May 18, 2006

What are some good techniques for planning a scenic drive across what looks like a boring expanse of map?

My standard technique would be to look at one of those maps that has a green dotted line on the scenic routes. Surely, there must be some better ideas.

Think about my predicament. I love to drive in the landscapes that begin about 700 miles west of where I live. I don't want to fly somewhere and then rent a car. I want my car. I'm tired of devoting Day 1 to getting past the boring by using the quickest route and occupying my mind with audiobooks. I want to make the driving itself interesting.

Take into account the need to find a place to stop for the night. In these vast expanses of America, it's hard to find a decent motel, let alone a place that I'd actually feel good about. Camping is not an option -- as you probably know by now.

65 comments:

tommy said...

I start with where I've never been and then move on to the names of places. Even if the drive is boring, it's something I've never seen, and some place that at least had some thought invested in an interesting name.

nonymus said...

William Least Heat Moon, for the journey that he documented in his enjoyable memoir Blue Highways, chose the roads colored blue on his map -- basically those with only one lane. Scenery wasn't his main aim; he wanted to talk to people in out of the way places, and find nice little diners. He also tended to drive toward towns with strange names like Why Not?, AZ and Nowheresville, TN.

MadisonMan said...

I like to drive along rivers. It's tough to go due west with this technique in the Dakotas, however. But rivers offer a break from the flat topography, usually, and also trees instead of grassland

Ann Althouse said...

I consider the little towns scenic, though I'm often afraid of these places and it can be hard to take pictures because people don't appreciate it (or you worry they don't).

Dave said...

The scariest towns I ever drove through were Truth or Consequence, NM, and Needles, CA.

Oh, and Istanbul.

tommy said...

well having lived most of my life in the really small towns, when we see you taking pictures we wonder who you are and how you got here, since no one ever gets here by accident.

That and why would anyone want a picture of old man Pauley's abandoned hardware store.

Dave said...

Actually, I'd also add Marfa and Alpine TX to my list of weird places to drive through.

Anthony said...

I was also going to recommend taking the Blue Highways. It will take longer, but you get to drive by farms and through small towns and who knows what you'll find. Probably have to plan a place for an overnighter more carefully though. Or you could just wing it and attempt to find a place on the road. Bit disconcerting, but can make for wonderful surprises.

Plus, these roads take relatively more concentration than just pointing the car in the right direction on the interstate. With your sports car, that should be a kick.

Andrew Foland said...

I second the one-lane state highway suggestion. For instance, there's lovely scenery in central Illinois on the one-lane highways. And no expanse of map looks more flat and boring than central Illinois.

Also, it will keep you more alert (else the odds of getting a speeding ticket are rather higher.)

Joseph Hovsep said...

Come visit Cornell. The area is a great place for scenic drives... if you don't stop at too many wineries. But seriously, if your son hasn't graduated yet, you should take the opportunity to drive around the Finger Lakes if you come visit him.

Jim said...

Plan to stay at some nudist camps along the way. Even boring places like Denton, TX have nearby nudist colonies where you can stay in a cabin and meet a higher class of folks than usual.

Ricardo said...

"What are some good techniques ...."

First, join the American Automobile Association (if you don't already belong). Free maps, great guides with listings of good-quality motels in every backwater town, and instant assistance if you ever have a car breakdown. For less than $100 a year, this is a "must" for every car traveler.

Second, take a look at National Geographic's "Guide to Small Town Escapes" and "America's Hidden Corners". The books have suggestions for things to see in every state ... but even more ... they shows you how to enjoy yourself just about anywhere.

Third, pick a "theme". Develop an architectural interest in small town churches, or old schoolhouses, or the way farms and fields are irrigated, or the different sizes and colors of apples in the different states. There's a million interesting things to photograph, once you look at things the right way.

Fourth, stop whining about those 700 miles. Come down here to Texas, and I'll show you 700 miles of nothing! Be creative! If you don't want to drive over those 700 miles to the west, then drive north to Superior, turn left at Thunder Bay, and wander through Canadian lakes. Then come back south when you feel the urge. The trip from A to B doesn't have to be a straight line. In fact, it shouldn't be.

