How Road Trips Work

By: Nicholas Gerbis
Route 66 sign
For many years, the Main Street of America (aka Route 66) was the ultimate road trip route.

It's no surprise that we love road trips; we started out as wanderers.

From the day we climbed down from the trees to see what was going on in the grasslands to the development of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, we lived a journey. That journey fed us, marked the rhythms of our lives and developed into an integral part of what we are. Moreover, it never left. To this day, travel recharges us; experiencing new places stirs something primal and vivifying within our souls. It takes a broom to our mental cobwebs and forces us to grow. Is it any wonder that the journey motif dominates our stories, songs and poems?


We began as wanderers; we are wanderers still.

Granted, our primal wanderings were more about grubbing on grains and game than seeking Stuckey's and Starbucks, but even before the 1950s, when the proliferation of highway systems, gas stations, motels and motor lodges made automobile travel faster and more convenient, our wanderlust compelled us to set off on whatever paths existed, in whatever conveyance would carry us.

Road trips answer a deep human yearning to be free. For a time at least, they allow us to escape our quotidian cares and simply be. At the same time, they indulge our love affair with automobiles and our craving for novelty -- or for revisiting the past.

These journeys perfectly combine solitude and companionship, planning and improvisation. Road trips unite the freedom of the outdoors with the security of bringing our stuff with us. A car becomes, at turns, a means of transport, a restaurant and, in a pinch, a place to sleep. There's no waiting for trains to arrive, no going through airport security and -- best of all -- no requirement to plan everything out ahead of time.

As authors such as Jack Kerouac remind us, the road is where we discover our country, our fellow human beings and ourselves. It's also where we often encounter the unexpected, for good or ill, but never fear: Our wits, friends or family, and trusty automobile usually see us through. In the end, the worst travails frequently make for the best stories.

That's enough talk for now. Let's come up with a plan for putting some miles on that odometer.


Road Trip Planning

Some of the best road trips are unplanned. You simply grab a few items and some friends, hop in a car and set off in whatever direction seems appealing. Of course, this approach entails some risk, too: You might end up in the middle of nowhere, in a bad part of town or lost. That's why the first rule of road trip planning is to bring along whatever you might need to have fun, no matter where you end up. Some food, a guitar, a cooler full of drinks and a few chairs can go a long way (yes, you need emergency supplies, too, and we'll get to them in a little bit).

That said, planning a road trip can be almost as fun as the trip itself. Flipping through travel guides can really stoke your enthusiasm and, for the logistically minded, the management of speed, fuel, lodging and timing details can present a rewarding challenge.


When planning your route, consider what kinds of roads you want to take. As John Steinbeck and Charles Kuralt both observed, highways make it possible to drive across an entire country without seeing anything or meeting anyone. The more you skip freeways and interstates in favor of scenic highways and historic byways, the more you're likely to get out of your trip.

Once you've figured out your plan in broad strokes, fill in the details, and bear in mind that maps and satellite navigation systems are not always up to date. Research as much as you can (or can stand) and cross-reference your sources. Remember, the more you prepare now, the better equipped you'll be if you decide to alter your trip later or have to deal with an unforeseen problem. Speaking of which, make a list of phone numbers and radio stations to consult for traffic and construction updates. You should be able to find this information on the Internet.

Booking lodging and having backup plans can make or break a trip, especially if you want to visit some remote byways with limited lodging opportunities. Also, be sure to investigate fuel availability where you're headed: In some areas, especially the American West, gas stations can be scattered a hundred miles apart. Along similar lines, find out if your cell carrier offers coverage in the travel area and whether parts of your route are considered roaming. It's good to know an emergency phone is available if you need it.

By now, you're probably itching to set out on the open road, so let's check out some of the choicest routes for taking a jaunt in your jalopy.


Top U.S. Road Trips

There's no shortage of great road trips in the United States; the hard part is narrowing them down. Here are three surefire winners: one in the West, one in the East and one running through the American heartland.

Route 66, Sort Of

Get your kicks on one of the first U.S. highways, 2,451 miles (3,945 kilometers) of America's main street running from Chicago to Santa Monica. Traveling this route requires meticulous planning, but do your homework and you're in for the most iconic road trip in the 50 states. Although the route Highway 66 no longer exists (you'll really be switching between Interstates 55, 44, 40, 15 and 10 and preserved portions of the old highway), the American spirit it exemplified lives on. These are the rights-of-way immortalized in "The Grapes of Wrath," beatnik lore, pop songs, television and film, and for good reason: Route 66 is the embodiment of freedom and of the open road, an invitation to the vast open spaces of America's heartland.


Blue Ridge Parkway

Shooting down Interstate 95 at 70 miles-plus (113 kilometers-plus) is no way to see Virginia and North Carolina. Hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, though, and you'll give the natural splendors of Old Dominion and the Tar Heel State their due. Start with a drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park on the equally stunning Skyline Drive, then cruise south on the parkway to North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains. In autumn, cars line up bumper-to-bumper to view the color explosion (it's worth it), but if that doesn't sound like your speed, head there in the summer for a cool drive through dogwoods, red maples and tulip trees, dotted with frequent picnic areas, rest stops and scenic overlooks. Along the way, check out the Biltmore Estate and any of the amazing peaks, like Grandfather Mountain.

