We just got back from another road trip, this time through parts of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California. It was a fun and exciting adventure (posts forthcoming!). But it also got me wondering what the difference is between a real “road trip,” which is usually enjoyable, and a mere long and arduous drive, which is awful.

Ruins in St. Thomas, Nevada.

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There are a lot of things that make a road trip a road trip. For one thing, it has to be long enough to get into a groove. For me, that’s at least several hours and a few hundred miles. Exploring the southern coast of Iceland or the deserts of Southern California, for example, allowed us time settle in on the road.

A good road trip also ideally doesn’t involve a lot of backtracking.

And stopping often helps. Earlier this year when we explored the Oregon coast, we wandered much of the time, stopping at whatever seemed interesting and figuring out what we wanted to see as we went.

Which brings me to my thesis: Road tripping is a mind set, rather than a rigid set of criteria. On our recent trip, for example, we actually covered familiar areas that both Laura and I have traveled many times. In fact, it was a drive that in the past I’ve considered rather boring.

This time, however, we veered off the beaten path. Though our objective was to get from Utah to Los Angeles, we spent time exploring Hoover Dam, a ghost town, some ancient petroglyphs, and an art exhibit.

We ended up doing these things because we decided from the outset that we wanted to go on a “trip” rather than just get home. Indeed, we could have flown, but chose instead to drive specifically because we thought it’d be more of an adventure.

To some extent, this amounts to generally having a good attitude. But during my last few road trips I’ve also noticed that there a few specific things that helped get me in the right mindset:

1. Let go of preconceived ideas about timing. Our road trip this last weekend would have taken about 10 hours if we’d driven straight through. Rather than anticipate 10 hours of driving or planning for a few hours of exploration, however, I just abandoned any idea of how long I’d be gone. And I was happier for it.

2. Have a plan, but be flexible. I looked up several places I wanted to see on this road trip, but ended up spending more time at some of them and cutting others out, which worked well.


3. Forget the destination and check out things on the side of the road. For me, it’s easy to get caught up staring straight ahead, thinking about the destination. But inevitably I’m rewarded by paying attention to what I’m passing, and by stopping to check those things out. Case in point: While driving through Nevada Monday we came across a flock of wild rams on the side of the road. It was the first time I’d ever seen rams in the wild, and we stopped briefly to admire them.

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.

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