When journalist Tom Wolfe declared that cars were “freedom, style, sex, power, motion, color — everything”, he captured the heart of the matter. Sure, for many of us, cars are an appliance and travel a drudging necessity. South Africa is a country of vast distances, and the road trip is part of our national makeup. Many of us are migrants who live between places located hundreds or thousands of kilometres apart, and road-tripping can thus become a begrudged necessity. But that’s not the sort of trip I’m talking about. I’m thinking of the kind of road trip where you start off at one place, watch the light and the scenery change through the vista of your windshield, and emerge somewhere far off, with your car ticking away from a day’s drive. I’m thinking of the kind of trip that takes you past unfamiliar, one-street towns and through scenery where the only soul is (always) that one man randomly walking from someplace to someplace else.
Nowadays, people shun the road trip because they fear boredom. Once the Instagram snaps have been taken and the playlist chosen, what do you do with yourself? But this is the wrong approach to take. Driving is exactly the freedom to escape, to seclude ourselves from the world in an escape pod of our own controlling. You can wax nostalgic about the trips of your youth (they were never that good) or invent new memories. You have options.
Certainly, in the age of the pandemic, the desire to travel has to be balanced against the anxiety engendered by other people and their contagions. Theoretically, flying ought to be safe, but if you don’t need to fly, why would you? Think of how much you miss from the air. In any event, air travel promises, with gross inexactitude, to save you time. But air travel is a con. The great lie — that time is the greatest luxury — is cruelly exposed when you forsake the bliss of your own hermetically sealed car to take part in a compacted parody of suburbia in the sky, being herded with strange strangers and abused and crammed and made to wait, all to save a few hours you probably won’t use profitably anyway.
Of course, not everybody should drive and, given the ongoing protracted death of the car (electricity and automation won’t save it), fewer people will, over time. Perhaps, like rail travel, the road trip will become the exclusive province of those who do not adhere to the dogmatic view that travel is about convenience. But while we still have the chance, pick a weekend, pack a suitcase, and drive somewhere you haven’t been. Loved ones optional. I promise, you’ll enjoy it.