I never thought about highways as a kid. I never really gave much thought to the road — whether it was asphalt or concrete, four lanes or two. As a kid, the trip was not about the infrastructure but rather the destination and all that I would see along the way. After nearly 13 years working in transportation communications, I now cannot help but see the pavement markings, rumble strips, signs and lane designs. It bores my wife and son to no end.
In my family, "vacation" was just another name for "road trip." We camped, fished and drove cross country to visit extended family in the Midwest. I still see in my mind long expanses of Wyoming horizon with a herd of antelope moving along a grassy slope. I remember massive rolling thunderstorms rising and bubbling far in the distance as we crossed Oklahoma. I could hardly believe how fast the storm moved toward us and I guessed that our station wagon must be really fast to catch up with the lightning like that.
These long trips gave my brother and me plenty of time to read comic books and play road games. The "alphabet" game was common. "I Spy" was another favorite. We also tried to identify the models of semi-trucks that rumbled past us. My brother and I tormented each other as we lay across the large back seat — no seatbelts or concerns about things like that. One trip included our cousins, which meant the older kids had to sit in the station wagon's rear facing jump seat. It all seemed perfectly normal when someone would climb throughout the car while racing down the road.
Today, road trips are different. I'm often behind the wheel, giving a very different view of the world than I saw from the back of the station wagon. My son, now a teenager and constantly bored by everything, wears his own headphones attached to his iPod. He goes hours without making a peep. My wife and I carry on our conversation, as if the idea of looking ahead through the windshield is reason enough to talk about the future and what might be — dreaming between us about what is around the bend.
I wonder — with my son so focused on what is in his hand — if he is missing the promise of the road? Will he ever take a moment to see the horizon or worry about the storm ahead? For me, those are probably the biggest gifts of those road trips.
AASHTO this year celebrates 100 years of road trips made on aggregate and steel and lane markings and protected by guardrail. Each year, thanks to AASHTO's member states, those road trips have become safer, more routine and more dependable. The America I experienced from the back seat was made possible largely due to the work of AASHTO's founders and all the hard working transportation professionals who came after.
I'm grateful for their effort. And, I hope that someday my son will come to appreciate the road and its views as much as me.