USA 2004

March 15, 2004

The decision was made last summer when, acknowledging that I was going to remain in the New York City area for the foreseeable future, I resolved to do something about the winter which every year has a way of sapping the enthusiasm from me. As February is the month I would miss least were it stricken from the calendar, it seemed like the right time for a vacation, and since a cross-country road trip had been on my mind for some time, it seemed like the right activity. So I went. In the interest of accruing experience, I decided to say “yes” to everything. Would I transport a car from New Jersey to San Francisco? Yes. Would I visit a friend in Atlanta? Yes. Would I stay with a friend in New Orleans? Yes. Would I hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Yes. Would I wait in line 45 minutes for a hot dog? Oh, you’d better believe it.


Map of cross-country loop.

Number of days : 37
Number of miles traveled : 7800
Number of states visited : 24
Gallons of gasoline used : 263
Cost of gasoline : $457.41
Number of energy bars consumed : 31
Number of McDonalds patronized : 0
Number of hours spent driving : like, a lot
Nights slept in the car : 2
Number of wallets misplaced : 1

What follows is an annotated itinerary with brief descriptions of the most interesting events of the trip. I have omitted all but the most impersonal details so if you want to know more just get in touch with me and I’ll be happy to talk about it.

Part 1: There’s Nothing Like Southern Hospitality, and BBQ

Jan 21: Lincroft, NJ → South Orange, NJ → Arlington, VA (295 miles)

In South Orange I picked up a friend’s late 90s Honda Civic to be delivered to San Francisco. Return transportation would have to be determined later.

Jan 22: → Charlotte Hall, MD → Raleigh, NC → Durham, NC (340 miles)

Had brunch at St. Mary’s Landing near Charlotte Hall, MD. I went for the acclaimed stuffed ham, but they didn’t have any. The elderly waitress described the way she and her husband used to make stuffed ham—cutting the animal open, filling it with cabbage, onion, hot peppers, spices, and baking or boiling it for most of an afternoon…

Raleigh is a quaint capital town. At the Mecca Restaurant (while eating a good eastern North Carolina-style pork BBQ dinner for $6.50) I met a woman who had just moved from Seattle and needed, of all things, her car transported to Raleigh. We talked for a while and exchanged phone numbers but nothing came of it.

In Durham I sat in a coffee shop, paid more than $2 for a cup of tea, and listened to Duke student conversations. The campus is full of stately old buildings and there seems to be a lot going on (posters everywhere) though it was quiet and pleasant on this Thursday night.

Jan 23: → Blowing Rock, NC → Asheville, NC (260 miles)

The warmth and generosity of the people at Sonny’s Grill in Blowing Rock is representative of what I encountered in small towns all over the south and southwest. Easygoing conversations seem to be the way to pass the time which makes it easy to relax and not worry about your next obligation or what you’re doing with your life. Attempts were even made to find me a place to stay the night (I couldn’t have accepted anyway). Oh, and my lunch: a heavenly country ham biscuit and perfect sweet potato pancakes for under $6.

The drive from Blowing Rock to Asheville along the twisty guardrail-less Route 221 featured the best scenery yet. Not only the rolling green mountains in the distance, but right alongside the road, waterfalls frozen in action as enormous icy tendrils. It was in the 30s but felt warmer—the sun was out and I was wearing a t-shirt.

Asheville was a disappointment after Blowing Rock. Prices for anything downtown rival New York City and every shop seems to have a clever name and brand new brightly-colored awning. The city has the good fortune of clean air and mountain views, but it wasn’t what I was looking for at the time.

Jan 24: → Atlanta, GA (220 miles)

Atlanta is surrounded by nasty sprawling suburbs. The parts of the city I saw had plenty of green stuff; parks and quiet areas were everywhere and people were oh so courteous.

Jan 25: Atlanta, GA

Rained all day. Hung out with friends.

