Flying to Hit the Road
Recent data indicates the American road trip is alive and well, but changing. We'll take a look back to how it all began and bring you up to date on its latest trends.
This year about 85 percent of American's will vacation to domestic destinations. So now that summer is in full swing it should come as no surprise that tens of millions of Americans are hitting the road. Between July 3rd and July 8th an estimated 46.9 million of us traveled more than 50 miles away from home. While a record-breaking 3.8 million traveled by air, AAA says the vast majority of those travelers did so by driving. I did both, and by doing so I became part of a growing trend in American road tripping.
I'll tell you all about it, but first here are a few more numbers to put the country’s travel habits in perspective. AAA reports that the 4th of July travel numbers are a 5.1 percent increase from last year and that the 39.7 million people that drove make up the highest number the company has recorded since it started tracking these stats 18 years ago.
“This Independence Day will be one for the record books, as more Americans take to the nation’s roads, skies, rails and waterways than ever before,” said Bill Sutherland, senior vice president, AAA Travel and Publishing. “Confident consumers with additional disposable income will look to spend on travel this holiday, building on an already busy summer travel season.”
Every year for the past 28 years, MMGY Global, one of the country's largest travel and hospitality marketing firms has put out a Portrait of American Travelers report. In its most recent report, 60% of those asked said they plan to take a road trip in the next 12 months. That number is up from 51% last year. The reasons given as to why include, no airline hassles, no set itinerary, no restrictions on what you can pack, and lower costs.
Over the past several years the report has tracked an evolution in how these road trips are taken. MMGY Global's data shows that long two week road trips are on the decline, with a shift instead to taking several shorter trips throughout the year. Yet the people surveyed are telling MMGY Global that even if they only have four or five days, they don’t want to cover the same ground. This desire has added a new twist, with more and more people now flying to a distant location to then take road trips.
On July 4th, for one of the few times in my life, I joined the ranks of trend setters by flying from Cleveland to Denver, then driving from Fort Collins, Colorado back to Cleveland, Ohio, by way of southern Indiana. Yeah, I know, by any account that is not the shortest or fastest way. It was however a way of turning a necessary trip into a bit of an adventure.
Seeing Sites Along the Way
My oldest daughter just graduated from Colorado State University and we had to pack up her apartment and u-haul its contents back home. We'd taken the I-80 route several times up into Wyoming, then across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and into Ohio. In case you are wondering, it takes about 20 hours of actual driving to travel the 1,300 plus miles from Fort Collins to the east side of Cleveland. Due to time constraints we had always made this trip in two days.
This time we decided to plot a new path home and tack on an additional 8 hour detour in order to see family along the way. Vacations are the main reason people site for taking road trips, but working those vacations around seeing family is often a goal shared by many. Instead of heading north out of Fort Collins, this time we went a bit south and headed east across Kansas and Missouri.
Though beautiful in their own right, the scenery along this is historic stretch of I-70 can feel a bit monotonous. However, if you take just a little bit of extra time, to stop for some of the road side attractions provided by the industrious and inventive folks of especially Kansas, you can make some fun and unique memories.
Before setting out, I went online and made a list of attractions located no further than a mile off our path on I-70. We never intended to stop at them all, just the ones closest to where we might end up needing food, gas or lodging. With the heavy load being pulled by, Diana, my daughter's nimble little soul-red SUV, gas stops were frequent. As a result, we got a true taste of the varied attractions the route along I-70 has to offer.
Most of day one of our journey was spent getting loaded, so we spent our first night on the road near the eastern edge of Colorado. Before getting back on the interstate for day two, we swung by the famed Philadelphia Toboggan Company’s Carousel #6. Built in 1905 for a Denver amusement park, the carousel has operated at the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds in Burlington since 1928.
