Road Trip Essentials: A Taxonomy

Roll of tape

Tape can be used when you need to fix some broken car thing (I’m assuming that it can solve most engine problems), but if the person sitting next to you is beginning to annoy you, you can use the tape to divide the car in half (or in fifths, sixths, etc., depending on how many people you’re upset with), sitcom style, where no one is allowed to cross the tape line. Using tape instead of something more permanent like paint encourages reconciliation.


If you’re like me, you have 50 pictures of your cat sleeping with her tongue sticking out. But this road trip is finally going to give you the opportunity to use your camera with purpose—to take fun, creative photographs that you’ll cherish in the future and show to your grandkids (though, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t also show those cat pics to your grandkids).


Sitting around, not doing anything for hours is tiring. You can use the pillows to make napping slightly more comfortable, or you can turn the backseat into a pillow fort.

Maps that point out roadside oddities

One of the benefits of traveling by car as opposed to plane, boat, or train is that you have the freedom to stop when you want and take in a little culture. Sure, you could visit a museum or a landmark with some real historical value. But you could also see the world’s second-largest ball of twine, which would probably be more fulfilling.


Chips, fruit snacks, Cap’n Crunch, juice boxes—bring all of your favorite treats from home. Share your stash, if you’re so inclined, or barter like 19th century pioneers did as they traveled the Oregon Trail. When driving through different regions of the country, stock up on the local munchies. There’s alligator jerky in Louisiana.

Scarf and sunglasses

If you’re traveling in a convertible, a scarf and a pair of sunglasses are practical (helping to keep you hair in place and to shield your eyes from bugs, debris, and, of course, sun). But even if you’re sitting in the backseat of the family SUV, the scarf-sunglasses combo is just a really good road-trip look.


If you’re on a long trip and don’t have access to a washing machine, or you’re just traveling when it’s especially hot and you find yourself sweating a lot, Febreze Fabric Refresher can neutralize any offensive clothes odors, making the car a more hospitable place. Thai Dragon Fruit, Apple Mango Tango, Hawaiian Aloha—your traveling clothes can smell like anything your heart desires.

Toilet paper

When nature calls, you must answer immediately. Sometimes that means pulling over on the side of the road to relieve yourself. Toilet paper won’t prevent passersby from seeing you squat beside your car, but it will help you maintain personal hygiene, and that’s something, right?

Dictionary, thesaurus, metaphors, and similes to help you narrate your journey colorfully

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to be a character in a Terrence Malick movie like Badlands or Days of Heaven and have all of my adventures and thoughts explained via a voiceover full of folksy imagery that’s heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity but almost doesn’t make any sense. This kind of narration makes every experience seem super poignant. With a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a metaphor cheat sheet (a notebook of prepared imagery and possibly short sentences lifted from your favorite novels), you can narrate the entire journey in real time, highlighting the significance of everything that happens. If your mom rolls down the window, you could say, “So she’d decided to let some air in and the breeze kissed her face and it was so fierce and true that she recalled an old lover who’d trace his lips across her cheeks when she was a young girl in Lisbon.” It doesn’t matter if your mother has never been to Lisbon—it sounds good, and everyone should appreciate what you’re trying to do.

Road jams/Mega Music Mix

Back in the day, road trip mixes were a point of contention. Particularly when traveling with family, it would be almost impossible to find music that everyone could agree on. Now we have technology, so everyone can put on their headphones and listen to their own music on iPods or iPhones or Zunes or what have you and then download new music when that initial playlist gets old. But road trips are supposed to be these great bonding experiences, and one way to achieve that is through music—you know, maybe get a little sing-along going. Before you head out, come up with a theme for your mix and have everyone contribute an equal number of tracks to the list. If several people in your party have truly unbearable taste, though, you might want to consider swapping the music mix for a language-learning CD. By the end of the ride, you will all be bonded through your knowledge of Swahili.


Inside jokes and “remember the times” are born during these sorts of trips. On the road, you’ll be creating the wonderful (and sometimes less than wonderful) memories that will always connect you few, you happy few, you band of people who once sat in a car together for hours on end. ♦

Backseat Player

Illustration by Cynthia

The theme this month is On the Road, and I know we’ve been talking about being on the road to your life and all our travels and journeys and explorations through the world, but…what about when you’re actually ON THE ROAD? Like, taking a road trip?

Specifically, I want to talk about when you’re stuck in the car—when you’ve been there for five hours and all you’re driving past is endless fields and your mom is dozing in the passenger seat and your dad is driving and doing that annoying thing where he reads all the signs you pass out loud and then makes a comment about them, like, “Hey, look, ‘Quality Dairy, 22 miles.’ Ha ha, their sign has QD as their symbol. QD is ‘DQ’ backwards, AND THEY BOTH SELL ICE CREAM! Get it? Is that a Dairy Queen rip-off or what?” and he’s not actually talking to anyone but he’s looking at you in the rearview mirror and waggling his eyebrows. (Please tell me someone else’s father pulls this crap.)

