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Americans love their cars, spending long days on the open highway. Follow one college graduate’s trip as he takes in the scenery, bonds with his friend and dog, and narrowly escape from a beast in the Badlands.
Text and photos by:Maris Kaplan
Country: United States

or more than a century, the United States has been a country full of people who love road trips. In 1903, a Vermont doctor, H. Nelson Jackson, and a mechanic, Sewell Crocker, took the first cross-country road trip in a Winton touring car, according to the Smithsonian Institute. The journey took 64 days, including breaks, breakdowns and carrying the car over rough terrain.

Since then, Americans have fallen more in love with the car and the freedom of road trips. The typical car owner drives 12,000 miles per year. During the winter holidays, roughly one-quarter of the American population drives to vacation destinations, according to the AAA auto club — that’s roughly 84 million people!

In May of 2006, Danilo Cortes followed in Jackson and Crocker’s footsteps, or rather, tire tracks. He had just graduated after four years of school at Colgate University in New York. To celebrate his newfound freedom, Danilo packed up his car and hit the road with a friend and his dog at his side. With only a general plan to explore the Midwest, they embarked on the classic American road trip. I sat down with Danilo to ask a few questions about his four-wheeled adventure.

How did you get the idea to go on a road trip?

We had gotten the idea about six months earlier. We wanted to see the states but didn’t do much planning beyond that. We wanted to be surprised. I had my car, a 1998 Honda Accord, an atlas and not much else. We planned to stop at a hotel every three or four nights, just to take a shower. We didn’t have smartphones, which was nice actually, and we had to find food. We allowed ourselves to get lost.

What kind of challenges did you encounter on the road?

Being stuck with a dog and a friend in a car for 3 weeks! And I’m sure they felt the same way about me. Our dog was really sensitive; he missed my girlfriend and didn’t eat for three days. But then we went hiking, and he was a lot happier after that. There was snow in Colorado, which we didn’t expect since it was summertime. My car got dented pretty badly by a hailstorm when we were approaching the Rockies. And the air conditioning stopped working in Kansas; that sucked. The dog was panting all the time; we were all thirsty.

And what about the boredom during a road trip?

There was a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers being played. We had a few other CDs, but then we got sick of them, so we listened to talk radio, which we found funny. We stopped a lot, every few hours, because of the dog. We were always talking to people, who all seemed to be travelling as well. It seemed like America has a very mobile society — everybody was always going somewhere.

How did the trip affect the relationship between you and your friend?

There’s definitely a bond, with the land initially, but since you’re with these people you share the experience. It made us closer, and it gave us something to share for the rest of our lives. I ended up going to his wedding. He has thick skin and so do I, which was good. One time we didn’t talk for half a day — we had had an argument about what to do next and where to go — we were definitely lost. But we were in it together for the good and the bad.

Any particularly humorous moments you remember?

There were some terrible days which seem funny now, looking back. In South Dakota we almost got attacked by a buffalo.

What happened with the buffalo?

In the Badlands one morning, super early, my dog started barking like crazy! He wouldn’t stop, and we were trying to sleep. It was about 6 a.m. We kicked him out of the tent, but he kept barking. Finally I stuck my head outside to see what was going on, and there was this buffalo … about 50 feet away, and he was looking at us like he was going to charge. He rolled on the ground and then stood up and started lashing his tail. I woke my friend up, and we started getting our stuff together as fast as we possibly could! My friend tackled my dog to shut him up, and we loaded up our bags and hiked away really fast, constantly looking over our shoulders. We laughed about our close call after we were safely out of range. But it was both amazing and scary to see that buffalo so close. He was very regal; it was definitely an adrenaline rush.”

So, with all the challenges you describe, why would someone want to drive instead of fly?

Because that’s how you see the states. You can’t go everywhere by plane, and I couldn’t take my dog if I flew. You get to stop whenever you want, whenever you see something interesting or funny, you can just pull off the road. Anything that scratches your curiosity. I mean, who goes to Idaho? It’s a weird place, but the people are nice. The coolest thing was getting off the road. I had the worst tacos of my life in Kansas. It was all so much larger than you; there were so many kinds of weather and landscapes. It was like the three of us against all of it together, that was part of the bond.”

So can the road trip be seen as a modern day survival challenge of sorts?

“I just think it’s how you get to really know the place. You get to know the ‘myth’ of America. The challenges were part of the lure of it.”

In the end, what was your favorite part of the trip?

“The hiking and seeing all the national parks. The Badlands, we just stumbled upon, I didn’t know they existed before, so that was a great discovery.”

Danilo’s Route:

Heading west from Cleveland, Ohio, the three travelers drove through Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri, and then on to Kansas City, Kansas. After they reached Denver, Colorado, they spent three days camping and hiking in the wilderness near the city of Boulder. From there they continued on to Utah. They then decided to turn north into Idaho, where they started heading east again through Wyoming, stopping to see both the Grand Tetons National Park and Yellowstone National Park in one day. After camping in Yellowstone, they went through Montana to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. They then drove to Chicago, Illinois, before finally returning to Cleveland, Ohio. The whole trip took three weeks.


Highway happiness .

Road trip is the way Americans prefer to travel. They can go anywhere they want; stop anytime they need and do whatever comes to their mind while travelling. Almost 84 million people drive to their vacation destinations because they enjoy the freedom of road trips.

The tradition started over 100 years ago when doctor H. Nelson Jackson and mechanic Sewell Crocker did the first road trip throughout the country. Their adventure took 64 days.

In 2006, Danilo Cortes took his dog with him and invited a friend to explore the Midwest. They didn’t have much of a plan; they just wanted to see the States. Their adventure ended up in a three-week trip in which they could see many places, met other travelers, camped and got almost attacked by a buffalo. And, although there were days when they couldn’t stand each other, the trip helped them form a bond first with the land and then with themselves.



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