Taxiing to the terminal in Panama City Beach, Florida, I sent my daughter the text, “Landed!!” She had been travelling for several weeks and I was excited to join her for part of the adventure. Getting myself to this meeting spot was the only real planning I’d done for the two-week road trip ahead of me. I didn’t know where we were going, only that we were headed “west” in our minivan that we converted to a campervan. How I was going to get back home was also a mystery. I figured I’d fly home from “somewhere” depending where we were. Family and friends thought we were a little crazy, but our road trip without a destination, or a plan, was remarkably liberating.
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First Stop, Panama City Beach
Stepping out of the airport, the August Florida heat hit me like a wall of wet bricks. Luckily, only minutes later we were on a highway, daughter at the wheel, delighting in the water views flying past. Our dog Cali had been travelling with my daughter and she crawled onto my lap. Apparently I was in HER seat.
At Panama City Beach we found a parking spot at Pier Park, changed clothes and headed straight for the beach. The sparkling, deep blue gulf faded to aqua green as it hugged the shore. It was magnificent. We located the dog-friendly beach area, tossed our bags, kicked off our shoes and headed for the water. But were stopped short. Cali planted herself and wasn’t budging. The waves freaked her out entirely and she wasn’t going any closer. So we took turns sitting with her on the beach, unsuccessfully coaxing her to wet her toes.
Sun bathing on the soft sand, listening to the waves lap the shore was total contentment. And a great start for our road trip.
When we had enough sun, we headed to Margaritaville for a meal on the patio. The food and service were excellent and, being a couple of Parrotheads, we felt completely at home. We discussed places we wanted to visit over peel and eat shrimp and concluded that we would head for New Orleans.
Welcome to Camp Walmart
Most of the drive from Panama City Beach to New Orleans was after dark. Still, we found the trip adventurous. We took pictures at a Mississippi welcome sign, were impressed with the clean, brightly lit tunnels in Alabama (much unlike the Pittsburgh tunnels we’re used to), oohed at the nighttime Mobile, Alabama skyline and blared “Pascagoula Run” several times. Thrilled with the freedom of the open road, we drove late into the night, not a bit tired.
But by the time we reached Slidell, Louisiana we were ready for some rest. We found our stop for the night, a Walmart that allowed overnight parking. Although my daughter was an “old hand” at urban camping by now, I was totally new to the experience. Her routine made it easy for me though—park close to the store, go in and purchase drinks, use the restroom, then move the van to park farther away from the store, near a lighted area.
Once parked for the night, it took only a few minutes to get the van into “night mode.” First the window coverings went up. They completely blocked view into the van as well as interior light from shining through the windows. Privacy ensured, we turned on the solar Luci lights that had been charging on the dashboard. After clearing clutter from the bed, we arranged the fans in the windows, double-checked that the doors were locked, put the keys on the dash and closed the curtains between the front of the van and the back sleeping area (for added blackout).
Tasks accomplished, we settled down for sleep. I’ll admit it felt pretty strange. I was also nervous, hyper-aware of every noise, even though there wasn’t much activity outside. I was on alert. Listening. Anticipating danger. Meanwhile my daughter was sound asleep. After about an hour I started to relax. Until a low growl rumbled from the foot of the bed. Cali, protector of her pack, was keen to a person outside in the parking lot. I peeked out from behind the window coverings and saw, about twenty feet away, someone getting into their car. Lying back down I decided to let Cali keep watch for the night. She was clearly better at it than me.
New Orleans in August
It was HOT. Unbelievably hot. And humid. Sauna-like.
We had been to New Orleans a few years earlier. In December. A much more temperate time for northerners to visit the deep south. But we were determined to make the best of it and see some sights.
Café du Monde on Decatur Street was our first stop. Cali wasn’t allowed in the seating area so we found a spot just outside to enjoy our cafés au lait and beignets. If you’ve never eaten a beignet, it is a fried piece of dough, covered with copious amounts of powdered sugar, served hot. Sort of like a powdered doughnut on steroids. And the coffee served at the Café du Monde is their house blend which contains chicory. The smooth coffee, with almost a chocolate flavor, is a delightful treat. While savoring our breakfast, we had a pleasant conversation with one of the bakers on his break. We told him about our road trip adventures. He shared his story about how he came to live in New Orleans and suggested some sights to visit.
