State by state
Here is some brief commentary on each state we saw, in the order in which we initially saw them*. (The little house icon denotes a state of which at least one of us has been a resident.)
After seeing 47 other states, there's no where I'd rather live than right here in the San Francisco Bay area, ten minutes from the bay, half an hour from the ocean, and a half-day's drive from any number of natural wonders, including Big Sur and Yosemite National Park. It's warmer in the winter than the northern states and cooler in the summer than the southern ones. And unlike the east coast, when you drive along the coast, you can actually see the ocean, instead of an endless series of high-rise hotels, rental beach houses, or garishly colored souvenir stores.
Do this: Yosemite National Park; the Pacific Coast; Redwood National and State Parks
Is Las Vegas really that exciting, or does it just seem that way in contrast to the hundred of miles of barren nothingness you have to drive through to get there? Having seen what passes for "casinos" in other states, my answer has to be "Viva Las Vegas!" Gambling in Kalispell, Montana, is just sad. Gambling in Las Vegas is an event! It's an extravaganza of swirling, blinking, beeping sensory stimuli. Even if you don't like gambling, Vegas is worth the trip just for the buffets. Go to one with crab legs, eat all the crab legs you can cram in, and walk away a winner! It's a sure bet!
Do this: The Vegas strip; Valley of Fire State Park
Skip it: The entire rest of the state
It's odd how Arizona and Nevada are both just huge deserts, yet somehow Arizona is quite beautiful while Nevada is just plain empty. If you've been living in the city or the mountains for the past few years, the sheer scale of the vast sweeping vista of the Arizona landscape will melt your brain. And the people there were some of the nicest we met. The abject poverty of northwest Arizona the nearly one-fourth of the state that is Native American land is pretty depressing, though.
Do this: The Grand Canyon
Skip it: Petrified Forest National Park, unless you're really into fossilized tree chunks.
I like to think of New Mexico as "Arizona, only with missles and aliens." The main attractions of N.M. are all ripe for conspiracy theoriest and doomsayers: The Very Large Array (which deserves an award for being the most obviously named scientific facility in existence), Roswell, Alamogordo, White Sands Missle Range. It's very hot, but it's a dry heat. People say that facetiously, but it seriously does make a difference. Visit Mississippi in summer and see what I mean.
Do this: the things listed above, especially White Sands National Monument
Skip it: For your own sanity, avoid the Sands Motel in Socorro
Can I really make sweeping generalizations about the second largest state in the union based only on El Paso and the panhandle? Yes I can. El Paso is hell on earth. Texas is so full of Texas pride that the other states wink at each other and ask what it's compensating for. Think about it: Texas isn't the largest state by area, by population, or by any economic indicator, but they can't seem to stop talking about size. And as a former Alaskan, let me emphasize the word second in "second largest state." I've seen bumper stickers that say, "I'm from Texas, what country are you from?" Well, if Texas wants to secede, I for one will help them pack. Fuck Texas. There, I said it.
Do this: Nothing
Skip it: Texas
Oklahoma was surprisingly scenic, especially if you're not used to seeing a lot of farmland. But the toll roads are expensive. Don't ever miss your exit; they are very far apart in parts of Oklahoma. You could go thirty miles out of your way just making a U turn.
Do this: The Oklahoma City National Memorial. Hans Butzer & company did a really nice job designing this.
I think Kansas should take Kansas City by force. All of it. It's not called Missouri City, is it? Besides, Missouri already has St. Louis (for what that's worth), and what does Kansas get? Topeka? The Kansas scenery is composed of some lovely farmland, but the sunsets are where Kansas really shines. That, and the lightning bug swarms.
Do this: Big Brutus, if you like giant (and I mean really mega-super-giant) machines; the sunset
I'm allergic to Missouri, and I will never forgive it for being home to St. Louis. They do have a lot of fireworks stores.
Do this: Arthur Bryant's Barbecue in Kansas City; The Gateway Arch, but don't plan to stay in St. Louis just look at the Arch and go
Skip it: Most everything else
There's Chicago, and then there's the rest of Illinois. The rest of it seems to be run entirely by hunters. It's a hunting-based economy. Hunting clubs, gun stores, "deer processing" facilities. Chicago is like other big cities, with its own special attractions. I would describe my impression if Illinois as "generally positive."
