Matthew McConaughey and I have a lot in common, and not just the movie star good looks. For one thing, we’re both fans of Matthew McConaughey. Also, we’re both head over heels about the joys of a house on wheels. So I decided to seek him out and inform him about our commonalities. Or at least I tried. Perhaps I should explain, and maybe I should start from the beginning.
(Oops! If you clicked on the 9/10/2016 GoLife newsletter link for condensation prevention in your motorhome, click here to go to that article. ED)
I mean, the real beginning. A couple of decades ago, Amy and I set off on our first RV journey—a 48-state, 314-day adventure in a Winnebago Adventurer. We had never set foot in an RV before, save for a 20-minute test drive just before we bought one. And we had seen little of the country, having largely flown over the so-called flyover places that tend to be the best part.
A couple of weeks into our excursion, we were still unsure about the whole idea. Really? We have 300 days to go? And we still basically thought of the RV as a means to end—getting from Point A to Point B, comfortably.
But then we arrived in Malibu. Specifically, the Malibu Beach RV Park.
The RV park even has its own tagline, like a movie poster: “Where the summer spends the winter.” Well, it was late December, and the park was relatively new, and there was hardly anyone there. So we got the prime spot—a corner site, a few hundred feet above the Pacific Coast Highway, with a million-dollar view of the Pacific Ocean.
We were supposed to stay in Malibu only a couple of days. We spent a week there instead. And that was where we had our Grand Epiphany.
In a house on wheels, you can define the moment. The road is your oyster, the possibilities—camping beneath the redwoods or far above the waves—are your pearls. An RV isn’t just a means to an end. It’s not just a supporting actor in a feature film. It’s the star.
Which brings me to Matthew McConaughey. But first, Tom Hanks.
Sixteen years ago, a relatively new magazine called In Touch put together a one-page article about how “families are hitting the highway in RVs and exploring America.” The story included a half-page photo of Amy and me and our infant son Luke. Of course, this being In Touch magazine, where the adjacent stories were about baking cookies for movie stars and a blue ketchup “craze,” the road-tripping story also included three photographs of “Stars who love their RVs.” As you see below, there were MUCH SMALLER photos of Tom Hanks, David Duchovny and Shaquille O’Neal.
There are, of course, plenty of celebs who love their RVs. Jeff Daniels didn’t just co-star in the movie “RV,” he swears by it, saying, “I don’t think you can call yourself a true American until you’ve been behind the wheel of an RV.” Vin Diesel has a two-story, 1,100-square-foot motorhome. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have one called the “Luv Sub.” Rocker Lenny Kravitz reportedly once bought three RVs for use on his private island. The house-on-wheels has been embraced by sports figures like announcer John Madden, boxer George Foreman, golfer Davis Love III, skier Bode Miller, and racecar driver Jeff Gordon. By A-list actors like Robert DeNiro and Rob Lowe. By country stars like Dolly Parton and Alan Jackson.
And McConaughey. About a decade ago, he told Ellen Degeneres, “There’s nothing not to like about it. The freedom of being able to pull up, stop, power up anywhere you want—beach or whatever. Set up and have your front yard different every single day. Whatever you want it to be, and to see the country that way – it’s awesome.”
The Oscar-winner famously loves his tricked-out Airstream trailer, which he bought in 2004 and nicknamed “The Canoe.” Can’t you just imagine McConaughey saying—and he actually did say this, “I mean, the highways are like river ways, they’re just concrete.” He also said, “It’s one of my favorite places. I’ve got a house, but even when I pull into my house, sometimes I sleep in that thing in my driveway. It’s really comfortable.”
Several years ago, he and his girlfriend and their infant son took a 42-day, 7,300-mile trip in The Canoe. While filming movies, he has stayed in his RV everywhere from Austin to Vancouver. Often, though, he keeps it Malibu, where he likes to surf. In fact, he usually parks it at the Malibu Beach RV Park.
Apparently, he isn’t the only actor who has spent time at this campground on the bluffs. As the RV park’s manager once told the Travel Channel, rather creepily, “You can be in the shower with a movie star right next to you.”
But we just want to chat with McConaughey. That’s all. Because, several years before he won his Oscar, McConaughey received another prize, this one slightly less talked about. It’s called the RV Industry Association’s Spirit of America Award. Here’s the one grainy pic I could find of McConaughey actually holding it. He’s even wearing a “Go RVing” shirt.
Yup, we were then only a few years into our roles as RV ambassadors, traveling around doing TV interviews and writing blogs and serving as a sort of poster family for the house-on-wheels experience. No, not this poster.
Now, I should point out that the list of the award’s recipients is about as eclectic as it gets—everyone from Terry Bradshaw to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug has won it. John Ratzenberger—yes, Cliff Clavin himself—has won it. And, of course, the Herzogs. In the scheme of things, we’re the runt of the litter. Sort of like how “Harry and the Hendersons” once won an Oscar.
But we’re keeping it.
So where’s McConaughey?
Well, go figure, it turns out that our campsite was RIGHT BESIDE a tiny Airstream that looked a lot like the one ol’ Matt has been bunking in over the years.
A Minnie Winnie on the other side of us.
And that’s when you realize that, sure, you can win an Oscar. And you can win the hearts of millions. And you can have a winning movie star smile. But when you can steer yourself toward paradise at any time, when you can travel at your own pace and on own your own terms, when you can call up memories of Malibu and revel in the fact that its not the end of the road but rather the beginning of the journey… well, that’s truly winning.
Peruvian painter Macedonio de la Torre is credited with saying, “You cannot hear the waterfall if you stand next to it. I paint my jungles in the desert.” One surmises that he was suggesting that a bit of distance offers artistic perspective. In other words, in order to truly appreciate a wonder you have to remove yourself from the moment. Then again, maybe he never visited these eight waterfalls:
One of the best things about Niagara Falls is the viewing options. You can marvel at it up close—aboard a Maid of the Mist boat tour on the American side. You can pose for a selfie with one of the Seven Natural Wonders as you stand atop Rainbow Bridge connecting the U.S. with Canada. And on the kitschier Canadian side, you can board the Niagara Skywheel, a Ferris wheel that offers a fantastic view from 175 feet up.
Or maybe some facts offer perspective: Did you know the falls are somewhat misnamed? Yes, there are two primary falls—American Falls and Horseshoe/Canadian Falls (which are more majestic, sending mist several hundred feet high). According to the U.S. Geographical Survey, however, nearly one-third of Canadian Falls lies within U.S. territory. Did you know that Niagara Falls is moving backwards? The 750,000 gallons of water per second that flow over the falls actually wear down the rim one or two feet each year. So over the millennia, the falls have moved several miles upstream. And did you know that once—on March 29, 1848—the flow of water at both falls stopped completely? Niagara Falls never actually freezes in the winter, but on this day an ice jam in the upper river plugged it up. People actually walked out and picked up artifacts from the riverbed. One assumes they retreated before the falls started up again.
Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge may be to waterfalls what Yellowstone is to geysers. If that’s the case, the Old Faithful of the region has to be Multnomah Falls, one of North America’s iconic experiences. Fed by underground springs from Larch Mountain, this 620-foot, two-tiered marvel plummets into a misty forest grotto. Amid beautiful landscape, it’s a scenery stealer.
Nearly two million people visit Multnomah annually, but far fewer actually try to climb to the top. Start with a gently sloped trail for about a quarter-mile, which takes you to 97-year-old Benson Bridge, named after Simon Benson, one of the guys who built the old scenic highway along the river. The bridge, which essentially spans the spot where the upper falls become the lower falls, is said to be perhaps the most photographed piece of architecture in Oregon.
From there, follow a paved series of switchbacks up for another mile until you reach a ridge crest offering a remarkable view of the Columbia River, the falls and the less adventurous people below. And there is actually a Native American legend about that spot. The story goes that the chief’s daughter was told by the Great Spirit to jump from the cliff in sacrifice. And she did. When the devastated chief asked the Spirit to give him a sign that his daughter did not die in vain, water began to cascade from the cliff. Hence, the falls.
In the pantheon of U.S. national parks, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and the like are the kings. A notch below that, at least on the general public’s radar, are the Dukes of Natural Wonder—place like Carlsbad Caverns and Crater Lake. Then there are the ones unknown by much of the U.S. population, although national park enthusiasts will rave about them—California’s Kings Canyon, for instance, and Washington’s North Cascades. Finally, there’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It’s just a few miles south of Cleveland. When you think of national parks, you don’t think of Cleveland.
Chances are you didn’t know it existed. It has only been an official national park for barely a decade. But it’s actually one of the ten most visited national parks in the country—roughly 2.5 million people per year, which would place it roughly between Zion and Grand Teton in popularity. It helps, of course, that Interstate 80 passes right through it. Cuyahoga means “crooked,” a reference to the 90 miles of twists and turns of the Cuyahoga River. The national park consists of 33,000 preserved acres along 22 miles of the river between Cleveland and Akron.
The options and attractions are many, including biking trails, horse trails, scenic railroads, and a historic village. Or you can opt for a one-a-half-mile hike along the road and path and boardwalk that constitutes the Brandywine Gorge Trail, which starts and ends at 60-foot Brandywine Falls. Yep, right near Cleveland.
This must-see stop along the Big Sur coast offers is a before-and-after perspective. Turn off the Pacific Coast Highway into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 37 miles south of Carmel, and set off for a short hike along Ewoldsen Trail. The trail leads inland alongside McWay Creek, weaving its way through some modest redwoods until finally it arrives at a wooden bench and a tiny waterfall at the path’s end. Here, a few upended trees have crashed across the creek and over one another like discarded Lincoln Logs. You can sit on the bench and listen as the water gurgles a story about what might have happened to turn an orderly grove into a hodgepodge of fallen majesty.
But this trail’s end is actually more of a beginning. As you retrace your steps toward the trailhead, you can watch the stream grow. Return to the parking lot, descend a series of wooden stairs, pass through a little tunnel under Highway 1, and emerge at the sea. There will be eucalyptus trees to your right, a 64-million-square-mile ocean to your left. Halfway down the trail, if you turn back slightly, you’ll see that McWay Creek has now become McWay Falls, pouring over a rocky bluff and plummeting more than fifty feet into an idyllic cove. It looks like a shipwreck fantasy.
By the time you get to Milepost 316 along the North Carolina stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway, maybe you’ve already gasped and gawked your way south from Virginia. In fact, only a few miles earlier, perhaps you passed over Linn Cove Viaduct, a 1,243-foot segmental concrete bridge that curves around the side of Grandfather Mountain. So you wouldn’t think the wow factor would be so high regarding Linville Falls. But then, after walking a couple of miles to get fine view of the falls, you discover a force of nature. Literally. The Linville River begins on the steep slopes of Grandfather Mountain. By the time the river reached the falls, especially if you’re visiting after a particularly rainy stretch, it is rushing with incredible force. Impressive, even by Blue Ridge standards.
Of course, rushing is not what a Parkway drive is all about. In fact, after your Linville Falls hike, drive another 18 miles to a blip known as Little Switzerland, home of the Switzerland Inn and Chalet Restaurant. Put your feet up at an outdoor patio, order a fried green tomato BLT, and enjoy a delicious view of North Carolina’s majestic peaks.
There are waterfalls galore in Montana’s Glacier National Park. You can hike to Virginia Falls and St. Mary Falls along the Nature Point Trail. Or Red Rock Falls near Many Glacier. Or Running Eagle Falls near Two Medicine. Or any of the other more than 200 waterfalls that serve as a cascading complement to the myriad wonders in the park. But even if you don’t feel like hiking a bit or exploring Glacier’s less-explored regions, you can find a “whoa” waterfall.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is a remarkable achievement, bisecting Glacier National Park for 50 miles through scenery that is both sweeping (grand vistas that rival any park anywhere) and weeping (water pours onto the road along the Weeping Wall). Among the waterfalls along the way are McDonald Falls (two miles west of Lake McDonald Lodge), Bird Woman Falls (which drops 500 feet), and Baring Falls (at the Sunrift Gorge Turnout). But if you truly want to appreciate the road, drive over Haystack Falls. Really, you’re essentially driving over it. The falls pour down a nature-made staircase, then rush beneath the road (a small bridge, actually) before plummeting toward the valley below. Awesome.
U.S. Highway 2 between the Montana towns of Libby and Troy is not the most well-traveled route in America. But in the summer months the parking lot at Kootenai Falls, about midway between the towns, may be brimming with cars and RVs—and not just because of the sense of danger.
A footpath winds through the trees to the falls, which are product of momentum, as the Kootenai River enters a canyon, surges through China Rapids and then cascades over Kootenai Falls, dropping 90 feet in less than a mile. This is a sacred place to the Kootenai Indians whose ancestors inhabited the region. Of course, that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from setting movies there, including Meryl Streep’s The River Wild and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Revenant. So it’s a menacing silver screen setting, even if it’s a serene real-life spot.