You know what I’m talking about. You’re tired of all the music you’ve brought. You don’t feel like reading. You can’t fall asleep and your ginger ale is warm and your sister’s LEGS are on YOUR SIDE and you’re never getting any closer to home and if you don’t get out of the car soon you’re going to lose it. But getting out of the car isn’t an option, because the doors are locked, you’re going 70 miles an hour, and you have a full day of driving ahead of you.

So the car keeps going. Maybe forever. WHAT SHOULD YOU DO???

Well, if you’re like me, you can look out the window for extended periods of time, turn on something dreamy, like this song, and imagine you have a giant scythe or a big laser sword and that you’re cutting everything you drive by neatly in half. It’s fun! You can cut through farmhouses and “see” lunch being prepared in the kitchen and you can slice through fields of waving corn. You cut down telephone poles and slice into tractors and split through the middle of semis and gas stations and imagine the gas spraying into the air. Wreak havoc with your mind! Car of Destruction, driving through Iowa!

But that’s probably just me.

Another thing you could do is play A CAR GAME!!! Well…do you have any better options?

Without further ado, I bring you: The Car Game Round-Up For When You’re Really, Really, Incredibly Bored on the Road.

The Alphabet Game

This is the eternal, enduring classic of all long car rides everywhere since cars were invented. There are so many variations of this game I don’t really know where to start, but basically it’s this: You and whoever is playing with you take turns finding things you drive past or words on signs that begin with the letters of the alphabet, in order. For example: You have A and you see a sign for “Apple Holler.” Now it’s your brother’s turn, and he has B and he sees a cute li’l calf and its momma cow in a pen, so he yells, “Baby cow!” Then you spend the next five minutes arguing about why that does or doesn’t count for B. Etc.

Fun-ness Rating: Meh. This game is only fun if you are dealing with extremely dedicated and competitive game partners— patient, evil people, willing to cheat and lie and bend the rules. Otherwise you get stuck on letters like K and X and spend 20 minutes silently hunting out the window, hoping for Kissimmee River, only to look up and realize everyone else is asleep.

The Celebrity (or Movie) Game

Another classic. You start with any celebrity—any celebrity at all—and say the person’s name out loud, like “Emma Stone.” Then someone has to take the last letter of the celebrity’s name, in this case E, and think of a new celebrity, such as “Elijah Wood.” See? First person who can’t come up with another celebrity loses. (Btw, the best way to win this game is to be rotten and name Jamie Foxx.)

Movie titles work the same way. You say, “Julie & Julia.” Your buddy has to say a movie title that starts with the last letter in “Julia,” so she thinks for a moment and then says, “Air Bud.” And then you stare at her in wonder.

Fun-ness Rating: Sorta fun! Because, out of sheer desperation, you name celebrities that everyone’s forgotten about, and truly awful movies, and then everyone tilts their head and goes, “Huh. What is Sarah Michelle Gellar doing these days?” or “House Bunny? Did you just say House Bunny?”

Would You Rather

This game is perfect for when you’re stuck in the car with friends, because it can get really gross, really fast. Would You Rather is a game of choices and questions. You take turns asking one another questions designed to horrify, like, “IF YOU HAD TO (and you’re not allowed to say you wouldn’t do either choice), IF YOU ABSOLUTELY HAD TO, would you rather…

• eat a salad with a nest of pubic-hair clippings from the boys’ locker room on top?


• clean the crack between the folding lunch tables, the one that’s never been cleaned and is full of moldy food and crumbs from a thousand lunches…with your tongue?”

Fun-ness Rating: SUPER FUN, because it’s sheer nastiness, and it’s enjoyable to try to come up with the absolute grossest thing to hypothetically make your friend do. Bonus! Lots of parents/adults hate this game, and will try to tune you out once you start playing.

Mental Four-Square

This is my favorite game, because I made it up (no I didn’t—it’s a real game; I just thought I made it up and that I was a genius) when I was 13 and was seriously proud of it. It’s served me well on long drives ever since. Here’s how you play: You pick a category, like “States in the U.S.” or “Countries in Europe” or “Kinds of Candy” or “Things That Will Shatter If You Drop Them,” and you and your road partner rapidly take turns naming anything that would go into the category. Anyone who can’t add to the list after a 10-second pause loses. Get it? So if the category is “Diseases,” you and your partner would fire back and forth, going, “Leukemia. Crohn’s Disease. Osteoporosis. Lupus. MS. Gout. Macular degeneration. Syphilis. Umm…diabetes.”

Fun-ness Rating: Fun! If you make up weird categories. The weirder the better. It’s hilarious to see what someone’s mind comes up with when they’re panicking and trying to think of anything that might work.

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Bruce Springsteen

Collages by Naomi

It was a dank, rainy day when I decided to watch the film Badlands. It follows Kit and Holly, a young couple on the run from the police across America. I stood in my misty garden afterwards to try and clear a headache while my mind was whirring, full of the tumbleweed scenery, unable to forget the voices of those two strange characters.

