We were fortunate this summer to be able to drive across the entire country. We visited my daughter, son-in-law and grandsons on the West Coast and also swung through Maine.
We did it with a pair of 5-year-olds in the car (and without giving them screens to play with). That involved staying only at hotels with swimming pools, stopping to just run around, and visiting a whole lot of playgrounds. Also, listening to a lot of their favorite music.
We stopped for many of the classics, but not always for long, and the twins tended to judge them based less on historical importance and scenic splendor and more on whether or not there was something to climb.
Things we learned on the trip.
Oregon has no self-service gas stations. By law, stations must have attendants to pump your gas. It was weird.
While we’re hearing a lot about the shrinking of big water supplies — like Lake Tahoe, Lake Mead and the Colorado River — the drought evidence was everywhere in smaller ways. Out west, the GPS repeatedly told us there was a little lake or pond right over there — except there wasn’t.
Traveling by car is a reminder that every place has a story.
We stopped at Pickles’s Place restaurant in Arco, Idaho, where they specialize in frying their own homemade pickles, and there’s a Steeler Country Packard on the wall (“Because,” the waitress told me, “the boss likes them. We don’t know why.”)
Arco was originally called Root Hog, but the postmaster renamed it in honor of a German scientist. In 1955, it became the first community in the world to be lit entirely by electricity generated by nuclear power. In 1961, it was the site of the world’s first fatal nuclear reactor accident.
The tiny town (population roughly 1,000) depends on a Department of Energy national lab and tourism from folks visiting the Lost River. It has an RV park with the conning tower of a nuclear sub and a motel that appears to have been painted by hippies.
Looming over the town is a cliff; it appears a decades-long tradition is for local high school seniors to climb up that cliff and paint their graduating class year on the rock.
Driving also accents how artificial boundaries are. One sort of landscape turns slowly into another long before any lines are crossed. You might not think of Minnesota as looking a lot like South Dakota, but it does.
The other thing that driving highlights is the absolute richness of the beauty in this country. We tend to focus on the big-name attractions, but for every Devil’s Tower there are dozens of Really Cool Buttes. For every Grand Canyon there are dozens of Pretty Great Holes In The Ground.
Despite an increase in US tourism, the lesser-known sites are still uncrowded. We are big fans of the Badlands of South Dakota and Crater Lake is absolutely mind-blowingly huge, and neither was remotely crowded. Mt. Rushmore is pretty empty at 7 am on a weekday.
State parks are also worth a look; this was our second visit to the state park version of the Indiana Dunes, with plenty of hot sand and water, and Custer State Park, with an impressive herd of buffalo that will get plenty close to your car (which you should definitely stay inside of ).
It’s also impressive to see how many places have made an economic something out of nothing. Wall Drug is the famous one, a little tourist trap in “nowhere” South Dakota that has turned itself into a required destination by sheer force of will, even though it’s basically a year-round Applefest under a roof.
Lincoln has done very cool things with former industrial buildings. Numerous small towns now exist and prosper because somebody decided to build a thing (which is not to say there aren’t also plenty of empty “business opportunities” for sale).
Development can also be overwhelming. Rye, New Hampshire, where my grandparents lived, is nearly unrecognizable to me now; not only old buildings replaced with new, but streets where there never were streets before.
We saw a lot of country, had some quality family time, dipped our feet in both oceans (and a Great Lake), and heard the Encanto soundtrack roughly eleventy million times.
And in the end it felt great to get back to the rivers and rolling hills of Venango County. See other places, but there’s still no place like home.