No, the danger—and it’s only a sense of peril for some people—comes at the end of another footpath, this one leading to a bridge spanning the river. It’s a Swinging Bridge, 200 feet long, the kind of structure where the sign insists no more than five people cross at a time. Sure, it doesn’t appeal to anyone who suffers a fear of heights. Or anyone who has a fear of drowning. Or, since it certainly swings, anyone with a tendency toward motion sickness. But it’s entirely safe. And what a view.
There are countless breathtaking waterfalls along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Miners Falls is mighty, especially when viewed from 77 steps down on a lower platform. The best view of Sable Falls is 169 steps down. Mosquito Falls is home to beavers and river otters. And remote Spray Falls plunges 70 feet over the Pictured Rocks cliffs, right into Lake Superior (and at the base of the falls, in 20 feet of water, are the remains of an 1856 shipwreck).
But there’s something about Munising Falls. It’s not because it can be found within the city limits of Munising, Michigan (in the westernmost portion of Pictured Rocks), making it probably the easiest of Alger County’s 17 waterfalls to visit. And it’s not really because the short stroll to the falls offers welcome tranquility—an 800-foot paved trail through a fern-lined sandstone canyon along Munising Creek. It’s not even the point-of-view possibilities—an accessible viewing platform and two other viewing areas reached by stairs.
No, there’s something about the setting—a 50-foot waterfall dropping over a sandstone cliff. If you stand in the right spot, the scene is framed by the trees. And if you arrive at the right time of day, the sunlight becomes a spotlight on the falls. Simple yet magical.
When PBS aired a six-episode series about American wonders in 2009, it gave it this title: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. From Acadia to Yosemite, from Alaska to Florida, it was a celebration of the people and process who devoted themselves to protecting precious portions of land. So the least we can do is visit these places and appreciate them. Here are eight for any to-see list:
Grand Canyon is just one of those things—like the volume of a Sequoia tree or the power of Niagara Falls or the immensity of Montana’s Big Sky—that you just have to visit to truly understand. Although it is Arizona’s #1 tourist attraction (about five million visitors), only about 10 percent of the sightseers enjoy the scene from the North Rim. But I prefer it over the South Rim. It’s a bit more out of the way, a lot less crowded. And it feels more rustic, less of a tourist attraction, more of a natural discovery.
A suggestion: Pick a good time of year to visit (late September, when the aspens are changing colors, is pretty special). And pick the right time of day to get your first glimpse, too (like, for instance, just as the sun begins to descend, turning the canyon into a canvas). You can park at a campground just steps from the North Rim, hike about a mile-and-a-half to Bright Angel Overlook… and gawk. Or you can make your way to Grand Canyon lodge and grab an early dinner—not necessarily in the dining room, there, but just a couple of sandwiches to go. Then snag a couple of chairs on a patio overlook and chew on scenery so spectacular that it truly can’t be swallowed whole.
In search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, the first Europeans sighted the canyon in 1540. Can you imagine essentially stumbling upon a hole larger than Rhode Island, a chasm 277 miles long (in river miles) and up to 18 miles wide? If it still takes our breath away when we know what to expect, when we’ve seen pictures, when we understand that it’s a Natural World Wonder… can you imagine their awe?
A trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore requires only choices: Do you want to drive through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from the west or the south? You can’t go wrong. And then, when you arrive at this most picturesque spot along Lake Superior, do you want to marvel at it from land or sea?
You can climb aboard a boat for a three-hour tour (insert “Gilligan’s Island joke here). You’ll cruise past masterpieces of many colors painted by minerals on cliffs hundreds of feet high—the red of iron, the blue and green of copper, the black of manganese. You’ll see rock formations that suggest a massive lakeside sculpture garden—Miner’s Castle, Battleship Row, Indian Head. You’ll spot caves and arches carved into the underside of the cliffs and waterfalls cascading into the coldest and deepest of the Great Lakes. And you’ll gasp at a single tree on a rocky outcropping that has become a sculpted island of its own, a tree that draws its sustenance from roots that stretch over to the mainland. Remarkable.
Or you can opt for the driving version—along serene Highway H58—stopping here and there to hike and stare and smile. Stop at Log Slide Overlook, a sand dune leading to the lake that was once a log flume. Newspaper accounts tell of logs sent down the several-hundred-foot chute and generating enough friction to catch fire. You can view Miner’s Castle from a completely different perspective. When you look down on the nature-carved beauty alongside the clear green waters, you’ll wonder if U.P. really stands for unparalleled.
There are, oh, about a gazillion airboat operators in this part of southern Florida—airboats basically being boats in which the motor is a sort of massive fan mounted behind you. So they can glide on a couple of inches of water. The narration will often leave you wondering if you should wince or grin, like when an 11-foot, hungry-looking alligator approaches, and the driver announced, “Well folks, you’re looking at a living, breathing dinosaur… He’s looking at a buffet.” Indeed, as you steer along the creek and bays of the swampy outback, through a tunnel of mangrove trees and a tropical maze of routes and branches, you’ll feel like you’re on a Disney Jungle Cruise made intimate and real.
You’ll see plenty of alligators from up close (careful, they can rise six feet out of the water to grab their prey). You’ll probably glimpse a stately blue heron or a fearless brown pelican (they like to plop themselves on the airboats) or perhaps one of the more than two-dozen kinds of snakes in the Everglades. “But don’t worry,” the driver might grin. “Only four of them are venomous. And only a handful of those drop from the trees onto unsuspecting boats.”
Here’s one perfect way to experience Utah’s Bryce Canyon: Start with Inspiration Point. Park in the expansive lot, grab a homemade meal, stroll up to the overlook and marvel for a few moments at the hoodoos and spires, the salmon-and-forest-green cliffs, a place so otherworldly that episodes of “Star Trek” were reportedly filmed there. Then walk along the rim until you locate a flat-topped bench, hewn from half a log, sitting just a few feet from the precipice. As the sun sets, watch as a parade of hikers far below make their way along the nearly three-and-a-half-mile Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop Trail. And enjoy perhaps the finest dinner table and view you’ve ever snagged.
The next morning, you can hike the very same trail—way down into the canyon, beneath the formations that look (from some angles) like rows of orange-clad infantrymen, through tunnels carved into the cliffs, between sheer rock walls (known, with a wink, as Wall Street). Huff and puff your way along a series of switchbacks until you arrive right back where you started. And then try to think of a more satisfying two-hour hike.
Zion National Park
It’s pretty easy to get to Zion National Park, in Utah’s southwest corner. It’s only about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Las Vegas. You’ll arrive through the west entrance. Simple. But probably not the right way to do it—because entering Zion from the east entrance (along Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway) is, befitting the name, a religious experience. One of the highlights is the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel—a mile long with occasional windows of wonder every few dozen yards(traffic is generally one-way so that large RVs can make it through unscathed). When you come out the other side, you’re guaranteed to gasp. And you then you descend and loop and wind your way past magnificent monoliths that are too spectacular for the humdrum adjective “majestic.”
There’s another remarkable drive that you can’t actually drive on. No vehicles are allowed along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Instead, a very efficient shuttle system – included perfectly timed recorded narration – makes that part of the park a more serene experience. You can park at the visitor center, take the shuttle to Zion Lodge, then stroll about two-thirds of a mile to a place called Emerald Pools, where (since it can get hot in Zion) you’ll welcome the spray from a gentle waterfall.
That’s just one of many breathtaking hikes in the park—in fact, Zion has some of the most spectacular trails of any American wonder. One of the most dramatic hikes is actually more of an upstream wade—following the North Fork of the Virgin River along the floor of a canyon. At times, it becomes a gorge only a couple-dozen feet wide surrounded by walls hundreds of feet high. So they call it The Narrows.
The Joshua tree grows primarily in California’s Mojave Desert, surviving amid the arid wasteland and contorting itself into such goofy shapes that it appears to be a caricature of vegetation. As you rumble past a grove of trees of various sizes, you can feel as if you’re driving through the illustrations of Dr. Seuss. Squint, and you can swear you see a Ruffle-Necked Sala-ma-goox peering from behind a cluster of yellow-green sepals or a Harp-Twanging Snarp flitting from branch to branch. You might suddenly have a hankering for green eggs and ham.
But that’s Joshua Tree National Park—and out-there kind of place that invites you to stroll into the weird and wonderful. At Hidden Valley, a mile-long hike winds through exposed granite monoliths, massive boulders, and even a former cattle rustler’s hideout. If you have kids with you, they’ll chase lizards and climb rocks—exercise disguised as adventure. Toward the southern end of the park, Cholla Cactus Gardens offers a quarter-mile loop through a head-high grove of cacti that clearly announced that you’ve entered a new ecosystem. And if you want to camp in the park, Jumbo Rocks offers sites among huge eroded boulders, some of them stacked like natural sculptures. At night, amid almost total silence, the sky is so full of stars that they look like dust in the heavens.
When most people think of Grand Teton National Park, they think of Jackson Hole—the valley floor (48 miles long and generally 6-8 miles wide) along the Wyoming-Idaho border, the space between the Teton Mountain Range and the Snake River. Or people think of the city of Jackson itself, with a hefty population (nearly 10,000) even without the tourists counted. There, you can try everything from a rodeo to rock hounding. You can pass through large arches of shed elk antlers and get a sense of historic and local flavor by visiting the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, a century-old establishment where saddles serve as stools.
The trails and lakes and river-rafting opportunities in Grand Teton National Park are myriad and magnificent. But still, the mountains are the thing. There may be no more breathtaking vista than the peaks of the Teton Range, a half-dozen of which rise more than 12,000 feet high. Why so breathtaking? Because, at least on the east side of the range, there aren’t any foothills. No lower peaks to obscure views. Just peak after peak rising as much as 5,000 to 7,000 feet above the valley floor, like granite fists thrust into the sky.
Perhaps more than any other otherworldly place, South Dakota’s Badlands are constantly transformed by the surroundings. As you drive along the Badlands Loop State Scenic Highway—30 miles of Highway 240 between the towns of Wall and Cactus Flat—the rugged beauty of these striking geological deposits east of the Black Hills presents itself differently depending on the time of day, the cloud cover, even one’s physical point of view.
A journey through Badlands National Park as dusk approaches or perhaps on an overcast day offers a scene that might be described as foreboding. The maze of buttes, pinnacles and canyons may appear to be, as architect Frank Lloyd Wright once characterized it, “an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere.” On the other hand, bright sunshine offers an entirely different palette. The pinnacles and spires are cast into relief. The shadows add an unexpected element. Conservation writer Freeman Tilden described the Badlands as having “colors that shift in the sunshine… and a thousand tints that color charts do not show.”
The Badlands Loop would take about an hour if you didn’t stop at one of the nearly 30 scenic overlooks, marveling at the jagged formations, looking for bighorn sheep or pronghorn antelope, simply breathing in the air of one of America’s most unusual places. But, of course, if you didn’t stop that would be ridiculous.
A key element to any road trip is choosing the right soundtrack to bolster the scenery, whether it’s Willie Nelson’s high-pitched twang, Bruce Springsteen’s gravelly narrative or the free-and-easy harmony of the Eagles. The sounds enhance the sights, but let’s not forget that inspiration goes both ways. That is, the American landscape—and the act of traveling through it—has been the inspiration for countless classic songs. In fact, other than perhaps love found and love lost, the road trip may be the most common theme in music, regardless of the genre.
There are countless songs to choose from—by everyone from the Allman Brothers and the Doobie Brothers to the Beach Boys and the Indigo Girls. There are no-brainer classics like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” There are songs in which the singer knows an exact destination (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”) and none at all (Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go”). And there are tunes that conjure up immediate images of iconic road trips. Can you listen to “Movin’ Right Along” without picturing Kermit and Fozzie Bear? Or “Holiday Road” without seeing Chevy Chase and family cruising down the highway in a station wagon?
So the options are many. But you certainly can’t go wrong with these eight among your playlist:
Me and Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin)
The above photo shows Janis Joplin’s Porsche on display at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One might say that she did to “Me and Bobby McGee” what she did to her beloved car—turned it into a work of art. Kris Krisofferson wrote the song, and you can YouTube his fine duet with Sheryl Crow. Artists like Pink have sung the song often—and often remarkably. And if you want to find a really cool and unusual version, check out Jerry Lee Lewis’s epic piano stylings. But there’s something about Janis’s version—about her road trip from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Salinas, California, with a now-lost lover—that resonates.
The song is both intimate and epic at the same time. Intimate in that it the lyrics so beautifully capture the little moments that become lasting memories (“Windshield wipers slapping time… I was holding Bobby’s hand in mine… We sang every song that driver knew…”). And epic in the sense that “Me and Bobby McGee” celebrates the big-picture—the reasons why people hit the road and the epiphanies gathered along the way (“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”).
