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On the road again…Thank you Willie Nelson!

Published on: June 5, 2013

Part of historic downtown Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Part of historic downtown Natchitoches, Louisiana.

By WARREN RESEN – North American Travel Writers Association
Photos by Jeanne O’Connor

In 2012 we did a two month road trip from South Florida to Yellowstone National Park, WY with many side trips. This year we have expanded the road trip to three months from West Palm Beach, FL to California with lots of stops coming and going.

After years of foreign travel, viewing endless stained glass windows in now forgotten churches, touring parts of this great country last year whetted our appetites to experience more of the majesty and diversity here at home. As Dorothy said in the Wizard of OZ, “There’s no place like home.” The USA is so large and diverse that in many areas of the world, each section of this country could be considered a separate country.

The odyssey starts when a Floridian heads west to the Florida/Alabama border. An extreme example is driving from Key West to Pensacola, a distance of 834 miles. That’s more than half the distance from my home in West Palm Beach to New York City. The same trip from Jacksonville is a mere 357 miles. At an average of 50 mph that’s still about seven hours on the road just to leave the state.

The Interstate system was started under President Eisenhower for national defense, getting men and material where needed as quickly as possible. It quickly changed the way of life for Americans, making us the most mobile nation in the world and fueled Detroit‘s engines.

The Interstates generally went in straight lines bypassing many smaller cities and towns and draining the economic life from them while allowing others to grow and flourish. It was also the birth of the glazed eye driver with kids in the back seat whining, “Are we there yet?”

Yet today’s drivers, possessing the ubiquitous navigation devices built in or portable, have the option of fearlessly leaving the comfort zone of the concrete ribbon and boldly going where previously they wouldn’t dare.

On the Interstates, signs for Historic Districts come quickly telling you to get off the next exit to visit Historic Downtown (wherever). Some historic downtowns are feeble attempts to recreate by-gone times and bring a little economic benefit to towns by-passed by the Interstate. But then there are the gems.

In the middle of Louisiana on I-49, the sign announced Historic NATCHITOCHES (same degree of difficulty in pronouncing as Caloosahatchee) “Oldest Town in Louisiana, established in 1714.” It was worth a look.

As we know though, Florida can boast of St. Augustine the oldest continuously occupied European city in the USA. Founded in 1565 it is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its founding this year. The detour though was definitely worthwhile.

On the banks of the Cane River, block after block of historic houses and mercantile buildings line the streets. Brick buildings with second story iron balconies, festooned with flags and pots of flowering plants remind you of the New Orleans French Quarter.

Charming restaurants and shops make strolling the main street a delightful break from the hurry of the nearby Interstate. Several universities are in the city limits including a campus of LSU.

A late breakfast in one of the restaurants, a short stroll, some picture taking and then following our GPS, we were back on the road heading for points west. Natchitoches is where much of the movie Steel Magnolias was filmed. There are other gems like this to be discovered on your road trips but you have to do some research to find them

Stops at fast food chain restaurants are understandable and frequently unavoidable with their no-need to read menus, cheap foods, quick in-and-out service and Wi-fi. But do pick some special stops for evening meals that feature local foods, culture and sometimes regional music. You will always remember that stop, not a national fast food pit stop.

On long road trips we try to economize as much as possible, looking for the least expensive accommodations, taking food with us, tailgating, and eating in our room. We have even slept in our car in motel parking lots or in Truck Stops, using the available showers.

Unless your travels include extended stays in campgrounds, renting an RV can be an expensive luxury. Costs include rental fees, gas, insurance, campground fees, extras for items not included in the base rental price, drop-off fee, etc. We discovered it was much more economical for us to drive our own car. But then we are two adults with no kids to take along on trips.

Billboards announcing the upcoming trading post, outlet mall or other such diversion stretch for miles along the Interstates. They are the top time and money wasters for travelers.

Having conducted an unscientific study, we found that the more billboards there are announcing the upcoming destination, the more “touristy” the stop will be.

These stops can be an interesting diversion with their offerings of trinkets and trading beads made in foreign countries. Their specialty restaurants feature everyday foods but with exotic local names. When trying to cover miles, these stops can seriously cut into your travel planning and make for unplanned expenses.

Do pick up the hotel/motel booklets at fast food restaurants and welcome centers. There are many money saving opportunities for overnight stays.

On this trip after an exceedingly long tiring drive through the high desert of New Mexico, we stayed overnight at an old, barely adequate motel. It had hot water as long as someone on the line didn’t turn on their faucet at the same time. The hook for us was the sign listing a night’s stay at just $35. Last year we stayed at a one room KOA cabin in Alabama, without running water, for double the price.

An odd practice I discovered — it was odd to me anyway — was in the Texas Panhandle. Some gas stations offer TWO types of regular gas at the same pump. One hose pumped regular with 10% Ethanol and another dispensed the old kind without Ethanol for 20¢ more per gallon. You learn amazing things when traveling, some of them even helpful.

After the long drive from South Florida it was almost time to pull into our first real stop, the Bishop’s Lodge Resort & Spa in Santa Fe, NM. This will be the subject of another article in this second generation of the “See the USA” series.