North America’s legendary road trips

Route 66 United StatesAhhh…the Road Trip. It’s as American as apple pie, as Canadian as maple syrup and as Alaskan as…bears catching salmon? But if you’re wondering why North America will always be the Road Trip’s spiritual home, it all goes back to a guy named Henry Ford.

When Ford rolled his first Model T automobile off the production line in Detroit, Michigan, way back in the early 1900s, it changed the way regular Americans thought about travel. Sure, caravans, chariots and carriages (and even a few super-expensive cars) were already roaming around the continent well before Mr Ford came along. But these options were either too slow, or too expensive for most people. Ford’s Model T made the automobile affordable, and made travel accessible to all. Instead of catching a train or boarding a crowded boat – motorists can now begin to explore this massive continent on their own, and visit cities and National Parks that they had only read about in books.

And of course, with this newfound spirit of exploration came a whole generation of writers, photographers and filmmakers who began documenting their adventures – cementing the legacy of the ‘The Great North American Road Trip’ into popular culture.

But what exactly is it that makes a great road trip? Is it ground covered? The companionship? Or the crazy, unplanned things that happen along the way? To find out, Intrepid’s Adam Slater has a look back over some of the most notable (and notorious) North American road trips…

Road Tripper: Horatio Nelson Jackson
The Route: San Francisco to New York
The Story:
We’ve all done stupid things to win a bet. But Horatio Nelson Jackson took it to the next level. While hanging out at his local University Club, Horatio (perhaps drunkenly) accepted a 50 dollar wager, betting a friend that he could be the first person to drive across the entire United States – despite having no car, no driving experience and no maps. But guess what? After numerous breakdowns, a car accident and stopping to buy a dog (not a hot dog, an actual dog)… he totally made it. In your face, University Club!

Road Tripper: The Joad Family
The Route: Route 66
The Story:
The family that travels together, stays together. No more is this true than in John Steinbeck’s classic novel – The Grapes of Wrath. After being evicted from their Oklahoma farm, the Joads (and preacher Jim Casy) set out on a backbreaking trek from the desolate plains of the Dust Bowl to search for work under California’s sunny skies. Tragic, poignant and laced with historical context – this road trip chronicles a key period in the shaping of a the modern nation.

Road Tripper: Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters
The Route: San Francisco to New York via the Deep South (and back again).
The Story:
Something was happening in San Francisco in the 60s. And whatever it was, Tom Wolf hoped to capture it. How did he do it? Simple… he jumped aboard a school bus with a bunch of ‘Intrepid Travellers’ (yep, that’s actually what he called them!) and embarked on a psychedelic, anarchic and highly entertaining journey across America. With a cast made up of famous authors, mad-hatters and more than a few oddballs, the gang made it their mission to take over the country one party at a time, leaving a rainbow of hippy-love in their wake.

Road Tripper: Hunter S Thompson, The Cast of the Hangover
The Route: Los Angeles to Las Vegas
The story:
What is it about Las Vegas that makes people go a bit…overboard? Is it the heat? The isolation that comes with staying in a desert city? Probably a combination of both…but we suspect that it also has a lot to do with the free drinks served at the casino bars. Anyway, Las Vegas is the U.S.A’s party capital – and as Dr Gonzo, or Phil from the Hangover will tell you – it packs quite the punch. So grab some friends, put on your hangover-proof aviator sunglasses and hit the road. Oh, and try not abduct a tiger or attempt to buy an orangutan.

Road Tripper: Alexander Supertramp (Chris McCandless)
The Route: Washington DC to Alaska
The story:
A born adventurer, Chris McCandless left a wealthy family and a privileged life behind to explore the far reaches of the North American continent. Unfortunately, Chris eventually bit off more than he could chew – tragically succumbing to the unforgiving Alaskan wild. But before he met his end, he managed to hitchhike his way across the U.S.A, kayak into the Gulf of Mexico and pass through the wilds Canada on his way to fulfill a lifelong dream – to go ‘Into the wild’ and explore Alaska’s Denali National Park.

Any that you would add to this list, or do you have your own favourite road trip?

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Enjoyed the read and in particular the detailed account of Henry Ford, but next to a picture of a 1960 Corvette (Yes, Route 66, I get it) is a bit unsettling for we Corvette fanatics. Long live the Stingray! And long live road trips of any kind going anywhere…

Thanks Jennifer, oops sorry we got out Johns and Toms muddled – agree, Travels With Charley is a great read.
Sue, Intrepid Express Editor

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