Rules Of The Road


I loved my 2009 honeymoon, two weeks of frolicking among the villages of Italy’s Ligurian coast.

Given the nature of the occasion, I had always assumed my husband, Oggi, was equally delighted. So I was a little shocked when, as we were planning our next trip, he announced that he would never repeat the Ligurian adventure.

“I hated getting on and off all those trains — the constant packing and unpacking, all the schlepping around with luggage,” Oggi confessed. His bottom line: “No more public transit. Next time, I want a car.”

At least he didn’t complain about the company.

From that time forward, we have taken trains only within cities, with the car as our method of exploring terrains ranging from Balkan mountain gorges to California deserts. Getting behind the wheel allows you to experience the texture of a place — to interact with the countryside, rather than passively observe it from the window of a bus or train. If a place name sounds pretty, I may pull off the highway and investigate, which is how I discovered a lovely canal-side trail in a Catalan village named Miére. You can browse roadside shops, chat with locals in towns that never see a tourist, and observe the way people live in suburbs far from your own.

These are perspectives I’d never fully considered when Oggi laid down the car ultimatum. You see, for 15 years, I had nurtured a travel identity built on frugality, social responsibility and urban living. Taking public transportation — local buses, trains, and subways — was a core part of that identity. It made me feel like a temporary resident, brought me closer to the everyday experience of wherever I was visiting, and offered a window — sometimes a literal one — into local culture.

Now my better half was lobbying for a form of travel I saw as isolating and suburban. My first reaction was annoyance, but I wanted him to be happy, too. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t love all the schlepping around stations with luggage, either. I did it out of conviction, but those train schedules can feel confining.

Today, I love a good road trip, and sometimes — if I’m on this side of the Atlantic — I even share the driving. (One of my lifetime goals is to learn to drive a stick; I figure I still have time.)

Every road trip has its own rhythm, but what distinguishes the genre is its emphasis on journey over destination. I know a couple that takes two weeks in the summer and a Peugeot and does Europe at the frenetic pace of a country a day; three hours in a city and they’re back at the wheel, preferring the scenery along the way to any cultural immersion.

That’s an extreme case. Some road trips are like extended Sunday drives, meandering and relaxed; others are a means to an end, like my friend Shoshana’s move from Vienna to Barcelona. She could have taken a plane and sent her luggage ahead, of course, but it was a great excuse to drive the French coast.

Certain destinations were made for the car. Almost any safe, developed coastline falls into this category; few beach towns are substantial enough to sustain my excitement for a full week, but I could spend months discovering hidden coves and cliffside terraces.

The Pacific Coast Highway is a road everyone should drive once. So is the German autobahn. In Israel — a small country with dramatically varied landscapes — a car is ideal for exploring the hills, valleys and deserts (not to mention the wineries). And for most Americans, life is not complete without one cross-country drive to gauge the extent of our vast, diverse land.

Over the years, I’ve developed certain road-trip protocols. No matter how well I think I know the route, I always study the map for the next day’s driving the night before. You can get surprisingly far on road signs, but memory plays tricks.

I always load the car with bottled water; besides the obvious, it’s handy for an overheated engine or a prolonged breakdown. I pack lots of fresh fruit for noshing, because off most highway exits, healthy snack food is about as common as four-star bistros (and nearly as expensive if you do find it). Chocolate bars are handy for rewarding compliant spouses and keeping drivers awake.

Is that a Gap outlet I see before me? Pull over! Any spoils will go in the trunk. The freedom from taking packing seriously is one of the great, hedonistic joys of road-tripping. Can’t decide between the hiking boots and the city boots? Take them both.

If only I could take the same approach with that fork in the road up ahead.