I live for a good road trip–being on the open road, seeing the changing backdrops as you drive through varying terrains, listening to music, playing car games, and then immersing myself with the locals of my final destination. As an unlicensed driver, I can’t legally drive anywhere without at least one other person, which means that every car ride always feels like a mini-road trip (the camaraderie!).
Last weekend, I went on a road trip to Philadelphia. A group of friends decided to drive there to watch our friend perform in a band at a street Oktoberfest. As a Milwaukee native, I’m no stranger to Oktoberfest, so I was especially excited to partake in festivities that feel like home. Furthermore, there is nothing better than traveling to a city, eating its cuisine and drinking with the locals. Speaking of traveling and eating with the locals, I can’t help but think of Anthony Bourdain who had such an extraordinary talent for telling stories around food and the human experience every where he traveled. He is sorely missed, but that’s for another blog post.
Snacks are essential to the success of a road trip. On the road, I’m not necessarily going for health as much as I’m going for flavor profile. I like to explore the space of flavored chips–perhaps some mesquite barbecue or one of Lay’s crazy concoctions like tikka masala. I prefer stopping off at a made-to-order gas station like Wawa or Sheetz in some town I’ve never heard of and ordering chicken nuggets with a multitude of sauces or picking up my all-time favorite road snack: Snyder’s of Hanover’s Pretzel Pieces, Hot Buffalo Wing. They taste like chicken wings without the chicken and without the hassle of getting sauce all over your hands. These pretzels only taste good on the road or in a cabin in the mountains. I tried eating them in my apartment once and they weren’t bursting with flavor as they were when sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car. In addition to snacks, stocking up on a beverage or two never hurt either. One must stay hydrated on the road. I usually opt for flavored iced coffee or flavored seltzer water. Again, I’m really going for flavor when on the road.
Once I’m hydrated and nourished, I enjoy partaking in a car activity. In my youth, it was Mad Libs, license plate bingo, and listening to Wee Sing tapes. As of late, my favorite road trip activities is researching random topics on Wikipedia and sharing my findings with the group. The topic always comes out of our conversation and the research fosters lively conversation. This habit began about a decade ago, when my sister and I were driving home from a lake cabin. After stopping for some McDonald’s French Fries, we randomly wanted to know why exactly OJ Simpson was acquitted. We had been in middle school at the time, I remember the media frenzy surrounding the case, the multitude of pop culture references, and watching the verdict during homeroom, but I didn’t know any of the details. Enter Car Wikipedia Research Symposium. Some other recent topics of research: What does it mean to be the Keystone State? What is Detroit style pizza? What was the beef between Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham? How did Lilith Fair start and why did it end? Were the Babysitters Club books actually ghostwritten?
This past weekend, when driving along the New Jersey turnpike, my friends and I were listening to a radio station that was playing some classic R&B hits of the 80s, 90s, and today. After a few verses of a Naughty by Nature song I turned to the group and asked, “What exactly is the definition of OPP?” I was young when the song came out and had come up with my own conclusions. My friend had her own similar conclusions, but no one was able to say for certain. It was time to be certain for once and for all. I looked up what Naughty by Nature had intended when they used that acronym and laid the question to rest.
Speaking of music, having the perfectly curated music selection can either make or break the road trip. I’m partial to a playlist that matches the backdrop. For example, my sister and I listened to “Carolina In My Mind” while driving along the beautiful highway of you-guessed it-North Carolina. I’ll never say no to throw back songs. Fleetwood Mac is always a crowd pleaser. At some point, there will inevitably be a sing along. If you find yourself among musicians, it’s a double win for you. My friend sang a version of “Color of the Wind” on a recent road trip this summer that brought me to tears. This weekend, I was traveling with singers who graced me with beautiful harmonies. A word of warning, if you’re going to sing your own mashups, make sure your companions are in favor of homemade mashups. For some, it ruins the listening experience.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the road trip is that moment where you start to see that you’re nearing your final destination. The anticipation that has been building since you left is finally coming to fruition. We actually made it! We not only survived, but thrived on the road! I love that first sight of the city’s landmarks just as you’re about to make one final triumphant crossing of a river by driving over one last majestic bridge named after a historical figure. When coming to Philadelphia, there’s the crossing of the Delaware River just like our forbears crossed. In the distance lies a cluster of tall buildings in the epicenter of the city. I’m partial to that one building that kind of looks like it belongs in a Batman movie. It reminds me of Epcot Center in that it has that same cartoon-like look to it.
