Originally this trip was to be the third leg of a circular cross-country road trip originating with a drive north to the Skagit Valley Tulip festival in Washington State. When I decided this epic road trip was to take place after my college graduation, I realized that no matter when I left, I would be too late for the tulips, so I did some reworking. Heading West first made more sense with the weather and temperatures, and it indeed turned out to be an amazing first leg of this trip, despite some hiccups due to my need for spontaneity and my friends' apprehension about said spontaneity.
Mccomb, Mississippi, United States
My hometown, a bucolic and opposite-of-thriving retirement community in South Mississippi (almost Louisiana). Nevertheless, my starting point for the majority of my trips West. I always leave in the middle of the night, so the sun comes up on somewhere I've never been. Or at least, somewhere I haven't been in a long time.
I love driving North on Hwy 65 once I cross the bridge into Louisiana. It's a small highway, flanked by the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and huge farms and one-light towns. In the approaching dawn, you can cruise through virtually no traffic as the fog lifts from the tilled fields. The first Visitor's Center in Arkansas is right on Lake Chicot, with a beautiful wooden deck and pier. The lake stretches on for miles, and is absolutely breathtaking in the orange light of sunrise. Stopping here for the fresh air, the views, and the random state facts in the center's bathroom stalls is a definite habit of mine.
101 Reserve St, Hot Springs, AR, US
Everyone hates on Hot Springs National Park because it's in the middle of a town and consists of early 20th century bathhouses instead of mountains and waterfalls. But I greatly enjoyed walking down Bathhouse Row, the quiet tree-lined street a perfect frame for these unique architectural gems. I gained a lot from the tours we took, learning about how the wealthy would come and hope against all hope that this hot mineral water would cure all their ailments. The history is fascinating, and it's a very calming, small-paced little park. One day I hope to go back and hike the nature trails to the springs. Every time I find myself in Arkansas, I am more and more surprised at how much I like it.
216 Central Avenue, Hot Springs, AR, US
There are places that you stop to eat that feel like home. They feel warm, they have a personality, and the food is so delicious your grandmother might as well have been in the kitchen rolling biscuits and pouring pancakes herself. That's what the Pancake Shop felt like. Now, it could have been delirium since I had driven the initial six-ish hours to our first official stop of Hot Springs, but I doubt it. The waitstaff was so nice, despite the busy crowd (locals and tourists alike), and the coffee was incredible. I love when a meal is an experience.
2680 N Highway 66, Catoosa, OK, US
I so look forward to the attractions on the Mother Road. I feel Route 66 call to me in my blood, the original haven for those of us to whom driving is life. The fact that all these places are kitschy and cute as hell certainly helps. They also have this magical quality of taking you back in time. You can look at this enormous whale and this swimming hole and imagine children screaming with laughter and jumping in the freezing water while their parents sat at the technicolor picnic tables studying their paper maps, snapping photos with their Polaroids. It's a little sad, now, yes, it feels neglected. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and can soften the shadows of any vision.
1413 E 15th St, Tulsa, OK, US
I absolutely cannot quantify how much I adore this pub. Sometimes I dream of driving to Tulsa just to eat here. Each time I visit Tulsa, I DO eat here. It feels like Dublin, it tastes like Dublin, it's even loud and raucous and happy like Dublin. Again, eating here is an experience, one I would give my left kidney for a majority of the time. Ugh. My stomach growls now just thinking about it.
215 N. Main Street, Stillwater, OK, US
This stop was an a happy accident, honestly. I just wanted some mozzarella sticks! Instead I found the first official Sonic Drive-In! Sonic is such a cultural cornerstone in small Southern towns. I can't tell you how many times my friends and I just...hung out at Sonic on weekday or weekend nights because there was nothing else to do (except maybe troll Wal-mart). The clamor at Sonic on Friday nights after home football games was unrivaled--and still is, upon my last visit to my hometown. My sister and I go on drives (one of the only other things to do in a small town) to talk, and our first stop is always Sonic. You have to have a beverage on a long drive, right? Anyway, my partners and I took photos with the original signs and the statue of the creator, and I took a moment to just look at his visage and wonder if he had any idea what kind of impact his drive-in idea would have when he franchised it. The mozzarella sticks were supersonic, of course.
