On the Road Again: Freed From Lockdowns, Americans Plan Summer Travels This Year

(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, file)

Great news for the unofficial start of summer this holiday weekend:

A new poll confirms what most of us have been anticipating eagerly, perhaps even desperately. Liberated from masks and Covid restrictions we’re going to enjoy a renewed, once-familiar American summer with – wait for it! – a safe return to travel and good old-fashioned road trips.

The polling folks over at Morning Consult confirm that Americans have every intention of returning to their beloved summer travel habits this year.

Sixty-four percent in the new poll say they’re going to take at least one domestic trip between June and September, almost exactly the 63 percent who said that’s what they normally did before last summer’s shutdowns.

A minor difference over previous years, perhaps due more to strained family finances, is slightly fewer (21 percent) say they’ll take more than one summer journey compared to the 31 percent who normally do. I suspect, however, the joys of summer may well re-ignite their addiction to travel.

This is great news for the travel industry and the employees of motels, restaurants, parks, airlines, etc — a major economic sector strangled by fears and restrictions.

It’s also great news for those of us who cherish ROAD TRIPS.

The American character contains an engrained wanderlust. Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country that Americans could wander in. And wander they did and do.

About this time of year in the mid-19th century hundreds, then thousands of settler families, entrepreneurs, and adventure-seekers headed West from Missouri on horseback and in covered-wagon trains on the three or four-month trek along various iterations of the Oregon Trail.

The 15 miles today’s road-trippers can do in a quarter-hour took those folks a full day to cover. Many of their original campgrounds, usually tucked in by a cliff or river, still bear the stone-chiseled graffiti of hopeful pioneers in search of their destiny—“McKenzie Bros 1853.”

So, heavy was that wagon traffic that it wore deep ruts in stone still visible today.

One of the most enduring joys of my life has been family car road trips every summer, well before car ACs and Interstates. Dad in the driver’s seat, short sleeves, no tie; Mom as co-pilot, me in back watching out all sides.

My mother dispensed LifeSavers from a stash of rolls in her purse. Dad and I took turns opening them. But somehow, he always found the end starting with cherry. I always got the lime end.

Eating sites came from a guidebook in the glove compartment. Duncan Hines was a greeting card salesman who traveled the country. Now, his name adorns cake mixes. But this was in the day before national-chain eateries, except for Howard Johnson’s, Town by town, Mr. Hines took careful notes on local restaurants—prices, hours, best dishes.

He’d insert those notes and recommendations in Christmas cards to friends and family, a habit that turned into a little book business. Duncan Hines guides became my family’s eating bible. About an hour before dinner Mom would read out the notes for upcoming towns.

Didn’t matter to me as long as they had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But if the sign had the word LIQUOR larger than food, we didn’t stop.

Motels were usually family-run cabins. If we got a room, Dad would emerge from the office rubbing his hands together. If not, drive on down the road a bit.

Later, with my own family, the road trip joy was, I confess, almost indescribable. A fresh new day. Open road ahead. Serendipitous, spontaneous adventures awaiting. No set destination.

I confess, as a journalist, I may have conjured a Road Trip Beat. My employer bought it, once, sometimes twice a year. Driving around America for six or eight weeks on someone else’s dime, stopping to see anything or anyone of interest—an antique shop inside a giant oil tank. Talking with Mount Rushmore visitors on what that sight meant to them.

Then, 24 hours behind the desk of a Holiday Inn. I won’t forget the tired family finding No Vacancy at 5:55 pm. At 6, however, non-guaranteed reservations expired. The next carload got in.

Saturday night with cowboys and cowgirls dancing in a country bar. “There’s only one night of the week you don’t gotta get up before dawn.”

Sitting in the window of a former hardware store with the announcer of KCHA, serving Charles City and the Greater Floyd County area. “It’s 12 noon,” he said, leaning over to look out and up at the sky, “and cloudy in downtown Charles City.”

The up-close spectacle of a massive, raging forest fire, the sooty faces of sweating crews seeking to steer them, and the eerie roar the flames make. A day in a busy Wyoming gas station as scores of vacationers come and go in their summer road quest for something.

One muggy summer evening I sat with Pearl Hutchinson on her front porch facing old US Route 6. She runs a tourist home, basically an Airbnb before there was Airbnb. She remembered the old days pre-Interstate when her bedrooms were taken for the night by dinner time. Now, she could go weeks, even months with no business.

She waited a few minutes past 10. No one came. She turned off her sign. “Maybe tomorrow,” she said.

My first childhood ambition was not policeman or firefighter. It was over-the-road trucker, always going somewhere I did not know. They were indeed pandemic heroes, moving goods all over all day and night.

But summer is more difficult for them. The roads fill with amateur drivers doing unpredictable things. But, it seems, truckers do enjoy youngsters in passing cars looking up, pumping their hands, and the faces exploding in silent joy when drivers respond with their air horns.

Then, there was that cool Montana morning when, as usual, we were cruising along a quiet back road. There, in the middle of nowhere was a mounted cowboy just riding along.

He was leading a packhorse, so not likely local. “Howdy,” he said to the fellow summer traveler.

Turns out, the young man had always wanted to see what was out there in America, not unlike the riders and wagon drivers 150 years previous. So, he took the summer off, trucked his horses down to the Mexico border, and was riding all the way back up to Canada.

Usually sleeping in a field, he’d cook simply on a campfire, unless someone invited him in for a homecooked meal. He was very happy and content up there in the saddle, steering his horse this way and that as each day unfolded with curiosity led him along.

I remarked that many Americans would envy his freedom and wanderlust just going somewhere on a summer journey.

He smiled and shrugged. “Come on along,” he offered. “The trail is wide.”