It’s almost certain we’ll be making a habit of this kind of trip. In the interest of educating our future selves, here is a list of points to remember. If it helps you out in planning your own road adventure, all the better.
Keep a good balance of planning and serendipity.
We are notorious over-planners, and this trip was no different. Fortunately, we were cognizant, as were planning, to give ourselves room to move. Next time I would do it even more. What I recommend is to chart out a route, research the hell out of interesting places on your route (lean heavily on Chowhound and Ask Metafilter), keep a list of them with you, and then here’s the key: use it as backup, not as an itinerary. There will be days when you’ll need that list, but you should fully expect to find new and even more interesting places as you travel.
Rely on the kindness of strangers.
If you want to find the real flavor of a place, ask a local. We did this everywhere and were almost never disappointed. Most people love to help out strangers, especially in small towns. Best used for finding swimming holes and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Weekends can be tricky.
Improvisation is great, but it pays to be be deliberate about the weekends. On any given weekend during the summer there are thousands of festivals and concerts being thrown across America. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick a few as destinations, and book your hotels and buy your tickets ahead of time. In the same vein, try to avoid small towns on Sundays, when everyone’s at church. Unless you’re the church-visiting type.
Seek out locally written guides.
Some of the best money we spent on this trip was the $8 for the Hunt’s Guide to the Upper Peninsula. We kept it close and referred to it often throughout our three days there. It’s independently researched and compiled, so it’s easier to trust than a commercial guidebook. There must be similar guides for other parts of the country (and other countries). Seek them out.
Keep eyes peeled for curious signs.
And leave yourself time to investigate them. We never would have found Elmer’s if we hadn’t been in a meandering state of mind.
Camp as much as possible.
Someone suggested a ratio of two days in a tent to one in a hotel, and that makes sense to me. We didn’t follow that schedule, mainly because we were bad boy scouts and were underprepared. Our failings: forgetting to bring a pot, tongs, and a cooler that actually insulates.
Don’t be afraid to book a tour or two.
There are some things we couldn’t have done on our own, like kayaking the Apostle Islands sea caves or seen the shipwrecks in Lake Superior. It’s also a nice way to hand over the planning reins to someone else for a day.
Stay off the highways.
Take the small roads. They’re a hundred times more interesting.
Be deliberate about what time you drive.
In the northern latitudes, the sun stays out until late, so it’s easy to spend a whole day somewhere, drive from 8pm-10pm, and still get to your next destination just as its getting dark. It can be really frustrating to spend three hours inside your car in the heat of the day when you’d rather be swimming. On the other hand, if you’re in the mood to wander, plan to set out early.
Pick an end point.
A good trip needs closure. Find a point an hour or two near home where you can either spend your last night or where you can spend a few hours before rolling into home. Give yourself some time to sit on a beach, or at a cafe, or in a field of soybeans, and reflect, before your regular life clicks back in.
Buy a Honda Fit.
We couldn’t have been happier with our car. Great mileage (33-36 mpg). Small footprint. Huge cargo space. Best of all: clever seat configurations, including one we dubbed The Executive, which allowed the passenger to relax in comfort, lounge chair-style. The icing on that cake was when we got to the drive-in and found that the driver’s seat did it too. Seriously, get a Fit.
When you’re living out of a car, things get really messy really quick. It’s good practice to put everything in a box, so everything has somewhere to go. Just make sure you pack it so that the frequently used stuff is on top.
Don’t wade through waist-deep water with your cell phone in your pocket.
Get maps and guidebooks for every state you’ll be traveling through. Maps are for when TomTom fails you; books are for finding hotels.
Carry a spare and know how to change a flat.
We never had to on this trip, thankfully, but it’s happened before. AAA is good, but isn’t always the most speedy. Sometimes a jack and some elbow grease can be faster.
Download some audiobooks.
Our recommendation: All The President’s Men. Though you risk being so drawn in you forget to stop driving.
Be flexible with your expectations.
Enjoy things for what they are, not what you thought they were going to be. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer. Not every day is going to be smooth sailing, and there’s going to be some boring or disappointing stuff mixed in with the awesomeness. Afterwards, you’ll only remember the highs anyway, so don’t spend too much time dwelling on what could have been.
Finally: Keep a travel blog.
It took some time, but we are extremely glad we did. Now we have an everlasting record of our trip. Sure, we could have just as easily written it down in a journal, but we wouldn’t have. There just isn’t the same type of pressure. If we happened to entertain a few of you at the same time, awesome. We can’t wait to be entertained in return.