Up Around the Bend (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Technically, the singer of this song is walking (“Catch a ride to the end of the highway… and we’ll meet by the big red tree… There’s a place up ahead and I’m goin’… Come along, come along with me.”) But what “Up Around the Bend” does so well is convey the not necessarily competing notions that the road allows you to both live in the moment yet muse while you move, to lose yourself in your thoughts yet share those thoughts with your companion (“You can ponder perpetual motion… fix your mind on a crystal day… Always time for a good conversation… there’s an ear for what you say.”).
Mostly, John Fogerty’s lyrics capture the spirit of possibility. Bob Seger’s classic “Turn the Page” is actually about the same old, same old of a road trip (or at least a rock star’s road trip). But this catchy tune is really about travel as an open book, a page-turner, and you don’t really know how it’s going to end. (“Come on the risin’ wind… We’re going up around the bend…”)
I’ve Been Everywhere (Johnny Cash)
The bus above is Johnny Cash’s tour bush when it was on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When the Man in Black says, “I’ve traveled every road in this here land!”… well, you believe him. When he croons, “I’ve been everywhere, man… Crossed the deserts bare, man… I’ve breathed the mountain air, man”… you hear the been-there-done-that in his voice.
And then he starts ticking off the places he’s been. “Reno… Chicago… Fargo… Minnesota… Buffalo… Toronto… Winslow… Sarasota.” And maybe you think, Hey, so have I! But Johnny Cash’s road never really ends. He starts mentioning places like Chicopee and Fond du Lac and Waterville and Jellico and Mattawa and Oskaloosa… and you realize you still have a long way to go. In fact, at the website johnnycashhasbeeneverywhere.com, a fellow named Iain has created a video that drops a pin on a map for every place Cash mentions in the song, a handful of them even well beyond the U.S. borders. He estimates that, if you follow Cash’s itinerary in order, you’ll travel 189,150 kilometers—or roughly 118,000 miles.
(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 (Nat King Cole)
Yes, the original song-lyric city-lister wasn’t Cash. This rhythm and blues standard, composed in 1946 by Bobby Troup and turned into a hit by Nat King Cole that same year, actually was the product of a genuine road trip. The story goes that Troup and his wife were headed toward Hollywood on a cross-country drive, most of it along Highway 40 and old Route 66. Hmmm, Highway 40, Troup thought. Maybe I’ll write a song about that. Until his wife suggested a title: “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.” The song was complete by the time the trip was over.
“Won’t you get hip to this timely tip… When you make that California trip… Get your kicks on Route 66.”
The song, which has been covered by everyone from Bing Crosby to Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones to John Mayer to Depeche Mode, is a mini-travelogue, almost all of it in geographic order—from St. Louis and Joplin to Oklahoma City and Amarillo to Gallup and Flagstaff to Kingman, Barstow and San Bernardino. Only one town is out of sequence (“Don’t forget Winona”). And only one state along the route isn’t mentioned—Kansas. Of course, Route 66 only spent 11 miles there.
Take It Easy (The Eagles)
Speaking of Route 66, along that old route, now Highway 40 in Arizona, sits a town called Winslow. Yes, Winslow, Arizona. Ring a bell? “Take It Easy” is a song that just about everyone likes—a great driving song, in fact. Play it, and you can’t possibly, as the song goes, “let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.” And anyone who knows the song is familiar with the iconic lyrics about halfway through it: “Well, I’m a-standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona… and such a fine sight to see… It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford… slowin’ down to take a look at me.”
So the temptation, of course, is to make a special stop in Winslow just to goofily stand on any random corner. In fact, I know a fellow who wrote a screenplay about a cross-country trip in which he purposely had his characters stop in Winslow so that he could inject that scene into his movie. Brilliant. But you know what? Winslow has made it easy. You see, there’s an actual Standin’ on the Corner Park there. It features a mural depicting the whole scene. There’s a statue of a guitar player actually standing on the corner. Heck, there’s even a red flatbed Ford parked there. And there’s an annual Standin’ on the Corner Festival in a town that desperately needs a reason to re-attract tourists. So while a town inspires a song, in this case, one of those songs has inspired a town.
Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen)
Jon Stewart once deckared, as he was celebrating Bruce Springsteen during the Kennedy Center Honors, “I believe Bob Dylan and James Brown… had a baby.” But Springsteen might also be described as a combination of Walt Whitman (the poet of the open road) and Homer (he of the epic tales), because a Springsteen tune has the ability to both immerse a listener in a sense of place and take them on an epic journey. His most famous song, “Born to Run,” features a highway “jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.” In “Rosalita,” he says, “together we’re gonna go out tonight and make that highway run.” He has written “Jersey Girl” and “Cadillac Ranch” and “Darlington County.” He has sun about returning to “Kingstown again” and being “here darlin’ in Youngstown” and knowing “a little place in southern California down San Diego way.” And heck, he named a whole album Nebraska.
But “Thunder Road,” a masterful exhortation to hit the road, a call to ride out tonight “to case the Promised Land.” It’s the best of Bruce. The ultimate road trip lyric? How about: “Hey, what else can we do now, except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. Well the night’s busting open. These two lanes will take us anywhere.”
Road to Nowhere (Talking Heads)
Several years ago, The New Yorker magazine printed a cartoon that showed a car speeding along a lonely highway, very much in the so-called Middle of Nowhere. On the side of the road was a sign offering this piece of whimsy: YOUR OWN TEDIOUS THOUGHTS NEXT 200 MILES. Clever? Yes. But tedious? No. When you can see forever, your thoughts expand to fill the surroundings. You feel very much alive in the moment, as if all of the clutter and traffic and obstructions of the crowded world have fallen away, leaving only revelations.
“We’re on the road to nowhere… Come on inside… Takin’ that ride to nowhere… We’ll take that ride.”
The term “Middle of Nowhere” seems to be a city dweller’s implication that anything without a string of Starbucks and sushi bars is somehow unworthy of exploration. But there are nuggets hidden in the tiny hamlets that dot the country—and in the spaces between those dots. So the “Road to Nowhere” can be an adventure.
“We’re on the road to paradise… Here we go, here we go…”
King of the Road (Roger Miller)
There is a Roger Miller Museum in Erick, Oklahoma. Appropriately, it’s along Route 66—because the man who crooned an iconic travel song should be celebrated along an iconic roadway. Appropriately, too, the museum is located in a nearly 80-year-old building that was once a drugstore and café—because “King of the Road” is a throwback song. It’s the musical version of “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” advertisements and Burma Shave signs. I mean, c’mon, “rooms to let: 50 cents.”
It took Miller months to write what would become the biggest hit of his recording career. But he was inspired by two fleeting encounters—a sign in Chicago that offered “Trailers for Sale or Rent” and a hobo that he met in Boise. And of course, the song resonates because any traveler knows that the most priceless experiences are the free ones—sunlight filtering through California redwoods or endless fields of Kansas sunflowers or Key West sunsets.
“I’m a man of means by no means—king of the road.”
“A journey is like marriage,” John Steinbeck once wrote. “The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
Now, Steinbeck happens to be my favorite author. Cannery Row, his book about the quirky people and adventures on California’s Monterey Peninsula is near the top of my all-time list. It’s a beautifully-written examination of a place and its inhabitants. And I happen to live about a mile from Cannery Row. So Steinbeck is my guy.
However, here I think he’s wrong. For sure, a journey is like a marriage in myriad ways. Couldn’t agree more. But that’s another post for another time—probably around Valentine’s Day. And certainly, any time you feel like you’re in control of a relationship, you’re bound to be corrected.
But controlling a journey. That’s always my goal. I design our RV excursions with precision. I dot every I in Mississippi. I cross every T in Teton. I attempt to control every controllable aspect before we set off in our Flying W. And it works for me.
Don’t get me wrong. Impulsiveness is a magical component of travel. Freedom is the gift of the open road. I often say that the best thing about a house on wheels is the ability to travel at your own pace, on your own terms. But I like to describe my process as meticulousness that leaves room for spontaneity. In other words, plan well so that you can enjoy the unplanned moments.
Take this photo, for example:
In the third of my trilogy of travel memoirs, Turn Left at the Trojan Horse, I spent several months researching my journey—the places I’d go, the people I might find there, the Greek mythological stories that accompanied me on my excursion—before I even hit the road. As I cruised through Ohio, on my way from Pandora to Homerville (see the theme?), I passed through the little hamlet of Delphi. And it just so happens that a tractor pull competition was about to begin.
Because I knew exactly where I was going, how long it would take, where I planned to stay and what I was looking for, I knew that I could pursue the option of a brief afternoon detour. By immersing myself in the planning, I could then immerse myself in a subculture that I NEVER would have experienced had I not set off in a house on wheels (a Winnebago Aspect it was, actually).
Or consider this snippet from this summer’s 50-day itinerary:
The type-A readers out there might be nodding approvingly. The rest of you might be rolling your eyes. But this is only one page out of about two-dozen. Not to mention a couple of folders filled with brochures and Web pages printed out about everything from dining in Grand Canyon to sights to see in Seattle Center.
Ours is generally a fast-moving summer, and we like it that way. We move from place to place because that’s our annual summer task as spokespeople for the RV industry (we generally stop in about 20 media markets and do TV interviews) and because we enjoy the BREADTH of the RV experience. I’ve often alliteratively referred to our trips as “Winnebago wanderings,” but that’s just poetic embellishment. We don’t really wander. I know exactly where we’re going.
So, as the above page describes, over the course of three days in central Oregon, I know that we have tickets to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland on July 15. And I know that there’s a good restaurant two blocks away. I know that it’s a two-hour drive to Crater Lake the following day, and that a boat cruise is an option if we feel up to a (somewhat) strenuous hike. We’ll have dinner at Crater Lake Lodge afterward, then we’ll cruise to Diamond Lake RV Park, but their rules say we have to arrive before dark. The next day, it’s 90 minutes to Bend, where there are a couple of TV stations that might have us on to extol the wonders of the experience. There’s also a Barnes & Noble (I like to look for my books; Amy likes to take advantage of the WiFi) and a Whole Foods (we’re big fans) and an RV campground that happens to be next to a bagel place and a barber shop.
Yes, we’re more likely to opt for the bagels.
And yes, it’s color-coded. Black for our travels. Blue for meals and shows. Purple for book opportunities. Red for TV opportunities. Green for shopping. Over the top? Perhaps. But you have to admit, it makes sense.
You’re right to assume that the compulsive part of me might get uncomfortable when I come across things like this.
There is, by the way, a creative aspect to the sort of scientific way we go about preparing for our summer adventures. I find ways to schedule terrific experiences within the framework of our tasked itinerary. We’re going from Phoenix to Las Vegas? I’ll route us through Sedona and Grand Canyon. We’re heading down the coast from Seattle? Well, a half-mile from the KOA campground in Willapa Bay is a place where you can pick up some fresh oysters. And between Sacramento and Fresno, there’s a minor league baseball team called the Stockton Ports. And they have a game on the night we’ll be passing through. And hey, that’s funny—they’re playing a team called the Storm. I’ll write about it.
And Amy is the artist—she’s now an illustrator along with being the brains behind our publishing company. So she always turns our carefully-constructed two-month itinerary into a visual version that accompanies us throughout.
Packing is a product of preparation, too. Although we’re now at the point where we could probably do it in our sleep, we have a list that we consult annually that assures we won’t forget a thing—coffee mugs and cutting boards, batteries and bungee cords, napkins and nonslip shelf liners, flashlights and phone chargers.
And we get creatively prepared there, too. Like the year, we decided it would be fun to include a packet of water balloons. When the time was right—I believe it was at a lonely RV park in North Carolina—we surprised the boys. Empty campground. Easy cleanup. Priceless smiles.
They say success is where preparation and opportunity meet. For us, it’s out on the open road. There are those who travel seeking happenstance. And there are those who are focused entirely on checking off a traveler’s to-do list. I like to think that we fall somewhere in between.
When you’ve got the lay of the land, when you’re confident in your route, when you don’t have to waste time deliberating about the details, then you allow space—in your journey, in your day, in your imagination—to appreciate the wonders that just happen by.
Like a bison traffic jam in Yellowstone.
America is a land of invention, but also reinvention. We relocate and borrow and celebrate. Case in point—the tiny U.S. hamlets that borrow their names from grandiose global metropolises. Such was the focus of my travel memoir Small World. I passed through various tiny towns named after famed international cities—London (Wisconsin) and Paris (Kentucky), Athens (New York) and Rome (Oregon), Cairo (Illinois) and Jerusalem (Arkansas).
In some of these, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of the culture that spawned the name. Calcutta (West Virginia) is a little Appalachian holler filled with a couple-dozen residents, most of them from the same family. And Mecca (California) is populated mostly by the families of migrant workers from Mexico. In addition, many of the names have been… Americanized. If, for instance, you follow a lonely South Dakota highway into the town of Vienna, you won’t be in “Vee-yenna.” You’ll be in “Vah-yenna.” Which conjures up an image of Sigmund Freud in overalls. Then again, what do you expect from a country that borrowed football from the rest of the world and called it “soccer?”
