Driving cross-country for 25 a day

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of February 26-March 4, 1998
Family vacations for high-energy boys
Exciting honeymoons on a tight budget
Driving cross-country for $25 a day
African safari for a family of five
Outfitting a one-year trip to Japan

Driving cross-country for $25 a day
Question: A friend and I have bought a cheap, but reliable car and are ready to kill it on a cross-country road adventure. We'll be starting out in Virginia sometime in March and I, at least, will be returning by the fall when I am due to start law school.

All we know is we want to hit the West Coast and we want to use the time well and not be in a hurry. We even want to be able to earn gas money in whatever small, interesting towns through which we'll happen to pass.

And, I'm bringing my dog. Does this all sound hopelessly impossible to the ears of a savvy traveler? Am I setting myself up for misery and my dog for heatstroke? How much money do you think we're going to waste? And finally, what kind of route do you suggest?

Jim Stevenson
Charlottsville, VA

Adventure Adviser: First, go to the library and check out the book Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck. It'll inspire you to go ahead with your plan, dog in tow.

As far as I'm concerned, your trip sounds totally feasible as long as you don't intend to earn money as you pass through my neck of the woods (Santa Fe, New Mexico) by holding up signs that say "Out of Work, Need Cash, God Bless."

Because you're leaving in March, I suggest you take a southerly route to take advantage of balmier temperatures. If I were taking the trip you propose, I'd probably start by heading through the Appalachians to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Then I'd high-tail it to the coast via I-59 and spend a few days in New Orleans, maybe timing your arrival to hit during the annual Jazz Festival, which takes place the last weekend of April and first weekend in May.

From there, I'd drive west along the coast of Texas to Padre Island National Seashore and camp out on the beach for a few days. Then I'd make my way over to Big Bend National Park and up to New Mexico. Starting in New Mexico and continuing all the way to California, I'd take advantage of all the BLM land, which means free camping.

BLM land is pretty easy to spot, but you could stop at Forest Service offices along the route and the rangers will point these places out to you. From Albuquerque, I'd head west on I-40 to Flagstaff and then up into the Grand Canyon and the half-dozen other National Parks in Utah. After that, I might head south again to Lake Mead, stopping to eat at a cheap buffet in Las Vegas before heading to the promised land of California.

If you don't mind washing up in gas station bathrooms or campground washrooms and eating McDonalds or grocery store rations, you could do this trip for about $25 per day, depending on how far you drive. The majority of your expenses will be gas, food, and park fees for camping.

If you're a Type-A kind of guy, you should probably consider planning at least a loose itinerary of your trip so you know where you're going and how long you're going to be there. If you don't, you might find yourself hating the adventure. The other advantage to doing some research and planning is you'll find out what kind of cool stuff is out there to see.

As far as earning money along the way, don't count on it. You may get lucky and be able to do a few odd jobs here and there, but that's just a gamble. Which brings me to another point. If you get low on cash, you can always stop at one of the dozens of Indian gaming casinos that litter the highways throughout the West.

P.S. If you bring your dog, make sure to keep your leash handy. A lot of roadside rests and parks won't allow dogs unless they are on a leash.

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