Tonight is our last night on the road (also my last night being 27). It’s been an incredible trip, everything I had hoped and more. I have great stories and photos to share about visiting the places my parents lived near Denver, our breathtaking campsite in the Rockies, a beautiful wedding and fun times with cousins. For now, I’m going to close my eyes and hope the grunting snorting rustling chewing sounds outside my hammock do not come any closer! Goodnight everyone, and so long 27!
Above: During our 13 hours of driving today, we passed the time with games like Scriblus, a cross between telephone and pictionary. Can you guess the sentence I was illustrating? Hint: it was not “sliced cheese is greater than the US Capital building,” which is what it turned into after several iterations of drawing and captioning interpretations.
5. Go to the restrooms at night. Come out, wander around for minimum of 20 minutes looking for campsite.
4. Walk down eerie deserted road to outhouse at night. Flashlight illuminates glowing eyes in trees. Power walk back to camp and pee in woods instead.
3. Forgot to leave a midnight snack out for your raccoon guests? No worries, this new package of fire starter sticks looks quite tasty.
2. That tarp you left covering all your gear during a downpour? Fun fact! It’s actually not waterproof! Hope you like sleeping sitting up in a stuffy car!
1. Ah, everything’s dry tonight, time to climb into your hammock and crawl into your comfy sleeping bag. As you step in you pull the covers back and — cockroach!
I can’t explain why, but I love every bit of it. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
On the up side, the rain stopped today in time for our Cardinals game to go forward and they played a great game and won 5-2. On the down side, we got back to the campsite to find all of our gear soaked, including my sleeping bag, the inside of Matt’s tent, and the backup hammock. So now the little Prius that could is sleeping quarters for three. Ah, camping.
Before this trip, like most people, I considered Interstates the most painless route for any long distance. The idea of taking a parallel route at 45 mph or crawling through Main Street stop lights while traffic zipped around on a bypass seemed impossibly inefficient. But here is the secret my family and I discovered over the past two days: While winding through those slow, inefficient routes, the hours flew by without any trace of the boredom or restlessness that sets in on long road trip. Meanwhile, for the few stretches where US 40 combined with I-70, and the last few hours of our first night when we reverted to the Interstate in the interest of making it to our campsite before the check-in deadline, time seemed, paradoxically, to crawl to a stop.
Following the National Road, we passed through dozens of towns, marked not by signs on exits, but by landmarks we recognized out the windows as we read about them in our guidebook. We crossed stone arch bridges, a suspension bridge, a Y-shaped bridge and a covered bridge. We wound along next to the Interstate and crisscrossed back and forth over it, watching the tractor trailers flying past us. We kept our eyes peeled for the scenic byway marker signs that confirmed we were on the path of the historic road, and, often, sent us on abrupt turns onto older sections. We got stuck in a downtown where the National Road was closed for a Heritage Days festival and came up against dead end after dead end trying to weave our way around the closed area.
It was an entirely different style of travel than typical Interstate driving, and not just because there is more to see out the windows. The other distinguishing feature of this trip was that there was no GPS guidance to keep us on the desired route; to stay on the path of the National Road, we had to watch for signs — scenic byway signs in some places, US 40 markers in others, watching for roads named “National Pike,” “Old National Road” and the like for reassurance that we were on track. With a GPS, your brain shuts off and you don’t feel like you are traveling so much as passing time waiting to arrive at your destination. Using signs and landmarks, your mind remains engaged and the journey becomes its own experience.
That’s not to say everything on our trip so far has worked out exactly the way I envisioned it, though much of it has. To pick up where I left off in my last entry, we did succeed in fitting everything into the car, including pillows and camp chairs. Tying the chairs onto a bike rack on the back worked out nicely, and Mom and Dad were only slightly buried in stuff in the back seat. Ironically, neither the bins nor the cooler seem worth all the energy we spent trying to make them all fit–both nights so far Mom and Dad have opted to leave the bins out in the campsite instead of using them to support the head of the mattress because they don’t really need to extra foot or two, and we haven’t been very good about our plan to use groceries instead of eating at restaurants. With the extra weight in the car, gas mileage is not quite what I figured, hovering around 35 MPG our first day and topping out at 43 MPG today.