Still, there are a good many big-named small towns that offer something special—and usually something entirely unrelated to the name. Here are eight small world wonders:
Not all roads lead to Rome. But Oregon Route 95 does, slicing through the southeastern corner of the state, a part of Oregon that began in the 1890s as an encampment of Basque sheepherders. Today, it is dominated by sprawling cattle ranches, meaning folks are neighbors only in the relative sense of the word. But just after the sign for “Rome” along the empty road is another sign, a lesson in either relativity or sarcasm. It says simply, “Congestion.” There are barely two-dozen residents.
One river leads to Rome, too. The Owyhee River has been called the loneliest river in America due to its isolated, back-of-beyond location. Although it is a whitewater destination in springtime, it is a relatively undiscovered jewel, a wonderland of hot springs, petrified trees, towering spires and sheer-walled canyons. In four hundred miles from the Owyhee’s headwaters in northern Nevada to its confluence with the Snake River on the Oregon-Idaho border, Rome is the only community it passes. Where the lonely river and the remote road intersect, there sits Rome Station, a tiny café (and occasional RV campground) that serves as the only commercial establishment in this hiccup of a hamlet.
So how did Rome get its name? From the 100-foot-high, fossil-bearing, clay formations just 1.5 miles west of Rome Station. These strange white bluffs reminded some of ancient ruins. So they are the Rome Cliffs—otherwise known as the “Pillars of Rome.”
Athens, New York
In War of the Worlds, the 2005 Spielberg-and-Cruise action flick, Athens—a town of about 4,000 on the West Bank of the Hudson River—is shown being destroyed by Martian tripods. A flaming train passes by. A ferry overturns. The visitors from outer space win.
Then again, anyone wins by visiting the real-life Hudson Valley. In fact, people make pilgrimages to celebrate the landscape. What ancient Athens was to philosophers and epic poets, the Athens area in New York was—and is—to painters. Just across the river from Athens sits Olana, a villa set on a 250-acre estate that was once the home of Fredric Church, one of the most successful American artists of the 19th century. He was the most illustrious pupil of Thomas Cole, who camped in the valley for several days in 1825 and sketched the scenery. Generations of artists followed suit, drawn by the grandeur of the sweeping river valley backed by the Catskill Mountains, and they formed the first native painting movement in America, which came to be called the Hudson River School. It represented the first great appreciation of American beauty and the notion that a reverent sense of place can be enlightening. Which sounds a lot like a good road trip.
Kentucky’s Paris (the seat of Bourbon County) and France’s Paris have more in common than you might think. One Paris has the River Seine; the other is set along the Licking River. Paris, France, has heaps of history, of course. But so does Paris, Kentucky. George Washington actually did sleep at the Duncan Tavern, which was the first building in the state constructed of stone—back in the 18th century. Kentucky’s version of the Cathedral of Notre Dame—the Cane Ridge Meeting House—is a 30-by-50-foot church constructed from blue ash logs and now enclosed inside a limestone superstructure for protection. It is a place of both religious significance (dating back to the Great Revival of 1801) and architectural awe (touted as “the largest one-room log structure in the United States”).
Like the streets radiating from the Arc de Triomphe, quiet roads fan out in all directions from Paris, winding their way through the countryside, past stately trees and verdant pastures. What one notices most, however, are the fences, miles and miles of them, made of wood or stone, undulating with the hills. These are the world famous horse farms of the Bluegrass, and none is more renowned than the 3,000-acre spread a mile south of town, just past the local version of the Eiffel Tower (a giant water tower that shouts “Paris”). Claiborne Farm, where half of history’s 12 Triple Crown horses have been sired, has been called a living Hall of Fame.
Located less than 30 miles from the city of Paris (each of them resting on either side of Lexington, amid Kentucky’s beautiful Bluegrass region), Versailles is the seat of Woodford County. It is a bustling little city of some 9,000 people, and it is, indeed, named after the French Versailles. In fact, there is a palace of sorts in Kentucky’s version, too—more of a castle, actually.
It appears atop a hill along busy U.S. 60. A dozen turrets. Four corner towers. Twelve-foot walls. Apparently, a coal magnate built it for his wife in the early 1970s – a 32-room, 10,400-square-foot residence inside the stone walls. But they divorced before it was complete. Palace intrigue, one supposes. For many years, it was vacant, a mysterious honest-to-goodness castle in the Bluegrass. But today it serves as the setting for CastlePost—a luxury inn featuring ten stately guest rooms, a ballroom, tennis courts, basketball courts, and a billiard room.
Still, castle or not, the locals pronounce the town “Ver-sales.”
Head into eastern Nebraska, a stone’s throw from the city of Wahoo. There you’ll find Prague (population 303), a Czech-American community, although the folks there pronounce their town to rhyme with “vague.”
Wander through town, and you’ll find streets with names like Elba, Waldstein, Lusatia, Danube. You might spot posters touting a polka dance or the Prague Czech Brass Band. At the Kolac Korner Café, you can order the Czech pastry from which it took its name. But don’t order the large. This town knows large. In 1987, during Prague’s centennial, the townsfolk trucked in 250 gallons of cherry pie filling and 700 pounds of dough and constructed a giant pastry measuring nearly fifteen feet in diameter and weighing more than 2,600 pounds. When the folks at the Guinness Book of World Records informed them that, unfortunately, there was nothing with which to compare the feat, they simply cooked up another, slightly larger one five years later. So now the sign on the outskirts of town says, “WELCOME TO PRAGUE: HOME OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST KOLACH.”
This little Maine hamlet of barely 600 residents celebrates its bicentennial in January 2016. Its 200th birthday bash is scheduled to include antique displays, a time capsule, a “Taste of the Past” dinner buffet, a community chorus performance, and an official Miss Moscow Contest. Oh, and cake and ice cream to top it off. So yes, a place called Moscow will be oozing Americana.
Moscow is bounded by the Kennebec River and Wyman Lake, which was formed by Wyman Dam, constructed not long after the town’s centennial. The top of the dam is nearly 3,000 feet long, and the artificial lake that it created is twelve miles long. But the long and short of it is this: Moscow proudly owns one of the finest of all town slogans: “Best Town by a Dam Site.”
Travel toward the southern tip of Illinois, through a region known as Little Egypt, to a place where a couple of Nile-like rivers (the Mississippi and the Ohio) join waters. What you’ll find there is a cautionary tale. Cairo, Illinois, was essentially killed by racial conflict—what The New York Times described, in 1973, as “persistent, systematic, stubborn racial violence.” The conflict essentially resulted in “white flight,” and the city’s population dwindled from a high of 15,000-plus to below 3,000. Thus the center of town is dominated by abandoned buildings and empty storefronts.
But there is a great natural metaphor at the southern tip of Cairo – that is, at the southern tip of the southernmost point in Illinois. At Fort Defiance Park, where once there were cannons, there now stands a two-story tower, the Boatmen’s Memorial, dedicated to those who lost their lives on the water. The top floor offers a terrific view of the confluence of those two great rivers.
By this point, the blue Ohio River, having emphatically separated the Midwest from the South, has traveled nearly one thousand miles from Pittsburgh. The muddy brown Mississippi, in the process of cleaving the nation in two, has journeyed nearly the same distance from Minnesota’s Lake Itasca. For about a half-mile or so, the two rivers struggle to merge, commingling in ebbs and flows. But eventually, the two become one, and the river continues its journey. Of course, there’s still a long way to go.
Travelers don’t just happen upon Bagdad, which is roughly equidistant from Kingman, Flagstaff and Phoenix. The residents joke that other towns have through traffic, but Bagdad has to traffic. The highway into town continues as Main Street for about a mile, but then it dead-ends abruptly at Bagdad’s most significant feature—the copper mine. The town’s other principal road, Lindahl Road, runs perpendicular to Main Street and past a few miles of brush-covered hills, but it, too, ends at the copper mine, an immense open pit, measuring one mile across by half a mile wide, carved into giant narrowing concentric circles, each just wide enough to carry a truckload of treasure.
There is a copper star on the state flag of Arizona, which has been the nation’s leading producer of the mineral since the 1880s. Bagdad’s existence dates back to 1882, when a couple of men located the first claims on the banks of Copper Creek. The following year, a fellow named John Lawler bought the claims and named the town, so say the legends, because his brother loved to read tales of the Arabian Nights. A less plausible story suggests that a father and son were mining in the area, and the son said, “Pass me another bag, Dad.” Of course, that would explain the spelling.
One of the best ways to embrace the possibilities of the miles ahead of you is to reflect warmly on the miles behind you. It is an irony of the open road. And maybe a good primer for optimistic aging.
I’m always energized by the image of a road rising toward the horizon, welcoming me forward. But as Amy and I prepare to embark on our 17th annual summer excursion as the RV Industry Association’s “Explore America Team” (we’re hitting the road in a 2017 Winnebago Vista 29E), I decided to take a good look in the rearview mirror. Or maybe a couple of side mirrors and a rearview camera. What I discovered was a phase of life well-lived.
On our very first summer RV tour in 2000, we were expecting our first child. As we cruised the highways in a 33-foot Winnebago Adventurer, every bend in the road symbolized a future to be determined. For the next decade, our June-to-August jaunts were designed around Luke and Jesse, born 19 months apart. (Since 2012, it has been just Amy and I again on the road while our two sons attend summer camp in Wisconsin). And though we’ve only traveled for two months out of every 12, many of our best memories with our kids tend to be road-trip recollections—moments that linger as unforgettable snapshots, lively experiences that tend to suggest life lessons.
In the early years, this was the usual cruising scene. But wide-awake moments were wondrous, often unexpectedly so. In 2003, for instance, we visited everything from San Francisco’s Candlestick Park to South Dakota’s Corn Palace. But one of the highlights of the trip was a spur-of-the-moment stop in Elko, Nevada, where we came upon a festival-in-the-park experience that turned a dusty western outpost into the center of the world for an afternoon. It was a reminder of happy happenstance. Sure, that trip took us to must-sees like Seattle’s Space Needle and Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, but little Luke’s two favorites were a snow cone and a ride on a mini train.
Lesson learned: You can aim high, but a two-year-old sees the world from a different perspective.
The following year, we spent the first half of the summer cruising through the Heartland, again in a Winnebago Adventurer. We boarded a riverboat in Hannibal, Missouri. We joined the crowd at Winnebago’s Grand National Rally in Forest City, Iowa. And we began to realize that these summer journeys offered the perfect opportunity for education disguised as entertainment. So we hit every children’s museum we could find—in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Rochester, Palm Springs, even Bettendorf, Iowa. And the Magic House in St. Louis, too, where 25-month-old Jesse posed for a photo for the ages.
The second half of that summer trip was an eastern excursion highlighted by a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We stopped in a little hiccup called Love, Virginia, where Amy and I had met a nice-as-can-be couple named Billy and Lynn Coffey about a decade earlier when I was researching a book called States of Mind, the first of my trilogy of travel memoirs. The Coffeys are proud mountain folks. They built their log home themselves. They can their own food. They hunt for sustenance. They raise chickens. They live simply and serenely in Love.
For Luke and Jesse, it was a window into an unfamiliar world, made possible by our summer explorations. Lesson learned: Memories will fade, but the reverberations will linger. And you can’t unring a bell.
In 2005, we convinced our pals Adam and Steph (and their two sons) to join us. Since they own that summer camp in Wisconsin (a magical placed called Camp Nebagamon, where Adam and I met as campers nearly 40 years ago), we replaced our usual summer trip for a winter caravan through the Southwest in a pair of RVs. Ours was a triple-slide-out 38-foot Adventurer that year; theirs was a rented Winnebago Chalet. We traveled in tandem to Disneyland and Legoland, New Mexico’s White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns, the Alamo and Space Center Houston, Joshua Tree and Grand Canyon. Our kids had cross-country playmates. So did we. Lesson: The best way to show how much you treasure an experience is by sharing it.
A few years later, one of our epic journeys allowed us to introduce our kids to a handful of iconic first visits—to places like the Hollywood sign, the San Diego Zoo, and the Las Vegas Strip. But the most memorable couple of days during that 2008 trip took place in Colorado Springs in early July. Day One was recapped by seven-year-old Luke in his elementary school journal a couple of months later. This is the unedited version:
Thes summer I went on a rv trip. One thig I did is somthing I call the bestis day ever. Ferst I went to the pool. Then I went to cave of the winds. Next I went to a arkad. Then I aet ice crem. Finly I red hary pooter.
Need a translation? Luke’s “bestest day ever” featured a swim in a KOA campground pool, a tour of Cave of the Winds, a couple of hours at an old-school penny arcade in the historic town of Manitou Springs, a bowl of ice cream and Daddy reading Harry Potter before bedtime.
