I was westbound on highway 60 in Arizona, between Wickenberg and the 10, when a friend texted to say he was planning his first ‘significant’ road trip, and wanted to know what tips I could offer. I’m a little late in responding, but he called me an expert, so I feel obligated to take his request seriously.
I’m picking a lucky seven of tips because road trips shouldn’t be ruined with too many rules. I’m on the road again when writing this, this time in the Eastern Sierra; I adhere to all of these, and they’re still working for me.
1. Use a Map – The Old School Way
Los Angeles is huge, and I’ve caved to using Waze to get around it. It’s an excellent tool, and a damaging crutch. As a result of my GPS-addiction, it’s taking me much longer to get to know LA than it would have in the old days, when I looked at a map – you know, a paper map – before leaving home, and wrote down directions. It was a method less adaptable to changes in traffic flow, but a great way to get to know the place where I was driving. I’m not saying buy a Mapsco of the entire USA, but don’t be afraid of an old fashioned map to chart your main route. It doesn’t mean you won’t wander off of it. It simply allows you to see the overview of the geography you’re entering. The lay of the land around the road that you are on.
2. Take the Blue Highways – The Journey is the Joy
On an old-school map, the less developed roads, those more rural, but still paved, were blue. The notion of sticking to these was made famous in William Least-Heat Moon’s book of the same name , which chronicled his journey on the small roads of the USA. Depending on time and distance, it may not be possible for you to stick to these completely. Honestly, it may drive you crazy, and be horrible advice. But if you wanted the fly-over approach, you’d be in a plane, not a car; interstates, bless them for what they give us, are the fly-over drive. The reality remains that most of America happens off the interstate. Admit it, when you are driving a stretch of I-40 that bumps up against the old Route 66, you want to pull off the highway and hop onto that crusty, weed-pocked stretch of broken asphalt, for nostalgia if nothing else. I say: do it.
3. Revel in Kitsch
Whether you are on an interstates or a dirt road to some historic monument, revel in the kitsch at hand. It’s everywhere, and it’s AWESOME. Ever seen a sign for Wall Drug? If you’ve driven on I-70, I-80, I-90 west of Chicago, or trekked the Everest circuit, you’ve seen a sign, or a sticker, for this place. Maybe you missed Wall Drug but made it to Little America, smack dab in the middle of Nebraska. Maybe you’ve visited the Biggest Ball of Twine (a goal I’ve yet to achieve – and there’s a dispute about who really owns the claim), but you saw the largest red pepper or the Corn Palace. These are the big guns, but the little ones, the ones that truly flavor the road, are even better. Stop for gas on the Navaho reservation and buy a dream catcher. Stop at the meteor crater in Arizona and see where NASA trained astronauts to walk on the moon. Taste the fudge at some olde time candy shoppe by the road. Buy magnets in the shape of the states, or patches from all the national parks, or a random trinket from Teapot Dome. Steal a street sign with your name on it. Actually, don’t do that; it’s illegal. The line between history and kitsch has something to do with nostalgia, is very blurry, and should be entirely entertained at as many roadside stops and historical points of interest as possible.
4. Listen Local, Read Local
There is no better way to learn a place than these two things. Local radio, even if it’s being pumped in by syndicate from far away, gives you a great taste of where you are. When I moved to Dallas, I found there are no fewer than seven Christian stations on the FM dial. One trip across West Texas, I listened to AM radio, half of it in Spanish, for about 100 miles out of El Paso while literally watching tumbleweed roll across the highway. Last week, driving out of LA, I listened to Rush Limbaugh on a local station. You don’t have to like everything you hear. But it helps understand a place to know what they may be hearing. Similarly, local papers are the absolute best way to learn what’s going on where you are eating lunch, spending the night, or pulling off the road for a hike. They’ll tell you who’s in office, who’s trying to get them out, and who got arrested last week. They may also tell you what music or food you must not miss in town.
5. Eat Local
This is a no-brainer, and it’s easier than ever, with every small town sprouting a brew-pub, and every small town diner being covered by Anthony Bordain or that Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives dude. Don’t rely on Yelp. It’s a construction. Ask at your cheap motel, your campground, the local bar where you may have stopped in for a drink. A bartender always knows. Whether it’s frito pie, pozole, philly cheesesteak, or a farm-to-table mesclun salad with a seared farmed ahi tuna steak, it’s going to be better when someone in-the-know recommended it to you. Asking a local for a recommendation is like attempting to speak even crappy Spanish in Mexico: people will be pleased that you care enough to engage at all, and the help will flow from all directions.
6. Let There Be Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos
So yes, eat local, but let’s be serious, you are on a road trip, and there is a food situation that goes with that. It is frequently one that is accompanied by Tums, and that’s ok. I drove across country one summer with a lactose-intolerant friend who insisted on eating a DQ Blizzard every day, at least once. I got so tired of pulling over for DQ while craving a Slurpee, that I made him go into a Circle K in Arizona and ask where the nearest 7-Eleven was. They told him to keep going straight (we were on I-40) until he got to California. Likewise, my college boyfriend and I had a rule that, if he tried to get me to eat Cheetos or Peanut Butter Captain Crunch for breakfast three days in a row, I was allowed to kick him out of the car. That said, I have enjoyed my fair share of drive-thru fries, drive-up cranberry lime-ades, over-sized gas-station Chewy Sweet Tarts, and a flat of raspberries or strawberries bought by the side of the road, and you should to
7. Talk to Strangers
I know our parents taught us not to, but you’re a grown up now, and you can make your own decision. Talking to strangers – and, more importantly, listening to them – is one of the absolute hands-down best parts of a road trip. On my way to Joshua Tree a couple weeks ago, I stopped off at PioneerTown (see number 3, above) and had a great conversation with a guy named Rick who lived there. While Spanky made friends with his Jessie May, Rick told me the story of the etched silver Native American figure pin attached to his well-weathered hat. Turns out Cecil B DeMille had given it to his clairvoyant Mohegan grandmother when they sat next to one another on a flight. Last night, outside a bar and pizza parlor in the Sierras, I met a private pilot for a wealthy family who regularly flew them between their 12 different homes in the US and Mexico. The night auditor at a hotel I stayed at in Dallas, TX was a descendent of Quanah Parker, and I met the two jokers above at a temple in Burma, and traveled with them for a week. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly joyous.
The truth is a road trip is all about your attitude. My car no longer has functioning cruise control, which leads to right leg cramps on long trips. The seat is starting to collapse, which sometimes makes my back hurt. I could let these things bother me, but what’s the point? I’d rather find the local country station, slide the window down to let in the sweet smell of spring blowing off tree buds while I sip on a lemonade purchased by a road-side stand. Whatever your attitude, do one more thing: wear sunblock on your window arm. If you do nothing else I recommend, I promise you will thank me for this one.