The Five Universal Truths of Road Trips

I’ve recently had the opportunity to do a lots of driving (somewhere over three thousand miles all told) and I think I’ve discovered the five universal truths of road trips.

1. Books on MP3 (aka CD/tape) make the trip go faster.
I listen to audiobooks to help my apartment get clean faster but this time I discovered they also seem to make road trips go faster. I seem to prefer light mysteries (I’m listening to the stories of Amelia Peabody right now) because I can move my attention to something else (like the semi up ahead who’s pulled over or the downpour that’s about to happen) without losing too much of the plot line. After sitting in a car for three, eight, or even ten hours straight, it’s nice to listen to someone else’s ‘life.’

2. Walmart is just around the corner.
If Walmart’s goal was to make sure they can be found everywhere, they’ve succeeded. I have now been to Walmarts in Arizona, Texas, Michigan, Nebraska, Illinois, Utah, and Ohio. I realize that I probably look for a Walmart when I’m traveling because it provides familiarity and I know what kind of things they sell. But it sure is nice to be able to find one when I need one.

3. You can never bring too many Cheetos.
Cheetos are the life blood of any road trip. They may turn your fingers orange but I guarantee they’ll bring a smile to anyone’s face. Make sure you have the hard kind for people who like the hard kind and the soft kind for people doing orthodontia (me). I also find that something liquid and napkins are also essentials when consuming a bag of Cheetos on the road.

4. Exhaustion is just a state of mind
There’s something about road trips that makes me extremely tired and very hyper. Something about being cooped up in such a small space for such a long period of time brings the loopiness out in me. When I’m not listening to audio books or trying to make sure I don’t crash in downpour rainstorms (which there seemed to be a lot of), I find myself cracking (and laughing at) really really really stupid jokes. I do find that my ‘hyper’ exhaustion seems to increase in direct proportion to whether or not someone else is in the car.

5. There’s always road construction
I have never seen so many orange cones in such a short period of time. It seems that every freeway is in process of being rebuilt. Many of these freeways are two lanes each way so when one side gets closed down, everyone gets shifted to the other side and into one lane. This really isn’t too bad, until I would realize that the car in front of me is really a semi and the car behind me is really a semi and I’m about to drive into a torrential downpour. Then I kind of wished I could get in front of or behind one of the semis and away from the water they kick up. I guess road construction is a good thing as it means roads stay in fairly good shape. But it sure means that I’m not gonna make it to my destination by the time the GPS claims I’ll arrive. I did discover that driving on the weekends means that even though the cones are on the road, the workers are not. This means not quite so much stop/slow down time.

Bonus: America really is beautiful.
I think that sometimes because I live in a city and see the same things day after day, I forget to really appreciate how beautiful America can be. In this trip alone, I’ve imprinted incredibly beautiful pictures in my mind. I can see these beautiful green rolling hills rushing to meet blue and green mountains. Or blue sky overhead peeking through masses of fluffy clouds. I can see misty clouds riding low over massive trees on the banks of a broad river. Or miles of earthy brown furrows weighed down by the rain heavy cloudes above. I can see copper red cliffs almost hanging over the snaking road with hints of green trees scrabbling to hang on to clefts in the cliffs. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

So, for those of you who have taken road trips, what universal truths have you learned?


  1. My favorite, as you could probably guess, is your cheetos point. 🙂

    I haven’t taken a whole lot of varied road trips, but my wife and I and our kids have driven back and forth to Utah about twice a year for nearly a decade now. The biggest truth I’ve learned is that I never remember just how long the drives can be. In fact, as I’ve thought about it, considering the limitations of human memory, I wonder if it’s impossible to remember it. Since our memories are of the gist of things rather than moment-by-moment recollections, I think what we remember of long (often boring) drives is that we were bored. But because we recall only the gist, we don’t remember the actual details (then we were 25 miles from Kanab . . . then we were 24 miles from Kanab . . .). So what I’ve tried to do is be more resigned to the fact that, regardless of how many entertaining things we might have brought along, some of the drive is going to be boring in a way that I can’t fully anticipate because I am simply incapable of remembering it.