Best day ever.
Then again, on the very next day—the Fourth of July—we rode an incline cog railway to the top of Pike’s Peak. While we were strolling along the summit on a sunny-but-breezy day, snow flurries began to fall, followed by a rainbow (snowbow?) arching across the sky. So on Independence Day, as we stood atop the mountain that inspired “America the Beautiful” and the “purple mountain majesties,” Mother Nature threw us a party with some natural confetti.
Sometimes perfection is unplanned.
Another lesson: Little things can loom largest in your memories. Our 50-day trip in 2009 took place in an experimental electric-diesel hybrid RV from Winnebago. And it took us from Chicago to Key West and back. We visited the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. We drove the Natchez Trace through Mississippi. We took an airboat tour through the Everglades. But again, my smile grows widest when I recall an experience on a smaller scale.
On the way back to Chicago, on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, we visited the Iona Miniature Horse Farm. A mini is any horse that doesn’t exceed 34 inches in height. So strolling past a dozen or so of them felt like walking through a pre-school playground. I suppose it is best described as six acres of cute.
But then the farm’s owner took us into the pasture that served as a maternity ward of sorts. He opened a gate, and out came a bunch of mares with their newborns galloping at their heels. So actually, there are two things more adorable than miniature horses—mini fillies and mini colts.
Another irony of the open road is this: By traveling, we’ve been able to celebrate ancestral roots by maintaining relationships with extended family. Our 2010 journey included stops at Churchill Downs and Niagara Falls, Woodstock (Vermont) and Bar Harbor (Maine), Plymouth Rock and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. But we also visited cousins in central New York, and Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia and Grand Rapids. And we met up with my parents in my mother’s hometown of Butler, Pennsylvania—on the day of my father’s 70th birthday.
It wasn’t so much a lesson as a reminder—that there may be nothing as sincere as a smile amid family. I suppose this photo from later that summer—at Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes—well encapsulates that notion.
Our final foray as a foursome took place in 2011, and now the boys were old enough that we could actively immerse ourselves in the American experience. We wandered through northern California’s Lake Shasta Caverns and strolled under the trees of Redwood National Park. We climbed to the top of Oregon’s Multnomah Falls and walked among the geysers of Yellowstone. We scampered through Arches National Park and crossed Colorado’s Royal Gorge and hiked around the base of Wyoming’s Devils Tower.
Toward the end of the trip, after wheeling through the Badlands, we came upon another one of those unexpected experiences. It was a rodeo in Interior, South Dakota—bull riders and bronco busters and cowboys and clumps of dirt flying everywhere.
And here was a fine metaphor for what we as parents tried to provide for our kids. Driving cross-country can be like riding a bronco. You’re looking for quality time. You never know quite what to expect. You navigate with a combination of fearlessness and foresight. And sure, there are occasions when you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life.
But the ride is always exhilarating.
To travel is to explore, and often that means exploring the feats of… well, famed explorers, whether than means the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark or the accomplishments of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. And to travel is also to blaze your own trail, to investigate places you might not otherwise have considered, places so exotic that they’re almost otherworldly. Yes, a road trip can allow you to explore worlds beyond your own. This could mean a small-town tour of the solar system—hamlets like Mercury (Nevada), Venus (Florida), Mars (Pennsylvania), Jupiter (North Carolina) and Neptune (New Jersey). Or Moon (Kentucky). Or North Star (Michigan). Or even Cosmos (Minnesota).
Or you can really explore the final frontier by visiting these eight spacey places:
Kennedy Space Center
It’s just 45 minutes east of Orlando, Florida, but if you’re a space nerd Kennedy Space Center may be the happiest place on Earth. Kids love attractions like the Children’s Playdome and IMAX movies about the Hubble telescope and deep space exploration and, on most days, meeting a real-live astronaut in “Astronaut Encounter.” But this is also very much an adult playground. A stroll through the Rocket Garden (featuring Redstone and Atlas rockets and Gemini and Apollo capsules) is a bit like walking through a redwood forest of mechanical and technological marvels. And the Astronaut Memorial, which honors fallen explorers, is a reminder that those marvels are fueled by no small amount of courage.
Perhaps the most remarkable attraction at Kennedy Space Center is one of the newest ones. “Space Shuttle Atlantis” tells the story of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program. It is an epic experience. You walk into a large building beneath life-size replicas of the space shuttle’s huge rocket boosters and orange external tank. Sure, it looks like a massive hotdog being sent into space, but the size of it conveys just how much power was necessary to send a shuttle into the stratosphere.
After watching a fictionalized film about the space shuttle’s oft-delayed development, you move into an anteroom of sorts where you’re mesmerized by another film, this one playing on screens in front of you, beside you and above you. You feel like you’re on the shuttle itself. But the coolest part—the way coolest part—is when the film ends, and the walls part, and there is the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis, tilted at an angle as if flying one of its 33 missions, its payload doors open, surrounded by two floors of exhibits and simulations. You’ll likely hear an audible gasp, and it might come from you.
The Very Large Array
If you’ve ever seen the Jodie Foster film Contact, you’ve seen the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array, the massive radio telescope seeking stuff WAY out there—not just intelligent life, but also everything from pulsars to black holes. And, in terms of a road trip, it’s a bit way out there, too—along Highway 60 in rural New Mexico. Then again, as the VLA shows, sometimes the most amazing wonders are hard to find.
The VLA consists of 27 separate satellite dishes connected electronically to act as one. A short film—sans Jodie Foster—and a brief exhibit describe the history and achievements of the observatory, then visitors are invited to take a self-guided walking tour of the property. You can amble right up alongside one of the enormous dishes, each about the size of a baseball diamond and weighing some 230 tons.
Each dish moves along a set of tracks, so that the examination of incoming radio waves can be as concentrated as necessary. You might arrive at a time when the dishes are rather close together, though still spanning perhaps a square half mile. On other days, they can cover an area about the size of Washington, D.C. Really. That’s why they don’t just call it The Array.
The world’s best preserved meteor impact site sits just a few minutes from Interstate 40 and about an hour east of Flagstaff, Arizona. About 50,000 years ago, a piece of an asteroid (probably measuring about 150 feet in diameter, traveling at nearly 26,000 miles per hour and weighing several hundred thousand tons) crashed into Earth and left a crater more than 550 feet deep and one mile across. It pales in comparison to the Grand Canyon, which is only a couple of hours away, but while the canyon is the product of a river’s relentlessness, the crater is the result of one big boom. Apparently, it exploded with a force greater than 20 million tons of TNT.
The on-site Interactive Discovery Center examines the meteor and the crater—including a display of the Holsinger Meteorite, the largest fragment of the 150-foot meteor ever found. But it also offers visitors a broader perspective of the, well, impact of impacts. What’s the difference between an asteroid and a meteor and a meteorite? What are the major impact sites on the moon? What was the deal with that fireball that streaked across the Siberian sky in 1908, its impact heard 600 miles away? For that matter, how about the ones that struck Germany in 1492 and Croatia in 1751? Did a giant meteor lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs? And, perhaps most important, how can we track and predict such close collisions? When you take a good look at Meteor Crater, that last question will loom large.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
When famed NASA pioneer Wernher von Braun arrived in Huntsville in the 1950s, the little city touted itself as the Watercress Capital of the World. Then Braun and his colleagues used the locale as a base to develop the rockets and propulsion systems and modules that made space exploration possible. Now the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
The goal is immersion. This means seeing the 27 missiles and rockets in Rocket Park, the Saturn V Moon Rocket, the Apollo 16 Command Module, the Skylab solar array, and a moon rock grabbed by the Apollo 12 astronauts. This means choosing from 3D IMAX films about everything from airplanes to the exploration of Mars. And this means playful simulations—from a Mars Climbing Wall to a G-Force Accelerator.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is also the headquarters of Space Camp, where kids (and families and adults) can approximate astronaut training. Think of it as a stratospheric dude ranch, a way to play space cowboy, a zero-gravity, cutting-edge rodeo. And some of Space Camp’s more than 600,000 trainees over the years have actually become astronauts.
If you remember the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, various UFO sightings and encounters around the world culminate in a first contact scene in which an alien mothership lands at Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. Throughout the movie, a couple of characters who had experienced the UFO encounters found themselves gravitating to a certain shape, which turned out to be that distinctive shape of Devils Tower. What a perfect image for the concept. Would any other natural American locale have been so recognizable? Devils Tower has the shape, the dangerous name, the far-out location. It was as well-cast as Richard Dreyfuss.
Named America’s very first national monument in 1906, it is an 867-foot-tall, 60-million-year-old fountain of magma that cooled and fractured into long columns. An easy mile-and-a-quarter hike around its circumference allows you to see it from all angles as the sun outlines its remarkable columns and the boulders at its base that once clung to the side of the formation. You might also see climbers trying to summit the thing—a four or five-hour exercise. And then, when you’ve seen Devils Tower from all perspectives, you can try one more—Devils Tower as alien landing sight. Just spend the night at the KOA Kampground three miles away and park yourself in front of the nightly showing of Close Encounters.
Space Center Houston
If you want to offer your kids—and perhaps yourself—a hefty education disguised as hands-on entertainment, then Houston, we have a solution. Space Center Houston, located just south of the city, is the official visitor center of NASA’s 1,600-acre Johnson Space Center, where astronauts are trained, where the space program is managed, and where scientists and engineers work to further the boundaries of technology and discovery. Guided tram tours of Johnson Space Center are available, departing every 40 minutes for places like the Historic Mission Control Center and the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility.
But especially if you have little ones in tow, Space Center Houston is a science center masquerading as a children’s play paradise. Countdown? How about this:
10… Take a spin in a centrifuge that you power like a bicycle… 9… Drive a lunar rover and power a robotic arm in the “Be the Astronaut” attraction… 8… Participate in an interactional presentation about life in the International Space Stations… 7… Design an outpost on Mars… 6… Watch “Rad Rhonda’s” Stellar Science Show… 5… Satisfy your Trekkie desires at the life-sized Galileo Shuttlecraft… 4… Have lunch with a NASA astronaut… 3… Explore the world’s most comprehensive selection of space suits… 2… Gawk at the world’s only shuttle mounted on a shuttle carrier aircraft—at brand new Independence Plaza…. 1… Explore the sensation of a launch—in the Blast-Off! Theater.
Lots of American small-towns trumpet the glories of past residents. Tupelo, Mississippi, is “Home of Elvis Presley.” Yukon, Oklahoma, is “Home of Garth Brooks.” Strasburg, North Dakota, is “Home of Lawrence Welk.” But the town of Riverside, about 15 miles south of I-80 in southeastern Iowa, sings a different tune. Here, it’s all about the future. Says the plaque located behind a former barbershop, “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.”
Apparently, “Star Trek” historians have deduced that Captain James Tiberius Kirk will be born on March 22, 2228. Sure, that’s two centuries away, but Riverside is doing its best to cash in contemporarily. Along with (strangely) what looks like a faux tombstone in honor of Kirk’s birth, there’s a scale model of a starship they call U.S.S. Riverside parked in front of a tiny attraction called the Voyage Home Museum. There’s an annual celebration of Kirk’s birthday at Murphy’s Bar & Grill. And whereas Riverside once celebrated an annual “Riverfest,” now it’s a “TrekFest” in late June. Along with the usual pet show and talent show and demolition derby, festivities generally included a “Star Trek” trivia contest, “Star Trek” screenings in the town’s Red Barn, a parade and a sci-fi swap meet.
So a trip to Riverside can feel like an exploration of quirky Americana, or perhaps a journey into the future, or maybe simply, in the words of Kirk himself, a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before…”
Roswell, New Mexico
Roughly 48,000 people live in the eastern New Mexico city of Roswell—that is, if you don’t count the aliens. Some seven decades ago, in 1947, an object crashed in the general vicinity of Roswell. Was it a weather balloon, or was it an extraterrestrial spacecraft? Were its occupants captured, as conspiracy theorists insist? And, as they further contend, was the whole affair covered up? Roswell has built a whole tourist trade around the notion.
The International UFO Museum explores the Roswell Incident and UFO sightings in general. It is a Martian-believer’s Mecca. Tantalizing Area 51 information? Check? Titillating alien abduction stories? Yup. Curious crop circles? You bet. And if you’re interest extends further, there’s a whole research library available. And, of course, each year in the days surrounding Independence Day, Roswell hosts a UFO Festival, so now the strange and curious are drawn to Roswell’s strange and curious. Among the events is an alien costume contest, which—if an unsuspecting witness happened to pass by—is just the kind of thing that might have sparked the otherworldly theories in the first place.
Arnold Palmer once said, “What others may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive.” He was talking about golf, of course. But let’s re-word that, shall we? Let’s say this: There is poetry in a great museum. And, in house-on-wheels terms, here are eight museums that are very much worth the drive:
National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis, TN)
The façade of the Loraine Motel is still there, and there are even cars from the era parked in front. There, too, is Dr. Martin Luther King’s Room 306, his last respite on that fateful day of his assassination in April 1968. But the rest of the motel has been reborn as a museum, a place for people to explore the tragedies and triumphs of the civil rights movement.
