It was May of 1999. I had just finished up my third year of College and was the young age of 20, just a few weeks from turning 21. A female friend of mine and I had decided to make a trek across the country. I would be staying there for the Summer to work at a beach resort in Aptos, CA, about an hour South of San Francisco. My friend was going to meet her family for a vacation and then fly back home to the Philadelphia
We took our time getting there. Our destination was San Francisco. We got there via Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Seattle and down the coast of California.
What would happen on that two week journey would change my life forever. Nothing spectacular happened. There were no run-ins with wild animals or police chases. There were no flat tires or any car trouble at all. Just a lot of amazing scenery to look at and to take photos of. And the proud feeling to say that I drove across the country. This feeling has never gone away.
And now, seventeen years later, I would do anything to do it all over again. That’s what happens to you. You get the itch. And the itch never goes away.
A few years ago two of my friends made the drive. Pat and Mel were living in Baltimore and were headed to Seattle to be closer to Mel’s family. Pat was my RA in my freshmen year at York College. I met him the first day. He wore a Star Wars t-shirt and listened to The Beastie Boys. I took a liking to him immediately.
He met Mel in Africa. They had both joined the Peace Corp. Mel and I hit it off right from the start. A kind, easy to talk to and listen to kind of person. Her Mom has had some health troubles recently and was in need of a kidney. Mel had a match. So off to Seattle they went to help save Mel’s mom’s life.
They left their lives in Baltimore, said goodbye to Pat’s family in New Jersey and headed North on NJ55 and West on I76 for the long drive to Washington state. We would text throughout the trip. Pat would give updates as to where they were, how far they had driven, what they were seeing. With each message I grew more and more jealous.
Here I sit in my office staring out a window looking at the world pass before my eyes while these two are traveling the country moving to a different and exciting city. It was then I realized I had sat still for too long. The time was now to plan my next road trip.
My trip in ‘99 wasn’t my last one. After college I had moved to Tampa to live with Pat and another friend of ours, Pete. I had promised Pete that I would drive to San Diego with him before we moved back “home” to Philadelphia. This time we took a Southern route, Tampa, New Orleans, Dallas, El Paso, Tucson and San Diego. On the way home we spent a night in Vegas and Albuquerque, Wichita Falls TX and another night in New Orleans.
There is an entire world out there in our country that you can’t read about in books or truly understand by looking at pictures or watching YouTube videos. You will never understand how spectacular the Grand Canyon is until you are standing at the top of it. You can’t imagine how beautiful the Pacific Coast is unless you have seen it with your own eyes. You can’t possibly predict how amazing Western South Dakota is unless you see it for yourself.
And that’s just the beginning.
This article is meant for the person that is deciding whether or not they should take a road trip. Whether it be across the country, up and down one of the coasts or into the heartland, you have questions. Lots of questions. My aim is to help answer as many of them as possible.
When looking to take a road trip you need to decide on a few things. There is no forum that can help you, no post that will assist you until you answer these questions.
What do you want to see?
Here are the most common reasons for travel across the country.
Nature. Every direction you go will feed your hunger to see natural beauty in America. Depending on what season of the year you go on your road trip will help you decide what roads to take. Some of my favorites are Yellowstone, the badlands of South Dakota, Utah and Rt. 101 in California.
Cities. The American cities are often overlooked by those traveling across the country. But they are worth the trip all by themselves. Louisville, Charleston, Chicago, Denver. New York, Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco (just to name a few). Every city is different and each one is worth looking into. Some cities you want to plan your routes around and others you may want to stop by if you are in the area.
History. I have recently become very interested in American history. The East Coast is full of places to visit to learn more about our history. But don’t leave out the rest of the country. Follow along Lewis and Clark’s journey, Remember the Alamo in San Antonio, and get a lesson in Human behavior at the Donner Pass in California. Every state has something for those interested in history.
Sports. Every season is the opportunity for a road trip. Visiting different baseball parks is a great way to tour the country as well as enjoy America’s pastime. But don’t stop there. You could easily plan a Fall road trip around the iconic NFL and College Football stadiums.
National Parks. There are 58 National Parks in 27 states. You could take 10 trips across the country and not see all of them! Yellowstone, Redwood, and Arches (Utah) are a few of my favorites.
