I am the youngest of 5, and traveling with such a crew was no cheap affair. But my mom likes to travel, so she and my dad would pack us up in their red van, coolers full of meals that could be eaten several days in a row and a camp stove for making eggs in the morning. It wasn’t until I was an adult and in charge of my own road trips that I started to appreciate the adventures she took us on. When I was five we drove all the way to Missouri to stay with my grandmother for a few weeks, the hot vinyl seats sticking to the back of my legs the entire time. As a teenager, the best trip for me was the one where we delivered a queen mattress to my brother in Butte, Montana. I spent the entirety of that drive on the mattress in the back of the van, reading magazines and eating candy bars. I would get a new magazine every time we stopped for gas. I have no idea what kind of beautiful scenery I missed, I just lazed on that mattress reading and eating the whole way there. Even as an adult, it still sounds kind of amazing.
But the most memorable of trips was a different time we were headed to Montana to see my brother. As is customary when riding with my parents, we were on a back road. My parents avoid main thoroughfares. They say it’s because you get to see more of the country when you get off the highway. I think it’s because they don’t like to drive fast. Now, to understand my parents is to understand that they have eclectic taste and have a deep respect for nature. So when we found ourselves on said back road and came upon a partially decomposed elk in the ditch, my parents pulled over and took possession of the ill-fated elk’s head. Someone else had already sawed off its antlers, but its mostly alabaster bone skull did look interesting. I say mostly bone skull, because this thing did still have some fur attached and other, shall we say, material. They wrapped the skull in several black plastic trash bags, strapped it to the back of the van on the spare tire, and then we were back on the road.
I don’t know if you’ve ever caught the scent of a rotting carcass in the heat of summer, but it is a stench that will take your breath away and stick to your hair. Now take that strong odor and multiply it by 1000. That still-yet-to-fully-decompose elk skull was in its very own greenhouse of black garbage bags. You could not go within 20 feet of the back of the van without getting slapped in the face with the thick scent of death. I don’t think I realized at the time that other people’s parents don’t usually pull over and scoop up dead things, so I wasn’t embarrassed. I just hated the smell and didn’t really get the point.
I’m not quite as industrious as them, so I don’t think I would be pulling over for a random skull, especially not one with the antlers hacked off. But if I do, I’ll let you know. I do, however, LOVE to go on road trips. My husband and I drove 33 hours across country to our wedding in Wisconsin. I believe our ability to remain in love after 33 hours in a vehicle together is a sign we will be together for many, many years to come.
Given the number of hours I’ve spent in the car for road trips, I have some tips for you.
- Snacks : when the trip starts to get a little slow (I’m looking at you South Dakota, your Wall Drug signs need jazzing up) food is an excellent distraction. Just be sure you know the pull-over rate of your driver, you don’t want to over-hydrate.
- Free places to stay: Map your trip according to where friends live along the way. When I was a poor college student and my husband was just starting his job, we really didn’t have the money to stay at hotels. But even now that we’re a little more comfortable financially, staying with friends lightens the financial burden and usually comes with a free meal. Just make sure you at least bring your host a bottle of wine as a thank you for their hospitality.
- Physical map: Have an actual, old school, paper map or atlas. I know everyone uses their phones now, but from personal experience, your phone may lead you to some weird places and then all of a sudden you’ll lose the signal and you have no idea where you are or how to get back on track and then your husband may tell you that you have been demoted as co-pilot. Not that I’ve experienced that personally. Use a map. Depend on the map. The map also provides great information about the topography of the land (yep, I just used topography in this blog post) which can provide a brief distraction when you think the road may go on forever and you’ll never reach your destination.
- Talk to strangers. We once stayed at a campground in Burns, Oregon and my husband helped the wife of an older couple get into the darkened bathroom. The next day we ran into that same couple at a KOA in Idaho 9 hours away from Burns. And it turned out, earlier in their trip, they had been by the very ranch we were headed to in Wyoming. It was quite the coincidence. You never know who you’ll meet or the stories you’ll hear while out on the road.
Do you have any road trip tips or funny stories? Share them! And drive on.
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