From magisterial mountain highways to awe-inspiring ocean roads, the American Road Trip remains one of the most enduring and iconic holidays imaginable.
Whether you are camping on a shoe-string or 5-Staring your way across the States, it’s impossible not to get a taste of the freedom captured in so many books and movies, the freedom which so many of us find missing from our constantly connected modern lives.
Having just finished my third road trip, I thought it timely to write up just a few of the more practical lessons I have learned from my experiences, and I hope some future travellers can put them to good use.
1. It takes longer to get anywhere than you expect
America is MASSIVE. Ok, so it is smaller than Russia, Canada and China but coming in 4th out of 249 countries is no ‘small’ feat. Be prepared to drive long distances on some days and nowhere on other days. Be realistic in your planning. If you have a week, go for 1 or 2 States, in a little over a month I managed 8 States, or 5,000 miles, but it involved a lot of driving. I’m not embarrassed to admit that when I was planning that trip I was tricked by the movie myth – it took Dennis Hooper and Peter Fonda 120 minutes to get from LA to New Orleans on motorbikes in 1972 – how long could it take going the other way, from New Orleans to LA, in a Dodge Charger in 2011? The answer was, a lot longer, especially when you are not stoned the whole time, which is something to ponder.
2. Avoid the Freeways
The Great American Road Trip does not take place on the Freeway. Full Stop. Do not be tricked by the cunning use of the word ‘Free’ here. If you have a GPS/Sat Nav use the ‘avoid freeways’ options, or if you can read a map, or have a background in orienteering (like me), even better – avoid the blue interstate roads. There is often a highway running parallel to the freeway, sometimes it might take you up to an hour longer to get somewhere, but trust me. You will spend a lot of time on the road on this trip and it is much better to spend it on a road where the driver can look around and enjoy the scenery as much as the passengers, and on a road where there is every chance you will pass a town, a site or a diner which you never would have found from the Freeway. I don’t think there are many wineries gracing the banks of the I5…as we saw in Sideways you have to go a little off the beaten track to find anything interesting.
I’ll admit, on the highways you might get stuck behind a tractor or a large truck but they will often pull over to allow you to pass, or the roads are straight enough to allow you to overtake a mile-long Juggernaut and still be sure there’s nothing coming in the opposite direction. Admittedly you will have to negotiate more intersections, but in America you can turn right on red! Just don’t do it while trying to catch a falling TomTom and eating a Butterfinger at the same time, that is where near-misses happen. Not that I would know…
3. But if you have to use the Freeway
Back to the Juggernauts, there is nothing more daunting on the Freeway (as you do sometimes have to use it) than the appearance of the ‘runaway truck’ lane. As the freeway snakes up this or that mountain range you might find yourself amused at the slow crawl these beasts are forced to travel at due to the gradient. But you won’t be laughing for long, as when you reach the brow of the hill their speed picks up and it appears there is a definite need for this lane as the possibility of one of them careering out of control is very real. As you can imagine, this can be quite distracting from the scenery. Another distraction is being constantly aware that other vehicles can overtake you from either side at any moment. I know this happens in some countries in Europe too – the Brits seem to be the only sensible ones to use overtaking lanes purely for overtaking – but rarely in Europe do you find 6 lane motorways and the shadow of two 18 wheel trucks extinguishing not only the view, but the daylight, and potentially your life.
I have also found that Freeways tend to be less maintained than the state highways – the roads are often really poor with a lot of pot-holes and the lane lines are barely visible on many of them. Particularly in California, everyone seems to use the Freeways, meaning that it is near impossible to get anywhere during rush hour (or any time of day in LA) so please heed my advice and avoid the Freeway, unless you want to end up like Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
4. Get a reliable vehicle
I totally get how tempting it is to find a beaten up old Thunderbird convertible and head out on the open road, like Thelma and Louise, but unless you are an actual mechanic, or a lot braver than I am, the risks outweigh the benefits on this one. Firstly it is often 100 miles between gas stations, in fact even between inhabited places, and those long stretches of road can be baking hot or freezing cold, and you know what? Even in ‘eternally friendly’ or ‘have a nice day’ America, very few people will stop when you try and flag them down. This might be to do with the demise of hitch-hiking culture, or just the fear-mongering of films like The Hitcher, but either way, it can be awfully lonely out there. Don’t expect Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band to read your script and come and find you.
BUT having said all of that, a friend of mine travelled across the States by going on Craigslist and finding people who needed vehicles taken from one city to another…and it worked! She actually ended up driving this rather fabulous sharkcarvehicle so what the hell do I know? INSERT PHOTO* And it also worked for Little Miss Sunshine, and a camper van is always cool, so maybe I take back the last point.
A little unconventional, I know, and only really possible when the weather in fine, but if you have limited money and are already spending a large chunk of your budget on the car, do consider it. Campsites such a KOA are safe and clean and pretty much everywhere across the States. Staying in roadside motels is tempting, harking back traditional Americana, but they are often dirty, overpriced, and when the door to your room leads directly to an outside corridor it can be a little disconcerting, especially if you are on your own. Campsites are often filled with other travellers, life-long roaders with RV’s bigger than my London flat (not an exaggeration), and the chance to meet people, which you don’t often get in Motels.
