You’ve done it — you’re just over a month away from completing the 13 years of school that make you eligible for entry level jobs, college admission, and mean that you’re now generally accepted as an adult (even though most of you aren’t even close). So what do you do with this last summer of freedom? Well, you better use it wisely because it really is your last summer of freedom. After this it will be jobs, internships, and very little time to do something crazy. You’re in a state of transition now; big changes are approaching quickly. The American Road Trip is the best way to celebrate your accomplishments, cherish your high school friendships, and prepare you for the unlimited independence you will soon have. Plus, it’s one of the most fun things you’ll do in your lifetime.
These are the key elements to having the perfect road trip:
1.) Live cheaply. This is important because otherwise you won’t actually get to experience what America is really like. If you spend all your time in hotels, resorts, and at tourist destinations, then what are you getting out of the trip? Not that much. So, pack a tent and stay at national parks which are incredibly cheap or even free. The bonus sides of staying at campgrounds and national parks are that you get to see the beautiful landscape that America is known for. America is one of the most diverse countries in the world in terms of landscapes; we’ve got everything from glaciers to deserts, so seeing all of these things is important to a great American road trip. Other bonuses of living cheaply are getting to meet locals, seeing sights that are off the beaten path, and not getting frustrated by Interstate and city traffic. (Oh and, of course, saving money.)
Tip: Try to save YOUR OWN money for this trip. Using money given to you by your parents just won’t make it the same experience, and you won’t learn as much from it. I saved $1200 of my own over the course of my senior year by babysitting to make my road trip happen — and I didn’t even use all of it.
When my boyfriend and I drove from Portland, Maine to Paradise, Montana we religiously stayed at campgrounds and national parks. Sometimes we stayed with friends we knew across the country as well, which has it’s own perks. We spent many nights around campfires talking to hitchhikers, RV-travelers, and park rangers alike. On our trip, we stayed at campgrounds in Red Wing, Minnesota, Mitchell, South Dakota, and Brodhead, Wisconsin. We also stayed at Wind Cave National Park and Glacier National Park. Then we stayed with friends in Chicago, Cleveland, and Harrisburg.
2.) Your traveling companion needs to be your best friend. If you don’t do this with your best friend, it could turn out disastrously. Then again, it could turn out great. But by doing it with your best friend, you’ll form memories and a bond that will last a lifetime. High school friendships inevitably fade, but this experience together will make your friendship transcend the boundaries of high school. It will truly become a lifelong friendship.
3.) Don’t be afraid to fly by the seat of your pants. Making plans on the fly can be nerve wracking, but that’s what road tripping is all about. When you see billboards for “Wall Drug” or “The World’s Largest Corn Palace,” don’t be afraid to pull off at the next exit — those are the things that make the road trip both fun and full of great stories to tell. Also, be prepared for your plans to fall through. Once, my boyfriend and I were planning on spending four nights in Bighorn Canyon National Park. This happens to be in the middle of a desert in Wyoming. Once arriving, we spent a long time trying to drive our tents stakes into the gravel — even having to borrow a hammer from a neighboring RV. However, once finally getting our stakes in the ground — the tent just blew right over, laying flat to the ground. So, we had to say ‘Fuck the desert’ and move on. Thank god for smartphones, with which we could Google hotels in the area and book one for the night. Consequently, we had to drive two more hours to Sheridan, Wyoming over a massive mountain range. Our little 2002 Toyota Corolla barely made the journey; we had to stop the car at every scenic overlook just to make sure it didn’t overheat. However, this was one of the best memories of our entire trip. We also had to re-work our plans for the next five days, and consequently discovered Wind Cave National Park, which is one of the coolest places we’ve ever been. We fondly refer to that whole experience as the “Desert Fiasco.” These are the moments you live for on a road trip — the ones you didn’t ever mean to happen. These experiences prepare you for the realities of living on your own. You learn how to make your own decisions quickly and confidently and not be terrified of the outcome.
4.) Don’t be afraid to splurge. Splurging is important; it can rejuvenate you and it’s just as much a part of a place’s culture as the low-budget joints. It depends on who you are and what you like, but you could splurge on anything from a nice bed and breakfast to a fancy dinner. Asa and I stayed in the Africa Room at the Coyote Blues Village Bed and Breakfast for one night on our way to Montana — private bathroom, private patio and hot tub, private entrance, and a great breakfast in the morning. It was wonderful, we both highly recommend it. We also splurged several times on meals, as we’re both quite the ‘foodies.’ Our favorite meal, however, was at The Silk Road in Missoula, Montana. It was a tapas restaurant with foods from all around the world. It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had (which is saying a lot considering we live in Portland, Maine which is evidently the fine dining capital of the US.) We got seven tapas and drinks for $50 flat — absolutely fantastic food and price.