Do this: Eat an Italian beef sandwich at Mr. Beef in Chicago; if you're a huge Superman fan, a trip to the Super Museum in Metropolis is worthwhile if you're in the area
Bluegrass, horse racing, and whiskey. If that's your idea of heaven, then stay the hell away from me. Stay in Kentucky! I had no idea there were buffalo in Kentucky, but there they are, in the Land Between the Lakes. See what you learn when you travel?
Do this: I didn't stay long enough to find out.
A note about the house icon: I'm not actually sure if I lived in Tennessee or Kentucky. We lived on Fort Campbell when my mother was in the 101st Airborne Division, and people always refer to Fort Campbell as being in Kentucky, but it actually straddles the state line. I believe our house was on the Tennessee side.
For its size, Tennessee is blessed with a mountain of tourism riches. It's got Nashville and Memphis! Country music fans will love Nashville. Country music haters will not find it so enticing. Blues fans should head to Memphis, one of America's official "fun" cities. To qualify for "fun city" status, you need a place where people congregate, with free music, where you can drink on the street (which encourages milling about). In Memphis, this is Beale Street.
Do this: Beale Street in Memphis; Graceland, just because, come on, it's Graceland. And how can you not eat at Hot Buttered Soul, the restaurant owned by Isaac Hayes?
I only saw fifty miles of Arkansas. I will say to those who would stereotype the home state of our last competent president [Note: please recall this was written in 2002], that I didn't see anyone wearing overalls with no shirt. I did see a lot of heavy farm equipment in the road.
Do this: I have no idea. I have been advised to visit Little Rock. I'll have to get back to you on that.
"Nicer than you think" would be a good motto for Mississippi. "The Sauna State" would be another. Mississippi has lots of butterflies.
Do this: Sweat. A lot. Blues fans, check out the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.
Even after only seeing the little part of Louisiana that sticks out under Mississippi, there's too much to summarize here. Read the New Orleans trip notes. If it weren't so humid, I might consider living there.
Do this: Bourbon Street, New Orleans; Take a swamp tour; check out the architecture around New Orleans; eat lots of gumbo.
Skip it: The Hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's.
In fairness, I have to say that I only saw about thirty miles of Alabama. So, I'll just keep my smartass comments to myself.
Do this: Try to find a restaurant where they don't bread and deep fry the seafood.
Let's be clear about this: I do not like Florida. In fact, I hate Florida. It rains every single goddamn day in Florida. The incompetence and corruption of Florida helped put our nuclear arsenal in the hands of a man that can't even pronounce "nuclear." But I will say, there is a ton of stuff to do there. I'd be willing to let Florida secede, if we get to keep everything from the Everglades south.
Do this: The Keys; watch the sun set from Mallory Square in Key West; Everglades National Park; swim in the ocean along the panhandle; if you're into space exploration, see the Kennedy Space Center (admission was $35!)
Skip it: Don't bother driving along the east coast of Florida; it's all ugly hotels and towns full of vacation rentals.
Your call: Disneyland. We went because how could the Great American Roadtrip be complete without it? On the other hand, there is the evil to consider.
I couldn't see most of Georgia because of the sheets of driving rain. Savannah's hangout spot seems to be River Street, which seemed like an okay place. If you're looking for something like Bourbon Street, only smaller and a lot less fun, try River Street. We didn't stay there long, on account of the aforementioned torrential rain.
Do this: If you're in Georgia in the summer, find a farmer's market and buy a peach.
Skip it: Okeefenokee. Go see the Everglades instead.
Did I mention the rain? The blinding, hurricane-like, miserable, unholy rain?
Do this: If you like architecture, the very southern edge of Charleston has some houses to look at. But see below before you go.
Skip it: The whole state, until they agree to stop flying the flag of an army that fought for the continuation of slavery and the dissolution of the union. Does Germany get to fly the Nazi party flag just because it's "part of their history?" No, goddamnit, they don't. That's what losing a war means, jackass. Unfortunately, we had to drive through South Carolina to get from Georgia to North Carolina. But we didn't stay there! [Note: South Carolina finally stopped flying a secessionist flag over their statehouse in 2015.]
I will always remember North Carolina as the state where it finally stopped raining.
Do this: Drive the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take a couple of days to do it.
Skip it: North Carolina style barbeque, unless you know what you're getting into. With apologies to Gregg, they do it all wrong there.
I'm counting D.C. as part of Virgina, because I stayed very near to the District (in Alexandria). Virginia is a weird mix of very worldly/metropolitan (around the Beltway) and very, very Southern. Dukes of Hazzard fans can check out Cooter's Place on Route 211 in northwest Virginia. Cooter, aka Ben Jones, ran an unsuccessful race for Congress last election. As for DC, the best thing about the District is that not only is there a ton of stuff to do, but a lot of it is free. Yet they still bitch about not having representation in Congress. Hey, nobody else gets free museums and concerts!
Do this: Where to start? Shenandoah National Park; if you like caverns, Luray has a trippy reflecting pool; any number of museums, memorial, and events in DC. Go see some of them while they're still there.
Another of the states that only got a cursory look. I know West Virginia has a bad rap. But it's very scenic in a bucolic country way.
Do this: I have nothing to offer here.
Maryland means one thing to me and that's crabs! If you've read the notes, you know the greatest crab house in existence burned down. But it's scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2003. Also known for its aquarium; get there early and plan to hang out at the harbor for a while, because you'll have to buy a timed ticket. Whatever you do, stay away from Annapolis. The traffic there could seriously drive a man insane.
Do this: The National Aquarium; Hoopers, when they reopen
Skip it: Annapolis, unless you actually go to the Academy.
Delaware is little more than one long Atlantic beach. The resident-to-tourist ratio can't be more than two to one. Delaware is another multiple-personality state: it demonstrates clear conservative leanings (more than a few of the t-shirts for sale there would send a liberal into anaphylactic shock), yet it's chock full of Grateful Dead merchandise, hemp clothing and head shops. I guess this is where Republicans take their hippie teenagers on vacation.
Do this: If you're in Delaware anyway, go to the beach. You might as well incorporate a company while you're at it.
Pennsylvania is so much more than just Philadelphia. It's also Pittsburgh! But we didn't see that, so for me, it's pretty much all about the failed quest for a decent cheesesteak. Of course, there's a bunch of historical stuff. We tried to see the Liberty Bell, but a) there was a freaking HUGE line, and b) there was also a sign saying "NO KNIVES INCLUDING POCKETKNIVES." Unfortunately, we both have tiny (1") pocket knives attacked to our keys, and the car was like, eight blocks away. Besides, it's in a glass building. So we just looked through a window.
Do this: If you're in Pennsylvania anyway, you might as well go see the bell. They have a very nice visitor center. Also, get a roast pork sandwich at Tony Luke's.
Skip it: Do I even need to say it?
The magic of the Joisey Shore. It's everything you think it is; dirty, retro in a very creepy carnival way, utterly without taste, and more fun than being trapped in a barrel full of monkeys! New Jersey gets a bad rap, and I'm still not sure why. The proliferation of diners alone makes it superior in many ways to my own, no-diner-having state. The one thing Jersey deserves its abysmal reputation for is driving. Is there something about full-service gas that makes people forget the basic rules of traffic safety?
Do this: Go to a diner at 3am. Order chicken and waffles. It totally rocks.
Skip it: Don't pump your own gas, or turn left when on a state highway. You aren't allowed to do either. In fact, try to avoid driving altogether.
The thing I miss most about living in New York is existence of 24-hour diners. Please send some diners to California. And then there's the pizza. Mmmmm. Funny thing, though, in all the years I lived in New York, I never once went upstate to the Adirondacks. It's really pretty up there! One thing to remember about New York is that it's basically a triangle, and driving along the long side (Plattsburgh to Buffalo to Erie, PA) takes a really long time. It took us three days, factoring in time for Niagara and the Syracuse Nationals.
Do this: NYC: Go to the Empire State Building observation deck on a clear day. Go at least a few hours before sunset to avoid the worst lines. Eat some pizza. Visit the Met or the MOMA.
