“It’s the journey, stupid.”
—Variation on a 1992 campaign phrase attributed to James Carville
When I was a kid, getting there was the fun part. There were endless road trips made across the country, to Florida, to Ohio, my father always at the wheel, my mother doling out entertainment to the four kids keeping an uneasy truce in the wayback of a Ford Country Squire wagon: she’d hand us paper dolls to cut out, coloring books to test our new Crayolas, driving puzzles with a secret educational mission, scrapbooks to fill with what we’d collected the day before. While these driving trip treats made the start of the journey more tantalizing, they succeeded only so long, until boredom inspired us to make up our own childish games. Our favorite was to plaster hand-drawn signs to the windows that read Trucks Please Honk; when the passing truck drivers seated yards above us benevolently obliged with a double blast from their airhorns, my father invariably faked a startled surprise.
When we tired of that, after a long string of successes or after long dry spells between 18-wheelers, the sibling arguments over whose space was being invaded would begin, and I would turn to my favorite part of the journey: reading. I may have even consumed the entire series of Nancy Drew books in the car, so famous was I for opening my book the moment my father shifted the gear on the wheel over to Drive. My habit provoked some irritated responses from my mother that strike me as comical today, her oft-repeated one being, “Janet, get your nose out of that book and look around.” This as we were passing by the Grand Canyon.
Though I may have missed its grandeur the first time (I can’t really recall), I could tell you how Nancy saved herself from the tarantula let loose in the locked, dark attic where she was tied to a chair by the criminal she was pursuing. These were my early models for learning about how a story builds with tension, suspense and the transformation of the protagonist as she overcomes all obstacles to triumph over her antagonist. As I look back on the series now—purportedly written by “Carolyn Keene” but later revealed to be penned to a successful formula by a whole host of hired, nameless writers—it was a great education in story structure and pacing and character portrayals. Mostly, though, as I was reading my way past the glorious sights of America, I was enjoying the guilty pleasure all readers love: finding yourself in your own special world, inhabited only by you and your story’s characters, with the real people who surround you relegated to mere outsiders.
This is great preparation for becoming a writer. Losing yourself into your own world stokes your imagination in ways you can never predict, and in ways that may take decades to surface—as they did for me, returning to fiction not just as a reader but also as a writer—for the first time since eighth grade—when I was well into my fifth decade.
I eventually got to the Grand Canyon, when I was much older and a switch had flipped that had me looking around at every passing detail, imagining the stories behind what I was speeding by; a change that made road trips far more entertaining to me for what I observed and conjured on the way. My mother’s frustrated pleas to get my nose out of the book had finally taken hold, and I could hardly keep my eyes off the imagined lives I was whizzing by on the backroads. I rarely stayed at the wheel long enough to get to the next town before stopping for a photograph, all the while imagining the stories behind the small, well-tended farms, or the secrets the abandoned houses held, or what short-order cooks at small town lunch counters had heard.
And along the way, while I’d been on the way, I had learned that there are discoveries to be made in what seems most mundane, and that what’s on the way there is what stirs our creative pots, and is often what’s most memorable.
Which is why I cannot resist a road trip. Can you? ♣