We Can’t Stop Here: Lessons from an American Road Trip

Listen to “We Can’t Stop Here: Lessons from an American Road Trip”

Growing up, I remember craning the antenna on my stereo to catch the frequency from Buffalo’s premiere hip hop station, WBLK. Somehow through the radio, America—and the vibrant Black culture I felt was missing from my mostly white, suburban Toronto neighbourhood—seemed within my reach. As a teen I fantasized about driving across the border in search of adventure… and Lil’ Bow Wow.

Recently, a colleague told me about a road trip she and her partner were planning to Kentucky. The idea of a road trip had always appealed to me; stumbling across unique stores in tiny towns, discovering diners worthy of a visit from Guy Fieri. But for me, the call of adventure was subdued by the reality that some of the towns on my colleague’s route likely wouldn’t be welcoming to me, a Black woman. Despite this, I found myself driving through the very places I’d been nervous about in the summer of 2019.

On a cold spring afternoon, my friend Trina hosted a brunch to invite me and eight others to be part of her wedding party. After we’d consumed litres of prosecco, she proposed a Survivor-style vote to decide her bachelorette party destination—the choice was between Miami and Vegas. A near unanimous vote meant we’d head to the land of winter-fleeing retirees, Disney World, and DJ Khaled: Miami, a place I’d always wanted to visit.

Trina and I had traveled together on multiple occasions throughout the years. We met in college, and she encouraged me to join her, last minute, on what would be my first-ever international trip with friends at age eighteen. I largely credit that experience with fostering my love for travel, and we went on to visit the Dominican Republic, Montreal, and New York together. I was excited at the prospect of adding yet another destination to the list.

Our group of nine landed in Miami on a sunny Wednesday in August, the air thick with humidity and the promise of a memorable bachelorette weekend. There were no strangers in our group—everyone knew each other, and many of us had even traveled together on other occasions. It felt like a ‘chosen family’ vacation. Everyone naturally fell into their respective roles—the event planners, food selectors, rideshare organizers, the sit-back-and-enjoyers.

With few clouds in the sky, we dropped off our luggage and headed for South Beach hoping the weather would hold up for the rest of the weekend. Buzzing closely beneath the surface of our excitement lay collective anxiety about the forecasted arrival of Hurricane Dorian. We were in a rented property, and had no plan for how we’d manage if we ended up subject to an evacuation order or worse. At the time, reports were projecting that the incoming hurricane could have effects on par with Hurricane Katrina.

So when rain made a brief but impactful appearance later that evening, the possibility of leaving early came closer. The next morning, after a ‘house meeting’ reminiscent of MTV’s The Real World, we decided to play it safe and cut our five-day trip short to avoid potentially being stuck in a situation none of us had prepared for.

In the wee hours of Friday morning, seven of us (two people had flown home on their own) quietly packed snacks, suitcases, and enough water for Jesus to turn to wine into the trunk of a rented SUV. We drove off in the pouring rain, seemingly a parting gift from the incoming hurricane, our sights set on Toronto.

As we drove along in silence, I thought of my family’s road trips to Florida in my early years. My mom had been alive, and my family felt whole in a way it never has since. Though many years had passed, I found myself struck with a mom-sized bout of loneliness, despite being in a car filled with people I cared about.

Those feelings are strangely comforting, maybe because it feels like her memory is still with me. They often seem to strike when I’m in motion—on a bus, walking, or driving along a dark, mostly empty highway through Florida.

A few years ago, a last-minute flight deal inspired me to explore Iceland for a few days. I naively thought I could get by without a car, but sprawling distances between cities and zero public transit rendered this impossible. I was nervous about driving the notoriously rugged and winding roads alone, but with little choice I rented a car as a last resort. It changed the trip completely. Taking to the road, I not only felt free, but also more confident in my abilities as a driver. Despite few topographic similarities, as I drove, Iceland reminded me of my suburban hometown—both were quiet and required a car in order to see the good things on offer.

