Monday, April 30, 2012

Road Trip

Many hate it, I love it. That just 'drive along' feeling, and let the countryside and the scenery surprise you. I love road trips – provided the traffic doesn't get to your nerves of course. No definite destination, no stress to be somewhere at some moment. It is an attitude that unfortunately is lost on many of my fellow countrymen. Their trips are well planned and organized. They know what to expect, and to avoid anything that might interfere with their plans and expectations, they pack their household and travel with that ultimate statement of travel security: the caravan.
A road trip is not not about the destination, but about the experience. It is about flexibility, to take a different direction than what might be expected. To point the car into a road that makes no sense. And doing so, finding charming small towns that won't make it into travel books, meet friendly people that are just as surprised seeing a foreign tourist as you are to find that lovely small place at the end of what was just a backroad on the map.

Shut off that air conditioning, open your window, feel the gentle breeze through your hair and let the backroads and the countryside guide you. It brought me to Canada a few years ago, while I was actually aiming for a museum in Indiana. It gave me a visual impression that I will never forget. The endless rolling hills of Quebec's Gaspé region and New Brunswick, at 4.30 AM, soft toned in a blue haze, deserted at that time of day and seen from two lane backroads, was an experience that was impossible to capture on camera, because any image would not do justice to the tranquility of the moment. It found me nice quiet cabins to spend the night, with rocking chairs on the porch in North Carolina, on the beach of Lake Michigan, and in a forest where bears were walking around at night checking out the garbage bins. It also brought me to the Bavarian Forest in Germany, that I have to admit, did not like. But in the end, that was not a problem – we simply moved on.

I have visited the United States and Canada quite a few times. No wonder, that there is a question I have often been asked. “Where do we need to go when we go to North America?” Well, a 'western highlight tour' or whatever highlight trip you can think of, is not the thing for me. I'm sure you'll see the nicest places, but the point is, no matter how much you limit or broaden your range, you'll find nice places and spots just about everywhere – you just have to keep your eyes open, and open yourself to it. And leave that travel guide at home, because one should not be ruled by the dictatorship of Beadeker or Lonely Planet. Or the trip suggestion by some travel agency. Relax. No point in driving hundred of miles each day in order to arrive at a highlight at night, and leave the following morning to hurry to the next one.

“What kind of RV did you rent?' That is the second question. Now, this has to to do with one undeniable and often ridiculed part of Dutch culture, as defining as cheese and tulips: the caravan trailer. What goes for Europe, goes for North America. That is the only way the Dutch venturing overseas think they can survive a vacation. It is the only option that comes to their mind. Because that is how they spend their vacations in Europe. I remember when, years ago, traffic came to a halt on a Montana freeway because a vehicle on fire was blocking the road. While I was standing on the shoulder I saw a woman. I instantly knew she was Dutch. She wore an odd skirt-like jeans short so characteristic for middle aged Dutch women at the time, but even more so, she was standing next to an RV. And I was right.

The Dutch RV caravan is a trailer box on wheels, packed with Dutch groceries, a satellite dish to watch Dutch channels, laptops, x-boxes, and a library of books. In order to enjoy it to the fullest, you make reservations for campsites six months in advance, not to mention the ferryboats in case the trip will take you across water. Setting off loaded with bicycles, and preferably with a number of friends and family members in their own car and caravan combos, just to keep boredom away in case the satellite dish is not functioning. It is a parade that clogs up motorways, especially when they decide to overtake another caravan pulling family car. The Dutch and their "Wohnmobilen" are shamefully notorious with our German neigbours when they terrorize the flow of traffic on the Autobahnen. They are not on vacation, they are on a mission. Setting out to colonize a small part of a foreign campsite, their caravan as their fortress, the satellite dish as the flag. There must be a fear somewhere deep down in their subconscious minds. Fear for the unexpected, fear of not knowing how to adjust your routine to a hotel, a bed and breakfast or even a holiday home. Some take it to the extreme. I actually know people who spend a few days in Paris with their kids in their caravan. To each his own, but I prefer to remember Paris by the sounds of the street early in the morning, and walking out of the hotel almost right at the foot of the stairs of the Sacré-Cœur, and a stones throw from Montmartre.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you have a family, it is often the only affordable way to spend your vacation. But there are numerous couples and families that don't opt for a caravan because of financial reasons. It is a way of life. And they call it Freedom. Freedom having to make reservations in advance, having to drag a trailer at 90 kmh max, sleep in cramped beds in a small muggy compartment, going to the bathroom at night through damp grass, and hoping to get some sleep because the next day a travel guide dictated program is waiting. Freedom because they fear the unexpected. Freedom experienced like an escaped prisoner with a chain and a stone ball around his ankle. “I like adventure, but I don't like surprises,” someone once said to me. And that explains it all.

So, when I'm asked what kind or RV I rent, I simply answer that the perfect way to enjoy your North American vacation is to rent an all wheel drive vehicle, and look for cabins, bed and breakfasts or small family owned motels. And take it easy and relax. Because that camper will not take you up narrow mountain dirt roads like Washington's Heart Pass, Glacier Park's Going to the Sun Road or the Mount Washington Road in New Hampshire. Many times it won't let you park on Main Street of Small Town USA. It confines you to often crowded campsites. But when I say so, I get blank looks. They simply will not take my word for it.