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A road trip is a great way to tell a person's story, as The Cranky Flier proves

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012
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Courtesy <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/flissphil/6340882/" target="_blank">PhillipC/Flickr</a>

Has a friend ever said, "I'd like to write a book about my life, but I'm not sure where to start"?

Well, you ought to buy that friend a copy of Brett ("The Cranky Flier") Snyder's first book, Where the Hell Am I Going? Explain that it's a fantastic model of how to write a road trip story. (I've read about 100 road trip stories over the years, and this is easily one of the top five best.) The book may finally inspire your friend to cover the high points of their life as anecdotes prompted by the sights seen on a cross-country adventure.

After all, a road trip story is much, much more fun to read than the typical autobiography. I would never have picked up a memoir of Brett Snyder—even though he's the author of the acclaimed aviation blog The Cranky Flier. Yet when I heard he had written a short book about his two-week cross country road trip, I was game to read it, mainly because I could imagine myself wanting to take a similar trip.

The title Where the Hell Am I Going doesn't really refer to the route taken by Brett. (I feel I know the author well enough now, having read this book, that I can refer to him by his first name.) Brett pretty much knows in advance the main routes he will take in a loop from where he lives with his wife in southern California through Texas to Florida, and then back again via a path that takes him through Indiana and Oklahoma to Phoenix.

The title instead refers to the thinking that Brett does while he's driving. Newly married yet out of work, every town he passes through seems to trigger a memory from his life, such as where and how he met his wife and where and how he developed his undying love for airports. Along the way, he helps get out the vote for Obama in a small town in Florida on election day, and he gets lost down some country roads (despite his GPS unit that talks in an Aussie accent).

A road trip reveals a person's character better than any formal autobiography could. At one point, Brett has been driving for a while after having made a pit stop at Walnut Ridge, Ark., to dine at Parachute Inn (a restaurant made partly out of an old Southwest 737). It dawns on him that he forgot to tip the server. He calls the restaurant to apologize and later mails a tip.

A road trip also makes plain a person's fears, too, assuming that the writer is as honest as Brett ("What if my car breaks down and I'm eaten by wild javelina?"). After pulling him over for speeding a second time in Oklahoma (d'oh!), a police offer asks Brett to leave the car and step into his cruiser. The officer chats while verifying the records.

"So what do you do for a living?" he asked. I thought for a second and said, "Well, I was actually just laid off." For some reason, it was extremely embarrassing for me to say that. It's like I failed and now I had to wear this scarlet letter saying so.

If you have any interesting hobbies, a road trip's a great way to indulge them. Brett's love of aviation brings him to Millstone, Ind., to see "a simple and moving" memorial for an airline crash ("Maybe Kiwanis should be put in charge of all air crash memorials. This one was perfect."); and the headquarters of Southwest Airlines, where he meets the CEO (because of Brett's seat in the travel media cockpit) and helps to judge the company's Halloween costume contest. ("The contest was between departments, and this was not a faux rivalry. I think the Marketing team would have killed a man to win.")

Best of all, an excellent road trip story inspires you to pack up your bags and head out to see the same (or similar) sites. Like "The Thing?" near Dragoon, Ariz., or a spot in Cleveland, Tenn., with "a little farmhouse with an old windmill surrounded by leaves that couldn't have been painted any better."

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Road Trips

Finally, answers to the road-trip question: Where should I eat?

Have you seen this? Kinda funny. The blog Eating the Road has tried to solve the question "Where Should I Eat?" with a flow chart for chain-restaurant dining crowd. By following prompts like "Are you high?", "Are you a ninja?" and "Can you stand Guy Fieri?" you're steered along to one or another restaurant chain. Just what every traveler needs, right?

