Saturday, April 20, 2024

History of the Great American Road Trip

Historic Route 66 - Snow Covered Peaks; public domain image

History of The Great American Road Trip

Not so long ago in America, taking a vacation meant packing up luggage, an ice chest, possibly the dog, and of course the family and setting off on a road trip. The rise of air travel changed this scenario for some, but definitely not for everyone. Pulbished in 2021, the 2019–2020 Portrait of American Travelers® survey by MMGY Global revealed a resurgence in road travel. Since 2015, the survey recorded a 64% yearly increase in road trips. The trend is far from over, with 50% of Americans planning to travel more in 2024. Of those, 63% will hit the road.

I am writing this in a remote cabin on a river in California, one of many stops on my own road trip adventure. The April 8th total eclipse of the sun sent my husband and me across six states in our SUV to Texas. We were not alone. Millions traveled to the path of totality, which included parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. On the way home, I keep running into eclipse travelers. While waiting for tables at restaurants or for admittance to tourist attractions, we swap impressions of totality. Restaurant and service staff confirm that the recent crush of new business is due to eclipse travelers.

The great American road trip seems here to stay. After driving paved-over stretches of the Old Oregon Trail and Route 66, it makes me smile that essential slice of American history lives on. Most people take the interstate nowadays, but for those who seek roads less traveled, the rewards are substantial.

The opportunities for safe road travel abound today, but this wasn’t always the case. At the turn of the 20th century, wretched roads and the limited capabilities of horses, wagons and coaches hampered travel. Most covered long distances by steam locomotive. However, a few hardy souls set off on horseless carriage excursions. These intrepid individuals began the tradition of adventuring by private motorized vehicle that we enjoy today.

1899 Quinby Electric Carriage; public domain image

When recalling his 1903 trip from Colorado Springs to Santa Fe, attorney Phillip Delany declared: “and so the machine is conquering the old frontier, carrying the thudding of modern mechanics into the land of romance. . . .” Much taken with the idea, he went on to note: “The trails of Kit Carson and Boone and Crockett, and the rest of the early frontiersmen stretch out before the adventurous automobilist.”

While exploration appealed to adventurers like Delany, others wanted to escape the rigors of city life into a romanticized dream of nomadic travel. These tourists belonged to the upper-middle class. The cost of an automobile (between $650 and $1,300) placed owning one beyond the reach of most households. Besides this constraint, gas stations and garages were not largely available outside city limits. While a wealthy person might overcome such limitations, the average American could not.

Bad roads increased the likelihood of breakdowns and misadventures. One motorist in the Wyoming of 1909 described the roads he traveled as “deep ruts, high centers, rocks, loose and solid; steep grades, washouts, or gullies…” He also described “unbridged streams, sand, alkali dust, gumbo, and plain mud” as “common abominations.” Venturing off the beaten path for long distances demanded a great deal of self reliance. Mishaps could and did happen.

The first successful transcontinental journey was undertaken on a whim and a $50 bet in the spring of 1903. Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, his friend, Sewall K. Crocker, and a bulldog named Bud set off from San Francisco in a 20-horsepower Winton touring car. 
This feat inspired others. 

Horatio Nelson Jackson, public domain image

Between 1901 and 1908, transcontinental drivers loaded their vehicles with numerous tools, sleeping bags, water carriers, camp stoves, navigational instruments, first aid supplies, rain-proof ponchos, pith helmets, tire chains, spare parts, firearms, and more. Mary C. Bedell published her gear list in Modern Gypsies, her 1924 account of auto touring: “tent, duffle bags, gasoline stove, Adirondack grate and a kit of aluminum kettles, with coffee pot and enamel cups and saucers inside.” This equipment increased the weight of her fully loaded automobile by “four or five hundred pounds” and gave the automobile a striking resemblance “to a hermit crab staggering across the ocean floor burdened with its house on its back.”

In time, wages rose and prices for used cars fell. Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, improving the availability and affordability of automobiles. The increasing number of automobile travelers sparked the interest of merchants across America. Gas stations, garages, roadside diners, and hotels sprang up along more traveled routes. 

Eventually, interconnected roads became highways like Route 66. 
The great American road trip was born.

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt fell in love with literature at an early age when her father read chapters from classics as bedtime stories. When Janalyn grew older, she put herself to sleep with tales "written" in her head. Today Janalyn is a storyteller who writes western historical romance and medieval epic fantasy. Romance, mystery, adventure, history, and whimsy appear in all her novels in proportions dictated by their genre.


  1. Thank you for posting today. My husband and I enjoy documentaries we've seen of people traveling along what's left of Rt. 66. We used to like road trips but are not such fans of the traffic nowadays.

  2. When traveling from the Chicago area to St. Louis there are portions of Interstate 55 that run parallel to what is left of Route 66. The Interstate is definitely the route to take when time is of the essence but at least if one likes, they can exit the highway and make part of the trip on the old 66.