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136. Road Trip larp, Part Ten: America and Route 66

/This is the tenth part of the series on the Road Trip larp project. If you want to start from the first post, it is #116.

Get your kicks on Route 66.

And damn it, we did!

I remember clearly how Road Trip came to be. It started out as an idea hatched between Mikolaj Wicher, Jeff Moxley and Ashley Zdeb. They wanted to rent a bus and play a larp set in the 60’s, where you played inside the bus while driving. They wanted to do it in the US, and it sounded fun.

But it wasn’t a fully fledged idea, though it would become one fast.

As soon as Wicher told me about it, I realised what could make it cooler. It shouldn’t be set in the 60’s, limiting play to the bus space. No, it should be set today, so the whole route would be setting for it. And it shouldn’t be just driving. It should be driving the iconic Route 66, crossing over half of America in a road trip that was already legendary even without larp elements.

When the others heard this, they jumped on it. Before too long, we had our final concept ready and were go for launch. Road Trip was happening.

Only later did I learn that Jeff and Ashley had thought that Route 66 seemed like a weird choice. Sure, they knew of it, but they didn’t share our European fascination with it. To them, it was more of a kitchy Americana experience than something with a high wow factor.

Our trip down those 2,448 miles changed their minds. It certaintly blew mine. And since this series follows a Ten Lessons Learned format, I present to you Ten Lessons Learned About America And Route 66 Due To Road Trip.

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#1 The US is HUGE. Really, it’s crazy. So much open country. So many miles and miles of asphalt road, stretching into infinity. We drove roughly 4,000 km over the course of a week. That’s from Gibraltar to Istanbul. But unlike in Europe, where you change countries every now and then, here you just kept going. As someone who lives in a country where it’s impossible to drive for six hours without leaving the country, no matter where you start out (hello, Denmark!), it was quite the experience.

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#2 It’s like being on a movie set. I lived in Seattle from ’84 — ’87, and have been back many times since, so to me, the US has always been real. To many people — including several of our participants — it’s something that exists in movies and TV shows. And I’ll admit that even I get hit by it, when recognising something that I’ve seen in media, and now come across in real life. As Nadina said gleefully at one point: “I’m in Breaking Bad right now!”

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#3 European accents can hide anything. Our fictional band had both American and European members, and we were supposedly somewhat famous in Bulgaria and Romania due to internet radio in “Bulgarian party towns, you know, like Sunny Beach”. No one questioned that story, and the differences between Polish, Romanian and Greek accents didn’t matter to anyone. And why should they question us? Bulgaria is far away from Amarillo, Texas.

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#4 Many Americans love “Europeanness”. We got a ton of positive response due to being foreign. The fact that our entourage, which consisted 50/50 of Europeans and Americans, was travelling Route 66 to experience “the real America”, was a story that resonated with people we met. They were proud, but they were also curious and open and seemed genuinely interested. It was cool getting to interact with people that way, and “We’re Europeans touring 66” never failed to work as a conversation opener.

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#5 Some things are just DIFFERENT. Guns galore. Cowboy churches. Chainsaw stores. Murder hotels. These are not things I get to experience often, and it still feels bizarre to me that America is in some ways so similar, and in other ways so alien. It wasn’t until later in my US stay, that I got to share a 3-hour car ride with a pro-gun, pro-life creationist (she’s great and we had surprisingly good conversations), but the fact that we drove through states where this sort of beliefs are common? That’s something that still feels surreal to me.

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#6 Our American players learned a lot about their country. For me as a somewhat-American-knowledgable-European, that was fascinating. As one of our participants put it: “I’ve seen a lot of both the East Coast and the West Coast, but never really all the stuff in between.” Seeing them connect with their motherland in a new way was heartwarming. It also made me think that many of us could use a trip like that in our own countries. I’ve been to many places in Denmark, but taking a week to drive through it might be interesting. It wouldn’t involve much actual driving, to be honest, but there’s still a lot of culture out there to explore and experience.

#7 Route 66 is simply amazing. Wow. No other words does it justice, and even wow fails quite a bit. Sure, there were boring stretches, but these were few and far between. Mostly, it was full of beautiful countryside, bizarre roadside attractions and so much Americana that it was insane. We stopped at Uranus, Missouri to film part of the music video, and yes, they are aware, and yes, they make horrible jokes about it like there’s no tomorrow. We stopped at Cadillac Ranch in Texas, at the blue whale somewhere in the Midwest and walked around the old town square in Albuqurque, New Mexico. We could do 66 again without stopping at any of the places we were at this time, and still visit tons of cool stuff.

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#8 US cities are (generally) car cities. Go to Berlin, Firenze or Wroclaw. They’re cities made for walking, for horse carriages and (in the cases of major metropolises) for trains. They’re not built for cars, and while cars are all over, they struggle. New York, Boston and San Francisco are somewhat like that as well, but most American cities aren’t. They’ve grown around a population rich in cars, gasoline and consumer dollars, and they’re sprawling, vast and highway-infested. The cities we passed through had a completely different feel to them than what one will find in Europe. Personally, I love the old cobblestone streets, crooked alleyways and majestic plazas of places like Prag and Stockholm, but I still enjoyed getting to experience places like Amarillo and St. Louis.

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#9 I love greasy American food. It’s a failing of mine, and every time I’ve been to the US I come back fatter and less healthy. But I absolutely love the burger joints, the roadside diners and the fast food places. I love the milkshakes, the skillets and the breakfast extravaganzas. I enjoy places like Denny’s, Wendy’s and Five Guys. I’ll happily gulp down a Coca-Cola with ice, while lounging in the front seat of a touring van and listening to rock’n’roll on the radio. I understand why so many Americans struggle with obesity, and I freely admit that when I travel in the US, I indulge myself. This has very little to do with the larp and with America in general, but has everything to do with my overall Road Trip experience, so it gets an honourable mention. Oh, those sleazy roadside diners!

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#10 I like America better than I did before the larp. I am as critical of American politics as anyone, and I’m not exactly impressed by the opinions and ideals that are held by a lot of Americans. Still, this trip has rekindled my love for the country as a unique place on Earth. Maybe it was because Rick Stevenson (my Road Trip alter ego) was a huge patriot and some of it rubbed off on me. Maybe the four weeks I spent in the US after the larp was over had something to do with it. But however you slice the dice, I’m a bigger fan of ‘Murica than I was before I flew to Chicago to embark on this crazy, wild ride. In a way, it’s like I feel with most larp locations. They’re somehow mine now. Route 66 is partly mine now. I guess that’s a feeling that’s shared by many who have traveled it. And I appreciate that.

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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