Where Road Trips Meet Rituals

As a child on road trips, every time my family stopped in for the night, no matter how podunk the town or tangential the stop, I would at some point in the night turn on the news in the hotel room.

It was a ritual of sorts: I would wash off the sweat and exhaustion from sitting folded in a car for 9 hours, pull on my pajamas, pad down the hall to the vending machine to buy a Kit Kat and a cold bottle of water, and climb onto the bed nearest to the window to watch a local news station, the first one I stumbled upon.

Looking back, I think it was a way of grounding myself in my new surroundings, a way of feeling like I was in a place, however temporarily, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) floating through limbo.

In his essay “An Entrance to the Woods,” Wendell Berry reminds us that “Our senses, after all, were developed to function at food speeds…The faster one goes, the more strain there is on the senses, the more they fail to take in…” I suppose my own habits when traveling are attempts to circumvent or work with this disparity between speed and mindfulness, to actively notice “what is living at the edge of the right-of-way.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve only added to my personal rules of travel engagement, familiar structures to the way I move through unfamiliar environments.

At Holiday Inns, I eat the same kind of danish at the complimentary breakfast; I wake up to get one even though I’m not a morning person at home. The routine need not be the same as my usual life – it isn’t so much about limiting change when on the road as it is about navigating the unknown with a grasp on myself.

At airports, I find the nearest newsstand and buy a pre-packaged oatmeal raisin cookie. Sometimes I eat it on the plane; sometimes it stays in my bag for the next three days. But it ensures that when I step into an airport, I have at least a vague idea of how to be sure in my footsteps, knowing that step one of my journey is already taken care of.

The more I have opportunities to travel outside my comfort zone, the more I think about the entanglement of exploration with tradition and superstition. The patterns we follow when we must move away from our homes are telling; they dictate the way we interact with the world around us, the strategies we use to lean into new situations.

Last week, I polled some friends to see what their travel rituals looked like. Some seem to be cultural or generational; quite a few of our mothers insist on bringing their own pillow and blanket on trips, distrusting the comfort or cleanliness of hotels. Many of my friends and family refuse to check a bag under any circumstances, fearing where it might end up. Considering I once flew to Portland, Maine only to find that my luggage had made its way to Portland, Oregon, I can understand the worry.

Other rituals were tied to comfort or safety: One of my coworkers keeps a stuffed animal in her bag whenever she travels, even if she never actually takes it out or touches it throughout the trip.

Naomi Shihab Nye references this tendency towards traveling traditions in her poem “Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal.” She muses,

“And I noticed my new best friend – by now we were holding hands –
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,

With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.”

Nye goes on to consider the implications of our actions when we travel, too, the possibilities of how we view the world when it fills with unfamiliar people and places:

“And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.”

The routines of my friends revealed different philosophies about travel. My friend Jess approaches it as a freeing escape from daily life, seizing the opportunity to “get the unhealthiest snacks at 7-11 that I would normally never eat and download an audiobook of a classic book I know I’d never get around to reading in print.”

In fact, planning entertainment was a common theme in their answers. My girlfriend’s family always brings a cribbage board on plane flights. Almost everyone had a personal method of making a playlist for road trips, ranging from “queuing up my YouTube most recently played” to carefully curating a specific mix CD or, in my friend Lea’s case, an accidental 12-hour Ke$ha playlist. I always bring my Nook, which I barely use in my regular life, just in case I run out of reading material on a train halfway to New York or in the middle of the sky. In part, this is due to the obvious: Traveling is full of a lot of dead space and down time. But I find it interesting that we seem to approach trips as vessels to fill with media and entertainment that we wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to dedicate time to otherwise.

One of my favorite parts of traveling is the point at which I am definitively nestled in a place away from home, away from my daily responsibilities, and can only interact with what I have around me. There’s something about being essentially stranded with one bag of clothes and whatever snacks I brought with me that narrows things. It demands that I make a pocket of time and space for myself, now that I’ve been pulled away from the context of my usual life.

Removing ourselves from our usual surroundings can set off fears and paranoias, leaving us superstitious and planning for any eventuality. They can leave us scrambling for a sense of routine, frequenting the same three restaurants on the interstate, or methodically crossing things off a packing list. They can also make room for parts of ourselves we might not have the time or space to explore in the constraints of our day to day lives. My mother told me recently that she makes a point to check out the local art scene in every city she visits. I frequently encounter new writing and art ideas while on the road, as though the mundane and typical becomes fresh and inspiring simply by virtue of being farther than 100 miles from my own city. I think mostly, once the itinerary is printed and your bag is packed, travel forces us out of our own limitations, the boundaries we create in our heads. There’s nothing left to do now but stare out the window and let your mind wander.

One of my favorite cliché quotes is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “I become a transparent eye-ball.” Nothing allows me this freedom as much as leaving the little corner of the world where people know me, where I am distracted by others’ opinions and expectations, by cleaning my house and driving to work, by the pull and ease of the familiar.

On the road, the routines we adapt and the rituals we keep are often protective rather than stagnant: prayers for safety, check-in times with friends or family, carrying plants or stuffed animals or omens with us to ground us to our homes and ourselves.

But beyond that, the motion and novelty of travel shakes us loose of our familiar and our expected. We notice more, think more, write more, because the world doesn’t fade into monotony before our eyes. At least, we will if we embrace it, holding on to our protective rituals and letting go of routines that keep us tethered.

So tell me, what rituals do you adopt when you go on a road trip, a plane flight, a vacation? What do you listen to, read, eat? What do you bring with you? How do you feel safe, and how do you push yourself out of your comfort zone? 🗺️

Edited by Carmen.