You walk into the building, and you’re first invited to sit for a ten-minute introductory film. Then you’re led on a chronological journey through the people, places and events that became touchstones of the cause. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Frederick Douglas. Montgomery. Greensboro. Birmingham. Selma. Boycotts. Sit-ins. Marches. Emmett Till. Medgar Evers. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Epithets. Fire hoses. Nooses. Jackie Robinson. Thurgood Marshall. Rosa Parks.
Finally, you make your way to 1968, to Memphis, to the Loraine Motel—which is when you arrive at Room 306. And somehow, despite the weight of the loss of a great man at that very spot, you still feel rather buoyed by a sense of all that he and his colleagues managed to accomplish.
Henry Ford Museum (Dearborn, MI)
The Henry Ford Museum and adjacent Greenfield Village represent a flag-waving and era-harkening experience. Ford was a collector, amassing countless artifacts and dozens of buildings in an attempt to capture the breadth and wonder of the American experience. Billed as “America’s Greatest History Attraction,” it just may be.
Ford’s thinking was that people can learn history a lot better if they see it instead of reading it in a book, so Greenfield Village spans more than 300 years of history over 90 acres. You can ride an 1880 steam locomotive, cruise aboard a paddle-wheel steamboat, ride in a vintage Model-T, get dizzy on a 1913 carousel, check out the Wright brothers’ cycle shop, see Robert Frost’s home, or watch costumed potters, printers, weavers and glassblowers.
The museum? It is even more history-brimming, offering everything from old Burma Shave signs to a 1939 Soap Box Derby car and an 1896 electric bicycle. Indeed, amid the hundreds of vehicles inside the massive complex are these American icons: the bus that Rosa Parks made famous, a 1952 version of the famed Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, the rocket-like Goldenrod that set a land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” motorhome, Teddy Roosevelt’s horse-drawn carriage, the presidential limo in which JFK rode on the day of his assassination, the first working helicopter, and a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. It’s a heck of a place to visit in a 21st-century Winnebago.
Newseum (Washington, D.C.)
What makes the Newseum remarkable, aside from the fact that your entrance fee allows next-day entry as well (because there’s that much to see), is this: It consists of seven floors of exhibits devoted to 45 words—the five freedoms of the First Amendment. It is about the power of protest and the press.
Imagery? In the Berlin Wall Gallery, you can actually stand alongside a section of that iconic wall, which symbolized modern oppression. The 9/11 Gallery includes a section of a mangled antenna from the North Tower at the World Trade Center, along with a wall featuring dozens of front pages from around the world—from September 12, 2001. A two-story, glass Journalists Memorial bears the names of members of the media who died in the line of duty. The Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery is a massive series of walls covered with televisions that show clips and trace the evolution of electronic news. And the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery displays every winner of the award (warning: most of the images are not pleasant, but undeniably profound).
History? The News History Gallery, the largest gallery in the place, was brimming with material about the history of news gathering over five centuries, including more than 300 historic front pages. And the Cox First Amendment Gallery explores those famous 45 words through the stories of people who used the power of the amendment to express themselves and change the world.
The Museum at Bethel Woods (Bethel, NY)
It may be most appropriate to travel here on a whim, just like hundreds of thousands of folks did back in August 1969—to Bethel, New York, and the site of the Woodstock Music Festival. It is now known as the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, and it hosts year-round contemporary performances in various musical genres. But it remains a sort of counterculture nirvana, like a tie-dyed trip back in time.
Who said museums have to be stuffy? This one, which opened its doors in 2008, tells the story of the Woodstock festival—the hurdles that had to be overcome about where to have it, whom to book, the traffic, the weather. But it examines the free concert within a larger context—the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Flower power. Acid tests. Pschedelic buses. Civil rights struggles. Generational confrontations. The Age of Aquarius.
You can top off your museum visit by plopping yourself onto a beanbag chair and watching an up-close film about the concert—so close, in fact, that you feel like you’ve had front row seats to history. Then, when you’ve been sufficiently immersed in the Sixties, you can walk the actual grounds, stand where the stage once stood, look out over the endlessly green countryside, and pretend you’re Jimi Hendrix or Joe Cocker enthralling half a million rain-soaked renegades.
Roots of American Music Exhibition (Galax, VA)
Of course, American music comes in many forms, as does cultural enlightenment. Like, for instance, a visit to the Blue Ridge Music Center at Milepost 213 along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Technically, Roots of American Music is an exhibition and not a full-fledged museum. But don’t let semantics diminish the sentiment.
The museum/exhibition is a trip through the sources (from African banjos to European violins), instruments (fiddles, dulcimers), styles (everything from mountain gospel to bluegrass), and songs (“Foggy Mountain Top” and “Old Joe Clark” and “Darling Cora”) that constitute Appalachia’s unique mountain music. One exhibit describes the music as “sounds that have profoundly influenced the development of American popular music” and the hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains as “some of the most musical places on earth.”
The fact that that the Blue Ridge Music Center hosts a Midday Mountain Music series—you can listen to, say, Bill Anderson on the guitar while his wife Maggie plays the dulcimer—and a Summer Concert Series, well that just means the education is complemented by relevant entertainment.
National Prisoner of War Museum (Andersonville, GA)About ten miles up the road from
Americus, Georgia, sits Andersonville National Historic Site. Built as a stockade a year-and-a-half before the war ended, Andersonville Prison existed for only 14 months, but housed more than 45,000 wounded, starving, ill, captured Union soldiers. Nearly 13,000 of them died there. Today, the historic site consists of three parts—Camp Sumter military prison, Andersonville National Cemetery and the National Prisoner of War Museum.
A tour of the 26.5-acre prison site allows visitors to shudder at a sense of place, and the cemetery (which still holds some 150 veteran burials annually) does, too. But the National Prisoner of War Museum offers a sense of Andersonville’s place in history. In fact, it powerfully examines the American prisoner of war throughout history—through artifacts, letters, videos, artistic interpretation, and re-creations (of a Vietnamese cell known as a “tiger cage,” for instance).
It’s not necessarily a fun experience, per se, but education is enlightenment, which should be a goal of most every road trip. Besides, when you wander the exhibit halls, each gallery dedicated to a different aspect of the war prisoner experience—capture, living conditions, communications, privation, morale, escape—it gives you an even greater appreciation for what the open road offers: Freedom.
National September 11 Memorial and Museum (New York City)
Sometimes you know you HAVE to visit a particular place, even if it promises to be a difficult experience. The Memorial Plaza consists of twin reflecting pools sitting in the shadow of the newly-constructed Freedom Tower and in the footprints of the former towers (and featuring the largest manmade waterfalls in North America). The names of all of the nearly 3,000 victims have been stencil-cut into the parapets. It is a classy and consecrated space.
The 9/11 Museum’s 110,000-square-foot exhibition space is located beneath those reflecting pools—at bedrock, several stories below ground in the basement of the World Trade Center. One’s first descent into the museum takes you into Foundation Hall—a subterranean exhibit space that includes massive objects with even larger symbolic meaning. Like the 58-ton steel girder—the Last Column removed from the wreckage—that was covered with messages from rescue workers. And the Vesey Street stairs, where hundreds of people escaped before the towers fell. And the wreckage of a fire truck from Ladder Company 3.
The heart of the museum is the historical part—the story of that fateful day. The narrative begins with the construction of the Twin Towers. The “before” photos and memories seem particularly chilling. Then there is the “during”—the news accounts and bystander reactions and fire company communications and stunning images that shocked all of us. And finally, there is the “after”—the search for the missing, the search for the perpetrators, the search for answers.
You’ll find the experience to be crowded, yet quiet, each visitor wandering through the story of September 11th and roaming through their own personal memories at the same time.
Charles M. Schulz Museum (Santa Rosa, CA)
“Peanuts” comic strips evoke an indescribable feeling of purity, of incorruptible childhood. When you come across a drawing of Snoopy and Charlie Brown, their necks craned toward the heavens and their smiles wide, as they dance like nobody’s watching, how can you not grin? Same goes for the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, the seat of California’s Sonoma County. You’ll know it by the Charlie Brown statue in front. And the courtyard containing both a birdbath (hello, Woodstock!) and a kite-eating tree. And the “Psychatric Help 5 Cents” booth once you walk in.
On the upper floor, you can stroll through the life of “Sparky,” as everyone called Schulz. There’s a replication of his studio, a nursery wall that he painted for his daughter in 1951, a timeline of his life, and an exhibition of the comics that influenced him as a child. On the main floor, you can find classic “Peanuts” strips, storyboards, and animation cells.
Two artistic creations in the Great Hall, both designed by Yoshiteru Otani, are particular delights. One is Morphing Snoopy, a relief wood sculpture that shows the evolution of Charlie Brown’s pooch over the years (hint: He started out much more traditionally dog-like). The other is a mural composed of 3,598 ceramic tiles re-creating about ten years worth of “Peanuts” comic strips. Combined, they form a large image: Lucy holding a football for Charlie Brown.
In your hurry to add American icons to your been-there-done-that list, don’t forget to look around a bit. You might visit a place—a city, a state, a region, a national park—and head straight for the best-known attraction around. In the Black Hills, it’s Mount Rushmore. But don’t forget the Crazy Horse Memorial or the Presidents Walk in Rapid City. In Springfield, Massachusetts, it’s the Basketball Hall of Fame. But the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden is a pleasure. In Memphis, you might visit Graceland or the National Civil Rights Museum or Beale Street. But what about Mud Island?
Surely, there are folks who visit Yellowstone, but don’t drive another hour to marvel at Grand Teton National Park. And there are people who make their way to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs, then shrug off a stroll around Garden of the Gods. Yet these are the kinds of places that shouldn’t be overlooked. So let’s celebrate a handful of them. Here are eight that everyone should appreciate:
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Ask the typical American to name a national park, and how long do you think it would take for someone to name southern Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes? The dunes were once a landmark for travelers—from Navajos to gold miners to homesteaders. But Great Sand Dunes isn’t Yellowstone or Yosemite or even Arches or the Everglades. Located 35 miles northeast of Alamosa, it’s not an easy stop en route to a popular destination. Even in Colorado, it seems to be overshadowed by the likes of Rocky Mountain National Park and Aspen and Telluride.
Still, wow. They’re the tallest dunes in North America, comprising about one-tenth of a massive sand deposit that covers more than 300 square miles. Nestled against the rugged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and part of 150,000 acres of grasslands, wetlands, forests and alpine lakes, they’re picture-postcard dramatic—especially after a drive through the flatlands of Kansas and eastern Colorado.
You can try to reach the top of the tallest. People do it all the time. Just remember that loose sand is a challenge… and it feels close to vertical, rising several hundred feet… and you’re already stating at an elevation of about 8,200 feet. Even if you don’t complete the mission, you can park yourself at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis campground and watch the sun set over the dunes, and you’ll feel like you’ve made it.
Quick, what comes to mind when someone mentions Tennessee? Maybe Graceland and Beale Street in Memphis. Or Nashville and the Grand Ol’ Opry. Or Gatlinburg and the Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. But Chattanooga? It isn’t necessarily top of mind, though perhaps it should be. Why? Well, it’s a work of art, actually. The Bluff View Art District, not far from the downtown center, offers turn-of-the-century architecture along with a two-acre sculpture walk atop a cliff along the Tennessee River (the River Gallery Sculpture Garden).
The Chattanooga area’s two most famous attractions are masterpieces, too. They’re located only a few miles apart on Lookout Mountain and are often marketed as a package, although they’re actually located in two different states. Ruby Falls, in Tennessee only a couple of miles off of I-24, is a 145-foot underground waterfall—a remarkable cave-and-cascade combo. Take an elevator ride down 1,100 feet and grab an every-15-minutes tour of the caverns, concluding with the sight of water emerging from a three-foot hole in the ceiling of the largest chamber and widening gradually until it plunges into the pool below. Illuminated by colored lights, it is performance art. And Rock City Gardens, on the Georgia side of the mountain, is a 4,100-foot maze of woodland paths and gardens that takes you through rock formations with names like Fairyland Caverns and Goblin’s Underpass and Needle’s Eye before culminating in the ultimate Lookout lookout—the Seven States Flag Court. You may or may not actually be able to see seven states from there, but the view is sublime—nature’s finest art.
Franconia Notch State Park
If an epic road trip can be compared to a big screen movie, the national parks are the stars. They’re beautiful. They’re famous. Everyone wants to be near them. But America’s state parks? They’re the character actors, often overlooked, sometimes unknown, occasionally more impressive. Franconia Notch State Park, a spectacular mountain pass in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, fits the bill.
