Road Trip USA: The Perfect Summer Vacation

Even though my school days are long past, May still brings the scent of summer vacation, riding in on the warm afternoon breezes and turning my mind to the joys and freedoms of childhood. And in my family, nothing said freedom like packing up the car and heading out on a long road trip.

Most summers we drove from San Antonio, Texas to the Pacific Northwest to visit my father’s family.  I made the first trip in 1953, just a few months after I was born, to meet my great-grandmother.

Over the following summers I played with cousins and second cousins that I saw only once a year. I learned to swim, fish and canoe in pristine lakes and creeks.

 

Black and white photograph of a family in 1953 at the end of a road trip. Great-grandmother holding two month old baby girl, father standing behind, mother kneeling and three year old sister standing.
Road trip goal: meeting my great-grandmother Trull.

How did my parents manage?

Over 2,000 miles each way, with no cell phones, no Interstate highways, few motels or gas stations. And, in the early days, no air conditioning. Did I mention we lived in Texas?

And yet my memories of those trips are pure magic. In the cool dark of early morning, my parents carried my sister and me, still sleeping, and laid us gently on our beds in the back seat, mine on the floor boards, hers on the seat. With a thermos full of hot Folgers coffee and a trunk full of camping gear, we rolled silently out of town.

Hours later, in some small Texas town, we’d stop for breakfast. What a wonder, to wake up in another world as if by magic. Already there was an ease and sense of adventure about us. Our daily routines and responsibilities had been left behind; who knew what waited ahead?

Sometime in the afternoon, we’d turn off the two lane hardtop and head down a side road to a camp site, often by a lake or creek. I have no idea how he found them, but my Dad, besides being thrifty with a dollar, loved to camp and fish. Out would come the canvas tent, the Coleman stove and lantern and all the rest. Once the tent was up and the sleeping bags unrolled, my Dad would wander off to fish and my Mom would set up kitchen.

I would go off exploring and my sister would – what? Help Mom? Read? We were free to do as we pleased. Often we were the only campers. Occasionally, we stayed in a state or national park, with other families around, but mostly I remember just the four of us, surrounded by nature in the glow of a campfire.

How long did it take to get to Idaho?

As a child, I was blissfully unaware and unconcerned about such matters.

Because my father was a school photographer, we had all summer and it seems as though that’s how long we took.

At least to a child.

Classic road trip Vintage hand tinted color postcard of Priest Lake Idaho and Chimney Rock.
Classic road trip postcard and our primary summer destination.

Now, as an adult, I am no longer unaware or unconcerned but I try to be blissful as often as possible. My parents gave me a precious gift in those long summer road trips and I still delight in them. For those of you whose childhood vacations perhaps didn’t provide such a thorough grounding in epic road trips, I’m here to help.

One reason our family trips were so memorable was that my parents understood what was important to them, what experiences they wanted to have and to share with their children. Nature. Freedom. Time together. Family. Exploration. They were simply living their values.

On a practical level, budget dictated some of their choices. Motel stays were limited to the night before we arrived at my grandmother’s house, so we could take proper baths. Eating in a cafe was just the first morning on the road. After that, it was meals in camp or sandwiches on the side of the road. But these choices only added to the richness of our experience. There was only a sense of abundance, never lack.

The first step in planning a road trip, especially a long one, is to understand your basic parameters. Every trip is different and there are always constraints of some kind so it’s worth taking a moment to think before hopping in the car. Here are the top ten questions to help you plan the perfect road trip.

1. Where are you going and why?

Right now, I’m planning a trip from California to Texas. We’re considering moving there to set up a home base that will better support our current lifestyle. David and I both grew up in Texas and we go back frequently to visit friends and family but we haven’t lived there since 1989. The state has changed – a lot – so we want to see if we can handle the heat and the politics.

2. How far is it?

The fastest route from Carmel Valley to our friend Pat’s house in Grand Prairie is 1634 miles and takes 25 hours to drive. If we each drive 4 1/2 hours a day and average 60 mph, we’d reach Pat’s in three days. So two nights on the road, minimum. 

If we avoid highways it’s 1841 miles and 33 hours. So add another day of driving and another night on the road. As much as we’re Blue Highways style travelers, we’ll use a combo approach on this trip. Some sections you just want to get through a quickly as possible; others invite you to linger.

3. How long do you have?

Like childhood, one of the joys of being mostly retired is not being constrained by time, which opens up possibilities. Even though we’ve driven from the west coast to Texas four times in the past ten years, there are still new routes to explore and favorite stops to revisit.

Still, given the reason for this trip, we don’t want to spend too much time on the road, so about a week to get there and probably the same to get back. Because we have a house sit arranged in Austin for the month of July, we’ll have time to plan our return trip later.

4. When are you going?

Since it will be early summer, camping and hiking are on our wish list.  I’ll need to do more research to figure out which campgrounds best suit us but the Oak Creek Canyon area south of Flagstaff is promising. So let’s add three nights camping to our trip – not worth setting up for anything less.

5. What is your budget?

I am my father’s daughter and David actually has Scotch blood so we
naturally want to spend the least amount to have the best experience. On an epic five month road trip in 1994 we budgeted $25 a night for motels – supplemented liberally with camping and stays with friends and family and friends of friends.