  2. My universal truth of road trips. Just after we get done hitting the restroom someone will figure out they have more business to do, but by then it will be too late and I’ll be on the freeway with 50 miles to the next stop.

  3. I really liked your #5. Here are mine:

    1) When traveling with children: Driving from 4AM-3PM = misery; Driving from 10AM-5PM = total hell.

    2) Sugar makes me 10x sleepier than caffeine keeps me awake.

    3) Detour signs only guide people who already know where to go.

    4) Credit card companies should be informed in advance of your plans to run up charges in 11 different states.

    5) The Marriott and the Red Roof Inn look exactly the same when your eyes are closed.

  4. I like road trips best when you’re not going anywhere particular on any particular schedule, so you can pull over when you see signs that say “Dinosaur Museum” or “Historical Marker” or “Gub Zabo’s Canadian Antiques Market.” Also, I don’t know about Wal-Mart, but there definitely needs to be a Wendy’s whenever you need one. Also, someday I’ll learn to just buy twenty Rock Stars at the grocery store on the way out, instead of spending three times more buying them at gas stations on the way.

    I like them least when I’m driving the entire breadth of Nebraska to get to either Utah or Indiana and just want the horrible. flat. stupid. cop-swamped. emptiness to end.

    I’ve never tried the book on tape thing; usually I listen to a lot of music. Then the music becomes indelibly imprinted with whatever state I was driving through at the time. (Coldplay, X&Y, = Iowa at night. U2, Achtung Baby, = pine forests in North Carolina. KT Tunstall = driving across Wyoming desperately in search of a bathroom.

  5. 1. The company for the road trip is a much more crucial decision than the route or destination.

    2. Asking for directions from locals is often way more confusing than helpful. Such as when they use “old timey lights” as a landmark or expect you to know which way is east in Lingle, Wyoming.

    3. Caloric needs increase dramatically while on the road. Despite spending all day munching on pringles, laffy taffy, pretzels and coke, I still need three full meals. It baffles me.

    Also, I agree that America is beautiful. I just drove the western slice of South Dakota and was totally, completely struck by this fact. And, I got to show someone else that skies in Montana really are bigger than anyplace else, a firmly held belief of mine that is often met with skepticism.

  6. My #1 rule is to pack emergency Valium for when I’m ready to kill Bill.

    Now I have my Blackberry so I don’t have to scream every few seconds in fear for my life. And Tetris. And an official opinion from a psychologist who is respected by Bill that I have the right not to watch the road and talk to him all the time.

    Because if I’m talking to him, he’s driving, but he’s looking at me and I’m watching the road and every once in awhile we overcorrect and boy it does wonders for my circulation. He can’t hear and I have to repeat every single word I say.

    Well, I guess my rule #7 is have the divorce lawyer on speed dial.

    Road trips for me and Bill just aren’t pretty.

  7. 1. (Learned in college) – 5 people in a ’91 Chevy Cavalier (two-door) for 9 hours with all of their Christmas break luggage is only pleasant if you can keep the boys from singing along to every Christmas carol and not at all pleasant for whomever is stuck behind the 5’11” driver.

    2. If you get lost, do not panic. If you take the wrong exit, do not panic. As my father likes to say, how can you get lost in the U.S.? Either you’ll hit an ocean or a border, either way you’ll figure out you’ve gone too far eventually.

    3. It is completely valid to chew a 10-pack of Watermelon Bubblicious all by yourself over the course of a lonely 8 hour roadtrip.

    4. Buy or burn at least one new CD to be memorized and enjoyed during the trip. It makes a nice break from the creepy mystery you had on.

    5. Your parents/sig other would appreciate it if you remembered your cell phone existed for a reason – to reassure them that you have not been killed by a psycho semi-driving axe murderer.

  8. I think all of my road-trip tricks are about to go out the window–perhaps quite literally!–when I venture on my first road trip with Tiny Pin in tow. I too find CDs/mp3s essential to long drives, although this can backfire, depending on who selects them; I’ve been forced to listen to Warren Buffet’s investing tips at 4 a.m., for example.