One of the prettiest state parks you’ll ever see, it used to be famous for the Old Man of the Mountain (nicknamed Great Stone Face)—five separate granite ledges that formed a man’s profile some 40 feet high and 25 feet wide. Alas, the rock formations collapsed in 2003. The Old Man perished. But Franconia still has a lot to offer, whether you want to fly fish in Profile Lake, swim in Echo Lake, or take the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway. But there’s one can’t miss—a walk into the Flume Gorge. It’s a natural granite gorge extending 800 feet at the base of Mount Liberty. Walls 90 feet high. Cascading waterfalls. Wooden walkways taking you into the wonder. Trails through the woods taking you out a couple of miles later. Just may try to remain stone-faced, but you’ll be grinning most of the time.
Little Rock’s Central High School
A trek toward the Deep South and the iconic places in its civil rights history may take you to Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum, located in the old Loraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Or maybe Montgomery, where the National Civil Rights Memorial is inscribed with the names of dozens of martyrs for the cause. Or just west from there—to the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge celebrated in the movie “Selma.” But don’t forget about Little Rock.
The nation watched a desegregation drama play out in 1957, as a group of young men and women who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine attempted to become the first African-Americans to enroll at Central High School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to keep the black students out. So it was decided that the students (and a group of chaperones) would arrive together at the school. However, word never reached 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford. When she arrived at Central, she found herself facing a menacing mob—the photos proved to be some of the most haunting images of the time. President Eisenhower sent in the troops to face down Faubus, and the school was integrated, marking the beginning of the end of a separate-and-unequal era.
Today, Central High School is a National Historic Site. There is a visitor center located across the street from the school, as well as a Commemorative Garden featuring nine trees and benches that honor those courageous students. It all used to be located on a road known as 14th Street. But the street is now named after a local woman who was a pivotal figure in the integration process—Daisy L. Gaston Bates Drive. Sometimes, when you visit a place like this, it’s a reminder that we’ve all come a long way.
U.S. Highway 2 along Montana’s Hi-Line, the northernmost swath of the state, isn’t what you would call a busy thoroughfare. But most folks who pass through Havre (pronounced HAV-er) or even purposefully visit Havre and wander around a bit may not realize that they can also stroll underground.
Once home to bootleggers and railroaders, Havre sprang up almost overnight as a supply depot for the Great Northern Railway. But after a 1904 fire burned down the wooden structures that constituted most of the town, destroying more than 60 businesses, many of the residents moved temporarily into their basements. They dug tunnels to connect them. They built skylights to illuminate their underground world. While the town was being rebuilt, business carried on in the form of somewhat respectable below-ground establishments—a dentist, a druggist, a butcher, a barber, a baker. But when the above-ground city returned, the underground became a bit darker.
Today, more than a century later, you can explore Havre Beneath the Streets, reliving the strangeness and debauchery via an hour-long guided tour. Your below-ground guide will tell you tales about the opium den and the bordello and the Sporting Eagle Saloon and the fellow named Shorty who lorded over it all. The cold stone walls and low stained ceilings—and most of all, the wax figurines here and there—will creep you out. The stories will make you smile—or wince. The combination makes it a largely unknown attraction that emerges as unforgettable.
It may be the best-known presidential hometown in the country, right up there with Independence (Harry Truman’s Missouri) and Hope (Bill Clinton’s Arkansas). However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily high on the typical to-visit list. But even if you’re not a presidential historian, the old stomping grounds of President Jimmy Carter are worth a stop.
A hiccup of a hamlet (776 residents) about an hour southeast of Columbus, Plains still very much celebrates its native son, the 39th U.S. president. Carter’s boyhood farm, the train depot that housed his presidential campaign headquarters in 1976, and the local high school are all part of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site (his private residence is still located in Plains, too). You can even visit the Billy Carter Service Station Museum, a quirky collection in the service station once owned by the President’s colorful brother. Remember Billy Beer?
But forget the beer. If you’re going to Plains, you better leave with some peanuts. There’s a shop there called Plain Peanuts that sells the southern delicacy of fried peanuts, along with peanut butter fudge and peanut brittle and peanut butter ice cream. And really, is there any combination of taste and place as iconic immersing yourself in everything peanut in the hometown of a peanut-farmer-turned-president? It is what Bar Harbor is to lobsters, what New Orleans is to po-boys. It’s an experience.
Point Lobos State Reserve
It’s not that the tourists skip Point Lobos; they don’t—it’s often crowded with hikers and gawkers. It’s just that a number of destinations on California’s Monterey Peninsula—Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Carmel-by-the-Sea—tend to be visitors’ higher priorities. But Point Lobos, just south of Carmel along Highway 1, offers the opportunity to climb inside a literary classic. You see, Robert Louis Stevenson lived in the area just before he wrote the book that made him famous in 1883—Treasure Island. He may have based the setting on Point Lobos.
Point Lobos isn’t an island at all, but the similarities are intriguing. Bird Island? That could be Stevenson’s Skeleton Island. Big Dome bears a resemblance to Stevenson’s Spyglass Hill. The grove of native cypress trees? The author calls it the Cape of the Woods. Take Carmelo Meadow Trail to Whalers Cove and watch otters cavort while you listen to the distant bark of sea lions (the book’s young hero, Jim Hawkins, described them as “huge slimy monsters, soft snails, as it were, of incredible bigness.”) On the other side of Whaler’s Cove, 150-year-old Whaler’s Cabin may remind you of the old fort in the novel, the site of a bloody battle between the good guys and the pirates—the place where Long John Silvers himself, peg-legged and parroted, shouts, “Them that die’ll be the lucky ones.”
Meanwhile, some of their plunder is said to be buried still on that fateful isle… Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.
North Dakota was once described, long ago by CBS newsman and native son Eric Sevareid as “a large rectangular blank in the national consciousness.” It has been accidentally left out of a Rand McNally atlas (well, a portion of it in 1989). And an article in a 1995 issue of New York Times Magazine asked, “Is North Dakota necessary?” So it’s tough being the more northern, less touristy Dakota. But to appreciate the state, all you have to do is drive through it.
From the west, you might start with the restored western town of Medora, Gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit), home of the nightly Medora Musical, the Rough Riders Hotel, and the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Of course, before the cowboys came, the buffalo roamed. So cross the mighty Missouri River at Bismarck, then make your way east to Jamestown and the National Buffalo Museum, where a herd of bison (including a couple of rare albino animals) roam 200 acres on either side of Interstate 94. Just a few steps from the museum is Frontier Village, a reconstructed 19th century prairie town. And standing guard over it all, just a couple hundred feet further, is a 26-foot-tall, 46-foot-long cement sculpture known as Dakota Thunder, the World’s Largest Buffalo.
Or take North Dakota’s back roads—past endless hay fields—to towns with evocative names. Like Zap, where the “Zip to Zap” (an attempt at a Woodstock-like experience a few weeks before Woodstock in 1969) was a bit of a failure. Or like another town called Hope, a pleasant little community in the shadow of a white water tower. HOPE is emblazoned on one side, a smiley face on the other.
We’re a results-oriented society, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the process along with the product. There are dozens of opportunities around the country to tour the places where some of our favorite creations are conceived, crafted, constructed, fashioned, fermented, tested, tasted, monitored, manufactured and otherwise made. The following factory and product tours are eight of the most fun and fascinating:
Vermont never disappoints. And neither does the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour—a beloved company’s headquarters amid an idyllic setting, where everyone is rubbing their bellies with satisfaction, and the smiling employees are wearing shirts that say “Peace, Love & Ice Cream.”
First, you watch a movie—or actually, a “moo-vie” in the Cow Over the Moon Theater (about Ben and Jerry and the start-up of their company, which began with a $5 correspondence course and a tiny store in an abandoned service station). Then you can catch a glimpse of the actual assembly floor. Maybe they’re making Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Or Imagine Whirled Peace. Or Jamaican Me Crazy. The woman who suggested the name Cherry Garcia? She was rewarded with free ice cream for life. A blessing and a curse, I’d surmise.
At the end of the tour, you’ll want to snag a free mini-cup of ice cream. But you can also stroll up a hill near the factory—to a faux cemetery known as the Flavor Graveyard. This is where ice cream creations go to die, whether it’s White Russian, Holy Cannoli, Peanut Butter & Jelly, or Economic Crunch.
Saunter along the Walk of Fame through downtown Louisville (honoring everyone from Josh Gibson to Johnny Bench), stroll past the 120-foot-tall replica of a Babe Ruth model bat, and step into history. The factory tour guide might begin by saying, “You’ll see why we are the hardest hitting name in sports.” And his banter occasionally swings and misses (“All bats are hand-inspected, and the defective ones are shipped to the Chicago Cubs.”) But if you’re a baseball history buff, you’ll feel like a kind in a candy store.
Aside from seeing artifacts like the original Louisville Slugger (belonging to 19th-century star Pete Browning) and a wall bearing signatures—once emblazoned on bats—of more than 80 Hall of Famers, you’ll learn a thing or two. You’ll be informed that the company didn’t start out making bats, but rather butter churns and bedposts. You’ll discover that billets of lumber were turned into baseball bats by hand up until the 1980s, which took about 20 minutes. Today, machines do it in about 30-60 seconds. More than 2,500 bat models (particular to each batter’s request) are stored in a computer to drive the machinery. You’ll find out that big league ballplayers order 100-120 bats each season, and nearly two-thirds of major leaguers swing Louisville Sluggers. And you’ll be thrown this curve: Each year some 40,000 northern white ash and maple trees are used for Slugger bats. The leftover sawdust is used by an Indiana turkey farmer as bedding for his birds.
The best factory tours offer you a sense of perspective before giving you a glimpse of production. Winnebago does it by offering a bus ride to its plant tour that starts at the Winnebago Visitors Center. That’s where the perspective comes in. The second-floor Winnebago Museum offers history (a company timeline), biography (the story of company founder John Hanson), and a sense of family (there’s a scroll for Hanson signed by every Winnebago employee). There’s also a heap of whimsy (at the Winnebago Outdoor store you can buy an “If the Winnie’s A-Rockin” T-shirt), along with a few oddities (like a photo of the 1976 Winnebago Heli-Home).
Properly primed, you can then tour the plant and see how Winnebago designs and manufactures nearly every part of its motorhomes—from stitching bedspreads to lowering RV slide-outs onto each chassis. Fortune magazine described the facilities as having a “whimsical, Willy Wonka quality,” but the innovation is based on practicality. For instance, at Winnebago intricate cut-outs are created by using lasers and concentrated streams of water. And foam is placed into cushions via a cool shrink-wrapping process. Who knew?
The address, 44 miles southwest of Sacramento in Fairfield, is One Jelly Belly Lane. The actual name of the confectionary creation? Jelly Belly beans. The artwork created by using such creations, much of it adorning the factory? Portraits of everyone from John Wayne to James Dean, Abe Lincoln to Amelia Earhart, the King (Elvis) to the Prince (William).
While you’re walking above the factory floor, a tour guide (as well as nearly a dozen short videos on different aspects of the bean-creation process) will fill your head with facts as you dream about filling your belly. The first Jelly Belly beans were produced in 1976, but the company really began nearly a century earlier with the production of Candy Corn. The jelly bean center is likely a descendant of Turkish Delight. There were eight original Jelly Belly flavors, but there are now more than four-dozen (including chili mango, birthday cake and Dr. Pepper).
But the tour isn’t all sugar and sweetness. You’ll see what happens to the unfortunate Jelly Belly beans—the ones that are too big, too small, conjoined, misshapen, or discolored, so they don’t make the cut. They are known as Belly Flops.
A road trip can be a colorful experience. This might mean a drive through the earth tones of autumn in New England or the multi-hued wonders of Arizona’s Painted Desert. It also could mean a visit to the Green Mountains or the Black Hills or Orange County. Or you get all those colors in a single box, so to speak—with a trip to Easton, Pennsylvania, and the Crayola Factory. (There’s also one at the Florida Mall in Orlando).
The exterior of the building in Easton is wildly whimsical—a multi-colored mural makes you think you’ve driven into a town consisting of anthropomorphic crayons. The inside is, admittedly, more a children’s museum than a working plant—the Crayola folks like to call it a “hands-on discovery center.” In fact, they call it the Crayola Experience, which includes a Crayola Chronology that traces the history of the company’s products (the 100 billionth Crayola crayon was specially molded by TV’s Mr. Rogers himself in 1996), a display of the World’s Largest Crayon, and a live demonstration about how crayons are created.
But the real fun is in the imaginative play—four floors of hands-on attractions. You can conjure up your own names for crayons and customize the labels. You can bring your drawings to life on a big screen. You can dance in virtual wax rain as it melts around you. You can splash your way through an 85-foot water attraction. You can try drip art or wax painting or doodling in the dark. Everyone needs some color in their lives, right?
