We're back from a perfect vacation. My idea of a perfect vacation? You have a fabulous time AND you're glad to be home. One of those win/wins I love so much.
My husband drove cross-country to visit family and friends in Alabama and Tennessee, and I flew in to join him and drive back to Los Angeles. To be perfectly honest, it didn't sound like my idea of a great vacation. While I enjoy visiting family, I put it in a different category than a vacation. And I don't do well in the heat, so visiting the south and driving through the southern United States in late August and early September didn't make me jump for joy.
But it was great! It's always so nice to get away from your routine, even when you like your routine. We hadn't seen some of his family or friends for several years, so it was great to catch up. His sister has a horse in her backyard (!) and his 97-year-old aunt stuffed us with fried chocolate pie (only in the south!)
After several days of bonding and eating, we headed to Fall Creek Falls State Park in Eastern Tennessee, where this picture was taken. My husband used to go there as a kid to camp and he'd been telling me about it for years. Because it was late in the season, the water wasn't flowing like he remembered and he was a little disappointed. But I still thought it was beautiful. We hiked down a steep trail to the bottom of the falls and had it all to ourselves.
After two days of exploring the trails, canyons, and suspension bridges in the park, we headed west across Interstate 40 towards Los Angeles. Much of the drive follows the famous old Route 66 ("get your kicks..."). I've driven cross-country three times when I was a kid with my family, and also taken a train twice as an adult, once on the southern route and once on the northern. So I've seen quite a bit of the country, and I'm still always amazed at how gorgeous it is. There's so much open land, and each state has its own character. You can usually tell within a few miles that you've passed into another state, just by the geography (even if there weren't a big "welcome" sign).
A few highlights (other than Fall Creek Falls):
1. Civil Rights museum in Memphis. At the site of the Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot. Lots of interactive exhibits, very powerful and moving. Rosa Parks, lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Riders, integrating Ole Miss, and that's just the beginning. We spent over 3 hours and could have stayed much longer. In fact, my husband visited on his way east and was so impressed he wanted me to see it.
2. Full Southern Breakfast in Memphis. Complete with biscuits and grits.
3. Del Monaco Winery in Tennessee. Did a wine tasting and bought a delicious bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, which we drank the following night in our motel room with bread and cheese for dinner, another highlight. There are wineries springing up all over the country, in Tennessee, Arkansas, and New Mexico.
4. Mesa Verde National Park. Gorgeous and fascinating cliff dwellings that were home to Native Americans over 700 years ago. It was several hours out of the way, and a long climb up a steep mountain, but it was well worth it. Intricate dioramas in the museum depict how the people lived, and we walked through the restored dwellings with a guide who explained the history.
Was this a non-consumer vacation? Not exactly. In Alabama, we stayed with family and friends, but on the road we stayed in motels and of course we had to put gas in the car. And we usually stopped at a local restaurant for dinner. So we were putting money into the economy, just not for STUFF. We did buy one memento of our trip, which I'll tell you about in a future post. It was local and handmade and we both LOVE it.
It would have been cheaper to fly instead of driving, but then we wouldn't have enjoyed the entire second half of our trip. And we managed to spend as little as we possibly could.
For motels, we stayed in a Motel 6 or comparable chain and usually spent only $40 plus tax per night (about $50 total). We would look at the room and if it wasn't clean we would refuse it and go somewhere else. Almost every time the room was fine, a couple were even very nice. A few times my husband was able to get them to drop the first price.
For food, we'd eat cereal or toast or whatever they offered at the motel for breakfast. We were really happy when they had an apple or a banana, because fresh fruit was in short supply. We had tons of snacks for the drive and then we'd stop for dinner: BBQ in the south, Mexican in Albuquerque, etc.
For gas, we'd just stop when we saw a good price, even if we had half a tank. It's nice to stop often and stretch your legs anyway.
For entertainment, state and national parks are still a great vacation bargain. We didn't pay anything to visit Fall Creek Falls, except a night at their lodge, which had a $59 special for a nice room with a view of the lake. (Although it took some fast talking to get the clerk to tell us about that special. I'd give you my best recollection of that conversation, but this post is getting too long). Mesa Verde was a $15 entrance and parking fee, and $3 each for a guided tour. The Civil Rights Museum was our priciest diversion: $13 each.
One small victory: we carried stainless steel water containers, and only had to purchase bottled water 3 times the whole trip, when the water we filled up with at the motel was just too nasty to drink.
And one bonus: the weather was mild during our whole trip, so we were able to avoid one of my famous heat-induced meltdowns. That greatly added to our ability to get along famously the entire trip.
We had a fabulous time but I must admit that it was very evident that the country is going through hard times. A lot of places felt run down, and we passed countless gas stations and small businesses that had been vacated or abandoned. Let's hope things start to turn around soon.
Have you ever been on a road trip? I think since it's so cheap to fly and gas is relatively expensive, they're becoming a thing of the past. But driving is a great way to get to know the country and not just destination cities. Please share your favorite road trip stories and memories in the Comments section.