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America the Drivable

Richard Quinn

I’M BASICALLY A BORING kind of guy. I’ve been known to fall asleep during a raging house party. But when it comes to travel, you’ll find me wide awake. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

Given the hassle of international travel right now, Connie and I decided to see more of the U.S., rambling from state to state, planning no more than a day or so in advance.

We’ve just finished our third cross-country road trip since 2014. We had two goals for this trip: to complete visiting all 50 states and to see the locations of my wife’s favorite HGTV shows—first Indianapolis, then Waco, Texas, and finally Laurel, Mississippi.

Oklahoma was one missing state, and I wanted to see the memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing. Our most distant target was Idaho Falls, just because we hadn’t been to Idaho. There we stumbled onto the Idaho Potato Museum and had a baked potato smothered in beef stroganoff. What more can you ask for?

Along the way, we found the birthplaces of Thomas Edison in Ohio and Herbert Hoover in Iowa. Did you know Edison went bankrupt at age 18 and Hoover was an orphan at seven? It’s amazing what you can learn when you pay attention to those roadside historical markers.

Several weeks ago, Rick Connor recounted his recent road trip. At age 65, Rick is still in the go-go years of retirement. By the usual measures, Connie and I are not, given our ages of 79 and 83. “Balderdash,” I say. People with the means and reasonable health don’t think about averages or norms. Instead, they press on for as long as possible.

Our road trips are about seeing this great land, learning its history and meeting people who lead lives very different from ours. If I stand next to someone for more than five seconds, I strike up a conversation.

I learn how similar and how different we can be. A group of bikers, a minister, and a fellow from the Alabama town where I was stationed in the Army 50 years ago all fell prey to my questioning. At restaurants, servers are a great source of insight into local events.

There are some rules to be followed. When you’re “in the middle of nowhere” and talking to a local, don’t say that to them. Remember, you’re actually in their hometown, and their family may have lived there for generations.

At one stop “in the middle of nowhere,” I asked a local how people earn a living. “There aren’t as many jobs as there used to be, but we have the coal mine and the natural gas wells,” was the reply. This was not the time for a discussion about global warming.

Southern Utah

I enjoy driving. Connie doesn’t drive much since losing sight in one eye. In total, we traveled 7,000 miles in a little over three weeks. The U.S. has such an incredibly diverse landscape. It’s impossible to describe. Neither words nor photos can come close.

Sixteen percent of Americans have not left their home state, according to a recent survey. Many Americans have no desire to travel, which is beyond my comprehension. The only data I could find said the average American has visited 12 states. There’s no reliable data on how many of us have visited all 50 states, but it’s relatively few.

As I drove across the prairies of Nebraska and Wyoming, I thought about those early pioneers walking those endless miles, month after month. Imagine what they thought, after all that time, looking over the next hill and seeing the Rocky Mountains facing them.

“Another fine mess you’ve gotten us in, Pa. Now, what are we supposed to do?”

“Just keep going, Ma, keep going forward.” Thankfully, they did.

Once, as we were driving in Montana, I thought I saw an Indian hunting party atop a distant hill. Or maybe it was my imagination since we’d just visited an old Indian buffalo hunting ground.

Many times, I’ve heard that spending money on experiences is far better than on stuff. I fully agree, but what you experience also makes a difference. My idea of a great experience isn’t a $12 turkey leg in one hand while waiting to shake hands with a four-fingered mouse. Rather, I get a thrill from watching Navaho horsemen wrangling their flock of sheep, or driving the mountain roads of Zion National Park with no guardrails, or seeing 100 hot air balloons ascend at once.

When we take a road trip, we begin with a vague itinerary and no budget, although I know where the money is coming from—our travel account. On this trip, we spent about $45 a day on gasoline and a total of $4,280 on hotels. Food added some $1,800, including tips. Admissions and miscellaneous charges boosted the tab by roughly $1,200. Altogether, the 23-day trip cost $8,315.

My preferred mode of travel is a comfortable sedan and a comfy hotel room each night. I realize others see it differently. Still, how does emptying an RV’s grey water each night count as fun? To each their own. As I pass a middle-aged couple driving a $60,000 pickup truck towing a $40,000 RV towing $20,000 worth of motorcycles, I’m thinking, “Have they fully funded their IRA?”

I filled the gas tank each night. When driving out West, there are times when gas stations are few and far between. If you run out of gas on some roads, you’ll be on the missing persons’ list in short order. If you have a favorite gas station—perhaps so you can earn points—good luck. Take what you can get.

Dining can be a challenge. We avoided fast food as much as possible in favor of local restaurants, but many times we ended up in chains like Olive Garden and Cracker Barrel. We even found a Jersey Mike’s sub shop in Arizona. BBQ at a famous Texas restaurant was a disappointment, but gumbo on top of jambalaya in Louisiana was a winner, as were the beignets.

Watch your speed. Traveling down an interstate highway on the Great Plains, with no trees on either side to give you a sense of speed, you can easily find yourself cruising at 90 miles per hour without realizing it. The open spaces are tempting for this former rally car driver, and I love to push the limits.

Zion National Park

If the posted speed is 80, I figure they mean 90, but don’t count on it. My personal best is 115 mph. I was headed to 120, but Connie woke up murmuring something about a crazy old man. Driving along I-80 at 75 mph is not a good time to open the sunroof. It will test your eardrums and, trust me, all the screaming wind will not suck that fly out of the car.

Resist tchotchkes. A stuffed Armadillo may be cool in Texas, but not so much in your living room in Connecticut. That cowboy hat only looks good on a cowboy west of the Mississippi.

What does an old couple, married 54 years, do confined in a car for hours at a time? That’s a piece of cake. Try a ship’s cabin for weeks. Believe it or not, we talk on the road more than at home.

When something comes up that we question or want to learn about, we always have our companion. “Hey, Siri.” On long road trips, we develop a special relationship with her. Connie has even taken to saying “thank you.”

Oh, yes, there’s always the license plate game. The goal is to see a license plate from every state. We saw all 50 states and Guanajuato, Mexico. Believe it or not, Alaska and Hawaii are not the hardest to find. It takes so little to make me happy. If you’re really ambitious, you can count wind turbines. Thousands upon thousands are changing the landscape.

GPS makes travel so easy. My car has a GPS, but it’s a bit out of date, so I prefer Waze. I prop my phone on the dash and we’re good to go. It’s not perfect, though. Get too far off the beaten path and you’ll drive it nuts.

While searching for St. Anthony Sand Dunes in Idaho, I sensed frustration from Waze. We seemed to be going in circles. I was expecting a snide remark such as, “Use a map next time, for Pete’s sake.”

I’m told it’s possible to drive all the way to South America, except for the 90-mile gap between North and South America. That trip may be beyond even those in the go-go years. Where to go next? Canada maybe?

Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.net. Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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