Ah, the road trip! That great American tradition that lets you embrace the freedom of your own wheels as they eat up the open road, watch the beautiful country scrolling past your windows, etc. etc.
Only problem is, I really don’t like to drive.
Within a couple hours at the wheel, I’m rocking from side to side on my aching buttocks. My jaw clenches tight with stress, a headache claws at my temples, and my right knee cramps up over the pedals. Conversation is reduced to grunts and snaps. That’s no way to enjoy a vacation.
The goal of this road trip was for Nash and I to start in Washington, visit Nash’s family in Montana, and end up with my family in California, all while avoiding those long six to eighteen hour hauls that are the staple of the traditional road trip. As we mapped out our route, we planned to drive no more than four hours in a day.
That was a difficult goal to stick to. When looking at a zoomed-out map of the United States, all the highlights look so reachable, which led to statements like, “If we drive six more hours we can make it to Arches National Park!”
It was so tempting to just push on to the next “destination” in order to check off more of those bucket list spots. However, in action, a road trip with less driving didn’t mean less fun. Instead we found more than we bargained for.
“You’re headed to Palouse?” our first night’s host asked. “If you take the northern route along highway 2 instead of I-90, it’s a lot more scenic and you can stop by Soap Lake.”
It would only increase our driving to 3 and a half hours, still under the four hour limit. And that’s how we found ourselves driving through an agricultural heartland with orchards and canyons and rolling green hills, a side of Washington I had overlooked on earlier my drives straight across it. We tested out Soap Lake’s mineral healing powers in one of the lawn chairs scattered around its shore. It didn’t make me feel any healthier, but my feet got a good dose of stinky slime.
On the other end of our trip, it was another tip from an Airbnb host that led us to an Art and Chocolate walk in the town of Bishop, California. We wandered in and out of art shops, listening to live music and having awkward conversations with store owners between mouthfuls of free homemade brownies and ice cream and cake pops.
When I was a kid, there was a sense of excitement about eating in the car, though the aftermath of scattered wrappers and the lingering scent of McDonalds fries was yucky. But since this trip was all about slowing down, we skipped the drive throughs and instead ate at gathering spots like diners and coffee shops, with the occasional trendy restaurant tossed in.
The award for Best Diner goes to the Alabama Hills Cafe in Lone Pine, California, just north of Death Valley and in the shadow of Mt Whitney. After a good old classic breakfast, we followed the route painted on their wall to explore all the crazy rock formations that have been featured in dozens of western movies.
Best Cafe goes to Watchtower Cafe in Salt Lake City. It was HUGE, multiple rooms full of couches and board games and tubs of Legos and lined with local comic book art. I Skyped with my family from a recliner while drinking a BB-8 boba tea. It even offers weekly free Jedi yoga, amongst many other events.
And Best Restaurant of the trip belongs to Lotus Organic in Jackson, Wyoming, where everything from their herbal “coffee” to their bowl with cauliflower “rice” and cashew-shiitake cakes was so weird and fresh and flavorful that we couldn’t stop ordering more just to taste it.
More Crazy Lodging
I’ve been guilty of driving late into the night to see how far I can get before checking into a Motel 6 or other generic roadside inn at 2am. While these motels are perfectly serviceable, they tend to blur together into a stream of dated decor and bland continental breakfasts.
That was definitely not the case of the lodging on this trip. Each place we stayed added its story to our own.
In a mansion-turned-bnb tucked into the mountains overlooking the lake at Coeur d’Alene, we watched a horror movie in the kitchen and hung out with elderly equestrians over breakfast.
We relived our college days next to Missoula’s campus with laptop movies and $2 pizza slices while staying in the room of the University of Montana’s star female soccer player.
In Driggs Idaho, we learned the mysteries of yak farming – “just Google what they eat and how much of it” – and played tug-of-war with the family’s three dogs while the shy yak herd watched on. The yellow lab won the game after he dragged the Newfoundland all the way down the porch.
In a yurt in Pocatello, Nash loaded up the wood stove with a bunch of fresh logs before we headed to bed. It turned the entire yurt into a furnace. We opened the windows to cool down, but a huge storm shot rain inside while the wind screamed against the fabric walls. We didn’t get much sleep, but perked up when a girl showed up in the morning with a ginormous breakfast.
We slept in my tent in multiple national and state parks. Our nights were wrapped up in stars and scrub brush and coyote howls. We learned how to bake bread and make bagels on a backpacking camp stove and do our laundry in a bag.
Tired and dirty after several days of camping and hiking, we checked into the five-star hotel Vdara on the Las Vegas strip, which was unique only in that it’s completely non-smoking and non-gambling. However, it was just a short walk to the Bellagio casino, where I put a dollar into a confusing Game of Thrones slot machine, immediately won $12 when the White Walkers attacked the Wall or something, cashed out, and spent my winnings on chocolate at Jean-Philippe.
In fact, the closest we came to a standard motel was the Virginian Lodge in Jackson Wyoming, and even that boasted a lot of character, with its own drive-up liquor window and saloon.
Our average cost of lodging for two people, including our splurge nights and all those homemade breakfasts, was $74. When combined with our time staying with family, this dropped $40 per night for the month – not exactly budget travel, but not bad in a country where the average hotel price is $120.
Each evening, we had plenty of time to work any kinks out of our muscles and explore the area under the power of our own two feet. We jogged down riverside bike paths, through desert canyons, and up hills overlooking fall-washed towns.
On a walk through Nash’s parent’s property in Montana, we got lost in the details of the local fauna.
In the Utah countryside, we found escaped pigs and a raccoon that lived in the underbelly of a truck. On another evening walk, miles from civilization, we spot a litter of fluffball feral kittens.
Our walk through Salt Lake City took us through their awesome library and passed beneath Space Jesus at the Mormon temple.
Then, of course, there were the hikes (which for me are more like main attractions than “exercise”). We did classic National Park hikes like the Artist’s Point Loop Trail along Yellowstone Canyon and even experienced what it’s like to be alone in the Zion Narrows.
In less than twenty four hours, we went from walking across Death Valley’s Badwater Basin at -282 feet to nearly 11,150 feet above Little Lakes Valley in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. By the way, this is not advisable – Nash got a mean case of altitude sickness which was only cured by watching the movie Deliverance and eating minestrone soup.
I even had my inflatable kayak along in the back of the car, though the crisp fall air and shallow waters didn’t give us many opportunities to use it, and there were several state-based permit restrictions.
At each stop, we stopped to imagine what it would be like to make a life in this place, just like all the people around us. We built up our daydreams using home prices on Zillow, restaurant ratings on Yelp, and job listings on Indeed.
What color would our house be? What bakery and Thai restaurant would we frequent? What schools would our hypothetical kids go to?
And since we’re currently not tied to a place, we may very well turn one of these daydreams into a reality…
Our western road-trip turned out to be an incredibly positive experience – low stress, completely safe, and affordable. By keeping our driving to a maximum of 4 hours each day, were able to explore oft-overlooked places at our leisure. I found it to be a really good way to get back in touch with some sweeter parts of life that had taken a back seat throughout college and my early work career.
Even if you don’t have the luxury of a whole month’s time, you can still slow the pacing of your road trip by changing where it takes you. Sometimes, it can so tempting to try to collect the best attractions and cities like valuable coins. Yet, we have found that there can be every bit as much value in sleeping in a place that others might describe as boring. It’s amazing what can turn out to be so fun when you have a good friend with you and an open mind!