The American Road Trip: Then and Now

When I was a kid, my parents took my brother and I on road trips out West. This year, Mindy and I revived those Western adventures. It was an amazing time; in fact, I haven’t been able to get that trip out of my mind.

In one sense, the trips were a natural extension of life for us. We frequently hike at Oak Openings Preserve (near us in Northwest Ohio) and at Cuyahoga Valley National Park (just outside of Cleveland). We cycle Rails to Trails across Ohio and Michigan. Yet, in all the years we’ve been together, we’ve not done a road trip like this (see Mindy’s “A Good Day’s Hike: A Review of Robert Moor’s On Trails“).

But after watching Ken Burns’ PBS special “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” last year, we knew that we needed to make our way West and hike some trails in the National Park Service. For me, this trip meant not only introducing a few childhood favorites to Mindy, but also venturing into new territory for both of us.

A lot has changed since my early family trips.

Mesa Verde National Park (Photo: Brandon Withrow)
Mesa Verde National Park (Photo: Brandon Withrow, 2017)

When I was a kid, my father prepped our far-from-perfect family van by yanking out the far back seat and converted the space into a bed—it was the 80s and seat belts were still optional. The van sometimes over heated, so he made sure a gallon of water was readily available for the 100 degree drives in the desert. (He was raised on westerns and rugged individualism—so he also had plenty of confidence.)

The Grand Canyon (Photo: Brandon Withrow, 2017)

I was little kid and I passed our travels lounging, reading, and listening to mixtapes that I prepared for my Walkman (yes, a Walkman). I watched the great American West pass above my head for seven thousand miles. I observed the land grow higher and the trees shorter. I was without responsibility and even blissfully unaware that our two-tank van was almost out of fuel until we, fortunately, found a gas station at the census designated town of Mexican Hat, Utah: population 31.

Zion National Park (Photo: Brandon Withrow, 2017)

Today, however, I put my faith in an array of travel apps, Google Maps, AAA, and a new SUV with less than 15,000 miles on it. (Remarkably, I never lost a GPS signal the whole trip.)

As I did when I was a kid, I lined up my playlists, songs for every terrain and a wide selection of NPR podcasts.

In my mid-teenage years, our family trips moved from tents and crank-ups into the world of trailers. One year, my father bought an unused and foreclosed twenty-four foot trailer-camper. This provided a bit more luxury, like air conditioning.

Our family trips were usually guaranteed to run into problems. I went to the hospital one year for poison oak—I ventured off from our campsite to climb a mountain covered in it. Another year the crank up lost a tire while driving, and once a repair required a money wire to get us home.

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park (Photo: Brandon Withrow, 2017)

Today, Mindy and I loaded up on travel insurance, water, and the right gear. (I bought IVY block this time around for certain trails.) We intended to spend most of our daylight hours outdoors and hiking—frequently in temps around 100 degrees. For the first time, we tried out “glamping”—also known as cheating at camping—in the desert of Moab at Under Canvas, where we went to bed and awoke with amazing views of the sun.

Regardless of the differences, we found our escape; we discovered places that demanded our reverence and silence. We found our curiosity about the world rewarded by answers and yet even more questions to pursue.

We did it by road-tripping across 11 states, 4,600 miles, and 7 national parks and recreation areas in 15 days. There is little doubt in our minds about the benefits of preserving the treasures of public lands in the United States. They aren’t places to be spoiled and consumed by industry. They need to be protected from those whose oversight is clouded by special interests (see my post, “How a Great American Road Trip Shows the Need to Protect Our National Parks and Monuments.”).

And to keep the family tradition going, we’re already planning the next one. That trip can’t arrive fast enough.

Trying “Glamping” at Under Canvas in Moab. Photo credit: Brandon Withrow

Photo credit: “Passport Cancellations” | Brandon Withrow