“It’s the journey, not the destination.” These simple words found at the Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Okla., summed up the road trip of a lifetime I took in fall 2020. In the middle of the pandemic, I drove all of the “lower 48” in as many days. I took the trip to celebrate my retirement.
The idea came to me 20 years ago, when retirement seemed as far away as Seattle. Some influences were books: Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America,” Charles Kuralt’s “America” and John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.” I thought, “I need a trip with purpose.” I was confident I could hit all 48 states in 48 days. At least it’d be a challenge. In the end, I knew that I’d enjoy it, if I followed my mother’s rule of travel, “If you don’t have fun, it’s your own fault.”
Negative comments from friends and family ranged from “Can that even be done?” – the mildest – to “Why on Earth would anyone do that?” – which was the harshest. I admit the why is the harder question. The how was easy.
I shelved the trip for decades, but when our daughter went off to college and I retired, I decided “I’m going to do this.”
A simple rule: spend one night and only one night in each state. But the rule was hard to implement. I studied maps and traced my way through the United States, calculating mileage, and the few sites I had to see – or at least thought I had to see. I listed calculated mileage between towns from state to state to crank out a plan. The pre-trip version of the plan? The longest day would clock in at 600 miles. The total trip would come in at 12,000 miles.
I gave myself a 50% chance of pulling it off when I retired in July. This was the year of COVID-19, and I was not going to be reckless. By the end of August, case numbers were coming down, and interstate travel was not prohibited. I decided to do it, and of course, I could always turn around if the pandemic made it unsafe.
I would leave after Labor Day to avoid summer crowds, hit the northern states before the snow and complete the southern states after the worst of the hurricane season. On Sept. 8, I hit the road.
From my home outside of Boston, I headed north to Maine. From there, it was across the North, dipping as far south as St. Louis, Mo., before heading west and north again (like Lewis and Clark, but in a Toyota RAV4). When I hit the Northwest, I turned around and headed home.
I fell into a rhythm. Get to the hotel for the night, write a blog post to keep my friends and family up to date, go to dinner, then plan my next day. In addition to my old-school Rand-McNally road atlas, I had two excellent resources, “1,000 Places to See in North America Before You Die” and “50 States 5000 ideas.” The internet is better at many things, but old-school maps and guidebooks still have a place on a road trip.
I booked hotels only three nights in advance, choosing mostly inexpensive brand name hotels (using my AAA discount). A silver lining to traveling during the pandemic? Empty hotels, low gas prices and no traffic. Downsides? Some museums and key sites closed, and I couldn’t hang out in bars to talk with locals and fellow travelers. Most nights I ate takeout in my room, or if lucky, found an empty place with outdoor dining. I embraced being an introvert and closed attractions reinforced the philosophy tacked up on a wall in Oklahoma. It was about the journey.
My car climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire; I saw where Woodstock happened in Bethel, N.Y.; I went on a Rust Belt tour through Bethlehem, Pa.; Youngstown, Ohio; Flint, Mich.; and Gary, Ind. I spent a lot of time near the mighty Mississippi, winding my way back and forth across that waterway through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, and later, between Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La. I hit bucket list items: See the Badlands and stand in front of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and visit the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. More often than not, though, it was the unexpected sites that left a lasting impression.
I learned that Indiana has sand dunes; outside Lincoln, Neb., there is an unbelievably good museum of flight; Bismarck, N.D., has green spaces; and Oklahoma City has fantastic restaurants by canals.
I listened to books on my iPhone – everything from Teddy Roosevelt and the National Park System, “The Johnstown Flood,” by David McCullough, books on racism in America and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” I incorporated what I read and saw many of the sites discussed in person. I listened to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, and then visited Bruce’s hometown in New Jersey and the club where he became not just Bruce, but “The Boss.”
These visits were not planned; they just came about, which made them even more rewarding.
It was about two weeks into the trip when I woke up one morning with a realization: What a gift I was giving myself. I was so excited about whatever might come next. All I had to do was hit the road and drive toward the next destination, with nothing to worry about, knowing whatever was ahead would be extraordinary. It’s a rare opportunity to have nothing to worry about but the road ahead.
