Summer is on its way, which means it’s almost road trip season. So this week we’re asking:
What is a thing from pop culture that inspired you to hit the road?
It may not be immediately intuitive as a source of open-road wanderlust, but the 2009 dramedy Adventureland managed to get me dreaming of the next time I could plan a road trip to Six Flags. Not that there’s anything particularly enticing about the film’s theme park, in which college grad James (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced to get a summer job, only to fall for his coworker, Em (Kristen Stewart). No, what the movie did was simply remind me of the trashy, lowbrow pleasures of a good theme park: Roller coasters, incredibly unhealthy food, and games that are either unwinnable or, if you do manage to succeed, reward you with the most unwanted of prizes. (Oversized plush Minion or goldfish in a plastic bag, anyone?) I was living in Brooklyn at the time, and while Coney Island could reliably deliver on the gut bomb foodstuffs, there’s only a couple of roller coasters—and to be honest, the Cyclone is more of a painful, crown-loosening device for your teeth than a ride. So I arranged for a rental car, hit the road, and made a trip out of visits to Kings Dominion and Six Flags. Nothing says vacation like being somewhere that consists largely of long lines and sunburned ears, punctuated by 120 seconds of whooping, adrenaline-laced joy.
I truly hesitate to share this, as I am not a Michael Bublé fan by any stretch of the imagination, but his 2009 hit “Haven’t Met You Yet” always makes me want to recreate the moment when I first heard it. I was visiting Virginia for a college friend’s fall wedding. The sight of the changing leaves and the quiet simplicity of the countryside was unlike anything that I’d ever seen. It was so vibrant and peacefula strong departure from my usual city surroundings. When the first plucky piano chords trickled through the speakers, it felt like the ideal soundtrack for the moment. It was an impossibly upbeat scene that continues to serve as a source of warmth, and now I always associate “Haven’t Met You Yet” with the countryside and the inherent optimism of fall. Even thinking about it now makes me want to plan an extravagant trip just to see the leaves change, or at least visit a really chill farmers market.
At the young age of 18, my twin and I went on a road trip cobbled together from several pop culture sources of inspiration. Our meandering journey began close to home, at Milwaukee’s great, now shuttered, Atomic Records, because the first source inspiring us to hit the road was an article my sister had read in Paste magazine highlighting the finest record stores in the U.S. We then proceeded south, stopping at record shops in Chicago, Louisville, and Nashville, before striking out west along the lonely roads from Oklahoma to Arizona, where we drove dangerously fast and abused our minivan’s cruise control. Eventually we found Amoeba Music in L.A., where my sister realized she hadn’t had her driver’s license this whole time. From there we drove north to San Francisco, our ultimate destination, because I had read several Christopher Moore novels taking place in that vibrant city. Our northerly route home began with a stop in Sausalito, because of the song “Sausalito” by Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band. On that back-half of the trip we devised a sleeping/driving system where the driver would drink a 5-Hour Energy shot and the non-driver some NyQuil tablets to sleep, and in this way we drove three days and nights without stopping. This got us to Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, our last record store, and finally home to Wisconsin.
He only made three movies, but I was a huge James Dean fan as a kid: My favorite is probably the epic East Of Eden (I also enjoy Rebel Without A Cause, but Giant is very long, although we do get to see what Dean might have looked like as an old man.) So in college, my friends and I favored short memorial-fueled road trips (including Graceland), which necessitated a journey to Indiana’s Fairmount Historical Museum. It was there that I learned there are two famous people from Fairmount, Indiana, and they both have the initials “JD”: Dean and Jim Davis, creator of Garfield. To call that museum a severe pop-culture whiplash would still be an understatement, although judging from the website, the proprietors have since realized that James Dean is the real draw. (Sorry, Garfield.) Even weirder, when my friends and I visited, the museum had just had a prominent visitor: Morrissey, who filmed his Dean-themed video for “Suedehead” in Fairmount. They showed us his autograph in the sign-in book: His childlike scrawl took up the whole page.
