With most trips nowadays, we try to get to our destination as fast as possible, and we’ve got a big to-do list for when we get there. Great American Road Trips are different: The journey is more important than the destination, and a big to-do list is a strategic mistake. The key to finding the rural Americana and back-roads charm you seek is to take it slowly, embrace detours, and be open to spontaneous adventures. Sure, you can suss out a few must-dos ahead of time—one or two of the country’s best landmarks, parks, burger joints, ice cream parlors, or drive-in movie theaters might lie in or near your intended path—but for most of the trip you’ll want to follow your nose and see what you stumble upon.
Here are my personal road rules to make getting there more than half the fun:
Leave the Interstate. Take the secondary and tertiary roads. Leave strip malls and fast-food chains behind and seek out the mom-and-pop coffee shops and small-town community goings-on. When you see a sign that says “27 Miles to the Best Apple Pie You’ve Ever Had,” follow it.
Talk to strangers.
There are plenty of road-trip apps. Don’t use them. Ask for directions and recommendations from the waitress in the diner, the farmer at the farmstand, and the other people you meet in the towns you pass through—or the fellow travelers you meet around the motel pool.
Embrace the kitsch (and the history).
From the drive-through Redwood tree in northern California to the world’s largest pistachio in Alamagordo, New Mexico, rural America is full of quirky stuff. It’s also full of obscure historic markers and little-known monuments that can turn out to be great detours simply because they took you by surprise and you had no expectations. Try ‘em for a lark.
Collect something along the way.
The farther afield you go, the more meaningful your collectibles become. Whether you opt for magnets or matchbooks or hotel-door Do Not Disturb signs, someday you’ll look back on these artifacts fondly. At the very least, snap photos along a theme that reflects the area. My husband, for instance, takes photos of “world” signs: Candy World, Button World, Corn World…. You get the idea.
Try for a screen-free ride.
Imagine a car trip—or at least a whole day of a car trip—where nobody’s head is buried in an iPhone, iPad, or any other screen. Part of the allure of the Great American Road Trip is the camaraderie of the shared experience, and that time to talk and connect in the car can be golden. Turn the radio to local news and listen to music that reflects the destination (e.g., Grand Canyon Suite). When you run out of conversation, think audiobooks like John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, or Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. If you’ve got kids in the car, a Magic Treehouse audiobook—such as Buffalo Before Breakfast (set in the American Old West) or Twister on Tuesday (set on the Midwestern Prairie)—should do the trick.