Some of the best road trips are long-planned and desired, whereas others are best done impulsively, such as driving to the beach on a hot day, or going out looking for one thing and finding another. But always the best trips are when the unexpected happens. An unexpected place, an unexpected person, an unexpected thought.
You borrow a friend’s soft-top car and drive along the south coast of Wales. The day is hot so the roof is down and you wear a sunhat and factor 50. You stop at The Mumbles and Three Cliffs Bay and end the day at Worm’s Head, the island shimmering in the evening sun, a place where Dylan Thomas once became trapped in the dark, afraid of the rats and ‘the things I am ashamed to be frightened of’. Before you set off on the return journey you sit on the terrace of the cliff top pub, writing and smoking cigarettes until your dinner order arrives. The day feels full and rounded, burning with heat and unexpected adventure.
If you discover a warm day amongst the Mondays to Fridays, you and your son will drive down to your favourite beach. You listen to his music while you drive, feeling the delicious pull of the cliffs spectacular in their orange glow and ragged sheer drop. You have driven to this place so often it’s like a pilgrimage, picnicking and swimming, browsing the beach-side market, going to the fish and chip huts for dinner. Your son in particular needs this place to replenish, to pull back from his life and gaze at the sea, reminding himself of the truth of things.
The biggest detour you ever drive is over a hundred miles to see your friend, who called just before your first trip with a new lover to say her boyfriend had assaulted her and was on the run from the police. When you finally get there you find her strangely excited as she recounts the story to you, explaining that the police are still hunting for him and she has an emergency number to call if he turns up at her house. When other friends arrive to take care of her, you continue your trip with your lover, the days coloured by these events as though a rip has been torn in time and the guts of someone else’s drama has spilled out.
Your longest road trip (in time and miles) is from San Francisco to The Grand Canyon. Over the course of three weeks you stop at various log cabins, mountain holiday apartments and desert motels, visiting small towns and vast landscapes, discovering the unexpected. But it is the unfolding miles that you love, the space between places, the road ribboning ahead and smudging away behind, through the ever-changing character of Yosemite, the moon-like threat of Death Valley, the prairie plains of the Hualapai Indian Reservation. You are so present when you drive, your concentration unwavering in the moment you are inhabiting, and you do not want to be anywhere else but right here.
Your Sicilian friend takes a road trip from the south to the north of the island to collect you from the bus station at Palermo. You have been excited about this final phase of your trip in her soft-top convertible, anticipating music and laughter as you plan your stay together. But on the way she has an accident on the motorway, her car flipping onto its non-existent roof where she hangs upside down from her seatbelt. She calls you from her hospital bed and tells you to catch a bus to Castelvetrano where her friend will meet you. A trip that never happens. A trip by bus instead of car. A trip of worry that your friend might die. This is not the right kind of unexpected.
Your son has been obsessed with On The Road for many years. You think he sees himself in Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, as many young men have before him, the story fuelling his desire for the epic potential of a road trip. Out of all the people you know, however ordinary his road trip may begin, his is the most likely to turn epic. You are envious of this.
There are many road trips you want to take. Up the Atlantic Road in Norway, over the Rockies in Canada, through the volcanic landscape of New Zealand. To your favourite beach with your son. The hills and valleys and rivers and trees and cities and oceans and islands and interlocking roads are waiting for you. One day soon you will get in your car and drive, and you will find the unexpected.