When automobiles first appeared in the early 1900s, they were enjoyed exclusively by the rich and privileged. In 1901 there were 23,000 cars in the country compared to 17 million horses. The few available roads were either cobblestone or dirt “mud traps.” Private for-profit clubs emerged to build roads accessible to members. Nine of those clubs joined together in Chicago to form the Automobile Club in 1902.
With the advent of Henry Ford’s Model T in 1908, cars became available to the masses. Cities and towns built their own asphalt roads but there was no organization on a national level. The Federal Highway Act of 1925 sought to resolve confusion between state and local routes. Highways were given a numerical designation — north to south highways were odd numbered, west to east highways were even numbered. Redundant numerical highways were renamed.
In 1921, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. took a five-month road trip with his wife to the West Coast after their wedding. He wrote an essay in Motor magazine called “The Democracy of the Motor Car.” He wrote that he met, “every possible type of person in the world,” and argued for the wide distribution of inexpensive cars to help democratize travel.
The automobile industry struggled during the Depression and World War II but the early 1950s saw a major increase in car ownership. Road trips emerged as a desired vacation choice and new businesses were born: gas stations, roadside diners, repair shops and highway motels.
President Eisenhower argued that in the event of foreign invasion the Army would need highways to transport troops and supplies across country. He passed the National Interstate & Defense Highway Act of 1956. This authorized the creation of 41,000 miles of highways. Today the US highway system totals more than 157,000 miles.
In 1957, author Jack Kerouac published On The Road. The novel depicts a series of aimless road trips taken by Kerouac and his literary pal Neal Cassady. The book helped make road trips a new American vacation option as travelers learned to focus on the journey and not simply the destination.
African Americans yearned to journey through America as well but they often encountered racism and threats from hate groups like the KKK. In 1936, the Negro Motorist Green Book was published by a postal worker named Victor H. Green. The Green Book was a travel guide helping black tourists avoid dangerous and unwelcoming places. The guide also recommended hotels and restaurants that served black customers.
The most popular American road trip destinations are the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Route 66, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Scenic Byway through Utah. My own favorite trek is driving north on Highway 1 from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I stop for apple pie at Linn’s in Cambria, go jade-hunting at Jade Cove in Lucia, and then hike through the redwoods in Big Sur. There’s something magical and liberating about leaving the city behind and taking unknown roads through small towns and the beautiful back country. I’m filled with a sense of possibility and I never know where a mysterious road might lead.