Introduction – USA
Why road trip?
It may be more culturally expansive to travel to far off countries and explore unfamiliar cultures than to hop in the car and head out for a couple of days, but when you get right down to it, travel is travel. I’ve learned that sometimes, the subtleties that make up one area of one country may have more of a story than first meets the eye; so it’s with this in mind that I refuse to lament my inability to buy a plane ticket to anywhere and instead look around and see what I’ve already got.
One of the best things about living smack in the middle of Indiana is that I also live smack in the middle of, well, everything else in the Midwest. In this area, there are two general types of people: those who are content to make their backyard their ultimate destination, and those who strive to make all the states within a five hour drive their backyard. As soon as I got my driver’s license, I figured out that if I save enough money out of whatever meager paychecks I scrounged up for gas, I could do it all; museums, concerts, baseball games, camping, hiking, rock climbing – you name it.
Why bother with all that driving?
Sometimes, the drive is the best part. Personally, I prefer road tripping with friends, because then I don’t have to worry about being entertained while chucking through Kansas (or as I like to refer to it, the Longest, Flattest, Most Mind-Numbing Expanse of Highway in the Universe) or whether I should panic about a car related noise. If the company is good, you can be sure at least the drive will be memorable.
The way I see it, there are four types of road trips: trips you could feasibly take with your parents, trips you’d only take with your friends, trips you might take alone to gain spiritual satisfaction, and day trips. More simply, I think of these as hotel, houseguest, camper, and hourly trips, respectively, and each one calls for different equipment to get you where you want to go. No matter which kind of road trip you’re planning, it’s important to think of it as a trip – things can and do go wrong, and even though you’re closer to home, that doesn’t mean you can be stupid about what you’re doing. So, if you have a credit card, bring it. Keep your car up to date with oil changes and whatnot. Bring the road atlas.
In the end, almost everything about a road trip can be improvised – the best ones are sometimes completely improvised – but it can also pay to plan ahead. A membership with AAA is a darn good idea, especially if your car isn’t winning any trophies for dependability. Keep towels and blankets in the trunk at all times, especially if you’re traveling in cold weather, and it doesn’t hurt to have a gallon of water back there, too. One thing that’s easy to forget but can be very important is change for toll roads – you may not plan on taking any, but plans change suddenly and you don’t want to be caught at a booth with plastic. Count on $.15 – $.40 per toll, and don’t forget to add in the way home. Other than that, there are a few basics to keep in mind for each type of trip.
On this kind of journey, you’re probably not looking for too much adventure. Maybe you’ve got Mom and Dad or your little sister in tow, or maybe you’re just looking to be pampered for a few days. Whether it’s business or relaxation you’re after, you’re probably not going to be expending too much energy on survival. Most hotels and motels have extras of things you might have forgotten, like your toothbrush or soap, so you don’t have to worry about that. And, whatever part of the country you’re in, it’s sometimes nice to know you can return to your heated or air conditioned room after toiling away in the elements all day. If you’re looking for low to no maintenance lodging, hotels are the way to go. The more people on your trip, too, the more economical this solution becomes. Hotel stuff is mainly common sense, though, and shouldn’t pose much hassle.
Staying with friends when traveling is gratifying in many different respects: first, more often than not you’re sheltered for free. Second, wherever you are, you probably have a built-in tour guide, whether your friend wants to explore with you or not. Third, you probably won’t have to bring much to be comfortable, and you have access to showers and bathrooms and the like. The biggest downside to being a houseguest is needing to work around the schedule of your host. Nobody wants to feel like a hassle, so ask yourself if you’d rather make your own itinerary.
Hostels seem to fall somewhere in between hotel trips and houseguest trips. When you hostel you’ll likely be surrounded by people with the same ideas about traveling as you, and you can come away from the experience with friends or travel companions. You’ll be able to do things on your own schedule, and you’ll have some of the amenities hosts may provide, but it will cost you at least a few bucks. Also, while you’ll have to say goodbye to the live-in guide, your hostel mates might know a thing or two about the area you’re in.
I think this kind of trip is the most personal. Whether you go alone or with one or two other people, there’s something about sleeping outside that wakes up senses in you you didn’t know you had. You’ll need more equipment if you plan to camp than if you stayed at a hotel, hostel, or friend’s house, but if you are either a quieter type of person or just in a part of the world where nature is undeniable, it’s definitely worth it. The things to remember when camping are pretty basic. First, be sure to dress for the weather. Even places that are very warm during the day can get extremely cold at night. Second, at least in the U.S., national and state parks charge fees to even enter, and more for camping. It may sound annoying, but they use that money to keep the parks in shape and natural. Expect to pay $15 or so for camping per night; it’s a good idea to call ahead if you’re not sure. Ask yourself, too, before you leave, if the park you’re headed to will be overcrowded – is it a holiday weekend? During the summer? Because being stranded without a place to stay is definitely no fun. Pay attention to the rules and regulations, and keep your food in animal-proof containers.
Some of the most beautiful places in the U.S. are places many people will never see, which is why camper trips are my favorite. If you’re looking for a sense of gratitude, grab a tent and head out.
Hourly trips tend to be the most spontaneous of all road trips, and can end up being the most fulfilling. There’s something great about hopping in the car and setting out to visit some quirky natural wonder, an Amish restaurant in the next state, or to nowhere in particular, and amid life’s myriad responsibilities, these are sometimes the only possible kind. There aren’t many suggestions I can make for this kind of trip, either – just follow the road signs you think are interesting, watch your gas tank, and watch out for deer on those back roads.
This road trip guide is a loose one; there are far too many trips and stories and places to see to include everything. The casual Midwest visitor should know what there is to do around these parts besides watch the grass grow (always a favorite), and I’ll go into more detail about each type of trip over the length of the guide. I’ve found that concentrating on a small part of a country can be particularly rewarding, and you’ll find things you never imagined a short drive away. The main idea behind road tripping is the same as the main idea behind traveling in general – to see new places, meet new people, and have new experiences.