California's State Route 1 and the Pacific Coast Highway

You already know the view -- it's one of the most iconic landscapes in television and film -- but no mere image can compare to cruising down the coast in person, top down, with the ocean waves crashing to one side and mountains chasing along the other. Depending on your schedule and interests, you can subdivide the 650-plus miles (1,046-plus kilometers) into smaller tours, or drive the whole length from Leggett to Dana Point. Either way, make a run through Big Sur's mountains, rocky beaches and redwoods -- 90 miles (145 kilometers) along the central coast between Carmel and San Luis Obispo -- at some point. For beatniks and hippies, this was the laid-back place to be. Why not make it yours?

Now that we've tackled some of the more reachable roadways, let's set off for some out-of-the-way escapes.


Off the Beaten Path

Seward Highway
This is the kind of scenery that will be passing you by if you take a jaunt down Alaska's Seward Highway. Probably a nice switch from whatever daily scenery you're used to, no?

Just because you're taking a road trip doesn't mean that you have to start from home. Sometimes you want to get away -- far away.

Alaska's Seward Highway

If you can make it up to America's Icebox, you're in for some of the longest interrupted stretches of stunning scenery the country has to offer. At 127 miles (204 kilometers) long, it might sound more like an afternoon drive than a road trip, but that's only if you don't slow down and take in its parks, mountains, glaciers, fishing, skiing and wildlife-watching opportunities. Besides, for those unaccustomed to the wild northlands, being within a few hours of Anchorage is comforting. Take the trek in the summer, when the weather is nicer and there are a ludicrous number of daylight hours during which to take it all in.


The Black Hills

A land made famous by gold, Custer and the TV show "Deadwood," the Black Hills of South Dakota possess a stark, otherworldly beauty, surrounded by lush prairies, black forests and fossil-rich, striated cliffs. History haunts these lands, where Lewis and Clark trod, Crazy Horse fought and Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok lived. Fly into Rapid City, then head east on Highway 44 to Loop Road (240), which will take you on a scenic tour through Badlands National Park. If you’re a nature lover, check out Prairie Homestead, a prairie dog town located just off 240 as it circles around to join Interstate 90. I-90 will return you to Rapid City, where you can set off on Highway 16 to visit Mount Rushmore. Continuing south, make time for Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres of preserved forest and grassland, where you can get your fill of bison, pronghorn and mountain goats. Then, on your way back to Rapid City, visit Crazy Horse Memorial, a colossal and controversial sculpture still under construction.

Hawaii's Big Island

The Big Island (aka Hawaii) has it all, but you'll miss it if you stay put, so fill your thermos with Kona coffee, grab a handful of macadamia nuts and take a spin around its breathtaking bays, rugged uplands, lush valleys, plunging waterfalls and stunning scenery. History greets you around each bend, including 19th century churches, Polynesian cultural sites and reminders of the conquest and reign of Kamehameha the Great. Don't miss the island's beaches of black, pink and green volcanic sands. Speaking of volcanoes, check out the still-erupting Kilauea. The Big Island is so nice, they're making more of it all the time.

Now that your head is spinning with possible destinations, let's run down a list of tips that will make your trip a success, no matter where you're bound.


Tips for a Great Road Trip

Here are a few tips to make your road trip the best it can be.

Choose the right people. As Huck observed in Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer Abroad": "I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them, than to travel with them." The wrong people can make the bluest sky gray, but the right traveling companions can find fun in surprising places -- and help you out of sticky situations. They can also help you ...


Plan where you're going. This entails more than packing some maps and a decent GPS (both good ideas). Before you hit the road each day, check state and local Web sites to find out which roads are closed and which ones have traffic backed up from Walla Walla to Weeki Wachee. After all ...

Accidents will happen. Pack a roadside safety kit with flares, triangles, jumper cables and first-aid supplies. Get your car serviced, top off your fluids and make sure your tires are inflated and in good shape. Consider joining an auto club. One way or another, you should …

Be prepared. It's the Boy Scout motto; it's also the law of the road. Carry some traveling cash for places that lack ATMs or don't take plastic. When traversing the desert, have several jugs of water in your trunk and be sure someone knows where you are. Keep some useful odds and ends around, such as duct tape, cable ties, bungee cords, a basic tool kit, flashlights, toilet paper, paper towels and hand wipes. Most of these items are small enough that you can still …

Pack portably. For security and convenience, carry your stuff with you when possible. This includes food and drinks, so …

Bring a cooler. Pack drinks and sandwiches. Having your own supplies will save you a lot of money, and will help you to …

Eat healthy. On vacation, we're often tempted to cram our pieholes full of junk food and fizzy drinks, but after a few days this will take a toll. You'll feel logy, and your car will be ripe with the smells of excess. Speaking of smells …

Shower and wear clean clothes. Less B.O. = a happy car and travelers more willing to …

Be spontaneous. Room for spontaneity is one of the great advantages of road tripping. Thanks to your excellent planning beforehand, you have the flexibility to relax a bit on the road trip itself and let inspiration guide you. Take in some side trips, or skip the cooler food occasionally to dive into some food tourism.

With careful planning, the right companions and a spirit of adventure, you'll be able to handle anything that comes your way -- and have a blast doing it. Until next time, keep the sunny side up, and the greasy side down.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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