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Road trips shift gears, boosting popularity

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2007

More people would rather take a summer road trip with Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama than with Hillary Clinton and John McCain, at least according to a new survey of 4,000 people by Rand McNally. The mapmaker asked respondents to name the presidential candidate who would be the best traveling companion along open highways, where small eateries loom large with the promise of chicken-fried steak with cream gravy.

Just imagine.

"Rudy. Rudy dude. Hey Rude. Rude-ster. The man from Rudestinia. Lend me two quarters, will you, bud? There's a toll."

In the course of the road trip, one might discover that the rolling Rude-sters — be they presidential candidates, friends or family — snored, read Nancy Drew or ate like Caligula. Preferences for pork rinds might be detected. The most intimate behaviors of the road-trip companion would be revealed, from nose honking to song singing, from sports talk to halcyon reveries of life on good old Lake Hungadunga back in '55. But such is the nature of road trips, when humans confined together in a moving vehicle for extended periods of time get to know each other. Very well.

The Rand McNally survey also revealed that 100 percent of the respondents engaged in "distracting behaviors while driving," including fooling with the radio, eating, talking on a cell phone, falling asleep at the wheel, reading or putting on makeup. The road trip is an allegory for self- examination, apparently.

Another 75 percent said they had gotten seriously lost on a road trip, though it had taken varying amounts of time for them to admit and/or realize that they were endlessly circling past the same doughnut shop or lost on a ghost exit off the Merritt Parkway. Forty-four percent realized they were lost within five minutes. More than a third took 15 minutes, and 13 percent spent a whole half hour before their moment of enlightenment, no doubt clutching an old Esso map that had been in the car since the days of Lake Hungadunga.

But hope springs eternal. A tidy 85 percent of us are planning a road trip this summer, up from 70 percent last year. Three quarters said they would not cancel their excursion regardless of gas prices.

Road trips used to be fairly simple affairs, and quite civilized, really.

Americans upheld a polite motoring experience that often included a luncheon hamper containing ham sandwiches that some great aunt had insisted upon preparing the night before. One might stop at a roadside canteen, local steakhouse or farm stand. The family sang "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" or marveled that Paul Anka crooning "Diana" could be discerned through the hiss of some distant radio station.

Roads change, cars change, people change. The frisson of back-roads discovery has been neutralized. Welcome to road trip the science, road trip the franchise — and brand. There are scores of guidebooks and gurus to launch us on our quest for the two-lane blacktop, big sky and other Jack Kerouacian stuff.

Suffice it to say that "10 Million Miles," dubbed the road-trip musical, opened on Broadway to considerable acclaim June 14. The action takes place in a rickety pickup truck as an edgy couple make their way from Florida to New England to "reveal their wounds and discover what they mean to one another," according to Playbill magazine.

As a sage critic once said, "Oy vey."

There's much more. Now in its fourth edition, "Road Trip USA" by Jamie Jensen promises "a one-of-a-kind driving adventure" and a "unique American experience." But there's not much adventure intact. It's a guided tour of a non-guided tour. The book features 125 maps, a listing of all the obscure radio stations on the routes and eccentric locals lined up like extras in Disneyland.

The New York Times, meanwhile, employs writer Matt Gross — aka "The Frugal Traveler" — to pen "American Road Trip" each week, looking for odd roadway signs, quirky local architecture and the other hallmarks of the standard road trip. His column includes online videos, an interactive map and a message system, just in case readers want to horn in and direct him to the nearest structure made entirely of bottle caps.

National Public Radio is following "the last great road trip" of a father-son team who are driving 5,000 miles during the last two weeks of June across several Alaskan highways, underwritten by several online providers. Yes, father and son are blogging every inch of the way. A picture postcard just won't do. Budget Rent-a-Car has a road trip blog as well.

But surely Daniel Hawkins is the luckiest road-tripper of all. The recent Princeton University graduate received $27,500 in fellowship money from his alma mater to travel around in a van with a tape recorder and a cello, recording local noises and ultimately producing "Road Songs: An American Sound Story." The road is his medium, he said recently.

"You learn things there you can't get anywhere else. It's that impulse to go to a place and sink into it, where you really get into the soil and dirt of the place."

And please. Let us know if they have clean restrooms and decent chicken-fried steak, sir.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and rickety pickup trucks for The Washington Times' national desk. Reach her at jharper@ washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.