I've just finished planning a trip from Texas to Vancouver Island for the summer, and there doesn't appear to be one boring spot in the whole route. There's a beautiful country out there, if you just look at it the right way.

Joe said...

Ride a Harley Davidson.

Henry said...

In my childhood my parents used to drive us cross-country -- New York to California -- every few years to visit relatives.

Driving across Wyoming and Nebraska, my brother and I once entertained ourselves by making up names of nonexistant towns. "Where are we?" "Broken Billboard, Wyoming." "Where are we now?" "Three Tan Vans, Nebraska."

I don't know if I agree with the Blue Highways idea. You don't want to burn yourself out before you get where you want to go.

What I would do for that first 700 miles is drive it at night on the Interstate. Do you have a co-pilot? Try the AM radio dial for entertainment. One thing about the great plains is that you can pick up radio stations from everywhere. That is kind of interesting. This plan also bypasses the "where to sleep" problem.

SteveR said...

Everytime I confront that challenge I end up back at the haul off and get it over with scenario, in part because my time is generally limited. If you have time and can identify one or two subjects of interest, perhaps you can find a good route. One person's scenic is another person's boring.

Dave: What about T or C was scary? The idea of living there?

Ann Althouse said...

Re speeding tickets: I got my first speeding ticket yesterday. And I've been driving since the 60s. On a two lane highway.... (do you folks really mean to say "one lane"?)

"I don't know if I agree with the Blue Highways idea. You don't want to burn yourself out before you get where you want to go."

Yeah, that's the theory behind my wasted Day 1 approach.

As for the radio: I have my XM satellite radio.

re Cornell: I've done the Finger Lakes drive (and I made Cleveland my stopover on the way over and drove all the way back in one day). Anyway, right now it's summer break.

As for driving at night: It can be bad on the plains at night. I've had to stop because of thick fog.

Dave said...

Re; Truth or Consequence: it sounds so serious.

Who'd want to live there?

As for beautiful drives: Santa Barbara, CA to Monterrey, CA has some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen anywhere. And I've been to 49 of the 50 states...

Sanjay said...

Bike somewhere, then rent a car. Territory that is stultifying by car can be fascinating on cycle.

Mark said...

There are no boring places, only boring tourists.

I just drove across the TX and OK panhandles. I spent a lot of time wondering how people could live there and appreciating that I don't. I also "raced" a freight train that paralleled the highway for about 100 miles, which was kind of fun.

Elizabeth said...

I haven't explored this deeply, but check out www.byways.org. It has info on scenic byways nationwide. The top page had a story on the Natchez Trace, which is one of the most beautiful rides I've taken.

Your accomodations may be harder to plan. Has the philosophy of a college no more than an hour from every little town taken hold in that region? If so, there'll be Days Inns and such in those little college towns. I've only had one truly bad roadside motel experience, where I had to sleep on top of the covers with the lights on. Bugs. Yech.

Dale B said...

My motorcycle touring web site has some suggestions on trip planning that would work for a car too.

The URL is

http://www.motorcycletouring.us/plan.htm

SteveR said...

Dave: the name is somewhat of a joke (in case you didn't know)

http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/es/nm/truth_1

As many times as I've driven past, I too have wondered why anyone would live there.

Ann: beware of wasting time trying not to waste time

Tex the Pontificator said...

Read up on the history of the area you're passing through. When traveling from San Antonio to Houston, my wife and I stopped to walk the dog at a park that turned out to be at the former Beeson's Crossing. There the Texan Army under Sam Houston camped for a while before the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston had the settlement burned when he left to deny it to the Mexican Army.

As for where to stay, plan ahead enough to make reservations in a bed and breakfast

Elizabeth said...

Re speeding tickets: I got my first speeding ticket yesterday. You're kidding! I'd assumed, with your love of cars, that you'd have been racking them up. What made you cut loose now? Or is it that this is the first time you've been caught?

Christopher Althouse said...

You have two options: 1) Accept that you live near a visually boring part of the country and just get through it; 2) Do it Thelma & Louise style and drive off the road entirely, entertaining yourself with the way the wheels launch clouds of dirt into the air.

al said...

