Everybody, at least once in their lives, should road trip across the United States. Say what you will about this country, politically, ethically, or spiritually, but geographically, America is an amazing place. Take at least two weeks to cross, stick to the back roads and small towns, explore the parks, sleep under the stars, and take a walk someplace new everyday. By the time you cross the big rivers, wide plains, hot deserts and tall mountains and reach the other shining sea you will be deeply proud of this country in a much more tangible way.
I took my first real road trip right after I finished college. I gave away everything that wouldn’t fit in my two-door VW, packed my dog, my hiking boots, and a trunk-load of books and hit the road. That summer I put about 6,000 miles on my car, and several hundred on my boots, crossing the country, exploring the land, not in terms of states or highways but as Earth and Sky and everything that lives in between. I slept under the stars every night and hiked many miles in every place I visited.
Along the way I crossed the mighty Mississippi for the first time, fell in love with the infinite nothingness of the plains, was deceived by a mirage in the heat of the desert, journeyed back through time to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, watched the sunset with a 4,000 year old bristle cone pine, and was awed by a meteor shower over my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
Since that first road trip, I’ve never stopped traveling and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Whether you are heading on a weekend excursion to a neighboring state or lighting out for the opposite coast here are a few Rules of the Road that will make your trip much more enjoyable and affordable:
1. Always take the scenic route. The United States is the most geographically diverse country on Earth, home to nearly every kind of biome under the sun, but you’d never know it from the interstate system, where everything looks the same: smooth grades, big billboards and fast food. Interstate travel is boring and dangerous. Avoid it at much as possible.
2. Take a walk somewhere new everyday. I almost always travel with two high energy dogs who are consummate road trip professionals as long as they get at least one good walk a day. I’m a country person and an avid hiker so I usually seek out backcountry trails where the dogs can run loose, but walking is also a great way to explore towns and cities along your route.
3. Pull over often. If you see something interesting on the side of the road — Stop! Road tripping isn’t just about driving. You have to get out of the car every now and then if you’re going to enjoy the journey. I’m not just talking scenic overlooks. Make a point of visiting weird local museums and road side attractions like the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming, the Underground Salt Mine Museum in Hutchinson, Kansas and Carhenge (a replica of Stonehenge made from junked cars) near Alliance, Nebraska.
4. Slow down! I know this rule just reiterates the first three, but I cannot emphasize enough that road tripping is not about reaching your destination! I try not to drive more than 4 to 6 hours a day and I never drive after dark. Of course, you won’t always have this luxury (just this past weekend I drove 1,400 miles from CA to NM in two marathon days) but the slower you go (keep it under 55) and the more you stop, the more you’ll see and seeing the world is what roadtripping is all about!
5. Always eat local. You can get McDonald’s anywhere, so seek out local gems like The Fish Nest (all catfish, all the time) in Glenwood, Arkansas or Bobcat Bite (best green chile cheese burger in the USA according to the NYT) in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a real taste of the local cuisine. Local supermarkets can also be a real Americana experience. Avoid chains!
6. Camp out. Not everybody is a camper, but if you’re looking to make your road trip more affordable, sleeping under the stars is a great money saver. Besides, unless you have the money for unique B&B’s, hotels are pretty much the same everywhere you go: 4 walls, bad art, questionable bedding and an evil TV. Why pay $100+ a night for that? Most National Parks and State Parks offer scenic camping for under $20 a night and many National Forests campgrounds are free! Every park is unique, most are beautiful and some are downright breathtaking.
7. See as many sunrises and sunsets as possible. From the right vantage, the rising and setting sun is the greatest show on Earth and witnessing those moments always makes me feel like I’m in exactly the right place at the right time – no matter where the road has taken me!
8. Always roll down your car windows! Don’t just see more of the world through your windshield, feel it, taste it, smell it through an open window. Freedom is in the air!
Also see my How to Plan A Killer Road Trip posts on planning, budgeting, choosing copilots, packing and tips & tricks and my Boondocking 101 post on How to Camp For Free in Beautiful Places. Questions, comments and suggestions always welcome!