The Open road.
Just the phrase conjures up images of long stretches of highway. A black and yellow line running up through mountains, across the desert or down the coastline. No one else around. The pavement to yourself.
Although it may seem politically incorrect in this age of $4 per gallon gasoline (I hear the Europeans out there giggling at our still relatively low-priced inconvenience), the lure of getting into your car and heading off to somewhere at a moment's notice is a liberating one. And nowhere is that more thoroughly expressed than it is in a road trip. Actually, make that a capitalized one. Road Trip. Crank up The Allman Brothers' "Jessica", fill up the tank, shove the kids into the back seat and throw away the cellphone -- it's time for some asphault!
|Near the Sea to Sky Highway in British Columbia|
I have vivid recollections of the family rising early in the morning, packing a Thermos of coffee for my father, and climbing into the family car on our way to visit family in some far off place, or perhaps just getting out of the city for a picnic in the mountains. Of course, being from a military family, the mountains could be anything from the Shenandoahs to the San Gabriels. But as I have learned much later in life it was the trip itself that provided so much of the pleasure -- but being your typically anxious and active young boy I found being locked in the cabin of the car, usually in the backseat with my sister(s), was more tortuous than pleasurable. It wasn't until I had grown old enough for the states of Virginia and California to entrust me with my own little piece of plastic that I discovered "getting away".
Road trips -- as opposed to airline trips or cruises -- offer a number of subtle advantages. First, no long lines to embark. Usually the car is sitting in the garage or along the front curb. Luggage is handled by a friendly family member (or yourself) , so it probably isn't getting quite the toss-around that it does elsewhere. On a road trip you can stop as frequently or infrequently as you like. You can change your mind at the last minute. And, perhaps most importantly, you can watch the landscape drift by at a leisurely pace. Not unlike a train, but with more flexibility at the interchanges.
|Circumnavigating Lake Tahoe along the California/Nevada border|
We in the US and Canada are gifted by a dramatic menu of drives, ranging from a few hours indulgence to weeklong excursions. Personally, I have been fortunate enough to have crossed the country, sea to sea, a whopping total of six times. (Though in the interests of full disclosure I will admit to driving it only twice. I'm not the only person in my family who likes to take the wheel.) There are, of course, perhaps a hundred or more regional drives which I've managed to take.
Among the very best, and most accessible, are Highway 34 as it winds through the Rocky Mountain National Park. From lush meadows teaming with bison, to the tops of peaks and frosty lakes this drive, just a few hours from Denver, is one of the most scenic and spectacular in the nation. Your sense of scale will get a workout as you go from one pristine vista to the next. Take your time and stop along the way. At one particular layover, we watched squirrels scurry around for a good fifteen minutes. It sounds boring, but believe me, they're characters!
|Highway One through the Florida Keys|
If you're near the Florida Keys no one needs to tell you the pleasure of Highway 1 as it leaps from Key to Key (island to island for us mainlanders) across the beautiful Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico (depending on which map you're reading…). Though most people focus on the bookends of Key West and Key Largo, there are many, many scenic and enjoyable stops along the way in places like Islamorada, Duck and Marathon Keys. For added pleasure, watch Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in KEY LARGO before you hit the road.
The Pacific Northwest has literally thousands of options, but my favorite has got to be Highway 504, the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway which winds from Interstate 5 some fifty miles inland to the Johnston Ridge Observatory -- where you will be treated to a stunning view of Mount St. Helens. Plan on spending an hour or so at the visitor's center, but the drive itself is part of the spectacle. Let your imagination drift back to 1980 and picture the black volcanic cloud, then looking down the slopes from the highway to the valley floor far below you can almost see the rush of ash-gray water as it cascades down the riverline, consuming everything in its path. The Highway 504 offramp a couple hour trip south of Seattle and about half that from Portland.
|Route 66 through the Mojave|
For something a bit more accessible to the Eastern Seaboard you have the wonderful explains of the Shenandoah Valley, as well as the beautiful Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park, which winds through the mountains from Front Royal at the north all the way down to just shy of Highway 64 in the south. Along the way, if you're a daytripper, there are a couple of exits which will get you back home in time for dinner. Despite the fact you're only a couple of hours from Richmond, Washington, DC and Virginia Beach, the park is an entirely different, entirely natural world. Virginia also boasts the Colonial Parkway, which runs through some lovely country near Colonial Williamsburg. If you're heading that way for a vacation at Williamsburg or Busch Gardens, plan a couple of hours for this drive. It should not be missed.
Flipping sides to the other side of the country you have the stunning drive along Interstate 15 from San Bernardino up the Cajon Pass and across the upper Mojave Desert to Las Vegas. Although a crowded and at times frustrating drive, the scenery is stark and stunning. For a terrific side-drive from the LA-Vegas dash, spend some time heading across a portion of Route 66. Take I-40 east from Barstow to Ludlow and follow Rte 66 for the twenty or so miles east to Kelbaker Road. From there, transit north recrossing Rte 40 all the way up to Baker). If you're not pressed for time, this little side-trip givens you some utterly wonderful sights such as 400 year old cinder cones as well as completely virgin desert vistas.
Or, if you're an Angeleno with a bit less time, you might grab the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu north to Ventura, or South from Long Beach to Laguna. Eastcoasters can find similar drives out over Cape Cod or -- in the South try Emerald Drive along the Emerald Isle along North Carolina's shore. All of them are relatively easy to reach and excellent beach rides.
|The Open Road in North Carolina|
Driving anywhere in Hawaii is, of course, its own reward, but on the island of Maui is the justifiably famous Road to Hana. Drive it just to drive it. Though somewhat challenging -- it has some 620 curves and 60 bridges each way -- it can be one of the most beautiful you will ever take. Waterfalls crash down just yards from the highway, and the cliffs to the north drop hundreds of feet in places down to the blue Pacific. The town of Hana is a peaceful, quiet village at the end -- and if you press beyond it you can reach the not so very Sacred but still quite lovely "Seven Sacred Pools". Highly recommended. If you're in a non-four wheel drive it's time to turn back -- the road beyond the pools is quite rough and violates car rental agreements. Unless you're a hardy soul who enjoys bumpy road, just enjoy the Road to Hana in reverse.
|Chain of Craters Road, Big Island|
And lastly, though certainly not exhaustively, there's the drive through the Louisiana Plantation Country along the Great River Road (actually a series of roads which generally follow the Mississippi River). An hour or so west of New Orleans, along the path there are many plantations now set up for visitors to discuss and present the history of the antebellum south. Our favorite visit was to Oak Alley Plantation for a tour of the house and gardens. Plan for a full day, and certainly take your own car. The area still has scars from Hurricane Katrina, and the flood this year will certainly not be much help -- but the area needs the help and delivers on the experience.
There are thousands of other trips, both daytrip and longer, which deserve your attention. In this day of longer and longer lines at the airport, and more crowding once you actually get INTO the jet -- or the serenity of a cruise with 5000 of your best friends -- it's time to sit back, pack up a couple of CDs
and hit the open road.