By Emily King
Growing up with a heart for adventure and empty pockets, road trips have always been my kind of travel. I’ve experienced the whole cornucopia of drives, including a straight-shot 27-hour drive from New York to Denver with my best friend; months of National Park-hopping with my family packed into our red minivan; a week-long trip to Arizona with friends and hitchhikers, stopping to play penny machines at every casino along the road. The Great American Road Trip is deeply and romantically set into our culture. Before taking off on your cross-country voyage, check out my from-experience tips to make the most of your summer driving adventure.
Plan loosely and be flexible
While drives fueled by frequent stops for gas-station coffee and pure excitement can get you and your buddies from coast to coast in two days, I’ve always preferred to follow a loose route with plenty of planned-in margin time. Taking a few podunk country roads or stopping at weird road-side attractions is high on the road trip must-do list. What would your road trip be without a stop at Nebraska’s “Carhenge,” a replica of Stonehenge made of gray-painted cars? Why not plan your route to include the 32-mile Enchanted Highway in North Dakota where, in an effort to bring tourism to his dying town, one man has lined the road with massive metal sculptures? How could you pass up a visit to the World’s Largest Pecan in Texas? Without careful effort to leave lots of leeway time in your trip, these oddities of American culture could go unexplored.
Get off the highways
Stepping into a dark bar in a population-200 town will definitely get you weird looks, free drinks, and a handful of new friends. One of my favorite stops was at a bar far off the highway in Arizona--the bartender pegged us as outsiders the moment we stepped in, handed us each a beer before we could open our mouths, and introduced us gleefully to the other 15 people in the joint (which led to hours of hysterical conversation and many more beers). That GPS is definitely convenient, but getting lost along the way is essential if you want to re-live road trip lore. Ditch the device for an hour or two and see what you can discover in America’s back road towns--once you need to find your way back to a main road, the GPS will be ready to guide you along.
Skip fast food and eat local
You did not get in the car to visit a Burger King in every state. Support local eateries along your way, and make sure to ask your waitress to serve the restaurant's specialty! Diners, food trucks, and cafes all have heaping plates of food for the cost of a value meal. Roadside produce stands are a great way to help local farms and stock up on healthy snacks for the drive, and in Northeast Amish country you can find home baked bread, jars of apple butter, and fresh-picked fruit at walk-up stands.
Plan around rush hour traffic
Hitting cities like Washington DC, Chicago, and Denver at the wrong time of day can drive even the best group of happy-go-lucky pals into a sour mood. Try to hit major cities late at night or in late morning if you can’t avoid them altogether. In the case of a traffic jam, keep your cool, be patient, and dig out some of those childhood camp songs and driving games to keep everyone entertained and laughing.
Music is essential.
Whether your preference is windows down and music blasting or AC cranked and music blasting, make sure to keep the tunes rolling. I drive a car with an old-school tape player and a broken radio, but thankfully the standby of a tape-to-headphone adapter and cigarette i-pod charger keeps drivers of ancient vehicles rocking out endlessly. For longer trips, try listening to themed audiobooks. You could listen to a historical non-fiction on your final destination, or let Kerouac’s classic “On The Road” put you in the beat-travel mindset.