Carolyn J. Rose is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, No Substitute for Murder, and No Substitute for Money. She penned a young-adult fantasy, Drum Warrior, with her husband, Mike Nettleton.
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington.
She founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.
Hearing those two words, I conjure up visions of highways spooling into the distance. I have recollections of punching the gas and whizzing past semis on an upgrade. I see mental images of Burma-Shave signs and remember the way phone poles seemed to flicker by me.
The words spark memories of great road trips of the past—some just a few hours in duration, and some spanning days and the width of the continent.
The words carry with them a sense of freedom and adventure, of fresh sights and chance acquaintances, of regional foods and souvenir shops, of roadside attractions with concrete dinosaurs or live snakes.
The words give rise to a sense of possibility and change. Once you see the familiar in the rearview mirror, anything can happen.
But because anything can happen—and because the older I get the more I’m aware that some of those anythings might not be so good—I spend hours preparing before the rubber hits the road.
The road itself has changed since 1969 when I took the wheel for my first cross-country road trip. Highways are becoming ever more crowded and complex. And I’ve also changed since I headed off in that Ford Fairlane convertible bound for graduate school at the University of Arizona.
Then, I tossed my gear in the trunk and took off.
Now, 44 years later, I check to see when the car was last in the shop, eyeball the tread on the tires, make sure I’m paid up with AAA and that my cell phone is charged, fill my water bottle, riffle through a selection of maps, and load my gear.
Back in the day, that gear was a sleeping bag, toothbrush and comb, clean underwear, a stack of T-shirts, jeans, a jacket, sandals, tennis shoes, and a notebook. It all fit into a battered suitcase with a taped handle.
Now that gear includes all of the above plus extra sweaters, pajamas, thermal socks, a heating pad, a supply of vitamins, the mouth guard that keeps me from grinding my teeth, a small flashlight, and on and on.
Then, I took a handful of twenties for motels, food, and gas. (Gas was about 35 cents a gallon back then—less in some places.)
Now I check the remaining balance on my credit card and consider a bank loan for what it will take to fill the tank.
Then, snacks for the start of the trip consisted of what I could scavenge from the kitchen before I took off—cookies, a sandwich, more cookies.
Now, it’s healthier fare: dried fruit, nuts, low-fat/low-cholesterol crackers, juice, and water. (At least until I make the first gas/restroom stop. Then it’s cheesy snacks and cola. Some road trip habits die hard.)
Now the plan, promoted by an aching spine and tightening flexor tendons, is to drive until dinnertime. (Despite those cheesy snacks, the urge to stop for dinner kicks in pretty darn early.)
Then, I’d camp or stay just about anywhere that fit my budget. As long as the sheets were clean and the bed didn’t sag, I didn’t balk at chipped paint, cracked tile, or even a cockroach scuttling for a hole in the baseboard.
Now I like to get a look—a long, hard look—at the room before I check in.
I still take road trips, but often I send one of my characters instead. Liz Roark traveled from New York to Arkansas in an old VW bug and discovered A Place of Forgetting. Kate Dalton left Arkansas for the Oregon Coast, took responsibility for a boy named Way-Ray, and found An Uncertain Refuge.
A road trip can be an important plot element. It can provide obstacles and twists that not only make the story more intriguing and increase reader interest, but also reveal more about the characters. As they have fresh experiences or encounter problems on the road, their strengths and weaknesses come into sharper focus.
When Barbara Reed (the protagonist of No Substitute for Murder), gets a reliable car and a little money in her pocket, she just might hit the road with the GPS she got courtesy of a drug dealer in my latest book, No Substitute for Money. After all, Reckless River, Washington isn’t a huge city. There are only so many fictional crimes I can commit there before readers start to shake their heads and accuse me of having Cabot Cove syndrome.
Have road trips changed for you? Have they changed your characters? Leave a comment and get your name in the drawing for a copy of No Substitute for Money.