Road trips were a crucial part of my college years when I lived in College Station, Texas, a middle-of-nowhere university town. Every chance my friends and I got, we piled into a car and hit the road to places more exciting than where we lived—from small-town Texas festivals to the nightlife of big cities, we did it all. Getting out was the pretext, but what was more precious was the relationships cemented on these drives. Those shared experiences continue to connect us so many years later.
Another recent journey made me appreciate how road trips can help people bond. I’ve grown up in the United States, but most of my relatives live in India. They exist as an important but distant part of my life. During a visit to Kerala, my family insisted I call upon on a fortune teller they revere. He declared that a burden from a previous life was impinging on me. To ease these forces, he prescribed a series of ritual offerings at numerous small Hindu temples in the state. Before long, we’d set off on a long road trip through Kerala’s countryside in my uncle’s rickety car. Driving through the dusty, bumpy roads I made my peace with the gods. What stayed with me, however, was the way this journey bridged the distance between my relatives and me. Confined in a car for hours allowed for conversations we’d never been able to have. It brought us closer and helped me create special bonds with various members of my extended family.
The other thing I find fascinating about road trips are the rituals that emerge around them. In 2011, I travelled through the vast green expanses of Mongolia that were once patrolled by fierce horse lords. My driver Manault came from a family of drivers: His father had been a driver, all his friends were drivers, and the only thing they loved more than their vehicles was the open road. And in Mongolia that’s really all there is—empty grasslands punctuated by ovoo, sacred piles of rock that have to be circumambulated on foot. But the drivers had evolved their own version of the custom. Manault would navigate the jeep in a half circle around each ovoo we passed and honk as a sign of respect.
Sometimes the rituals are less spiritual, but no less significant. When my girlfriend’s younger brother was moving to his new home in Oregon, I became part of what was a family road trip tradition for them. At a small store that sold homemade snacks, each one of us stocked up on an individual bag of munchies. My tastes leaned towards fiery chilli-stuffed olives and habanero-coated pistachios, while my fellow travellers picked bags of spiced jerky and potato chips. For the duration of the road trip, everyone forgot about eating healthy and tucked in until the favourites were devoured and the leftovers all eventually ended up in piles at our feet. It became a quintessential part of the American road trip experience for me.
Over the last few years, my oldest and closest friend James and I have hardly seen each other. My frequent travels and his work and family commitments meant we’d grown apart. Recognising how road trips help to strengthen bonds, I decided we should take one together. By the time we finished planning, our original two-day excursion had expanded into a five-day jaunt across Texas and New Mexico.
The journey’s longest stretch was the 600-kilometre drive from the urban sprawl of San Antonio to the wild west of Texas, where we stopped for a little pilgrimage to the remotest brewery in the U.S.: The Big Bend Brewing Company in the town of Alpine that makes craft beers we both love. By the time we got there, James and I joked and ribbed each other as if we hadn’t spent a day apart. When the light-hearted banter faded, the rhythms of the road facilitated deeper conversations on life, dreams, and family.
It’s hard to pin down what makes a road trip so endearing. What is it about sitting in a car with close friends or family that allows conversation to flow so effortlessly? Road trips can be with a purpose or without—but what is common is the shared experience which, for me, inevitably leads to powerful bonding. When there’s nothing on the radio and the MP3s have offered their last gasp of entertainment, the quiet of the road rises above the jocular and the mundane. If you’re lucky, somewhere in that silence matters of the heart are allowed to unlock, causing friendships to bloom anew.
Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “Making Connections”.