This year, it seems that I am indeed living my best life as a road trip journalist.
Or, at least that is how things are transpiring. It has been an extension of the things I love – driving and travel. Road tripping stokes the fire of discovery, curiosity, and adventure.
As I grow older, I still have that fire in my belly. I still am curious about places I’ve never been before or only scratched the surface. I still want to discover something new or a different angle on a destination. And, I’m always up for an adventure – within physical and emotional limits.
As I look back at my younger years, I found myself wanting to stretch out my experiences more. To discover things that I only read or heard about through conversations – a novel concept, considering that it was way before social media.
Looking back is a way to see where I've been. Not to mention the adventure of getting there – and being there.
I was that kid who sat in the back of the car wondering where we were going. My parents told my brother and I where we were going, but it is the recollection of how we were getting there was part of the fuel that kept the imagination fresh. Those long trips up US Highway 101 from Reseda to San Rafael were few and far between. Yet, they yielded some interesting results.
They also sparked debates about the mode of transportation between Southern and Northern California. Would I rather fly or drive? The drive soon became a flight as we were sent up north on our own. My mother became debilitated, so a visit to our father involved flying between Burbank Airport and San Francisco International Airport.
Once I started driving on my own, I truly began to fulfill my wanderlust. San Diego was a treat – either by flight or the drive down on Interstate 5. You don’t realize that it takes about three hours to get between Reseda and the San Diego Convention Center, but it was a stunted reality that prepared me for some of the driving I would do in the years ahead.
One San Diego drive lead to a series of drives in 1987 between Reseda and the Bay Area. My first drive was to collect my father’s things from his Marin County home. I stayed at what would become my home from June of that year for the next few years. It was also the first time I drove on Interstate 5 over the Grapevine and onward on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, over the Altamont Pass and across San Pablo Bay into San Rafael.
I accomplished this first epic drive in a rented 1987 Ford Taurus GL. Little did I know how much that car would shape this career of mine. The six-hour drive would become a routine in my Bay Area years.
There were times when I should have taken Interstate 5 instead of US-101. My relocation in a just-bought 1987 Nissan pickup truck was probably done because I did not equip it with air conditioning and my cargo in the box was not securely held down – at least the tarp flew off somewhere between King City and Salinas.
The other time I chose US-101 was in my 1991 Acura Integra to head to my brother’s wedding. It was a charming idea, but I keep on forgetting how much longer it took driving that route instead of the faster Interstate 5. I probably took that route for nostalgic reasons. Rather, to avoid the two passes altogether. The low-end performance of that Integra was not all that great.
There was one NorCal-SoCal drive that was quite memorable. It was in the mid-1990s (I cannot recall which year exactly) when I visited some old high school friends and family in the South Bay and in Orange County. Sadly, the family part did not go too well, but the rest of the time was absolutely terrific. It prepared me for an interesting time ahead.
In 1996, I did a couple of relocations by car. Packing everything I had in the trunk and back seat of some full-sized sedans up and down Interstate 5. These were moments that I should have regretted but deemed necessary for the wandering soul I was at the time.
On December 1, 1996, it was completely all change in my life. I relocated to the Washington, DC area. A change of scenery meant a major change in everything. The travel opportunities grew exponentially since I was presented to visit the places my history books only mentioned. We’re talking battlefields from wars past fought on this soil. Places where change began and eventually made their way to my home state of California. Places of power and importance. The places I wanted to experience first hand.
The routine was simple: head to a rental car place at National or Dulles Airport by Metro (or Washington Flyer bus), pick up the car and head somewhere. You can name those places like they were visited tomorrow – the Hampton Roads, Richmond, Virginia Tech, State College, Gettysburg, Philadelphia, the Eastern Shore, the Lehigh Valley…and so forth. The Mid-Atlantic Region was at my fingertips.
Were there any memorable ones during my time in the DC Area? There was one that involved a bird flying into the alloy wheel of a rented Oldsmobile Achieva near State College, Pennsylvania. The car was packed full of guys calling me a "bird killer" and so forth. It was laughable, indeed.
There was one such road trip that was done on a regular basis. A friend of mine up in Philadelphia was dealing with some tough times. We would chat, then I would end up taking a rental car up Interstate 95 into Center City, park at a garage, and meet my friend at the lobby of SEPTA's headquarters – the local public transportation agency. We would hang out and find our happiness. Those drives up to Philadelphia became my sanctuary from the stress of life and work down in DC.
One such road trip was a huge relocation. I decided that DC was about to head into some interesting times – friends were being laid off from their government contracts, a disputed election, and an unbeknownst threat from abroad. I loaded up a rented GMC Jimmy (the S-15 version) and headed to Madison, Wisconsin via Columbus, Ohio. It would be the longest drive I had ever undertaken – around 920 miles one-way.
Like DC, Madison opened up another region of the country for me. Chicago and the Twin Cities became regular stops. I began to tread into "flyover territory," such as Iowa and downstate Illinois. The road trips in the Midwest became fonder and memorable.
Part of my roots come from this part of the country. My mother was born in Chicago with her parents living in Beloit, Wisconsin. Every drive I took had some meaning, whether the visit was good or bad. These days, Chicago is an annual destination for business. I do take some time for myself to visit a few places, do some shopping, and just take in the city.
One such drive from Madison brought me deep into Illinois. I took a Mitsubishi Galant down into the heart of the state, spending the night in Springfield, the state's capital. That first day took me to the Quad Cities, then into Galesburg and Peoria before reaching Springfield by dark. My return drive brought me through Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, and into Chicago for one last night. It was a lot of driving, but well worth the getaway.
Of course, my final move to the Twin Cities also moved the compass to more undiscovered territories. Fargo, Sioux Falls, and Kansas City would soon be visited in my time here by road. It was just adding more context to the places I always wanted to visit.
I had some memorable drives in my time in Minnesota. After my layoff in 2009, I took a couple of them that would test my stamina on the road. One was a day trip to Sioux Falls, which took me up through Aberdeen, South Dakota and across Minnesota in a Buick LaCrosse. One particular stop was made in the town of Walnut Grove, where author Laura Ingalls Wilder spent her youth. The stories from those times appear in the pages of her "Little House on The Prairie" books, later becoming a television series.
Then, I spent some time in Fargo, before heading up to Grand Forks and across to Bemidji through the Brainerd Lakes in a Chevrolet Impala. Both trips showed me a lot of the state that I now called home.
I did another day trip to Sioux Falls in a GMC Sierra 1500 Denali, which was an interesting premise considering that I had the most expensive truck along the way. Of course, you read about my last Fargo trip in the Lexus ES 300h that yielded several articles across four outlets.
Lately, the stakes have been raised. With a column focused on road trips for its readership, I can interact with more people on the ground and experience the best a particular destination can provide a traveler.
Though I would have loved to have gone deeper into these specific road trips I mentioned – some already captured on this site, others date too far back to even recall in detail – there is a throughline seen through these experiences.
I love the experience of the open road. I love seeing new places along the way. As an older traveler, that spirit and quest for the open road continue today. Now, I am happy to share these experiences with you – on here and via social media.
The invitation remains open. You are welcome to come along for the ride.
All Photos by Randy Stern