September 8, 2009

Home from our Road Trip

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.


Leigh @ compactbydesign said...

My husband is always planning cross country roadtrips!
Him: "Isn't that table perfect for Kevin's house?"
Me: "Sure, how would we get it there?"
Him: "When we drive to Wisconsin."
Me: "And when will that be?"
He loves the idea of cross country travel. Before we met we had both made treks numerous times. Now our big adventures are a 2 or 3 hour drive down PCH just to spend a Sunday. If you haven't done it I highly recommend it. Often!

alfrhnsby said...

Yes ..ok
Good your vacation

Krista said...

I love road trips! My family went every year when I was a kid. My parents would load up the car with camping gear and me and my two brothers would be crammed in the back seat and off we went. We lived in Minnesota and went on road trips to Colorado, Montana, Washington, and California. Always so much fun. I don't do so many trips now but a few years ago my husband and I decided in the last minute to drive from DC to FL for a spring training baseball game over the weekend. We spent more time on the road then we did in FL but it was still an awesome trip!

Betsy Talbot said...

Angela, wine and cheese in the hotel room is one of our favorite activities! We do this for one night on almost every trip. It is good to unwind, talk about what you've seen and done, and just have those kind of conversations that are not as easy to have when you are living your daily routine.

Sounds like you had a great time. I'd love to hear what you thought about food waste and recycling on your trip - much of the country lags behind the west coast on this.

stephanie said...

hey! you changed the picture. both are very cute. sounds like you guys had fun.

Re: towns being shut down. I believe this happened long before the current economy.
When driving the country the last decade, it seemed that most "main street" businesses or one stop tourist towns were mostly shuttered. I believe it was caused by big box expansion (hi, Walmart!) and the locals just couldn't compete. Also, with internet and communications and travel advancement/affordability, people just aren't taking local road trips to see a rock cave for 3 days anymore - ya know? Or shopping at the local drug store when Walmart one town over offers the same and much more for 1/2 the price or less. Ditto on local restaurants versus chains blah blah blah.
I think you are right - it's generally cheaper to fly long distances even with a couple kids in tow. And with attention spans what they are now - the idea of being in a car with young kids for a They'd probably get all Damien 666.


Alea Milham said...

We have hopped back and forth from one coast to another. With each move, we have taken a different highway, so as to see as many new places as possible. My son even finagled a trip to the Dinosaur National Monument by "helping" us plan a move from L.A. to Virginia.

Angela said...

Leigh- That's so funny- it's like he still wants to feel "footloose and fancy free," if only in theory... In my opinion, a road trip anywhere on the Highway 1 is not only a great time, but therapy. One of my favorite drives in the world is Highway 1 to Big Sur, but I even love just driving out to Malibu and along the coast.

alfrhnsby- Thanks! Yes, it was a good vacation.

Krista- That's a great trip between DC and Florida. I have to admit I didn't love road trips as well when I was young. When I was about 10 and we drove to the Grand Canyon and then Las Vegas, I had a box filled with beads and other "craft" items and I dropped it in the lobby of a fancy Vegas hotel (the old days) and the beads scattered all over the place. On the box I'd written "Traveling by car is the worst way to travel."

Betsy- Yes, the wine and cheese in the hotel room really was a highlight. We had a great conversation about our impressions of the first half of the trip. Re: recycling- my impressions would be anecdotal, so I didn't mention it on the blog. I don't want to sound snipey or negative. But our experience was that recycling actually didn't even exist everywhere we went. Pretty sad.

Stephanie- Yes, I agree with your analysis. The big box stores have mostly pushed out the mom & pops, and that was going on in the 90s. Also people do have a lot of other alternatives. Although we felt it was even worse because of two things: the rise of casinos, which I consider a big negative. It's basically a redistribution of wealth UPWARD. And it's depressing to have them dotting the landscape. I'm sad that it's become the way for Native Americans to make a living, because they've certainly gotten the short end of the stick. But gambling is a big blight as far as I'm concerned. The other thing was METH. Billboards about meth addiction, highway stops that included searches, and a huge convention at our nice hotel in the state park of all the cops in Tennessee, on a 3-day "meth task force" convention. Serious stuff. Very sad.

Alea- East/West, I've been across on the 10, 40, 70, and 80. I've never seen the Dinosaur National Monument.

Kate Sommers said...

Good thing I wasn't with ya'll or you'd have to have a barf bag for me!