride?
Just try making those kind of detailed plans on your cell phone!
See, paper maps offered possibilities; cell phone maps offer limitations. Nowadays, Siri chanting a constant stream of mind-numbing directions on my iPhone while the EZPass picks my pocket is really starting to piss me off.
Upon reflection, I guess Steinbeck was partly right. A north-south trip along the New Jersey Turnpike really does take us … it takes us to the cleaners while on our way to the insane asylum.
But there are other famous words I now have in mind, and they came from a man who must have had the Turnpike in mind when he said them:
“Go West, young man.”
— Horace Greeley
Thank you, Horace. I think you got it right!