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I originally wrote this article for the June 2003 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the book links in the article, you will find yourself at the IndieBound.org site where you can purchase the books from the independent bookstore of your choice. -Terrell

 

Car Trips: See the USA in Your Chevrolet...or Ford, or Toyota, or Volkswagen, or Fiat, or Hyundai, or...


Sometimes I think nothing identifies me as an American more than the great joy I take in motoring down a two-lane highway on my way to some unknown adventure. Some of my earliest memories are of the family car trips we used to take every summer, six or seven kids in the back of the station wagon, a roof-load of luggage and the all-important blue snack box tucked between my parents in the front seat.

One of the family trips I wasn't on, but you can see my mom and four of my brothers here.

A couple of years ago, when all the adventurous travelers I know were putting together round-the-world trips, I took a year off to drive around the U.S. And now I've found, in this year of heightened international tensions, many people are joining me in my enthusiasm for domestic road tripping. If you're thinking about driving your vacation this year, I've got some ideas for making your trip smoother and more enjoyable.

First, you need a map. I've been known to drive in random directions, choosing the next turn by the color of the leaves down the road, but at some point I pull out my map to find out where I am. I'm personally in favor of carrying a good atlas in the car at all times. (See the box below on atlases) I find an atlas easier to deal with than trying to unfold a large map while I'm driving. If you drive with a co-pilot (I'm a solo flier myself) and therefore have someone to read the map for you, you may prefer the larger scale available on most folded state maps. For example, the scale on the map of Iowa in the Rand McNally Atlas is 1 inch to 20 miles but on the folded map from American Map Co. it's 1 inch to 13.8 miles. Although why anyone needs such detail of Iowa is an open question. In either case, consider a map organizer to keep your maps easily at hand. Wide World carries both The Map Case and The Back Seat Organizer from High Road Driving Accessories. Nothing is worse, or most dangerous, than groping for a map under the seat when you should be watching the road.

Second, you need a plan. I'm not saying you need a destination. The journey itself is the point of most of my car trips. But I do usually have some objective in mind. I've done foliage viewing in New England, Amish market days in Indiana, searches for the best beaches on both coasts. If you want some ideas, try one of the driving the USA books like Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen that gives suggestions for driving the two-lane highways across the country. Visitors from other countries who are considering an American road trip should look at Let's Go Roadtripping USA. Similar in some ways to Jensen's book, it has more information for visitors to the U.S., explaining the rules of the road, giving tips on renting or buying a car, as well as describing some of the major routes through our fair country. Plenty of books have more specific themes like Roadside Attractions by Brian and Sarah Butko, a guide to "offbeat" destinations. For more general ideas on where to travel in the USA, try Patricia Schultz's wildly popular 1000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die.

 

For a general reference book once you're out on the road, try the Mobil Travel Guides. They're a little like the Michelin green guides in that they tend to cover many of the smaller towns that other guides miss, giving lists of things to do, restaurants and hotels. There are fourteen regional guides in the series covering areas such as the Great Plains and the Northwest. So when you find yourself in Fish Creek, Wisconsin you can check your Mobil Guide to find out that you can hike in Peninsula State Park, stay at the By the Bay Motel and eat at the Summertime (just like I did). There are also regional driving guides like Frommer's 23 Great Drives in New England or Kathy Strong's Driving the Pacific Coast: Oregon & Washington. These regional driving guides are particularly helpful to car trippers who prefer a more thought-out route than I do.

                                                  

The third thing you need is inspiration. I make sure I have a good selection of tunes. I'm partial to reggae and latin on the road. (Putumayo's Latin Groove, excellent driving music). I like to gear up for the trip with some good travel essays about driving like Highway 61 by William McKeen about traveling with his son from Minnesota to New Orleans (a highway also covered in The Blues Highway by Richard Knight in a more guidebooky kind of way) or The Majic Bus by Douglas Brinkley, the story of a class of Hofstra University students traveling around America on a bus for six weeks-for credit! And once on the road, I like to read something amusing like Beppe Severgnini's Italian view of our country in Ciao, America!, one of the humor anthologies from Traveler's Tales like Sand in My Bra (not technically a car trip book but very funny writing by very funny women) or that classic of road warrior books, Road Fever by Tim Cahill.

A good car trip is a state of mind. Be relaxed. There's no airplane to miss and if you don't like this town you can always try the one down the road. Be open to any experience. I've lucked into tiny town carnivals in Wyoming and a fabulous gospel festival complete with church-lady-cooked barbeque in Chicago just by keeping my eyes open and being willing to change the program. Let the road draw you as it will. As Bilbo would say "The Road goes ever on and on…"

 

How to choose a road atlas: You're ready to hit the road but you need a map. In fact you need a bunch of maps, so you decide to go with a road atlas. You arrive at Wide World Books & Maps (your favorite travel store) and are confronted with a dazzling array of atlas choices. What do you do now? You allow the travel sages at WWB to guide you in making your decision. Here are some things to consider when choosing an atlas.

  • What size do you want? Road atlases come in three trim sizes: 11 by 14, 8½ by 11, and "handy" pocket size, although we find the pocket atlases too small to be much use. Generally, the larger atlases have better scale maps that have more detail and are easier to read, but there are good reasons to get a compact atlas. For instance, will it fit in the saddlebags of your Harley?

  • Spiral or not spiral. I like my atlases to stay where I put them so I prefer a spiral. The non-spirals hold up a little better under hard usage.

  • Can you read the small print? Some of us may be ready to switch to a large print version. Those little route numbers can be hard to read. You may lose some detail in a large print atlas but you'll see where you're going.

  • Which publisher is best? All the atlases we carry have good current maps. Sometimes the biggest difference is the color scheme of the maps. Maybe blue roads are easier to see than red ones. Rand McNally offers free on-line enhancements to their atlases. AAA has lists of free and low cost attractions in each state. Michelin uses a different organization from the American publishers that may suit you better. In the end, your personal taste will be the determining factor.

Our favorite atlases (but by no means a complete list of what we carry):

Rand McNally: The Road Atlas 2010

American Map 2010 United States Road Atlas Spiral Bound

Michelin North American Road Atlas 2010