Jan 26: → New Orleans, LA (495 miles)

I arrived in the evening and found some mediocre music (a quartet playing standards, occasionally a big female singer), decent fried chicken with red beans and rice, and a hostile feeling on the streets. Had thoughts of leaving the next morning but decided to give it a day.

Jan 27: New Orleans, LA

In the morning I set out to explore uptown on foot. At lunchtime I had the obligatory gumbo (I chose the Pearl Oyster Bar because of the huge old sign outside) and a round of beignets at Cafe du Monde (accompanied by pigeons which landed on my table and managed to coat me in powdered sugar by beating their wings next to my plate). New Orleans remains something of a mystery to me. As cities go, it is unadulterated by chains, and while I enjoyed walking down St. Charles and Magazine streets and among the beautiful houses in the Garden District, so much of the town seems tourist-oriented (or feels dangerous) that it’s hard to tell how real people live there. Bourbon Street (at least near Canal) appears to be a gift shop and Mardi Gras construction was already going on. At least you can eat well. Very well.

Jan 28: → Elgin, TX (485 miles)

Started the day in New Orleans with a great shrimp po’ boy from Domilise’s which is in a residential area way uptown and feels like it’s been around forever. The woman who runs it has also been around forever and was a blast to talk to.

I stopped in Elgin to try Southside Market and BBQ where I had some incredibly moist brisket and great snappy sausage (cafeteria style). As in small towns all over the south, the unadvertised side vegetables were also excellent. Being from the northeast, unadvertised anything is new to me and much appreciated.

Jan 29: → Marble Falls, TX → El Paso, TX (630 miles)

A long driving day (across 2/3 of Texas) began with a nutritious breakfast consisting of a large salad and a giant slice of peanut butter pie from the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls. Marble Falls is a pleasant little town and the peanut butter pie (probably their other pies as well) was outstanding—a far cry from the hefty gob of peanut butter on a cookie that passes for the dessert back east. There was a light, only slightly peanutty mixture topped with whipped cream, and a flaky butter-flavored crust underneath. It was so well balanced I didn’t find myself wanting milk (or a laxative) afterwards.

On route to El Paso, somewhere near Fort Stockton, I saw something I didn’t realize existed: a double rainbow. A wide band of vivid color traced a giant arc from the horizon, up through the clouds, and then back to the horizon. Then, it only lasted about 60 seconds but another band appeared, just like the first but fainter and offset just a bit. I rolled down the windows as if I could let it in the car.

Part 2: The Beautiful Southwest

Jan 30: → White Sands, NM → Alamogordo, NM → Roswell, NM (245 miles)

White Sands National Park turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. When there aren’t F-117 stealth fighter jets flying overhead (the park is adjacent to Holloman Air Force Base and surrounded by White Sands Missile Range) and you can turn your ears away from the wind there is dead silence. The park is full of bright white gypsum sand dunes (picture plaster of paris—that’s actually what it is) covered with water-like ripples and unusual vegetation, including some ancient-looking trees. The best part is that you are encouraged to take detours from the prescribed trails and, at least when I was there, few people did so it was easy to wander around in areas where mine were the only footprints. I also found it strange that most people didn’t take the time to remove their shoes as walking around barefoot added an important dimension to the experience.

White Sands dunes

White Sands dunes

White Sands dunes

White Sands dunes

Downtown Roswell is home to the UFO Museum and Research Center which is fairly well done and left me thoroughly befuddled. As incompatible and unbelievable (despite a collection of sworn affidavits) as eyewitness accounts of the UFO crash are, the government’s explanations are far wackier (including their claim 50 years later that the crash was actually discovered 10 years later than we had thought, despite newspaper articles and affidavits dated a decade earlier), leading one to conclude that something of significance happened, though exactly what is impossible to tell. Beyond the alien-obsessed area downtown, Roswell is a pretty normal place.