There was something else too. The Wikipedia on Charles Starkweather, on whom the film was based, read: “Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 song ‘Nebraska’ is a first-person narrative based on the Starkweather events.” I Googled “bruce springsteen nebraska” and found this:

The opening harmonica haunted me from the moment I heard it. I couldn’t shake it loose. It was beautiful beyond words; it was my Springsteen epiphany. The most affecting film I had watched had inadvertently introduced me to the music that would begin to affect me more than any before. And all on the same day. Doesn’t it just feel like music, films, and books choose you, rather than the other way ’round?

I was a 16-year-old girl living in a suburb of Birmingham, England. Sixteen was an age when I felt very insecure—maybe you wouldn’t think Bruce Springsteen would be the main contestant to suddenly become my musical hero and general life inspiration. His name can conjure a testosterone-heavy symbol of the “American dream,” a denim-clad butt shaking around with a young Courteney Cox, proud to be BORN! IN THE USA! The 1984 album of that name sounds like a collection of greatest hits, the songs are so memorable. And “Dancing in the Dark” is probably the best music video you will ever see:

I love that brash, confident ’80s American hero Bruce with all my heart. But he is a lot more than that.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to write, because what can I say to do him justice? How can I sum up my intensely personal feelings about a public legend? Bruce is at once a huge overwhelming icon and a whisper directed to the tiny corners of people’s ordinary lives. I think Joe Strummer summarized it better than I ever will:


After my “Nebraska” experience, I began to collect and listen to Bruce’s early records. I propped them up on my desk so I could see them from my bed. The album artwork burned into my brain. Every morning I would start up my turntable and life was in CinemaScope again. For a few weeks, in that flush of discovery, I was able to forget most other feelings. It is a pattern that has repeated since with other albums and musicians. But Bruce was the first.

I suppose Bruce Springsteen was the first musician I heard who communicated in a way I could completely understand. As if he talks in my language. Being a musician is the only job Bruce has ever had—it doesn’t seem like a secondary thing to him, or a route to fame and fortune, but an instinct. It was only through his passion that I discovered how important music can be for myself. We clicked. Like a first love.

I started with his first two albums: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle were both released in 1973 and are both infused with youth and dreams, characters and adventures. My favorite songs from them are “Spirit in the Night” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” I also love the outtake “Thundercrack” from E Street Shuffle:

That song is my personal anthem. I love everything about it, and the video of him singing it above. Bruce with his beard! Clarence Clemons playing saxophone! Bruce and Clarence’s duet! I hadn’t heard anything like this before; it’s mix of genres, constantly upbeat and weaved full of stories. His voice there is all youthful conviction—it seems to say, Look, being young is confusing, but it can also be fun. Plus, how much do you just want to throw yourself at young Bruce Springsteen? Or is that just me? (I think the girl doing just that in the “Rosalita” video is me in a former life).

Later I became captivated with 1975’s Born to Run, with its wall of sound. This album just rips out my heart and stomps on it. I think I’ll only make peace with it when I can drive down an open American highway with it playing full blast. It is the only way. (The other way is alone in your bedroom, lying on your bed with closed eyes, imagining those open roads.)

Bruce’s early albums gave me a chance to escape reality and to dream. To become excited by the possibilities of life. The next album he made, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), was about what happens when your early dreams confront reality. This is my album, perhaps because I am constantly questioning myself and my own reality. It is the battle of life made into a perfect set of songs. It’s also one of the best examples of how visual Bruce’s music can be. The documentary about the making of Darkness is fascinating and love-deepening and tells of how Bruce described to mixer Chuck Plotkin the sounds he wanted by describing images—which totally makes sense to me. For my most played song ever, “Adam Raised a Cain,” Springsteen told Plotkin to think of a movie showing two lovers having a picnic, then the scene suddenly cuts to a dead body. Whoa!

Bruce’s concerts are legendarily great, and his songs are often best when he performs them onstage. I would (and still do) spend nights I couldn’t sleep on YouTube, compulsively watching his shows. He opened my eyes to the magic and art of live performance. My favorites are mostly on the 1978 Darkness Tour.

That piano opening! Bruce’s guitar solos! Clarence, Clarence, Clarence! It’s utter heaven. If you have no reaction to that video, I don’t think we can be friends. And this is just one example! Enter the YouTube black hole with me!

On top of all this, I simply love Bruce Springsteen, the person. I mean, he does impressions of himself and takes breaks in concerts to chug strangers’ beers and dances with his mom on stage.

I am 18 now, and I’ve grown so much in the two years since I discovered Bruce, in both in confidence and in height—his music certainly helped with one of those. When my identity was lost, music help me find a backbone, and it has comforted me ever since. So when I say “Literally the Best Thing Ever: Bruce Springsteen,” what I also mean is “Literally the Best Thing Ever: Music.”

Now my only real goal in life is to see him live. And preferably be another one of those lucky girls who are pulled onstage for “Dancing in the Dark.” I will light candles in front of my records and pray for more U.K. tour dates, because to witness one of his three-hour sets would be the apotheosis of every which way his songs have ever made me feel.

I could write for 10 times longer about Bruce Springsteen, and it still wouldn’t be enough. This isn’t the end though. Some of his songs will grow in meaning, some will become nostalgic, some will always make me dance with joy. Most important, they will be a continued companion while I figure out where—and if—the Promised Land exists.