    Nice post, Elbereth!

  9. I love road trips, but I rarely get to take them anymore, so reading your post I was able to reflect on how fun they can be.

    When I was in college, my friends and I would drive straight through from Illinois to Provo. I’m too old for that now.

    Some years we would drive 12 hours and try to get a motel and be unable to find one, because the rodeo was in town or something. So we learned from experience to make reservations. Sure, that gave us less flexibility on picking where to stop for the night, but it was better than being dead tired with nowhere to stay.

  10. 1) Never take my 1.5 year old on extended car trip. Somewhere around hour two his harness becomes napalm and he is unstinting in his communication of this fact. Partner and teenage son just drove to California- we flew.
    2) I like Lord Peter mysteries on car trips. Plummy English voices and Dorothy Sayers’ heavenly writing.
    3) If you are in Lingle, the Rocky Mountains are right behind/in front of you. They are enormo and to your West.
    4) Water works better than caffeine and I say that as someone who loves coffee and drank it every day of my pregnancy, except when I was too nauseous to. Water and tons of it actually keeps you alert.
    5) Why are you going on roadtrips right by my house and not even stopping? Cheyenne is bisected by I-25 and I-80 and any Z’s Daughter reader is always welcome to our guest room…overlooking the garden. I am stopping short of saying there will be a chocolate on your pillow but I do love visitors!

  11. Ziff, I think you’re right. There are parts of road trips that can be extremely boring. Though I did not have to drive across Nebraska (though I visited it), I found both Wyoming and Oregon long and boring. I also think the return trip is so much of a letdown (going back to work and life and whatever other stresses life brings) that it always seems that the return trip takes twice as long.

    Jacob J, I did most of my road trips either alone or with one other person in the car so I didn’t have the problem. I’ll probably have to figure out a way to avoid similar situations in the future.

    Brian J and alea, in response to your comments about local directions and detours, I think that’s why I purchased a GPS device. Despite it’s odd quirks (like telling me to make a U-turn over and over and over until I turn it off or recalculating when I don’t turn right quick enough), it usually manages to get me to my destination without too much headache. As I can also get incredibly stressed out at the possibility of getting lost, my GPS gives a little peace of mind.

    Melyngoch, I am just not that much of a music person and I find that stories and words make a trip go much faster. Music works well as background music but it doesn’t distract me very well. It do think it’s interesting that you start associating specific music with specific states.

  12. Alea, I agree that the company on a trip is important. I also find that the better the company and the more people in the car the more it changes the tone of the whole trip. I also find myself needing more food on a road trip. Maybe it’s something about all of those Cheetos that make hamburgers sound really really good. And by the way, I also drove through some of the south west portion of South Dakota recently (on my way to Mount Rushmore).

    Annegb, it’s too bad your trips can’t be more fun. At least you’ve got the Blackberry to keep your mind off of things.

    Coral Rose, thanks for your ‘truths.’ I unfortunately couldn’t do the gum as all the metal in my mouth gets in the way, but I like the idea of buying one new CD to listen to. I believe I purchased the soundtrack to Star Trek before one of my recent trips and listened to it several times. You do have to be careful not to drive others in the car insane, though. I know of one road trip in which the soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean was played so much that the car mysteriously took on the name of the Black Pearl. As for calling your parents/significant other, I agree it is a good idea, but I always seem to forget to call. (My mother could attest to this one.) One of the trips I took I did go with a good friend whose hubby called her several times along the way. (She didn’t mind as that they are still in newlywed phase).

    Kevin, I’m glad I could remind you of the good days of road tripping. I agree that reservations are a good idea and I make them when I can. Some of my trips are centered on genealogy research and when I’m doing research, I never know when I might need to hop over to the next county (or the county after that) to look for something (or someone) and it’s hard to be tied to one specific location. (That’s when I hope I did enough research on the area ahead of time that I know there won’t be a rodeo taking all of the hotel rooms.)