In Mississauga, getting around without a car is inconvenient at best, nearly impossible at worst. Take the closest grocery store—a thirty minute walk from my dad’s house that’s less than five minutes away when driving. Fed up with walking, biking, and sprinting to catch perpetually late or unnecessarily early busses, I pestered my dad into letting me get my license as a teen.

The world seemed so much more available to me when I sat alone behind the wheel for the first time. Years of suburban driving meant I was comfortable enough on the road to drive our group home from Florida. With the aid of Google Maps and hours of time on our hands, I played navigator for the first leg of the journey. I stayed alert to provide directions, manage playlists, and to find places to stop for refueling, stretches, and bathroom breaks, while the other passengers slept. Our plan was to drive seventeen hours out of Florida to Virginia, where we luckily had a free place to stay for a night, courtesy of our friend’s uncle.

Movement and agency are inextricably linked. We’re brought into this world, but it’s up to each of us to find a way to move through it. What makes the difference is the agency we’re afforded or denied…

After roughly thirteen hours of driving, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, for a much-needed break. Blasting OutKast, we drove through cobblestone streets lined with trees covered in Spanish moss. Quickly reading through blogs and travel guides about the city, I noted countless references to beautiful ‘historic’ buildings and ‘iconic’ architecture that danced around the shadows of slavery and colonialism; former plantations and confederate properties were now styled as high-end event spaces and boutique hotels.

Moving hurriedly through the city as a semi-reluctant tourist, it was easy to overlook the stories of Black and Indigenous people who’d moved north—whether to escape enslavement or due to forced relocation—perhaps along a route bearing some similarities to ours. As we continued north towards Virginia, the monotonous highway scenery made it feel as though we were suspended in time. While no one verbalized the question directly, “are we there yet?” was on all of our minds.

Movement and agency are inextricably linked. We’re brought into this world, but it’s up to each of us to find a way to move through it. What makes the difference is the agency we’re afforded or denied: where we’re born and who we’re born to affect every aspect of our lives, ranging from the kinds of food that make it onto our plates, to the type of education we’re told we’re suited for, and even the type of medical care accessible to us.

It’s why the rhetoric around migration and increasing anxiety about border security are actively contributing to a rise in xenophobia across North America and Europe. It’s why despite travelling in a car going to the same destination, ‘driver’ and ‘passenger’ elicit different images. Who’s in control of the journey, and who has to contend with where they end up? It’s not always as clear as it seems.

I was responsible for driving on the last leg of our journey, weaving the car through towns with empty main streets and prominent MAGA signs. Places that could fit the ‘economic anxiety’ narrative so familiar to us now: once prosperous due to a single industry, but that had since experienced a decline once those jobs and people moved elsewhere. On an unknown back road in Pennsylvania, the flash of blue and white sirens appeared behind me. I thought of Sandra, Philando, Oscar, Freddie, and countless others.

The officer approached the passenger side, my friend rolled down the window.

“You rolled through a stop sign back there… I’m going to let you go with a warning this time, but make sure she stops going forward.”

He never addressed me directly.

I’m not sure how I made it through the rest of the drive home. My thoughts moved between anger, guilt, relief, and confusion. Driving in the dark, I felt trapped behind the wheel; I clung to the speed limit like some sort of protection charm. It didn’t prevent me from being followed by other police cars, who ultimately didn’t stop me again but made sure their presence was known. A reminder that, even when we feel in control of our movement, as racialized people we’re never truly free from police surveillance.

After more than twenty-four hours of driving, we made it back to Canada around midnight. I was grateful for empty roads—a rarity on the Queen Elizabeth Highway—signaling another step closer to home. I thought of Toronto’s infamous traffic, thousands of people inching along roads and highways towards their destinations. When asked why drive only to end up stuck in traffic congestion, many of my friends have explained that with driving, at least they’re in control of what time they leave and have the option of stopping along the way. I admire their arguably misguided and complicated commitment to self-determination. As if to say, even when progress seems slow, we know we will eventually move forward.

Contrary to what we’re often told, it takes more than individual action and determination to arrive at a reality where movement—across borders, into affordable housing, away from boil water advisories—is equitable for marginalized people. But it’s something we must continually, and collectively, be driving towards.