You can blame The Clash for the moment when I walked off the plane from my first ever trip abroad, waving at my waiting family, only for my mom’s mouth to screw up into a scowl as she asked, “Katherine, is that a nose ring?” Sorry, mom. It was a nose ring, and I got it at a tattoo parlor in Camden Town while on a school trip to London my sophomore year of high school. By that point, I was already deep into the first wave of English punk, deep enough to know that the cover of The Clash’s 1977 self-titled album was shot in the alleyway across from their rehearsal space in Camden Market. Most of the trip was taken up by “cultural enrichment” activities that, as a surly 16-year-old, seemed like a bunch of stodgy old squares reciting the names of dead kings I couldn’t care less about. I had saved up money from my bussing job all summer to go on my punk pilgrimage, and so when our teacher announced that we had a free afternoon, I was out the door before she finished lecturing us about not taking advantage of the U.K.’s relatively lax attitudes toward serving Guinness to teenagers. I had figured out how to get there on the tube days earlier, so it didn’t take me long to arrive in Camden Town; what I hadn’t figured out was that, by the early ’00s, punk had long since departed the premises, leaving only street vendors hawking band T-shirts and an overabundance of tattoo parlors behind. After poking around the market and peering into alleyways for about an hour, I finally felt bold and decided to pop into one of those parlors. The bald guy with face tattoos and stretched-out earlobes behind the counter had no patience for my starry-eyed self, simply grunting, “American, huh?” as I babbled nervously about how I heard you could get your nose pierced at 16 in London. But he did obligingly lean me back into a squeaky old dentist’s chair—I vividly remember staring at the poster of a heavily tattooed, naked woman that hung above the chair, my stomach doing somersaults as he prepared the piercing gun— and blasted a stud into my left nostril with the nonchalant air of a hitman in a crime comedy. I don’t remember getting any aftercare instructions, but I do remember feeling cool as hell strutting back into the hotel for dinner.
I spent a good chunk of college devouring the works of Irish literary demigod James Joyce, a writer whose prose I worshipped despite it often flying straight over my head. I memorized passages, studied a batch of his early letters and drafts that were held at my college’s library, and, on more than one occasion, tried and failed to emulate his labyrinthian, culturally informed style of stream-of-consciousness on the page. My pretension eventually faded, but my love for Joyce never did—I still find it fun to open Ulysses or Finnegans Wake to a random page and rediscover some forgotten aside or searing moment of self-discovery. I chose Ireland as my first European destination not entirely due to Joyce—my grandfather was born in Cork—but it certainly played a part, and I was delighted to see the tourist-friendly signposts signifying the shops and thoroughfares specifically highlighted in Joyce’s text. I visited the James Joyce Centre and explored some Joycean landmarks on my own, but saved a proper walking tour for my final day, when, surprise, I was struck down by a bad bowl of stew (or, who knows, a few too many Guinness pints). I did, however, drag my sick ass to the “Prick With A Stick” statue that commemorates the thorny scribe. The picture hangs in my living room.
This is less a story of being inspired to travel to a pop-culture destination, and more of realizing that, while visiting a friend in Boston in 2015, I could finally do something I’d always wanted to do: grab a beer in a dimpled mug at the Cheers bar. If you have also attempted to sit your butt down in barstool with George Wendt’s ass groove, then you know that there’s the original bar (once named The Bull And Finch), which is on Beacon Street, as well as a replica bar which has promotional swag for purchase, but no Norm ass groove. Thankfully, my friend had been in Boston long enough to know that we should seek out the real deal, which we did, though I ultimately never found out if the butt of any cast member had been in the chair I perched on.
As someone who views travel more as a nuisance than a vector for new experiences, there’s only one thing that can reliably lure me out onto the open road: Much like Alex, I’m a sucker for a good theme park. There’s just something about a Six Flags or a Kings Island—screw Disney; too much sizzle, not enough steak—that short-circuits every grumbly, whiny, “But it’ll take too long!” gripe that normally echoes in my brain when a four-hour car ride looms. And nothing can inspire that urge quite like a movie that is, fittingly, also about the way getting from point A to point B can be a living hell: National Lampoon’s Vacation. It’s all about that moment when the family arrives at Wally World, only to find it closed for two weeks for repairs; it ignites a longing that can only be quashed by beginning the planning on my own probably-doomed expedition in search of expensive, intoxicating fun.
I’m generally down with road trips. I like spacing off and low-key conversation, so why not also be in a different place while enjoying those activities? My first real experience with taking a road trip without my family was immediately after high school when a friend and I decided to hit the road after becoming mutually obsessed with a copy of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Greatest Hits my aunt had given me for Christmas. So one day, we emerged from our dank cave into the summer light with no plan, practically no money, and a giant freezer bag of pure ditch weed so green and so ineffectual it may as well been Bibb lettuce to drive to the Black Hills of South Dakota in my buddy’s 1986 Toyota Corolla. It ended up being a great trip. We had fun, I had my first kiss inside a laundromat dryer in Wall, South Dakota (free ice water, 5 cent coffee) and I spent a lot of hours on the road, pretending to be high while singing along with “Runnin’ Down A Dream.”