Jan 30: → Socorro, NM → Albuquerque, NM (355 miles)

One of the nicest surprises of the trip was the Very Large Array radio telescope. At first sight it appeared to be a bunch of button mushrooms dotting the plain. But as I continued to drive and drive and drive—and this is at 85 mph—they got bigger and bigger until they were looming over me on both sides of the road. For its sheer size alone the array is a spectacular sight. There is a small exhibit which quickly answered my basic radio telescopy questions and informed me that each of the 27 dishes is about the size of a baseball diamond and the area spanned is larger than Washington DC. I was there for a couple of hours and they never seemed less out of place than when I first arrived.

The VLA in Socorro, NM

The VLA in Socorro, NM

The VLA in Socorro, NM

Feb 1: → Sedona, AZ (via Route 66) (385 miles)

Albuquerque is one of the few cities I saw with the privilege of having a beautiful mountain range visible from downtown (sorry Los Angeles but it isn’t quite the same). The town was quiet on Sunday morning but the 24-hour Frontier Restaurant was hopping. I had an excellent breakfast burrito and managed to finish a cinnamon roll (everyone was talking about them, how could I resist?) which justified the existence of cinnamon rolls, something I’ve never been able to do; yes, lots of butter and sugar syrup helped, but the texture is what made it really great.

If you like ghost towns, and I love ghost towns, you have to check out Route 66. Beyond the bizarre pieces of old Americana lining the road (the Jack Rabbit Trading Post is a particularly great one), one can really get a feel for what it was like to travel in the first half of the century. The road is never wider than two lanes, unpaved in parts, and winds through some rugged terrain. The difference is that where the interstate, a 4 or 6-lane beast with wide shoulders, dominates the land as it barrels in a straight line over mountains and rivers, Route 66 is clearly at the mercy of the geography, featuring bumps and dips and curvy paths up hills. It feels man-made whereas the interstate feels machine-made.

Route 66 vs. The Interstate

Sedona is a town surrounded by spectacular red cliffs but which failed to win me over with its luxury cars, wide roads, and upscale restaurants. Granted, I didn’t have time to really give it a chance but the Grand Canyon was near…

Feb 2: → Grand Canyon, AZ (125 miles)

The thing about the Grand Canyon is that it flips the world upside down. Looking across to the opposite rim the clouds are a plane hovering just above the ground and the ubiquitous southwestern mountains are mere bumps in the distance. The expanse of impenetrable space that is usually the sky is here below you. But the canyon possesses a magnetism that the sky lacks, drawing the eye deeper through varying textures and treacherous slopes towards increasingly profound depths. The geometries seem impossible and the urge is irresistible to imagine what it feels like to occupy the vast spaces carved out by the red rock.

After a few hours in which I walked around the rim and down a mile or so I decided I had seen as much as I was able to and actually drove out of the park. Then the moment of supreme indecision hit and after debating it for a few minutes and thinking myself crazy, I turned around, headed back in (the pass you buy is good for a week), and got a room at the Bright Angel Lodge.

Sitting by the fireplace at the lodge in the evening I met a woman who was on, of all things, a cross-country road trip. From where? New Jersey. Driving what? A late 90s Honda Civic. She was about twice my age and it was encouraging to see that this kind of thing can be done throughout life. We swapped stories from the road until it was time for bed.

Feb 3: → Williams, AZ (60 miles)

Unlike my first day at the Canyon which was crystal clear, I woke up just before sunrise to clouds and, as I prepared for my venture into the depths, snow. Over the course of my 7-mile descent it piled up three inches and a ranger along the way told me they hadn’t gotten so much white stuff since 1994. The sights I saw on this hike were, what’s the word…unbe-fucking-lievable. Clouds rolled in and out by the minute, hiding and revealing the craggy walls which ascended up into the foggy void; snow highlighted anything it could land on, making manifest new textures on every apparently-vertical surface, crunching under my steps, and, when I stopped walking and held my breath, its landing flakes were the only thing audible. This was the most powerful day of the trip. (Note to potential winter Canyon visitors: there are signs along the path telling you that the walk I just described is impossible to do in one day, but I believe that applies to the hot summer months as I was back by early afternoon. Do make sure you take along plenty of food and water and remember that the toughest part is the end where the terrain is the steepest and the altitude the highest.)

