Month to Visit Cross-Section of America -- Best Places? Route?
December 14, 2003 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Every single year of our lives, since we were 14 or so, my best friend Chico and I, born on the 26th and 25th July 1955, have been planning on travelling through the United States. That's more than 30 years ago - and still we haven't gone... [More inside.]

It all started with Harleys, of course. But now we've got families (we're 8 altogether) and it's really down to a great big motor home, I guess. All we know is New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The dream still stands, though - it's like a promise that, if not kept, would damage our friendship and harm our lives. It's a difficult question but given a whole summer month (not more) what would be the best route? You know, to be able to say at the end of it, that we had an idea of America: not the most beautiful or pleasant places, but (if it's possible) a good cross-section of all that's definitely integral to a minimum understanding and appreciation of what the U.S. is all about today. What's absolutely essential? Any ideas? Pre-emptive thanks for any suggestions.
posted by MiguelCardoso to Travel & Transportation (54 answers total)
The easy answer is to get your kicks on (historic) Route 66.

The less easy answer is to tackle it the way you'd (I assume) tackle a trip to a completely foreign place: find a good guidebook.

My other answer is to make sure you see all the things you were probably thinking of when you thought of traveling to America as a kid. The Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, the California Redwoods, Las Vegas, The Washington Monument... the Hollywood billboard... Uhh... Graceland...

I don't know what you Portugese rascals thought of when you thought about America, but that's what you have to visit. Make a list of things you have to see, not necessarily just landmarks, but ideas and even themes that were important in cementing your youthful enthusiasm, then plan your route based on that.

I know a guy from Scotland who came over here to see the specific landscapes he remembers froom John Ford movies. Hey, that's cool.

Miguel, be more specific. Why won't you be more specific!?
posted by Hildago at 7:30 PM on December 14, 2003

I have taken two amazing cross country trips. For both, and with great wonder and fervor, I used the trip planner and guide: "Road Trip USA" by Jamie Jenson. The basic premise of this book is 'Get off the Interstates, and get on to the 2 lane highways.' From the restaurants to local festivals and special events written up in this book, these trips were spectacular-- so good, I have cringed on the interstate ever since. I usually hate to plug something so hard, but get this book! Jenson's passion for seeing (and having others see) the 'real America' is enough to make me weep. And enough to hope perpetually I can find the time to do a third x-country trip. Enjoy your trip Miguel! (On preview: This book presents a half dozen routes, and another half dozen variations. By the time you read it, you'll have a great feeling for which trip appeals most to you!)
posted by limitedpie at 7:33 PM on December 14, 2003

Just found this on the Road Trip USA site... Highlight the routes on the bottom to see the windy path, link goes to a taste of what is in store on the journey. Good Stuff! Damn you Miguel-- Now I'm starting to drool for the open road here ;-) !!
posted by limitedpie at 7:39 PM on December 14, 2003

Check out the archives of the newsgroup . People ask stuff like this on a fairly regular basis.

The problem probably won't be the month, it'll be that it's a single route. Any single route through the US is going to miss whole regions.

Basically there are three. I'll assume you're flying into NY (or Boston, if you wanna catch a bit of New England too).

One, you could go the northern route. Head west through upstate NY, Ohio, etc over to Chicago, and then across the plains and mountains until you start jogging down to get to SF. This way you can also catch some of Ontario if ya want.

Or you could drive south to about DC or so and then head west on 66/64 to St. Louis and then across the plains and mountains to SF. This loses the northern midwest (Chicago, upstate NY) but gets you into more generically historic stuff (Revolutionary War and colonial stuff between NY and DC, Gettysburg if you wanna detour)

Or you could drive south to, say, Atlanta and make a southern run down to New Orleans and Houston and across an absolutely astonishing amount of Texas through the desert and mountains to LA. This way you miss the great plains and the midwest at all, but it gets you proper desert and the grand canyon. Ideally you'd want to hit Charleston (SC not WV) on the way; good food there too.

