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On The Road

For young Americans, the cross-country road trip is iconic—an often-embarked-upon expedition that’s “part of this classic American narrative of growing up.”


For young Americans, the cross-country road trip is iconic—an often-embarked-upon expedition that’s “part of this classic American narrative of growing up,” says Andrew Hilty, a 24-year-old nursing student and recent veteran of the coast-to-coast trek.

“There’s something so romantic about that kind of journey,” Hilty says.

The romance comes from the off-the-beaten-path discoveries and unanticipated encounters travelers make along the way.

 

Which road(s) to travel?
America’s Interstate Highway System weaves plenty of routes through mountains and parks, into cities and towns, across rivers and around lakes, leading from one ocean to the other. Common itineraries cross either northern states or southern states, depending on travelers’ needs and interests. Route 66 offered a path that crossed both, running from Southern California through the Southwest, turning north through parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, ending in Chicago. The road no longer exists on most maps though, because the Interstate Highway System replaced it. Some states have labeled sections of converted highways “Historic Route 66.”

Hilty took five days in 2012 to drive from his childhood home near San Francisco, California to his graduate school in Portland, Maine. He drove Highway 80 nearly the entire way—it is the most direct northern route—stopping overnight in Utah, Nebraska, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. He planned his route strategically to include places he had never been, like Nebraska and Iowa.

Nebraska proved especially impressive, treating Hilty to his “favorite adventure” of the trip at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

“One of my interests is in paleontology and…they had the world’s largest mammoth specimen. This thing is monstrously huge and completely dwarfed my expectations. I was not disappointed,” Hilty says about the 14-feet skeleton.

Planning for a U.S. Road Trip

When the urge to hit the road is irresistible, go for the adventure, according to veteran cross-country road-tripper, Branden Meadows.

But while the decision to execute a trip may be spontaneous, and the people you meet along the way excellent guides, Andrew Hilty and Meadows do recommend taking certain calculated steps to keep the journey safe and smooth and budgets under control.

Research everything

Hilty relied on Yelp.com for reviews of restaurants and lodging choices. He especially wanted to be sure he chose hostels or hotels in comfortable neighborhoods.

Time the trip wisely

Meadows recommends traveling in the summer to guarantee the best weather possible. Heat can be a factor, however, so he cautions travelers to “have plenty of water and a good air conditioner.”

Insure your safety

It is wise to join a service like AAA (www.aaa.com), which provides roadside assistance, flat tire changes, fuel delivery and other emergency services.

Prioritize spending

Do you love adventure sports? Uniquely cultural food? Whatever it is, skimp in other areas to save for your favorites. Meadows and his friends packed snacks to save money on the road so they could have the funds to indulge in unique taste sensations in the Southern cities they visited.

—C.L.M.

Exploring the lower half of the country, Nick Holeman, Branden Meadows and R.J. Ruppel chose a southern route from West to East and back again. The friends, who are finishing (or in Meadows’ case, just finished) their undergraduate studies at San Diego State University, drove from San Diego, California to Nashville, Tennessee, stopping in Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana and Alabama on the way. Heading back home, they visited Missouri, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.

Holeman, Meadows and Ruppel count Dallas, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Nashville, Tennessee as their favorite spots. The cities offer “downtown areas [that are] great for people our age,” Meadows says. Holeman “fell in love with the southern hospitality and the southern accents… country music and good barbeque” in Dallas, he says. But nature won them over, too, with a night under the stars in Moab, Utah and an encounter with unique jellyfish on an evening walk on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

“The species of jellyfish did not sting you or harm you in any way. You were able to pick [them] up…” says Meadows. “They would light up with any movement…so the waves looked like they had little electrical currents running through them, one of the most amazing sights I had seen in nature.”

 

Expect, and enjoy, the unexpected
Before leaving San Diego, Holeman, Meadows and Ruppel created an itinerary that planned their 15-day trip down to the hour. They also packed what they deemed to be essentials in an attempt to save some money along the way—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a case of bottled water, Gatorade, blankets and pillows.

While the rations were worthwhile, the itinerary was useful only as a vague guideline, Holeman says, as the travelers forgot to account for the time changes they would experience as they drove.

The absence of a strict plan ended up leaving welcome room for spontaneity. For instance, at the suggestion of a local they met at a gas station in New Mexico, the friends detoured to visit the White Sands National Monument.

“It was one of the most gorgeous spots of the trip,” Holeman says. “There were huge dunes of white sand as far as you could see. The sun setting in the background was incredible.”

Traveling without a plan paid off in the adventure category for Hilty, too. Had he predetermined a dinner stop in Erie, Pennsylvania, he never would have stumbled upon Jr.’s Last Laugh, where food came along with a comedy-filled dueling piano performance. The pianists noticed Hilty when he entered the club.

“When I said I was from California they...incorporated me into the show. They had me singing with them,” Hilty says.

Hilty’s free spirit served him well throughout the trip, leading him to meet “really friendly” people.

“You could tell [people] got excitement out of talking to someone who was living in this temporarily transient state. They helped me along the way and hopefully I entertained them with my easygoingness at the time,” says Hilty. “Those human interactions are what make the experience so rich.”

 

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.