Road Trips

Road trips: Trust this guy, he's traveled more than 400,000 miles

Jamie Jensen, author of Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America's Two-Lane Highways, has probably seen more two-lane blacktop than Kerouac did. Jensen has just released an updated fifth edition of his 900-page book, full of road-trip itineraries with detailed maps, trivia, roadside curiosities, and dining and accommodation recommendations. Jensen first started researching the book in 1990 and has since traveled more than 400,000 miles. We picked his brain about the Great American Road Trip. Maybe you'll be inspired to take a close-to-home trip after reading it&mdash;especially given today's reasonable gas prices. BT: What has been your most memorable find? If I have to choose one truly special place, it would probably be the borderland between the Sand Hills of Nebraska and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Within a couple hours drive of Mount Rushmore and Wounded Knee, you have a full spectrum of highlights, including my favorite oddball roadside monument&mdash;Carhenge, a replica of ancient Stonehenge, made out of 1970s American cars. History buffs will love Fort Robinson, where Sioux chief Crazy Horse was captured (and murdered) in 1877; also the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron. Feast on great milk shakes and up to 2-pound (!) hamburgers at a classic old soda-fountain diner, Sioux Sundries, in the one-stoplight town of Harrison. All that said, if you asked me again tomorrow I'm sure I'd come up with a dozen other favorite places like this, which I've found over the country. BT: What are your top tips? One great way to save money and still have a great time is to go camping&mdash;the USA has perhaps the best and most beautiful national and state parks in the world, yet for some reason many Americans don't take advantage of them. Not only is a campsite less than half the price of a motel (and many campsites, if you are willing and able to hike a short way away from roads and RV-ers, are free!), but since you do your own cooking the food is comparatively cheap. (And all food tastes better outdoors!) BT: What's the most important thing to consider when putting together a road trip itinerary? For me the most important thing is not to be too ambitious&mdash;make sure you factor in enough time to savor and enjoy the things you do on your trip. So often, people make the mistake of "over-scheduling", of feeling they ought to be moving on to the next stop, when what is important is to relax and enjoy the moments. Leave yourself enough time for spontaneity and serendipity. BT: What are some areas of the country that are prime for road tripping but are often forgotten? One place that great for traveling but not exactly famous is the Great Lakes, and especially the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Here you have gorgeous scenery (rugged mountains and dense forests, and of course the lakes), with a lot of history (think Paul Bunyan). [Editor's note: Budget Travel has a four-day road trip itinerary for Michigan's Upper Peninsula.] Duluth is another one of those wonderful mid-sized American cities no one thinks of for a vacation, but which happens to be tons of fun. Other less-known but fun cities I like: Buffalo, with its wonderful architecture and access to Niagara Falls; Memphis, with Elvis, a great minor league baseball stadium and access to the musical road trip heaven of the Mississippi Delta; and Missoula, Mont., which is a great college town right at the heart of the majestic Rocky Mountains. Want more? Check out Jensen's website.

