My husband and I recently completed our first-ever cross-country road trip together, driving eastbound on Route 50 from San Francisco, CA to Ocean City, MD. After logging 3,889 miles (including detours) through 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, and an astonishing array of landscapes, here’s my Top Ten learnings.
#1 – Always check multiple sources before booking a hotel room.
Before our trip, I sketched out a tentative schedule for each day, including potential hotels. We then booked rooms each night on our trip for the next night. The night before we drove to Grand Junction, CO, we found a great deal on-line at the Historic Melrose Hotel, which was mentioned in my guidebook, but was not the one I chose for my itinerary. Not remembering why, we booked it.
The Historic Melrose Hotel, which looked lovely from the outside and was in the quaint Old Town section, turned out to be affordable housing for low-income residents – one step up from a homeless shelter. Which explained the great price. Had we checked TripAdvisor (or had I remembered what I learned when I checked TripAdvisor three weeks earlier) we would have been more educated consumers. Instead, we parked the car below our room and spent the night half awake listening for sounds of a break in.
#2 – iPhones are not ideal high-speed cameras
Since we were on a fixed schedule going eastbound, we didn’t make too many stops, so I became marginally competent at taking photos from inside the car through the windshield and side windows (with attendant glare and reflections), avoiding the radar detector and GPS and rear view mirrors, at 55-65 mph. My husband would suddenly blurt “There!” and I was expected to instantaneously (1) figure out what he was talking about and (2) take a great photo of it. He would often say, “Oh, you were too slow” or “Did you frame the picture with the trees?” to which I would always reply “Got it!!” (my strategy being that whether I got it or not he would never remember). I learned where the “sweet” spots were on the windows (and some contortionist positions that worked well) and learned to take multiple photos that I would go through each night to weed out the best shots. I relied heavily on the photo editing tools in the iPhone – as long as I got the subject somewhere in the photo, I could enlarge and crop and lighten. Even so, in addition to a few good shots, I have an impressive library of blurry, blank, and unidentifiable transcontinental pictures. My photo of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC looks right out of “The Blob” (my favorite vintage horror movie).
#3 – Make lunch stops a priority
Because we didn’t make too many impromptu stops along the way, our lunch breaks were a highlight of each day. Sometimes we were tempted to power through without lunch, but I’m glad we didn’t. First, they provided a much-needed respite from the car and driving. But more importantly, they were consistently fun. We tried to find little towns and older restaurants characteristic of Old Time America. We learned about the towns we visited by chatting with the waitresses and proprietors that we encountered. In Eureka, NV (Pop 610) our waitress told us she had 17 in her graduating class in high school. She said her school offered all the usual sports, but every student had to play most sports in order to have enough players to field teams. In Olney, IL (pop 7.994) , home to a colony of albino squirrels, our waitress instructed us that the best way to see squirrels was to visit the city park with McDonald’s French fries.
#4 – Rest days were like a stop at the oasis
We spent 12 days traveling across country, but two of those were rest days. On one rest day, we visited dear friends in the Denver area. On the other, we visited my brother in St. Louis.
While in Denver, we had two home-cooked dinners, slept in a quiet comfortable room on a super-comfy bed, took a leisurely tour of the local area, and caught up with our friends. In St Louis, we were also fed and put up in our own cozy room, and got precious quality time with family we don’t see often. Although my husband initially questioned the need for rest days, we later agreed that they really helped us recharge and get back on the road fully energized.
#5 – You must be smarter than your GPS
Our Chevy Traverse has a built-in GPS system, which we have found to be rather clunky. We’ve had to learn multiple workarounds to get it to do what we need. Therefore, we also travel with our portable Garmin as back-up. In a pinch, I also fire up Google Maps on my iPhone. And of course, there is the iPad.
There were many days when I joked to my husband that he was in the unenviable position of driving with 4 women (including me) telling him where to go. And even with all the help, the Navigator was still a full-time job for me and I had to know where we were at all times and not rely on GPS. Since we were trying to stay on Route 50 (not necessarily the fastest or shortest route) I had to learn tricks to outsmart the GPS (with waypoints, etc.) to get where we wanted to go and mediate disputes between the “women” (our GPS systems). But then there was the time we drove right by the bank that was just down the street from our hotel because were so busy fiddling with the GPS rather than just looking at the address.
Even with all the gadgets….
#6 – In addition to the [multiple] GPS systems, you still need maps
Before we left on our trip, I visited the local AAA office and picked up 3 bags of maps and tour books, covering every state we intended to travel. Thank goodness, because we would otherwise have been at the mercy of our GPS systems and probably lost somewhere in Kansas. It was essential to get a sense of the route before programming the GPS, plus it was more meaningful to follow along on a map as we drove. The maps told me more details about what we were seeing (rivers, mountain ranges, etc.) so I could act as self-appointed Tour Guide.
#7 – Don’t travel with just one big heavy suitcase.
We retrieved our luggage sets from the garage before we left, and packed our big suitcases since we would be gone for an extended period. We had every intention of bringing along the smaller weekend bag or the smaller roller bag that went with our sets, but for some inexplicable reason we forgot them.
As a result, every night as we checked into a new hotel (always requesting a second floor room) we found ourselves lugging incredibly heavy suitcases with everything we owned out of the car, across the parking lot and up the stairs. Then our room (being typically Comfort Inn rather than Ritz Carlton) was almost completely filled with suitcases. We looked like the Kardashians, or more the Beverly Hillbillies, checking into town.
After a couple nights of this nonsense, I started using an empty tote bag I’d brought along to pack one or two nights’ provisions so I wouldn’t have to mess with the Two Ton Suitcase. I will definitely bring that weekend bag along next time, in addition to the Big Suitcase, and plenty of tote bags for flexibility.
#8 – Document the trip as you go
After about Day 4 or 5, I couldn’t tell you with any conviction where we had been even the day before for lunch. It all became a blur. I found the written itinerary listing all of the lunch and dinner stops and hotels very helpful, and I learned to note any changes or any additional sights we saw along the way. That way, between the photos and the itinerary, I should be able to reconstruct a decent memory book of our trip.
#9 – We need to find a balance of driving and stops
This trip was a little too much driving with too little sightseeing for me. Since we were on a fairly strict timetable, we didn’t have much time for spontaneous exploration of sights and attractions along the way. There were a few unscheduled stops we made – to see the remnants of an old pony express station in Nevada (or was it Utah?)- that were interesting, but for the most part we simply saw what we saw from the car along Route 50. On our next trip, along the old Route 66, we plan to meander more. The trip did give me ideas, however, of places to return to see (Kansas City, for example) in more depth.
#10 – America is a really incredible country
Driving through the entire middle of the continental United States was a thoroughly amazing experience. The vast and varied landscape, from the barren desert of Nevada to the rugged mountains of Colorado to the great plains of Kansas to the lush West Virginia countryside, simply took our breath away. There were days that we turned off the radio and sat in silence taking in the magnificent beauty of the scenery before us. We so enjoyed our encounters with the people we met in small towns across the country. We will never forget the day we smugly stopped for a photo of ourselves at Monarch Pass (elev 11,312) at the Continental Divide in CO and we met two young men who had RIDDEN THEIR BIKES from San Francisco. We emerged from our trip more in awe of the spirt and beauty of this extraordinary nation and its people.