Our family vacations have always been by car. So many interesting things to see that others just fly over. We tend to take interstates to get the majority of driving done quickly (2 lane roads, while beautiful, can be real slow) and then explore from where ever we stop for the day.

The idea of staying near college towns is excellent. There are usually numerous chain hotels for reasonable prices and most offer a free breakfast (bagels, cereal, etc). Country Inns are our current favorite. We tend to plan ahead and make reservations. If you're traveling during the week it's not to hard to find a place to stay. On weekends you may have to plan ahead.

Sometimes those 'boring expanses' can be quite beautiful and/or impressive. Espicially when Mother Nature decides to have some fun...

Have fun.

Joe said...

My first speeding ticket was in 1969. I was hearing to Honky Tonk Women on the radio for the very first time. I guess I got a little overenthusiastic.

bill said...

Ann, consider the Adventure cyclist maps.

Low volume roads with plenty of small towns.

Elizabeth said...

Joe, mine was 1976, had my license less than a year. "Runaway" was on the radio and during that little organ part I became one with the beat. I've been getting nabbed twice a year, which seems to be the schedule for running a speed trap on my standard route to work. It's a long, winding expanse with few cross streets. I drive a cheap car, but it's fast and I just can't help it.

Elizabeth said...

Oops--not twice yearly since '76, just since 2001, when I took my current position.

Telecomedian said...

Couple of Midwestern roadtrip survival tips from my Des Moines' era.
If going West...

1) The area between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northeastern Iowa is really quite beautiful. Iowa isn't *that bad* to drive through to get to prettier scenery. Iowa at least has some sights.

2) Nebraska west of Lincoln, and from the middle of Kansas to the west really is some of the most dull driving ever. Very similar to some expanses of Texas in the overwhelming sense of nothingness.

3) South Dakota and North Dakota...well...they sure have a lot of space there.

So, I'd try to time the drive so that you leave Madison while it's still daytime. If you're heading to Colorado, try to drive west of Lincoln after 8pm as much as possible. It's a lot less boring when it's dark...and you can't see how boring it is!

If you're heading East...
1) Gary, Indiana, is a giant work zone, and they do the road work in the middle of the night.

2) Indiana is the most boring of the east of the Mississippi states. Try to drive through as much of that at night as possible.

3) Ohio ain't much better.

If you're heading South...

1) Try to hit central Illinois at night time, too. It's the most dull of the southern route, save for various stretches of Arkansas.

If you're heading North...

1) I've never been to the middle Canadian Provinces. I have no advice, but I'm sure you'd be able to get a couple of Horton's donuts and coffee!

mdmnm said...

Dave- Where you from?
TorC (Truth or Consequences) was originally Hot Springs or Radium Springs. The citizens voted to rename it for the popular game show in order to win some prize. Little semi-resort place (folks retire there) by a somewhat ugly lake with nice mountains off in every distance. Now, there was a serial killer who lived a little further up the lake....
Check out Columbus, NM or Espanola, NM for a hostile vibe.
As for Alpine, it is one of the prettiest towns in Texas. Mountains again, lovely little college campus, the very fringe of the Chihuahuan grasslands, and some nice old houses. Marfa is just a little old cattle town that has seen better days. Main street closing down, all that. They have a great courthouse (as does Alpine and a lot of little W.Tx towns). The film "Giant" was filmed in and around Marfa. How about Pecos and the barren, salinated fields around it for spooky/sad/weird? Not Marfa, or TorC, esp. not Alpine.
Bet you stayed in a resort down in Terlingua or that B&B on the old Alamosa ranch.

Joe said...

Beth, would a radar detector help? You should not be financing the local municipality all on your own!

Christy said...

I confess to a fondness for the Roadside Geology of Whatever State series. They are geared to mile markers on the numbered roads - from interstates to State roads. I loved driving a parched I-40 across Arizona and reading that limestone formation to the north was getting sandier as we got closer to the one-time shore of the Kaibab sea, for example.

Elizabeth said...