Due to the pandemic, I didn’t see a lot of people until I got to the Badlands. My first busy bar. A bartender and a waitress in the tiny town of Hill City told me it was much busier than usual, and they were unprepared. I was surprised at the lack of people wearing masks in the Dakotas, even in the wake of the Sturgis Motorcycle rally, which was identified as a superspreader event.
Throughout my trip, I noticed a wide variety of mask usage. Hotels and national restaurant chains were pretty consistent, but gas stations and convenience stores were really different, not even state-to-state but county-to–county. A bartender in the panhandle of Florida told me no one was wearing masks because they think they all had COVID in fall 2019. Despite the lack of masks, I never felt strange wearing mine, and my out-of-state plates never drew unwanted attention.
America the Beautiful
By the time I left the Dakotas, I really began to appreciate the beauty of the United States. On previous trips across the country, I saw America from the interstate. On this trip, I drove state roads across the land. Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska became interesting, not just places to get through. I gave a lot of thought to the landscape and the people who lived in the heartland year-round. In many ways, they were some of the best places I’ve seen.
After my trip, people would often ask what was my favorite part was. I usually respond that the section from Livingston, Mont., down through Yellowstone National Park, over to Boise, Idaho, and then up into Washington state and down the Columbia River Gorge to the Oregon coast was the prettiest part of the journey.
But I also found the Great Plains and my 200 miles on the Extraterrestrial Highway through the Nevada desert beautiful. In truth, my favorite part was what I talked about earlier – the feeling of being excited for whatever might come next.
For the most part, the trip went as planned. On the coast of Oregon, I had to divert from my plan to see the Redwoods because of forest fires. Later, I had to change my route because of a hurricane. Despite such diversions, I lived the rule. I visited every state and spent only one night in each.
Other personal highlights: I stood on a street corner in Winslow, Ariz.; I visited my old apartment outside of Chicago and where I lived for a time in college in Durango, Colo. In Memphis, I saw Graceland, but also the wonderful Civil Rights Museum, which sits on the grounds of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The Civil Rights Museum was meaningful and memorable. I was able to head south down the Blues Highway (named for all of the Mississippi Delta blues singers that traveled this road north to Memphis and Chicago) and north on the Country Music Highway which passes the birthplaces of country music stars like the “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lorretta Lynn.
From New Orleans to the panhandle of Florida, I saw the aftermath of recent hurricanes, and soon after, drove the Blue Ridge Parkway and viewed spectacular fall scenery. I couldn’t drive the whole country without stopping in Washington, D.C., even if it was just for a quick tour around the National Mall. I did not sleep in the capital as it is not a state. Yet.
I switched up my mode of transportation in Delaware. I found a ferry to take me over to Cape May, N.J. On a beautiful fall day, it was hard to beat the trip across the Delaware Sound. And Cape May is not the New Jersey I’m used to seeing from the turnpike.
Going the Extra Miles
In many ways, I was lucky. I kept safe from the virus that was soon going to spike again, safe from really bad weather that would soon lead to heavy snow in the West and safe driving a trip that turned out to be 15,000 miles instead of the planned 12,000 miles.
What was America like from the road during the pandemic and a difficult political time? America is still America. Sure, the wearing of masks varied from county to county and political billboards dotted the countryside, but Americans will still be pleasant to an outsider. As good as it felt to accomplish a challenge, I had been working on for 20 years, in the end, I came home with a deeper appreciation for what a great and varied country we live in. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where I could see so much, so easily. The feeling of waking up and just being excited about what might come next is something that will stay with me for a long time. I think I made Mom proud.
So, what’s next for me? I still haven’t been to Alaska or driven across Canada.
If You Go
“1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” Patricia Schultz, Workman Publishing, New York, 2007
“50 States 5000 Ideas,” Joe Yogerst, National Geographic, Washington D.C., 2017
Bethlehem Steel, SteelStacks, Bethlehem, Pa.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Chestertown, Ind.
Field of Dreams Movie Site, Dyersville, Iowa
Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, Ashland, Neb.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
Extraterrestrial Highway between Tonopah, Nev., and Cedar City, Utah
Route 66 Museum, Clinton, Okla.
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City
Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tenn.
Flora-Bama beach bar, Pensacola, Fla.
Cape May-Lewes Ferry from Lewes, Del., to Cape May, N.J.
Nate Williams is a AAA member from Massachusetts. We welcome member stories. Click here to submit yours.
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