Note: This was written about two weeks ago on our way to California. Unfortunately, today we are in Central Illinois dealing with 6 inches of snow!
It’s zero-dark thirty and we’re in our car heading west to California on our first road trip of 2016. It’s been a warm winter this year and the forecast is excellent for all our route. Mona is driving the first leg of the trip and I’m just relaxing and thinking about road trips in general.
We traveled a lot while we were still working but vacation time was limited so we typically didn’t drive to our destinations. That all changed with our retirement and now we have more time and now we often drive, taking road trips as our vacation. In fact, our first vacation after retirement was a month-long road trip through the Southwest and we loved it. We loved it so much that we drove all over the United States that year, putting 35,000 miles on our 1999 Oldsmobile and visiting 48 states and two Canadian provinces.
Since that first year we’ve criss-crossed the United States several times and I now know why I like to drive:
People: You get to meet lots more people when you’re on the road and most of those people aren’t travel professionals; instead they are the locals…the true inhabitants of where you’re visiting. We are always making new friends on our road trips and we meet them at hotels, restaurants, roadside attractions and even while geocaching. One of the first was Albert at the lobster dock in Maine. From him we learned all about lobsters and he gave us an old lobster trap as a momento. And we’ll never forget the two Indians who laughed at us when we got stuck in the snow on our way to Taos. They didn’t offer to help…I think their sides were hurting too much from laughing. And of course there’s Linda, who has greeted us like friends each time we visit our favorite Route 66 diner in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
It’s not only new friends that we connect with on our road trips. It’s also an excellent way for us to link up with some of our far-flung friends and family. Stopping by to see a friend or relative that you haven’t seen in years just makes the trip all the more special!
Scenery: I’ve criss-crossed the United States in the air for years, but I had never seen much of the scenery other than what was at my destination. Now, I’ve gotten to see more coasts, buttes, mesas, hoodoos and giant trees than I can count! I am constantly amazed at the incredible variety of geography and natural beauty that we have in this nation. It seems like we see something new on every road trip we take, even if we’ve traveled that road before. Our car is always loaded with books on the flora and fauna that we might see so every trip is an education. (Note: Also part of that education is learning how to relax and just enjoy the beauty as it passes by our windows!)
I can’t forget to mention America’s National Parks in this section. There are 58 National Parks and visiting one of them in conjunction with a road trip makes a perfect vacation! There are also over 75 National Monuments scattered throughout the country and each one is worth a stop. Many of these parks and monuments are off the beaten path so a road trip is the best way to visit. And don’t forget, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of our National Park system so be sure to visit at least one this year!
Food: In my mind, “People” and “Scenery” were pretty much no brainers…of course we’d meet more people and see more beautiful scenery. But food, I never ever thought about food as a side benefit of road trips!
I clearly remember the first new food I encountered on a road trip: It was February of 2012 and we were on our first vacation as retirees. We were headed to California and stopped in Santa Rosa, New Mexico for the night. We asked the front desk for a restaurant recommendation and they suggested the Silver Moon Cafe across the highway. There, at this old Route 66 diner, I met and fell in love with New Mexican chili sauce. I had never encountered anything like this cuisine before and to me it’s heaven’s food! We still make it a point to stop at this diner every time we’re in the area.
From there, the list has grown: Navajo tacos, Kentucky brown, lobster rolls, Boo Fries, Quahog and on and on! We’ve even enjoyed finding and trying chain restaurants that we’ve never seen before. We tried Whataburger, what a burger! Then there are the chicken tenders at a chain called Zaxby’s….yum! And of course, when you’re in the south you simple have to eat at Waffle House. I think it’s a law or something!
Road trip dining is so much fun…and I’m hungry right now!
History: I’ve long been an avid student of history but most of my hands-on history witnessing… (reread that phrase and figure it out!) …has been in Central Illinois where I’ve visited my share of Lincoln sites and where I’ve often searched for arrowheads in freshly plowed fields.