Good idea, Joe. The tickets are almost always reduced to seat belt violations but they tack on about $150 for indigent defenders' fees, etc. I bet a radar detector costs less that what I'd pay for one ticket.

Elizabeth said...

Ann, I know what my small-town fears are rooted in, but what about yours? Anything in particular?

paulfrommpls said...

I'm not sure what you're referring to as boring. I'm sure you know that all around you in Wisconsin, especially to the west into Minn and Ne Iowa, is gorgeous. Do you mean the plains? Western Minnesota, western Iowa, the eastern Dakotas? Some of western Minnesota - if you go central rather than southern - continues to be rolling and dotted with nice towns; and Minnesota up toward Fargo is a strange and different kind of lake country: generally flat with farms but still a lot of lakes and supper clubs, not forested much at all. But most of the eastern Dakotas, that's pretty boring, but you can go 85 and listen to the radio (screw satellite radio is my Amish attitude) or if you do get off the interstate it gets weird/interesting. One thing I noticed the last time I dashed through the Dakotas on my way to the Black Hills is that the little towns become progressively flimsier, less rooted-looking than the solid small towns of Wisconsin, more indicative of temporal-ness. Desolate and sun-baked, so I loved that. And of course the signs for Wall drug and the Mitchell Corn Palace tell you: you’re headed west, it’s the anticipation drive the foreplay drive, it’s fantastic.

The minute you cross the Missouri the landscape changes. It’s proof of something, I swear. Huge rolling green hills and pronghorns. Some people don’t know about pronghorns, I’ve noticed.

SteveR said...

mdmnm;

Rio Arriba, NM
Questa, NM

Drive slow see our village, drive fast see our judge

Ann Althouse said...

Elizabeth said..."Re speeding tickets: I got my first speeding ticket yesterday. You're kidding! I'd assumed, with your love of cars, that you'd have been racking them up. What made you cut loose now? Or is it that this is the first time you've been caught?"

It's the first time I've been caught. I really had come to believe I was immune. I have been stopped 3 times in the last few years -- always in Madison -- and only got a warning. By the way, all those other 3 times, I said "I'm really sorry." This time, I said "I really didn't think I was speeding," etc. So my advice is, when stopped, say I'm sorry. Don't make any excuses either.

What I was doing was listening to "Theme Time Radio Hour with Bob Dylan." Charles Aznavour singing "I Drink" was what I listened to while I watched -- in my rear view mirror -- as the cop wrote up the ticket. I had gone out for a drive so I could listen to the show.

The theme was drinking. Fortunately, I had not been drinking. It was 9 in the morning. But, as I learned from Bob, drinking in the morning is not drinking. It's medicine. That's not to say I'd been taking "medicine." Just to pass on the Dylanism I remember hearing.

Roger Sweeny said...

You live only 700 miles from interesting scenery. I live in Boston and have to cross 2,000 miles. That's at least 3 "get it done" days on each side.

Since we don't have any prairies around here, I actually find those 700 miles more interesting than the 1300 leading up to them.

Ann Althouse said...

"The area between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northeastern Iowa is really quite beautiful."

Speaking of Bob Dylan: we call that Highway 61.

Ann Althouse said...

Paul: I agree that the area all around me and going west to the Mississippi is beautiful. I do drives around here all the time and love it.

Elizabeth said..."Ann, I know what my small-town fears are rooted in, but what about yours? Anything in particular?" I'm just picturing unfriendly people scolding me for taking pictures mostly, but also, dogs. I have a vague sense of forboding related to all the movies like "U Turn" where people drive into a small town and everything ends up horrible. And I have a general concern that someone will harass me.

Ann Althouse said...

Roger: I know how you feel about the eastern half of the U.S. The towns are closer together, but there are a whole lot of uninteresting stretches. I've driven from Madison to Boston and it wasn't that fun. I love the desolate western deserts though. Route 50, the "loneliest road" across Nevada is a big favorite of mine. I'm particular about nothiness. I have specific tastes about it.

Elizabeth said...

Ann, while most of my small-town experiences have been friendly and good, there have been just enough spooky ones to make me reticent. Being gay in small-town America is a wild card, too. Add "Straw Dogs" to the list of rural horror films. And "Motel Hell"--my favorite funny horror movie.

