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<   No. 3274   2013-04-07   >

Comic #3274

1 {photo of a country road}
1 Caption: Road Trip

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Roos next 2km
Road in New South Wales.
I am writing this annotation on the road. I'm taking a short vacation with my wife, and we are driving around to see some of New South Wales, the state of Australia that we live in. It's a fun sort of holiday to have, the road trip.

You set out in a car and you drive. If you leave from home, then the first hour or two are on familiar roads, ones you have probably travelled many times and which feel more or less close to home. Slowly you venture on to less frequently travelled roads, maybe you've been on them a few times before. Or even just once.

Eventually you reach a significant milestone: the point which is the furthest you've ever gone along that road before. It evokes the feeling that Samwise Gamgee had when he travelled with Frodo to the borders of the Shire, and then took that first additional step to take him further away from home than he'd ever been. From here on, everything is new.[1]

Recreational travel can be for two reasons. One is to see familiar things: home, family, friends. The other is to see new things. To experience places you've never been before. This is something you can only do once in each place, and it takes a special effort to get to new places. Once you're there, once you've passed that Samwise threshold, the trip becomes something unique and special. Every moment is a new thing. On your daily commute to school or work, nothing much is new. You can pretty much gloss over the entire trip and not miss out on anything. In fact, your memory kind of does this. Try to remember the details of your daily trip a couple of days later, and it'll all have blended into the blurry mass that your mind uses to represent a typical trip without clogging your memory with all the little details.

Road in New Zealand.
But new places are different. There is so much to see and absorb, that by the end of the day it feels as though what you did for breakfast was days ago, rather than just hours ago.

Even with meals you're out of your regular routine. I certainly don't eat breakfast in a cafe and dinner in a restaurant every day when at home, but it becomes almost necessary when on the road. There are new types of food to try. There can be local produce and specialties, which are always fun and interesting. On the other side of the coin there can be the little country towns which have not yet assimilated modern city food culture. Where the only option for lunch is either a steak sandwich or a hamburger cooked on a greasy grill; where the idea of a quiche or a lentil patty or a Greek salad is unheard of.

The amount of "citification" of the places you travel through changes. When within range of day-trippers from a big city, the towns tend to become trendy and full of hip cafes serving pretty much the same sort of food you'd find in the upmarket cafes in the city. Once you get beyond three or four hours' drive away, the atmosphere becomes much more rural.

Upper Napa Valley
Road in California.
One trip I did was in a rental car, from San Francisco north along the west coast of the USA to Seattle. The towns within day-trip range of San Francisco were gentrified, with the old buildings renovated into fashionable cafes and shops full of "rural" trinkets and antiques for city dwellers to buy and take home and decorate their houses with the feel of the country. It was only further north that things started to feel different, more genuinely country.

The terrain you travel through changes too. If you drive long enough, you'll see it slowly changing out of the windows. From farmland full of sheep and cattle, to cropland and fields of wheat, to orchards of fruit trees. And then there's wilderness. Scrubby bushland, forests, desert. The scenery in all of these places can be beautiful. If the terrain is relatively flat, then a small rise will grant you vast vistas across distances that dwarf anything you can see in the city. Cities have buildings in the way; you don't often get a sightline more than a kilometre or two across the landscape. Being exposed to views that extend 10 or 20 times further is an eye-opening change. Even the sky looks larger, with fluffy white clouds visible right down to the distant horizon - the dome of the sky feels grander and bluer and much, much bigger. One's eyes, normally focused into a narrow field of view dealing with whatever is immediately in your attention in your day-to-day life, expand to take in the immense width of the scenery. They drink in the view, pulling it in, soaking in it.

Ahead, Behind
Road in South Australia.
Some roads are straight. They run directly in front of you to the horizon - one of those vast horizons you get in flat land where roads can be laid out wherever they are most efficient, resulting in long straight lines. They extend backwards as well, as you can see in your rear-view mirror. You get the picture-in-picture effect of a road extending behind and in front for as far as you can see as the road rolls by underneath your wheels. You are at one with the countryside.

Pull off the road and stop the car. Step out and stand on the road, keeping an eye out for any traffic (there shouldn't be much if you're truly out in the country). Look ahead, and behind. Take a photo of the road extending into the distance, forming a perfect example of the effects of geometry and perspective. Parallel lines don't meet, except at that distant horizon on a straight country road. That's where you're going - a magical place of mystery and adventure.

Other roads twist and turn. Climb into a range of mountains and the road has to bend to the whims of Mother Nature. You have to slow down, but this allows you to appreciate the change and take in the scenery. There may be forests here. Types of forest vary across the world. Northern California has giant redwoods, which are amazing. New South Wales has dry sclerophyll and wet sclerophyll. The dry forests are thickly vegetated and almost impenetrable without a path cleared for you. The wet forests are essentially subtropical rainforests, carpeted with ferns. All these forests are full of wildlife. There are birds and other creatures you never get to see in a city.

Road in Northern Territory.
Another cool thing about road trips is the freedom granted by having your own transportation. You can get out of the towns and into the countryside. You can easily visit things that require some travel from the nearest settlement. On a trip around southern Britain, we drove a hire car, making it easy to visit historic sites such as Stonehenge, the Uffington White Horse, and Tintagel Castle, as well as tiny picturesque villages such as Polperro and Clovelly. You can also visit fun things like farms and dairies and vineyards. There's nothing like having a lunch of freshly baked bread, cheese made on the premises from the milk of the cows grazing in the field right next to you, and jam made from berries grown in the field on the other side. In a couple of places we've picked our own berries, accumulating a punnet to take with us for snacking on in the car.

And that freedom extends to your itinerary. On all of our road trips, we didn't bother booking accommodation in advance. You can roll into a town towards the end of the day, find a motel or hotel or B&B, and check in for the night. This allows you to adjust your route or your driving time each day depending on what is in the area and how long you want to spend exploring. You can also end up discovering some interesting places to stay through serendipity.

Serendipity also leads to seeing sights you'd never thought of or imagined. Driving along a remote road, you can come across a sign pointing out some obscure thing like a waterfall, or a lookout point, or a short walking track that leads to an unusual dwarf forest.

Eventually your trip ends. You head home with memories and photographs, your mind refreshed, and you look forward to the next time you can hit the road again.

[1] In this day and age, it's very possible to have travelled much further away from home in an absolute sense, while still experiencing the "furthest you've ever gone along that road before" sensation while still physically closer to home. I've been to Wales which, interestingly, is about as far away as you can get from New South Wales and still be on dry land[2], but on this particular road trip, I hit a road I'd never travelled on before as we were leaving Lithgow, just 140 km away from home.

[2] The actual furthest away you can get from my home and still be on dry land is in the Azores islands. Maybe I should visit them some day.

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