Kate Ortega: Kentucky to New York
The most direct route from Lexington, Ky., to New York City is definitely not via Cincinnati, Columbus, and Harrisburg. And it absolutely does not include a lousy boyfriend and tour bus full of passengers spilled across the highway miles ahead.
When you find yourself stuck in the traffic jam south of Dry Ridge, Ky., you may see that the atlas makes it look pretty easy to jog east about 10 miles, and catch U.S. Route 27 north. You may also spend the rest of your day spiraling along back roads. After that, and a day in Cincinnati loading furniture, you’ll only have an hour or two in Columbus to mediate misgivings between the lousy boyfriend and your parents before spending one night sleepless with anxiety—about the move, not the boyfriend. (Though worrying about him would be smart, too.)
But sometimes, the ends really do justify the means. At dawn, pile back into the sedan and push on; by 6 p.m., you’ll be in Brooklyn, desperate for a parking spot.
Nicole Pasulka: New York to Tennessee
You’re driving—719 miles (around 14 hours if you go 80 whenever possible). The passengers ask how far you’re planning to get today.
“All the way.”
You couldn’t care less about road trips. When you drive like I do, and I do, very far, every few months, you are all about the destination. Sometimes when driving you find it hard to remember where you are, where you came from, or where you’re going. Rest stops and gas stations are little satellites where you can pee and buy gross snacks you don’t eat anywhere on Earth.
You give in to the plea for a sit-down lunch even though it means you’ll be finished driving 45 minutes further into the middle of the night. (A premature exit onto I-40 costs you an additional half-hour delay.) You don’t want anyone to suffer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a little uncomfortable. When your friend Brian takes the wheel you urge him faster—go 80 instead of 70 for long enough and you’ll be there a whole hour earlier.
Clay Risen: Tennessee to Alabama
You’ve driven the length and breadth of Alabama many times, so many times that the trips have melted together into one endless dream-trip. You’ve hurtled along the stretch of I-65 from Montgomery to Mobile at 80, 90, 100 miles per hour through a tunnel of southern longleaf pines so thick their upper branches almost close above you. Late one night you drive to Montgomery from Demopolis, a town in the Black Belt founded by white refugees from the Haitian revolution; the route courses through Alfalfa, Uniontown, Gallion.
One night, when you were nine, your parents had a horrible fight, and the next morning your mother packed you and your brother in the car and drove you to the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Just inside the Alabama state line towers a Saturn rocket, welcoming travelers to a high-tech version of the state that has never quite taken in the national imagination.
Whenever you see the rocket, you remember that morning, and how it rained the entire trip.
Erik Bryan: Alabama to Louisiana
The three of you are on I-10. About a half hour outside of Mobile you’re pulled over by Alabama Highway Patrol in the dead of night.
They say you were speeding, but won’t say by how much, nor do they ticket Dave. They ask you to get out of the car. You stand at the back while one officer shines his flashlight into the windows. James, who’d been asleep, shivers and puts his hands in his pockets to warm up a little. The cop with his light on you tells James to get his hands out of his pockets or his partner might think he’s going for a weapon and shoot him. That old routine.
There’s nothing to find in the car. They probably just stopped you for your Florida plates. They ask where you’re going and you tell them.
“New Orleans! Hoo! Lotsa loose women over there, huh?” You guess so. They send you back on your way.
Nicole Pasulka: Louisiana to Texas
Sometimes a ride to see your favorite metal band with a pair of loveable cousins who make up games in a car that’s been hotboxed since Baton Rouge will stretch its legs, doze off, and take hours longer than you (or Google Maps) anticipated.
A stop for coffee in, “a cool town, I think” finds rows of abandoned storefronts and a hippie coffee shop where someone improves on your directions.
The weekend isn’t going to end until you’re home. Heading back to New Orleans you drive more than an hour out of your way to Galveston, Texas, pull off near a boardwalk at sunset, strip down to your underwear, and sprint into the bathtub-warm Gulf.
Andrew Womack: Texas to California
Driving through the Mojave, your eyes scanning the stretch of I-40 ahead of you, your thoughts—slowed by the late August heat—may wander.
Should I have stopped for gas back there? What is that rolling across the horizon? Can a car really run on fumes? Maybe that’s a tumbleweed? Is that what a tumbleweed looks like? When was the last time I saw another car? Can I make it to Flagstaff, or should I turn around? I do need gas. Maybe I should speed up. Or slow down? Am I getting closer to that thing? Maybe turning off the A/C will save gas—is that true? But maybe driving with the windows down uses more gas. I’m getting closer to that thing—what is it?
Don’t miss: Plowing through a tumbleweed larger than your car. Best to keep your windows up.
Sarah Hepola: California Coast
To get to Los Angeles from San Francisco, and vice versa, you could take Highway 5, a straight shot that will transport you from city to city in about five hours. You could also spend the rest of your life eating cucumbers and mayonnaise. The question is: Why? Why would you do that when the Pacific Coast Highway is the most shiver-inducing stretch of blacktop in the country?
The 10-hour trip takes you through the cool canopy of the redwood forest and spits you out on the squiggly coast, where waves crash along the cliffs and the ocean sparkles into the horizon. (If you have power ballads on your iPod, or anything with a gospel choir—crank it.)
Highway 1 is so daunting and so dazzling that it’s a good idea to make a two-day trip out of it and stay at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. It’s unaffiliated with the Material Girl, but about as subtle, with 100 theme rooms, like the Caveman, with an indoor waterfall. But even if you decide to power through in one day, just make sure to pull over and take in the breathtaking views. This is the kind of splendor that can make an atheist give thanks to God. Or, at the very least, to power steering.
Matt Robison: California to New York
You are sleeping in a field on the side of I-80 in Nebraska. It makes sense for now (you are 22, broke, stupid). This is somewhere in Nebraska, behind an empty public rest stop. The field is blue-green under the moon, chattering with bugs. You don’t have tents but you’ve brought sleeping bags, rolled up under your arms like prayer rugs.
The three of you are driving to New York from California, for no reason except to live there forever, or so you have planned. It’s a puzzling thing for a Californian to wake up at dawn and find that he can see all 360 degrees of the horizon. Where are the hills? The mountains? It’s disorienting, that unbroken brim. You’ve never been so aware of standing on a planet. What are you going to do in New York? You don’t know. But at that moment you want so bad to go somewhere you’ve never been before, to get to know that planet.
You wake up with a mosquito bite on your eyelid. You tramp out of the weeds to your car.