Did somebody say “Road Trip”? I love road trips! It’s not just about the destination. The journey itself is part of the adventure as each trip brings the opportunity for new experiences. As co-host of Midlife Road Trip, one of the questions I am most often asked is, “What is your favorite road trip?” My standard answer is, “The next one!”
Trying to pick one favorite is almost impossible. So, here’s my top three in reverse order.
#3: The Mongol Rally was certainly the longest and most adventurous road trip I’ve ever been on. It was an incredible 9000 mile journey from London to Mongolia transversing two continents and fifteen countries. We visited places that even Rosetta Stone could’t pronounce. But little things like going days without showering, paying bribes at border crossings, dodging road craters in the Wholebunchastans, and having to poop in the desert without so much as a bush to crouch behind, kept the Mongol Rally from being my absolute favorite.
#2: Traveling a stretch of he Pacific Coast Highway from Dana Point, California to Sonoma’s wine country was probably the most fun road trip I’ve ever taken. The natural beauty of the California coast line was mesmerizing and the bucket list opportunities opportunities were countless. Some of the highlights were seeing blue whales off the coast of Orange County; learning to surf (sort of) in Surf City USA, cruising the Sunset Strip in Hollywood; sailing at Marina del Rey, people watching in Venice Beach, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, driving down Lombard street (the crookedest street in the world); getting lost in the redwood forest, and touring wineries. It was definitely a trip that we intend to make again. In spite of all we did, we just barely scratched the surface on all there is to do along that magnificent stretch of road.
#1. In 2012, we participated in Rand McNally/USA Today’s Best of the Road Rally from Washington, D.C to Seattle, Washington. Our assignment was to visit the six small towns that were voted as finalist for the designation of “Most Patriotic Small Town in America”, and report our findings back to a panel of judges. We didn’t know which towns we would be visiting until it was announced at a big send-off ceremony at the Air Force Memorial.
Once the towns were announced, we planned our route and headed north to our first destination, Watertown, New York. The town and surrounding areas are picture book gorgeous with hills, streams, parks and rivers. On the night of our arrival we were given a military escort into Fort Drum where we witnessed a moving Streamer Ceremony at a military ball. The following morning we interviewed locals at the Crystal Restaurant on the town square where we learned that Watertown is the birthplace the the Five & Dime, the safety pin, box springs car air fresheners! But most inspiring were the stories of how the community and the 10th Mountain Army Division based in Fort Drum support one another.
Heading south toward our next destination, we made a stop in the town of Mt. Airy, North Carolina. The town, Mayberry, of the Andy Griffith Show, was modeled after Mt. Airy. Today, it seems as Mt. Airy has morphed itself into Mayberry. On main street, we saw Floyd’s Barber Shop, Opie’s Candy store, Wally’s Service Station, The Mayberry Courthouse, and Emit’s Fix It Shop. And we couldn’t resist eating a pork chop sandwich at Snappy’s.
Our next official stop was Duluth, Georgia. Duluth sits on the continental divide and had an impressive display of flags and crosses throughout the town memorializing soldiers from the area dating back to the War of 1812. Outside the courthouse is a huge lawn with an amphitheater and dancing water fountain. We enjoyed some good ole southern comfort food inside a drug store at the Rexall Grill. Afterwards, we treated ourselves to dessert at Crave Pie Studio! It helped make up for having to eat lunch next to display of adult potty chairs.
As we continued our journey south, we made a little side trip to St. Augustine, Florida in search of the fountain of youth. If you’ve seen any pictures of me lately you’ll know that I didn’t find it.
DeLand, Florida was our next official stop. DeLand does a tremendous job of supporting Wounded Warriors by bring them in for skydiving, golf and a block party with live music and a beer truck named Beer Force One. It has a charming main street with lots of shops, boutiques and restaurants. We didn’t get to enjoy DeLand as much as we had hoped as Tropical Storm Sandy decided to visit the same time we were there.
