Sweat cascading over your brow, one eye on a road atlas and the other on the road, anger percolating as you curse yourself and everyone within earshot of the car. You're completely, utterly and hopelessly lost.
Go with it.
It doesn't matter that you don't have a clue where you are or how to get back home. Enjoy the ride. That's the first and most important step for pulling off a successful road trip.
Sure, gas might be pricier than what we're accustomed to, but it still costs less than half of what it does in the Netherlands. Don't feel guilty, just go with it. We'll hit $5 per gallon here soon enough, but from a global standpoint, this summer's gas prices remain at relatively bargain-basement levels.
So invest $50 of mid-grade and a weekend of time in that much-needed summer road trip. But keep in mind the nature of the beast: There are plans to make, precautions to take and things to pack. Spontaneity goes a long way, but a little forethought can go even farther. For a good trip, there's a balance somewhere between the two.
Beyond the mundane details of arranging lawn watering and dog watching, there are a number of preparations that can make or break a summer excursion. First, one must whittle down the dizzying array of destinations, traveling companions and modes of transport. Keep your options open, but take heed: Where you go and who you go with are two of the most important decisions you can make. So pick places you think you'll like and people you know you do.
Should it be the beach with the significant other in a convertible, or the mountains with college friends in a Jeep? Why limit yourself? Free your mind, and your plans will follow. Why not hitchhike with your childhood pal to the spot where Evel Knievel failed to jump the Snake River Canyon? How about riding a chopper to Carhenge with Grandma in the sidecar? The more pointless the destination, the purer the road trip. Ditch your Disneyland and Yellowstone plans in favor of some really obscure endpoints, like a festival dedicated to canned meat or a large metal object that a delusional junkman intends to fly into space. By achieving an extremely high level of pointlessness, one may totally discard all expectations about the trip's goal and enjoy it for what it is: a road trip.
Once you've got a Point B and a co-pilot or two, map out a rough, flexible plan. A minute-by-minute agenda is stifling. Keep in mind that the road trip is the yang to the yin of home. It's best to devise a trip that's in stark contrast to your typical everyday routine. If you're always inside, focus on the outdoors. If you normally exercise and eat healthy, focus on Twinkies. If you are locked in to the humdrum tempo of nine-to-five life, get drunk at odd hours.
Then there are the luxuries of refreshments, music and assorted amenities relating to in-car comfort. A good rule of thumb: Don't be too finicky. If it'll fit in the car, bring it. You're going on a weekend road trip, not backpacking across Europe. Sure, bring that dusty encyclopedia set. It'll be a good conversation starter on the Kansas plains.
While in transit, it's nice to break up the highway time with a little leg-stretching and casual investigation of the various attractions within striking distance of the route. Invest an hour during an all-day drive to get out of the car and see a baseball bloated by thousands of coats of paint, or a statue garden consisting of old cars. At the very least, it's good for the circulation.
The ephemeral nature of the road trip also opens up some interesting possibilities. As William Least Heat-Moon wrote in Blue Highways, there are "no yesterdays on the road." Take advantage of this fact. Make up a fictional backstory for yourself, preferably something that includes the Olympics and an early retirement.
Finally, once you make it "there," do it, but don't overdo it. This might be the only time you make it to this particular point on the Earth's surface. Take advantage of the opportunities at hand. I regret to this day that I skimped in 1993 and did the basic Mansion Tour at Graceland instead of upgrading to the Platinum Tour for an extra $7, which would have gotten me a look at the King's planes and cars and memorabilia. (On the bright side, I intend to do up the Platinum this summer -- or maybe even the $55 VIP tour.)
On the overdoing it front, however, regardless of what you've heard, what happens in Vegas does not necessarily stay in Vegas. A murder rap or the clap, for instance, tends to come home with you.
Then there are the unavoidable decisions about where to stay and what to eat. My rule of thumb is to stay in the cheapest roadside motel available. There is no reason to do much more than sleep and shower here. Anything more luxurious would be a distraction from the task at hand -- that is, unless this is the final destination. Then, by all means, get the room with the hot tub shaped like a champagne glass.
Food is another story. Find out what the locals eat when they're on a drinking binge. The spicier the better, and the cuddlier the source animal, the better. Throw caution to the wind with your culinary choices. Keep caution close at hand when it comes to water, however.
The final key to surviving a summer road trip: survive. Go nuts, but drive safely. At the end of it all, drag yourself back home in one piece so you can reboot that humdrum everyday reality, fine-tune it for the better part of a year and then blow it to bits once again with another deranged odyssey on the American highway.
Picket Wire Canyonlands,
Comanche National Grassland
225 miles southeast of Denver
If you really want to get away from it all, don't go to the mountains. Embark on the road far less taken and head down to Picket Wire Canyonlands, one of the few geological anomalies on the Colorado plains. Accessed via a trailhead about 25 miles southwest of La Junta, Picket Wire Canyonlands got its name from uncouth settlers who bastardized the name of French Purgatoire, the river that carved this piñon-and-mesquite-dotted revelation. About four miles into the wide, sandstone-crusted gash, there's a cemetery that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the area was part of a ranching empire. Two miles farther is another sign of former inhabitants: the largest dinosaur-track site in the United States. You can hike, bike or giddyap, but pick a mild day and bring your sunscreen.
140 miles southwest of Denver
With a gallery-laden downtown that is Colorado's largest historic district and an enviable, low-lying position amid 14,000-foot peaks, Salida can satiate impulses both civilized and wild. Under the gaze of the Collegiate Peaks, the Sangre de Cristos and the Sawatch Range, the area is rafting and mountain-biking central. Thanks to Salida's cozy elevation (about 7,000 feet), it's one of the few places in the country where you can conveniently spend the afternoon in the crisp air above the timberline and the night combing the bars below in a T-shirt and shorts.
San Luis Valley
200 miles southwest of Denver
The largest alpine valley on the planet, the San Luis is the only flat expanse of any note in the Colorado Rockies. In this 8,500-square-mile space is the state's oldest town (San Luis) and some of its most enigmatic attractions: Beyond the natural (the Great Sand Dunes), there's the historic (the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway), the unnatural (the Colorado Alligator Farm), and the downright odd (the UFO Watchtower). Within that one sentence is a week of exploration, easy.
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Snowy Range Pass
200 miles northwest of Denver
Drifts dominate the landscape atop Snowy Range Pass well into the Colorado summer -- which would be more surprising if this weren't Wyoming. The top of the Medicine Bows doesn't see the traffic of some of Colorado's mountain destinations, but its position west of Laramie is just a few hours from Denver. Frontier-turned-tourist towns like Centennial, Saratoga and Woods Landing sit at the range's feet. The latter of the three looks like a town on a road map, but it probably wouldn't be on the map at all if it weren't for its centerpiece: an authentic backwoods roadhouse built on 24 giant boxcar springs. When the place is rocking on a weekend night, it bounces -- literally.
Yellowstone National Park
About 600 miles northwest of Denver
Whenever road-trip season approaches, I think of the tale of Truman Everts, the first person to get lost in what is now Yellowstone National Park. Everts was an accountant from Vermont who volunteered for a Yellowstone expedition in 1870 -- despite the fact that he was 54 and had no outdoor experience. Inevitably, Truman got lost and, almost needless to say, nearly perished during the 37 days he spent alone in the Yellowstone wilderness. The guy who saved Everts almost shot him, because the dirt-caked creature crawling up the hill looked so much like a bear. Avoid his fate, and try the Yellowstone Association Institute's guided forty-mile backpacking trip along the Nez Perce Trail.