Camping, by its nature, means expecting inconveniences, and we have encountered several: Our first camp site did not have trees close enough together to hang a hammock (I used my two tarps for a tent and groundcloth while Matt slept in the tent) and also had an unfortunate scarcity of small dead wood to use as kindling, which meant hours spent trying to coax an adequate fire in our efforts to cook the steaks Mom brought for dinner. Meanwhile, operating on four hours of sleep and without the benefit of napping in the car, I crawled under my tarp and fell asleep, choosing rest over dinner, but Mom and Matt persisted, blowing on the fire and rebuilding it for hours until finally getting it going. There were no showers, and the next morning, we set out first thing to visit the Air Force Museum in Dayton. When the security guard checked Mom’s purse, she explained that she was carrying a lot of random stuff because we were camping. “I know,” the guard told her. “I can smell it.”
Tonight, we are camped outside St. Louis at Babler State Park, where we have a much better camp site and I’m typing this reclined comfortably in my hammock. However, our campfire cooking plans were thwarted again tonight, this time by pouring rain that prompted us to drive to a nearby restaurant for Imo’s “St. Louis Style” pizza. After placing our order, I asked the cashier what made it St. Louis style, and he looked surprised. “You all aren’t from here?” he asked. Matt and I were both wearing our St. Louis Cardinals caps, and I realized, oddly, that actually, we ARE from here.
But what imprint does a place leave on you when you live there for seven years before your brain is developed enough to form typical memories? I believe that even if I cannot conjure up an image of many places in the city of my childhood, they are still imprinted on me in a more basic form. The theory was borne out today when we stopped at a Schnucks grocery store — not the same one we shopped at in my childhood, but bearing the resemblance that stores of the same chain always have to each other, and small details — the way the bakery area was separated from the rest of the store, the brick wall inside the entrance, the vibe at the checkout — felt dreamily familiar from my days being pushed through the aisles sitting in a shopping cart.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Tomorrow, we revisit our old street, the parks where I played, my old elementary school. Planning our day, I read place names from a map that seemed as familiar as a lullaby: Olive Boulevard. Clayton. Kirwood. Creve Coeur. I sometimes wonder if people who still live in the place where they grew up have stronger memories of their childhoods because of access to the visual aids, or if moving away actually helps preserve the memories because they are not overwritten with older experiences in the same settings. Tomorrow, I hope to find out.
Yes, this is the plan: Mom, Dad, Matt and I are going to attempt to fit ourselves and all of the stuff we need for 11 days on the road — including camping and cooking gear — into my Toyota Prius. And at night, Mom and Dad are actually going to sleep in the car while Matt and I camp in hammocks with tarps.
When we first started planning the trip, this idea seemed unremarkable to me, but the reactions I got when I mentioned it to friends and coworkers suggested otherwise. Some even laughed, assuming I was just joking. I got a lot of questions about how big my family members are, as if I might reveal they’re all midgets and suddenly the plan might seem slightly less crazy. But the way I see it, if anyone can do it, we can– Matt and I just got back from living for four days with the gear we could carry on our backs, Dad once won free concert tickets for squeezing himself into a clown car, and we are all just a bit of the particular kind of crazy that sees the puzzle of packing and arranging the mountain of gear to fill every nook and cranny as an irresistible challenge.
In many ways, a Prius is a perfect roadtripmobile. There’s the gas mileage, first and foremost. I’m averaging between 45 and 50 mpg. For 3,000 miles at $3.50 a gallon, that’s less than $250 in gas for the entire trip — one of the main factors that convinced us we could afford to do this. We decided to keep expenses to an absolute bare minimum by buying groceries and cooking our meals instead of stopping at restaurants, and by staying at campgrounds, which I find more enjoyable than motels and would probably choose even if the price were the same. And that’s where the second great advantage of the Prius comes into play: When the back seats fold down, it creates a flat bed plenty long enough for sleeping. And because it has a hatchback instead of a trunk, if you pile to the ceiling, you can pack a surprising amount of stuff in the trunk area.
So I began planning. The first order of business was to purchase an SUV air mattress for mom and dad to use in the back and to read up on the options for building up the area between the end of the folded-down back seats and the back of the front seats so you can scoot your mattress as far forward in the car as possible. Some Prius owners have constructed hinged platforms for bridging this gap but I much preferred the solution suggested by others: Pack your belongings in plastic bins about 20 inches high and sit them in the gaps to create the extended sleeping area. Mom and Dad have a wide variety of bins at home, so they measured them all and we debated by email which combination of sizes would be best to fill the space. We decided on two big red bins — one of which would hold all of our wedding clothes and the other would hold kitchen gear — with two shallower plastic containers on top of each to build up the height to the full 20 inches.
