Flying may be faster, but nothing beats the joy and nostalgia of a long-distance road trip

According to AAA, roughly 103 million Americans will travel this pending holiday week – the most ever. I too am in in that group.

AAA says that 6 million Americans will fly, 3.5 million will take a cruise, ride a train, or go by bus. But the bulk, 93.6 million people will go by car. I’m in that group as well. My wife and I are making the Michigan winter rite of passage by driving our car down to Florida along Interstate 75. The first such journey took place about 15 minutes after I-75 was completed.

From the Spirit of Detroit, past where Butter Jesus (a.k.a. Touchdown Jesus) used to be, to a childish giggle at the sign noting Big Bone Lick State Park (and its Beaver Lick Trading Post), the trip will go pretty much the way it always does every other year: mind-numbingly normal. Like the millions of my fellow citizens filled with merry making masking our road rage, we made the practical decision to drive because it’s cheaper than flying, we have the time available, we have multiple stops planned, and we’re bringing our dog, Guinness – a 120-pound, 5-year-old Weimaraner – who has mastered the art of curling up into the smallest of balls or stretching to nearly 6 feet in length.

Our sleigh is a 2014 Chevrolet Volt, which was probably not designed to carry a big dog, much less all of the Christmas booze, dog food, luggage, and handmade canned goods masquerading as gifts we have packed in the hatch. The problem with the Volt is that second row has a high partition between the two rear seats. (This is because of the T construction of the battery pack.)

We hacked the second row by creating a plywood platform that we rested on some old sofa pillows and then put some blankets and a dog bed on top of it to give Guinness room to move around, lay down, and generally be comfortable without disturbing anything smashed into the back. No, I do not connect my dog to a seat belt, understand and appreciate those risks, know that I am well within the law, and could care less what you think about that particular decision.

Burgess: 'Tis the season to drive
Burgess: 'Tis the season to drive

By the end of a long trip, you’re tired, smell liked fried chicken, and fast food bags fill the foot wells.

It’s a tight fit for sure. But the Volt has a front compartment comfortable enough that I’m typing this story right now in the passenger seat as we climb through the Smoky Mountains.

The road trip typically reckons back to some other time that I’m not sure ever really existed. You sit in the same position for hours on end, judging every vehicle you pass or every driver who passes you. Distances are mapped by albums, conservative radio hosts, and rest stops always come with a hint of fear after the sun goes down. By the end of a long trip, you’re tired, smell liked fried chicken, and fast food bags fill the foot wells.

But all of that is a small price to pay. The country rolls by and you realize that this is a really big nation and no one in Ohio who owns a barn supports abortion. The ribbon of I-75 is the aorta of America’s heartland, connecting Detroit to Cincinnati to Lexington to Knoxville to Atlanta to Ocala (our first stop). A few thousand miles later, we’ll find ourselves back home in 10 days’ time, refreshed and relaxed, and hopefully a little sunburned and with some sand in our Weathertech floormats.

Driving gives you something that we no longer seem to have enough of: Time. Of course, there are faster ways to travel long distances, but none come with the gritty satisfaction of doing it yourself. Getting behind the wheel and cruising along the highway requires your attention but your mind can still take a moment to ponder. You can think about where you’re going, where you’ve been, literally or figuratively. Or even the sheer scope and size of the construction completed to build the road your car now moves down.

The U.S. highway system required big minds to undergo big thinking. This is not merely nostalgia cluttering my mind fueled by boredom, but rather carefully considering and appreciating the 50,000 miles of highways and 2.7 million miles of paved roads across America. Asphalt defines this nation, provides its people with our lifestyle. It is the cause and cure of many of our problems.

Burgess: 'Tis the season to drive
Burgess: 'Tis the season to drive

The distractions of a hurried life give way to the open road. Your possibilities are once again endless.

Our highways become a rolling parade of celebration during this time of year. The six people emerging from the Chrysler 300, as if it has a third row, at a rest stop. The six-foot, 100-pound adolescent man-child wearing flannel pants and a bathrobe walking a toy dog outside of a Wendy’s, his movements awkward and clumsy, as if he’s trying out his rapidly growing limbs for the first time. They are images we all find during any journey.

The repetition of driving can bring you mindfulness. You are so in the moment, you don’t even notice passing an exit. Better yet, you can’t worry about what people are saying on Facebook, or what else needs to be done at work, and your cell phone coverage is spotty enough you stop looking at your phone. The distractions of a hurried life give way to the open road. Your possibilities are once again endless.

Of course, there are those annoying bits you’ll encounter. The swerving texter, that person going 3 miles per hour under the posted speed limit in the left lane, semi trailers kicking just a little more mist on your windshield than you have wiper fluid. Those moments the traffic grinds to a halt for no apparent reason or the thick traffic near a city, commuters finding their way home, delay you to your next way point. Even the love/hate relationship with police patrolling the highways either to help those in need or protect us from our own heavy feet show the dichotomy of driving.

Over the river and through the nation, whether to grandmother’s house or just a big New Year’s Eve party we go, America’s highways were created to bring us together, even though, now, too many people choose to fly over them. Admittedly, there are times when I too would rather fly. But when I find myself lost in my own thoughts cruising down an interstate, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes by choice, I never regret the decision to drive.

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Scott Burgess has covered the auto industry for more than a decade as The Detroit News' auto critic and as Detroit Editor at Motor Trend. Before writing about cars and the people who make them, he was a newspaper journalist, where he covered everything from small town politics to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Photos: Scott Burgess / Motor1.com

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