Hubert Burda Media

A Road Trip Through Small-town America

Driving from Los Angeles to Ohio, one writer discovers how the wonders of the open road can give the average luxury holiday a run for its money.

The irony was not lost on any of us that my two sons wanted to attend a radio control aircraft event 2,400 miles (3,865km) away, but were adamantly refusing to actually board a plane to get there. 

“Road trip,” they said in unison. “It’s about time.” 

Indeed. The road trip is an enduring component of American culture. Beyond being the propelling force behind countless movies (Thelma and Louise, Easy Rider, Little Miss Sunshine), they have been a summertime ritual for millions of American families who pack up the station wagon and hit the Interstate en route to hot and sprawling national parks, the Smithsonian or sandy beaches at the other end of the country. You can see these weary asphalt pounders, worn out and bedraggled, spilling out of overstuffed cars, waiting in line at gas-station bathrooms, picking up a Red Bull and a 99-cent hot dog for sustenance. 

And this was, to my initial dismay, what my boys wanted. They’d never been on a road trip. This was as good an opportunity as any. 

The impetus was a thing called Flite Fest, which happens once a year in the middle of a cornfield in Ohio. It’s an extensive four-day event organised by a group of model-aircraft enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who started a company called Flite Test – a “disruptor”, if you will, in the world of radio-controlled aeroplanes. Walk into a store and buy a plane ready to fly, and it can run to several hundred US dollars. Make it from scratch, like Flite Test teaches, and it’ll cost a fraction of that (they also sell kits for those less mechanically inclined). Their earthy, down-home appeal has won them legions of followers – my sons among them. For my boys, 11 and 14, who love anything to do with flight and don’t follow pop music or play video games, these guys are rock stars.

And now they wanted to travel thousands of miles overland from our home outside Los Angeles to meet them. 

We ditched the idea of a mobile home the second a rep at Cruise America, which rents out these trundling, behemoth houses on wheels, said something about the importance of learning how to reconnect a sewage hose. For us newbie adventurers, there had to be limits. 

So we piled into a rented regular-sized car, my husband, the two boys, the family dog Taffy and myself, along with a five-foot-long, handmade cardboard plane, toolboxes, Ziploc bags of electronics, seven large sacks of organic snacks, a crate of bottled water and a mountain of dog food. I had, the week earlier, headed down to the American Automobile Association, which, apart from everything else it does, is sort of the benefactor of road trips. A very helpful chap there mapped out our journey both ways: 2,400 miles each way, driving approximately 500 miles a day, with a list of canine-friendly hotels to sleep in every night. 

Reservations were made. The car was stuffed but well organised. Everyone was happy. Expectations were high. This was going to be fun. Even if, five hours later, my husband was pulled over by an Arizona state trooper for going 93mph (150km/h). Or when we knocked out our rear-view mirror against an imposing traffic cone. Or when the dog sat on the aeroplane wing and crushed it. Or spending the night in a Howard Johnson inn that had what looked like blood stains on the floor and a “breakfast bar” where the cereal hadn’t been changed since 1974. Or being caught in an electrical storm, and no GPS, in the dead of night on a winding back road deep in the heartland. 

The key thing about road trips is adaptability. Standards, simply by virtue of where you happen to be, need to be adjusted. So you can try and Google “best hotel in Amarillo”, but you’re not going to yield very much, because there’s a broad swathe of towns across America that don’t know what a Michelin star is and, rightly, don’t care. And the towns and cities that have burgeoning prosperous areas – where gentrification has gently settled – are a revelation, quite literally an oasis in the desert. 

A roadside Denny's

A roadside Denny’s

Setting off from Los Angeles, our first stop was Arizona, and the Grand Canyon. We spent a couple of hours oohing-and-aahing with everyone else and, yes, it is truly jaw-dropping. After a night spent in nearby Flagstaff at the aforementioned Howard Johnson, we journeyed through New Mexico, stopping for dinner at a quaint Italian place in Albuquerque, before driving five hours late at night – never a good idea – to Amarillo in Texas, a city whose only redeeming quality was a hip juice bar in the centre of a rundown strip mall, a beacon of sophistication in a neighbourhood otherwise lined with tyre dealers and liquor stores. A night each in Oklahoma City, Springfield and Indianapolis before finally making it to Ohio. 

That we’d entered another world was apparent in the “Vote the Bible” signs, the fact that each street corner had a church and a Denny’s and that was about it. We stopped for lunch in a remote diner, the only thing open for miles, where the house specials included chicken-fried steak and a bathtub-sized portion of mashed potatoes. The slice of pie was as large as my younger son’s head. I had lost my shoes somewhere in the car and sat down at the table barefoot and in a weird mental fugue. Road trips, as I discovered, will do that to you. 

Throughout, though, there were these delightful pockets of gloss: in Oklahoma City, the Ambassador Hotel has all the swank of a Manhattan property, with a much earthier price tag; it’s the sort of place with a rooftop bar, signature cocktails and steak tartare delivered to your room on gleaming silver trays. In Springfield, Missouri, we stayed at the Vandivort, the city’s first urban boutique hotel, featuring high ceilings, a cosy tavern-style lobby eatery and organic dog treats for canine guests. The Alexander in Indianapolis feels like an art gallery, striking pieces on the walls, art-filled rooms, luxury at every turn. After a string of Microtels and Howard Johnsons, it felt good to care about thread count again. 

The Vandivort in Springfield, Missouri

The Vandivort in Springfield, Missouri

After nights of sleeping in a different state, it was a joy finally to spend four days in one place – the town where Flite Fest was happening, Malvern in Ohio. It has a population of 1,000 – which is the size of a Hong Kong wedding. It also happens to be the fracking capital of the world

There’s a Main Street, anchored by a Dairy Queen, a bank and a pizza parlour. My boys – like the hundreds of other people who’d flown in from all over the world – could not have cared less about the size of the town, the dearth of leisure options. They spent 12 hours a day on their feet, constructing planes under white-canopied “build tents” and flying them in the middle of a dry and dusty cornfield, chugging sweet lemonade from refillable plastic cups and dining on charred sliders off the back of a food truck. For them, this was as good a summer vacation as they would ever get.

With even more scratch-built planes now crowding our car, we took an alternative route home, through Davenport in Iowa, Grand Island in Nebraska, Salt Lake City, driving through endless states like Wyoming where, if you miss your exit, it’s 100 miles before you can turn around. It’s all too easy to fall into a “highway hypnosis” of sorts as you drive – to your peril, of course, given the succession of 18-wheelers in the next lane. I turned back to look at the kids, who were by now covered in popcorn and sitting on empty plastic bottles, exhausted, the dog sprawled between them. 

At which point it occurred to me that the best trips – the most fondly remembered ones – often have nothing to do with the grand gesture, the expansive hotel suites, five-course dinners and heart-melting views. Sometimes what sticks is a sweet image of driving past a cow-filled pasture, the twang of a country song on the radio, my husband’s hand in my lap, headed for home.