Hey, what’s your hurry?

The road to Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii’s Big Island. / Photo by Christopher Elliott
I don’t know what I was thinking when I tried to drive 1,100 miles in a straight shot.

Was I trying to set a new land-speed record? Or had I just forgotten that everyone needs to sleep (yes, even the truckers pulled over at the Walmart parking lot Valdosta, Ga., at 3 a.m.)?

I didn’t fully grasp the absurdity of driving 20 hours non-stop until one of my friends said something about it on Facebook.

“What about the kids?” he asked. “Is that legal?”

Well, what about them? They’re not driving, I replied.

But that kind of missed the point. Trying to drive from Branson, Mo., to Orlando without stopping for the night isn’t that uncommon, and it is the darker side of the great American road trip; the side that doesn’t get a lot of press until someone falls asleep at the wheel and crashes.

In 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, the government reported 3,092 fatalities related to distracted driving, which, for reasons too complicated to go into, you can’t compare to the previous year (the feds changed their methodology). That’s a lot of preventable highway deaths.

What’s your hurry?

I was surprised to learn that for some readers, the marathon road trip was almost a rite of passage.

I spoke with people who had made a similar drive solo. Before we left Breckenridge, Colo., on the next-to-last leg of our family travel project, we ran into a friend who was trying to drive from Denver to Kansas City. Overnight. In freezing rain.

She survived.

Driving 1,100 miles isn’t as big a deal as it might sound. Grant Petty remembers a road trip from South Florida to Louisville that he did alone. I first profiled him in a column a year ago when I wrote about how Americans preferred road trips.

“When I hit the Georgia border about eight hours later, I felt good, so I thought I’d drive a little farther,” he says. “When I hit Atlanta, I still felt fine, and decided to drive a little farther. When I hit Nashville at 11 p.m., I began to feel tired, but decided to drive through, since by this time I was so close to home.”

By the time he arrived in Louisville — 20 hours and 1,207 miles later — “I had the air conditioner on full blast, the windows down, and the radio at max volume,” he remembers.

But that’s no record. Here’s a guy who did 1,500 miles in just over 24 hours.

Kids, don’t try this.

Every now and then you’ll see signs that say, “What’s your hurry?” which are nothing more than oblique warnings of an approaching speed trap. But after last week’s road trip, I read them a little differently. What, exactly, is our hurry?

As one reader chided, “You’re missing so much of our great country. What’s the rush?”

Ah, that’s the real question — why hurry?

Maybe it’s the fact that in our 24/7, always-on society, vacations are a scarce commodity. That, somehow, we have convinced ourselves that the time to stop and smell the roses is after we retire.

I have a different perspective on the issue. I’m self-employed, and I don’t believe there will be any Social Security net for me to land in when I “retire.” So I’m seeing everything I can now, while I’m still relatively young and I have kids, because when I’m 64, I’ll probably still be part of the labor pool.

We rush from one place to the next because there’s not a moment to spare. It’s quite the contrast from the place I grew up, where the month-long vacation in August was almost sacred. (You guessed it, I grew up in Europe.)

That’s ridiculous!

Sometimes, the most ridiculous things about travel aren’t done to us; instead, we do them to ourselves. For more than two years, I’ve been writing about the absurd things inflicted on us by the travel industry. But consider for a moment the ridiculousness of spending 20 hours in a car with three kids.

We sped through the beautiful Ozark Mountains, blew past Memphis, Tenn., cut through some of the most scenic parts of Mississippi and Alabama and at around midnight, we crossed the Georgia state line, where the only things visible to us were the lights of the oncoming cars and the occasional exit.

It isn’t that the kids were confined to a small space for almost a full day. If we ever make it to New Zealand, they’ll have to endure a similarly long trip. It’s that they missed so many terrific opportunities to see the real America along the way, and that’s my fault.

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