Road trippin’: On finding freedom, insight and meaning behind the wheel

Any good road trip is going to have cool places to see. Good company is a huge bonus.

Any good road trip is going to have cool places to see. Good company is a huge bonus.

Adventure is sometimes what you make it. There are a few constants. For instance, the reality that your situation can become dynamic, or that the decisions you make might end up costing you more than you’d like.

But often, it’s also a state of mind. I won’t go so far to include mundane acts of fun as being “adventures” (“Me and the kids had quite an adventure at the park today! We saw a rabbit!”). Sure, there will be some who say true adventure is almost dead today. Much of what could be explored has been already. There are not many peaks left unclimbed, forests unsurveyed and deserts untraversed. With satellite technology, we’ve pretty much quantified all the lands of the earth. So no more hidden worlds to be discovered.

Worse still: Life in the modern, developed world shuns adventure. Our lives are routine, regimented and fenced in. Show me someone whose life is not mostly within this realm and most likely I’ll show you a homeless vagabond.

Face it. We like predictability. Sameness. Societally induced quality control. We all pretty much color inside the lines. Too much variation from our scheduled, hurried lives is unsettling. And yet, life spent inside that manicured, fenced-in slice of stability can be stifling. Why is the film “Office Space” turning into an enduring classic comedy? Because it pokes fun of and comments on the lives most of us live, those soul-crushing, mind-numbing hours every day for five days a week in which we toil to enjoy the same two days off doing the same chores around the house, in the yard or, if we’re feeling ambitious, gathering with friends at a club, movie theater or backyard grill. We could spend decades doing this and never lack for anything and yet still feel like we’ve accomplished nothing.

That’s why middle-aged men buy $20,000 motorcycles and ride in groups to Sturgis. Why 30- and 40-something women join the teenage concert crowd with their gal pals and rock out like it was 1989. It’s why we take up skydiving. Scuba. Ballroom dance. Or whatever it is that stands so far apart from what we do every day that people simultaneously gawk at and envy us for attempting something so outside-the-box from that they normally see or expect us to do. This is what we do when the need to break free becomes too pressing to ignore. It’s the definition of “escape.”

It’s also why the road trip is so quintessentially and perfectly American. Pointing to a place on the map, gassing up the car and saying, “I’m going here. See you in a couple of weeks.” Modern adventure is partly about escape from the world we’re comfortable with. Or maybe escape from a world we’re no longer comfortable with.

I’m not alone in looking back and remembering some of the funniest, or scariest, or most profound experiences of my life have come on long roadies, with or without other people. It’s where I found myself in September of 2010, on a long stretch of Oklahoma Panhandle highway, heading back from the mountains and seeing loved ones with a whole load of burdens on my mind.

But occupying my thoughts at the moment was a specific reality of the trip. Miles from anywhere, I was wondering if this journey at 70 mph was going to turn into a much slower, human-powered trek on foot.


September of 2010 was not a happy time for me. Back then, I couldn’t imagine things going a whole lot worse. My personal life was a mess and my career was tanking badly. Embattled as I was, I was taken aback by more bad news that would force me to set much of that aside.

My oldest brother had cancer.

Nothing will make you step back from your own crises than hearing that a loved one may indeed be in the fight of their life. Two months after his diagnosis, I saw a chance to go see him, encourage him and hopefully find some way to help out.

A friend of mine had planned a trip to Colorado’s San Juan Range to do a little hiking and climbing west of Lake City. I had to bail on a previous trip scheduled a month earlier, but this time was a go. We’d head up to Lake City, hike into Matterhorn Creek basin and summit Matterhorn Peak, a 13,000-foot summit exquisitely placed between the hulking mass of Uncompahgre Peak to the east and the craggy spire of Wetterhorn Peak to the west.

A couple of days in the mountains, then a drive northeast to Denver to see my ill but determined brother and his family. I loaded up the car with gear, some clothes for my stay in Denver and a charged iPod for tunes that would keep me alert for the 14 hours of driving that lay ahead. Finally on the highway, a drink was at the ready by the gearshift and food within reach in the passenger seat. I pointed the car west. God, I love going west.


We can thank several people for the concept of the American road trip. Henry Ford made cars affordable for working stiffs like you and me. A whole slew of entrepreneurial souls birthed the amalgam of attractions that gave life to the Mother Road, U.S. Route 66. And of course, President Eisenhower endowed the nation with the interstate highway system. Our country is huge, diverse and wide open. You can literally drive for days at highway speeds and not traverse its expanse. Within it are numerous mountain ranges, wide rivers, deep gorges and glimmering cities. Endless miles of open prairie are only outdone by even more endless miles of farmlands that feed the world. America is peopled with energetic go-getters, stodgy  bluebloods, hopeless curmudgeons and weirdos. Every state has a bit of everything. Hippies and rednecks are ubiquitous.

