My first memory comes from a road trip. I can still see it now, almost 38 years later: a brilliant red starfish, fat and thrilling to a child’s eye, splayed in a tidepool on a California beach.
My family never flew: Whether the destination was California, Arizona, Florida, or Maine, we drove all the way from Michigan. By the time I took my first airplane flight — I was a high-school senior — I had crossed almost every state border in the lower 48, wheels hugging tight to the road.
Road trips aren’t all glitz and glamour. I’ve slept in dicey roadside motels. I’ve thrown up in Yellowstone. I’ve gotten suckered into backseat “strength competitions” with my older brother, which involved him punching me on my upper arm until I almost died. I’ve visited the world’s largest truck stop — Iowa 80, that vast heartland “trucker’s Disneyland” — more times than I’d like to admit.
But I would argue that jumping into a car and tasting the sweet freedom of rolling wherever you want, whenever you want — all while watching this massive, amazing country scroll by — is about as American as it gets.
These days, I’m keeping the tradition alive with my own kids. We’ve driven all over, but our first and favorite road trip plunged us straight into the middle of proverbial nowhere: the far west of Texas, one of the wildest remaining places in America today.
Don’t believe me? Try to get to Big Bend National Park, a stunning mix of ecosystems perched on the Rio Grande. Sure, you can fly into El Paso — and then you’ve still got about 300 miles left to go. No matter which way you approach the heart of West Texas, it’s a long haul. (Well, unless you have a private jet. But then you’d be missing half the fun.)
As the writer S. C. Gwynne has pointed out, the American frontier didn’t end in California, but in the wild west of Texas. On the way out to Big Bend country, through hardscrabble landscapes, breathtaking canyons, and vast swathes of open sky, you can see why.
If you take my preferred route — it’s longer than necessary, on purpose — you’ll stumble across the former home of Judge Roy Bean, the hard-living, saloon-dwelling, 19th-century “law west of the Pecos,” who kept a black bear as a pet. You’ll pass through Marathon, a one-horse town with an impossibly lovely hotel — the Gage, built in 1927, famous for its White Buffalo Bar. After winding south through Marfa and Cibolo Creek, you’ll embark on one of the prettiest drives in America, following the Rio Grande to Lajitas. There you can meet the mayor, Clay Henry Jr., who is a beer-drinking goat. One last stop before you hit Big Bend: the ghost town of Terlingua, which, unlike Austin, is still genuinely weird.
We’ve now driven to West Texas six times. Each time, we see something new. Like much of America, it must be experienced on the ground.
As I write this, I’m on a plane, somewhat ironically. I’m fine with flying, and for many trips, it certainly has its place. And yet, for all of our speed, many travelers often soar oblivious over a big, beautiful, wild, and wonderful country. What a gift it is. What a thrill to see it from the road.
This article appears as “Road Trips” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.