Having said that, there are some excellent independently owned motels and B&B’s (which is not as much of an alien concept in the US as you might think, mostly thanks to airbandb), and in some small towns (and ghost towns!) these can be the only places to stay, so when you stay in them, go with it; have the grits for breakfast, use the ice machine, even take a dip in the pool….for chain Motels I always find the Super8 pretty reliable, there’s a good one in Austin which overlooks the city – In fact I left my Stars and Stripes bikini there so if you happen to be passing…
6. Create a playlist
Ok I admit it, I cranked up Hotel California while driving down Highway 1; Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash serenaded us while rolling through Tennessee and The Joshua Tree was played on repeat while approaching said tree – (The Joshua Tree isn’t one tree by the way it is an entire National Park, who knew?!) but these are musical clichés for a good reason. Maybe you won’t have a Tiny Dancer moment like in Almost Famous or meet an old country singer like in Crazy Heart, but music is so deeply entwined with American road culture leave your cynicism at the door and make a shit-hot playlist.
Having said that, don’t dismiss local radio though…it can give you a rather interesting insight into the local community, specifically, for me, the Christian Rock station Air 1 in California where you will find pumping classics like, ‘I Get Down, He Lifts Me Up’, ‘We Are Overcomers’ and ‘I Am A Difference-Maker’
7. Be Prepared To Stop
One of the biggest regrets I have from one of my recent trips was when driving from The Grand Canyon to Monument Valley (controversially I found the latter more awe-inspiring) was not stopping at a hand-made sign saying: ‘Dinosaur Footprint This Way’ with an arrow pointing down a dirt track. Fear of it being a gang of kidnappers/rip-off merchants and knowledge that the destination was only an hour ahead stopped me from stopping, and I really regret that – I have since found out there are several Dinosaur footprints in that area, footprints where the Dinosaurs actually stood, gazzilions of years ago, in a land where they are often dismissed as a myth, how cool would it have been to see that, before the Creationists destroy them all?
You will also have to stop for food of course, and if you happen upon a Sonic drive in where the servers are still on roller skates, lucky you! It’s a standard burger joint, but the rollerskates make you feel like you’re in American Grafitti, which is cool. Speaking of which if you go to one diner, and you are in LA, go to Mel’s on Sunset. There are so many brilliant food places in the States and so many terrible ones that it would be pointless to start listing, but take the rough with the smooth and accept you won’t always luck out, but sometimes you will. Also, get a cool box so you always have a supply of snacks, sometimes your schedule might not fit in with mealtimes!
8. Other Modes of Transport
If you can’t drive, the Greyhound buses are still really cheap and plentiful, though tend to not take direct routes, and go to very obscure and out of the way towns, which may be interesting for a while, but there might be a reason tourists don’t stop at these places. Riding the Greyhound also means you can’t just stop and get off wherever you want…so you might need to invest a lot of time if you want to see the country this way.
The trains are another possible mode of transport, they not as cheap and can be massively unreliable (on a recent journey between Seattle and Vancouver the train actually stopped to pick up a fax). As this might imply, any of them still hark back to the golden age of train travel and old fashioned values so can be worth it for the linen in the dining cars, the Polar express uniforms and, of course, the incredible views of the oceans, mountains, deserts and you can sometimes hit all of them in one day. The California Zepher between San Francisco and Chicago is a particularly magnificent journey.
9. Talk to People
People in the US are inherently friendlier that in the UK, but you still have to make the effort to talk to people in more out of the way places. The accent weirdly still helps – I was recently half an hour outside of LA and the motel staff surrounded me because my accent was so ‘cute’. Remember that Americans like storytelling and often they have fascinating stories to impart. The ulterior reason for talking to people though is to glean local knowledge from them.
On my longest road trip, we made no firm plans beyond the next nights’ stop, and would talk to people when we got there and ask them what we should see the next day, where we should go that tourists don’t normally go. This technique helped us discover some incredible sights, restaurants, bars, areas and also to make some wonderful friends – who I still get an enormous amount of pleasure from, by finding out what they are up to on Facebook.
10. Enjoy the Journey
Not just the destination. This is so obvious and I can’t imagine why anyone would embark on a Road Trip without this being their main goal, but you’d be surprised. It is actually fine to ‘Griswald’ a sight (spend hours driving there, take a picture, get back in the car) or if you love it more than you expected, spend the night. Being in a vehicle for hours with loved ones gives you the perfect opportunity to re-discover them, to really talk without any second screen distractions, to laugh, to cry, to shout, to get things out in the open. The impact of the sense of freedom and the inspiration of the diverse, and constantly changing scenery, will allow you the space to think, and grow.
I can guarantee that by the end of your trip you will have expanded your horizons (hopefully not just your waistline) and grown into your best possible self. Just cling onto that feeling when you get home, and start planning for your next trip.