6 Things I Learned Road-tripping the United States

To write The Open Road: 50 Best Road Trips in the USA, I did a lot of research. As in, I drove thousands of miles across the country, exploring every nook and cranny.

Sure, it took time. Yes, it took planning. But more importantly, it took an open-heart-open-mind disposition to be receptive to whatever came my way. Here’s what I learned.    

America has great food

And thanks to the blend of cultural influences that comprise our country, we have a bunch of different food depending on where you are.

Tasting the regional specialties was probably one of my favorite things about road-tripping. My top 10 list would go something like this:

  • Pimento cheese sandwiches in Savannah, Georgia
  • Green chile everything in Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Potato pancakes and pickled herring in Wisconsin’s Door County
  • Beignets in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Thin-crust pizza in Chicago, Illinois
  • All the cheese in the Champlain Valley, Vermont
  • Bourbon in Kentucky
  • Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley, Oregon
  • Hot chicken in Nashville, Tennessee
  • Sonoran hot dogs in Phoenix, Arizona

There are more roadside attractions than you think.

I thought the “World’s Largest [insert normal-sized thing that has now been made gigantic]” was a myth or just something in movies, but nope. There are some very real, very fascinating roadside attractions in the United States, especially on Route 66. The oddest, coolest, and most unique:

  • Art installation made of upside-down Cadillacs in Amarillo, Texas
  • Multi-story rocking chair in Fanning, Missouri
  • Whale the size of a house in Catoosa, Oklahoma
  • 66-foot, LED-lit sculpture of a soda bottle in Arcadia, Oklahoma
  • Motel where all the rooms are shaped like teepees in Holbrook, Arizona

The magic of a road trip is indulging in spur-of-the-moment decisions, but having a loose outline of where you’re going each day and how long it takes to get there keeps things moving along smoothly. Plan for 4-5 hours of drive-time per day, although this is up to your comfort level and goals for the trip. If you want to stop often and see the sights, allow for less daily mileage. If you’re hoping to simply get from Point A to Point B, add more drive-time. In general, for a 14-day trip, aim for a total of 1,600-1,800 miles; for three days, plan for 200-300 miles.

America is big….like, really huge  

This sounds obvious, but I had no concept of our country’s sheer size until I drove coast to coast. The Loneliest Road – Route 50 – runs from Sacramento (sort of the coast) to Ocean City, Maryland. As it winds and turns, it passes through all sorts of landscapes from dry deserts to thickly wooded mountains and it threads through diverse communities from rural farming towns to vibrant city centers. 

People are nice

This surprised me. Not that I thought folks would be outright rude, it was more a preconceived belief that most people keep to themselves. But no matter where I went, when someone found out I was traveling the country and passing through their hometown, they got excited and went out of their way to share local insights, favorite places, even going as far as to give me free aquarium passes (Oregon Coast) or pick up the tab for lunch (West Texas).

A solid playlist can be the best companion

I’m all for thoughtful rumination on the open road, especially on the solitary stretches of highway that make up the western portion of the Loneliest Road.

But a strong lineup of good tunes did more than help pass the time for me – it acted as a soundtrack to my trip, giving a touch of drama to sweeping mountain views or a bit of melancholy to a pink sunset. I tried to cue up music that was as regional as possible to heighten the sense of place: Dolly Parton in Tennessee, Buddy Guy in Chicago, George Strait in Texas.

Things will go wrong. That’s OK!

I took exits I wasn’t supposed to. I forgot to book a hotel once or twice. I came thisclose to running out of gas. But what the road trip taught me was that making mistakes isn’t the end; it’s just part of the journey. I figured things out, I problem-solved, I adjusted, I learned to be flexible. And those are lessons that’ll stay with me longer than where to get the best pimento cheese sandwich. 

author Jessica dunham

Jessica Dunham

About the Author

Jessica Dunham lives in Phoenix with her husband and two spunky dogs, but inherited a family summer home on Lake Champlain in Vermont. This seemed heavenly to her, until she tried to imagine getting there from halfway across the country. Then it required some effort and a little imagination. The only way to transport the herd from one place to another was to pile into a Jeep and drive. That's is how she came to know and love the Mother Road, and became an expert on the ins and outs of Route 66. 

She's since driven from Phoenix to Vermont and back again six times, traversed the Southwest portion of Route 66 hundreds of times, napped in leafy parks, slept in a wigwam and at a Best Western, camped in tents, dined at mom-and-pop eateries, met strangers, and made friends in almost every town dotting the famed highway. She's seen the sun rise over Illinois cornfields and watched it set over the Pacific Ocean. After all this, she considers the beating heart of blacktop from Chicago to Santa Monica home.

Formerly a travel guide editor at Madden Media, Jessica is now a freelance travel writer. Her writing has been featured in PHOENIX magazine, Valley Guide, Phoenix Travel Guide, Arizona Visitor's Guide, Midwest Living, Phoenix New Times, Modern Luxury, Annapolis Visitors Guide, Connecticut Visitors Guide, Runner's World, Jane, Discover South Carolina, and more. Jessica is also the author of The Open Road: 50 Best Road Trips in the USA.

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