I suppose you could mix them up if you went west to Chicago and back SE through IL/TN/MS whatever to take a southern route to either New Orleans, Memphis, or maybe somewhere like Vicksburg. Then up through Dallas and Oklahoma City to Topeka and head west to Denver, where you head south into the desert region and west to LA.

And *all* these routes leave out the Pacific Northwest.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:47 PM on December 14, 2003

I will second or third the idea of staying on small Highways, it may take longer to get from point A to point B but you will truly get a better sense of the country.
posted by drezdn at 7:48 PM on December 14, 2003

I second, er, third, the notion that to see any of the US, you've got to get off of the interstate, at least in the interesting states.

Oh, and you've got to see Georgia. I'm biased a'course, but I'll be damned if Georgia ain't grand -- the largest swamp in North America (Okeefenokee), the epicenter of the current musical scene (Ludacris, Outkast, etc. are from Atlanta), and the best peaches in the world (saying you come in July or so -- and you don't mind that the peaches are really from South Carolina). But it's really not on any direct route between New York and either SF or LA. Though doing a big loop (south on the way out, and north on the way back) could take you to Atlanta without too much trouble.

I'm a fan of the "theme" trip as well. I was thinking of doing the Middle East and Europe as a tour of Baklava (or similar pastry). Woulda coulda shoulda -- I did the renaissance instead.
posted by zpousman at 7:51 PM on December 14, 2003

You know, to be able to say at the end of it, that we had an idea of America: not the most beautiful or pleasant places, but (if it's possible) a good cross-section of all that's definitely integral to a minimum understanding and appreciation of what the U.S. is all about today. What's absolutely essential?

You want this in a month? Heh.

From my limited experience, the places I would point to as defining of some element of America would be Boston, Manhattan, D.C., Pittsburgh (or another old manufacturing town, but I loved Pittsburgh, and what it's growing into), Chicago, the Great Plains (it would be a shame to miss southern Utah and northern Arizona, which is beautiful stuff, but not really definitive of anything uniquely American), Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas (though it should only take you 2 hours to get the point there), Los Angeles. I don't know anything about the heartland, the South or Texas, I confess -- I can't help there.

One thing about the U.S. is it's simply huge, and filled with more small places than big ones; I don't know which small places could be called definitive, but they are probably all definitive of something, and worth some time, if that's what you're looking for. The other thing is that the big places are (of cours) diverse, and contain extremes of wealth and culture; seeing them for what they are requires more than just passing through, but also seeking out the various elements; so it's not just about where you go, but what you do while you're there.
posted by mattpfeff at 8:00 PM on December 14, 2003

Go wherever you want, but I demand you take a Waffle House roadtrip. And I want you to blog about each Waffle House you stop at. I can only imagine that it would be the greatest literary work ever produced. Who agrees with me?
posted by Stan Chin at 8:01 PM on December 14, 2003

Errr... all of which is to say that any one route that you could possibly do will be some sort of unholy compromise.

I'd agree with Hidalgo, sort of. Make a list of the iconic things you want to see or experience, and plan a route around that. Figure out which things you need to see together and which you can leave to another trip(s). Or plan a trip together along a southern/northern/central route with the understanding that you'll come back in 3 years to do another one.

The list of things you can't miss is enormous, and unachievable. It's hard to catch New Orleans and Yellowstone in the same trip, and probably not worth trying.

One serious thing -- if you're planning to hit national parks and the like on your way across, try very hard to make your trip absolutely as early in summer (or late spring) as you can. If you wait until kids are out of school here (early June usually), you're going to easily double or triple the crowds.

If you had to rank order things, how would you place:
*Natural wonders
*Great cities
*Historic sites
*Regional cuisine
*Other (specify!!!)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:02 PM on December 14, 2003

New Orleans and Louisiana Bayou country (use Chuq's Gumbo Pages - a site that a foodie like you oughta visit anyway)... Maine and Vermont... the American Southwest - New Mexico and Arizona perhaps.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:12 PM on December 14, 2003

The sad thing about this question is how much of America's regional differences have been lost in the last 30 years, since you first conceived the idea of this trip. No matter where you go, what route you take, my advice is simply: Stop putting this off. Go. GO!

