Is a road trip still a road trip if no one’s behind the wheel? What if there’s not even a road? We’re talking, after all, about one of the most potent and ubiquitous metaphors in American culture—if not the most potent and ubiquitous metaphor in American culture. It’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty crisscrossing the continent in a bigass Ford. It’s Ken Kesey and his LSD-addled Merry Pranksters doing the same in a school bus. It’s rubber on asphalt and you or someone close to you steering. It’s enlightenment via the crucible of a long journey. There’s probably jerky from a gas station involved.
But it may be bedtime for that romantic notion. Single-owner combustible engines seem less and less practical (environmentally, geopolitically) all the time. The gradual—though painfully slow—embrace of public transit in the region and beyond hints at a loss of love for traditional autos. Nationwide, in fact, car ownership has declined every year since 2007, according to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. And what about when software takes the wheel? Self-driving cars—be they by Google, Apple, or from Detroit—we’re told are within a decade of being in wide acceptance and possession nationwide and, as Bloomberg recently reported, will account for one-fourth of all auto sales within 20 years.
This month we bent the definition of our cover story subject (“Road Trips 2015”) to include conveyances beyond a car and a highway. Senior editor Allison Williams joined a clan of Olympic medalists in a Caterpillar—“cheaper than chartering a helicopter but immeasurably more effective than schlepping into the mountains on foot”—to explore snowy tracks and untouched powder in British Columbia. She also climbed aboard a 1996 Land Cruiser mounted with a hardtop tent for a type of tour called overlanding, or as Williams describes it, “multiday drives through the rugged dirt roads and just-wide-enough trails that coat public lands like spiderwebs.”
Oh there’s plenty of old-school road tripping in here: Yakima Valley, hot springs in Oregon, clamming at Long Beach—all by car. But what I like about those two less conventional excursions is the way they redefine what we think of as a road trip. There are Kesey-grade epiphanies (Williams discovers a secret graveyard in the Cascades, for Christ’s sake) and bonding and even snacks—all suggesting that America’s most potent and ubiquitous metaphor was probably never about the car in the first place.