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The summer road trip is an American rite of passage, but for Don George, a meandering adventure through the French countryside with a colorful companion left the most lasting mark. (Photograph by Alamy)

My Ode to the Summer Road Trip

When summer arrives, I think of road trips. This is partly because the summer road trip is one of those life-defining rites of passage, at least for Americans, and partly because it’s the season in which my most memorable road trips have taken place.

After my wife and I got married, but before we had kids, we made three summer car trips across the U.S.; each conferred a minute-by-minute, mile-by-mile understanding of how vast the country is, and how varied in topography, accent, and personality.

When our children were teens, we undertook a three-week trek by Greyhound bus and rental car through the national parks of the Southwest; this four-wheel adventure taught them that the forbidding–The bus? Really?–can be fun and that serendipity is a friend. And on my own in Japan, I managed to get thoroughly and delightfully lost on the island of Shikoku–on two separate occasions.

But the road trip that comes back to me most poignantly each time the weather turns warm is a journey I made though France the summer after I graduated from college. I had just finished a seasonal job in Paris and was slowly making my way to Greece, where I was to live and teach for a year at Athens College. A business associate of my father’s in Pontarlier, an industrial town near France’s border with Switzerland, said that he was driving to join his family on the Mediterranean and would be happy to give me a lift.

I joined him in Pontarlier, and we climbed into his luxury Peugeot and set south for Marseille. This man—Mr. D., I’ll call him—was wealthy and fancied himself a connoisseur of great French food and wine (he would have said that adding the adjective “French” was redundant). Like many Frenchmen, he also fancied himself something of a philosopher, and what could be better for a philosophe manqué than a young, attentive, and captive listener?

So he idled us south, stretching what today could be a 10-hour highway drive into a multiple-day moveable feast by taking the most scenic–and snail’s-paced–country lanes, stopping at great restaurants whenever the mood struck him, which was often, and discoursing lovingly and at length on everything from language to politics to women.

How could I complain? I was getting a ride to the Côte d’Azur—which danced all blue-green sea and sun-bright sand in my mind—in the air-conditioned comfort of a posh Peugeot, and receiving a first-class education in French cuisine, and all for free!

I recall that journey now as a collage of images—long, straight, tree-bordered roads and Van Gogh fields, Renoir afternoons of dappled sunlight and shade, rocky restaurant patios bordered with bright flowers, laughter and the clink of glasses and the music of French filling the air.

I remember drinking a great deal of what seemed to my uneducated nose and mouth to be extraordinarily flavorful red wine—I even remember the full-bodied fumes rising as I tipped the glass toward me, the pungent swish of it in my mouth, and the silkiness as it caressed my throat.

I can still taste the steak and frites we had on the vine-latticed terrace of a place in Avignon, where the owner greeted Mr. D. like a long-lost friend and immediately sent a bottle of Beaujolais to our table without anyone even so much as whispering vin.

And on another sunny patio, we were served the most sumptuous salad I had ever seen: an extravagant concoction of greens, plump tiny tomatoes, grated carrots, black olives, slices of hard-boiled eggs, sardines, tuna and probably a dozen other ingredients as well.

It was on this very occasion that Mr. D. paused over a leafy forkful and spoke with an unfamiliar gravity in his voice:

“Donald,” he said, “remember this: It is all right to play around with French women, and you can have a very good time indeed. But it is not wise—in fact, it is a tragic mistake!—to fall in love with one, because she will inevitably break your heart,” he concluded and then plunged the lettuce like wanton memories into his mouth.

Somewhere between Lyon and Avignon he told me that all of the greatest writers were French, and the greatest painters, too; that there was something in the French blood and countryside—here he waved his hand expansively at the passing fields—that produced men of extraordinary intelligence and talent.

When I told him I was going to live in Greece, he smiled and sighed. “Yes,” he said, “the Greeks. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—they had their great men once, too.” And then, dismissing the last few centuries with less than a dozen words, he finished with: “You will like the islands, but the food is not much.”

Eventually we reached Marseille and parted company–both of us, I think, happy for the journey and for its end: As a pupil, I had eventually disappointed him, I am sure, for I had been ultimately too American and simple to understand his French depths; and as a teacher, well, let’s just say he taught me more than I wanted to know.

But I am still profoundly grateful for that once-in-a-lifetime trip. That was the year the world came to vibrant life for me, and riding in a luxurious car talking about Giscard and Monet, French flings and Rabelais, was as much a part of that education as being unexpectedly invited to dinner at the Tour d’Argent had been a month earlier, or as sleeping among the columns at the Temple of Poseidon would be a month later.

I remember Mr. D.—or at least the character he has become in my mind—fondly. And the feeling he helped instill–that life is full of mystery and possibility, of adventures that must be seized and not shirked—that feeling flows through me again today as fresh and full as that long-ago Beaujolais.  

Here are four books that celebrate the rites and riches of the great American road trip:

  • Any road-trip-lit list has to begin with the archetypal account, On the Road (1957). Jack Kerouac’s tale of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and their adventures crisscrossing the U.S. between New York and San Francisco, and eventually as far as Mexico, in a jazz-scored, kick-fueled quest to uncover the meaning of life, is a true classic.
  • In Travels with Charley (1962), John Steinbeck describes a journey undertaken in 1960 with his French poodle, Charley, from New York to Maine and across to California (including a stop in his salad-day stomping grounds of Monterey), then east through Texas and the Deep South before returning home, to Long Island. The author interweaves fiction and fact to evoke the national character–and cast of characters–he discovers during his epic 10,000-mile odyssey.
  • Blue Highways (1982) is William Least Heat-Moon’s poignant account of searching for the soul of the country in 1978 by spending three months driving along the back roads (which are usually drawn on highway maps in blue) that lead to “those little towns that get on the map–if they get on at all–only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi.”
  • A similar quest fuels The Longest Road (2013), in which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo and his wife haul an Airstream trailer 8,300 hard and heartening miles from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, over four months in 2011, “to discover what Inupiat Americans and Cuban Americans and every other kind of American had in common besides a flag.”

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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