Road Trip! Driving Vices with Joan Didion, Courtney Barnett, and Me.

Woman driving a convertible through the American Southwest on a road trip.

Road Trip!

1. Hitting the Road
Road trip, my friends! That’s right, y’all, your beloved Director of Content Marketing finally hooked up a (brief) vacation. Realizing that no summer is worth the name without a road trip—and realizing that I hadn’t actually gone on a road trip in years—I grabbed a rental car and my girlfriend and headed south, out of my beloved Oakland and to the Grand Canyon, for an old friend’s wedding reception. Racked up 1,761 miles from Friday to Wednesday, along with zero speeding tickets, about a billion cups of coffee, and more than 150 emails and meeting invites, because my bosses and co-workers have some strange ideas about work/life balance. Along the way, I enjoyed no small measure of extremely loud music and an audiobook or two, while gaining a not inconsiderable amount of self-knowledge.

2. North and South
Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my whole life blasting up and down the I-5 corridor. I haven’t, of course: I don’t even own a car, and haven’t since I moved out here in 1998—but, you know. Feelings. They don’t always fit the facts. So say I’ve spent a little under half my life blasting up and down the I-5 corridor for work or play or a road trip or whatever. If it’s true, what does it mean?

3. Road Reading / Road Ready

Winding Rural Road in a Desert

Keep Your Eyes on the Road and Your Hands Upon the Wheel

Because I am a colossal twerp an extremely cool and erudite and professional person, I had a lot of reading material with me and on my mind:

  • My guy Jason’s Hack Your Road Trip post
  • Joan Didion’s essay collection The White Album, courtesy of my lady, on audiobook
  • A proprietary Harris poll we at eDriving ran, a poll you’ll be hearing plenty about in coming weeks

All of those contributed a thread or two to the overall experience of the road tip. With soft bags in the trunk, a charger for the ol’ smartphone, and a never-without-it roll of duct tape, we felt pretty prepared, thanks to Jason. Didion’s book was endlessly fascinating, and occasionally infuriating, making it an excellent antidote for long, long doses of dull driving, harsh traffic, and completely inexplicable mid-desert stoplights. And the poll preyed on my mind throughout.

4. Questions and Answers
See, what we polled people about was stuff like “what do you fight about in the car?” (Directions, guilty!) and “Who’s the best driver in your family?” (My girlfriend doesn’t drive, so I have that one sewn up for now.) As we’ve analyzed the poll data, using proprietary technology (CEO’s giant human brain) and in-house algorithms (years of experience), one thing we’ve realized is that everybody has their problems behind the wheel, their driving vices.

For example, as a driver, I’m pretty tense, prone to road rage. When I’m on the highway, I never—ever—attain the state of grace Joan Didion describes:

To understand what was going on it is perhaps necessary to have participated in the freeway experience, which is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. “As you acquire the special skills involved,” Reyner Banham observed in an extraordinary chapter about the freeways in his 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, “the freeways become a special way of being alive … the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.”

Indeed some locals do, and some nonlocals too.

5. Blind Spots
Yeah. That’s not me. Mostly I drive too fast, and freak out about getting tailgated, and find the extreme concentration required by highway driving and its infinite supply of big, big trucks…kind of headache-inducing.

View of a Large Truck on the Freeway

Just One of an Infinite Supply of Giant Trucks

To distract myself from the hassle(s), I like to play a lot of loud music, and this trip the best and most fitting loud music I could find was a new one from Courtney Barnett, from the very appropriately titled sometimes i sit and think and sometimes i just sit. Surrounded by the endless trucks of the I-5, half of them full of vegetables, no song ever made more sense than the (mildly NSFW and definitely PG-13, so beware!) song “”Dead Fox”.

I won’t quote the whole thing, but it’s amazingly accurate at evoking the road trip state of mind, as you’re moving fast in somebody else’s blind spots.

Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables
And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first
A little pesticide can’t hurt
Never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket
But they’re all pumped up with the [crud]
A friend told me that they stick
Nicotine in the apples

If you can’t see me, I can’t see you

Heading down the Highway Hume
Somewhere at the end of June
Taxidermied kangaroos are lifted on the shoulders
A possum Jackson Pollock is painted in the tar
Sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us
My hay-fever is turning up
Just swerved into a passing truck
Big business overtaking
Without indicating
He passes on the right, been driving through the night
To bring us the best price

If you can’t see me, I can’t see you

More people die on the road than they do in the ocean
Maybe we should mull over culling cars instead of sharks
Or just lock them up in parks where we can go and view them

By the end of the trip, I was humsinging that refrain: “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you,” with a full Australian accent and everything, whether or not I was listening to the song or seeing a truck. (Bad singing is a vice of mine whether I’m driving or not, and if being a huge Courtney Barnett fan is a vice, then I just don’t want to be virtuous.)

6. Getting There
I may play a little too much Courtney Barnett in the car, but we rarely fight about music (43% of people in our age bracket do!), because I have an iron-clad policy: when I’m driving, the person riding shotgun gets total control over the music, if they want it. Who gets to drive is a fight for one in 10 of our age cohort, but not for us, seeing as I’m the only one with a license.

Growing up a little bit helps a road trip, too. I used to be the kind of driver who wanted a drive to go door to door in a mile a minute or less. The problem is that to pull this off, you pretty much have to average 90 mph, and you can’t ever stop for anybody or anything. (More than one in five people my age fight about stops and breaks.) Now, though, I’m trying to be better; I’m trying to drive at a reasonable (and more or less legal) speed, and I’m trying to enjoy stopping at cool things, enjoying a good meal or an interesting sight. Basically I’m trying to make a road trip a worthwhile driving experience, not just a stretch of hot asphalt between me and what we’re headed towards. Joan Didion would tell you I have a long way to go. She’d be right. But, then, having a long way to go is the fun of a road trip, right?

7. Moving On
A road trip is rarely a bad idea. The Grand Canyon is amazing, seriously, you should check it out. Courtney Barnett is pretty great. A fight in the car is…well, it sucks. But it’s actually a pretty good way to realize what you’re doing wrong behind the wheel: people who ride with me, it turns out, have a better handle on my driving vices than I do. Like a truck, we’ve all got our blind spots. So I’m learning. I’m learning from Jason’s blog post, still, too: we had to buy a map on the way home. I definitely should have heeded his advice and had one before we left. But the important part is that we’re learning from road trips themselves—we allowed ourselves a little detour to Monterey, to the ocean, on the way back. The detour is why we needed that map: no matter how important it is to be in control when you’re behind the wheel, it’s even more important to stay flexible when you’re driving. A road trip’s not a road trip without some last-minute changes. I think Joan Didion and Courtney Barnett would agree.

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