Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baltimore to Berkeley -- via the Loneliest Road!

Hello Road Trip USA --

I am thinking of driving from Baltimore MD to Berkeley CA -- would you recommend US 50, which you call the "Loneliest Road" ?

I am a female, from Spain, driving alone (or maybe with a friend), I hope it is safe. Please let me know. The South is appealing, but not sure if too far out of my way, I need to be in Berkeley CA at the end of the month.

So basically I am looking for food (I am a chef), and some sightseeing. I was thinking of getting into Route 66 but I think I prefer to gain confidence and do that route another time, maybe when I go back from California to NY in December.

I don't think am going to be hiking, and see good stuff I will drive early hours in the day; I usually wake up super early.

I have got your book -- I am very excited and a little bit afraid but well... I need to do it. This trip will be in my mind forever.

Thanks / Muchas Gracias



Hola Begona --

Many thanks for your messages, and I'm glad you are enjoying reading through my Road Trip USA book -- I included just about everything I know in the book, but in this letter I will try to point out some real highlights, and give you some extra ideas and nuance, so you have a really great trip. I'll sketch out a 7 to 10 day itinerary -- there are some places you may want to linger, and others you may decide to race through. That sort of flexibility is part of the fun of the road trip -- you can do what you want, when you want!

OK, on to some trip suggestions -- you are setting off soon, from Baltimore, right? To give you a sense of how much driving time is involved, let's say it's 3000 miles all the way, and at 75 miles per hour "cruising speed", that takes 40 hours or driving.

And to stay sane, you will want to get out of the car and walk and soak up the scenery with all of your senses -- it's a good thing that you are an early riser, as you will have much more daylight to enjoy things.

And by the way, if you want to get a feel for the "middle of nowhere" places you will be passing through, when you get up early, go eat a big American breakfast -- cafes and diners are probably the quintessential US eating experience, and you'll meet real locals rather than fellow visitors, which is why I tend to focus on these so much in my books. Try to go to locally run places -- hotel/motel staff will have suggestions, I'm sure, and I include the best ones I've come across ones in my Road Trip USA books.

And if you (or your travel partner -- glad to hear you have a friend along for the ride!) haven't traveled much in the US before, be prepared for people in America to be super friendly -- saying "Oh Wow , you are from Spain -- how interesting! Do people speak Spanish there? how interesting! What do you think of Kansas?..." etc etc . It can seem a little invasive of your privacy, but it's "nothing personal", and in my experience usually totally sincere.

Also, Americans tend to be BIG, and big eaters -- portions are huge, especially at breakfast, where you can get a plate full of biscuits and gravy and sausages and eggs and pancakes and toast, and endless cups of thin watery coffee -- for almost no money. If you are a coffee fanatic, you may do what I do and carry your own coffee, and maybe a small kettle to boil water -- though most motels / hotels will have coffee making machines in the room, the coffee they give you is pretty dull.

Right, I got distracted again. Sorry. Here goes:

Day One, leaving Baltimore, you'll probably want to avoid the suburban sprawl of DC & northern Virginia, so take the Beltway and freeway west. (The main road from DC is labeled I-66, but it is not in any way related to the famous Route 66 of "get your kicks" songs.) After you race west on the freeway, take a tour of "Skyline Drive" in Shenandoah National Park, and if you want a nice first night "on the road", I am told that the dining room of the 5-star "Inn at Little Washington" is fantastic (it's around $500 a night, inc food, however, which is way out of my price range...).

Further west, Winchester Virginia (RTUSA p 727) is quaint and interesting, and a good first taste of small town America; also nearby, if you like history, the town of Harpers Ferry (RTUSA p 347) is very pretty and very interesting. It's also a good place to leave the freeway and get on to old US50, my "Loneliest Road" route.

Day Two: though it's only a few hours drive away, West Virginia is about as far from the rich and powerful world of Washington DC as you can get. Long notorious for being "backwards", West Virginia is a coal-mining, God-fearing state -- full of very proud but mostly poor people. The landscape is really pretty -- if you like mountains and forests and rivers -- and there are many semi-abandoned-looking old towns like Grafton and Parkersburg (RTUSA page 723-724). Enjoy the drive, but I'd suggest you keep driving as far as Ohio, which used to be the western edge of the USA. For a 2nd night place to stay, I think you'll enjoy Athens Ohio, a college town with some nice 100-year-old buildings (ancient by US standards!). I've stayed at the Hampton Inn here, which is probably the best "nice" motel chain (costs around $120 a night, which is more than some but not outrageous) .

