Stuck on The Great American Summer Road Trip

July 9, 2012

in Travel Essays

  • SumoMe

Stuck on the Roadside BillboardWhile driving the family car on a vacation trip out “in the sticks” and out of cellphone range in New Mexico, consumer travel advocate Christopher Elliott realized things weren’t going well when he “…felt a sudden jolt, followed by a loud vibration from the right front wheel. It sounded as though an angry rattlesnake had been sucked into our engine.”

Fortunately for Chris, his breakdown on the remote highway wasn’t due to a “Snake in a Lane” on the two-lane desert road. A minor repair job sent he and his family on their way.

But the incident led him to ask this question: “What happened to the great American road trip?”

See The U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet

For many kids in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the arrival of summer not only meant “No More Pencils, No More Books, No More Teacher’s Dirty Looks!” but departure from home on a road trip with mother, father, siblings, and maybe even the family dog. And Dinah Shore singing “See The U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet!” wasn’t so much an exhortation to travel as a command to hop in the family sedan and hit the road.

The Pioneer of All Road Trips

But who did the first coast-to-coast “Big Trip” by automobile? Horatio Nelson Jackson.

Jackson, a Vermont doctor, ponied up $50 on a bet that he could drive his 20-horse power car from San Francisco to New York City. It was a rash undertaking, since there were only 150 miles of paved roads in the entire United States when he made the wager back in 1903.

Filmmaker Ken Burns, along with historian and writer Dayton Duncan, traced Jackson’s landmark journey in the PBS program Horatio’s Drive. The dust cover to their book of the same name says:

“Jackson was possessed of a deep thirst for adventure, and his remarkable story chronicles the very beginning of the restless road trips that soon became a way of life in America. Horatio’s Drive is the first chapter in our nation’s great romance with the road.”

It took Horatio months to complete his cross-country. Just in case a rattlesnake, road hazard, or equipment malfunction brought his automobile to a screeching halt, he took along a mechanic. En-route, Jackson was joined by his “best friend,” Bud, who you’ll see in this clip from the PBS show:

Horns of a Dilemma: Fly or Drive?

So this summer, or you taking a flight or driving your own car to reach your destination?

According to Chris Elliott, the average American leisure traveler is ten times as likely—and maybe more—to take a road trip than travel by air. Flying is much faster when you’re following in the footsteps of Horatio Jackson and crisscrossing the country; driving makes more sense when you are not wandering too far from home.

Family road trips—like those I made with my mother and stepfather—can create indelible memories. And although travel writer Harriet Baskas has found ways to enjoy being stuck at the airport, like Chris Elliott, most of us would prefer being stuck on the side of the road, as long as it wasn’t because a rattlesnake got sucked into our car’s engine.

(Horatio’s Drive is available from in hardcover, audio cassette, audiobook, and Audible Audio Edition versions. You can buy the PBS TV program on DVD or VHS tape. Purchases made through links on this page help Tales Told From The Road continue to bring you a wide-range of travel information.)

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