According to Colorado Encyclopedia, it is considered to be one of the finest remaining original american carousels. It is the oldest working carousel in Colorado, and is the only antique carousel in the country with original paint on both the animals and its central core. It plays music on a 1909 Wurlitzer Monster Organ that is one of only three of its kind still in operation. I didn't know any of this until after I saw it, but I still thought its craftsmanship was beautiful.
We didn't see the world's largest ball of twine in Kansas because it was more than a mile out of our way, but we did see the world's largest easel and the world's largest Czech egg. Kansas really seems to have a thing for coming up with the world's biggest random objects. Crazy, perhaps, but fun too.
The easel in Goodland, Kansas stands 80 feet tall and holds a massive reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh's "Three Sunflowers in a Vase". Both it and the park where it is located are maintained by the local rotary club. A mower hummed along in the background as we took in the site. Silhouetted against a vibrant blue skyline the easel towered over Diana and our u-haul, and held its own with the town's water tower.
The whole Czech egg thing intrigued me. Why on earth would Wilson, Kansas choose such a random attraction? At 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide it didn't happen on a whim. Well, upon arriving in the quaint rural farm town I learned it wasn't random at all.
According to signage at the site, back in 1890 a large migration of Bohemian and Moravian immigrants from Czechoslovakia settled in the area and their culture and traditions have been passed down through the generations that have remained. In 1967 the state government actually declared Wilson the Czech capital of Kansas. Who knew? Traditionally exchanged at easter, intricate and boldly painted eggs have long been a Czech symbol of "new beginnings, love, friendship and good things to come".
That's what I love about visiting new places. Things that from a distance might seem odd or out of place can take on new meaning with a slightly new perspective and focus. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes to gain a new appreciation for a place and its people.
Our biggest surprise in Kansas was Abilene. At the end of the historic Chisholm Trail there is a park like area restored to honor its western cattle town roots. The boardwalk is a pleasant place to stretch your saddle sore body after hundreds of miles on the trial or road. The broad canopy of mature trees offer welcome shade from the sweltering 90 plus degree summer heat, and after crossing this country in an air conditioned car, I remain in awe of those who did it on horseback or by wagon.
On the adjoining block of Old Abilene, we found my daughter's favorite stop in Kansas. Far more than a roadside attraction, the Dewitt D. Eisenhower Presidential Library is definitely worth an extended walk about the grounds. It is not just a collection of musty old presidential papers, it includes his childhood home and final resting place, as well as an amazing timeline of the pivotal period in history in which he lived.
This time line includes several things that would directly impact how Americans live and travel to this day, including the very piece of interstate we used to get there. There at two parts of I-70 that lay claim to being the first sections of interstate highway completed in accordance to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. To really understand the United State’s connection to road trips you have to go all the way back to when Eisenhower was just a boy of 12.
The First Cross Country Road Trip
In the summer of 1903, almost 1,700 miles away from Eisenhower's childhood home, a $50 bet was made in an exclusive club in San Francisco concerning the unreliable nature of a passing novelty known as the automobile. Four days later the first great American road trip got under way. A former doctor named Horatio Nelson Jackson recruited a mechanic named Sewall Crocker to join him in an attempt to be the first to trek coast to coast via an automobile. Their chosen vehicle was a used cherry-red Winton touring car that had been manufactured in Cleveland Ohio.
To win the bet, Jackson and Crocker had to make what turned out to be a 4,500 mile journey in less than 90 days. May sound simple enough, but at the time there were less than 150 miles of paved roads in the entire country, and those were located in and round separate cities, they didn't connect. In addition, automobiles were very prone to breakdowns and parts and support were very hard to come by. When something broke Jackson and Crocker either had to get a blacksmith to forge a new part or wait for a replacement to arrive by rail or stagecoach.
It should be no surprise then that this was a harrowing journey. Along the way the pair often had to be rescued from various quagmires by the day's more reliable mode of rural transport, the horse. They occasionally became physically lost, and weeks of time where lost waiting to receive parts after breakdowns.