“All you need is love,” Charles M. Schulz once declared. “But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Or a lot of chocolate—in the self-proclaimed Sweetest Place on Earth. Like Crayola’s experience, this isn’t technically a tour of the true chocolate factory. That one has been off-limits for years, but Hershey’s Chocolate World… well, if Candyland had a visitor center, this is what it would look like.
You start with the Great American Chocolate Tour Ride, accompanying a cocoa bean on its journey from tropical rainforest to tasty chocolate bar. Next up: Hershey’s Great Chocolate Factory Mystery—an interactive 4D experience. Then why not design your own candy bar—from the ingredients (Milk chocolate? Butterscotch? Pretzel bits?) to the packaging. And the gift shop? Dangerous if you like sugar or shopping.
Actually, a trip to the hamlet of Hershey is a bit like driving into The Truman Show. You wonder if the smell of chocolate is coming from some director on high. “Cue the scent!” It’s also a bit like visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.” So you can complement your “factory” tour with a trip to Hersheypark and its more than five-dozen rides and attractions or the 23-acre botanical bonanza of Hershey Gardens. Yes, life is sweet.
The Boeing Factory Tour begins at the Future of Flight Aviation Center in Mukilteo, 25 miles north of Seattle, and it is a seven-days-a-week opportunity billed as the public’s only chance to tour a commercial jet assembly plant in North America. There’s a minimum height requirement (4 feet), which must be an attempt at a minimum age because certainly there’s plenty of space. The Washington facility is touted as the world’s largest building by volume (472 million cubic feet of space).
The 28,000-foot Aviation Center Gallery offers various interactive exhibits (i.e. Family Zone: How Airplanes are Made) and a 240-seat theater. You can check out a mock-up of a 787 Dreamliner interior and operate controls in a 727 cockpit. And sure, Hershey lets you design your own chocolate bar, and Crayola lets you design your own label for a crayon, but Boeing provides an opportunity to design your own airplane with touch-screen computers. Then you can take a 90-minute tour of the Boeing plant and watch (from high above the assembly floor) the assembly of Boeing’s widebodies.
The Celestial Seasonings tea factory is located on Sleepytime Drive in Boulder, but tea time was never so titillating. The Washington Post described it as “like stepping inside a Celestial Seasonings tea box”—and, indeed, the experience includes a gallery of original tea box designs that the company commissioned from illustrators. And the nearly 50-year-old company lets you sample from dozens of varieties (from Red Zinger to Black Cherry Berry to Chocolate Caramel Enchantment Chai) before you take the free, 45-minute tour.
The tour itself (which draws some 120,000 visitors annually) takes you through the tea-making process, from the milling of the herbs to the heat-sealing of the boxes. You’ll spot huge boxes of tea leaves stacked in front of a world map showing where they’re grown. You’ll see tea bags whizzing around on conveyer belts (they produce nearly 10 million per day). You can stroll through an herb garden. And then you can taste some more teas at the Celestial Café. And if the tea doesn’t clear your sinuses, the highlight of the tour—Celestial’s separate-and-special Peppermint Room—certainly will.
I like to describe the view through the big windshield of a Winnebago as feeling like a big-screen movie of America is playing directly in front of me. And any time I wish, I can stop the film and simply enter the picture. That’s pretty magical, especially when you’re immersed in a jaw-dropping drive punctuated by myriad “Whoa!” moments. “The road is life,” Jack Kerouac declared. Here are eight that will make you feel most alive:
It is satisfying enough simply to cruise along Skyline Drive, the 105-mile artery through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, winding dramatically around the knobs and gaps of the Blue Ridge, offering breathtaking views (more than 70 overlooks) of the Shenandoah River valley to the west and Virginia’s rolling Piedmont country to the east, past more than 300 buildings and structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But then you hit the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a grand drive turns into an epic journey along the eastern rampart of the Appalachian Mountains. And really, you should drive the whole dad-gum thing.
Millions visit the Parkway each year, whether in Virginia or North Carolina, but far fewer visitors opt to cover every one of its winding 469 miles—from Milepost 0 at the southern tip of Shenandoah National Park to its terminus at Smoky Mountains National Park. “America’s Favorite Drive” offers scenic highlights with names like Craggy Gardens and Rocky Knob and Iron Mine Hollow and Grandfather Mountain; intriguing Appalachian hamlets like Buena Vista and Big Island and Blowing Rock; fleeting mountain hiccups called Little Switzerland and Meadows of Dan and Fancy Gap.
Stop for buckwheat, cornflower and sweet potato pancakes at Mabry Mill Restaurant (Milepost 176), site of century-old gristmill and a walking tour of rural life in Appalachia. Watch a banjo-and-dulcimer duo at the Roots of American Music exhibition at the Blue Ridge Music Center (Milepost 213). Hike a couple of miles to get remarkable glimpses of Linville Falls (Milepost 316). Nearly every bend in the road offers something to smile about.
Although it is also the name of a tiny village in the region, Big Sur has come to mean the 90-mile stretch of California’s central coast between San Simeon to the south and Carmel to the north. It is a region of unmatched beauty where the Santa Lucia Mountains, Los Padres National Forest and the expansive blue waters of the Pacific Ocean join together in what is often touted as “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world.” This stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway feels very much like a journey along the edge of a continent, but it also offers some delicious stops along the way.
The scenery is a diverse collection of wonders. At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, you can hike inland through the redwoods alongside a bubbling creek, or you can walk along the Overlook Trail and spot the creek’s end – 80-foot McWay falls plummeting from granite cliffs into the ocean. Andrew Molera State Park offers a mile-long hike past wildflowers and sycamore trees to a secluded beach sheltered from the wind. And the restaurants in Big Sur also give visitors the opportunity to chew the scenery. Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn is a rustic old-world getaway among the tall trees that offers savory breakfasts and dinners. If you prefer the coastal view, sit on the terrace at Nepenthe—800 feet above the waves—and dive into the triple berry pie. The Big Sur River Inn offers seating by a huge stone fireplace on a deck overlooking bubbling rapids, a sound complemented by live music on Sundays.
Basically, it all combines to create an inviting spirit—down-to-earth simplicity with above-the-clouds serenity.
A drive along Vermont’s U.S. Route 7 might best be described as meandering through a series of picture postcards. Of course, the whole state might be described that way.
If you’re starting from the north, you can begin in Burlington, where the scenery (Lake Champlain) is sublime and the vibe is laid-back-touristy. Then hop aboard Highway 7—through Shelburne and Charlotte and finally into Middlebury, which is a quintessentially quaint hamlet. This is prime strolling grounds, dominated by a white steeple, a waterfall and a gorgeous college campus. Eat dinner at the delightfully quirky Fire & Ice, named for a poem by Vermont native Robert Frost. And in fact, after dinner you can drive a dozen miles south and walk off the calories with another stroll—around the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail. It is a loop of slightly over a mile through woods and fields punctuated here and there with lines from several of Frost’s poems. Poetry and scenery—pretty great combination
And speaking of visual arts, your Highway Seven Serenade can end with a stop in Bennington. Vermont’s third largest city is home to one of the nation’s smallest colleges. Fewer than 700 undergraduates attend Bennington College, which sits on a hill in an almost dreamlike setting. They’re particularly dedicated to the arts at Bennington, mostly visual and performing arts. But surely someone is studying Frost, who took the road less traveled “and that has made all the difference.”
It is almost impossible to describe the grandeur of the iconic road that takes you along the Crown of the Continent in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The 50-mile long engineering marvel, completed in the 1930s, has been deemed a National Historic Landmark. Whether you’re traversing it in a car, a narrated Red Bus Tour, or even one of the park’s shuttle buses, it will surely be many things. It will be narrow, steep, winding, crowded… and almost unfathomably breathtaking.
The marvels are many. There is the Weeping Wall, where the waters rush down to the roadside like some sort of nature-made car wash. There is the Trail of Cedars, where your walk in the woods takes you beneath centuries-old trees. There is Lake McDonald, where the waters reflect cotton-ball clouds—along with Lake McDonald Lodge, more than a century old and offering what the locals describe as “a view with a room.”
There are glimpses of glaciers (only about 25 remain in the park, half as many as only a few decades ago). There are sharp mountain ridges that seem to pierce the sky, as well as a lush river valley below, fed by waterfalls that cascade hundreds of feet. There are wildflowers adorning either side of the road—not to mention wildlife that occasionally crosses it. In fact, we had to stop suddenly to let a black bear wander through. Then again, it’s his world. We’re only passing through it.
It’s just too majestic to be known simply as State Route 254 through Humboldt County. Is there any sight more awe-inspiring than a grove of redwoods while the sun filters through the canopies? This route through Humboldt Redwoods State Park (a 32-mile section of old Highway 101 that winds along the scenic Eel River and contains 17,000 acres of old-growth redwood forests) was originally built as a stagecoach and wagon road in the 1880s. Driving it is like steering among ancient giants who are standing guard by the roadside. Or maybe palace guards—the palace being Mount Olympus. It is beyond magical; it’s almost mythological.
Avenue of the Giants is a tour of trees unlike any other. There are three drive-through trees (in the towns of Leggett, Myers Flat, and Klamath). The hamlet of Redcrest boasts the Eternal Tree House (“See 20’ Room Inside Living Tree!”). Phillipsville is home to the Living Chimney Tree (and the Chimney Tree Grill). And, most famously, the Dyerville Giant, along the Founders Grove nature trail, measured at least 362 feet tall before it fell on March 24, 1991. That’s like a centuries-old 30-story building toppling. Humboldt is humbling.
The Natchez Trace Parkway—crossing through parts of Tennessee and Alabama before slicing a swath through much of Mississippi—is a 438-mile, two-lane highway meticulously maintained by the U.S. Park Service. But it began as a series of hunters’ paths stretching from the banks of the lower Mississippi River to the Tennessee River Valley. By the 19th century, the crude Indian trail had evolved into a clearly marked path utilized by American farmers and traders. They would float their crops and products down the river to Natchez or New Orleans, sell their flatboats as lumber and then make the return trip on foot or horseback, most often along the trail from Natchez at the edge of the American frontier to Nashville and civilization. It was no easy proposition. The trail was infamous, known for its assassins, its land pirates, its malevolent innkeepers, and it soon earned a nickname: the Devil’s Backbone.
The Trace is where American icons courted infamy—where former U.S. Vice-President Aaron Burr escaped to after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, where Meriwether Lewis shot himself at the age of 35. Despite the dangers, by 1810 the Trace was the most heavily traveled route in the Old Southwest. However, the arrival of the steamship as a safer and speedier means of transportation greatly diminished the importance of the overland route, returning a relative serenity to the path.
So the Natchez Trace today? It is both a scenic drive through history (Indian mounds, Civil War battlefields, Lewis’s grave) and an historic trip through scenery (dense pine forests, murky bayous, golden pastures). And it’s an inspiring combination.
The road begins (on its south end) at the town of Stanley (population 63, a mix that includes ranchers and river guides, many of whom like to describe this hamlet framed by the Sawtooth Mountains as a place that “awakens each morning to the freshest air on earth”). The road ends (on its north end) with a dramatic climb over Lolo Trail Pass and into Montana. Along the way the Salmon River Scenic Byway (highways 75 and 93) does, indeed, closely shadow the Salmon River—the River of No Return, as they call it. And, yes, the experience makes you want to stay.
It is a drive with eclectic opportunities. Visit history at the Sacajawea Interpretive Center and the Land of the Yankee Fork Historic Area. Take a short detour to ghost towns with names like Bonanza and Bayhorse, or stop for a spell in Clayton, Idaho (“population 7,” says the sign). Soak your feet in Sunbeam Hot Springs, where the natural healing properties of a hot springs are diverted into the naturally spectacular river. Explore the historic city of Salmon. Or park yourself at the Challis Golf Course RV Park (in Challis, Idaho), where you may have nine holes all to yourself. You also can spend the night along the river at Wagonhammer RV Campground (two miles south of North Fork), which is a little slice of paradise amid a big swath of… paradise.
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, established in 1968, contains more than 200,000 acres of land and water almost equally divided between southwestern Wyoming and northeastern Utah. The scenic byway—highways 191 and 44—essentially takes you along the circumference of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is famous for its trophy lake trout. The ride passes through high desert country, past sweeping landscapes and Crayola vistas— green forests lush with evergreens and junipers, crystal blue waters, reddish-orange rock formations, salmon-colored cliffs.
In 1869 John Wesley Powell was exploring the Green River when he and nine men in small wooden boats came upon the region. They saw the sun reflecting off the red rocks. Thus they named it Flaming Gorge. About halfway along your journey you’ll reach 502-foot-high Flaming Gorge Dam, which impounds the waters of the Green River. Thus the reservoir.
The best view along the byway requires only a brief detour to Red Canyon overlook along the south end of Flaming Gorge. There, you can watch a series of speedboats cruising through the deep blue waters in the gorge, leaving behind rippling wakes that seem to extend forever.