Road Trips

5 editors share their dream trips

After publishing our most recent list of Dream Trips, we thought it would be fun to find out more about where a few of our coworkers hope to travel themselves. Rosas, Spain, to eat at Ferran Adria's elBulli restaurant. I've been obsessed with this chef ever since I first read about him about five years ago. He's known as the pioneer of molecular gastronomy, which sounds horribly unappetizing but is actually really fascinating&mdash;sort of like a mad-scientist approach to cooking. For example, he uses nitrous oxide to make things like potato-and-lobster foam. The tasting menu at his restaurant lasts hours and consists of something insane like 30 courses (each pretty tiny, but still). Getting reservations is pretty ridiculous (the restaurant is only open from April to October, and all reservations have to be made in October for the following year) and the prices are pretty outrageous (in 2008, the tasting menu with wine hovered around $300 per person), but from what I've read, the experience is absolutely worth it. Added bonus: The town of Rosas is on Spain's Costa Brava, which looks incredibly gorgeous. I'd travel the coast a bit, and end up in Aix-en-Provence, France, where a friend of mine is living. &mdash;Beth Collins, associate editor Taking my wife to my favorite spots in Dublin. She has been to Ireland before, but I lived in Dublin for three years, so I want to take her to places tourists usually don't go. We'll take a long walk in Irishtown and Ringsend (the gas ring is a hulking, rusty relic, but I love it, and my old local chipper and pub will have to be on the agenda) and over to Sandymount Strand. There's a beautiful pub in Clontarf called the Sheds; I was last there eight years ago, and I hope it hasn't changed much. On a nice afternoon, a picnic and/or nap on the grass in Merrion Square can't be beat. The Garden of Remembrance commemorates the 1916 Easter Rising, but what I like about it is the Oisín Kelly sculpture of the Children of Lir, from an Irish legend; I used to study early Irish literature. In the city center, there are too many good pubs and restaurants to mention them all, but we should certainly spend an afternoon in the library bar of the Central Hotel. Add in good friends, and the craic will be ninety. &mdash;Thomas Berger, copy chief Because my husband is very opposed to traveling via boat for an extended period of time, to sail the Greek islands for two weeks may definitely be a dream&mdash;or done with someone else! I would like to be on a small boat with just a few people and start by the eastern most islands (Kos), and slowly and leisurely make our way to Athens, hitting Santorini, Mykonos, and Kythonos on the way. Our days would be filled with swimming and snorkeling with lots of time for daily excursions to the islands to check out the sites, people watch, and eat good food. &mdash;Lauren Kamin, editorial production manager My dream: I'm walking along the ridges of the Haraz Mountains in Yemen. It is hot, and the terrain is sometimes tortuous, but exploring a region so few have experienced is invariably exciting. Sweeping views of terraced hillsides and rugged landscape keep me inspired. From one ancient village to another, I meet kind, welcoming Arab people that transport me back in time, to a time of simplicity, a time of mud brick buildings and living off the land. I see myself sitting up against a rock with my wife and our guide, who speaks broken English, sipping on excellent coffee, while watching the sun peak over the surrounding ridges. We all marvel and are thankful for such a beautiful morning. It's an absolute dream, which I realize is just a dream when I spill my coffee on my keyboard. Unfortunately for now, it is just a cubicle reverie. For my "Dream Trip," I thought of hiking in the Haraz Mountains because the area is virtually undiscovered by tourism. You can hike from one village perched on a hilltop to another. Guides are needed because hardly anyone speaks English and the trails can be deceiving&hellip;you need someone that knows the way. &mdash;Michael Mohr, associate photo editor For years now, one of my friends has raved to me about Chiang Mai, a northern Thai city that lies near the village in which he had once been stationed as a Peace Corps volunteer. Well, I've just returned from my first visit to Chiang Mai, and it was the Best Trip Ever. The city has all of the Thai charm of Bangkok without the capital's infamous nightlife or Blade Runner-like enormity. I'm not much of a shopper, but I snapped up Chiang Mai's heavily discounted celadon housewares, silk flowers, and other hand-made items as if I'd never visit Asia again. One of my prized purchases was of a red-and-black lacquered jewelry box with the image of a deity-as-a-snake on it ($24). I justified the purchase as a gift, but I haven't been able to part with it since. A highlight for me was renting a bicycle ($2 per person, per day) and exploring the area. I was particularly wowed by the view from Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a serene mountain temple overlooking the city ($1 admission). I also liked taking a break in one of the city's dozens of independent cafés, where locals linger over Thai iced coffee ($1) in outdoor gardens. Coming from Bangkok? I recommend you skip the high-priced plane tickets and instead hop the 13-hour, overnight sleeper train ($33, first-class private car, tickets can't be booked at online, book at the main train station in Bangkok or through a travel agent). You'll see more of the countryside that way plus save a night of lodging expense. &mdash;Sean O'Neill, senior editor online

Road Trips

Virginia giving away 40 free trips

The great state of Virginia announced today a sweepstakes in which it will give away 40 free trips in 40 weeks to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the "Virginia Is for Lovers" tourism campaign. Starting today and for the next 40 weeks, you may enter to win a trip to a destination in Virginia, such as Virgina Beach and a one-on-one basket weaving session with artisan Gary Carroll. You'll find the rules and entry form at Virginia.org/40. (Some of the fine print: "Prize trips range from two to seven nights for two to six people. Virginia will award one trip a week, starting February 20, culminating in a grand prize awarded November 23. The contest is open to U.S. citizens 21 years and older.")

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