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Sarah Alexander is a writer living in Richmond, VA. Her interests include poetry, comics, fashion, and disability activism. She recently graduated with a degree in English and Gender Studies. She’s currently taking some time to bounce around like a pinball, which means right now she’s probably hanging out in the trees or reading about business scams on the internet. She uses both she and they pronouns.

Sarah has written 2 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. I’m hopelessly practical. I make sure I have reading material, some music, and healthy snacks. Climate correct clothes are packed, documents stowed, water on hand, route planned.
    Then I try like hell not to use public bathrooms on lonely stretches of highway.
    Finding tasty vegan food in new places is the daily goal.

    • I always try hard to be practical but end up overpacking and hopelessly inefficient. “Lonely stretches of highway” is the perfect description! But the public bathrooms are definitely their own pocket dimension of horror.

      Ooh, what’s the best vegan food you’ve found on the road?

      • Ok so there’s an all vegan Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas called Pancho’s Kitchen that’s AMAZING. The prices are low, the servings are enormous, and the food is deliciousness. Ronald’s Donuts is also in Vegas, not all vegan, but worth checking out. I was just up in Alaska a few months ago and found another Mexican restaurant, in I think Juneau, that had fantastic vegan burritos. A long time ago in Key West I had some tofu todd at a Thai place that was transcendent. A coffee shop in Brattleboro, Vermont had these blueberry lemon scones I can still taste. The one time I got to go to the Guggenheim in New York we went to an Indian place afterwards that had perfect sauces. It’s been a long time since I was in Chicago, but I remember not finding anything interesting to eat there, I think I had Subway. Vancouver had a couple of Chinese places I remember as very good. If I ever get back to Detroit, I’ll be going to Al Ameer in Dearborn for the Moujadara, best in the world!

  2. Thanks for sharing this diverse array of rituals. Your writing about the different grounding methods of your friends made me remember the alternating feelings of tension/relaxation I also (we all?) go through in airports.
    Also, to me, this is a very timely article! I arrived in Stockholm recently and… a new ritual I seem to have on professional trips is going to a queer bar and feeling infinitely awkward?
    My previous work trip + queer bar visit was in Berlin, I ended up feeling so shy at the bar I was at, I just went ahead and translated the Wikipedia article about Felice Schragenheim in French, to feel I was celebrating a local lesbian hero and to engage deeply with my phone screen rather than with the surrounding human beings.
    This time… I even failed to find the place’s entrance door. I don’t know if I’ll be brave enough to try to go back tomorrow.

    • Translating and editing entries about local lesbians sounds like a great thing to do! Maybe not the funnest way to spend time in a bar, but surely worthwhile work, and a good way to connect to the place you are in. Chin up, and next time may you have the courage to work on an article and talk to a person.

      • Thanks, that’s sweet! I hadn’t seen it that way as I kept thinking I could have done that from home!
        (Side note: i edit in French bc it is my first language, and since i am based in Europe, the travels I mention aren’t that far.)

        • Yes! I always feel like airports and train stations are video games with different levels. I guess plane snacks just really feel like power ups?

          Oh wow, I’ve always wanted to go to Stockholm! I think trying to connect with the local queer history is a super cool way to get to know a place. Sort of like making your own living, portable museum field trip.

          I’m glad you enjoyed my piece :) Good luck tomorrow and with any future travels!

  3. Oh man. Every road trip, I find myself putting Fergalicious on repeat for at Least an hour; I get popcorn from the travel stops to eat (and drop on the floorboards, never to be recovered); I go way out of my way to stop at Flying J or Pilot truck stops, because their heavy duty ‘trucker soap’ makes my hands feel so clean and smell like cherries; if I have a stuffed travel companion, they have to wear sunglasses.

    Flying is different. It used to be an adventure, a treat, but the past few times I’ve flown have been for stressful or sad reasons. An accidental ritual has become putting my baggie of spare change on the coffee shop counter to pay for the two extra shots, extra chocolate, extra whipped cream caffeine attack I need to make it through. The only gum I’ll chew is Juicy Fruit, my childhood gum of choice, chosen because its vivid yellow was (and is) my favorite color

    • Wow, these are amazing! I absolutely adore that you put sunglasses on stuffed friends.

      What you said about flying is so relatable—and the reasons for a trip so often influence how we form our rituals and habits around traveling.

      My recent accidental ritual has been getting a pen knife confiscated at security after forgetting to take it off my key ring. So far this ritual has claimed my red mini Swiss Army knife and a green leaf-shaped keychain that had a hidden knife inside.

      My road trip gum has always been Double Mint, because my mom would give it to me to chew when I would get carsick on long, windy mountain roads.

      • I have only had a knife confiscated once, and accidentally flown with one oh about half a dozen times. That was pre-911, though. Still scary how bad security really is. I haven’t flown in seven years though, I much prefer driving, where I can eat all the popcorn.

  4. I pack essentials, phone charger, earbuds, book.
    Then more often than not, never take them out & just gaze out of the window (it’s usually a 4/5 hour train journey).
    I love to watch other people travelling & if I’m alone, I listen-in on their conversation (naughty I know).
    I’m a chatty, friendly type & love when another lone traveller sits beside me, opportunity for a chat with someone I’d never have met otherwise.

  5. One of my travel rituals is searching out new cafes, but I don’t actually like the taste of coffee by itself, so I put quite a bit of time in trying to find cafes that serve unique (sugary) things like Rose Lattes or Mint Mocha Frappes. Since this isn’t always available, I end up ordering a lot of Chai Lattes when traveling.

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