Image description: A landscape image. A road goes through the right hand side of the screen twisting through the scene. In the mid and background are mountains. The scene is quite dark – a setting sun but the sky is blue.
For most of us, travel is actually not about travelling at all. Rather, it’s about the destination – the place at the end of the journey. And that journey is often seen as something that must be endured. But the journey can be its own adventure and, in some ways, just as rewarding as the destination. From epic road trips to small moments in traffic jams, Matt Doyle talks about the joy and surprising beauty that can be found in the trip from A to B.
I’ve been fortunate to see and experience some really incredible places over the years. Taking a step back, though, I don’t actually write that much about travel, rather, I talk about destinations. Travelling itself doesn’t get much of a look in and I suppose that’s mostly because the actual travelling – the journey from A to B – isn’t typically seen as something that’s enjoyable. It’s often just considered a means to an end or a necessary evil that must be endured in order to experience the rewards of the destination. In some ways, it’s not difficult at all to see why this is. There’s a lot about travelling that can be deeply unpleasant or at least uncomfortable: Flights with budget airlines, cramped economy class seats, price-gouging at departure lounges and stations, changing time zones and jet lag, delays – always, always delays, traffic jams, breakdowns. It’s all – sooner or later – unavoidable. An inevitable consequence of mass transit. For sure, there are moments of absolute frustration when your planned three hour drive rolls into its fifth hour and you’re still only half way there, or when, eight hours into your economy class trans-Atlantic flight, the passenger in front reclines their seat – crushing your knees and spilling your drink into your lap. Yes, traveling can be awful!
But not all travel is like this and it’s easy to forget that sometimes the journey itself can be an absolute joy. There are obvious examples here: a scenic train ride or a drive through the mountains spring immediately to mind, but I think there’s more to this than might seem immediately obvious. Travel can be about much more than a utilitarian journey; it can be its own adventure and its own reward. The more I’ve travelled and the more I’ve seen, the more I have come to believe that there’s a lot to be discovered on the road and in-between places.
Image description: From left to right. 1. A landscape image. A mountain road is seen to the right of the scene. In the mid ground are mountain peaks that create layers. The sun is setting and there are shafts of light over the mountains. The scene is golden and orange with a yellow sky. 2. A landscape image. A silver car drives along a mountain rural path. The scene is made of brown and orange hills. In the background, a blue coastline is seen with distant blue mountains in the background. The sky is overcast.
Two of my recent trips have well illustrated this point: In February 2022 I headed to America for the first time since the pandemic. I was based in Los Angeles for the first part of the trip – taking daily journeys north into the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu as well as East into the San Gabriel Mountains before heading south into the Desert to visit Palm Springs, the Salton Sea and Joshua Tree.
Shortly after returning from America, I hit the road again, this time heading from my home in London to the Scottish Highlands. In many ways, this was as exciting as the trip to America as I had never really spent substantial time in the Highlands before. I followed the A1 Road from London, which ultimately take you onto the East Coast of the UK. Once past Edinburgh, I then looped through the Cairngorms National Park – it wasn’t the most direct route to my destination in Fort William, but it took my somewhere truly mesmerising and places I’d never visited before.
Image description: A landscape image. A dark moody mountain scene shows a stream in the centre of the image. To the right, a mountain road cuts along the mountain side. A V shaped valley emerges in the centre of the frame. The sky is overcast.
Long journeys can be exhausting, and both trips outlined above required several longs days of driving – and not just the days we needed to get there and get home afterwards. Once I reached my bases, each day also required lengthy drives out to locations. I easily covered several thousand kilometres on the road on each of these trips. But I went into each trip with my eyes open, aware of this and decided that the journey should become part of the experience.
‘The Road Trip’ is long established as a form of tourism. In fact, I’d say that it transcends tourism to become something of a cultural phenomenon. Just look at how many novels, artworks, movies etc. use road trips as their backdrop. Scenic drives have been with us for as long as we’ve had leisure time and vehicles and there’s undoubtedly something alluring – romantic even – about the idea of hitting the road to explore. In many instances, a road trip will be planned around a specific scenic route – somewhere the landscapes you see as you drive transforms a utilitarian journey into a much more rewarding experience.
