Adventures,  U.S.A.

How to Drive Quickly Across the U.S. & My 5 Road Trip Rules

We were at our bar drinking Bell’s Two Hearted Ales, digging into a perfect pile of nachos and rooting through our emotional baggage. We were trying to collectively figure out our futures. She was doing a better job of it than me and announced that she was moving back to Portland, Oregon, that she’d be packing up her things and driving cross country, from Richmond to Oregon, with a pitstop in Palm Springs for a friend’s wedding.

“You should come with me,” she said.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Sounds great.”

I was noncommittal. It seemed, in that moment when she first asked me to go with her, fantastical and ridiculous. My marriage was heaving its final dying breaths, I had four pets to care for and driving across America seemed like in incredible, daunting and almost impossible bucket list sort of thing.

American Road Trip ||

A few months later and we were huddled at my dining room table staring at google maps, drinking whiskey and plotting our route. I’d done a handful of road trips up and down the East Coast, while she’d already moved cross-country once before. We were both moderately well-versed in the way of the road trip, although her experience was far more recent than mine.

Our biggest problem was that we were short on time. It limited our ability to adventure and as I stared at the map and our developing itinerary, I started to feel overwhelmed by all the things I wouldn’t get to see, eat or experience.

A Quick American Road Trip ||

“If I drive across the country and don’t get to see anything cool along the way, I will murder you,” I told her.

“Right, of course,” she said, zooming out the map to better identify potential pit stops.

It was then that I started to identify my rules for road-tripping, rules that are especially relevant when embarking on a practical and quick jaunt across the country.

A Quick American Road Trip ||


By the time we sat down in my dining room to confirm our route, we’d already discussed our driving styles and preferences. We’d already plotted, but hadn’t put anything on paper. After some discussion and one death threat, this was our plan:

  • Day 1: Wednesday: Richmond to Bristol, Tennessee (5 hours)
  • Day 2: Thursday: Bristol to Oklahoma City (14 hours), maybe pit stop in Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Day 3: Friday: Oklahoma City to Flagstaff, Arizona (12.5 hours), maybe stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Day 4: Saturday: Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon (1.5 hours), then drive to Palm Springs, California (6 hours)
  • Day 5: Sunday: Friend’s wedding for her, Joshua Tree National Park for me
  • Day 6: Monday: Palm Springs to a pit stop in Sacramento (7 hours), then on to Klamath Falls, Oregon (4.5 hours)
  • Day 7: Tuesday: Klamath Falls to Crater Lake National Park (1.5 hours), & then on to Portland (5 hours)
We decided not to book any hotel rooms before getting on the road. We wanted the flexibility to change our plan, to drive further if we felt like it or cut a day short if we just couldn’t drive anymore.
A Quick American Road Trip ||
It was February in Virginia and the day before we left, a snow storm started threatening our plans. We moved our departure time to just after lunch and I went to work that Wednesday morning, the day we were supposed to leave, to get some advice from our weather gurus.

“Go northwest,” they said. “Not south. You’re fucked if you go south.”

We frantically texted back and forth as she packed the last of her things and I re-routed us up and over the storm, through West Virginia and into Kentucky.
In the end, this was our route:
  • Day 1: Wednesday: Richmond to Frankfort, Kentucky (8 hours)
  • Day 2: Thursday: Frankfort to Oklahoma City (11.5 hours)
  • Day 3: Friday: Oklahoma City to Holbrook, Arizona (11 hours), with a pit stop in Amarillo, Texas, for Whataburger & the Cadillac Ranch
  • Day 4: Saturday: Holbrook to Winslow, Arizona, (30 mins.) to stand on a corner, then on to Grand Canyon National Park (2 hours), then on to Palm Springs (6 hours)
  • Day 5: Sunday: Friend’s wedding for her, Joshua Tree National Park for me
  • Day 6: Monday: Palm Springs to a pit stop in Sacramento (7 hours), then on to northern California, somewhere north of Redding (3 hours)
  • Day 7: Redding to Redwood National and State Parks (3 hours), then on to Portland (5 hours)

If we’d married our plan and booked our hotels, we would have been screwed, but leaving it open allowed us to explore some of America’s stranger places and to adjust for a few inevitable upsets.

A Quick American Road Trip ||


We were all business at the front of our trip, driving a solid eight hours our first day on the road, but we quickly realized we needed to find the fun or we would go insane. It wasn’t much, but in those first few days we stopped at a few roadside attractions, including a gas station in Arizona with a few critter friends, and the meeting point of three states which was adjacent to a buffalo pen and marked by a plaque on the ground and where I almost lost the dog.

For us, it didn’t need to be fancy, didn’t always need to be the Grand Canyon, but doing something fun, something other than fueling up at a gas station as we traveled from point to point definitely helped the time go by.

A Quick American Road Trip ||


Road food is oftentimes terrible food. It’s beef jerky and hamburgers and fries and chips and gas station gourmet garbage and mostly a bunch of stuff that will make you feel like a trash monster if you try and survive off of it for more than a few days.

We packed a cooler, which seems like an obvious addition to any trip-bound car, but we packed it full of not-trash, knowing that it would help us balance the trash we would inevitably pick up along the way. It had cold water in it, hummus, vegetables and fruit along with actual real food and a few boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolates from her mother.

We promised each other we would eat at Subway no more than one time on the trip, both of us declaring a deep and serious loathing for the smell of the place, and we ate at least one real meal every day, whether it was dinner at the mall almost adjacent to our hotel outside Oklahoma City or a sit-down breakfast at a diner in Holbrook, Arizona.

We also ate at both Whataburger and In’N’Out, because our love for regional burger joints is limitless and sometimes you just need the pursuit of a good hamburger to keep you motivated. And life is about balance, right?

A Quick American Road Trip ||


If you’re hauling ass across a continent, there’s a good chance you’re not spending more than one night in the same bed, which means you are spending every day packing and unpacking, loading and unloading and that shit gets old quick.

I was not great at packing light before this trip, but after living out of one small suitcase for 10 days, I realized the joy and convenience of packing light. Plus, there are few things I hate more than dragging a giant suitcase from place to place, into tiny cramped elevators, up stairs and over curbs and the thought of doing it every day for a week was all the motivation I needed to keep myself in check.

A Quick American Road Trip ||


My last rule of road tripping is to have the perfect partner, but you probably won’t know if you’ve made the right choice until it’s much too late, until you’ve been together in a car for 12 hours and the same song keeps coming on the radio no matter what state you’re in, when you’re hungry and dirty and tired, when it’s 7 a.m. and you’re the early bird squawking out commands in a feeble and probably annoying attempt to motivate your partner who, at that point, just wants you to shut up and let her sleep for five more fucking minutes.

You’ll know at the end though, once you get to where you’re going, when you haul your shit inside for the final time. You’ll know that last day, when all the feelings crescendo and you look beside you and feel real love for the person who you experienced it with. You’ll know six months later when you get matching road trip tattoos, and years later, too, when you find yourself anxious and excited to get on the road with her again.

A Quick American Road Trip ||


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