While we’ve increased our budget since then, we’re happiest when we find a classic motel, usually on the old highway, that offers a clean, basic room. The Cedar Lodge in Dunsmuir, California is our latest find in this category. For less than $75 it even included parrots!

Road trip update: A colorful parrot giving you the eye.
What are you looking at?
The classic road trip motel: Cedar Lodge motel. Dunisuir, CA.
Perfect road trip motel.
Road trip classic: Morning coffee outside near the aviary, Cedar Lodge motel. Dunsmuir, CA.
Perfect start to a day on the road.

We always travel with a cooler packed with easy to eat tasty snacks and microwaveable dinners, which are often better than what’s on offer at the local diner. For us, a big part of staying healthy on the road is eating well and that’s harder to manage when you eat out. And every penny we save means more time traveling.

Gas prices can vary dramatically from state to state so checking prices before your trip can help you decide where and when to fill up. For example, gas in California currently averages $4.08 a gallon, while in Arizona it’s $3.13.

6. Who is going with you?

Nothing is a truer test of a relationship than a long road trip. I wish we’d been keeping track of all the miles David and I have driven together. Our Ford Explorer has over 276,000 miles on it – and we’d already been together fifteen years when we bought it. Luckily we both love road trips and share travel styles. Just being kind to each other takes care of the rest.

7. What are you driving?

Although we’re close to buying a newer car, we’ll take our trusty Explorer on this trip. We recently drove to Portland and back, 1500 miles round trip, with no problems. We had a strange leak checked out by our favorite mechanic and recently replaced the tires, shocks and battery.  But we won’t drive long, hard days at high speed or get too far off in the boonies.

8. How is your health?

Although I still love driving as much as ever, I enjoy it more when I limit myself to five or six hours a day. Fortunately we don’t have any major health issues – we just have to recognize our limits and plan accordingly. We generally stop only when we need gas – every three hundred miles or so – but we’re flexible.

9. What is your tolerance for risk?

Over the years, we’ve found a balance that works for us. The secret is to talk to each other. Yes. it’s that simple. For a harmonious trip, speak up if the spontaneous decision to drive all night makes you uncomfortable. And remember that compromise is not a sign of weakness.

10. What's your biggest constraint?

On this trip, it’s clearly our car. We’ve done everything we can to prepare it. It might go another 100,000 miles. Or it might not. Because we have the time, we’re willing to roll the dice and are prepared to deal with any problems that might arise on the road.

Putting it all together.

We’ll stick close to the major highways and drive no more than eight hours or 450 miles a day. At that rate we’ll spend a minimum of three nights on the road. Adding three nights camping is likely. Figuring $80 a night for a motel and $12 night camping that’s $276 for lodging.

Based on current prices, gasoline is $260 – $290 each way. Because we usually eat out only once a day, food costs should be around $60 a day. Seven days, $420. But, you have to eat where ever you are, so the additional cost is closer to $200. So roughly $1500 will get us to Texas and back.

Why not just fly?

This is the question David asked me after reading the rough draft of this post.

While it’s true we could fly for $200 round trip per person, we would need to rent a car for the six weeks we’ll be in Texas. Costco, which consistently has the best rates, lists a compact car for $1752. Is it worth an additional $650 to avoid the wear and tear on our Explorer? Maybe. Probably. But then it’s not a road trip.

Flying doesn’t even come close to the feeling of days on the open highway, eyes on the distant horizon, feeling the miles roll by.

And, no camping or hiking. Or revisiting favorite places, like the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico.

So, thank you, no.

We’ll see you on the highway!

Road trip classic: Blue Swallow Motel neon sign at night on Route 66.
Lighting up the night sky on Route 66 since 1939.

When's your next road trip?

We’d love to hear about your road trip experiences – past, present and future. And please share any tips you’ve discovered traveling America’s highways and byways.

8 Comments

  • Bob Abell

    Reading about your family road trips reminded me of our family trips to the Maritime provinces. My parents would load the five kids in the back seat, and Dad would pull our pop- up tent trailer from Ontario out east. Only as an adult do I realize how adventurous my parents were, even if they never traveled to far off and exotic lands. Buying our first lobsters from the docks in PEI, and cooking them at our campsite now seems pretty exotic. Memories of camping in Cape Breton, seeing the home of Anne of Green Gables, and the joy of cracking our first lobsters around a picnic table are priceless. Jo Ann thanks for sharing your childhood memories of your road trips, and stirring awake mine this morning. Hi to David.
    Cheers, Bob

  • Sarahlee

    Your description of the road is so appealing – thank you! I love those photos of the old motels with the neon lights. Love you guys. Happy travels!!!!

  • Erin Herlihey

    One of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced on a road trip was the Musical Highway on Route 66 just outside Tijeras, New Mexico. When you drive over rumble strips in the lane at exactly the speed limit (45 mph) the vibrations from the strips play a song! (I won’t say which song… Don’t want to spoil it for anyone who wants to go check it out!) It was such a cool experience that my family and I turned around and drove over it a second time! There are very few such musical highways in the world… It’s a must-do if you are ever in the area!

    • How did I not know about that – that is so cool! And we’ll go right through there on our way to Texas so look for an update in a few weeks. Thanks Erin – you and your family are true SilverTrekkers!

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