After a wintertime visit to Los Angeles, we decided to drive back to Madison, Wisconsin. We didn’t take the typical route heading northeast because of snow and road conditions; instead, we took a more southerly route.
We rented a car in Los Angeles and journeyed through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and finally into Wisconsin. We saw parts of these states we would not ordinarily have seen, and we stopped in towns we had never heard of before.
It was an eye-opening experience, not only because it was a cross-country drive of more than 2,000 miles, but also because we had only a general plan and basic time frame. We learned several lessons along the way, and we would like to share the best of them for your consideration in case you ever decide to make a similar trip.
American States Are Big And Diverse
We had some ideas of what these states were like, but we were only right part of the time. Before, we associated Colorado with the Rocky Mountains, ski resorts, quaint college towns, and such. We didn’t think of miles and miles and miles of crops growing in fields that seem to have no end. We had the odd experience of seeing no trees, no buildings, and no signs of life for quite some time. After a while, this got our imaginations spinning and led us to the next lesson learned.
Make Sure Someone Knows Where You Are
Driving through endless fields without a vehicle, building, or person in sight for hour after hour messes with your mind. We realized that it would be good for someone to know where we were, where we were headed, and if we made any changes to our plans — just in case something happened. Especially if you’re traveling solo, you will want to check in periodically with someone who will notice if something is wrong. It’s a good idea for safety’s sake.
Plan What You Can, But Remain Flexible
You might want to wing it, and that is fine. But remember that not all towns have a comfortable hotel — or even any hotel. If you have an idea of when you want to stop driving for the day, check HotelTonight or another last-minute booking site to see what’s available.
Also remember to keep gas in your tank and to fill up when gas is available. You may run into long stretches in rural America where there’s nowhere to fill your tank, and you don’t want to stress about driving on fumes.
You’ll also want to be prepared for detours or other events that may change your plans.
Look For Fun Or Unusual Roadside Attractions
One of the best lessons we learned while driving across America is that there are lots of unique and fun attractions out there.
One of the highlights of our drive was our stop in Goodland, Kansas, to see the world’s largest easel. The 80-foot-tall easel, holding a giant reproduction of a van Gogh sunflower painting, was something we absolutely had to see.
There are lots of other quirky roadside attractions worth seeking out. Check out Roadside America to learn about the landmarks in the area you’re passing through.
You’ll Probably Discover Something New
While driving across America, we discovered traditions and institutions we had no idea existed.
For example, we learned that the Hollywood Western actor Andy Devine grew up in Kingman, Arizona, and is a local hero. The Mohave Museum of History and Arts has an entire room devoted to him, and the town’s main street was renamed Andy Devine Boulevard. Kingman’s Andy Devine Days Festival is an annual celebration of Western heritage and the historic Route 66 that runs through the town.
You can also try standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, just as thousands of people do every year in celebration of the famous song “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. We never knew… but now we do.
Keep Plenty Of Water And Snacks On Hand
Even if you’re a planner who maps out all driving distances, hotel stays, roadside stops, and meals, things can change in unexpected ways.
Keeping snacks and water in the car is a great way to avoid hunger or thirst when a stretch of road goes on and on or when you feel like forging ahead after a stop is closed or no longer interests you. It’s also useful when you find yourself rolling into a very small town and discover that the restaurants and stores are all closed or that the vending machine at your hotel is broken.
You’ll feel comfy and prepared when you have a supply of nibbles and drinks on hand at all times.
If Something Looks Fun, Interesting, Or Tasty, Stop And Check It Out
While you’re headed for a destination, driving across America is meant to be an experience. It’s no fun if you’re just focused on hitting a certain number of miles per day and counting the days until you arrive.
This big, beautiful, diverse, and sometimes surprising country has many places you will never likely visit unless you are driving nearby. Did you know that there is a Las Vegas, New Mexico? Or that people drive hundreds of miles to get pies from a bakery in Rock Springs, Arizona?
If you’re as curious as we are, you might just venture a few miles out of the way to see what everyone is talking about. When you make a drive across America, it really is about the journey. Don’t be afraid to have some fun along the way.
Don’t Forget Your Favorite Entertainment
As good as GPS and radio can be, there are times when you’ll get bored and service will be spotty or unavailable. Sometimes, you’ll just want to turn everything off, enjoy the scenery, and be alone with your thoughts. But when you want a little energy boost or want to immerse yourself in a great audiobook, be sure you’ve brought some favorites with you.
The right music can revive or calm you. Audiobooks can help you experience a world you haven’t had time for otherwise. Podcasts are great ways to keep up on interesting topics. And you can even learn a language or explore other subjects with audio programs.
Chat With The Locals Everywhere You Go
Perhaps the greatest sources of information and recommendations on a destination are the people who live there. Driving across America reinforced this lesson, especially in tiny towns that didn’t look like much on the surface.
We spent the night in La Junta, Colorado, with a population of just 7,000. But upon talking with locals, we discovered their deep love for the “charming little oasis” as well as the area’s historic significance. Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, Comanche National Grassland, and the Santa Fe National Historic Trail are just a few of the interesting attractions the locals told us about. If they hadn’t, we might have just passed the sites by.
Bring A Paper Map Or Atlas
As great as digital directions are, there’s nothing better than seeing the full scope of your journey in one place. Paper maps can show you side trips you might want to take, alternative routes, and relative distances in one quick look. They’re also indispensable if something goes wrong with your digital maps.
Try To Drive During The Day
Enjoy your travel rather than just speeding toward your final destination. If you need to make adjustments or encounter any surprises, it’s easier to deal with them or get help during the day.
And this goes without saying, but you really do need to rest at night. Driving when you’re tired is unnecessary and dangerous. Stop when you’re tired and get some sleep.
Take Some Time Just To Think And Be
We have so many responsibilities and commitments to think about every day — it’s good for our mental health and our sense of self to take a little time off. A drive through America offers an abundance of new sights, sounds, flavors, and experiences. Relish them, and take time to breathe and let your mind wander. Open yourself to big questions and spiritual thoughts, and simply appreciate the world around you.
While your everyday grind may allow little time for reflection, a drive across America can fill your heart and nourish your soul. Be sure you allow time for that. It will truly make your journey one to remember.