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A good road trip needs a bit of suffering

When he was young Guy Nicholson’s mom took him on a road trip across the continent in a red Ford truck with a camper top.

Jack Page

It was the late 1970s when my mother traded in a good number of her earthly possessions for a red Ford pickup with a camper top, pulled me out of Grade 1 and embarked on a cross-continental voyage of discovery. The road was our home for several months and thousands of ticks on the odometer, from Ontario to the U.S. west coast and then on to a new life in the Canadian North.

For her, it was a journey through a difficult period in life, a highway of her own choosing. But for six-year-old me, the meaning of our trip was almost pitifully mundane: roadside oddities, temporary campground friendships, long bike rides at truck stops, a thousand questions for a mother still looking for her own answers. The only meaning I understood at the time was progress toward a certain California theme park.

I had not yet learned the one thing that is truly important about a road trip, as about life: that what matters is the journey, not the destination. It's a truism, not a cliché, that journeys are about setting goals for ourselves, then working to fulfill them. They are like stories, in that the more obstacles the characters face, the more fulfilling their conclusion.

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Not all trips have to be meaning-laden "experiences," of course. Some shortcuts are worth taking, and easy, narrative-free vacations can be pleasurable distractions from life. But they're not really of life, and too often, they're passed off as true journeys. How many great stories are set in luxury spas or golf resorts? These idylls tend to reduce the narrative arc to sunburns and tipping angst. If something goes wrong on the way to Cancun, it may be the only truly memorable thing that happens that week.

But a bout of car trouble? A hitchhiker? A late-night campground arrival? Any one of these premises could be the beginning of a story worth telling. And the best way to guarantee such a story is to take our road trips with something – distance, discomfort, boredom – built in to overcome.

Literature is strewn with great journey tales – The Odyssey, Heart of Darkness, On the Road. American mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that many of these are versions of the same story (the "monomyth" or "hero's journey"). In any case, they are road trips worthy of the name, just like those epic hauls south Canadians make over March Break.

Almost all such trips are undertaken with a destination in mind. In the simpler narratives, victory means getting there in one piece. Think Apollo 13, or that uncomfortably long drive to Grandma's house. But in more complicated stories, arrival is a more nuanced concept. Think The Lord of the Rings, in which Mordor is the destination, but Frodo isn't exactly welcomed with complimentary cocktails. Or Easy Rider, in which hippies Wyatt and Billy meet a senseless end many miles short of the promised land. If anything, it should remind us that meaning has to be absorbed along the way – worth considering as your teen helps you change that flat on the road to the shore.

In Buddhism, which teaches that life is suffering, the promised land is Nirvana. But Nirvana as a destination is pretty thin; it's actually a state of mind in which we cease to desire. Not exactly the Hyatt. Is a proper road trip suffering, then? Perhaps, but at least it's suffering with meaning.

Back with the high-minded literary references, consider a true classic of the genre: National Lampoon's Vacation. Most of us have a memorable childhood variation on this tale: Mom and Dad fighting over the map, sibling torment in the back, drama verging on disaster at every turn. There are no heroes in these voyages of the damned – only survivors.

Yet at some point in life, we find ourselves pulled to recreate the experience with our own children. Why is that? Even the most eternal optimist knows it will turn out much as it did for the Griswolds, and yet there we are, pulling out of the driveway. No, we are aware this trip will be a challenge; it needs to be. I'm sure Mom knew that when she bought the red Ford pickup with the camper top.

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I'm a parent now, too, and my young daughter is just about ready to face obstacles of her own when we hit the road this summer. I doubt she'll catch the meaning but, as with the rest of life, it's important that she learns how to handle the journey.

Guy Nicholson is deputy op-ed editor at The Globe and Mail.

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