Jump in your car or on your bike and, if given the time, you can see it all, see them all. And if you’re wise, you’ll love it all.

Need proof of the greatness of the concept of the road trip? Tell me that the best part of “Animal House” is not the Delta boys’ roadie in which they land in a club where they clearly did not belong. Faced with the prospect of a huge, angry man standing over you, menacingly “asking,” “may we dance with your dates?” would you not have also ran from the joint in terror but also relived it as one of the pivotal and most awesome moments of your life? Hell yeah you would!

Because it is, in its own special way, a tale of adventure. Not hanging from a rock face 2,000 feet in the air with a swirling blizzard all about, but still out of the ordinary, foreign and risky. One might say exhilarating. Scary. And memorable. A story retold amongst friends who lived it with you, for as many years as you gather, still inducing the imagery, scents and emotions that first hit you when you were living it.

We go on the road to find ourselves. Or lose ourselves. To build a new story that goes beyond what lives inside cubicles or seven-foot privacy fences.


Heading up. One of many memories and sights from a recent roadie.

Heading up. One of many memories and sights from a recent roadie.

The night before the climb, I’m not feeling all that amped about it. I’d been reading Aron Ralston’s “Between and Rock and a Hard Place,” and I’m imagining myself high on a peak when some rock comes loose, or some wind gust suddenly appears, blowing me off a ledge and sending me freefalling to my death. In his book, he quotes uber-climber Gerry Roach saying “geologic time is now,” meaning a rock could move at any time, or not for eons. It happened to him, costing him an arm and nearly his life, and the thought is unsettling to me. Mixed in with all the other turmoil going on, I’d really just rather bag it, pick up a fishing pole and idle the day away at some slowly tricking stream.

I scale back my initial plans – there would be no double summit  that day, just Matterhorn – but the day becomes a good one. The weather was perfect. My legs were strong. Me and my buddy were alone on the peak. And no chockstones moved during the short but fun scramble to the summit.

The mountains are a wonderful playground. I’ve had some of my most profound thoughts and experiences in the high country. They are wild, at times dangerous and always uncompromising. They are what they are and will not budge for anyone. If you get to summit one, it’s partly because the mountain let you do it. No one really conquers a mountain.

But for all the beauty that day, and the modest success of our efforts, my mind is elsewhere. Partly, it’s at home where a whole bevy of problems await. And it’s in Denver. Primarily in Denver. Every minute I’m here in the splendor of the San Juans is a day I’m not where I’m supposed to be.

It’s time to hit the road.


I’m amazed sometimes at the silliness in which I’ve partaken on the many long drives I’ve made. And grateful to God that I’ve survived some of them.

In college (how many stories of stupidity begin with, “back in college…”), driving through the high plains with some buddies to go skiing, I can remember switching drivers while the car was still moving at 75 mph. It was an awkward thing of one guy setting the cruise control, keeping a hand on the wheel while scooting to his right while I climbed over the bench seat from the back and clumsily slid into place to take over. Just dumb things college kids do, and usually we get away with it. I guess it doesn’t matter that one wrong move in this little exchange could have made us all grease spots on the highway, but seeing we lived through it and are now wiser through advanced years would teach us that such stupidity is not something to be repeated.

Thankfully, not all road trip foolishness is quite so dangerous.

This will have to do for a roadside "restroom" in the Oklahoma Panhandle. When traveling with women, you learn how well they can team up and improvise when the urge to pee is strong.

This will have to do for a roadside “restroom” in the Oklahoma Panhandle. When traveling with women, you learn how well they can team up and improvise when the urge to pee is strong.

A few years back, I was with a small group of friends and kin heading west to New Mexico where we planned to camp in the Carson National Forest and hike to that state’s high point, Wheeler Peak. Five of us were jammed into a late model Camry, streaking west across the same Oklahoma Panhandle highway I’d driven many times before. Suddenly the driver whips the car to the side of the road and stops. The door flies open, and he is on the run, sprinting through a muddy, recently cut cornfield.

Apparently, he’d seen a pheasant. Being an avid hunter, well, I guess his desire for the blood of a game bird was just too much to keep him contained in the car.

We all laughed at his antics. His shoes were caked with mud, and the pheasants were never in any real danger. Being in a crammed car for hours on end will make you do funny things. And the absurdity of the moment is exactly what made it perfect. I love Wheeler Peak and its many gorgeous vistas. But the pheasant chase is the recollection most seared into my brain from that particular trip.

Real life, normal life, is not usually filled with such random acts of frolic. The uninhibited glee over such a fruitless (but oh so profitable) exercise like this marks the high point of any given road trip. Normal life can go days, weeks, or months without the mirth so generously provided on that drive. But these little roadies are often filled with memories that in some way define us, flavor our lives with something new, fun and unexpected.

