I’m just back from the road trip that I mentioned R and I were planning when I first started this series of travel posts. I’m not sure how accurate it is to term it an East Coast adventure now, as we didn’t drive to Nashville from DC via Kentucky as we had originally thought we might – it turned out that R had to work the Friday and I had to be back for Tuesday evening. But we did at least drive eastwards from Nashville to the coast and back to DC, so maybe it still fits here.
We some amazing experiences. We heard live country music in Nashville, experienced the Southern Mount Rushmore, and swam in the ocean off South Carolina. The food was excellent too – we ate a lot of chicken (you really can eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you want…) and some seriously authentic South Carolina barbecue.
I’ll cover each of our destinations separately, but I thought it would be helpful to give a bit of an overview of our trip and what we learnt about American road trips – especially short ones. So here are eight things I learnt:
1. America is big.
Only in America, I thought, would the GPS system’s instruction to ‘continue for 134 miles’ sound reasonable, normal, run-of-the-mill even. The main thing I took away from this trip was a greater appreciation for just how huge the US is. Driving from Nashville to Atlanta, Atlanta towards Charleston, and from just south of Myrtle Beach back to DC totaled up to over 1000 miles. This area looked far smaller on the map! I think I was partly misled by the fact that Sherman’s army marched a route a little like ours from Atlanta – I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to cover those distances on foot.
2. Driving takes a long time (and)
3. It’s difficult to have a great time in cities when you only have a short amount of time
Following on from my first realization, I now understand how much time road trips require. It would certainly have been possible to drive from Atlanta to Charleston in a day, but we worked out that, on our schedule, we wouldn’t arrive there until 5pm and, as we had to be back in DC the next day, we would only have the evening to experience what I’m sure is a very interesting city. In the end we prioritized regional experiences over slap-dash attempts to ‘do’ cities in a couple of hours, and I’m thoroughly glad that we did. For a start, if you don’t know a city and have had to choose rather randomly where to stay, you can end up not having a great time and feeling like all the action is taking place somewhere else… This happened to us to a certain extent in the downtown areas of Nashville and Atlanta; luckily though, we had some time to find the fun in Nashville as we were there for two nights and I had done quite a bit of research. More on this soon.
4. Driving is boring
Especially on the interstate, which also requires high levels of concentration and can cause stress. Getting off the interstate is far more interesting, especially if you go through little towns, but even this gets old after 5 hours. Luckily we like country music and there were plenty of stations we could cycle through that were all playing the same songs – eventually we were able to sing along. Only in South Carolina did we have trouble finding country stations amongst all the religious channels… Next time I’m going to take my own CDs or invest in some kind of adapter so I can play MP3s off my phone.
5. The Interstate is anonymous
Bill Bryson bemoans this in Lost Continent – especially mourning the demise of Route 66:
It was only two lanes wide […] hopelessly inadequate for people in motor homes, and every fifty miles or so it would pass through a little town where you might encounter a stop sign or a traffic light […] So they buried it under the desert and built a new superhighway that shoots across the landscape like a four-lane laser and doesn’t stop for anything, even mountains.
Certainly, the interstate will get you from city to city quickly, but I think there’s a distinct possibility that if you traveled the whole of the States on just the interstate, you would get the impression that America was all the same, and that Americans only ate in chain burger and chicken joints. Some stretches are nice, tree-lined and cutting through farmland, but others are four lanes on each side, with those motor homes fighting lorries for the middle lanes, forcing others to undertake, and nothing else to look at except clustered billboards for McDonalds, Fairfield Inns, Taco Bell, etc.
We tried, where possible, to get off the interstate and really enjoyed taking those back roads through little towns. In Georgia we stopped at a traffic light in one of these towns and saw people sitting on rocking chairs outside the local store, and in South Carolina we stopped outside the old courthouse in Saluda to find some lunch. I’m sure that if it hadn’t been Memorial Day we would have found somewhere local to eat, but unfortunately everywhere apart from the gas-station branch of Subway was closed…
6. Navigating using only an iphone is high risk
Googlemaps is great. It has revolutionized travel for me. No matter where I am in the world I can use it to find my way around a city, find restaurant recommendations, and navigate a road trip. Where once I would have needed multiple road atlases, guide books and print outs, I now only need the iphone. However, at certain crucial points in the journey this system almost let me down. For example, in order to save battery I would close the app when we had over a certain number of miles on one road and switch it back on when I guessed we were getting close to a more complicated bit. All fine in theory, but often I’d switch on the phone and realize I had no reception. Even with two phones it was annoyingly often the case that one would have no signal, while the other one might have signal but would be almost out of battery. I think in future I’ll still use the iphone, but possibly bring some kind of hard-copy backup – and I’m definitely going to invest in an iphone charger like this one.
7. Use a good car
As with all things, you need the right tool for the job. If you attempt a road trip in a rental car, pay what you need to to get a car that you know and will be comfortable in. 1100 miles in a Chrysler 200 is not fun for either driver or passenger. Also, the higher price vehicles might be more likely to have USB ports for your phone and MP3 player…
8. Travel with someone you really like
The driver is at times going to get irritable, and the navigator is going to call out turns too late and be annoyed when the driver misses the exit. But if you know and like each other then you can usually find the right thing to say – a shared joke or a well-timed observation – to get you back on track. I really enjoyed even our longest drives together on this trip – even, in some strange way, the hellish drive back into DC, when the lorries were hogging the middle lane and the whole thing came to a standstill, and we had to come up with a contingency plan to return the rental car when six I clock came and went and our branch of Enterprise closed…
Anyway, we survived our first American road trip. We even survived our journey along the back roads of Georgia and South Carolina, where friends anticipated we might have tense exchanges with law enforcement officers starting with something like ‘You folks ain’t from around here…’. And while our road trip didn’t have the most romantic of returns, the fact that we’re willing to try it all again is perhaps proof of the strength of our marriage!
Read on: Southern Road Trip – Nashville
Read about the rest of our Southern Road Trip and our adventures with Southern food: