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  • Natalie Bunch

lessons learned from a cross-country adventure

From left to right: Zoie, Natalie, Emory and friends at Arches National Park in Utah

In college I, like many of my friends, had an ambitious travel goal of taking a road trip across the country. For many years this idea remained just that- simply an idea, but after months of being stuck in quarantine the idea became a reality in 2021. My husband and I planned a road trip from Atlanta to San Francisco, which spanned nearly three weeks and included 17 different people at various points. Although I had the time of my life, it is difficult to plan such an extensive trip. Based on my experience, there are a few tips I would like to share with future cross country travelers.

Zoie, Natalie and Emory at The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri

1. It is okay to not always have an exact plan on your road trip

My husband, Emory, our former roommate, Zoie, and I left Atlanta on an early Friday morning en route to Colorado, which would be our first long stop of the trip. With the aux cord blasting our favorite songs, a backseat full of snacks, and very little driving under our belt, our spirits were high. We knew the drive to Colorado would take 24 hours and we wanted to be there in two days. Besides that, we did not have a plan for our drive.

I am admittedly a very type A person and can be a bit controlling, so the thought of no plan is not always easy for me. To my surprise, the lack of a plan on our driving days ended up being ideal. We did not have pressure to get to a certain reservation or drive a specific distance. Therefore, we could stop at anything we thought was interesting. On the first day we ate lunch in Nashville, Tenn., and explored Broadway St. before continuing to St. Louis, Mo., to see the Gateway Arch. Ultimately, we drove a bit further to Columbia, Mo., where we walked around the University of Missouri’s campus and enjoyed the town’s nightlife before crashing in our cheap motel room.

Outside the Oz museum in Wamego, Kansas

2. Do not be afraid to reach out to friends and family you know along the way

On Saturday morning we got back in the car, this time with more coffee in hand than the day before, to continue driving. Once again we did not have a plan. The drive through Kansas is long. There are more cornfields than you could ever imagine, but it was beautiful. We continued making impromptu stops like to the Wizard of Oz Museum - they advertise this town for hundreds of miles, so it will be extremely hard to miss it if you are interested. While we were in Kansas, we decided to make our plans for that night. When we saw we could hike at Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday we were so excited. That is when Zoie realized he knew someone who lived in Estes Park, which is the town at the entrance of the park. Although Zoie did not know him super well, he reached out to see if we could stay with him for the night. Typically, I would not be one to cold call someone to stay at their place, but I am so happy Zoie did. By staying with Zoie’s friend we saved money, had easy park access for the following day, and got to play with the homeowner’s adorable puppy. This would be the first of many times we stayed with friends and family during the trip, and we truly could not have made the cross country journey without their hospitality.

Natalie, Zoie and Emory at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

3. Make sure your group has the same budget in mind from the beginning

Following our breathtaking hike on Sunday morning, we drove an hour and a half to Fort Collins, Co., which was our first planned stop of the trip. One of my best friends from college lives there. We arranged to stay with her and her boyfriend for the week. Fort Collins is near Denver, so throughout the week we went into the capital city for various activities. I encourage groups to know their budget before the trip. This allows activities to be prioritized or for compromises to be made. For example we were in town during the MLB All-Star Game. The tickets to the game were super expensive, but my husband is a huge baseball fan. To ensure that he got the experience without breaking the bank, we went to Denver and explored all the surrounding festivities and watched the game in a massive green space near the ballpark. Alternatively, everyone in the group was eager to go to Red Rocks. Therefore, each of us planned on spending money to experience a Caamp concert at the renowned venue, which lived up to the hype! For food we split our time between cooking at home or going out for meals and drinks.

Taking a picture in the Bay Area with friends

4. Prepare for the climate you will be in

After our week in Fort Collins, Co., Emory, Zoie, my friend Katie, who joined us late, and I packed in the car for another long drive. We traveled to Moab, Utah, the home of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. While there we connected with Emory’s brothers and our sister-in-law. One morning we woke up around 5:30 a.m. to hike at Arches. That may sound ridiculous, but I highly recommend getting to the park early. It was extremely hot, like 105 degrees hot. Due to the lack of trees, by noon the Sun was pounding overhead, the rocks were blistering to the touch, and it became too uncomfortable to keep hiking. Since we got there early we were satisfied with everything we got to see. If we had arrived at the park late I would have been either sad to leave early or miserable enduring the heat. Do not let this dissuade you from going to the park. The views are unbelievable and worth the early wake up call. Also, there are plenty of places to cool down in town with ice cream or a beer after your long hike. Just eat the ice cream quickly or it will melt all over your hands, which happened to many of us.

Outside The Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada

5. Get plenty of sleep before you drive

After our weekend of hiking, we backtracked a bit and spent time in Grand Junction, Co., before our final push to the West Coast. We headed to Las Vegas for one night. We experienced the infamous city with stops at the Bellagio, MGM Grand, and a rooftop club with an amazing view of the strip. Of course we did not fall asleep until 3:30 a.m., which made the 10 hour drive to San Francisco the next morning extremely difficult. I would advise any future road trippers to try to split this drive or get more rest to avoid a miserable day on the highway.

On the road in a car filled with snacks and car jams

5. Make sure to plan a trip with people you can be with for a long period of time

We finished the trip with a delightful weekend in San Francisco where we ate our way through the hilly streets on the bay. As the trip drew to an end, everyone’s patience with each other began to wear. Three weeks is a long time to be with the same people and everyone has different travel styles. Make sure you take this into consideration when you pick your travel buddies. Thankfully, we had a large enough group that making compromises and splintering from the group was always an easy option.

Hopefully these tips help make your road trip dreams a reality. I promise the experience is worth every hour in the car, each cornfield passed, and any little group disputes along the way.


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