Yosemite, San Francisco, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, hours of gorgeous drive-by scenery on Highway 1 along the California coast and Highway 12 through Utah. It was 4,500 miles in 14 days – the ultimate road-trip vacation.
Here’s a few stand-out observations:
* Gasoline prices: Despite fears of $5 a gallon gas in places like California, the highest price we paid was in the neighborhood of $4.30. Most prices were below $4.00. Cheapest prices? Pretty much right here in the Northern Plains region, with a few fill-ups in Wyoming around $3.50 a gallon and our last fill in Rapid City about $3.60 a gallon.
* Roads: We drove some very fine, smooth highways, but many roads were in need of maintenance. We negotiated a fair number of roadwork projects, but they were mostly small patchwork jobs. California roads were the most congested and in bad repair. Best overall roads were in Wyoming, and coming into South Dakota through Edgemont on the concrete roadway was a good driving experience. If you want to see a straight-line road surrounded by flat expanses reaching to infinity, take a drive across a desert in Utah or Nevada. Our prairie highways offer way more in terms of variety and roadside interest.
* Roads II: If you prefer guardrails along steep ridges with hairpin turns, you will find unguarded Utah a scary place to visit. Unobstructed views down – way down – into the bottom of deep valleys certainly enhanced the state’s stunning scenic drives. That is, as long as you don’t mind adding a little fear into your pleasure driving mix. A few steep high-altitude descents warned truckers to check their brakes. Since there were no run-away truck ramps, sure hope those warnings are taken seriously. I found myself stamping the non-existent brakes on the passenger side of our camper van more than once. My takeaway: I like South Dakota road safety standards.
* Geography: No doubt about it, the western United States is one fabulous landscape after another. Even the deserts, while mostly devoid of landmarks, were overwhelming in their vastness. Compared to our Black Hills, the mountains were immense and the tremendous climbs up to passes above the 10,000 foot range caused a few moments of gloomy foreboding as we chugged up one bend only to be confronted by even tougher vertical stretches before finally reaching the summit. We were mostly on the lonely “blue highways,” not the interstates, so I had to become reacquainted with my adventurous side. It’s a gentler drive through the Black Hills, and for me – most of the time – that’s a good thing.
* People: If the economy is keeping folks from traveling, I didn’t see it. There were lots of people on the move at every national park we visited, and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and Las Vegas seemed on the bustle as well. The biggest surprise was the many busloads of tourists we saw – with most of them seemingly filled with foreign visitors. In fact, we were as likely to hear Japanese, Chinese, German, Spanish, French or any number of Slavic languages as we were to hear conversations in English. The parks were not jam packed, but they were certainly having what appeared to be a busy late fall season.
* Bikers and hikers: We were continually humbled – but happily able to avoid being directly humiliated – by the number of people of all ages who were hiking and biking over and through the immense mountain, desert and canyon terrains that we powered along courtesy of the gasoline engine. We encountered folks on bicycles loaded down with side packs and supplies even along the most empty desert stretches. We would reach the bottom of an often hair-raising 15-mile mountain descent only to be met with grey-haired fitness freaks cheerfully beginning their uphill trek. Of course, we didn’t mind the many young, fresh-faced bikers we saw half as much.
We huffed and puffed up and down a short hiking path in the Grand Canyon and stepped aside for many folks who had spent the entire day hiking from the very bottom of the abyss. At Bryce Canyon – altitude about 8,000 feet – a busload of French tourists disembarked, and a number of them immediately lit up cigarettes. We joined them as they made the steep descent into the depths, only to lose them during the ascent. And no, we were not leading the pack.
* Home again: I enjoyed every day of our vacation, but after 14 days on the road I was ready to give up the foot-loose and fancy-free lifestyle. I had seen many wondrous sights. I had relaxed. I felt refreshed. I was ready to go home.
As we drove the familiar route through the Hills and into Rapid City, I sighed a little as I prepared to take up my normal routine. But a happy sigh filled my heart as we pulled into our drive aglow with the colors of a Black Hills fall. I looked out across the valley as our two left-behind dogs rushed to greet us. What a wonderful vacation we had, but as we all know and as the famous young traveler who took a yellow-brick road trip said: There is no place like home.