But, now that we’re road tripping I get to visit historical sites all over the United States. We’ll be driving along and see a brown sign indicating something historical is ahead and we’ll pull over to check it out. That’s how we stumbled across a ghost town in Arizona…and the ghost town was closed!
Or we’ll see a sign about an interesting museum like the one in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and we’ll take a detour to check it out. (It’s an awesome dinosaur museum! Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum)
We also will be driving along and get a sudden idea for a new historical destination. Like when we were headed to the shores of Maine and while looking at our map Mona noticed that Plymouth Rock was in our general direction. She said, “Well, I’ve never been to Plymouth Rock!” so we quickly made a right turn and headed to see the rock! These random destinations are a big part of our road trips. I can’t count the number of cool things we’ve seen or done just because of something popping into our heads! Plymouth Rock, Salem Massachusetts, Even our visit to Mesa Verde came about because on our drive back from California Mona said, “Have you ever seen Mesa Verde?”
Weirdness: (Okay…odd title for a category, but I’m pretty sure you’ll understand quickly.) I clearly remember our first road trip when we were driving near Amarillo, Texas. We were geocaching and I saw a cache that mentioned the Cadillac Ranch. I realized that we were near the ranch so we caught the next exit, drove down a little frontage road, and there it was….Cadillacs planted in the ground. Who thinks this stuff up?!?
A little farther along on the same trip we starting seeing signs for “The Thing!” We must have seen those signs for over 500 miles before we got to The Thing’s home, a cluster of low buildings on a remote exit. Most of the cluster was devoted to a gift shop/gas station/convenience store, but if you paid your $1 you could see The Thing. We paid our dollar and finally solved the mystery. Of course, you’ll have to pay your own dollar to find out what The Thing is. No spoilers here!
Wildlife: There is an unbelievable amount of wildlife spread through the USA and you certainly don’t see it from 30,000 feet up! Growing up in Central Illinois we’d get a big thrill out of seeing a deer here and there…maybe once or twice a year. But by road tripping we’ve seen so much more….eagles, elk, magpies, antelope, roadrunners, coyotes….you name it, we’ve seen it. So far, the only large mammals we haven’t seen are panthers/cougars and mountain goats. I guess we’ll have to keep driving until we spot them!
Road Trip Tip:
Driving a lot of miles is a lot of fun and there are several tools that we use to help improve our travel experience. Probably, the most valued tools we have in our kit are our iPhones. Seriously, we are constantly using our phones for one thing or another. For instance we use them to:
- Plan our routes
- Google for information on sights, birds, geology, etc;
- Book our hotels while driving
- Read books
- Check our elevation – love the altimeter
- Message our friends & Family
- Find reviews on restaurants and hotels
- Update and read Facebook
- Keep up with our emails
- Pay our bills
- Geocache – of course
- Take thousands of pictures
- Jot down notes, to-dos, bets and license plates
- Check on the weather for our travels
- Light our way with the Flashlight app
- Find the cheapest gas available
- Check our calendars
- Route away from traffic problems
- Listen to music when there are no stations available
- And we even use it as a phone to call our friends, families and others!
It’s just amazing how our iPhone has revolutionized our travel. Not bad for a device that fits in a shirt pocket!
Our Road Trips
On our first road trip in 2012, we decided to record our travels on our Rand McNally Road Atlas. We’ve kept that atlas and mark it up each trip. It’s a little rugged but here’s a picture showing where we’ve driven.
Note that not all the roads we’ve traveled were interstates. We’ve driven many back roads and up some pretty steep and treacherous mountain roads. I’ve never forget the avalanches on US. Route 550 in Colorado! (Thanks, Paul.)
And don’t get me wrong, we still do a lot of traveling by air and ship and those trips are wonderful, too. But now we also take 3 to 4 road trips a year. They are one of our favorite ways to explore and enjoy America!
Okay, enough reflection and relaxing. Mona has finished driving her part and it’s my turn to drive for a few hours.