I love road trips.
Over the past 15 years I’ve crossed the country from coast to coast and north to south at least two dozen times.
It started in 2007 when my husband wanted to send his handcrafted “Totem Pole of Economics” to FreedomFest for a talk he was giving on Keynes, Smith and Marx. UPS was going to charge over $700 to ship it each way, with no insurance to guarantee it would even arrive undamaged. By coincidence, we were going to attend a meeting in western Philadelphia that week, so I said, “Why don’t I just keep on driving?”
It was magical. Because I was traveling with just the three stooges in the back seat (Marx, Keynes, and Smith), I could stop wherever and whenever I wanted, without once considering what someone else wanted to do. (Unless you’re a mom of five, you have no idea what a luxury that is.) As I crossed Pennsylvania and Ohio I watched Amish men in their deep blue shirts harvesting corn behind horses, and saw hundreds of deer grazing on the corn stubble at twilight. I marveled at the broadness of the Midwestern sky and noticed that each state had its own shades of blue–including those majestic purple mountains, but also granite grays and forest greens, golden grains and cornflower yellows.
As I drove into Chicago for the night, I purchased a paper road atlas and realized that by driving a mere hundred miles or so out of my way, I could take I-90 instead of the more direct I-80, allowing me to surprise my daughter at University of Madison with an invitation to lunch. We spent a happy afternoon together before I hit the road again.
The next day I noticed a sign that said, “Laura Ingalls Wilder Home” and took a side trip to De Smet, South Dakota, where I experienced the serendipity of being there on the very day Laura’s schoolhouse was moved to the De Smet property with great pomp and ceremony, (i.e., a band and lemonade). Yes, Ma’s little china shepherdess was displayed on the corner curio shelf Pa had made –and yes, copies of the shepherdess were available in the gift shop. (Hint: if you visit the Wilder home, be sure to buy gas and food before you leave the highway.)
The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, is advertised on billboards every couple of miles along I-90, so of course I had to stop. And because I was traveling alone, I could head right back to the highway without actually stopping when I realized the Corn Palace was too corny even for me. A visit to 1880 Town at exit 170, however, where many westerns have been filmed, was worth the stop. And the Badlands! What a place for hiking. I can’t wait to get back there this summer.
I arrived at Mt. Rushmore that evening in time for the laser light show, and returned so early the next morning that no one was there except me, the maintenance crew, and myriad rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels. It was a crisp summer dawn, and I will always remember that hike around the monument, the freshness of the air, the blueness of the sky, and gazing up into the eyes (and noses) of the Presidents.
Road trips offer a great opportunity for listening to audio books, and I like to tailor my choices to the area I’m visiting. I listened to The Journey of Crazy Horse while driving through Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse Memorial, and I learned a great deal about the Lakota. (It took me a while to realize that the Battle of the Greasy Grass is what the Lakota call the battle we know as Custer’s Last Stand.)
After FreedomFest that year I drove on to California with my oldest daughter and oldest grandson, meandering down the quaint and winding Highway 1 that captured the imaginations of such writers as John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. We stopped at Monterey, Hearst Castle, Seal Beach and San Diego, where my youngest daughter was enrolled at USD. (San Diego, not South Dakota.)
I decided to take the southern route back home to New York, with a goal of visiting Carlsbad Caverns and the Alamo on the same day. While waiting for the Caverns to open, I admired the sand colored homes blending into the bluffs in the distance and mused that Howard Roark might have approved the way the architects had worked with the environment instead of against it in designing the buildings. I explored the Caverns on my own and then hopped into my car, driving 90 miles an hour (you can do that across Texas) and eating gas station peanuts for lunch in order to get to the Alamo before 5:00. And I did, arriving at 4:45–Mountain Time! I forgot that I would lose yet another hour crossing Texas. Oh well! I would save the Alamo for another drive.
Coast to Coast to Coast
A few years after that last-minute drive with Mark’s Totem Pole of Economics, Mark and I began teaching at Chapman University in southern California in the spring while continuing to teach in the college program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the fall. So every December I trekked across I-70 to Utah for Christmas and on to California for the start of the January term, and then meandered back in late May, enjoying a different route each time. Instead of racing along to see how many miles I can drive and hours I can clock, I always take time for a hike each day. Sometimes I amaze even myself when I check my Fitbit at the end of a particularly wonderful adventure–one day I recorded 16 miles and the equivalent of 217 flights of stairs!
One summer I met my youngest daughter, then living in Texas, on my way from California to Florida at Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande at the southernmost tip of the state. We hiked eight rugged trails and more than 25 miles in 2 ½ days, stayed in a delightful lodge reminiscent of the one supposedly at the foot of Mt. Rushmore where Eva Marie Saint shoots Cary Grant in North by Northwest, and found our way on a moonlit night to an old Indian hot springs from which we could see campfires on the Mexican side of the river as we soaked in the warm water.
