Keys to a great Roadtrip

14 05 2011

As R. and I prepare for our next legendary roadtrip through the western USA, I have been thinking about the couple of things that turn a good roadtrip into a great roadtrip.

Last time we were underway, in September 2010, we covered more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers). We did a loop in the northwest, starting in San Francisco and going all the way out to Yellowstone National Park and back, with a bunch of stops in between. If we would have driven straight, we would have covered the ground between San Francisco and Boston. A cross-country trip in a circle, so to speak.

This time we are keeping south, with visits to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park and much, much more. Thanks to R.’s meticulous organziation skills, we have hotel reservations in every scheduled overnight stop, and our route has been planned down to the timing of our pit stops.

A favorite place of mine: Bryce Canyon.

So here are my personal top five ingredients for a great roadtrip:

1) A decent car, preferably something large like a van or an SUV – It is a gas-guzzler (20 mpg on a good day) but the driving comfort and sitting high up above the street is really priceless. And I can handle the bad conscience of driving one of these behemoths of the road when I’m on vacation because at home I am very conscious of my carbon footprint and I drive a smart.

2) The Rand McNally Road Atlas – SO much to see and learn on every page. Just following one’s progress on the map reveals so much about the country, its treasures and of course its size. There is a lot of beautiful ground to cover out there.

3) Satellite Radio – This is the absolute truth: Nowhere in the world are the radio stations as good as they are in the United States. In every city and every region you will find radio for every taste, political persuasion and mood. But the absolute key to great entertainment underway is satellite radio. Top three Sirius XM stations in my book: “70’s on 7”, “80’s on 8”, “The Bridge” on channel 32 and “Margaritaville” on channel 24.

4) Spectacular scenery – Of course, no roadtrip is worth going on if there is nothing to see. And, like the radio stations, no country offers more geographical and scenic variety (and beauty) than this great land of ours. Trust me on this one. (And then take another look at that photo above.)

5) Compatible roadtrip partner(s) – So that the quibbles about the temperature inside the car, the music and whether or not you are on the correct road or making a seven-hour detour won’t turn into World War 3. The last thing you want is for a roadtrip to turn into mutual road rage, especially when you have a whole bunch of miles to go together.

Surprises on the road

17 09 2010

We just got back from another epic journey in the American west. Jetlag has attacked with a vengeance (I am having more and more trouble with him as I get older, it seems), and I am up at all sorts of ungodly hours, writing. But I have to say that we had a grand time – as expected. It was also a learning experience, my second such educational tour in the western part of my own country. There is so much to discover out there and I am sure I haven’t learned nearly all I want to know.

So I decided to compile a list of things I didn’t know before I went, as well as vignettes and facts that surprised me during the 12 days we traveled through northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. Maybe you were ignorant of these as well (but probably not).

If only I could put all my cool experiences in a box and take them with me everywhere, to open and enjoy whenever I want to.

Here is my list of interesting & fun stuff (in no particular order):

  • There is a lot of desert in Oregon.
  • There is a sign at the side of the road whenever you cross into a new time zone.
  • Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park blows every 93 minutes, like clockwork. Almost.
  • San Franciscans have thoroughly embraced the Smart car.
  • Bison can swim?

"Yes we can!"

  • Buffalo wings have nothing to do with these buffalo because they come from Buffalo, New York.
  • The LDS-church temple in downtown Salt Lake City (from which non-LDS-believers are banned) is pretty small. And downright insignificant when you compare it to many European cathedrals built 600 (or more) years ago.
  • A Jeep Grand Cherokee is also called a “Laredo.”
  • New quarters will be minted with motifs of the national parks, in the order in which they were established. Yellowstone (founded in 1872) is the first to be commemorated on the back of a quarter – and I have one.
  • Coast Redwoods can get to be 2,400 years old.
  • While looking for change in my wallet at a Starbucks in Bend, Oregon, the Barista told me, “Sorry, we don’t take Euros.”
  • There is actually a place called “Jackpot” in Nevada.
  • There are many onions in Idaho.
  • Sarah Palin was born in Idaho.
  • West Yellowstone, Montana is the self-declared “Snowmobile Capital of the World.”
  • It takes eight hours to drive from Salt Lake City to Reno, Nevada (520 miles / 800 km), across a whole lot of nothing.
  • If you come to live in San Francisco, you will never leave. As a friend put it so aptly: “How can you be miserable in such a beautiful place?”

She's right, you know.

Wacky American Stuff, Part I

8 09 2010

Having lived overseas for such a long time sometimes I am astounded at all the stuff my own country has to offer that I didn’t know about before. Stuff that’s not in any guidebooks that I have read recently. Or maybe it’s just because I am an over-sophisticated eastern seaboard Yankee that I find some of the things I see out here in the West a bit off the wall.

Near Leggett, CA, for example, is an international natural landmark that I had not yet heard of till we actually drove past it and decided at the spur of the moment to go there. It is “The World-Famous Drive-Through Tree”, a coast redwood tree, 315 feet (95 meters) tall with a diameter of 21 feet (6 meters). It is called the “Chandelier Tree” because of the shape of its branches.

Redwoods are unbelievably hardy plants, and grow to be among the biggest and longest-living beings on earth. They can reach about 400 feet (120 meters) in height and can live for more than 2,000 years. They are massive, gracious trees and endless forests of these unbelievably majestic and beautiful individuals stretch across hundreds of miles along the Pacific coast.

Lots and lots of very big trees.

And if you don’t know what a drive-through tree is, well, you are not alone.

The gateway to the “world-famous drive-through tree” (according to the website one of only three drive-through trees in all of the United States) is a small driveway leading off highway 101. An old guy with a baseball cap sits in a small hut in the woods and charges five dollars per car ($3 per motorcycle) for the privilege of driving another quarter mile on a dirt road through the forest, and standing in a single-lane, one-way traffic jam.

In typical U.S. fashion, visitors to the “world-famous drive-though tree” traffic jam sit inside their air-conditioned SUVs, trucks and minivans with their engines running on idle while sipping Coke from 36 oz (1 liter) paper cups. After a few curves, the “world-famous drive-through tree” finally comes into view: a giant redwood with a tunnel big enough for a car carved into its base. This is the attraction of the day – a huge hole in the base of a huge tree! Amazing.

(And… I’m just curious… what do the eco-friendly among us think about this?)

R. wonders aloud whether or not the other drivers will be surprised that there’s no one taking their fast-food order through a speaker and they don’t get it delivered to their window when they pass out the other side.

I'll have a happy meal, please.

We do the (ethically and environmentally questionable) tourist-trap thing and drive our Jeep Grand Cherokee through the hole, and then we get our five bucks’ worth of photos and video, too. We’re hoping the money goes into some sort of fund to protect the redwoods, but at the same time we are realistic enough to recognize a good American capitalist when we see one.

The old guy smiles and waves to us from his hut as we leave.