The north entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia is an innocuous on-ramp. Atop the low, steadily rising spine of the ridge, the route begins humbly, a two-lane road that bumbles along for a half mile or so, wending like the path of a snake without a purpose through a fresh sea of green. Then suddenly the trees on the left fall away to reveal a sweeping view of Blue Ridge National Park, and something special happens. Your blood pressure drops, your foot eases off the pedal, and you pull your vehicle onto the first of many scenic lookout points, in spite of time constraints and the looming shadow of many miles to go before you sleep. Time drips by as you step outside, shut the door and place yourself within an enormous valley panorama. You feel, for the first time on your American road trip, like a traveler, an explorer of sights too rarely seen, like someone who’s left the jarring cares of the workday world behind.
You also feel the brutal soreness of your ass.
This is but one of the many conflicting themes of the road trip. Grinding toward your destination is exhilarating until it’s exhausting. Too much coffee jazzes you up, then drops you. The one-pump, dirt-road service station with a bathroom is a savior, until it dawns on you that the handwritten signs for socks, lightbulbs and clearly pre-used glassware indicate some sort of twisted backwoods tourist trap you might not escape alive. And finally, and most obviously: the road itself is your destination, and your vehicle is not just a tool but also a traveling partner.
That can be either transcendental or disastrous, depending on the vehicle, which means there are considered, stringent requirements for a car to qualify as a road trip car. Those requirements are, roughly: gas mileage, comfort, space, dependability.
There is a certain set of cars that naturally fall into this category, in the public’s eye. None of those tend to be pickup trucks, which are associated more with cowboys than with unbathed hippie youth cycling their way from sleep in the backseat to wide-eyed driving in the front. So, on a nine-day trip from New York, to Philly, to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to Charleston, to Savannah, and back again — 2,002 miles, round trip — the choice of a bright red 2015 Chevrolet Colorado pickup with a Z71 off-road package seemed an unconventional choice. The truck made me anxious. GP didn’t include a pickup truck in its list of best road trip cars; I worried about bags flying out of the bed at high speed and low miles per gallon on a tight budget; my girlfriend, Rachel, stressed about driving a hulking beast.
A little bit more about the Colorado: it is one of the only mid-sized pickups left in the US. It starts at just above $20k, not bad for Motor Trend‘s 2015 Truck of the Year. GP had already reviewed the Colorado and given it the all-around thumbs up. It was for these reasons that I was assigned to test it on my road trip.
A little bit more about road tripping in trucks, in the public eye: it has been little done. Hemingway did it, in a way, in Green Hills of Africa, though his was open topped and standard for traveling in Africa. Steinbeck did it in a camper-modified GMC pickup in Travels With Charley; he named it “Rocinante”, after Don Quixote’s horse. (Consequently, we called our truck “Chevy the Chevy”, which sounds better off the page, and though more infantile than Steinbeck’s choice of name, carried the same set of emotions: companionship, dependence, a seal of importance.) Off the top of the cultural head, that’s about it.
This lack of precedence added up to a lot of stress about how the pickup life would transfer to the long-distance road-trip life. But then there we were on the Blue Ridge Parkway, cruising into the second scenic overlook, feeling good, feeling mobile, not worrying. A guy in a beefed-up Jeep saw us taking pictures and stopped to ask if we were selling the truck. “I work at a rental agency,” he said. “That new model is way better looking than the old one. They did good this time around.” And then, with a cool guy’s wry smile: “I’ll still take my Jeep, though.” He drove off in a cloud of dust, and we jumped back in too, chests puffed up with pride about our dapper ride. And we had doors, anyway. The rest of the Parkway slid underneath us like we were on rails.
Six hours later, the first thing we saw at our Great Smoky Mountains National Park campsite was a notice tacked to the empty rangers’ station that read: “Warning: Camp Site #27 has been closed due to aggressive bear activity.”
Here’s something you don’t worry about every day: there are two bears per square mile in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and they would love nothing more than for you to leave your stocked cooler in the open bed of your truck. I had never thought of this problem while planning the trip, but I decided not to take it lightly. This proved wise. Five days after we left, a young male camper was attacked while lounging in a hammock.