Susan said...

"Do it Thelma & Louise style and drive off the road entirely, entertaining yourself with the way the wheels launch clouds of dirt into the air."

Just stay clear of the Grand Canyon.

Fly in Ointment said...

I will de-lurk to mention that the Irish Trojan (www.brendanloy.com) attempted a "CamryCast" of his trip from IN to AZ, starting yesterday. It was an intricate and noble effort, and more entertaining to read stories from the road that I would've thought. I wouldn't recommend it, however, if you're doing the driving!

Love your blog, btw! Especially the AI posts!

vtb said...

Having taken a number of motorcycle trips to the Rockies from the East, I offer the following.
1. Use the map to avoid large towns/cities. Other than that, just drive west for 2 days.
2. Avoid the Interstates. They'll get you there, but you'll miss what's interesting..the small towns and the recognition that the term "vast" should be reserved for the Plains.
3. Get over having to get somewhere.
4. Small town motels are fine even if they look a little beat.
5. By all means, drive thru and stop in every town you come to. You've lived in the city too long if you think people would be offended by taking a few pictures.
Tim Bambrick

Maxine Weiss said...

New age music: I like Medhi's "Instrumental Fantasy" for traversing the monotonous deserts.

Yanni, has some good music for boring landscapes.

Rhonan, that Irish new age artist works for deserts and forest.

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

Nobody will harass you in a Town Car. Don't put needless mileage on your own car.

Do yourself a favor and rent a Town Car, with good cruise-control, and travel in style.

Peace, Maxine

juliet said...

some psychological tension could add some spice to your drive. Watch the movie "Dual" Steven Spielberg's lonely road thriller.

Richard said...

As a fifth-generation Iowan I think I can speak to the view of about 300 of that 700 miles you describe. As a city kid I always thought crops were boring but wooded areas were scenic. One of my farmer uncles commented one time on how boring the woods are and how fascinating it is to see how everyone's crops are doing. I guess it is all in your perspective.

MrsWhatsit said...

Maybe this is because I am a small-town girl myself, but it seems exactly backwards to me to be afraid of small towns, and especially to be afraid of harassment in small towns. In my experience, people in small towns are almost universally friendlier and less likely to be confrontational than people in cities. As for harassment, in small towns people know one another and, without anonymity to hide behind, are more conscious of being careful about public behavior than city people generally need to be. The only harassing behavior I've ever encountered while traveling happened in big-city public places.

I guess it's all in your point of view, but I'm pretty surprised by this one. Though I do agree that in a small town, being conspicuous about taking pictures would probably be seen as an intrusive no-no.

Ann Althouse said...

MrsWhatsis: Two things about small towns:

1. There are so few people around that you worry about getting help if someone bothered you.

2. The social norms are unknown and may be narrow.

Also, anything that affects photography is a huge issue for me.

SWBarns said...

I'll second Whatsit. I grew up in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia and now live in a small Midwest town of about 2000. If you pull out a map in my town every person that passes will stop and ask if you need help. That has not been my experience in larger cities.

My advice would be to pull in to a small town and stop the first person you see on the sidewalk and ask where you can get a good lunch. They will probably chat you up on the pro's and con's of the three places to eat and give you a recommendation.

If you want to ease into this, pick a town with a small liberal arts college. They might be used to women driving small foreign cars.

SWBarns said...

On the photography issue, I don't think that small towns are any different than large towns on this. If you are taking pictures of things it isn't a problem. If you are taking pictures of people then you should probably ask first.

People in large towns may be used to tourists taking pictures of the art museum and small towners may wonder why you are taking a picture of the grain elevator. But then again they may try to help out with other 'scenic spots' in town.

Ann Althouse said...

Oh, yeah, the car thing.

When I was driving my New Beetle, I had a small town stranger yell out to me "I'm going to smash that bug" -- not in a particularly hostile way, but when you're a woman driving alone in a strange place, it takes very little to make you feel threatened and nothing at all to make you feel unwelcome.

Ann Althouse said...

