Back in the year 2000, Genie and I took our first trip together. We were living in New York City at the time, and we rented a car and drove up to Montreal.
After a great long weekend there, it was finally time to start the six-hour drive back home. So what did we do? We drove another couple of hundred miles in the opposite direction and spent the afternoon in Québec City. Then we finally drove home through the night, arriving in New York at about five in the morning, ready to catch an hour or two of sleep before heading to work.
That trip set a pattern for our trips for years to come. We took long road trips across the U.S., driving further each time, and whenever we really, absolutely had to turn back, we went onward again instead.
The pull of the road: Moroccan edition
At the time of our Montreal trip, we were both working on Wall Street in jobs we didn’t like. At that time, the pull of the road was also the thrill of escaping from our lives, and the reluctance to return was more understandable.
But today, we don’t have unpleasant jobs. We live on the road. And yet we still feel that irresistible urge to go onward. We’ve driven 80,000 km on our trip so far, and it has rarely felt like a chore. We often end up driving much further than we had planned.
In Morocco, for example, we had originally only planned to go as far south as Guelmim, a town on the edge of the desert that’s known for its camel market—originally a place for the Tuaregs to come and trade, although now there are more tourists than Tuaregs.
But then we heard that it’s quite safe to go on south to Dakhla, in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. It’s safe because Morocco doesn’t view the territory as Western Sahara—it views it as Morocco. International maps show a dotted border between the two, but the maps here show Morocco extending all the way down the Atlantic coast to Mauritania.
And on the ground itself, there is no border at all—at least not along the coast. Further inland, there’s a large area controlled by the Polisario Front, which aims for independence from Morocco, and there’s an impenetrable sand wall studded with landmines. But the coast road is far away from that.
So on we went, as far south as we could go.
The end of the road—for now…
And then we reached the following sign:
A sign like that is like a red flag to a bull. I’ve always been fascinated by Dakar and wanted to visit. And Nwakchout/Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, is not somewhere I thought I’d ever see on a road sign. We wanted to go on, but the pull of the road finally came up against reality. You need a visa to enter Mauritania. The UK government advises against all but essential travel due to the threat of terrorism and kidnapping, the same reason the Paris-Dakar Rally now takes place in South America.
I’ve heard that people still make the trip anyway, and maybe one day we will, but not without a lot more planning. We have quite a spontaneous approach to our travels, but we don’t take stupid risks. So we turned back and started heading north.
What’s the point?
The journey from Guelmim to Dakhla and back was about 1,000 km in each direction. It was exhausting, and most of the way it was a flat lunar landscape—it is desert, yes, but mostly not of the romantic dune variety. Instead, it’s mostly hamada—a flat, rocky, barren world, completely featureless for mile after mile.
So what was the point of it all? There were no real sights to see, and it certainly wouldn’t make the highlights of Morocco. We’re not even interested in kitesurfing, which is the most popular reason to visit Dakhla.
It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s the same reason why we pressed on to Québec City and gave ourselves a nine-hour night drive back to New York, instead of doing the sensible thing and going home. It’s about wanting to see what’s out there, whether it’s interesting or not, whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable.
Both Genie and I grew up in quite small, restricted environments—Genie in a Caribbean island just 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, and me in the suburbs of London. The absurdity of doing a road trip in Britain was the subject of my first novel, On the Holloway Road. I always yearned for large horizons and big, open spaces. There’s something fascinating about rolling along a highway, seeing the horizon change and unfold new sights with each passing mile.
Or maybe it’s just that the constant motion gives the illusion of forward motion and meaning in our lives. Maybe we’re still trying to escape—not from a boring job, but from the quagmire of existential dread. Maybe it’s a crude kind of Futurism. Maybe we’re using speed and technology to try to outrun old age and death.
Clearly it’s something I need to think about more. I’d love to hear your thoughts, as always. What does road travel mean to you? Do you enjoy it, or is it just about getting from A to B? Do you prefer arriving at the destination?
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some shots from the trip to Dakhla and back.