“Bow wow, wow, Jesus loves me. Luke 3:16,” the shirt reads.
My cousin, Meghan, is holding up a gigantic, adult men’s t-shirt. There’s a doe-eyed cartoon dog on the front with a speech bubble coming out of its mouth. We’re in the World’s Biggest Truck Stop in Iowa, checking out the clothing section when we find this gem. A few feet away, the Harlem Globe Trotters — America’s most committed road trippers — tower over their fellow shoppers, picking out snacks. We dissolve into laughter.
“Wait,” I say, “are they claiming that the Luke 3:16 verse in the bible is actually, ‘Bow wow wow, Jesus loves me?’”
“No,” another cousin, Chrissy says — fully willing to dive into the etymology of a gas station shirt’s messaging. “So, the dog is saying Bow wow wow, Jesus loves me, and then they’re just like, ‘separately, look up this bible quote, you’ll like it.’”
“Or do you think it is the verse, but in the dog’s language?” I say, “He’s like, ‘Why should I have to speak in a language outside of my native tongue in order to get close to Jesus?’ Which… valid.”
“Sure, Jesus loves me exactly as I am,” Chrissy agrees, looking for the same shirt in her size. “Bow wow wow, have you heard the good news, bow wow wow.”
“I bet that’s the bible quote they’re reading at the wedding.” Meghan says — she tries to act it out, our aunt going to the pulpit and saying the words, “A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke,” then pausing solemnly before saying, “Bow wow wow. Jesus loves me, Bow. Wow…. Wow. Wow.”
This sends us into a new fit of hysterics too powerful for her to finish. I can’t breathe. We’re loudly embarrassing ourselves. Embarrassing ourselves in front of the entirety of the Harlem Globe Trotters. Like fools.
When we found out that our cousin Paul’s wedding would be in Algona, Iowa on January 2nd, Meghan, Chrissy and I weren’t pumped about it. I mean, the wedding, totally stoked, obviously, but a road trip to Iowa, in the dead of winter — a full seven-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago even in good weather — didn’t exactly make us jump for joy.
This was a drive in which the wind chill was going to be about 50 below; the kind of cold where any exposed part of your body feels like it might be frostbitten in seconds. That wind is malicious — trying to push your car into a ditch, blowing sheets of snow onto the road to white out your visibility, cutting through layer upon layer of clothing. Leading up to the trip, we were filled with dread more than excitement. Our family was already waiting, having spent New Year’s in Iowa, but we convinced ourselves that it was best to go out in Chicago on NYE, stay up all night, and then get on the road the next morning by 7 am.
“It will all be fine,” we promised.
Getting into the car the morning of January 1st it didn’t feel fine. We pounded coffee, wore dark glasses, and moved as if we might topple at any moment.
“Well, this is going to be fun,” I said, each word soaked in sarcasm. Little did I know, it would be one of the best road trips I’ve ever had. Here’s why the unlikeliest road trips just might prove to be the most memorable:
You’re forced to workshop your jokes…
There’s something about a road trip that makes you giddy and slap happy. Who knows why. The isolation? The monotony? The why might remain a mystery, but truly, everything on a road trip is a hilarious joke and every joke must be gone over again and again until it’s its perfect iteration. There’s no pun too dumb to explore fully. And with nowhere else to be, you get a captive, participatory audience in your hilarity. Like when Chrissy announced she wouldn’t be able to go to the rehearsal dinner, she’d have to stay in the room and take a nap.
“Why can’t you go?” Meghan and I asked.
“I didn’t bring any shoes,” Chrissy said triumphantly. It was a ridiculous thing to say, and she tried to explain that she was currently wearing slippers and her heels only matched her dress for the wedding the following night, but it was too late. We riffed on this until we’d created the perfect character, who had no shoes and couldn’t go to any weddings, for… conservatively, two hours.
That’s how the best long drives always go. You build a repertoire of perfect inside jokes that will never not be funny. I mean, except, probably to other people, like you, reading this.
… and embrace the weirdness.
Is it weird to run into the Harlem Globetrotters in a truck stop in Iowa? That’s hard to say because nothing seems weird on a road trip. Not any of the sites or the people or the things you eat. I think it would be normal for me to order 10 tacos at Taco Bell and then also get some fries at McDonald’s because it’s right there and also a milkshake and eat it all at once, not as a meal but as a snack, because…what else are you going to do… IT’S A ROAD TRIP.
On these adventures, you don’t care about wearing makeup or that your sweatpants are covered in that milkshake that spilled on you after trying to eat it at the same time as tacos and also, french fries. You feel invisible on a road trip and absolutely everything is normal. This is the gift you and other travelers give each other in gas stations off the highway. We accept it all. Every disgusting part of each other.
You slow down to notice how beautiful the country is.
Crystallized snow glistening as far as the eye can see, stark silos, sunset over the frost-covered fields. It may not seem like much when you describe it, but it’s genuinely beautiful. Slowing down to see the country, the small bits of beauty that are hidden everywhere, is special.
That is… unless you’re so obsessed with your own funniness that all three of you miss crossing the Mississipi. That’s over half a mile we didn’t notice because we were laughing too hard. It’s a little troubling, to be honest. But in our defense, we are really really funny.
You get deep.
The best part of any road trip is the conversations, the probability that you are going to run out of every single normal thing you can think of saying and begin sharing your weirdest stories, thoughts, and dreams. And playing weird games to pass the time. Truth or Dare or, you know, because you’re stuck in a car, just constant Truth. Leaving a road trip, you should know everyone in a more profound way than you did before
You find out your strengths and weaknesses…
Ten hours of driving on ice and snow, as it gets dark on the highway might teach you that you have more skills and are stronger than you ever knew. Or, alternatively, that you are a bad driver who should never get behind the wheel. I’m the latter. But I’ve got a lot of jokes. Everyone appreciates a good joke while they’re driving a stressful stretch of frozen road. Everyone.
…and make some of your favorite memories ever.
Few things give you better memories than travel. “What are you going to talk about more?” a friend said to me the other day, “An internship you did for a couple of months or backpacking around Thailand?”
Travel, no matter the destination, leaves you with memories you will talk about forever.
It’s been years since my cousins and I drove through Iowa (arriving so many hours after we started, that our entire family thought we were dead), and still we tell those jokes constantly. So much so that there is no one in our very large family (my mom has ten brothers and sisters) who cannot repeat back one of our riffs on Chrissy’s “I don’t have any shoes” comment. Not in an annoyed way, but giggling, as if they were there (it turns out you can make people enjoy an inside joke if you just repeat it over and over and over again, unceasingly, Christmas after Christmas, until you break them and they begin to remember themselves in the car).
In the end, my cousin’s wedding was a blast. But I’ll remember that trip always, not because of where we ended up, but because of the drive it took to get there. It turns out, it’s crazy amounts of fun to drive to Iowa New Year’s Day, hours through the snow, with no phone reception. I’d book that trip again and again.