It took 19 days just to get from California to Idaho. Upon their arrival there Jackson bought a bull terrier named, Bud, for luck. It doesn't sound like he really brought them much good luck, but Bud did become their mascot, and helped them gain notoriety by often getting his picture in newspapers while wearing a pair of goggles Crocker had modified to fit the pup.
These travelers/adventurers weren't able to start averaging 150 miles a day until after they made it past Omaha. By the time they made it to Chicago, city officials starting throwing them receptions. Outside of Cleveland, the birthplace of the Winton that Jackson had dubbed the Vermont, they were met by a convoy that escorted them to the company's factory for a celebration.
On one particularly scary occasion, the trio were all thrown from the Winton during an accident outside of Buffalo. Undeterred, they continued on until the mudded horseless carriage unceremoniously chugged down 5th Avenue in Manhattan at 4:30 in the morning on July 26. In all, the journey took 63 and a half days and cost Jackson $8,000, including the $15 he had spent on Bud. All for a $50 bet he never collected.
After Jackson's success, interest in traveling the country by car continued to grow. In 1909, Alice H. Ramsey and three female companions made a reverse transcontinental trip to become the first women to drive across the country. The trip still took more than two months.
The American Love Affair with Cars
When the automobile was first introduced in the late 1800's the most efficient way to get across the country was by rail, we obviously didn't have much of a road system at that point. There are people who say we should have stuck with public transportation and never let the automobile get such a large foothold.
Peter Norton is an author and historian at the University of Virginia who says that America's love affair with the car was not a choice but rather a forced narrative, dreamt up by the auto industry. “It’s one of the biggest public relations coups of all time," he told the Washington Post in 2015. "It’s always treated as folk wisdom, as an organic growth from society. One of the signs of its success is that everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign.”
There were actually protests against automobiles in the early 1900s. There were safety and noise concerns, and there were battles over where the roads should be and even who should be on them. Before the car, roadways were largely for pedestrians and when the pedestrians got pushed off and began being accused of being jaywalkers on the same streets they use to control, there was plenty of unrest. Then when the interstate system was introduced there was again turmoil as communities and private properties were forever altered or destroyed to lay out the uninterrupted and unapproachable snakes of concrete that now dissect the country for almost 47-thousand miles.
There are still those who feel our dependence on cars is insane. They believe we would be better off today if we had concentrated on further developing a public transit model that is more in line with Europe's, but it's hard to know for sure if that's true, especially outside of major urban areas. I wish we had not lost the rail systems we had, especially in urban areas, but this is a big country with a widely dispersed population. We now have more than 4 million miles of roadway that wind across and around the United States, and there are still vast sections of this country that are inaccessible by road, let alone rail.
American Car Culture, Born and Raised
The topics I'm picking for these first podcasts are not only meant to give you information, they're meant to give you some insight into who I am and how I became who I am. I think that's important so that you can understand where I'm coming from and thus better gauge the information I give you.
I am, at least in part, a product of the American road trip culture. Road trips were a very large part of my childhood. I'm the youngest of five children, with parents who started with nothing, but still had a very adventurous spirit. We could not afford to take fancy vacations, but thanks to my parents I got to see more of North America while I grew up than some people do in their entire lives.
If you listen to this podcast for long you'll quickly realize that I not only love my parents, I think they are simultaneously amazing and crazy. My family didn't just take sunday drives, we took road trips that would impress long haul truckers.
Some of my earliest memories are from a 5,000 mile road trip my family took from Hickory Corners, Michigan to Mexico City to see the Olympics. As if that wasn't far enough, we went on from Mexico City to Acapulco. The seven of us drove all the way there and back in our family station wagon, camping in a tent along the way. That's something I couldn't even entertain trying to do today with my kids, sadly Mexico is far too dangerous. I was so young at the time that many of my memories are no doubt shared through the retelling of them by my older siblings, but the experience it is still ingrained in me.
