Road trips are notoriously fraught with problems. Even pioneering road-trippers like Lewis and Clark could never have anticipated that pesky Continental Divide or the complete lack of a clean McDonald’s bathroom near Fort Mandan. Every road trip has its problems. Planning is essential.
Car: Before embarking on your trip, ask a mechanic to give your car a 29-point inspection along with an oil change, says Patty Bonecutter of Summit City Car Care.
“People will drive and not know their tires are bad,” she says. “A quick check will find most of the things that might stop you in the middle of your trip.”
Road safety and navigation: Yes, you have a GPS, but the road is a mysterious and unpredictable place. Just assume that, right at the moment when you need it most, your GPS will be MIA. Pack a map, a road atlas and an automotive safety kit.
Destination: For beginners, the state of Indiana lists a number of in-state road trip ideas on its website. (in.gov/visitindiana) Choose from culinary adventures to state parks and preserves to “romantic retreats and girlfriend getaways.”
The difference between a car trip and a road trip can be summed up in one word: filth.
During a car trip, a person nibbles nuts and fruit and throws trash into plastic-lined, vanilla-scented mini garbage bags.
By Day 7 of a road trip, however, there might be a burrito wrapper stuck to the bottom of your bare foot; you’ll have forgotten where – or even if – you packed your toothbrush; a Slim Jim is designated an official food group; and you’ll begin to confuse dirt smudges for tan lines.
“Knowing you’ll be in the car for 17 hours at a time is much different than living it,” says Erica Anderson-Senter, just back from a two-week road trip. “Prepare to see some amazing things. But prepare to be unprepared, too.”
Earlier this summer, Anderson-Senter and her husband, Andy, his parents and his brother and sister-in-law packed a rented SUV and left Fort Wayne, headed west. After a stop in her husband’s Missouri hometown, the group continued to Colorado, Utah and Arizona, choosing cabins over hotels, picnicking at the side of the road and admiring the kind of landscapes most of us can only experience by flipping through a Sierra Club 12-month day planner.
But even Anderson-Senter admits she didn’t really know what she was in for.
“You can get caught up in the romance of the idea of the road trip,” she says. “You forget you’re going to be in the car – no, not just in the car – in the car for 17 hours. It’ll hit you that first day, a few hours into Kansas, when Kansas goes from looking pretty to looking very not pretty.”
Not everyone you know and love makes a good road trip companion. As excruciating as two weeks on the road with your in-laws may sound to, say, Kate Middleton, Anderson-Senter already knew her chosen group of travelers would mesh. The group traveled across country together for the first time in 2005.
“I think I’m very, very lucky,” she says. “They were so amazing. We had so much fun; we learned so much about each other. But traveling like that isn’t for everyone. Two weeks in the car with my mother, I could not do. I love her, but we’d be more of a one-day-trip couple.”
The key to maintaining a good attitude on a road trip is to “go with the flow,” Anderson-Senter says.
“It was a good change for me,” she says. “I wasn’t in charge of anything, and I loved every second of it. I’m not usually one to have that attitude. I like to take charge. But, on the road, you (become) accommodating.”
At the beginning of Anderson-Senter’s trip, everyone packed their own snacks, which overcrowded the car, she says.
“Packing was like playing Tetris,” she says. “The men got really good at it. It became like a beautiful science.”
To combat overpacking and save money, Anderson-Senter’s mother-in-law packed a cooler every day. Instead of driving through a fast food restaurant, the group stopped daily at an outdoor rest stop – near the desert or the mountains – and had a picnic.
“The cooler has become the first big tip I give everyone now,” she says. “We only went out to lunch once. We picnicked in the most amazing places. And, if anything, it saves you money you could put toward gas.”
Every day, each person in Anderson-Senter’s group wrote in a spiral-bound notebook and signed their entry with a road trip nickname. This trip, Anderson-Senter was known as Cactus Wren. In 2005, she called herself Longhorn Luke.
“It made the time pass in the car,” she says. “But it also lets you remember how the landscape changes so quickly. You’d be in the prairie, where there would be 10,000 prairie dogs with their heads popping up, and then all of the sudden you’d be in the mountains, looking at these big and fast-changing colors. Expect to see some amazing things.”
For Christmas, the group will get copies of the notebook as a memento of the trip, Anderson-Senter says.
“That gift becomes one of the most important parts of the road trip,” she says. “It lets you relive the romance all over again, without the dirt.”