America the Drivable

Richard Quinn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southern Utah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zion National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in HumbleDollar.com November 25, 2022

11 comments

  1. Greetings from Arkansas. I found your newsletter while reading The Humble Dollar and subscribed. I appreciate your comments about the long road trip. Next year will mark our 50th wedding anniversary and we plan to celebrate all year long. A couple of trips already in the plans and working on a long road trip out west to see the sites. I enjoy your posts and agree with most of them. A lifetime of frugal living has allowed us to retire comfortably. I try not to judge, but when I see young people buying expensive toys, I, too, wonder if they have fully funded their Roth IRA!

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  2. Wow! It sounds like you had a wonderful trip. God Bless you & wife.
    I enjoy your articles I find them very interesting.
    Have a Merry Christmas & Happy & Healthy New Year!
    Lew & Anne Ogonowski

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  3. I would like to thank my Dad for instilling the travel bug in me. When I was 5 my family moved from VA to CA. Every summer we would load up the car or PU Camper for a 3 to 4 week vacation to visit family in VA. Traveled mostly on route 66 until I-40 was completed in 1974. I have lost track of how many times I have been from west coast to east cost. In April 2020 I leased a Ford Edge, in Oct 2020 my wife and I hit the open road. We traveled 10,000 miles through MT, ID, WA, OR, CA, NV, AZ, NM, TX, OK, AR, TN, VA, NC, SC, GA, AL, KS, CO, WY getting back home in April 2021. There are only six states that I have yet to visit. CT, HI, MA, ME, NH & VT. The next time I am on the east coast I will be sure to get the list down to one. In the next year or two I plan on purchasing a used RV Van to be able to travel five to six months each year. I have family and friends in WA, CA, NV, OK, TX, NC, SC, VA, AL, GA, FL, PA, WI, ND, that are always asking when we are coming for a visit.

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  4. Visiting all 50 states was a goal in my retirement. We finished after most travel restrictions were lifted in 2021. We still have things to see overseas but there are a lot of beautiful things left to see in America first. We have had several overseas trips but I really hate flying now.

    About 10 years ago we discovered the National Park Passbook program. When you visit the parks, you get a stamp in a book with the date and place’s name. You can download a list of about 475 National Parks and Historic Sites that have the stamps. Other federal agencies also have the stamps like the Bureau of Land Management, US Wildlife refuges, and US Forest Service for example that are not include on the lists that I have found. A long with the America the Beautiful Pass, which covers most of the park’s or forest’s entry fees, the cost to visit is travelling and time. This program has acted as a guide of where we go.

    We would pick a location to travel to and try to stop at as many historic sites as we can while driving there and back. We have hit all the major parks so now it is the little places a long the way we stop at. We still get paper maps from AAA and mark the route. Google maps doesn’t always show you what you are driving by. Each night in the hotel we determine what we can see and research each site so as to save time on the road by not spending too much time reading in the visitor centers what they put online. Some sites take as little as 30 minutes or less to visit (great bathroom breaks too). Others like Yellowstone could take a lifetime. We also try to pick up zoos and museums when we can but the passbook program acts as our rambling guide.

    We also have a wall map of the National Park system, National Forests, and National Wildlife Refuge systems that we stick pins into after we visited. It is something for the grandkids to see since one group hasn’t visited more than 4 states.

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    1. I got old just in time to qualify for my $10 lifetime, America the Beautiful, Senior Pass. We regularly incorporate National Parks in our travels. Thanks for highlighting that. Jack

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      1. We have had one of those passes for well over twenty years, maybe thirty and have used it often, just recently to get in Zion National Park.

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  5. I loved reading your travel diary. You’re a talented writer. I would enjoy more like that.
    Cousin Eleanor

    Sent from my iPhone

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  6. Most of my 50 states were visited as part of employment. I went to Alaska this year as my 50th – but on vacation. If I had a bucket list, I would put visiting all 50 states and all of the Canadian provinces on it – but the way you are experiencing it, as a visitor, driving, meeting locals in towns large and small, and not on business.

    I too hope to get to the OK City memorial, my sister tells me it leaves a very, very powerful impression. In OK, I also want to learn more about Will Rogers. What little I’ve seen of him, says I should have sought out more of his wisdom, long before today.

    I have long been a member of the Thomas Edison Birthplace Foundation in Milam, Ohio and visit whenever I am nearby. If you haven’t seen it, next time you are in Michigan (just south of Detroit), go to Greenfield Village and see Henry Ford’s memorial to his friend, Tom Edison as well as the Henry Ford museum. A day well spent! I used to be a member there as well when I lived in southeast Michigan.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Jack

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