How much time do you have?
Road trips can be as short as a weekend or as long as you want. It took us 13 days to get from Philadelphia to San Francisco. There was just so much to see and we were in no hurry at all. So we took our time. In contrast, on the way home from California, it took me just 6 days. I drove straight through the country and was home in no time despite driving by myself.
It’s entirely up to you regarding how long it takes you to get to wherever you are going. My advice is give yourself more time than you think you need. Things will pop up that you don’t want to miss out on.
Camp or Hotel?
For some, like my wife, this would be a very easy question to answer. A 5-Star Resort! There are many luxurious resorts throughout the country if you are looking for high class.
Campgrounds: There are plenty of campgrounds on virtually every route you will take. Most of the time you won’t even need to plan ahead as they are very clearly marked along the interstates. If you are going on a road that is less traveled then you should do a little more research to make sure you will be able to find a campground.
Hotels: Same thing with hotels. There are plenty of them along the interstates but research your route to make sure they are along the routes you are taking.
My first trip across was with a girl who liked to camp, so we did a little bit of both. Two nights camping followed up by a night at a hotel. Two more nights under the stars and then a hotel to get cleaned up. We found this to be a great way to get across the country.
When are you Going?
This is a big one. Most people make this trip in the Summertime. It’s usually a group of college kids or a young family with kids out of school. So Summer is the best option.
Late Spring/Summer: I recommend the North Route to Washington state and then South into California. One of my favorite memories was being so high up on the Rockies that we saw snow in late May! Late Spring and Summer is a great time to see the Northern part of the country.
Fall: New England is the one of the best places in the world to be in the Fall. Even if you are from the Northeast you can’t go wrong with a road trip to New England.
Winter: Go South or Southwest. You can’t beat Orlando, Miami and Key West in the Winter. Arizona is also another excellent spot for a Winter voyage.
Spring: The Southern states are amazing in the Spring! Cherry blossoms and warm weather in Georgia and South Carolina are worth the trip. The Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail is another great place to be in the Spring.
You should be OK with any route in Spring, Summer and Fall. You will need to pay close attention to the weather in Winter. You should probably avoid the Northern routes as snow, sleet and ice are very common. Even the South has had to deal with ice recently.
If you can only plan your road trip in Winter than I highly recommend getting to Florida and starting there. Enjoy the beaches of South Florida and then make your way West to Arizona and San Diego. There are some great cities to enjoy along the way like New Orleans and Dallas.
Car or RV?
We took a 1986 Firebird with about 150,000 miles the first time I went. It’s shocking that it made it there but it’s downright insane that it made it back. The only issue I had was a breakdown coming home from work one day in the middle of Summer. I got it fixed at a local shop near Santa Cruz. No big deal.
We took Pete’s dad’s Honda Civic the second time I drove out. No issues whatsoever.
There are pluses and negatives to both the RV and the car. An RV is much more comfortable but also more expensive and probably a little inconvenient at times. A car is a little small but easy to drive. Just make sure you are comfortable with whatever you decide on.
I felt very safe both times I went out. In fact I was more concerned with the wildlife than I was other humans. It seems like the only people on those roads were others making the trip across.
There was one time, though, that I was a little fearful. On the way home the first time I was traveling by myself. I was just East of Indianapolis, within a day of completing the Summer long journey. I checked into a hotel that was a little shady. But I figured I would be alright.
After I left the front desk I saw a few guys lurking about near my room. It didn’t look good. I debated for a few minutes and looked at my car full of all my personal belongings. It didn’t take long before I knew it was a bad idea to stay. I went back to the front desk and tried to get my money back but it wasn’t happening. I left and headed for the another hotel about an hour away. This hotel was more my speed, right in the middle of a bunch of corn fields.
Regarding safety: Use your best judgement and trust your instincts.
A road trip across America will change your life. You will never forget it and you will always want to do it again. Clarissa and I are planning a Summer road trip right now. We just need to decide exactly where we want to go. Take the North route to Yellowstone and down to San Francisco? Head South to Flagstaff and San Diego? In this country, the options are endless. And planning is almost as much fun as the actual drive.
Hopefully this post helps you make some decisions as to when and where to go.
Do you have any questions I didn’t answer? Leave a comment and let me know or contact me on twitter!