Our next official stop was in Enterprise, Alabama. Enterprise is home to Fort Rucker, the world’s largest helicopter training facility. Right smack dab in the middle of the street in the heart of down-town Enterprise is a monument to a the boll weevil – a bug! Story has it that the boll weevil decimated the cotton crops so farmers started growing peanuts and became quite prosperous – thus the expression of gratitude to the boll weevil. While in Enterprise we got to participate in an antique car parade and we were treated to a performance at a community dinner theatre. Just outside of town we watched a movie at a drive-in movie theatre. It had been quite a while since we had done that.
From Enterprise, we headed to New Orleans where we shot a segment for Daytime TV recounting our journey. Of course we ate beignets and jambalaya before heading to our next destination.
Gainesville Texas is the official Medal of Honor Host City. Each year Gainesville hosts Congressional Medal of Honor recipients to honor them for their service. The people of Gainesville made us feel as though we were family. We were welcomed into homes, fed home cooked meals and were even treated to a flash mob one morning as we were leaving the house.
My favorite breakfast on the entire journey was from the Fried Pie Company just off the town square. It epitomized everything I imagined Texas to be with locals wearing cowboy hats and boots. About half way through breakfast I noticed that I was the only male in the restaurant who wasn’t carrying a gun. I mentioned that to our hostess and she said, “If the truth be told, most of the women in here are packing too.” I’ve never felt safer.
Spoiler alert: Gainesville was ultimately selected as the Most Patriotic Small Town in America. The panel of judges were impressed with how Gainesville defined patriotism as more than just honoring and caring for our military heroes, but also honoring and caring care of our neighbors as well.
Upon leaving Gainesville, we headed north through Oklahoma, which I think is the indian word for casino. Casinos were everywhere – even inside gas stations. We saw the beautiful amber waves of grain in Kansas. In Nebraska, we encountered one stop sign, one hail storm and not much else. In South Dakota, we took a detour to the Black Hills, the Badlands, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and the cheesy, but not to be missed Wall Drug Store. We stopped by the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis and shot another segment for Daytime TV in front of Mt. Rushmore.
The last town we were assigned to visit was Mandan, North Dakota. In spite of being a small town, it has one of the largest 4th of July celebrations in the nation. Unfortunately we weren’t there on the 4th but we still enjoyed a concert by Tommy Cash (Johnny’s brother), a helicopter ride to General Custer’s home, our first rodeo and an unforgettable horseback ride where I rode a horse up in the hills overlooking the town and the Missouri River. I can’t begin to describe how beautiful and peaceful it was. And except for a sore butt, I felt like a real cowboy.
On the way back to Seattle we stopped in Bozeman, Montana which is a historical town in the Gallatin Valley. After learning that Bozeman has some of the best fly fishing in the world and seeing a hot air balloons against the backdrop of snow capped mountains, we decided that Bozeman is a place we’ll definitely return to when we have more time.
I hoped to eat a baked potato in Idaho and cross that off my bucket list. Unfortunately we crossed the northern panhandle and didn’t see any restaurants that served baked potatoes, but I did eat some potato chips at a gas station.
After arriving in Seattle and presenting our findings to the panel, we couldn’t resist having a cup of coffee at the original Starbucks where we reflected on this incredible, five week, 7000 mile journey – the things we saw, things we experienced, things we learned and the people we encountered.
Though I have been on numerous road trips and visited tourist destinations all over the world, there was something about this trip and its focus on small towns that touched me, renewed my faith in humanity and changed the way I approach travel.
P.S. From the TCR team – don’t forget to pack some car air fresheners when planning a trip this long.
About the Author
Rick Griffin is the founder/creator and co-host of the Midlife Road Trip. After a life-threatening experience in 2004, Rick re-evaluated his priorities, sold his business and began to pursue his creative passions in travel, writing and video production. He also shares our love of bacon and wine :) Connect with Rick on Facebook and Twitter too.