That night in Williams it snowed 3 more inches and I was ready to be somewhere warm like, say, California.

Part 3: The Outdoor Coast

Feb 4: → Los Angeles, CA (via Route 66) (470 miles)

Breakfast was with some gregarious truckers at the low counter of Old Smokey’s (Williams, AZ) where the sweetbreads are renown, but as the owner was recovering from surgery and in no shape to be producing baked goods I settled for a giant helping of eggs, hash browns, and toast for about $4. (I only mention the prices of these meals because I find them so pleasingly low.)

The stretch of Route 66 between Williams and Needles, CA was particularly beautiful. In Oatman, Arizona (advertised in Route 66 guides as a “ghost town”) there are donkeys and tourists wandering, without reigns, all over the road. I drove through in mild horror and continued towards California. The difficulty with Route 66 is that it’s no secret so almost every town claims to be a vital stop with historical import and everywhere there is a “Route 66 Diner” and in some places there are so many straw hats and cameras you wonder if there won’t soon be a theme park. Nevertheless, there are more than enough unadvertised treasures to be discovered on one’s own.

Curvy Route 66

Scenery from the shoulder of Route 66.

Near Needles I got back on the Interstate. At a certain point the sky turned from blue to yellow and I knew I was near Los Angeles.

Feb 5-9: Los Angeles, CA

Let me say first that nobody I talked to before the trip had anything good to say about Los Angeles. When explaining my route to people they would grimace when I got to “L.A.” Hence, I wasn’t anticipating much and the dramatic smog hanging in the mountains to the east didn’t do anything to heighten my expectations.

Pink's logo.

Late morning on the first day I went for a hot dog at the famed Pink’s. I won’t go on at length here because you’re bound to say “it’s just a hot dog,” but I will say that the beef hot dogs (Hoffy brand custom-made, unfortunately not available in stores) are excellent and the toppings at times brilliant. The most striking feature of Pink’s, however, is the volume of business it does; there seems to be a 1/2 hour to hour wait from around 11 AM until well past midnight (it’s open until 3 AM on Friday and Saturday nights). Anyway, enough about Pink’s…it’s just a hot dog stand, right?

Los Angeles is a place where nobody seems to walk further than to and from the parking lot. Determined to get some exercise and resist the car culture, I had no problem getting around and doing things nearby on foot. That said, the local buses and trains are not good, parking is easy, the city is huge, and drivers don’t seem to be aware that there might be humans on the road, so I was glad I had a car for the longer excursions.

Notable activities included a Polish animation festival (almost 3 hours, most if it very good), visits to beaches south (beautiful cliffs) and north (less industrial view) of the city, hiking in the Santa Monica mountains (beautiful, but I wasn’t as appreciative as I should have been after New Mexico and Arizona), and an afternoon at Huntington Library Botanical Gardens (featuring an extraordinary array of plants from all over the world).

Despite the anti-recommendations of my East coast friends, I quite enjoyed L.A., and decided to return after dropping off the Honda in San Francisco. Ahh, San Francisco…

Feb 10: → Santa Cruz, CA (370 miles)

In the interest of not driving all day, I went north on 101 (inland), not 1 (windy coast road), so not much in the way of excitement outside the car. Inside, however, I’m still having a blast just being in sunny California.

Feb 11: Santa Cruz, CA

Santa Cruz is the ultimate college town. It’s bustling with young hippies, skateboarders, stiff-yet-hip intellectual types and lots of bums. I hung out in town a bit, sat on the beach eating fish tacos, walked in the ocean until my legs were completely numb up to the knees, and generally enjoyed being among people so happy to be outdoors. It was a very different feeling from the northeast in warm weather where people generally seek air conditioned spaces.