Total Distance: 2,002 miles
Brook Trout Caught: 1
Bears Seen: 2
Southern Craft Beers Consumed: Innumerable
Comfort Food Consumed: Immeasurable
Times Called “Yankee”: 2
Days Spent Regretting the Drive: 0
That night, at around 1:30, after we’d finished setting up our campsite in the bright headlights of the truck, we jockeyed gear around into the back and slid the cooler into the passenger seat. It fit, to my surprise, with plenty of room. The rear seats provided enough space for all of our gear and dry food items, which was a lot; though a sort of Mary Poppins’s purse situation developed where I would dive shoulder-deep through towels, tea kettles and jars of peanut butter in order to find what I was looking for, this worked in that we foiled the trifling and altogether terrifying bears. It was a great victory for one of the truck’s great downsides, and we celebrated appropriately: by going the hell to sleep.
There were other Colorado-specific problems to overcome as the trip progressed, and we and the truck overcame them. The acceleration was dodgy on on-ramps (but it’s a truck, after all). Gas mileage never got above 21 mpg (but gas is cheap in the South). The Colorado does not come with a CD player, which was a grave disappointment to my girlfriend’s dad, who’d curated an entire box of CDs for us to jam to. We were disappointed, too — and downright angry, when the Bluetooth player forced on us acted up. (On the plus side, the Bose speaker system was so loud it damaged my eardrums on the 14-hour drive south.)
But sometimes, you live with the fact that things are what they are. Or, as Steinbeck wrote, when his ride Rocinante flatted a tire, with a sour touch of literary flair: “It was obvious that the other tire might go at any minute, and it was Sunday and it was raining and it was Oregon.” This humdrum run-on might seem a copout, but in reality it is a vital part of the road trip. There are no wrong turns if you simply go with the flow and work with where the road takes you, and with the truck, a vehicle designed for changing plans at a moment’s notice (“Oh, we need to haul ‘X’ big thing? Throw it in the back!”), that always felt easy.
The other side of the coin was filled with reasons to love this truck and its place in the long-distance traveling game. It handled like a lithe family sedan on tortuous back roads, and my girlfriend, who originally worried about driving something so big, handled the curviest road of the trip with ease. On long highway hauls the combination of the Z71 suspension package and bucket seats kept us loose. This is all part of a shift in the modern truck from outdoorsman’s tool to a jack-of-all-trades hauler, which wasn’t lost on us. The infotainment system did its job well, and all manner of ports and docks kept our beloved personal tech alive. Then there were the truly little things, which provided some of our most contented moments: like how its center console was perfectly deep enough to hold a DSLR; or how the Talking Heads and Mika blasted so beautifully our own personal driving soliloquies from its speakers; or just the cathartic release of piling camping gear deep in the bed, which ate all of our gear so readily that we never felt overpacked, though we were.
There are no wrong turns if you simply go with the flow and work with where the road takes you, and with the truck, a vehicle designed for changing plans at a moment’s notice, that always felt easy.
All the while we were reminded that though our modern sense of distance has been torched — a morning commute lasts roughly a podcast; a walk to the coffee shop disappears in an email response; a flight from Scotland to New York is almost exactly 3.5 in-flight films long — the trials and tribulations of road tripping still exist, somewhere between episodes of RadioLab and getting lost in the Virginia backwoods. Savannah to Philadelphia to New York is every inch of 814 miles, and it remains that the only way you develop a true understanding of a region is to empty a car’s tank on its roads a half dozen times and take what problems may come with a tough-guy grin. The road taught us this, and also to love the discoveries our trials uncovered: native brook trout in sunny pools and the absurd labels found at fireworks stores; empty trails through the temperate rainforests of the Smoky Mountains; discussions with truckers about Caitlin Jenner’s choices; naps in the live oak- and Spanish moss-filled squares of Savannah.
All of this might have happened without our bright red steed, but it didn’t. And the flexibility of the pickup — bred as a workhorse and successfully adapted for the 21st-century flatlander who occasionally hauls wood — manifested itself in everything we did. When the journey becomes the destination, you see, other lines get blurred, including the way you feel about a complex machine wrapped in sheet metal. This isn’t a new revelation. Greater road trippers than we, and greater writers than I, have experienced it and told it well. But the feeling was new, and stronger than I realized.
When we passed the southbound I-95 exit on the way out of Savannah, to Jacksonville to Mobile to New Orleans and eventually to a reverse loop of Travels with Charley, with border-of-America proportions, we made an almost imperceptible swerve toward the ramp. I felt the animal desire to continue this migration from my normal life, and felt the weight of my girlfriend’s will pressing there, too. The truck was so in tune with us that it only felt right to use it so. It was only my sense of adventure being bullied by societal responsibilities that straightened the steering wheel and kept our wheels pointed north, toward home.