American Road Trip Plus
July 10th-27th, 2010
Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:
This trip started with a email from my penpal, Liisa, who I visited in Finland in 2008. She wanted to come to America – see my haunts, and maybe a litte more – and since I’m pretty well spread out over the continent, we first decided to split the time between Florida and Missouri. As we started talking, the idea of a road trip seemed more and more appealing. After all, what mode of travel is more American than hitting the highway?
Our options were limited by automobile availability. Since we were too young to rent a car, we had to both start and finish in either Tampa, Florida, or Springfield, Missouri. We decided to start in Missouri and drive west to Colorado, then north to South Dakota, return to Missouri, and finally fly to Florida for a few days at the beach and at the theme parks.
Our final path took us through no fewer than ten states: Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Florida.
Cost: My budget was approximately $1750, once we started off in Missouri. (Obviously, Liisa had to pay more than I did to get to the starting point). This broke down to $300 for food, $330 for accommodation, $210 for gas and tolls, $240 flight to Florida, $160 for parking and miscellaneous entrance fees, $380 for extra experiences like horseback riding, rock climbing, and universal studios, $75 for souvenirs and presents, and $45 for pre-trip car expenses. I had originally hoped to spend up to 25% less, but we splurged on extra experiences and ended up paying more than we estimated for miscellaneous entrance fees, food, and accommodation.
Thinking Ahead: The only things we reserved ahead of time were airfare, hotels in Orlando, and the rock climbing and horseback riding adventures. These were booked 1-2 months prior with no issues, and we never wished we had made reservations for anything else – the closest was in Custer, where many of the motels were full, but we still managed to find one without much trouble.
Timing: We travelled in July, so it was a good time to go north and to the mountains. The weather was accordingly quite pleasant for most of the trip, although the Missouri and Florida segments may be better done in cooler times of the year. The highway we took through Rocky Mountain National Park is only open in summer, and winter conditions would have greatly changed our horseback riding and rock climbing experience.
Food: As per our budget and search for the authentic road trip experience, we ate a lot of fast food and gas station meals. We did, however, splurge on a few nicer places. The culinary highlights of the trip were tasting rocky mountain oysters in Colorado and butterbeer and pumpkin juice in Universal Studios.
Getting Around: We were very grateful to have a car in Mid-America, where that’s often the only viable option. We drove almost everywhere, more than 3500 miles in total, although we did save about $30 in parking fees by walking from our hotel to Universal Studios.
Language: I was travelling in my native country, and Liisa’s English is excellent, so this was never a concern. Even dialectal variation in the region we were travelling was low and never hard to adapt to.
Other: For some reason I don’t quite understand, motels in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were on average twice the price of similar motels in Kansas, Missouri, and Florida.
Liisa arrived in St. Louis on July 10th, and we spent the next two nights with my friend Kate’s family. The first night, Kate got us free tickets to see a Titanic musical at the Muny outdoor theatre. On the 11th, we did a whirlwind tour of St. Louis, starting with the prehistoric city of Cahokia Mounds just across the border in Illinois, then brunch at First Watch with my cousins, the St. Louis City Museum, the historic downtown and Gateway Arch, and the famous free zoo.
On July 12th we warmed up for the road trip after a morning in my part of St. Louis. We drove to Columbia, Missouri, ate lunch and frozen yogurt with some friends and toured the Journalism school, then continued on to Lawrence, Kansas. July 13th was the longest day of the trip as we drove 550 miles across the plains of Kansas and into Manitou Springs, Colorado.
July 14th saw us shopping in Manitou Springs, tasting rocky mountain oysters, exploring eight hundred year old Native American cliff dwellings, and marvelling at rock formations in the Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where we almost stepped on a rattlesnake.
July 15th was consumed by a nine hour horseback ride on the silver dusted mountain trails of the Roosevelt National Forest. The view from the top was unbelievable – even worth my horse going a little crazy and Liisa getting sick from allergies and the sun exposure. On the 16th, we drove the highway to the sky through the Rocky Mountain National Park, ate lunch at 12,000 feet and played in the snow on the alpine tundra before driving on to Wyoming.
On the 17th, we drove into South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in progress. In the evening we toured Wind Cave National Park in search of wildlife and had buffalo, elk, coyotes, and countless prairie dogs step feet from the car. On the 18th we drove through the Needles of the black hills, learned to rock climb and even scaled a 180 foot granite dome before heading to Deadwood for some history and wild west reenactments, one of which we had to adopt temporary parents to get in to see!
On the 19th we started heading east again, taking time to visit a random Norwegian Stavkirke, see an underground waterfall, take old-time photos in the Wall Drug Store, and drive through the otherworldly badlands just ahead of a thunderstorm. On the 20th we saw Mitchell’s Corn Palace and the falls of Sioux Falls, hopped the border into Minnesota for our state count, had a classy and delicious lunch in Omaha, Nebraska, and ended up back home in Columbia, Missouri.
The 21st and 22nd allowed me to show more of my university, friends, and state off to Liisa as we toured Devil’s Icebox, Bridal Cave, and Ha Ha Tonka state park, ate nachos bianco at Addison’s and cream cheese clouds for breakfast, then flew to my parent’s house in Florida for the last stage of the trip.
We spent the 23rd and 24th on the barrier island, tasting sushi, walking on the beach, having lunch at Bubba Gump’s, touring downtown St. Petersburg, and taking a boat through a thunderstorm that gave way just in time to reveal a fiery and brilliant sunset.
The 25th and the 26th were our days in Orlando, as we visited Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure Theme Parks, most notably the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with its magical talking portraits, fantastic scenery, butterbeer and pumpkin juice – a satisfying end to our trip.
Posts about this trip:
(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)
Little Norway on the Great Plains (Rapid City, South Dakota – 7/19)
Photography: Crossing Kansas