Based on the measurements, it was my theory that we would be able to fit my big cooler on one side of the trunk area and two big bins beside it, then squish soft stuff in all around them and pile everything else on top.
When my parents got here tonight, we tried putting the bins beside the cooler and the outside bin hung several inches outside of the trunk. We twisted and turned them, trying one bin upside down, to no avail. Fortunately, we had a plan B, using four smaller bins. That created a new problem with what to do with all the wedding clothes and shoes, which we wanted to keep separate from the clothes and gear we will have been camping in for a week when the wedding day rolls around. For an hour or two, we were stumped, but in the middle of Matt’s softball game, it came to me: There is a secret compartment under the floor of the trunk but above the spare tire. I opened it up and found a snow shovel, squeegie stick and windshield cover inside. We got rid of them and — voila — a safe, protected space the size of a large suitcase just perfect for fitting the clothes and shoes for all four of us, safely sandwiched between trash bags to protect it.
Next, we gathered all of the group gear we needed to pack and piled it on the living room floor. When we were finished, the mountain of tarps and sleeping bags and pots and pans and mattresses and pillows spread across the entire room. It seemed ridiculous. But we began packing it into bins, and slowly but surely, it began to look ALMOST possible.
In the end, we got everything in with a few inches of space to spare… but decided to leave for morning the task of squeezing in the duffel bags of clothes we each packed. Pillows and camp chairs are looking unlikely, but we’re not willing to rule them out yet — Matt thinks we can use a bike rack to cary the chairs and pillows can always be held on laps. A few of the comments as we pondered the remaining work: Dad: “We’ll just have everyone get in and we’ll hand them things and stuff it in until there’s only room left for the driver.” Matt: “I’ll ride on the roof.”
Will we succeed? Will we suffocate? Will we abandon half our stuff on I-70 after the first few hours? Stay tuned tomorrow to find out…
To know America, one has to understand how people have built their lives around the road, the access it provides and the activities it stimulates….The best place to search for the archetypal road that will illustrate how life becomes landscape is an old road — not a simple track, abandoned and backwatered, but a road with purpose, a road built in the context of nation building, a road that would become a key part of the national highway network. That road is the National Road.
-Karl Raitz, A Guide to the National Road
This is how the author of my National Road guidebook introduces the allure of traveling the Chesapeake-to-Mississippi route that became US 40, but for me, this route represents a key not only to knowing America, but to knowing myself.
When people ask, “Where are you from?” I often stumble a beat as the possible answers flash through my mind: Denver, Colorado, where I was born? St. Louis, Missouri, where I spent most of my childhood? Ellicott City, Maryland, where I came of age? Hagerstown, Maryland, where I first lived on my own after college? Frederick, Maryland, where I live now? I feel a connection to each one of these places, but there is a thread that runs through all of them: US 40.
Yet despite living within a few miles of US 40 in nearly every place I have ever called home, these individual sections have never felt connected in my mind. Traveling between them today, you hop on the Interstate, a sort of magic portal, and hop off somewhere else, transported. But this is not the only way: If you’re willing to drive a little slower, to mosey through downtowns and stop lights, to wind around twists and turns that were unsuited for the path of a freeway, you can still travel much of the route of the old National Road.
So when my family received an invitation a few months ago to attend my cousin’s wedding in Kansas and we began talking about incorporating the wedding into a road trip that would include returning to St. Louis and Denver as a family for the first time since moving away 20 years ago, I threw out what I knew could be a controversial idea: To take what would already be 50 hours worth of driving and draw it out even longer by following, as closely as we can, the route of US 40 and its predecessors wherever they diverge from I-70.
Whether or not we stick to that resolution, I know the experience of tracing the ribbon of my life back to the place of my birth will be an unforgettable experience, and I invite you to follow along with me here as I blog about our adventures in Prius camping, visiting quirky roadside landmarks, returning with my mother to her childhood home and more.
The journey starts Saturday, June 15.
- Route 40 festival marked with nostalgia (observer-reporter.com)
- 40th National Road Heritage Festival planned this year (andrewjhesner.com)