And don't skip the south.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:13 PM on December 14, 2003

Response by poster: Boy, but you people really are hospitable and generous. I don't mean Mefi members; I mean Americans. I wish we Europeans could be as welcoming.

I'm drooling here - thanks so much! My feeling is that, in less than a year's time, I'll be boring you all with my misjudged and inappropriate findings.

This is going to happen thanks to you - thanks! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:19 PM on December 14, 2003

hi miguel, i'll send a few route 66 buttons with your mefi ones tomorrow. how's that for an enticement?
posted by azul at 8:28 PM on December 14, 2003

Just make the West Coast along the 101 part of your itinerary, Migs ... I've got a bottle of wine or six and a good dinner at a local eatery with your name(s) on them
posted by WolfDaddy at 8:30 PM on December 14, 2003

I've got to recommend that you see the Great Plains. I lived in Nebraska for three years, and it's amazing to me how the landscape got completely and utterly under my skin--the great huge sky, plains that roll on endlessly... I've lived in a lot of places, but mostly cities, so it's really unusual that such a landscape would affect me so deeply.

The homestead movement in the U.S. was such an integral part to the settling of the West (by white people, the Native Americans were already there, of course, and that is a bloody and terrible chapter in our history) that it would be a shame to bypass it, IMO. The site of the first homestead is near Beatrice, Nebraska, and they have 100 acres of restored tallgrass prairie, and oh, is it ever gorgeous. And Nebraskans are *nice* people. Even the ones whose politics and personal beliefs I find to be utterly reprehensible are usually nice.

I find myself looking for echoes of Nebraska here on the East Coast, and they're few and far between.
posted by eilatan at 8:38 PM on December 14, 2003

You should check out local festivals... if you pick the month you decide to go, you could use this site to fine-tune where you would like to visit that's a little off the beaten path. IMO, local festivals are about as American as you can get, and they are fun as hell.
posted by gatorae at 8:39 PM on December 14, 2003

I second the Waffle House idea - though I don't know that you need to blog 'em, or even do more than one. You must, however, eat at one Waffle House, at least.

In picking your route, stay away from Interstate 81. In my years of interstate driving in many states (and sampling 81 in five different states) I have bestowed upon it the title of America's Worst Highway. There, that should help you narrow it down...
posted by soyjoy at 8:56 PM on December 14, 2003

That's more than 30 years ago

posted by quonsar at 9:25 PM on December 14, 2003

New Orleans and Louisiana Bayou country (use Chuq's Gumbo Pages - a site that a foodie like you oughta visit anyway)... Maine and Vermont... the American Southwest - New Mexico and Arizona perhaps.

New Orleans for sure is loads of fun. Bourbon, cray fish, beignets, and above-ground cemetaries, what's not to like?
posted by juv3nal at 9:27 PM on December 14, 2003

Check out the US National Park Service site (for some reason not loading for me at the moment). They have a lot of great info online, including PDFs of park brochures, and also a reservation system for camp sites, if you're planning on camping. Regarding camping, when you get to the Rockies and west, one huge difference you'll find between Europe and the US is that in the US large tracts of amazing scenery are easily accessible. You can camp in national parks, which offer basic but clean and well-maintained facilities, and also national forests, which have camp sites but also allow free camping off any forest road, as well as state and city parks. And here, camping means you drive to your tent site and just haul all your gear out of the car, cook on the grills provided and watch the sunset, or drive into local towns for eating places.

If you're planning on going through New Mexico, and like mysterious ruins, plus camping in the desert, plus driving on miles of dirt roads, I'd recommend Chaco Canyon (another NPS link, also seems temporarily broken).
posted by carter at 9:43 PM on December 14, 2003

You should definitely check out The House on the Rock, so few things are quite so American as The House on the Rock, which kind of explains why it figures prominently into the book American Gods.
posted by drezdn at 10:53 PM on December 14, 2003

You just have to go to Yellowstone. I swear to god, every tourist in the world goes there, but there's a reason for that.

