It’s during this part of the year that the mountains on the horizon loom especially large as you stare at them from the window of a classroom, tuning out a professor and attempting, desperately, to somehow teleport yourself onto the top of that distant peak and ditch all the irritating obligations of campus life.
But you can’t teleport, no matter how hard you try. So, the next best option is to plan. That means digging up big old atlases and national park trail maps, spreading them out all over your dining table and letting your imagination run wild along those squiggling highway lines.
Take the long and winding road
It’s hard to mess up a road trip, because whether things go according to plan or everything goes terribly wrong, you’ll come out of it with some quality stories to tell. The most important thing to remember is that this is all about the journey, and while the destination should definitely be rad as well, the route you choose to get there is extremely important.
One cool place to start is the Federal Highway Administration’s Scenic Byways site. There, you’ll find a map of the United States with some of the most spectacular old two-lane roads highlighted with descriptions and photographs. It’s worth checking out because although a windy two-lane highway is a lot slower than the interstate, it’s much better for the soul.
It’s smart to have a pretty clear route planned out before you leave, but don’t be afraid of detours and don’t be afraid of extending your stay in a place that you find you really love. Nothing that is rigidly scheduled has ever been any fun.
Bring a bike, or at least your legs
This is a personal choice and depends on your own preferences, but if your car has a bike rack, I think it’s always worth bringing a bike along on any big trip. Bikes can take you places that cars can’t and while on a bike you move at a pace and with a perspective that lets you really see a place. If a bike isn’t in the cards, find a nice hiking or running trail at as many of your stops as you can. It’s great to go for a couple of the planned, expensive, typical tourist activities like rafting or touring caves or what have you, but trails are free and if you’re in shape and ambitious, your feet alone can lead you to some pretty incredible experiences.
Roots Rated [rootsrated.com] is a cool resource for finding trails all over the US. They’re a new company, so their database isn’t quite perfect yet, but they offer very clear, no-nonsense information that makes it easy to choose your best option.
Seek out the funk
The best places you find on a road trip are usually the ones you stumble into by accident, those small-town coffee shops where you stop for a pee break and end up talking to a crusty old local for an hour.
The trick is to seek out those places, especially because they usually save you a little cash with some more reasonable pricing.
Yeah, there are a million Taco Bells between here and wherever you’re going, but there’s only one weird bar with a giant dust covered alien hanging from the ceiling. Or whatever. The point is that if a place looks like it’s been there for a really long time, the people inside probably know what they’re doing.
Finally, choose the right people
I’m not sure if there are perfect rules for deciding whether or not you should bring a person on your road trip, but this is the best I’ve come up with: If they are someone who you would be up for skinny dipping with - sober - then they are probably a worthwhile companion. After all, you’ll probably wind up naked at some point in the trip anyway. If you don’t, you’re not doing it right. But that’s unrelated, what I’m getting at is that you should road trip with people who you can be yourself around, who are down for rolling with the punches and who are fairly low maintenance. Inevitably, there will be difficult moments and you want someone who can handle adversity with humor and grace. Failing that, just find someone who doesn’t tend to smell too bad.