Feb 12: → San Francisco, CA (75 miles)

Swan Oyster Depot logo

Having not been to San Francisco since 7th grade, I was eager to see if the city looked the way I remembered it, and also to see some parts I hadn’t been to. Downtown I had lunch at the Swan Oyster Depot which consists of a long bar with lots of happy men busy hacking up shellfish, slicing smoked fish, and assembling and handing out plates of seafood. A fun place for sure. I walked around downtown a bit and then visited the places from my memory on Clement Street, stopping for apple pie and ice cream at Toy Boat where I had a long conversation with the owner about the old and valuable Japanese toys he collects. He tried to sell me a solar powered thing with a head that rolled around but I had no use for it.

I delivered the Honda and watched the sun set from Bernal Hill Park where I had a view of the city. I wished I had more time to explore, but at this point I had to head back east or make plans to move west, which I wasn’t yet prepared to do.

Feb 13: → Los Angeles, CA (390 miles)

On a Greyhound bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles an 8 year-old kid sat down next to me and rambled on in an extremely vulgar manner for some 6 hours while his parents, smart folks they were, sat near the back of the bus out of earshot. No idea how the kid got such a mouth.

Feb 14-20: Los Angeles, CA

Cole's logo

Back in Los Angeles I discovered French dip sandwiches at the place that claims to have invented them: Cole’s, which is the oldest restaurant in L.A. and is located in the Pacific Electric building downtown, once the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Cole’s has everything you’d expect in a historic restaurant—old floors and tables, lots of old signs on the walls, but good food as well. I also tried Phillippe’s, a rival cafeteria also claiming to be “the originator” of the French dip sandwich. There you can get cheese along with your meat, but they’re not as quick to ask “au jus?”

At this point I was waiting for a driveaway car to become available so my days often consisted of walking around, hanging out with friends, and just taking in the west coast. I did make it to the Getty where I met a Japanese guy who gave me a bunch of Japanese brochures that were of better design and more informative (even without knowing the language) than their English counterparts. I also had some remarkable sushi (at Bizen, in Sherman Oaks) and saw an inspiring Jon Brion show at Largo (Hollywood nightclub). Finally I got word of a car to be transported to Harrisburg, PA and knew it was time to go.

Part 4: Trouble With The Law

Feb 21: → St. George, UT (370 miles)

I had arranged to pick up the Cadillac Sedan Deville in Azusa, California and so boarded a train to the Los Angeles suburb mid-afternoon. The guy from the driveaway agency picked me up at the station, brought me to the car, and I was on my way to Aspen. After a couple of hours I stopped for dinner at a Chili’s, which was the best option right off the highway. I ate and then attempted to pay but couldn’t locate my wallet. I went out to the parking lot and searched in and around the car, but to no avail. Eventually I was able to recall the exact moment when it must have fallen out of my pocket on the train. Chili’s management was gracious enough to give me the meal for free, and, seeing as I really had no choice but to continue (the car had to be delivered in 8 days and I couldn’t abandon it or I’d lose my rather large deposit), I drove off to the north with no license or money save $16 in dollar coins the train station ticket machine had given me.

To conserve gas I drove a leisurely (and dangerous) 55 mph on I-15. Miraculously the boat got over 25 miles per gallon and I was only honked at about 4,000 times. The gas in the tank got me past Las Vegas (I decided it was best to skip the strip) and I got off the highway somewhere in Nevada to invest a portion of my meager net worth in some fuel. It was around 2 AM when I realized that it is not so much having money which allows you freedom from poverty, but the ability to conjure large sums from anywhere using credit cards and ATMs, neither of which were at my disposal. I slept for a couple of hours in a hotel parking lot and then, with $10 more gas in the tank and $6 to my name, I continued up I-15. Some quick calculations revealed that I had nowhere near enough gas to get anywhere useful and I was forced to admit I couldn’t get out of this myself. With the help of Western Union and some generous friends I was able to procure the cash to finish the trip. Still no license, but hey—I’ve never been pulled over before.