Image description: A landscape image. A view of a loch emerges with mist on the water. The sun is setting and the scene is orange and golden with everything in silhouette.
This type of road trip can be a spectacular experience – a chance to see a side of a place away from the heavily trafficked tourist spots. Aside from giving you a chance to immerse yourself in landscapes, they also give you a chance to see the human side of new places. An opportunity to visit new towns and places that may not necessarily be manicured for tourists. I have some great memories of such drives: Watching the light fade over Mono lake in the rear-view mirror as I climbed through the mountains on our way to Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Or the strange twilight haze we saw in the valley below from the Rossfeld Panorama Strasse in Southern Germany. Closer to home, the Pen-Y-Pass in Wales is a drive I’ve completed countless times and yet it still grabs me every single time I do it. These drives can be a destination in their own right – even a good enough reason to go to a place entirely.
Image description: Clockwise from left. 1. A landscape image. A mountain scene with snowy mountains in the background. There is a low sun peering through cloud with blue sky to the right. In the foreground, a stream is illuminated by the light. 2. A landscape image. In the foreground, seaweed makes up the scene. In the background, a loch is seen with towering mountains. A dark moody sky makes up the feel of the scene. 3. Matt stands on the door of a 4×4 on a desert road. The setting sun creates a golden light on the scene. Matt is in silhouette. He is taking a photograph. 4. A landscape image. In the foreground, moss and heather create greens, browns and oranges in the scene. In the midground, white cliffs are seen flowing into the sea. The sky is mono and is slightly overcast.
But how do we differentiate between a road trip and a purely utilitarian journey – the kind that often isn’t seen as enjoyable? On some levels, we can address that with a few questions: Is the scenery beautiful? Do I feel this is a chore or am I enjoying it? Perhaps there’s also a more subtle, multi-layered answer too. There have been moments on long cross-country drives where I’ve slowly become aware of the landscape changing. In 2019 I drove most of the length of France to get to Switzerland from Calais. It was a full day on high speed-limit dual carriageways, and it was absolutely exhausting, but none the less, there was something special about it. Over the course of hours, flat farmland gave way to rolling hills and clumps of forest which in turn gave way to mountain passes and roaring rivers. I passed through agricultural areas, heavy industry zones and areas where mining had clearly once been a major activity. There was little I saw from my car on that journey that was ‘beautiful’ and yet I also got to see the character of a country change as the kilometres rolled by. It seemed like I was seeing the skin of Europe: some areas were smooth and pristine, some rough and wrinkled and others deeply scared, but all were part of the same whole. I’ve also experienced moments of genuine natural beauty and wonder as I negotiate roadworks or sit in traffic queues: blizzards that pass as quickly as they appear; downpours and double rainbows; a shooting star exploding overhead; shafts of light that seem almost divine and some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen have all been witnessed from behind the wheel on the road. Some of these truly are fleeting moments, that I couldn’t hope to photograph even if I tried and, sadly, it’s often the case that there’s nowhere I could safely stop to get a photo even if I wanted to.
Image description: From left to right. 1. A landscape image. Fay and Matt stand in front of a silver car. They are looking to the right. The sun is low in the sky and causes a haze in the foreground and makes the sky yellow and orange. In the background are mountain peaks. 2. A landscape image. A bending, grey mountain road snakes through the bottom third of the image. Around are brown and green grassy hills. In the background, grey Rocky Mountains form upwards and hit the sea. The sky is blue.
The beauty I find when travelling or on the road is often very different to what I find at destinations. When I hike, I’m often looking for an experience of solitude or pristine natural beauty. Neither of those criteria are possible to meet when you’re viewing the world from the inside of car! Besides this, there’s also the way I experience the experience: On a hike, I can pause to take a look and make time to take in a scene, but when you’re travelling, the world rolls by like a movie. Once the view had disappeared behind a hedgerow, it’s gone unless I can find a place to pull in or turn around – and oftentimes, neither is possible. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why people don’t talk about their journeys in the same way they talk about destinations. None the less, I think these moments are still special. I spend so much time travelling between places, that perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve come to start appreciating the journey… and appreciating my journeys is far better than the alternative of resenting them. I do think that there’s something special that can be found on the road, sometimes in small moments and other times in epic vistas. The journey is something I have certainly learned to love!