And if you do, there's a little trail to the right of Old Faithful, and it has my favorite geyser in the world. It's called Anenome, I believe, and it goes about every 11 minutes or so. It's about four feet from the path, and you can sit on the side of the path, and just watch it go off at your feet. It gave me the best idea of what really *happens when a geyser goes off, and it's short and quick so you don't have to wait for hours like you do for most geysers.

And see Thermopolis in Wyoming. They have swimming pools that are filled with water from hot springs. I can't remember if Yellowstone has those.
posted by stoneegg21 at 12:35 AM on December 15, 2003

It does depend on what kinds of things draw you. I know some Europeans who dream about the open spaces of the West and Mid-west and for them I'd suggest the national parks and deserts others have mentioned.

However, if you are more of a city person, I'd say:

1) Dont miss Manhattan. They consider themselves at the center of the Universe and it helps to understand why.

2) San Francisco is not only an amazing, beautiful city (admitted bias) but you can also knock off Napa Wine country, Pacific Ocean, and Redwood Forests in the same area.

3) LA has some very interesting bits but its hard to see them on a short visit because the city is so spread out so I'd recommend skipping it.

4) New Orleans and Boston and DC and Atlanta get points for having interesting cultures that are also distinct from the big 3 above and have their own attractions.
posted by vacapinta at 12:52 AM on December 15, 2003

Roadside Elvis and Roadside Hollywood can be found in used book stores, and there are many such books documenting the moments of celluloid fame of ordinary places.
posted by planetkyoto at 1:28 AM on December 15, 2003

Grand Canyon --> Southern Utah National Parks --> Las Vegas --> LA. If you're a European, you've never seen anything like it. Worth a one-month trip all by itself. And if you haven't spent 2 days in Vegas, you haven't really seen America. 3 would be too much.

Be careful: if you're used to the Old Continent, you've got no sense of how vast the distances can be. People drive slower as well -- figure 110km/hour max on open road. It's easy to schedule 10 hours of driving a day every day and still not have enough time to get where you're going.
posted by fuzz at 3:27 AM on December 15, 2003

Response by poster: Hey, thanks again, everybody! I love the way all the suggestions can actually be fitted in to an actual travel plan!

Dear vacapinta: here's a linguistic detail I'm sure you'll find fascinating. With bad, Latin grammar I wrote "All we know is New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco", meaning that these are the only places in the U.S. we know well. It comes from the confusion, when translated, between "conhecer" (to know of) and "saber" (to know).

But now, reading your kind and wise reply, I see that my clumsy sentence means, to someone in America, "these are the places we'd absolutely like to visit; that we're sure we must go to." Isn't that interesting?

I agree completely about LA - once is enough. Manhattan, no matter how often you go, is never enough. It truly is the capital of Europe and the world. :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:38 AM on December 15, 2003

While I love my hometown (Manhattan) like no other, Southern California (i.e. Los Angeles) does have Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Sequoia National Parks within a few hours' drive. These are some of the most impressive national parks I have ever been to (and I've probably been to over 20 NPS parks as well as having spent 6 months in Chilean Patagonia.)

The American Southwest is such an awe-inspiring place at the macro scale. At the micro scale, it is often sad as it is one of the poorer regions of the nation with an associated depressing history.
posted by gen at 4:01 AM on December 15, 2003

Plan your route around the regional differences of chili and decent barbecue.

A decent mustard-based Carolina barbecue vs. Texas style will make you mad and the beans vs no beans chili debate alone will show how finicky we'uns can get about that kinda stuff.

Seriously, plan your trip around local food both prepared and grown and I can't think of a better way to see our huge honking land. Every sector of every state has their culinary angle that they are proud of. And people love to talk about local eats.
posted by Dagobert at 4:54 AM on December 15, 2003

Response by poster: Dagobert; hey, how have you got a window into my heart?