Upstate: If you're on any serious sort of tourist junket, you have to see Niagara Falls. Keep in mind you DO have to go to Canada for the good view. They don't allow pepper spray in Canada; if you have some (like us), you will have to surrender it "to the crown" at the border. You will not get it back, and the Canadian customs guys don't think the phrase "surrender to the crown" is as funny as you do. Also, you should see the Adirondacks. Take Route 3 from Cadyville to Watertown.
Skip it: Lake Placid; too much traffic on the only road through town.
Ethan Allen. Dockers commercials. Yacht racing. Polo. Khaki slacks. People who say "slacks" instead of "pants." Greenwich. Country clubs. Rich white liberals. Rich white conservatives. Yale. Jutting, clean-shaven jaws. Cardigans. Sweater vests. Argyle socks. People who say "lichen" instead of "light green."
Do this: Ummm....
They have jai a'lai in Rhode Island.
Do this: I'm pretty sure there's something to do in Rhode Island, but we didn't do it.
At some point you have to wonder why New England is broken up into so many different states. At least Massachusetts has the hilarious Salem Witch Museum. And don't believe what you read about traffic going to Cape Cod. Feel free to believe what you hear about traffic in Boston, though, because every single person I know who's been there corroborates the stories.
Do this: The Witch Museum. Provincetown is nice, but parking is a problem.
If you can't get west of the Mississippi but you've gotta have some fireworks, try New Hampshire. People in southern New Hampshire drive very slowly. The White Mountains are very pretty.
Do this: Feel free to drive up Mt. Washington, the highest point east of the Mississippi River. Just don't put one of those idiotic bumper stickers that says "This car climbed Mt. Washington" on your car. People who brag about the fact that their car can go uphill look like idiots.
Maine is the prettiest state in the contiguous 48, hands down. California could give it a run for its money, but only if they took all the ugly boring and/or urban stuff out (Mojave Desert, San Jose, Los Angeles, etc.) and pushed all the scenic parts together. The entire state is like a National Park. If you plan a trip anywhere in New England, go to Maine. A word for California travelers, though: everyone talks about the Maine coast being so beautiful, but if you've already driven Highway 1 down the coast of Northern California, it looks pretty familiar. The northern woods are the best part.
Do this: Acadia National Park; drive up by Moosehead Lake and the Rangeley Lakes.
Skip it: Bar Harbor. Unless you're inexcusably white, privileged and shallow. Also, the Chinese food, unless you like macaroni salad with your egg rolls. And Augusta. In fact, don't expect to find anything that really qualifies as a "city" in Maine.
Northern Vermont is, I assume, scenic, because it's a continuation of northern New Hampshire. But we mostly drove through it at night, do I don't have much to go on. If you're planning to stay in Burlington, you might want to make an advance hotel reservation.
Do this: You might as well buy some maple syrup while you're there.
Contrary to popular belief, I'm not entirely convinced that Cleveland rocks. But it does have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which you should know, closes at 5:00pm six days a week. So don't plan to go in the evening. It's strategically located next to the endearingly hapless Cleveland Browns' stadium. Ohio seems like a fine, suburban, unexceptional place, but Lake Erie smells awful.
Do this: Meh.
Southern Michigan isn't bad-looking but not exactly pretty, either. It's just kind of there, looking average in every way. But it is where The Shark was made, so we like it anyway.
Do this: Well, we enjoyed going to see the GM plant in Pontiac, Michigan, where our car was made, but I'm not sure you're going to get much out of it. [Note: also, it's gone now.]
Do NOT mess with Notre Dame. God will punish you. I don't even go in for all that God stuff but he sure showed me that day in Indiana.
Do this: Okay, I have to admit this stretch of the country didn't have all that many "attractions." But we couldn't just teleport from Buffalo to Chicago, could we?
I have to admit an excessive fondness for Wisconsin since I lived in Madison at an age when a college town was the coolest thing ever. So I think Wisconsin (and specifically the capitol) totally rocks, but you won't necessarily agree. Outside of the major cities, it's pretty much just cow land. The Wisconsin River is pretty (with lots and lots of mosquitos in the summer) and we saw a bald eagle there.
Do this: We had a very pleasant afternoon with a rented rowboat on Lake Wingra. I suggest you try it if the weather is nice. We didn't get up north to the Wisconsin Dells, but next time I road trip through the midwest, it's definitely on the agenda.