When we arrived in Philly, we dropped our belongings off at our Air Bnb and then went straight to mingling with the locals at the street Oktoberfest outside of Frankford Hall. Mingling with the locals meant drinking German, local Pennsylvania, and one Czech beers and eating a pulled pork sandwich from a stand from the restaurant next door. I appreciated the hybrid of local food and the traditional German cuisine. Mingling with the locals also meant doing leg kicks and singing along with my friend’s Oompa band as they also switched between performing traditional German songs and 80s rock. In the end, 80s rock won out. Despite it being an Oktoberfest, the locals just wanted to get down and drink beer. I’m not one to go against what the locals do. At least not on my first night.
When visiting a city that is not my own, I try my best to eat the signature dish of that city. Of course in Philadelphia, that means eating a cheesesteak. The next day of our two day trip, we had cheesesteaks for breakfast. As someone who can’t stand cheese whiz (despite being from Wisconsin and therefore a lover of all things cheese), I opted for a beef steak with provolone, bacon, peppers, and mushrooms. I also put mustard on my cheesesteak. This probably breaks all of the cheesesteak rules, and I’m sure a native Philadelphian would argue that I didn’t have a Philly cheesesteak at all. One of the people behind the counter informed us that cheese whiz in a can isn’t the real thing either. In fact, this fine establishment makes their own cheese whiz by melting cheddar cheese. If I’d known that it was melted cheddar cheese and not cheese in a can, I might have been more adventurous and ordered an authentic Philly cheesesteak. However, the one I ate was delicious. I’m still full.
Before heading back to New York, my friends and I decided to explore some of the historical sites in Philadelphia. This wasn’t my first time seeing the city, but each time, I’ve tried something new. As we wandered through the city to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, it was nice to see little ghosts from visits past. We walked by Fork, a restaurant I’d eaten a few years before where I had one of the most delightful dining experiences to date. On our final stop of the trip, we went to see the Rocky steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I have to admit, some times I like to do touristy things when visiting other cities. Most people expect tourists to be corny, and why not meet their expectations?
The car ride home from a trip is still exciting, but for me, I started to fill with dread somewhere near the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border. I often struggle with returning to real life. I love the freeness of the open road and the laid back nature of vacation. I find it hard to resist the urge to take the nearest exit and pull over at the first farm and try to make a living there. Or make like Thoreau and live deliberately in a cabin in the woods. I start thinking about all of the things I should’ve been doing to prepare for Monday morning and begin thinking irrationally about pretty much everything. I guess it’s just one of the tradeoffs of going on exciting road trips.
The last part of a road trip back to New York City involves going through some sort of tunnel, either Lincoln or Holland, and as someone who doesn’t like enclosed spaces under the sea, this last leg of the journey also brings dread. Someone will inevitably ask, “have you ever heard of that movie where they’re in the Lincoln Tunnel and…” and I will try to shout “Yes!” before they can finish the sentence. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up, and then never mention what you found in my presence.
Once I’m home from a road trip, I usually pop out to a pub to get one last hurrah before facing Monday morning. The sight of familiar faces lessens the blow of the dread felt at the end of a trip. My friends graciously dropped me off in Hell’s Kitchen as soon as we came out of the Lincoln Tunnel, so I could stop by a favorite watering hole. It was the perfect way to end a wonderful road trip. I’m filled with gratitude for the experience and am already starting to plan the next one. As always, I’m forever grateful to those people who allow me to ride with them in their cars.