When my older sister Rose and I were kids, very few things kept the peace between us on long road trips. If we weren’t fighting over leg room in the back seat of our parents’ sedan, it was usually because we were drowning out the sound of each other’s voice via a Discman turned up to max volume.
I thought about those trips when I was plotting my upcoming adult romance novel, A Thousand Miles, in which the main characters set off on — you guessed it — a thousand mile road trip together after being estranged for a decade. It’s not easy spending that long in a car with anyone, much less a former friend with whom you share a complicated history that may or may not involve ongoing romantic feelings. The car is pretty much a two-ton pressure cooker.
Luckily, I’ve learned a few tricks from my years crammed into the backseat, should you ever find yourself hitting the road with your family. Or, as is the case in my book, reuniting with a former flame in order to fulfill a promise you made ten years prior. No two road trips are ever made the same, but they can all be successful if you remember my three golden rules for traveling long distances by car.
The very trip that my characters take in the book, Illinois to Colorado, is the exact one I drove at least twice a year for most of my childhood. One the few things that kept Rosie and I civil during that sixteen-hour drive was road trip snacks. They always tasted best when purchased from a gas station along the way, because there was an inherent charm to it that somehow felt different than, say, running into the 7-Eleven near our house. Rose and I loved cheddar cheese Combos and Gardetto’s mustard pretzels, while my protagonists make Cheez-Its and Twizzlers a very important part of their journey.
The key is to buy something you wouldn’t get on a normal day. Something that you can associate with your time on the road. Whenever I see Combos, I think of Rose and I finding a rare moment of peace while sharing the bag. Truthfully though, the only wrong road trip snack is not having any road trip snacks at all.
Fun Car Games
Whether you’re in the car with your best friend, your significant other, or, in my case as a child, your two parents and your nemesis of a sister, you have to find good ways to collectively pass the time. When I was sixteen and very upset about making our usual Illinois to Colorado drive for Christmas, I tried being silent for the entire road trip. Believe me when I say nobody enjoyed that!
I had good reason then, but if I could go back, I’d pitch a car game for everyone to play, because I know it would have softened even my stormiest of teenage hearts. There are games for every mood or level of intensity. A great warmup is the license plate game. All you have to do is stare out the window and look at the passing cars with the goal of spotting license plates from as many states as possible. If you want higher stakes, in A Thousand Miles, my characters play Two Truths and a Lie, and things get surprisingly emotional for them. They end up revealing major secrets to each other and strengthening their connection.
Our family road trips were never about the journey. Driving was just a cheaper alternative than flying to our destination, so my parents made it a point to get the trip done as fast as possible. But some of my most distinct memories came from the times we had to pull off the highway for one reason or another, and we’d stumble upon something unexpectedly unique. There is a town in Nebraska called North Platte that’s about an hour from the Colorado border. It’s home of several historical sites and memorials, as well as a very large souvenir shop that’s still there to this day. On one of our trips, my mom unexpectedly went into anaphylactic shock in the car. This was in the time before we carried cell phones.
By true stroke of luck, my dad had seen a highway sign for a hospital located in North Platte, only a few miles from where we were driving. Not only did that hospital end up saving my mom’s life, it also led our family to discovering a town we never would have visited otherwise. We ended up making it a point to stop in that town for every road trip that followed. When writing A Thousand Miles, I knew I had to put North Platte into my book, though I left out the whole life-threatening allergic reaction thing.
The point is, there is something unique at every exit. You just have to be willing to drive off the beaten road to get there. But that’s true of everything in life, isn’t it?
Bridget Morrissey lives in Los Angeles, California, but proudly hails from Oak Forest, Illinois. When she’s not writing, she can be found coaching competitive gymnastics or headlining concerts in her living room. Her latest adult romance, A Thousand Miles, hits shelves on June 21, 2022.