405 W. Hall of Fame, Stillwater, OK, US
Another fun accident had us mistaking this place for a WWE Hall of Fame, and both of my partners were wildly excited to visit, and then disappointed that not only did it have nothing to do with WWE, but also, it was closed that day. We still got some fun photos, a few laughs at my expense, and some extra time to run by the grocery store for picnic supplies. This would definitely not be the only hiccup on this trip.
2401 S 7th St, Ponca City, OK, US
This was my second visit to Standing Bear Park, and I was excited for my traveling partners to experience the wonderful museum and the sculpture park full of historical information about Oklahoma's Native American tribes. It's such a calming place, far from Interstates and traffic noises, so quiet you might see a herd of red deer bounding through the hills. I enjoy stretching my legs on the hike through the park, ending in front of the massive statue of Chief Standing Bear.
Hwy 38, Jet, OK, US
Another disappointment here as we could not manage to find the salt plains! I later learned that we would have had to drive all the way through the Wildlife Refuge, but that information was just not out there. Instead, we had our sandwiches and chips beside the lake, which was still a very nice view.
N Cimarron Ave, Boise City, OK, US
This cute dino was such a welcome sight after hours of nothing in the Oklahoma panhandle. I actually was able to take a break from driving during this time to read the novel behind my favorite movie, Billie Letts's Where the Heart Is. The novel was just as good, maybe even better, and now sits firmly on my Favorites shelf. Set in Oklahoma, the novel details a young pregnant woman, abandoned in an OK Walmart by her POS baby daddy. The small town Oklahomans then draw her into the fold. Of course, that's not the whole story; the whole story is just as vibrant, beautiful, and heartbreaking as real life. That's the world I inhabited as we sped through the fields of wheat and wind turbines.
141 Clayton Lake Rd, Clayton, NM, US
This state park, this road trip, was the first time I ever camped in a tent. And I learned an extremely valuable lesson. Even if you're worried about scorpions, spiders, and snakes, do not pitch your tent on the concrete pavilion. Your back will never, ever forgive you. I thought we would be fine with an egg crate mattress topper, our sleeping bags, and a few quilts and blankets, but I was sorely mistaken. Sleeping on the ground, especially the concrete ground, is...hard. No pun intended. We arrived in the near-dark, so we didn't realize how beautiful the park was until we awoke (I use this term loosely) and damn, is it beautiful. I love New Mexico, and I was reminded why by this pristine blue lake and surrounding red and gray cliffs. My partners were sufficiently "enchanted," get it? Again, I learned about the dinosaur tracks there much, much later or I would have been all over that.
210 W San Francisco St, Santa Fe, NM, US
Lonely Planet really hooked me up on this recommendation. Tia Sophia's felt like a local hole in the wall place, and the prices were super reasonable, which is incredible since it's located in the tourist center of Santa Fe. We all got burritos, and while my partners tried the New Mexican "Christmas" tradition of mixing red and green sauces, I am forever committed to my chili verde. Everything was immensely delicious and delightfully unpretentious.
999 Haviland Lake Rd., Durango, CO, US
It's hard to pick a favorite of the beautiful campgrounds I experienced on this trip, but Haviland Lake definitely makes the short list. It was a much better experience than the concrete pavilion. We pitched our tent on pine straw enclosed by logs. We had a picnic table, a fire pit, a camp chair, and a nice view of the lake. There was a place to park my car on the paved road, and the campsite was located down several wooden steps, a feature that made us feel very removed from the real world. It honestly would have been a perfect experience had I not ripped out my nose ring early the next morning when turning over in my sleeping bag. Eh. Is perfection ever the goal?
Us 550, Silverton, CO, US
This was an absolute dream drive for me. The guys were so scared on the curves and inclines / declines, but my heart was soaring. I've mentioned that driving is my zen, but this kind of driving, this is my passion. The skill, the attention to detail, the focus necessary is simply exhilarating to me. It helped that the scenery was absolutely magnificent, of course.