  13. Crazywomancreek, I’ll have to try Lord Peter Whimsey mysteries. I have really enjoyed Elizabeth Peters as the woman who reads them has these really engaging voices for all of the characters. I have found that I actually prefer Gatorade when driving though water isn’t bad either (as long as it’s cold). And thanks for the invite. Personally, I ended up driving north of Cheyenne (on my way to North West Nebraska). Good to know there are ZD readers everywhere.

    Brian J, Eve, and crazywomancreek, I have to admit I am glad that I don’t have children at the moment to drag on road trips. (Since many of my road trips are centered on genealogy, they would probably be even more bored by the county courthouses than the road trips themselves.) I’m sure it can be hard with little children. When my family used to drive to Lagoon every year, we would badger my father about how much longer to point he finally came up with the default response, “every minute we’re getting closer.”

    As we got older, we got a little worse. There was one family trip in which we rented a van. One of us would then have to sit in the middle of the back. At one point, I was the one in the middle and Kiskilili was sitting next to me. Kiskilili accused me of being a goblin and then asked me to please stop taking up so much space with my eleven shoulders. She then spent the rest of the trip referring to me as a goblin with eleven shoulders. I was a teenager at the time and not very good at responding to such teasing and I probably reacted in a manner that made my parents cringe.

  14. I love this post. And the comments, too. The Ipod/book on tape advice is excellent.

    My favorite line was BrianJ’s that “[w]hen traveling with children: Driving from 4AM-3PM = misery; Driving from 10AM-5PM = total hell.” LOLOL!

    A universal truth I’ve only discovered in the past few years is that the less I eat on the road, the better my body feels on the trip. For me these days, it’s mostly water and a few carrots. (Oh, and a little caffeine.)

  15. The story about you being a goblin cracked me up. When we were younger and on long road trips, we used to tease my middle sister’s doll, who had been left at home, by calling her names and singing mean little songs to her. Melody would respond by telling us that she was crying, which would make us look at each other in surprise and admiration. “800 miles away and you can hear her crying?! You are a remarkable mother!” This only made the situation worse. 🙂 Ah, children.

  16. A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an equal but opposite force. People tell me I’m crazy, but I find that the longer I drive the more I want to keep on driving. Inertia is a beautiful thing.

    Back roads and old highways are a million times more fun than the interstate.

    I don’t know why everybody hates Nebraska! I’ve road tripped through nearly every region of the country (sorry upper Midwest — I’ll get to you when I can!) and the drive that sticks in my head as the most idyllic was from Ansley, NE to Omaha (highway 92) one late summer afternoon. The fields and farms, the gentle hills, the light slanting over it all so perfectly…. Ah! I love it.

  17. I loved Nebraska too! We’ve driven from California to New Hampshire a couple of times and absolutely adored it. I really think that it’s something every American needs to do once in their lives.

    My favorite part is getting to explore places I never would have seen otherwise. Our favorite stop was in Cleveland and I can tell you that I never would have planned a vacation there any other way.

    Also, Harry Potter books on tape. Jim Dale deserves more than grammys. He deserves Pulitzers.

  18. Wait. wait. :blink blink: Are you telling me there is a Stephen FRY version??? How could I have been so misled. You must lead me to the light, and a copy of this alleged recording.

  19. Someone recommended tootsie roll pops as a way to stay awake and they really work! We always have a bag on hand now.

  20. In regard to #2, it is important to realize that the anti-Christ is not a person or a nation, but Walmart, a multi-national organization that has set up fully-stocked, highly equiped battle stations in every neighborhood in preparation for a pre-millenial reign of terror!!! Of course…until then, they really do have great prices, most have yummy goodies in their bakeries, and many have MacDonald’s! Don’t get no better than that.

  21. I love road trips. I’ve been on three of them already this Summer and plan on at least two more. I could drive forever through NE and WY. Sometimes my wife tells me that I missed my calling in life as an over-the-road truck driver, and she may be right.

