The ultimate road trip

Last summer our family completed a 40,000-km, eight-month drive around North America. It was the best thing we’ve ever done. We camped on the beach in Baja California, prowled through bayous in Louisiana and swam in the bright blue waters of northern Florida springs. We came back rejuvenated — impressed by the exotic beauty we encountered on the back roads of North America, and with a sense of family togetherness that has endured long after the trip ended.

My wife Cheryl and I had planned the journey as a way to step off the day-to-day treadmill of our jobs and share an adventure with our sons Serge, 12, and Vaughn, 10, before they grew up. Our odyssey accomplished all of that and more. As we discovered, a road trip lets you wander and explore in a way that a more structured itinerary doesn’t. Time and time again, we were surprised and delighted by chance discoveries. In Louisiana, we happened upon grand plantations sitting by the side of country roads. In Florida, we snorkeled in pristine rivers teeming with fish. In Virginia, we stumbled into a time-tripping re-enactment of a Civil War battle. These are adventures that the folks who fly over them in planes will miss, but that anyone with a car or RV can easily enjoy.

You may think that spending hours on the road with a couple of easily bored kids sounds as if it would be about as much fun as a root canal. Let me assure you that it doesn’t have to be that way. Audio books, cassettes and computer games provided easy entertainment for our boys on days when the scenery got tedious. Schoolwork occupied them too. My wife is a teacher and made sure they kept up with the textbooks and lessons provided by their local schools. Work before play was our rule: while we were living on the beach in Baja, the boys would do their homework in the morning and then hit the surf in the afternoon.

Whether you’ve got eight days or eight months, you can arrange a road trip to suit your tastes. One key is getting the right vehicle — something big enough for your family but compact enough to drive easily. You can choose to rent or buy, and your options range from tent trailers and little Volkswagen Westphalia vans to enormous diesel buses with triple slide-outs. To get a sense of what’s available, check out then talk to the experts at your local RV dealership. They can offer advice on what rig will work best for your needs and, in many cases, can arrange rentals as well as purchases.

Given the length of our trip, we decided it made more sense to buy than to rent. We wound up getting an extended version GMC Safari van. Behind it, we towed a small trailer. The combination was easy to drive and it gave us flexibility — we could leave the trailer at a campsite and drive into town.

When we left home, we knew we were headed south, away from winter, but apart from our general direction, we had no idea what our specific route would be. Many days we let ourselves be guided by the maps and brochures provided by state information centres. We also discovered lots of good travel information at a wide-ranging site with tips on destinations in all 50 states. Microsoft Streets & Trips software was invaluable for locating such necessities as banks, libraries or campgrounds.

I had worried before leaving Canada about being on the road, but we never felt unsafe. Nor were we ever bored. In Baja California we went whale watching and were astounded when mother and calf popped their heads out of the water right next to our boat. In New Mexico we explored ancient Indian dwellings and soaked in remote hot springs. In Utah we had Zion National Park practically to ourselves in December when the park’s sheer red rock walls were fringed with snow. The sequoia forests in Yosemite National Park in California, the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and the busy streets of New York were just a few of the other highlights of our trip.

While not quite as amazing as the scenery, prices were a pleasant surprise too. Even with the low Canadian loonie, state parks were a bargain at about $15 (U.S.) a night. Gas, too, was a steal at about half the price in Canada. All in, we spent about $3,000 (Cdn.) a month on the road, including gas, accommodation, food and other expenses.

The one additional purchase I recommend if you’re planning to spend extended time in the U.S. South is an air conditioner. On an April night in Florida the heat and humidity reached such a suffocating level that they reduced our two boys to tears.

But that was all part of our adventure. Months after returning home, we still reminisce about walking across the Golden Gate Bridge through drifting fog, experiencing French colonial life at Nova Scotia’s Fortress of Louisbourg and watching buzzards drying their wings in the cool Mexican mornings. It’s enough to make us want to take to the road again. And we will.

Click here to see how to make your journey affordable and stress-free

From the June/July 2003 issue.

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