Another favorite trip took me to the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, Colorado, where I climbed down rickety ladders past ancient footholds to the cliffside encampments and imagined the life and culture of the people who had lived there a thousand years ago. I turned off my Pandora, pocketed my earbuds, and listened to the music of the birds singing in the trees—that’s a sound you won’t hear on the freeway!
Several times I’ve stopped in Ohio at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, exploring different exhibits each time—it’s that big. And here’s my secret confession: a lot of times I feel a little sad as I near my destination, knowing that my latest trip is about to end. Because life is an adventure, and if you do it right, the journey itself is the destination.
Getting my Kicks on Route 66
Two years ago I celebrated my 66th birthday by traveling Route 66 from Santa Monica to Chicago–often setting my cruise control at 66 miles per hour, just for kicks. I explored the bottle garden outside Victorville, climbed the rims of both a volcano and a meteor crater, stood on the corner in Winslow Arizona with only one woman on my mind (me!), slept in a teepee outside the Painted Desert, photographed quaint covered bridges and kitschy giant statues at gas stations and restaurants, listened to the singing highway in New Mexico, spray painted Cadillacs in Amarillo, marveled that anyone ever survived the sharp 90-degree corner that became known as Dead Man’s Curve in Illinois, and walked the mile-long tribute to the eight states that comprise Route 66, Amazing Race style, as I contemplated my journey. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
The most valuable discovery I made from driving Route 66 is that so much of history and life and eccentricity exist just beyond the freeway. Often I would hear the traffic rushing by just a few hundred yards from an old gas station or covered bridge or hiking trail that I had stopped to explore. Usually, I’m on that freeway, listening to an audio book, counting the miles or hours to my destination while looking for a Burger King or a Dairy Queen, never realizing the true majesty I’m missing in the regal mountains and rivers and caverns and the people who are keeping Route 66 alive, just a few yards away.
No Swimming Allowed? Watch This!
This past year our family has enjoyed several road trips together as we ignored the pandemic lockdown and found freedom on the road. We drove north from California to Oregon with stops for hiking and biking at Mammoth Lakes, Tahoe, Mt. Lassen, Burney Falls, Crater Lake, and Haystack Rock. We enjoyed a sumptuous meal of fresh salmon and crabs provided by Mark’s deep sea fishing trip near Tillamook. On another journey we headed to Utah, stopping at the small, underappreciated Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas as well as the spectacular Zion, Bryce, and Arches National Parks and even little Donut Falls in Cottonwood Canyon. On our return we headed for the Grand Canyon, but instead of visiting the more popular South Rim, we chose to visit Horseshoe Bend and the North Rim, where the altitude is higher, the air is cooler, the red and purple canyons are shaded by forests, —and fewer people have discovered its beauty.
We also visited the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, a 60-degree, 80-foot-deep artesian well so clear you can see the bottom. I remembered it from my Route 66 journey and insisted we stop. Sadly, it was closed the day we were there because of Covid, and the few people who stopped took a quick look and walked back to their cars. Never ones to follow the rules, however, we skivvied into our swimsuits and dove into the cold water.
This summer we’ll be on the road again, driving from California to Rapid City on our way to FreedomFest. It’s a mere 1,400 miles of adventure and delight. We’ll pick up some equipment and signage from our storage unit in Las Vegas, hike a bit in Zion, stop off to sing Happy Birthday to our son in Salt Lake, drop by Martin’s Cove where the Mormon pioneers spent a harrowing winter waiting for help, and then put on “the world’s greatest gathering of free minds,” as well as celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in the 100-year-old Elks Theatre, when FreedomFest moves to Rapid City for 2021.
Hit the Road with us to FreedomFest 2021–Rapid City, South Dakota
On the way home to California we’ll keep an eye on our paper Atlas and our travel books to discover lesser known state parks, historic trails, and the world’s best apple pie that await just off the beaten path. We might even find something as quaint as that teepee motel to sleep in–but I doubt it!
We hope you’ll join us “On the Road” to FreedomFest 2021 in Rapid City, South Dakota—and that you’ll consider turning it into a road trip. One group is caravanning all the way from New Hampshire to FreedomFest and will be camping at the KOA campground!
America is a beautiful country. Every state has its own blues and yellows, its own canyons and corn fields. Take your time. Enjoy the journey. We’ll see you in Rapid City, where speech is free, and the parking is too.
When she isn’t on the road, Jo Ann Skousen teaches English Literature at Chapman University. She is the co-f0under of FreedomFest (the world’s largest gathering of free minds) and the founding director of the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, celebrating its tenth anniversary at the historic Elks Theatre in Rapid City, South Dakota, July 21-24. Join the fun at the festival, including morning hikes to the foothills just ten minutes away.