1129 Greene St, Silverton, CO, US
Silverton is one of the towns I could see myself living in, even though it was remote and small. It was just so beautiful and colorful, surrounded by snowcapped mountains. This café was dark and warm, with a mahogany bar and an engraved tin roof. Walking into it felt like walking into a saloon appropriated by retirees. It was wonderful. The chili and french fries were just fine, but I would eat them without complaint every day to live in that town. When we were leaving, we noticed that the apartment above the café was available to rent. We talked about it at length, daydreaming about a life that would allow us to live there, and we actually still talk about it sometimes, as if in another life or a parallel world, we did live there. I'm sure it was magical.
Telluride felt like an important stop at the time, and it surely was beautiful, but it really couldn't compare to the small-town charm of Silverton. I can understand why people flock there for music and film festivals though. You can tell this place values art as much as they value outdoor sports. We went to our first legal marijuana dispensary here and paid way too much money for pre-rolled joints just because we could. We browsed a small bookstore and found some free postcards given out by a small non-profit. I might visit again one day, but only if I had enough money to properly "do" Telluride.
666 S Broadway, Cortez, CO, US
After a long day of Colorado exploring, we were just happy to sink into a bed instead of the ground. I don't remember much about this motel, but it wasn't the scariest or nastiest motel we stayed in, and Cortez was a pretty quiet town. We were grateful for the rest.
N Highway 191, Moab, UT, US
Arches National Park was the first of many spontaneous detours from my predetermined route, but I didn't get as much grief for this one, probably because it was staggeringly gorgeous. People are not exaggerating when they say that Utah feels like another planet, like Mars, maybe. It does. The reds and golds of these rock formations are utterly otherworldly. Their dimensions along with the knowledge of all the events that occurred over millions of years to form those dimensions is awe-inspiring. The fact that parts of the park were used to film the Indiana Jones movies definitely doesn't hurt. We mostly did the scenic drive, although we did the Windows hike and the hike to Landscape Arch. This was some of the first hiking we did on the trip and the first time I realized that my body was still capable of climbing, reaching, and jumping--so many motions I haven't used since childhood. And it felt wonderful, using those muscles and my brain to leverage myself higher and higher, to traverse walls and crevices. One day, when I'm not a poor, recent college graduate, I'll return to Moab and give it, Arches, and the surrounding areas the time and attention they deserve.
1110 Highway 24 West, Torrey, UT, US
This was the first RV-specific park we pitched our tent in on the trip, and it was quite an experience. We arrived after dark, so we didn't grasp the scope until the next morning. Rows and rows of the hulking white beasts, children running, screaming, while their parents either chased them clutching thermoses of scalding coffee (generally the mother), or calmly sipped coffee while flipping hotcakes or sausage patties on their rig-adjacent griddle (generally the father). It was a boisterous community, one that we almost wished we were a part of...almost. The bathrooms were spacious and clean, which is a rare treat in a campground, and there was an expansive, inexpensive gift shop in the office, where I bought a sterling silver and turquoise ring to replace the one from Denver I had lost. The original ring had been a tribute to and reminder of my late cousin, Amy, and when I realized it was gone shortly before I graduated college, I was devastated. The new ring was not exactly the same, but it still made me feel better. It's strange how little things like that seem to recalibrate your soul, isn't it?
We had known a few of our major stops in advance, but I typically waited to book places to stay because we never knew if we'd want to detour or take our time somewhere or need to rest. It had worked out just fine the first week of the trip. But I learned that not all people like this kind of travel, and I learned it the hard way. So I gave him some space, and for maybe the first time in my adult life, I called my mom and I bawled to her. I told her everything and she listened, letting me get it all out before she comforted me. She gave me the strength, from almost 2,000 miles away, to get up, wipe my face, and pack the car for the second leg of the trip: the Pacific Coast Highway. My travel partner and I brokered somewhat of a truce, and I tried for the remainder of the trip to plan a bit more in advance. I'm so glad I did, and so grateful for my mom.