Feb 22: → Aspen, CO (520 miles)

The landscapes in southern Utah, even as far north as I-70, are similar to the Grand Canyon. The rocks and canyons are spectacular and you get to drive right through them. If you want to see some great scenery without getting out of the car, this is the place to do it.

Feb 23: Aspen, CO

Aspen is a beautiful town where people enjoy being outside. It is also as expensive as New York City if you want to eat out. I walked around town for a few hours, investigated the music library, and steeled myself for the drive ahead which I knew was risky.

Feb 24: → Kansas City, MO (820 miles)

I was somewhere in Kansas when flashing lights appeared in my rearview mirror and I pulled over with the thought: this is it—the end of the ride. I was a guy without a license speeding through Kansas in a car I didn’t own. The state speed limit is 70 and he clocked me at 81. “Well, uh, I don’t have my license right now but I do have the number…” I rummaged through my overstuffed backpack for the driveaway car documentation, found it, and handed it to him. He walked back to the patrol car without a word, and I waited. Whatever would happen would happen. Eventually he walked back towards my car, clipboard in hand, took down my address, handed me a warning, and bid me good afternoon. What luck. And I got to Kansas City without further adventure (cruise control at 70 MPH), believing I was past the worst of it.

Feb 25: → Indianapolis, IN (485 miles)

Woke up early, toured Kansas City (which seems like a great place), visited the Negro League Baseball and Jazz museums, grabbed a fantastic BBQ sandwich from Arthur Bryant’s (a stack of sliced meat with a glob of sauce between Wonder bread) and hit the road, vaguely conscious of my speed. I got about half an hour out of town when the flashing lights appeared again. This time I was following too close. When I handed the cop the driveaway documentation he invited me into his patrol car about which I wasn’t thrilled. We sat down and he showed me how with some elementary mathematical operations you can turn miles-per-hour into feet-per-second and I was sure doing more than I should have for being so close to that van in front of me. Then I was forced to explain how driveaway cars work, why I wasn’t flying, what I did for a living, et cetera, only to be told that the whole thing just didn’t quite make sense. Did I have anything I shouldn’t have? No. Did I object to his searching the vehicle? No. Before he could search we had to wait for his partner to show up, during which time he asked me some casual questions about the last times I had used various drugs. Unfortunately my answers didn’t seem very interesting to him.

His partner is a fat guy chewing a toothpick and he has the asshole cop act down great. I refrain from talking as he sits next to me and we watch the first cop search the Cadillac. He pries up the floor of the trunk, looks under the car, above the wheels, in the crease of the seats. He comes back and informs me that some of the glue in the trunk is “not factory.” At this point I realize that his goal is to find the drugs, and if none exist, invent them. Then he searches my backpack. He pulls out a ziploc bag of sea salt. “Eh?”

“Sea salt,” I say.

“Hmm, white powder…”

“Taste it if you want.”

“I’m not about to taste any white powder.” He goes back into my backpack and pulls out another ziploc bag filled with thyme.


“Thyme. I like it on my eggs.”


He finishes searching the backpack while the partner is getting antsy and starts suspiciously inspecting the dust that has accumulated on the rear bumper of my car. It occurs to me that his brain might actually be a potato, or perhaps cabbage.

“I’m just going to do a test on this powder,” the first one says, and they go around to the trunk of the patrol car while I sit and wonder how serious they are about finding something. The answer comes in a minute when they show me the results of the test. “This powder tests positive for cocaine.”

I laugh—pretty hard, I can’t help it. “It’s sea salt.”

“Then you wanna tell me why this is turning blue?” he asks, showing me a little tube with some blueish-white foam sticking out.

“I don’t know what this is,” I say, “but that’s sea salt.”


“Isn’t there some other test you can do?”


The fat one: “There’s another test at the station.”

The first one: “We’re going to confer for a second.” A minute later I am told that, lucky me, I will not be cuffed, but have to follow them down to the station. “Just don’t try to outrun us.”

“Or follow too close,” I add, and he actually laughs a little.

