Hitting Reset

Taking the routes less traveled makes all the difference in a celebratory empty-nest road trip.

Illustration by Tim Zeltner

Pressing the pedal to the floor on Interstate 64, with R.E.M. cranked on the stereo, the wind blowing through our hair, and our dog, Poppy—a 10-pound schnoodle—in the back, Jessica and I couldn’t quite believe it was actually happening.

We had been too busy emptying the nest to plan our empty-nest road trip. A week after we celebrated our 30th anniversary by dropping off our two youngest daughters (of four) at the airport for study-abroad adventures, we were beating a path across Virginia a step ahead of Hurricane Florence. Nothing was going to stop us now, though—we were headed west come hell or even high water. We had spread out a gigantic U.S. map on our dining room table the night before and decided on a northerly route, with only a hint of structure—mostly popping in on old friends in far-flung towns, like Sioux Falls, Park City, and Sun Valley. Not all of them knew we were coming, and arrival times were strictly TBA. 

But while our itinerary was seat-of-the-pants, our travel philosophy was well-honed, dating back to a 16-hour drive from Dallas, Jessica’s hometown, to Chapel Hill, where we went to school. Stretching the trip out to five days, we realized then that we came from the same exploring travel tribe. Jessica’s father, I learned, was fond of taking “shortcuts” that were anything but, and my pop was infamous for never turning around, no matter how lost or what anyone said. To us and ours, it wasn’t so much about where you were going as how you got there.

As soon as we left Virginia, whose back roads we have covered extensively, we set the GPS on “avoid highways.” Two-lane (or less) America was where we wanted to be, and we knew to double the time the device told us it would take to get wherever we were going and to download directions in advance as we were prone to wandering off the grid.

Instead of blazing through the Midwest to get to the Rockies, we took our time, crossing from Ohio into Indiana in a matrix of cornfields, traveling from one tiny farm town to the next. Barns, silos, and rows of corn dominated the landscape, and towns were festooned in banners for each of their sons and daughters serving in the military. In Dixon, Illinois, we stopped at Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home. An hour up the road, we pulled over at a vegetable stand consisting of an old Starbucks display case loaded with sun-ripened tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, with a donation bucket for those who felt so inclined. 

We found the rolling hills of Wisconsin and the moody plains of South Dakota as gorgeous as we would the Rockies. We searched for John Muir’s boyhood farms near Portage, Wisconsin, and in the Black Hills, a herd of bison engulfed us on their way from a hillside to a pond for their evening cocktail.

Farther west, we four-wheeled and hiked around Aspen, crisscrossed Yellowstone, and explored the Teton and Sawtooth ranges and the lava fields of Craters of the Moon. We crossed the Continental Divide at Independence Pass, drove the Beartooth Highway, and stumbled upon the Great Salt Lake, much the way the Mormons first did, at Emigration Pass. We took in the Northern Lights in Red Lodge and arrived at Old Faithful just in time to see its mighty gush. As we went, the selfies got more and more exotic, the hugs firmer, the smiles wider.

But it was the no-name, in-between places and the road itself that we loved the most and where we felt the most free. One day, with Jessica behind the wheel, we took a promising hashed line on the paper map across the open range to Utah’s Promontory Summit, where the Trans-continental Railroad joined together with a golden spike. Cattle blocked the dusty road. Antelope, mule deer, a coyote, and finally even a wolf ran beside us. The horizon seemed to stretch to forever. Another day, we raced against darkness along a 50-mile dirt road from Wyoming into Idaho, an exhilarating bump and grind directly into a dazzling sunset. 

The nest may be empty, but thank goodness the fuel tank can be refilled. 

This article originally appeared in our February 2019 issue.

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