A culinary metaphor might be something like this: Our mini adventures are like a wonderful bowl of pho, where you taste every flavor – the broth, noodles, meat, vegetables and spices – all at once. Most of the rest of our lives is like a bologna sandwich without even the benefit of a squirt of mustard.

Fun isn’t the answer to all life’s problems, and I’m sure you can get by for a long time eating bologna sandwiches. But the rhetorical question is obvious: Would you really want to?


Me and Mike at camp below Mount Elbert, Colo. He's the big boy to the right.

Me and Mike at camp below Mount Elbert, Colo. He’s the big boy to the right.

My time in Denver is bittersweet. My oldest brother has always been a titanic figure in my life. Uncompromising in his own personal integrity, strong in body and mind, kind to those he knows and to strangers he doesn’t. Seeing him the hospital, he still has the powerful frame he spent years trying to build. But he’s been weakened by a cancer that wants to sap his immune system and wreck his body’s ability to produce blood cells. Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a disease very similar to leukemia, has taken hold and is not wasting time trying to get his body to waste away.

Not that it’s slowing him down, though. Even from his hospital bed, he’s hammering away at his computer, performing tasks for his job as a computer programmer. He’s also blogging about his newly joined fight against MDS and sending emails and Facebook messages to people who want to know how he’s doing.

Mike’s a take-charge kind of man when it comes to things like this. He learned everything he can about the illness, the ways to treat it and the methods in which the hospital provided care. He’s not one taking things lying down and is assertive in determining the direction of his treatment.

So I find myself not wanting to do too much for fear of making him feel helpless. At the same time, we both need to see each other. He needs my strength, and really, I need his. Cancer has a way of making the afflicted and the people who love them feed off each other’s strength and soothe each other’s fears.

In time, I find a few ways to make myself useful while I’m there. It feels good to help out. But I know that pretty soon, I’ll have to leave. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want to. Life goes on, and the show (or the trip) does not go on forever.

One more time, I pack my car. I head to the hospital to see Mike. Neither of us is really good at goodbyes, and given the circumstances at hand, this is even a bit more painful. I’d rather stick around for weeks, months or whatever it takes to get things right again for this amazing friend and sibling. So when I finally leave the hospital room and head to my car, a million thoughts are tumbling through my mind. Uncertainty awaits me when I get home. Worse yet, a far darker mystery gets left behind in Denver for a guy who lived for so long as a rock of strength for the family into which he was born as well as the one he raised.

These are the things that occupied my thoughts, blended with the soundtrack from my iPod, as I turned south, then east for the 12-hour drive back home. Just north of Castle Rock, I top off the car’s tank. My little Honda’s pretty good on gas, and I’m curious how far it will be before I need to stop to refuel. Such a random thought to have in a time that was so heavy! And yet there it was. It would matter later on.


Going home again is, to me, the toughest part of a trip. It means the fun’s over, the adventure is done and the whole “back to reality” thing is at hand. But hopefully that is not all.

When people think of the term “travel,” I’m not sure road trips come to mind. It’s certainly not erudite enough for some.

Travel, it would seem, is about going to new places, and then being transformed by them. Most people who take travel seriously turn their noses at tourist traps, all-inclusive resorts and anything else that might resemble what they can get at home. I know the feeling. On the occasions where I’ve gone overseas, I want to eat what the locals eat, stay in the same neighborhoods where they live and just soak it all in. There’s something very valuable to be gained by that. It’s not usually the stuff you bring back that is most treasured. Most often it’s the memories of what you saw, heard, smelled and tasted. Or who you met. It’s all treasure of the mind.

Think about Marco Polo, and how the stories were told of when he and his companions finally arrived home back in Italy, people didn’t recognize them as countrymen. They reportedly wore the clothes and practiced the customs of the eastern peoples they’d lived amongst for so many years. They’d changed.

There’s no ski trip on earth that’s going to be that weighty, no rad mountain ascent or cross-country bike adventure or whatever it is that most of us do that will be so epic as to become an iconic part of our cultural lore. But can our little indulgences of wanderlust be transformative? Is it possible to follow a jam band for a month and then go back home a changed person? Can four days of backpacking alter the course of your life, even if your “adventure” goes off without a hitch, without even so much of a hint of crisis?

I think it can. The fact that going home can be so hard can be evidence that something important did happen, that somehow the escape proved beneficial, cathartic or even life-changing. Maybe not always, but definitely not never.