Oh gen, in Joshua Park, in this great big rented Cadillac Eldorado with perfect "cruise control", with the U2 album playing on the deck and our bellies full of king-sized margaritas made with Centenario tequila in the wonderfully Sinatrafied Palm Springs (accompanied by a ticket for parking in front of a fire hydrant, paid in what has to be the most luxurious and spacious police station in the world) I realized why America was the modern promised land. Nobody else was there and we had it all to ourselves, every single inch and ray of sunshine, even though it was a beautiful Spring afternoon...

Europe is so over-crowded and predictable; so smelly and cramped; so burdened with tradition and culture; so damn meritorious and boring (it's like one of those tasks you get when you're a cub scout), that America is like being able to breath again. Brazil isn't like the U.S. - it's Portuguese and African. Lazy and sexy, but old.

Ah, wilderness!

(please excuse this romantic interlude!)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:56 AM on December 15, 2003

I agree that a month isn't nearly long enough to see everything. Your choices are to do a "whirlwind" tour - an entire cross country trip - which would mean constant driving - or limiting yourself to one or two areas of the country. Frankly if I were you, I'd do this trip three times - once for the east coast, once for the plains and deep south, and once for the west coast and mountains. Throw in a fourth and fifth trip for western Canada and the Maritimes.

Your required reading list is anything by William Least Heat Moon. Start with Blue Highways and finish with PrairyErth (which will stomp all over the traditional view that you can skip over the middle of the country without really missing anything.) Steinbeck's Travels With Charley is nearly fifty years old, so the country looks a lot more rural to him than it will to you, but it's a great book.

For the most part, I agree that "natural beauty" and "American culture" are largely geographically separate. A national park tour will skip all the small towns and historic places that are so crucial to understanding this country. Conversely, the opposite is a disservice as well. You haven't really seen America until you have seen the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, hiked some of the Appalachian Trail, etc.

So break it down for us Migs - knowing you can't do it all in a month, what do you want to see? What would make you come back and see the rest?
posted by PrinceValium at 5:14 AM on December 15, 2003

You need a unifying theme to hang your itinerary on. Food, history, literature/film...pick something, and then ask the question again. Fun discussion but I'm dying for it to be focused!
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:42 AM on December 15, 2003

If you want to mooch, you are welcome to stay at my place. However, that means you will have to visit SW Florida, which I can't really recommend.
posted by piskycritter at 6:23 AM on December 15, 2003

Recommended: New Orleans (esp. the French Quarter), Tucson and surrounds (Saguaro National Forest, etc., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, etc.), Grand Canyon, Las Vegas.
posted by rushmc at 6:46 AM on December 15, 2003

I will have to second that, piskycritter. SW Florida (where I also live) is a vast wasteland of homogenity.
posted by contessa at 6:46 AM on December 15, 2003

Be careful: if you're used to the Old Continent, you've got no sense of how vast the distances can be. People drive slower as well -- figure 110km/hour max on open road.

Distances can be a surprise; I'd take a semi-final plan and run it by an American or Canadian... if they smirk and laugh, replan it.

While speeds are almost certainly slower than Europe, 110km/h is low. In most of the US, speed limits on most highways will be 70mph or 65. In both cases, keeping your speed to less than 10mph over the limit will keep your odds of getting a ticket reasonable, and running along at 120km/h won't normally raise an eyebrow.

Plan your route around the regional differences of chili and decent barbecue.

A decent mustard-based Carolina barbecue vs. Texas style will make you mad

That's a SOUTH Carolina style. Proper (north) Carolina BBQ uses a vinegar-based sauce. At least east of the mountains, it does; I'm told that heathens in the mountains add tomato to the sauce like they were from Memphis or something. (You might also see NC-style called Lexington style)

Recommended: Allen & Son's in Chapel Hill/Pittsboro or A&M in nearby Mebane, or King's in Winston-Salem (?). Bullock's in Durham is good but overrated and crowded. I'm sure Konolia could recommend somewhere good in Fayetteville where you'd be relatively unlikely to be shot or beat up by jarheads (I kid, I kid).