5.) Budget, Budget, Budget. Although you’re making plans on the fly and occasionally splurging, you must always be aware of your finances. At least every other day I would suggest checking your bank account to make sure everything’s all set. Some days you’ll spend more than you thought you would and you’ll have to know that. Otherwise, you’ll run out of cash and find yourself stranded in a strange place that probably has very spotty cell service. So, while you need not be scared of spending all your money on this trip, make sure all that money gets you back home. Asa and I spent a total of $2000 during our 4-week long road trip. We did lots of hiking, ate lots of great food, and went to two amusement parks. It will depend on where you stay and how you live, but it is entirely possible to drive cross country and back on $1000 per person.
So, what will high school graduates gain out of an American road trip? Lifelong memories and lifelong friendships for starters; those are truly the most important things that will make the summer the best ever. However, practically speaking graduates will learn how to manage their money, balancing fun with necessity. They will learn to live in the moment, not worrying too much about either the past or the future. They will learn what their personal priorities are. Is having a shower everyday a must? What about a real bed? These are important things to know about yourself. Graduates will learn more about themselves on this trip than they ever have before in their life.
Tip: A sample itinerary (as provided by my own road trip in Summer 2013):
Day 1: Drive Portland to Harrisburg (8 hrs). Stay with relatives.
Day 2: Drive Harrisburg to Chicago (12 hrs). Go to friends’ gig for a few hours. Stay with friends.
Day 3: Drive Chicago to Red Wing, Minnesota (6 hrs). Set up our tent for the first time. Stay at campground.
Day 4: Drive Red Wing to Rapid City (10 hrs). Stay at Bed and Breakfast. (We got up to watch the sunrise over Mt. Rushmore)
Day 5: Drive Rapid City to Paradise, Montana (13 hours). Stay at farm on which we WWOOFed. See here for details about WWOOF program.
Day 6-19: WWOOFing on a lavender farm. Our work arrangement allowed us to have afternoons and weekends off to explore Montana. Work arrangements will vary from farm to farm. We got to see Glacier National Park, Missoula, and the National Bison Range during these afternoons. We also spent a lot of time swimming and hanging out on the farm or in the little town which the farm was located. This is a great way to travel cheaply in any country; plus you get to see both sides of the place you’re in, the local and the tourist.
Day 20: Drive Paradise to Lovell, Wymoing (9 hrs) to Sheridan, Wyoming (2 more hrs). This day involved what we fondly refer to as the “Desert Fiasco.” Stay at Mill Inn.
Day 21: Drive Sheridan to Wind Cave National Park (5 hrs). Go on a cave tour. Stay at the campground in the park.
Day 22: Go on more cave tours and go for a hike. We also ate at a very interesting local restaurant in Pringle, South Dakota for dinner. Stay at campground again.
Day 23: Drive Wind Cave to Mitchell, SD (4.5 hrs). Go bowling. Stay at campground.
Day 24: Drive Mitchell to Brodhead, Wisconsin (8 hrs). Stay at Sweet Minihaha Campground (we do NOT recommend). We had a very memorable night however. It was the first night all summer that it rained — and it poured. The rain blew into the tent and the whole tent flooded. Lightning was going off non-stop. We had to evacuate to the car and play cards until the storm passed. The tent was ruined — luckily it was our last night in the tent. We woke up to discover that every other fellow tenter had left in the middle of the night.
Day 25: Drive Brodhead to Columbus. Stay with friend.
Day 26: Go to Cedar Point Amusement Park. Stay again with friend.
Day 27: Drive Columbus to Harrisburg. Stay with relative.
Day 28: Go to Hershey Park. (This was free for us because Asa’s uncle is high up on the Hershey corporate ladder.) Stay again with relative.
Day 29: Drive Harrisburg to Portland. AND WE’RE HOME.
This itinerary is what I did. What you do will depend on lots and lots of things; What do you want to see? Where are you from? What can you afford? Etc, etc. Planning the trip initially is one of the best parts of the road trip, but always remember that those plans WILL change because things happen when you’re out alone on the open road. So don’t be too attached to those tentative plans. Also, try and keep in contact with your parents as your plans change. They will greatly appreciate it because, as much as this summer is about you learning to manage your independence, it’s also about your parents learning to let you have that freedom.
Tip: Take pictures and pictures and pictures because you’ll want to remember every second. However, don’t live in the lens because then you’ll never truly experience anything. Strike the balance.