    I love stopping at every single roadside marker. I like stopping for the night in little towns instead of large ones. I like eating the weird stuff on the menu in diners, and have only been sick twice in my life because of it. (Once in Maine the clam chowder had HUGE pieces of clam in, so big that the neck was identifiable. ‘Nuff said.)

    I am currently in the middle of a comparison test between Rock Star and Red Bull. The idea came to me last year when I was somewhere on I-80 between North Platte and Ogalalla, working on my 3rd energy drink. I’ll let you know the results.

  22. I’ve had great road trips with my sister. We get along just fine. She drives and her driving doesn’t scare me or if it does, she hands me the Xanax bottle. We never fight when traveling. But she’s fun to talk to. Bill can’t hear and I have to repeat everything and then he has to look at me and doesn’t watch the road. It’s very hard to have a conversation on those terms.

    I’d like to take my sister on a road trip of New England in the fall.

  23. The thing we do is download many many free MP3s of Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Woebegone from Prairie Home Companion and burn them to CDs (generally about 1 month per disc) and play them. They are all on line (by week on the PHC site) which means there are hundreds of them. I say it cuts the perception of the time on the road in half. They also contain many laughs, which is always a good thing. Mostly we burn the ones that have been broadcast since our last road trip since we miss the weekly broadcast almost all the time.

  24. I really like road trips too, and reading this brings back some entertaining memories. I often find driving somewhat soothing, so I think it’s kind of fun to go places just by myself. On the other hand, it can be pretty entertaining to have sleep-deprived siblings around.

    One of my less fun road trips involved a drive from northern Indiana to Utah in August, in a car with no A/C. I would pull over every hour or so to sit in some shade. I remember in particular driving across Nebraska. It felt like I’d been in the state for so long that I was sure I was at least halfway through. I pulled over at a rest stop and looked at the map, and realized I was barely into the state. I almost cried. (The trip got better, though, when the weather cooled off, and I finally made it to Wyoming.)

    Elbereth, your comment about Walmart reminded me that I used to have an atlas of the U.S. made by Walmart that I took on road trips, which conveniently noted where the Walmarts were. (I didn’t actually buy it for that purpose–I bought it because I wanted an atlas and it was cheap–but the bonus info made me laugh.)

    Re #14–I believe I remember that trip. Was it the one to Las Vegas, to see Star Trek The Experience? And the one in which Kiskilili talked about imaginary creatures named “bullpigs” (?) the whole way back? I also recall a much earlier trip, when I was about 13, to Bryce Canyon–in which I stood outside our old orange VW van and declared that I would would not get back in as long as Eve was there.

  25. Could this thread be expanded to include “horrible things done to siblings on road trips”? My favorite was not a road but a canoe trip. I was 13 and deeply in love with Mists of Avalon. My older brother and I had dropped our Dad off on an island to fish. I amused myself by standing at the bow of our tiny canoe, pretending to be the Lady of the Lake while my brother hissed at me to sit down, I would imperiously command him to “keep silent, peon, men are not permitted to speak in the Lady’s presence.” He finally tricked me into debarking on an island where he left me for two hours, my recently half-shaved head burning a shade of unflattering tomato red. The Lady was not amused.

  26. Could this thread be expanded to include “horrible things done to siblings on road trips”?

    Yep, I’m now having flashbacks of the trip Lynnette describes in which she refused to get into the van as long as I was there. Let’s just say, she had her reasons.

    (How did our mother survive??)

  27. BrianJ – Regarding Credit card companies should be informed in advance of your plans to run up charges in 11 different states.
    I learned this in the most inconvenient way, by having my credit card and debit card locked down at the same time. Out of town checks are not accepted easily in restaurants.
    Also, new construction also means fewer road signs. My SIL nicknamed My daughter’s and my shopping excursions in Seattle as “The blonde leading the blonde” due to our difficulty navigating his hometown, and calling him when lost. GPS solved that problem.

  28. This reminded me of some blogger’s road trip where their child kept throwing up and they threw the grocery bags out on the New Jersey highway.


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