Day 3: A good reason to come this US50 route is to experience the forgotten history -- all over central Ohio you can see remains of pre-European, Native American culture -- especially at Mound City, also known as Hopewell Culture National Park, in Chillicothe Ohio (west of Athens). I am fascinated by these enigmatic remains -- I write about them on pages 719-721. Magical, if you let your imagination run.

Afterwards, continue west to the next big city: Cincinnati, which is another interesting, ignored place. Lots of history here -- and some great modern architecture -- also some unusual food options: Cincinnati is famous for its "5 Way" chili, which gets you a bowl of meaty chili, served up over spaghetti, with added option of beans and/or cheese. Not exactly gourmet, but very filling and hearty. I like Camp Washington Chili ( ), which is open 24 hours every day except Sunday. They also do a good "chili dog" -- a classic American dish (though pretty far removed from your Berkeley / foodie fare).

Day 4: While the drive along US50 across Indiana is interesting, if you want to speed up a little, here is a chance. Also, if you take the freeway (I-70), you can visit another great mid-sized American city, Louisville, Kentucky. (I cover Louisville briefly on RTUSA page 712 -- it is a very interesting place. Especially if you like bourbon whiskey, which comes from here!) Depending upon your schedule, stay overnight here or continue along the freeway as far west as St Louis, on the Mississippi River. St Louis is also fascinating, is an abandoned, once majestic sort of way. St Louis is also a chance for you to drive along Route 66, which passes right through the heart of town. I cover St Louis in RTUSA pages 258-259.

One essential stop, especially if the weather is hot and humid as summer is in St Louis: Ted Drewe's, for unforgettably rich ice cream :

Day 5/6/7 ? Enjoy St Louis (which has a fabulous garden, and great museums -- and is home to rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry!) Then, because I know you don't have a ton of time, take the I-70 freeway west, to Kansas City (in RTUSA page 702-703), and across the Great Plains to Denver.

One definitely worthwhile detour: the Garden of Eden (in RTUSA page 695), 15 miles north of the freeway, which gives a really fascinating alternative look at the dull monoculture of the Midwest.

From Denver, I think you might want to stay on the freeway across the Rockies. as far as Grand Junction and northern Utah. The drive I describe in Road Trip USA along US50 is very pretty, but so is the freeway route, and the freeway is lot less demanding and still very pretty.

Day 8: Utah! Depending on how quickly you've made your way across the country so far, you may want to make an overnight in Grand Junction, Colorado, which is the last semi-big city before you hit the wide-open Wild West. The next stage of the trip takes you across what's known as the Colorado Plateau, an otherworldly landscape of red-rock deserts and extreme beauty -- straight of a Clint Eastwood western (many of which I believe were filmed near Almeria in Spain?)

People spend weeks -- or entire lifetimes -- exploring this area, which includes many national parks, the easiest to see are Arches and Capitol Reef. An interesting base for touring is the town of Moab, Utah; I've stayed here at the Apache Motel -- where John Wayne stayed! There are also some surprisingly good restaurants; I cover the area in RTUSA pages 674-679.

Next stop: the Loneliest Road! From Utah, to California, the best route is the oldest -- US-50 straight west, following the route of the old Pony Express. Just to be safe, full your gas tank along I-15 freeway, or at the town of Delta Utah -- and maybe buy some big bottles of water, just in case. Then be prepared to be on your own -- there is a big amazingly empty world for the next few hundred miles. If you want to linger, make plans to stay overnight at the funky / friendly ("very Berkeley") Silver Jack Inn, which has rooms, a cafe, and access to the splendid wilderness of Great Basin National Park.

Here is a URL : I cover this in RTUSA pages 669-670.

The next town is Ely, which is pretty big (and has plenty of gas stations etc. The real "Loneliest Road" starts at Ely and heads west, up and over a series of mountain ranges, past ghostly old mining towns (Eureka, Nevada is very cool !) This is all in RTUSA, too.

If you get an early start, you can do the whole "Loneliest Road" and make it to Reno for your overnight -- this is a crazy, busy big gambling city -- Reno was Las Vegas, before Las Vegas was invented.

Day 10 ?: From Reno, head a little ways south and enter California past lovely Lake Tahoe, then make your west (via US50 to Sacramento, then the I-80 freeway) to Berkeley.

3000 miles in less than 10 days! Quite a trip !

OK Begona -- hope all this helps, and hope you have a great time -- espero que tenga un viaje fantastico!.

Drop me a line along the way, and let me know how it goes.

Vaya con Dios,

Jamie Jensen
Road Trip USA

PS: Before you go, buy yourself a nice big road atlas book of maps of the entire USA -- I really like one National Geographic Society puts out called "American Road" (but I'm not sure if this is still in print...) . Old-fashioned paper maps are great to have, even if you have mobile maps / GPS on your phone.


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