Where rubber meets road, part 2

By Richard Turen

The Americans have found the healing of God in a variety of things, the most pleasant of which is probably automobile drives. ­- William Saroyan, "Short Drive, Sweet Chariot," 1966  


Richard TurenDespite the need to cover my motel bedding with a clean sheet, I slept well. I love driving off the turnpike and exploring back roads, but I had always viewed it as something I simply enjoy; it is not the way I vacation. There's no business class on back roads, and finding food not deep-fried is a challenge.

That's particularly true in my case, since my road trip ran south to north and back again, with the hope of answering one important question: Since the vast majority of my fellow countrymen vacation this way, is it any more than cost-efficient? How much do travel sellers really know about that majority of Americans who get in the car and "just do it" without the need for social media, travel agents or glossy brochures? (Read part 1 of Richard Turen's road trip here.) 

So I woke up in Alabama, and I asked the desk clerk where I might find a good breakfast. He directed me to a Krispy Kreme two blocks away. I was dependent on this desk clerk because he was still on duty and had checked me in the night before. One reason these famous hotel chains can deliver rates under $100, I discovered, is that they only require one employee for a large chunk of the 24-hour cycle.

The kids at the Krispy Kreme kept calling me "sir." Here was an epiphany: The kids I would encounter on this road trip had significantly better manners than I was used to observing in teenagers.

I started driving west along back roads, hoping to cross into Mississippi before lunch. To drive from Naples, Fla., to Chicago you don't have to cross Mississippi, but I wouldn't miss it. I did some civil rights stuff there when I was a college student, and any state that can produce a Faulkner and a Grisham is worth a few hours of extra driving.

I made Waynesboro and headed north, keeping an eye out for authentic local grub. I finally passed through a small town with a rustic-looking bunkhouse restaurant specializing in chicken. The parking lot was full, a good sign.

When my paper plate arrived, I noticed that everything -- the cole slaw, chicken and mashed potatoes -- was covered in a flour-gravy oil slick. I asked for extra napkins and tried sopping it up, but I would have needed BP engineers to handle this cleanup.

Glancing around at the mix of locals and school kids, I noticed most of them were eating french fries for lunch.

While sipping sweet tea, which played havoc with my fillings, I took out some documents I had brought to try to get a fix on how impactful drive vacations are on the industry.

U.S. Department of Labor Statistics reveal that the average cost of a one-week domestic drive vacation last year was $1,415 for a family of four, meaning the average per-person spend was $353.75. Driving costs are 44% of the total, with food and lodging each another fourth. The remaining 6% is for "entertainment." Now, $35 per child for a week's worth of entertainment doesn't get you into Disneyland. It does, however, get you into Mr. Chicken if you can get by on french fries.

International travel planned by a travel professional is reserved for the upper 2% in our country, mostly those earning $150,000 a year or more. With 2.2 million Americans in prison and another 4.8 million on probation, the number of high-spending international travelers can't be much more than the number of Americans who are incarcerated.

During my road trip, I played with the data and worked out that about 13 million of us traveled overseas last year, while 7 million of us instead went to prison. The rest did what I was doing, although with a bit more forethought. Had I been well prepared, for example, I would have detoured to Clarksdale, Miss., to find Abe's Bar-B-Q and its Big Abe, a huge, double-decker sandwich made of pork slow-roasted on a pecan-wood fire. But of course then I would have had to detour to Greenwood to try the lemon icebox pie at the Crystal Grill.

Somewhere in mid-Alabama, I decided a road atlas might be handy. I started pulling into small, two-pump gas stations, general stores and anything on the highway that looked like it might have a clean washroom for truckers. So, here's another curious find: Seven of the eight places where I tried to buy a road atlas didn't know what it was I was requesting.

My biggest impression of the trip was how insulated so many of the communities through which I traveled were. It was almost predictable. The most prevalent store along my route was the Dollar General store. It always had the most cars in front. Every 100 miles or so, in the middle of nothingness, was a Walmart. There were few, if any, restaurants. Folks didn't spend money going out to eat.

I remember stopping one evening at a packed McDonald's so I could eat a salad that had been properly washed. I looked around and realized it was Saturday night. This was where high school dates came for dinner. It was all they had. But they looked happy and innocent compared with the kids back in Florida who take their dates to Joe's Stone Crab in the family Porsche.

I remember the beauty of hundreds of miles of trees as I passed through Tennessee and Kentucky, rolling hills and few people to disturb it all. I could live there, I suppose, if Whole Foods would promise to open a store nearby.

Lookout Mountain cost me time. The big trucks navigating the grades in and out of Chattanooga kept testing their gears and brakes, but the scenery was spectacular.

Florida had the worst drivers. They seem to view speed limits as government intrusion. When I slowed to 70, I watched half the Panhandle pass me.

It did occur to me that I could handle 13 hours behind the wheel much more easily than a 13-hour flight. Perhaps that's one reason drive vacations are so popular. That and the fact that over nine nights on the road, I never paid as much as $100 to stay anywhere.

I didn't reach any life-changing conclusions on this vacation beyond the revelation that Chic-fil-A has the cleanest restrooms. I also discovered that this country really is huge, and you can easily get away from people -- and avoid memorable accommodations and excellent cuisine.

Oh, and Kentucky is the prettiest state along the route.

Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at rturen@travelweekly.com. 

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