And make sure you get a nice basket of hush puppies.

And Texas... if it ain't pig, it ain't Q. Grilled beef brisket is very tasty, but it's not barbecue.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:06 AM on December 15, 2003

I second all the comments on distances ... if you plan to cover a lot of places in a month, watch out you don't gradually become car bound (as I did on a road trip), spending most time driving and only getting out to look at whatever you want to look at, or to get gas/petrol/food, or to pee. And while highway speeds *are* higher here, then you're on the highways, which bypass all the towns and probably a lot of the 'local culture' you want to see. If you drive off highway, figure driving oooh, I don't know, 45-50 average (includes stops, slow roads, junctions, etc.).

And maybe check out Bill Bryson's "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America."
posted by carter at 7:21 AM on December 15, 2003

An utterly unrealistic list of place to see:

New Orleans, the South (Atlanta is interesting for the King Center, but there's so much sheer atmosphere stuff in the small towns -- try Oxford, Mississippi or Chapel Hill, North Carolina (or a host of other ones I can recommend)), Yosemite and Glacier parks, DC (but more than monuments and museums, although those are great. Try going to Ben's Chili Bowl at two in the morning or wandering through Georgetown), Texas (including places like San Antonio and places like New Braunfels), the Grand Canyon (seems cheesy, but absolutely required. Breathtaking.), Miami and at least some of the Keys, the Painted Desert, Mesa Verde, the Finger Lakes, the Blue Ridge Parkway, et cetera, et cetera.

And most definitely Chicago. LA is its own odd dimension, New York looks, feels, and acts like the capital of the world, but Chicago feels the most American of the American cities. Wander around the Loop, the lakeshore, River North, Hyde Park, and Pilsen. Take the Chicago Architecture Foundation's boat tour. Visit both Pizzeria Due and the Art Institute, both the Berghoff and the Reliance Building. It's a wonderful town.

Vegas seems quintessentially American, though I've never been there. Just an impression I have.

And you know you have to look up some folks when you get to New York, right?

and damn, ROU -- you made me miss Allen & Son. Love it, love it, LOVE it. I like Bullock's, too, and King's (yes, Winston-Salem), but Allen & Son is the best. If you'll permit a self-link...
posted by Vidiot at 7:21 AM on December 15, 2003

If you promise not to do three point turns in the middle of the highway in your motorhome, you can stay at my place in Central Vermont during the peak of the foliage season [late september, early october]. I've driven through every continental United State and I agree with what most people have said which is choose some thing or things you want to do or see, admit that it will be arbitrary, and then try to plan the trip around that. You won't be able to see it all but you may be able to get some sort of completion of your idea out of it. A few choices you will need to make are:

* speed versus scenery
* staying in one place for a while versus seeing many places
* staying with people you know versus staying in hotels
* local cuisine versus feeding eight people easily [sometimes]
* urban versus nature [a motorhome might be a bitch to park in the city, it's a hotel on wheels here in the country]

Some of these are false dichotomies if you have enough time. However deciding if you want to, say, spend a week at the Grand Canyon versus seeing as many states as possible should be an early decision.

If it were my trip in a foreign country where I knew a lot of people, I think I would figure out what interesting landmarks were near people I knew, see the landmarks, stay with the people [or near them] and plan my other trip in sort of concentric circles around those places. In general, there's no substitute for local information/experience.
posted by jessamyn at 7:22 AM on December 15, 2003

A second for carter's Bill Bryson suggestion, by the way. Also re-read your Steinbeck before the trip.
posted by Vidiot at 7:23 AM on December 15, 2003

Miguel, how old are the kids? If they're in their teens, and thus a bit more independent, there are a lot more places you can visit and *enjoy* (instead of worrying about munchkins).

I'm gonna have to agree on the distances thing - it's *possible* to make it from New Hampshire to St. Louis (where I am; you're welcome to visit) in 22 hours and then out to LA in another 32, but that's only stopping for gas, doing 80 MPH, peeing in a bottle, not enjoying any scenery. Just to give you a rough idea of the distances.

