Hitting the Road

Richard Connor

MY WIFE AND I JUST returned from the first extended road trip of our retirement. We were away two weeks, drove 2,800 miles and visited 10 states. The primary reason for the trip was to stay five days on a houseboat on Beaver Lake, Arkansas, with seven friends.

We broke the trip into three phases. The first part took us from New Jersey to northwest Arkansas in two-and-a-half days. Along the way, we stopped in St. Louis to visit the Gateway Arch National Park. We also drove a short distance along legendary Route 66 in Missouri. It wasn’t a very exciting section of the historic 2,448-mile highway. Next time, I’d like to traverse some of the more celebrated sections, especially a special corner of Winslow, Arizona.

Phase No. 2 was five days and nights on an 80-foot houseboat on Beaver Lake. We fished, swam, paddled, grilled, read, played games and enjoyed each other’s company. Seven of the nine passengers are retired or about to retire. Two of our friends are still actively working but looking forward to retirement. There were lots of discussions about travel destinations, Medicare and retirement locations.

The third phase consisted of a semi-leisurely drive through Memphis, Nashville and three places in North Carolina—Asheville, Winston-Salem and Raleigh. In Memphis, we toured Graceland, ate some good barbecue and heard terrific music on Beale Street. A special place in Memphis is the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. It’s quite sobering and educational, and well worth the time.

In Nashville, we hit some of the honky-tonks—Kid Rock’s and Jason Aldean’s—and had dinner with our nephew. Meanwhile, in Asheville, we hiked some of the Blue Ridge Parkway and strolled the city’s River Arts District with another nephew. We didn’t tour the historic Biltmore Estate on this trip but plan to return to the region and explore it, along with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For the remainder of the trip, we visited family. It was great to catch up with brothers, in-laws, nieces, nephews, and great-nieces and nephews. Several of my wife’s brothers had purchased homes during the pandemic, and it was fun to finally see their new places.

With some planning, we were able to keep our travel costs to a reasonable level. We used Marriott points to cover most of the hotel stays. Our total gas bill was around $400. Gasoline prices in the Midwest and South were less than $4 per gallon. We paid $3.19 in Tennessee.

Food costs were a mixed bag. We planned well for the boat trip by shopping at Costco before we left. We transported a 40-pound cube of frozen protein from New Jersey to Arkansas, which included salmon, chicken, steaks, lamb chops and other perishables. For the drive, we bought healthy foods, and snacked or picnicked along the way.

Restaurant prices around the country seemed to have all risen in concert. As part of our weight-loss efforts in 2022, we’re learning to make smarter and healthier choices when dining out. Sharing an entree and a salad helped our wallet and our waistline.

There was one restaurant that was a real bargain—Moose Café in South Asheville. For about $10, you got coffee, freshly baked biscuits with apple butter, a three-egg omelet loaded with your choice of fixings, and grits or hash browns. We turned down the carbohydrates, but they brought them anyway. The total bill was under $20. It’s nice to know such places still exist.

One theme we heard about throughout our trip was the noticeable migration to southeastern states. SmartAsset recently published an article that noted that high-earning households are migrating predominantly to Sun Belt states. The article’s findings meshed with the anecdotal stories we heard along the way.

North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee are receiving a large influx of households from higher-tax northern states like New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The shift was detectable in the ubiquitous construction we saw in Nashville and elsewhere.

The majority of my wife’s siblings and their children now live in North Carolina. Several moved from the Philadelphia region to be closer to children and grandchildren. Our friends who own the houseboat are actively considering where they might retire. Their primary home in Wichita, Kansas, is a five-hour drive from Beaver Lake. For many of us, planning where to retire is as important as saving for retirement.

The other overwhelming takeaway from our trip is obvious, but still profound: If travel is important to you, do it while you can. All of our boatmates strongly agreed with this. Family members we visited later in the trip also heartily echoed this advice. One lamented that she’d started slowing down when she reached age 70.

My wife and I have spent this year working on our health and fitness. This paid off nicely. On the trip, we were able to enjoy ourselves more, be more active and were generally more comfortable driving long distances. After two weeks on the road, we were pleasantly surprised that we weren’t exhausted and dying to get home to the Jersey shore.

There are several more places remaining on our bucket list. These include Alaska, the Rockies, and much of Europe and Canada. When I was drawing up our initial retirement budget, I included what I thought was a generous $2,000 per month for travel costs. We may exceed that over the next five years, but I’m okay with that. My advice to other retirees: Hit the road while you can.

Richard Connor is a semi-retired aerospace engineer with a keen interest in finance. He enjoys a wide variety of other interests, including chasing grandkids, space, sports, travel, winemaking and reading. Follow Rick on Twitter @RConnor609 and check out his earlier articles.

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