My husband and I just returned from a 17 day, 5,500-mile road trip westward from our home in South Carolina. Even though 4.5 million visit the Grand Canyon every year, we still felt like bold adventurers because it was all new to us.
And, I have learned that as a white person, apparently I can show up at any place in the world and declare as of that moment, that I own it and any quaint previous human existence that has transpired there before my grand arrival is irrelevant and meaningless. Now, that was just one thing I learned on my travels, here are a several more.
1. Refill Water Bottles: We kept supply of six 20 oz. water bottles filled and chilled in our handy cooler. At each campground or hotel, we refilled the bottles. In the desert of southern Utah, where we spent much of our time, it is recommended that you drink a gallon of water per day, per person. If we had paid retail prices for the amount of water we drank on this trip it would have eclipsed the amount we spent on gasoline.
2. Spend a Little Extra on a Tasty Picnic Buffet and Eat Out Less: Though we stocked our cooler before departure with sandwich meats, cheese, chips, etc., we soon discovered that we tired of such things quickly and ate out more often than we had planned. With this in mind, we went to a grocery store in Moab, UT and stocked up on some tastier, more satisfying snacks that cost a little more, including antipasto and a bottle of red wine. This kept us out of restaurants as often. Also, one day we bought a foot long sub at a restaurant and ate it with our own chips and soda from our cooler which was much cheaper than two “six-inch combos”.
This is off the subject but all that talk of inches and foot longs just reminded me of something else I learned on our trip. Did you know that in the women’s bathroom of an Alabama truck stop, you can buy “New Politically Incorrect Novelties” which include the “Bin Laden Condom” I wondered as I washed my hands, does that mean that it’ll disappear into the landscape like he did?
3. Do You Really Need to See Every Nook and Cranny? Some attractions have a portion that is free as well as a part for which you pay an admission fee. For example, in Oklahoma City, we visited the memorial at the site of bombing of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The outside grounds and gardens are a beautiful and touching reminder of the horrible event that happened there and are open and free to the public. There is also an indoor museum, but after talking it over, we realized that we didn’t feel compelled to go further and so we didn’t spend the $10 each on admission and instead, moved on to our next destination.
4. Go Your Separate Ways: At the Grand Canyon, they offer, among other activities, helicopter rides and horseback riding. I’m afraid of helicopters and my husband is not fond of horses so, one afternoon, we went our separate ways — he took off for the clouds and I headed for the dusty trail. If we had both done both activities, we would have spent an additional $200.
As an aside, I will mention, for those of you who are wondering; yes, a 17-day car trip can and did, in our case, test a relationship but, we are proud to say there was only one day when we wanted a divorce. Other than that, we were having a ball.
5. Plan Ahead: A. Even though we threw this trip together in a relatively short amount of time (two months), we planned ahead as much as we could. One way we saved us money was that we bought a National Park Pass. It cost, after shipping, etc. $90 and gave us access to the 8 National Parks we visited for no additional charge. We saved money on this trip and the pass is valid for a year, so we plan to visit other parks over the next several months as well.
B. While researching our route, we discovered that the International Balloon Fiesta was scheduled during the time we planned to pass through Albuquerque, NM where it is held. This jacked up hotel rates quite a bit so we stayed in a part of town a little further away from the event to save money but decided to make the Balloon Fiesta part of our itinerary and thoroughly enjoyed it!
6. Have a Drink and Skip the Meal: No, I don’t mean like in college when you didn’t eat so that you would have MORE room for alcohol. I mean eat the food you have in your cooler for dinner in your hotel room or campsite, and then explore the nightlife of the town you are visiting and find a nice spot for a simple beer. Enjoy the view and people watching without the expense of a $30-$50 dinner.
7. Free Coffee and Carbohydrates: On our way out of the hotel in the morning, we filled our travel mugs with free coffee to go and grabbed one of the free breakfast offerings. We kept peanuts and almonds in the car so the protein could provide some balance since free food is usually carbs; waffles, toast, muffins, bagels. Don’t believe me? You’ve never seen a sign that says “Free Bacon” have you?
8. Camp: Camping at an average of $25 per night saved us hundreds of dollars on this trip. We have a tent but were concerned about the cold. So, in preparation for this trip we test camped in our Honda Element twice at nearby campgrounds and came up with this system that worked for us. We removed the back seats and laid down an egg crate mattress and a double sleeping bag. We bought a $3 storage hammock which we strung between two ceiling hooks and stored our jackets scarves and toilet paper there so we’d have them instantly available. We didn’t pack many things, clothes or otherwise, so there were few decisions to make, and few things to organize. This allowed us to focus on the exhilarating journey itself. Of the 16 nights, we slept in the car for 10 of those and we were cozy and comfortable.
And finally, the best way to get your money’s worth out of anything is to remember to pay attention and enjoy it! Therefore, in the evenings that we camped, we snuggled into our sleeping bag and stargazed, read and just talked. The desert sky alone was a source of never ending fascination for us so we made sure to appreciate it. We agreed that for our next trip, we would like to camp more and stay in hotels less because we experience our destination more intimately when we sleep out in the middle of it. I needed some coffee to help me achieve this, but even during our long driving days, neither of us missed one minute of the expansive beauty that rolled out around us on the entire trip. I was tired of the word wow, but never of the feeling that brought it forth again and again.
Image of author peaking out of her sleeping bag in the Honda Element at Zion National Park in Utah (photo credit Heinz Kaiser)