Read Least-Heat moon, like PrinceValium said, above.
posted by notsnot at 8:21 AM on December 15, 2003

If you do hit Chicago, head North to Green Bay, Wisconsin for a visit to Lambeau field. You'll miss a football game and tailgate, but you'll get an understanding of small town USA. Boston is a must too for all of its history. Is this, go to all lower 48 states or just coast to coast with some states in between?
posted by brent at 8:27 AM on December 15, 2003


If it's a chili trip you are looking for than you MUST come to Cincinnati. We have 131 Chili parlors in the Greater Cincinnati Area. The 2 biggest are Skyline Chili and Goldstar Chili, but there are also a number of small ones that are the true treats of the area.

You can also have great ribs, pizza, ice cream, and baked goods while here.
posted by Mick at 10:18 AM on December 15, 2003

I will have to second that, piskycritter. SW Florida (where I also live) is a vast wasteland of homogeneity.

That's especially true for the urban landscape. However, the rural and wild areas of Florida have subtle charm and appeal. However, it is usually only the birdwatcher or marine biologist that appreciates this aspect. Most folks don't seem to have the patience.
posted by piskycritter at 10:58 AM on December 15, 2003

Speaking as a not-born-here-but-lived-since-pre-school-age-Californian, I hope you would not leave Southern Cal out of your itinerary; if you're going to do both Vegas and San Fran, hit L.A. inbetween, then do the West Coastal route (101 or Route 1 via San Simeon and Big Sur if it's functional). If you're going to hit a Disney-style tourist park, do the original: Disneyland. If you want a touch of Hollywood, see Burbank (there are low-profile studio tours at WB and NBC), and prepare for a Wendell-hosted event that will be covered by 'Entertainment Tonight'.
posted by wendell at 10:59 AM on December 15, 2003

A day spent driving down the Pacific Coast Highway from SF to LA, preferably in a convertible, is a day well spent.
posted by kindall at 11:01 AM on December 15, 2003

Actually, kindall, I prefer doing the drive from South to North... Why do you hate California so much?!? oops.... sorry.

I've actually grown fairly blase' about the L.A. area (not many local landmarks I'm really interested in seeing myself...), but the Central Coast from WolfDaddy's neighborhood northward is where I wish I were spending the rest of my life (I'd even take an Accounting job in Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo). A convertible would be a plus, but it's still good in a motor home (and if you make it two days, there are some beautiful places to park/camp).

As for my own travelling wish-list, I had a radio job 25 years ago last summer that got me included in a big station publicity stunt that sent me and a dozen others to London for 72 hours. Considering I spent most of that time overcoming terminal jet lag and trying to record interviews with officials at Wimbledon and Lloyds of London, I've always wanted to go back there for real someday...

But then, that should be an AskMe topic by itself.
posted by wendell at 11:28 AM on December 15, 2003

The great thing about the US (as everyone else has mentioned) is that it is at least 100 different countries uneasily coexisting. Anywhere you go, you will find something impossibly interesting and different -- as long as you have the right guide.

Why not make a list of MeFites who will show you around their respective areas, and base your trip off of that?
posted by Ptrin at 12:22 PM on December 15, 2003

I've thought for years that a great American road trip would be to drive Highway 50 from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or vice versa. It runs 3,073 miles from Sacramento, California (just east of San Francisco) to Ocean City, Maryland (east of Washington D.C.). Sacramento isn't actually on the Pacific, so you'd have to tack on a couple hours on I-80 on the western end, but 80 intersects 50 in Sacramento so aside from that one junction you can do the whole trip on one stretch of blacktop. It was the first transcontinental highway in the U.S., built on the Pony Express route and the Santa Fe Trail, and it is the last coast-to-coast road that has not been assimilated into the interstate system. It's been called the "Loneliest Road in America", and it's a great way to see just how big, open, and wild the American West really is. I've driven the western section in California and Nevada, and it's an impressive trip.