This is probably because it wasn't the only marathon road trip we took. In 1970 we and two other families drove and camped through western Canada on our way from Washington State to Alaska. Back then the Alcan Highway was partly gravel, not even paved, and if your car broke down or you wrecked your camper it remained there, strewn along the side of the road like an ominous warning to those who might dare to follow. I was only five, but that month long road trip has also stuck with me.
We still have a lot of dirt and gravel roads in this country, a couple million miles of them at least, but even in the seventies you could get on an interstate and drive in a matter of days from one side of the country to the other. When researching this podcast I was surprised to learn how long it took for that to actually be the case though.
1919 the Interstate Seed is Planted
In the summer of 1919, right after World War I, the government sponsored a road trip to caravane military vehicles from Washington DC to San Francisco. The military wanted to test the ability of the new Army Motor Transportation Corps and highlight the important, yet difficult, task of deploying equipment and personnel from one side of the country to the other.
There was a young Lt Colonel stationed in Maryland who eagerly volunteered for this journey. He had been very disappointed, that despite an earlier request, he was not deployed for active combat duty during World War I. This new 81 vehicle convoy across the country was thought to be a chance at genuine adventure. That young officer was Dwight Eisenhower.
Even in 1919 this two mile long caravan of military vehicles had a really tough time making it from one side of the country to the other. They had to bring along support personnel to feed people, they had to have support personnel along to fix vehicles, they even had larger vehicles to pull the smaller ones out of the many bogs and slogs and just troublesome ditches they continually found themselves stuck in. A dozen years after Horacio Nelson Jackson's 63 day crossing, it took 62 days for the military to cross 11 states and 3,242 miles.
The timeline we saw at Eisenhower's Presidential Library, actually talked about this caravan and how it helped influence Eisenhower when he became president after World War II. After his experience of being the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and after driving on the
autobahn, a road system that Germany already had in place before the war, the one that helped them fight a two-front war because they could easily move their military and equipment from one side of the country to the other, Eisenhower was a big fan and proponent of the United States building an interstate system.
Eisenhower later wrote, “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”
Yeah, that's right, even after World War II we still did not have an interstate system. The concept had been tossed around since 1939, and there had even been an act by Congress in 1944 that said yes we should have an interstate system, but it wasn't funded, and there was WWII to fight, so it never really went very far.
So when Eisenhower came back after the war and ended up becoming president, he made it his mission to make sure that the United States would have an interstate system that would allow for automobile travel clear across the country. His leadership Eisenhower to get the Act through Congress and move the program forward earned him the title “Father of the Interstate System”. The fact that this didn’t happen until 1956 is crazy to me. The last section of road funded under this act wasn’t completed until the 1970’s.
Car companies who wanted us to abandon public transit and go buy their vehicles may have had a great ad campaign and rang the freedom bell, but I don't think that's the only reason that we ended up in cars. I think you really have to take the full scope of the country's size and scale and dynamics into consideration when you look at this.
The reason the freedom bell was an effective tool is because we do like our freedom, I don't like to wait for a bus or train even when I'm in the city, and having grown up in the west I know the logistics are just impossible to have public transit for everyone who lives in rural areas. At this point, if you believe the automobile is not the right form of transit for the United States, what you're really saying is that everyone must be city dwellers. That is neither practical or realistic for many individuals or the country.
Will people give up their automobiles anytime soon? The gist is, no, none of the data shows that to be the trend. Actually, the trend is that more people are taking road trips than ever before in the United States. They want to explore parts of the country they haven't been to before and they want the freedom to do it on their own time table. The data shows that people are so committed to this, they will even fly to get to somewhere new to then start a road trip.
Now the next question is, will they give up the actual driving of these vehicles to autonomous programming? Maybe, but my guess is, only if they get to control where that vehicle goes and when it stops. But that would be a topic for a different podcast.
Signing off for now, this is Alison Kartevold, remember it's ok to agree or disagree, cause I'm Gist Say'n.