My Travels with Samantha

What’s better than a road trip? A road trip with your Rhodesian Ridgeback riding shotgun. By David Jefferson.

Road trip! Few phrases in the English language excite me more than those two four-letter words, linked together with the promise of discovery, freedom, and a hint of peril. Most people’s if-I-won-the-lottery fantasy involves a yacht and a private Caribbean island. Mine is to pimp-out an RV and live a peripatetic existence on America’s interstates (though as my spouse likes to remind me, that would mean our neighbors live in trailer parks).

My obsession began in 1976, riding in the backseat of my parents’ green Chevy Impala to the sounds of John Denver on the 8-track, on a cross-country trek from L.A. to Washington D.C. for the bicentennial. My father wanted this to be an educational experience, which meant we spent most of the trip checking out presidential real estate: Jackson’s Hermitage, Jefferson’s Monticello, Washington’s Mt. Vernon, Gerald Ford’s White House. It was all very edifying and patriotic, but I came away feeling as if I’d missed some of the best sights our nation has to offer. What about Disney World?! I vowed that once I had my own license, I would hit the highway in a Trans Am and see all the cool stuff I’d missed.

It took me 36 years to get around to it, but this year for spring break I decided to live the dream. Taking my cue from John Steinbeck, who in his old age fashioned himself a camper and drove around the country with his French poodle Charley to discover “What are Americans like today?”, I loaded my very understanding spouse and our Rhodesian Ridgeback into a very small car, and we set off on our journey into the true heart of America. It somehow seemed appropriate that we do my family’s bicentennial trip in reverse, so we mapped our journey from Washington D.C. through Virginia down to I-40, then across the country from Tennessee to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and on to my childhood home in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. An astute therapist might call my adventure “regressive”; I prefer to think of it as nostalgic.

This wasn’t Samantha’s first road trip. At 10, she’s traveled more miles than most humans double her age—though never once on the roof. She prefers to ride shotgun, and I’m certain she would drive if her feet could reach the pedals, since I often find her sitting behind the wheel whenever I leave her in the car. For some travelers, driving cross-country with a dog would seem like hell on wheels—the cramped confines smelling of unwashed dog, the hunt for pet-friendly motels ( rates hotels on a scale of one to five bones), the frequent potty breaks, and the endless coaxing of canine back into master’s car.

All that said, Samantha is the perfect wingman: she listens to my stories, she breaks the ice when I’m in new terrain, and she doesn’t make fun of me when I sing along to Abba in a faux-Swedish accent. Which is why, with hats off to Mr. Steinbeck, I’ve dubbed my journey “Travels with Samantha.”