Secret life: Nelson Bass

Nelson Bass is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. But when students and faculty leave the classroom and head out for summer break, Bass assumes his role as “road trip aficionado” and readies his MINI Cooper for long drives and sight-seeing.

Road trips are a passion for Bass, and he tries to convince his students that travelling is one of the most exhilarating experiences they will ever have.

When was your first road trip?

“As a kid, my father didn’t really believe in the typical vacation. We didn’t hop on a plane and go to a resort, although we did go to Disney a few times. The Disney thing is kind of an American tradition, so we did it, and it was fun. But the real vacation came when we would load up the family van and go on these long road-trips across the country. My dad is a huge fan of the national parks system, so we would drive for days on end to go to see different parks. I suppose this is where I found my appreciation for the adventure that can come out of packing up the car and letting the road take you where it may.”

Where have some of these trips taken you?

“All over the U.S., Mexico and even Cuba. I have seen 46 states in a car on several different trips, including a trip last summer with my wife, Lindsay, which saw us put 9,000 miles on our MINI Cooper across 20 states. When I was a bit younger, in law school and graduate school, a few friends and I would leave North Carolina after the holidays and head to Mexico for weeks on end, traveling as far south as Oaxaca and basically just enjoying the freedom of the road. We did this every year for about 5 years, always taking in New Year’s in a different city. There is just something about seeing changes in topography and geography that appeals to me.”

Which trip was your first solo jaunt?

“Believe it or not, in Cuba. I was studying abroad for the summer as an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, and another student [and I] had become very good friends with a Cuban named Luis, who was part of our host-family. Luis kept telling us about the differences between life in Havana and that of the rural countryside, where his extended family lived. However, every manner of transportation we could think of to see the rest of the country was problematic. Flying was way too expensive for poor college students, and the train was notoriously unreliable. So, we had the brilliant idea of renting a car, which was easy enough; however, when we opened the car door, we realized it was a manual transmission. None of us had any idea how to drive a stick shift at the time, so that is how I learned. Driving across Cuba in a beat up Suzuki Sidekick with no working blinkers and only one headlight was an unforgettable experience.”

Where do you stay when you are on these trips?

“It depends. In Mexico, we usually relied on youth hostels, which are essentially cheap rooms for college students and budget travelers. So, we would pay $10 or so a night for a bunk in a large room, and you generally have a shared shower area. Now, this sounds somewhat rustic, and I suppose it is, but the fantastic part is you end up meeting people from all over the world who you will never forget. On the other hand, in Cuba, there is a serious lack of accommodations in rural areas, so we would stay with individual families who rented out rooms. This was fantastic because it meant we had the opportunity to meet real people and see how they lived, which is difficult in an authoritarian country.”

How was your trip this past summer?

“Well, a few years back, my wife mentioned that she had never seen the Grand Canyon. So, I thought, if we’re going to see the Grand Canyon, we should see as much of the country as possible. Last June, we took off and drove from Fort Lauderdale to see our families in North Carolina and Michigan and then headed west, visiting Mount Rushmore, Badlands, Yellowstone, Zion, Arches and Grand Canyon National Parks. We camped out the majority of the time, pulling a tiny two-person tent out of our MINI Cooper, which was already filled to the brim. It sounds like a line out of some cheesy novel, but we spent our nights underneath the stars. The highlight of the trip was the time we spent in Yellowstone, where we got incredibly lucky and found a campsite in the park for the July Fourth weekend. Campsites are usually booked out, so to say we were lucky is kind of an understatement. They kept warning us about bears, but at that point I was so excited to be there that that didn’t deter me at all. Anyway, we got to celebrate Independence Day in one of the most beautiful national parks in the country, around people who were just as appreciative of the experience as we were.”

If you’re going somewhere in America, why don’t you just fly?

“No flying. If I fly, I’ll miss out on so much of the natural beauty. That’s the biggest thing for me, which is why I’m not bothered by the 14- or 16-hour drives. I get to look out the window and enjoy the scenery. I can never get tired of that; even when I’m physically tired of driving, seeing mountains and stopping at different places and interacting with people along the way re-energizes me.”

What’s the best part of a road trip, in your opinion?

“The freedom. And by that, I don’t just mean the freedom of the open road, which is amazing. But I am also referring to the solitude of being away from all of the things that clutter up our everyday world. On a good road trip, you aren’t checking your email every 5 minutes, there is rarely a TV, and you just have time to connect with the world around you. A good book receives your total attention, and your conversations are focused on the things around you and the shared experiences you are having, rather than what someone posted on social media. There was a good 10-day stretch this past summer where we just turned off our cell phones because we couldn’t get any real service, anyway. It just makes you appreciate the world around you in a different way.”

Any advice for students thinking of taking their first road-trip this summer?

“Just go for it. There are campgrounds everywhere, and you really don’t need a lot of money to see the country or other countries for that matter. The number of students who are here at NSU and have never even seen Key West always amazes me — it would be a great place to start enjoying road trips. A road trip doesn’t have to take weeks and months; all you need is a car, a friend or two, and a sense of adventure.”

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