Do this: Look at corn. Not that you could avoid it.
Minnesota has so much to do! And we did it all in one day!
Do this: The Mall of America in Bloomington. Drive by First Avenue in Minneapolis, where Prince, The Time, and Soul Asylum all got their starts. The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota (in Darwin, 60 miles west of Mpls). Definitely, Itasca State Park, to see the headwaters of the Mississippi. There's a giant Paul Bunyan in Bemidji.
There are exactly three things to see in North Dakota, and they are all along Interstate 94. Normally I recommend staying off the Interstate, but come on. You really want to drive through North Dakota as fast as you can. And the interstate does run through fields of sunflowers, which is awesome in the summer.
Do this: There's the World's Largest Buffalo statue in Jamestown, and the World's Largest Holstein Cow statue in New Salem. The Theodore Roosevelt State Park on the western edge of the state is quite nice, especially at sunset. We saw a porcupine!
Vast, barren, flat, and empty.
Do this: Mt. Rushmore. If you're into kitsch, Wall Drug in Wall.
Skip it: The Badlands. Go to the Grand Canyon, Red Rocks, or Valley of Fire instead.
Geez, and I thought South Dakota was flat. But at least Nebraska has Carhenge (outside Alliance).
Do this: See above.
The Rocky Mountains part of Colorado is quite beautiful. The rest of the state looks like whatever state it borders on that side; the north looks like Nebraska; the south looks like New Mexico. This is another state where taking the interstate is okay, because I-70 west from Denver goes through some really nice scenery.
Do this: Rocky Mountain National Park. If you're into Native American history, check out the southern half of the state.
Skip it: The Happy Cooker in Georgetown.
Yes, Utah really is as Mormon as you think it is. The only place you're likely to see a comparable amount of publicly visible religion is in certain parts of the Southern Baptist states. Don't expect to hang out in any bars, but if you like desert scenery, southern Utah is worth a visit.
Do this: Arches National Park, just north of Moab.
Northern Idaho is not only not scenic, but it is officially the Redneckiest Place in America. If you plan to talk to the North Idaho natives, be prepared to show your NRA card. In southern Idaho is my least favorite restaurant in the world, the Miso Hungry Cafe in Driggs. I got an email from the owner of the Miso Hungry complaining about my characterization of her restaurant on this website. I've decided to spare her the embarassment of posting that email, even though it completely and utterly missed the point in every possible way. I will say, however, that if you're going to send email about your business to complete strangers, you might want to use such formal niceties as capitalization, good grammar, and proper spelling. It just looks more professional. Other that those things, though, Idaho seems fine.
Do this: Well, if you can't get a hotel room in Jackson but you want to stay near Yellowstone, well, that's how we ended up in Driggs.
Skip it: I'll let you figure this one out.
With all due respect to possibly the greatest movie ever made, Cannibal! The Musical, Wyoming is a beatiful state! At least, a 50-mile-wide section along the western border is.
Do this: Yellowstone but plan on at least two days.
Skip it: Frankly, I didn't think the Grand Tetons were worth sitting in my damn car for hours waiting for the construction crew to let us by. But if the road wasn't closed half the day, I'd probably have a different view.
Montana is also beautiful. Especially if you live somewhere urban, and you think farms are pretty. It has Glacier National Park (aka Glacier International Peace Park; part of it is in Canada), which is kind of a bitch to get to, but definitely one of America's best National Parks. It is absolutely worth the drive.
Do this: Glacier National Park. Be sure to get out of the car and take a trail once in a while.
Skip it: Glacier National Park, if you insist on driving your Excursion. That road is really narrow in places.
Unfortunately, we didn't get to the really nice parts of Washington, such as the northwest or the North Cascades National Park. Eastern Washington is all high desert, which is really dull.
Do this: Go the places we didn't.
Our final state! The Columbia River is reasonably scenic. The forests that lie between Interstate 5 and Route 97 are beautiful. Everything east of the Cascades can be a little bit frighteningly rednecky. Crater Lake is one of the single most scenic locations we saw on the whole trip. My main complaint is not being allowed to pump your own gas.
Do this: See some of the scenery along the Cascades Mountain range; visit Crater Lake National Park.