When it comes to summer road trips, many of us share a family dream: to see America by car. From the cool beaches of North Carolina to the epic grandeur of the California coastline, America is home to so much magnificent beauty waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, daily routines, packed schedules, and a host of obligations tend to get in the way of making this dream our own reality.
Not too many summers ago, though, my boyfriend (now husband) and I made the decision to take a break from our hectic schedules and hit the road for this cross-country trip. Fresh out of college, we knew life was going to get more chaotic, and since we didn’t have many major commitments anchoring us down, we couldn’t imagine a better time to finally embark on this adventure. Because if not now, then when, right? So after months of planningof — and what seemed like endless visits to AAA for travel tips and route guidance — wWe packed up his silver Jeep Cherokee and off we went.
Over the next 31 days, we managed to drive through 19 states and cover over 8,500 miles. We embrace the open road as our home just as the people we meet in new destinations welcome us with open arms. From the rugged, snow-capped mountains in Colorado to the densely populated salt flats of Utah and the windswept prairies of the Midwest, our eyes were drenched in more beauty during those four weeks than I could ever have imagined. And to think that we barely scratch the surface of all the natural treasures that this great country overflows with. With our belongings on our backs and our future ahead, every mile brought new places to discover, new faces to meet, and of course, new memories to make.
But as glorious as our time on the road turned out to be, I’d be lying if I said it was glamorous. Look, for the first leg of the trip, time was not on our side, as we had concrete plans to meet up with family in California by the end of the week. Since we started the trip from our hometown outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, this meant covering more than 3,000 miles in just under seven days. I still remember the times when we would input destinations into the GPS only to see that we had about 499 miles to go. But after a few days of 10-hour driving, and too many petty arguments, we persevered. And luckily, our relationship too. However, if you could hit rewind, you certainly would have gotten more free time to wander and wander.
How does the saying go, “Hindsight is always 20/20!?”
Now that I think about it, I can’t help but laugh at all the little hiccups we ran into along the way. Being the broke college students that we were at the time, we knew that the only way to afford an adventure of this size would be through good old-fashioned camping. But oh, I’ll never forget that first night of sleeping under the stars. Having put all our sheets, pillows and sleeping bags in the luggage rack on top of the car, we didn’t even realize it wasn’t waterproof until we after the torrential downpour as we traversed Kentucky. As you can probably imagine, our stuff was completely soaked, which didn’t make either camper happy.
Fortunately, as time went on, our road skills improved, as did our common sense! — and we became experts at setting up tents. While sleeping on dry land doesn’t sound so appealing nowadays, it was what made this unforgettable trip possible. That and, of course, countless PB&J sandwiches. But hey, you have to work with what you have, and those mundane meals tasted pretty delicious at the time.
Looking back on our journey, my heart fills with gratitude for the life lessons I learned from that month along the way. For starters, I was able to recognize that such a road trip is not only doable, but can also be extremely affordable. As mentioned above, camping was the remedy to stretch our travel budget to the max. Using inexpensive campgrounds in national and state parks, we reconnected with nature and were able to rest for the night for as little as $20. The only drawbacks we found with these parks were that many of them did not have hot water as far as the bathhouses go. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather skip the shower altogether than be out in the freezing cold!
That being said, we also take advantage of other reputable campgrounds, like KOAs. While these campgrounds were a bit more expensive (starting at around $40 a night), they had all the amenities we needed…including hot showers.
Plus, we ended up saving a ton of money preparing our own meals. From farmer’s markets and roadside produce stands to the familiar aisles of Trader Joe’s, I was amazed at how creative we got when eating on the road. And when we ate out, because hey, what’s the point of traveling by road if you don’t partake in a bit of local cuisine? – we make sure to look for food deals. For example, we rarely ate out because it’s the most expensive food, and when we did eat in restaurants, we would opt for takeout to avoid tips etc.
This trip also allowed me to experience firsthand the goodness of the American people. No matter what state, region, or city we passed through, we were greeted with friendly faces, warm hearts, and open arms. One moment in particular that I hope never escapes my mind was when we arrived at our camp at the Grand Canyon. We had been walking all day and we were exhausted and hungry to say the least. However, our mood lifted as soon as we were unpacking and noticed a woodpile. At the top of the pile rested a folded white note that read: “For your late-night fireside chats. With love, the newlyweds. What an incredibly sweet and thoughtful gesture from two complete strangers!
These overwhelmingly joyous vibes dissolved any negative feelings I might have had in the back of my mind and gave me a greater appreciation for this country I am lucky to call home.
Ultimately, this adventure opened my eyes to finally understand how great America really is. While this country looks pretty big on a map, it’s not until you spend hours upon hours driving in a single state that you begin to understand its depth in size. Although the vastness of the USA may seem overwhelming, it oozes inspiration from every corner and it will take much more than an epic road trip for any of us to fully absorb its grandeur and complexity. However It’s a wonderful feeling to know that this country is home to such beauty and diversity. And the best part? Everything is fine here in our backyard.
While I’m not sure when I’ll have another day where I greet the morning with a walk to the Hollywood sign, only to stand under the twinkling lights of the Las Vegas strip at night, I must advance with appreciation that this unforgettable experience took place. And I can only hope that flashbacks of running through lush vineyards in California wine country or watching a fiery Grand Canyon sunset flood my mind forever.
If you’re on the fence about whether to hit the road and discover America, do it! I urge you to seize the opportunity and go for it. Yes, there will be long, monotonous days of driving, mornings waking up in sleeping bags sodden because it rained the night before despite the forecast calling for clear skies, and even some bone-chilling cold showers you’d rather not remember. But hey, aren’t these types of drops what make the climbs so unforgettable? Trust me, as you zigzag across the country, you won’t trade the moments from your car window for anything.
Image sources: top image.