Ishmael had a knack for knowing when it was time to go back to sea.
For the protagonist of "Moby-Dick," the clue was an overwhelming desire to knock peoples' hats off as he walked down the street. A century and a half later, many of us still know just what he meant. It's just that nowadays, a restless young American like Ishmael would probably skip the boat and go on a road trip instead.
Few cultural forms are as American as the road trip. Like jazz – its compatriot, and the inspiration for Jack Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness style in "On the Road" – the attraction is difficult to explain to someone who doesn't naturally feel it. It's something about the pleasure of movement for its own sake, an imperfect cultural shorthand for the American idea that where you come from isn't nearly as important as where you're going.
But if a road trip's charms are mysterious, its conventions remain pleasingly simple. Aside from a road, all that's needed is a car and a means of playing music.
A companion isn't strictly required, though a friend can make a trip more memorable. Kerouac, himself once a sailor, was so terrified by a friend's driving that he would cower facedown on the floor of the back seat.
The sense of the road speeding past just inches away reminded him of the sea beneath the hull, as he flew "across the groaning continent with that mad Ahab at the wheel."
The best reason to take even an Ahab-like friend along is the music they might bring. Traditionally this was a mix tape. Like all the best pairings, mixes and road trips both complement and suggest each other.
Unlike an album or the radio, a mix's carefully crafted variations are well suited to the random-but-connected succession of moments that characterize both roads and the tradition of making less-than-purposeful journeys along them. If the road trip is an assertion of freedom and individuality, the mix tape – a set of moods and emotions thoughtfully arranged by you, or just for you – was the perfect soundtrack.
Unfortunately, the art of the mix is largely lost, cheapened first by the ease of burning CDs and then finished off by click-and-drag and automatic playlists. Making a mix tape was an hours-long pain, but that's exactly why it merited such careful consideration of who would listen, and where.
The labor also meant fewer mixes, so the songs and even their order would better evoke a specific time and place. The value of a mix – what it meant to listen to it, let alone to give or receive it – is a victim of technology and ease.
But if technology has diminished one important aspect of the road trip, it has lately offered a few enhancements as well. The most notable might be termed the "roadcast."
A roadcast is a podcast that has particular qualities of randomness and reflection; they're fascinating and thought-provoking but not news-focused or educational. Like the tape deck itself, or the cup holder, roadcasts manage to revolutionize the road trip while also being right in tune with its sensibilities.
The best is "Philosophy Bites," 15-minute interviews with leading philosophers about ancient questions such as "Evil," "Time," and "Free Will." A parallel series, "Ethics Bites," confronts great moral questions.
The New Yorker's fiction podcast is a lovely reminder of how an empty highway offers the space to listen, whether it's to a friend, yourself, or a story read aloud.
It may seem curious to suggest that the American road trip can be rejuvenated by a handful of mostly British podcasts. It's particularly odd since Britain, so at ease with the pleasures of purposeless contemplation, remains – in terms of traffic, gas prices, and weather – a notably inauspicious setting for road trips.
But America's leitmotif of pedal-to-the-metal escapism – whether in film, novel, or song – has always reserved reflection, philosophical ponderings, and a kind of absent-minded wonder for a quiet stretch of open road. Roadcasts are a perfect match.
The advent of the roadcast has even highlighted some gaps in the road trip experience. Unlike roadcasts, mixes never offered much in the way of conversational fodder. Nor did stories ever have much of a road-trip presence, unless you count the dusty books-on-tape for sale at the gas station counter.
Above all, the road trip is a post-whaling-era assertion of freedom from small and practical things, a means of finding in the country's still-vast empty quarters an otherwise elusive kind of mental space. The road trip and these podcasts both embody and encourage a thoughtful lack of usefulness.
If the magic of the mix – what made a mix a gift – has gone the way of the tape deck, roadcasts are more than a small consolation. They've managed to make the road trip new again, in keeping with the country.