SW: That's why I photograph things. But the things I choose can make people feel I'm making fun of them or that I'm doing something suspicious. I've been asked if I'm working on a lawsuit (because I like to photograph things that are messed up in some way). And no, I don't go around wearing an lawyer badges or markings of any kind. I don't look at all like a lawyer.

SWBarns said...

Come 500 miles this way and you can see beautiful scenery and a great small town.

http://www.gorzow.mm.pl/~bebelebe/Ash%20Cave,%20Hocking%20Hills%20State%20Park,%20Ohio.jpg

http://www.imgsrv.worldstart.com/wallpaper/hocking-hills-falls-800-600-nocal.jpg

MrsWhatsit said...

I agree about the fearsomeness of confrontations with strangers when you're alone, but I don't think there's anything unique to small towns about that experience. I've been hollered at and otherwise hassled by strangers many times when walking alone in cities. There were always other people around, but nobody has ever intervened or even seemed to notice. It's true that in a small town, there aren't many people around, but I think in most cases if somebody needs help in a small place, the people who do happen to be there will notice and will provide it.

A couple of years ago my husband and I biked into a tiny Iowa town on our tandem. (We are from the Northeast, but were visiting Iowa because our kids were competing in an event at Iowa State.) There was an outdoor lunch going on at the gas station/convenience store that was the town's only business, some sort of pot-luck town celebration to which everybody had brought dishes to pass. We stopped to try to buy something to drink at the convenience store and found ourselves being waved over to the tables and served a generous and tasty free lunch. While we ate, the others at the table asked us what it was like riding a tandem, why we were there now instead of riding in the big Iowa bike event that goes on at some other time of the year, where we were from, how we liked Iowa . . . We tried to find out if there was something we could contribute in return but nobody would hear of it. People waved as we pedaled off. If something like that ever happened in a big place, I would fall off the bike in shock.

miss g said...

A little late, but, if you are planning to go to Texas, Arkansas, or South and West you may need to BYOB, as you may end up in a dry county. My husband and I went to President Clinton's Presidential Library, it was very nice. Pretty cool.

Elizabeth said...

If something like that ever happened in a big place, I would fall off the bike in shock.


What a great story--and I can testify that it would happen in New Orleans. As would help with your map, and directions to a great, non-touristy, place to eat.

I've had some wonderful times in small towns, too, but I still understand being a bit reticent to plunge into them. I've also had unfriendly, standoffish encounters. And if I hear "Are you two girls sisters?" one more time...my partner and I don't look anything alike; there's just a persistent discomfort in small-town America with two women traveling together.

It's a balance. Just like walking in the city, I pay attention to the people around me, and keep my senses working. And for the most part, I love traveling in small towns, taking some pictures, driving down the main street, finding some local food and culture. But I least enjoy spending the nights in small town motels.

onalaska pb said...

If you're going straight west, I make the drive from Onalaska, Wis., to Wyoming about twice a year. While it's true that South Dakota east of the Missouri is boring, the view coming up on the Missouri is wonderful. That's about the halfway point for me. I make the drive straight through. The Wall Drug signs are fun--and so is Wall Drug. After dark, I don't stop at rest areas because they can be a little scary. Once you reach the the Badlands -- must see -- you are almost to the Hills. Actually there is so much to see and do in the Black Hills and Wyoming, that it's worth driving straight through just to have more time there.

Ann Althouse said...

Yeah, the Badlands are the one really interesting thing on the way west before the Rockies.

RHodnett said...

I'll second SWBarns's recommendation of Hocking Hills in Ohio. I live on the San Francisco peninsula, and have only been to Ohio once, when I visited my brother just outside Dayton last year. We cruised around the area for a couple of hundred miles east and southeast of Dayton, including Hocking Hills, and it was uniformly delightful and scenic. (True, this was in mid-April, when most areas look pretty nice.)

But this might be too far out of your way for your trip out west, Ann.

Anna said...

To the person who was maligning Illinois & Indiana:

Yes, the northern and central areas can be boring, but southern Illinois and Indiana can be very scenic, with hills and forests. Esp Indiana.