Driving backroads beats the tar out of the Interstate

by Sheila on August 3, 2009

by Sheila | August 3rd, 2009  

Long stretches of farm land near Nome, Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)Those who drive long stretches of most US Interstate highways know that, while you’ll get there faster and there might be some good places to pull off, it will be a mostly boring trip.

Fast, efficient, but boring.

If you decide to jump off on a backroad (see William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways) for at least part of the journey, it might add time and you might not see anything, either.

But the chances are good that you WILL make some sort of discovery, the kind that leaves everyone in the car grinning with delight (well, except your teenagers, but they’ll smile inwardly and appreciate it later. You know; years from now.)

That’s what I did driving from Beaumont, Texas back to my home in the Austin area after my high school reunion festivities; I pulled out the map and said, “Please, let there be some road that goes roughly in the correct direction but is not Interstate 10.”

Texas agricultural equipment; don't know what it is but I like it (photo by Sheila Scarborough)With the Neville Brothers Fiyo on the Bayou blaring in the minivan, I rolled through a multitude of teensy towns, puzzled at various bits of farm equipment (total mysteries to me as a city kid) ate a fine buffet lunch at Cookie’s Soul Food Kitchen in Ames, Texas, looked at grain silos for rice and pretty much had a blast.

Full disclosure: I did not have children with me, but if I had, I would have taken the exact same route and made those little suckers read every historical marker, too!

Here are my tips for maximum enjoyment of your own “blue highways:”

***  Carry a detailed map. Yes, those paper thingies. When driving in Texas, I finally learned to listen to my own Mom and carry the Mapsco Roads of Texas atlas of every poky Farm-to-Market or Ranch Road, country road and bizarre cut-through that your standard state map has never heard of.  No, I would not depend on GPS; it is only as good as the data fed into it, and I don’t always have much confidence that the Garmin Lady has checked out places like Cut and Shoot, Texas.

***  Start with a full tank of gas.  Why stress about the needle getting too close to Empty, in the middle of nowhere?

***  Observe and follow local road etiquette. Pay attention to posted speeds, and note what your fellow drivers are doing.   In much of Texas, the speed limit is, yes, 70 mph. Woo-hoo! But remember, these may be two-lane, curvy roads and Billy Bob in his pickup is in a hurry and is unimpressed with your 72 mph.  The local etiquette is to ease on over to the shoulder when you can and let ‘em get by, often with a friendly headlight flash/hand wave exchange afterward.  Watch for slow-moving livestock trailers as well.

***  Be alert for farm stands, and stop to grab fresh fruits and veggies (if you have a place to keep them where you’re going.)

With kids, you have to build in a little more time for backroads adventures, but I think it’s always worth it.

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Dominique August 4, 2009 at 12:23 am

We love driving the back roads…we’ve always sworn by Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer books for each individual state. http://shop.delorme.com/OA_HTML/DELibeCCtpSctDspRte.jsp?section=10042&minisite=10020
I think I’ve gone through at least a dozen Michigan Gazatteers and probably a half dozen Ohio Gazatteers. Each book includes listings of things like major attractions and specific things of interest in the state covered…and page after page of detailed maps of each section of the state.
Even though we have a GPS, as you point out, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned paper map.

Linda August 4, 2009 at 12:33 am

Great post! I love finding the roads that preceded the Interstates. Driving through the small towns instead of around them is a great way to see America, and so much more interesting if you have the time.

Amen on the historical markers. Even my three-year-old says, “Mom, there’s a ‘storical marker. You have to take a picture of it!”

Sheila August 4, 2009 at 8:56 am

I get the same thing, only it’s “Oh, no, Mom, not another historical marker!”

Sheila August 4, 2009 at 8:58 am

Thanks, Dominique. I ought to get those for Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico for those trips when we actually break the 4-5 hour mark and can get across the Texas border into another state!

Kami Huyse August 4, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Love your backroads trip idea. There is no need to take a long trip to take your advice. Before I had children my husband and I spent whole weekends just driving around back roads and checking out our near neighborhood. I loved those days. We bought a county map of San Antonio and used it to explore the rural SA area and the Hill Country.

With infants and small children I have mostly stuck to the interstate, if for no other reason than short car trips always work out better for them (and me). But I suspect that as they get older we will go back to our wandering ways.

BTW, my family all live in Beaumont, what road did you take from Beaumont?

Sheila August 4, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Hi Kami,

It was Highway 90, which worked just fine to get to the Houston area.

And yes, with little ones, it doesn’t take long in the car before insanity sets in! I hear you there….

Aron@hotels in hawaii August 5, 2009 at 7:47 am

very nice post dear i appreciate it.

Alan Rider August 10, 2009 at 5:32 am

GREAT post! When a couple of friends and I followed Route 66 from Chicago to L.A. a few years ago ( http://tinyurl.com/mlqbdw ) we had 2 simple rules that made all the difference: A) have no set itinerary/hotel reservations — you’re much more likely to stop to explore that funky roadside attraction if you’re not worried about making another 300 miles by nightfall; and B) never eat any place (i.e/ chain restaurants/fast food joints) you could eat at home. Try it on your next roadtrip!

Sheila August 10, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Thanks, Alan. Sometimes those two rules are hard to follow when you have kids (especially Number Two) but it’s worth the effort to try. :)

Joe @ Hawaii Tours August 5, 2010 at 11:25 am

Very good post, keep up the good work.


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