Another great western long-haul highway is 101, which follows the Pacific coast. It begins about 2-3 hours west of Seattle in Aberdeen. From there it's a long, slow wind through friendly coastal small towns, along steep cliffs, around bays and rivermouths, down the coast through San Francisco to Los Angeles. I'm particularly fond of the section along the northern California coast near Eureka, and the SoCal stretch from Malibu up to Santa Barbara.

Places which are, in my opinion, best avoided:
- a big chunk of southeast Colorado/west Oklahoma/north Texas, the flattest, deadest, emptiest, most depressing chunk of metal-sky nowhere you have ever seen in your life.

- California's Central Valley - again, it's wide, flat, hot, and depressing, and was settled so recently that even the small towns are mostly strip malls and tract-house subdivisions.

- Florida.

- Los Angeles, unless you have to; it embodies everything I dislike about American cities.

On preview: Ptrin, that's a good idea. What fun it would be to tour a giant new country with dozens of people all over the place ready to show you all the good stuff!
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:34 PM on December 15, 2003

Visit a reservation. My father worked on many job sites in the Navajo reservation, and whenever I went to visit him, there were always tourists around enjoying themselves, checking out the pueblos, culture and scenery.
posted by whatnot at 12:38 PM on December 15, 2003

Two years ago, my wife (French born) and I reacquainted ourselves with America. We drove across country in a VW camper -- a southerly "smile" route from VA to CA and back as far south as San Antonio. We logged 8327 miles, averaging 181/day although we did not drive everyday.

We followed our sense more than anything else.

Favorite discoveries: Bisbee, AZ and Marfa, TX (not actually a discovery since I've wanted to visit Marfa for some time).

Ugliest stretch of road: I-66 between St. James and Lebanon, MO. (Of our total mileage, we drove only 179 on the interstate. In some places, like southern CA, it is hard to avoid.)

Don't miss cities in the south (which are unique not only to America but europe as well): New Orleans and San Antonio.

The trip was more about seeing America from the road than seeing "sites" although we did catch many highlights: Zion, Grand Canyon, Death Valley among many.

Nothing beats wandering. Most memorable moment: "finding" a round barn on some back-country Kansas road which was, happily, unlocked. Only to discover that within the hour it was to be the site of a Bible meeting and we could not escape without some literature of salvation a good words from the Lordâ„¢.

That is America.

One more thing that is sometimes shocking for a european. The weather comes in extremes. Always.
posted by Dick Paris at 12:55 PM on December 15, 2003

You should spend a bit of time in New Mexico. Check out Los Alamos if you like - other than the science museum it's kind of a boring town, but I'd be more than willing to show you around the rest of the state from here! Santa Fe is like nowhere else in the country, especially if you like Southwestern kitsch and/or art. Be sure to get a drink at the Cowgirl bar while you're there. If/when you get sick of how insincere Santa Fe seems, drive south along I-25 to Albuquerque, and get a taco or two at Sadie's restaurant. Then go further on South to smaller towns like Socorro (my college town, check out the lovely campus and be sure to get a plate of green chile cheese-fries at the El Camino!), Deming (maybe for the duck races?), San Antonio (Oppenheimer once ate at the Owl Bar, and you can, too), the Very Large Array, White Sands, etc. This state has a ton of great hiking/camping/whatever spots, too. If you're going to do Texas, you owe it to yourself to see a little of New Mexico, too - NM is right next to Texas, but we've got a different local cuisine and culture. Green chile alone is worth the trip!
posted by vorfeed at 1:58 PM on December 15, 2003

Speaking of camping, if you're doing that thing -- even in a motor home -- gravitate to state park campgrounds. Such a great resource I almost hate to suggest them.
posted by Dick Paris at 2:15 PM on December 15, 2003

we drove only 179 [miles] on the interstate

Err. 1479.
posted by Dick Paris at 2:17 PM on December 15, 2003

Response by poster: I can truthfully say I don't remember ever being this excited about a trip - thanks so much for making an interesting country even more interesting. I feel like a virgin - great feeling!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:54 PM on December 15, 2003

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