The Dream of the Open Road Collides With the Reality of $5-a-Gallon Gas

After two-plus years of Covid restrictions and compromises, I was eager for the freedom of a road trip.

I set off from Brooklyn in a rental car with my girlfriend and dog.

The goal: To New Orleans and back in about two weeks, taking in everything we could along the way.

Inflation was inescapable everywhere we stopped to eat.

The sticker shock threatened to ruin our ride. But we didn’t let it.

Gas prices have risen nearly every day since our trip began on May 12. According to AAA’s tracker, the national average hit $5 a gallon on Saturday. We had no choice but to adapt to the high prices, and in retrospect I think that was for the best. Instead of hitting museums and cool restaurants and the big cities of the Southeast — inflation made all that stuff too expensive — we leaned into the road itself, letting America reveal itself serendipitously. Since it cost a small fortune to be on the road, why not make it the focus of our trip?

We decided to stick to the business routes — designed to take you through downtowns instead of around them — and back roads, the original “blue highways,” slowly crossing old, low bridges that put us at eye level with marshes, sweet-smelling honeysuckle hedges and local ice cream shops. Taking these less-worn roads meant traveling more slowly than we had planned, but it also meant we got to see rare slices of America. Plus, if you stay under 50 miles per hour, AAA says, you get better gas mileage.

Thrifty Car Rental in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on May 12.

A service plaza in Cherry Hill, N.J.
A Costco gasoline station in Raleigh, N.C.

The photos I took don’t show a lot of people, because we didn’t see many. As we drove through small, medium and large cities in nearly all the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states, few people seemed to be traveling, for pleasure or for work — though we did see truck drivers, construction workers and a few nurses.

Hot dogs at the farmers’ market in Raleigh cost $3.25 each.
A gas station casino in Damascus, Va.

At one hotel in Alcoa, Tenn., south of Knoxville and on the edge of an industrial park, people set up a grill, a dartboard and chairs in the parking lot so they could cook and hang out without having to spend money in a restaurant or bar.

A group of friends fishing in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
Paloma, who is 10, at the Quality Inn in Alcoa, Tenn.
Inexpensive fun outside the Quality Inn.

No matter where we drove — through downtown Mobile, Ala., rural Townsend, Tenn., or the strip-mall-dotted suburbs of Atlanta — we usually had the roads to ourselves. I don’t know if it was inflation or gas prices or some lull before the summer travel storm, but things felt sleepy, if not outright desolate. We even got a parking spot right next to a waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

At times, we felt like we had the place to ourselves.

A few other people gathered at a scenic lookout.

We also noticed that gas stations were understaffed, and so were restaurants. “Help wanted” signs were everywhere. A lot of restaurants had done away with indoor seating or cut it back significantly. We also saw lots of “Open” signs on businesses that were closed.

A gas station near Durham, N.C.
Lodging outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, N.C.

More people showed up at places that were inexpensive and obviously meant for locals, not tourists, like the skate park off the huge BeltLine walking path in Atlanta. In New Orleans, people showed up at a $10 comedy show and a $25 car race at a local speedway. (And the Dollar General, which was everywhere on our trip, had no trouble filling parking lots.)

A skate park off the BeltLine walking path in Atlanta.
The Red Wolf Brass Band performing at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, La.
A man filling up his tank after running out of gas on Canal Street in New Orleans.

In New Orleans, we also went to a $10 music show in the back room of the famous Maple Leaf Bar. It’s normally packed, but the crowd that night was so small that the bartender thanked every person individually for coming and urged us to come back again every week.

A streetcar in New Orleans.
The musician Kyle Roussel counting his tips after performing at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans.
A BBQ Shrimp Poboy sandwich, which cost $15.95, from Liuzza’s by the Track in New Orleans.

I drove across the country in late 2020, at the peak of the prevaccine pandemic, and in some ways this trip felt similar. Even fewer people were out and about back then, and everything was extremely cheap compared with now, but on both trips I could kind of sense the struggling. So many of my decisions were forced by things beyond my control, but they each brought me unexpected happiness. You could probably chalk it up to the magic of the open road.

South of the Border, a roadside attraction, in Hamer, S.C.
The price of gas in Hamer, S.C., on May 27.

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