Illustration by Michael Witte

Autumn is my favorite season for a roadtrip. Obviously, cooler weather factors into my affection. Also, smaller crowds make for broader landscapes. And while in Texas leaf peeping is not often a motivation for hitting the road, there is an appreciable, if subtle shift in the landscape, a change of textures and colors, as the night temps cool. Along with the fresh slant of sun, clouds seem to drift about more often in the fall and I appreciate dappled sunlight.

Destinations aside, what makes for a perfect roadtrip?

Every roadtrip should begin before dawn. That’s because there is something about being on the road when the sun comes up that makes the first day of any journey extra special. For me, seeing the sun rise is absolute proof that the day is wide open to adventure. The practical side of an early start, especially when traveling with small children, is that the driver gets some quiet time while the passengers doze, unaware of the hours in transit. The biggest plus of an early start: breakfast on the road.

A great roadtrip includes at least one breakfast in a diner or country café. Not at a fast food chain, not at a hotel buffet, but breakfast in a homey place where generations of folks have buttered biscuits together. There is just something about breakfast out, in a town not your own that says vacation. To make the experience even more memorable I always eat something I wouldn’t cook for myself or never have tried before. I believe anywhere there is a house-made cinnamon roll on the menu, at least one must be purchased. Share if you must.

Now that it’s clear that my path to a perfect roadtrip runs through the belly, let me address car snacks. It’s simple: There must be snacks. Snacks make crowded backseats, traffic snafus, and rainy days on the road better. Whenever I travel with children I take them on a grocery store run a day or two before the trip to allow them to create their own little snack stash. I try to impose as few rules as possible. That said, car snacks cannot be of a color not found in nature.

Snacks are different from the cheeseboard.

I like to travel with a cheeseboard (inspired by an intriguing sidetrack to Veldhuizen Cheese Shoppe near Dublin, Texas) because on every roadtrip there is going to be a perfect picnic opportunity. And a cheeseboard, which must include three different cheeses (but always an aged Manchego or extra sharp cheddar), crisp apples, grapes, cherry tomatoes, and a crusty loaf of bread, is my assurance of contentment when that opportunity presents itself. I do this whether I am backpacking abroad, traveling by train, or paddling the Brazos. Other than the vittles, all the picnic requires is one cutting board and a small paring knife. The bread can be broken apart and everything can be eaten out of hand, no plates needed.

In advance of the trip someone should be in charge of a playlist to which each member of the traveling party contributes music suitable for the journey. Sharing music during a roadtrip provides insight into the way fellow travelers experience the world, just as sharing observations about books does, but with a more palpable connection to each person’s heartbeat.

If I haven’t already scared you off, here’s the strangest thing on my must-pack list: a fire starter, bundle of kindling, and a few logs. When your ultimate destination is anything other than a campsite you might think this untenable. However, if you are traveling for more than one day, consider the joy of scheduling in a campfire. It’s possible to break a journey for a few hours of fireside musing even if you don’t want to camp out. Think about the cost of almost any sort of entertainment you might enjoy on the road; if you are going to be in transit for an extended period of time, there will be a state park or commercial campsite somewhere along the way where for a small fee you can have access to a fire pit. Schedule a campfire and s’mores into the trip, even if just to spend a few companionable hours of fireside musing before you move on to a cushy hotel bed, and you will be a bigger hero to your group than you’ve ever imagined. And if, like me, you don’t mind driving into the evening, you’ll discover a few hours around a campfire puts kids into such a drowsy state they’ll be sound asleep almost before you hit the highway.

All good things must come to an end but for a perfect journey be sure to script in a happy ending. Just as every roadtrip requires one sunrise, every roadtrip deserves one sunset. If you observed a sunrise on your trip out of town, salute a sunset as you return home. Impractical to travel into the setting sun? Such a ritual brackets the trip in a poetic way, but really, it can be any simple ritual — create your own — that makes roadtrips memorable. At the very least stop long enough somewhere scenic to allow each member of the traveling party to share a memorable moment from the trip. Or a few minutes of shared gratitude for one another’s company. Hold that thought as you slide into home.

From the September 2014 issue

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