I think back to another foray into the mountains with a small group of friends where we crammed all the hiking, camping, climbing and fishing we could into five days. As great as all of that was, the best memories were made in none of the places where we hiked, camped, climbed or fished. They happened in a van, where a book was discussed, new lines of conversation were opened, and a bunch of guys got very real with each other. They also happened at a fast-food restaurant run with such comical incompetence that all you could do was walk out and laugh. The journey home can be as rewarding as the trip itself, be it lessons learned during a philosophical roundtable inside a lumbering passenger van or endless guffaws over the lunacy of a bacon double cheeseburger served with everything, including the bacon, but no burger patties.

Things happen on the way home. And the best part is you get to take those experiences with you, too.


Way out in the plains, you see stuff like this. A good place to plant wind farms, a bad place to run out of gas.

Way out in the plains, you see stuff like this. A good place to plant wind farms, a bad place to run out of gas.

Somewhere in the eastern Oklahoma Panhandle, it dawns on me that my gambit to make it to Woodward for my next gas stop is not going to pay off. As lightly as my Honda has been sipping the gas, a road sign confirms it. Seventy-eight more miles to go until I reach Woodward, and the gas needle is below the “E” line.

This ordinarily wouldn’t be a big deal, at least if I was on some interstate highway. Towns seem to crop up every 20 miles or so, with 24-hour stations at the ready.

But not out here.

On U.S. 412, in the most rural stretch of highway in this mostly rural state, the touchstones of highway commerce are spare. I should have stopped for fuel in the notorious speed trap town of Hardesty, but that place left my rearview mirror a long time ago. Other corner stops have signs advertising gasoline for $1.79 a gallon, but there are no cars or pickups around. That’s mostly because the place stopped doing business years ago, when gas was still relatively cheap. The old price on the sign is somewhat like a clock on a wall of an office or store that was suddenly shuttered, be it for ordinary or tragic reasons. The long-stopped clock is a time stamp for closure. Same deal with the way-out-of-date gas prices.

I put my trust in a little village called Elmwood. I only know of this place because in my reporter days I wrote a story about a murder that happened at a motel here. As I drive through Elmwood, I come to realize that the slaying is not the only tragedy that has struck Elmwood and its largest business. That motel is now a burned-out husk, and has been that way for some time.  Unfortunately for me, when the motel burned the owners also shut down the gas station that went with it.

Ahead of me are a couple of small towns that might have something open. First up was Fort Supply, which exists only because there is a minimum security prison in town and a small lake nearby. It’s past 5 p.m., though, so any semblance of commerce that Fort Supply has looks to be done for the day. I drive on, nervously looking at the gas gauge, turning off anything electrical and slowing my speed in a lame attempt to preserve the few vapors I’ve got left in the tank.

I find myself looking around, trying to spot any farm houses that might be nearby.  There are a few, sometimes a half mile or more from the highway. If need be, I’m going to have to pull over and walk to one of these places, hoping that a stranger walking up to the doorstep doesn’t alarm some old farmer to the point where he wants to plant a load of buckshot in my chest. Visions of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” run through my mind. I could see it now…

“Sir, do you have a gallon of gas I could use? My car is about a mile away and I ran out.”

“Sure, son, come on in and take a load off.”

I go in, the door slams shut, and out walk ole Cooter’s grown kids, armed with power tools and giant blades, ready to do me in because it is I, not beef, that’s what’s for dinner.

Stupid, I know. But that’s the kind of stuff that crosses your mind when you’re alone, on the road, and faced with a dilemma that leaves you at the mercy of strangers. Sort of like when you’ve made camp somewhere, on your own, and the night is so quiet that any little noise rings down like a thunderbolt in your mind, where a literal thing-that-went-bump-in-the-night just ambled by a few feet outside your tent. It was probably just a dead twig falling off a nearby tree, but in your mind it was a bear looking at your bivvy like it was a nylon-wrapped human burrito.  Or a crazy guy sneaking up on your tent just before he pulls the starter on his chainsaw and makes you Victim Number Whatever.

Fort Supply is now far behind me, and I’m out of the Panhandle and pretty much out of gas. A little hamlet called May is just ahead. At 10 minutes till 7, surely there’s no way this place is open. I pull in. The lights are on. The pumps are on! And I’m saved. From embarrassment, that is. Because you see, the only danger I was in was having to make the walk of shame to the nearest inhabited domicile to beg for a gallon of gas, and the inconvenience of having my arrival delayed a couple of hours.

But adventure is what you make it. It’s very much in your head. A good road trip has the elements of adventure in it. It’s often a narrative of several individual experiences sewn together by a single goal. It’s accented by risk, success and failure. Joy and pain.  Companionship or, in some cases, badly needed solitude. And often it is, in some way, an event that has a lasting impact on you, be it for a season of life or an entire lifetime.

The days of Lewis and Clark or Hillary and Norgay may be way behind us. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go looking for them just the same. We’re lucky to have an open road in front of us that invites us to point that car in some direction, say “I’m going to go there” and then seek whatever lies around the next bend in the road.

Bob Doucette  

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