At the station every test comes up negative and suddenly it seems as if they are ready to go home for the day. Suddenly I’m back on the road, relieved but also annoyed at having wasted well over an hour.

So my question is this: did I get pulled over twice in two days because I was driving without a license or because I was driving a big white Cadillac? In any case, the experience didn’t affect me too much until I pulled into a dingy motel around midnight where, upon failing to present a valid drivers license to the concierge (read “bitch”), I was informed that in Indiana I could be arrested on the spot if a cop found me. Good night to you too ma’am.

Feb 26: → Harrisburg, PA (545 miles)

Now a bit shaken and feeling like a criminal, the once-enjoyable driving became cautious progress at speed limit minus two. I am completely paranoid, thinking at times that I might even be going too slow. I bypass Fallingwater and other Pennsylvania attractions in favor of finishing the driving and getting off the road. In Harrisburg I get a nice hotel room (Howard Johnson) for sanity’s sake and it pays off with a good night’s sleep.

Feb 27: → South Orange, NJ → Lincroft, NJ (240 miles)

Delivered the car at 8 AM. Tried to catch a 10:25 Greyhound but it was sold out so I had to buy a ticket for the 2:35. Forced my way onto the 10:25. Picked up my Saab in South Orange and made it back to Lincroft without incident.

Tips For Potential Travelers

Due to the large number of people who admitted to feelings of jealousy when I was on the road, I figured some advice might be useful for anyone considering such an adventure (which I highly recommend). I’m clearly not an expert on this subject, but here are some things I learned:

1. A car will give you more freedom than mass transit. If possible you should drive a car that gets good gas mileage and has cruise control. The Civic I drove west was perfect and was also small (for easy parking in cities) and reliable. Cruise control is vital for the following reasons: (1) by taking both feet off the pedals for periods of time you can improve your posture (which really matters when you’re driving 8-12 hours a day), (2) it helps you enjoy being on the road rather than thinking about your speed and how fast you’re getting where you’re going, and (3) it will help you avoid speeding tickets.

2. Get gas when the tank is half empty. Especially in the midwest and great plains, gas stations can be rare, and often it’s hard to find gas without ethanol added. You’ll also avoid fatigue by getting out to stretch frequently.

3. If you want to sleep in the car try hotel parking lots (don’t use residential neighborhoods). Failing that you could try hospital lots and college campuses (I’ve used neither, but they seem like good ideas). Highway rest stops are probably OK during the day, but creepy at night. Also remember that motels can be had for $20/night outside of cities, and hostels are sometimes available in cities for even less.

4. The easiest places to meet locals are bars and restaurants. To find out where the good places are just ask around. If you go into stores or hang out in public places (like near fountains) people will talk to you. Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood book is also useful if you want to plan your meals ahead of time—they generally recommend the same places that locals do, but it’s not as much fun to read the book.

5. Rather than getting lots of state maps (AAA style), buy one of those big US road atlases they sell for $10-15. It’s easier to turn to page 43 than searching all over the car for Nebraska. Speaking of AAA, you might want to join or upgrade you membership (how far will they tow for free?).

6. If you want to eat really cheap, stop at grocery stores rather than fast food joints—they’re almost as easy to find. If you can stand it, you should also eat healthily as your metabolism slows down if you’re sitting on your ass driving all day and any junk in your body will affect you that much longer. Also notice that you won’t need to eat nearly as much (I was down to one small meal a day at times).

7. Things to have in the car: sunglasses, flashlight, compass (test to make sure there are no magnets in the car to throw it off), tire pressure gauge, earplugs (for driving with the windows down), thermometer (if you’re sleeping in the car), and cell phone (even a deactivated one can call 911).

8. Bring a portable tape recorder in case you have any ideas or thoughts while driving. And if you don’t have any, just sing.

9. If you’re debating whether or not to go to the Grand Canyon, just do it. I read so many stories about how fabulous and life-changing it was…I wanted to puke. Don’t prepare, just go.