With this local insight, we headed out to explore. We strolled along Jackson Square (Cali wasn’t allowed inside the park) admiring the iconic statue of Andrew Jackson, St. Louis Cathedral and local artists creating and selling their works along the sidewalk. We took turns visiting a few shops and by this time of day it took significant effort to leave the shops’ air conditioned bliss. A jazz band performed, trumpets blaring, while we had our (curiously accurate) fortunes read by a woman in the square. After a short stroll along the Mississippi, I visited the French Market and picked up some unique souvenirs while my daughter and Cali rested in the (air conditioned) van.
To avoid the heat, we created our own driving tour, viewing the rest of the French Quarter (including Bourbon Street), the garden district, and cemeteries. We wrapped up our visit by driving across the 24-mile long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the world’s longest bridge over water.
Discovering Mississippi Farmland
The day wound down as our road trip continued north through Mississippi. My daughter wasn’t feeling well and decided to take a nap, leaving me to navigate. This is generally not a good idea because I am admittedly navigationally challenged. We were headed for Hot Springs, Arkansas. So I entered the destination into my phone’s GPS and confidently settled in for the drive, Cali riding shotgun.
I swear I followed the GPS’ directions. But for some reason it directed me onto a small road. Consulting the map, I saw that it was creating a shortcut for me, so I proceeded. Soon, however, I noticed the road getting narrower. It became… not exactly dirt but definitely not a well-traveled road. The night was very dark and we were surrounded by fields of crops. It was creepy. Children of the Corn-level creepy. I promised the van that I would drive very, very gently as long as it didn’t break down.
Walmart that night felt much safer.
By early the next morning, it was clear that my daughter needed to see a doctor. This was new—needing to figure out medical care on the road. I called our insurance’s 800-number and they located an urgent-care clinic that would accept our insurance. Cool. So we headed there, waited until they opened and got her some antibiotics. The process was much easier than I expected and our road trip was quickly underway again.
Exploring Hot Springs, Arkansas
Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs is a National Historic Landmark District that welcomes visitors with an old fashioned ambiance. Charming storefronts line one side of the street and large brick bathhouses stand solidly side by side along the other.
We took turns touring Fordyce Bathhouse. This impressive building was the largest of the bathhouses in Hot Springs. Now, it’s a museum which houses the National Park Service’s Visitor Center. The wide front porch, complete with rocking chairs, was a welcome respite from the heat so waiting for each other was comfortable. The museum was quite interesting. The methods and equipment used in the early- to mid-1900’s to encourage health and healing looked rather frightening by today’s standards. I caught part of a guided tour and learned that the bathhouse started out as a men’s only establishment. This explained why the spectacular stained glass ceiling was located in the men’s bath hall. The highlight of my tour, however, was in the basement, where visitors can view a hot spring bubbling up through the ground.
On our way to the wooded area of the National Park, we came across a public spring and joined some other people refilling water jugs. The water tasted incredibly fresh. We hoped that the rumored healing properties of the water would help my daughter to quickly feel better.
Before we left Hot Springs, we drove the winding three and a half mile North Mountain Loop through the Hot Springs National Park. There were several spots where we were able to get out, including a picnic area, and take in the views of the valley below.
On to Lawrence, Kansas
From Hot Springs, Arkansas, we kept to our slow pace, following Scenic Route 7 north through Ouachita National Forest. This twisty, turny road led us through forested rolling hills with multiple places to pull over and take in the impressive scenery.
Lacking a schedule, we were able to live in the moment. We were totally free to leisurely gaze at the mountains and valleys, walk Cali or chat with some local farm animals.
All too soon it seemed, we came upon our intersecting route, an interstate we decided to take toward Lawrence, Kansas, where we would stop for the night.
Picking up supplies at Walmart in the morning, we were quickly reminded of the time of year. The store was teeming with college students stocking up on move-in necessities. It felt strange to not be a part of that mix—it was the first August in four years that I wasn’t helping one of my children prepare to move back to school.
My daughter needed more sleep so I found a coffee shop nearby and let her have the van to herself while I went inside to catch up on some work on the laptop. Z’s Divine Espresso offered beverages with names I found totally entertaining such as freebird, muffin man, stairway to heaven and ring of fire. Everything sounded so good, it was really hard to decide which to try! I had to sample a couple, and wished I could manage more! The drinks, as well as the sandwich I ordered, were delicious!
Once my daughter was ready to venture into the world again, we set the GPS for Berry Hill UPick Farm to view their sunflower field. This was one stop that my daughter knew she wanted to make, sooner or later, and had been looking forward to it for months.
At Berry Hill, we were able to wander among the acres of sunflowers. We couldn’t help but feel happy surrounded by a sea of cheery bright yellow flowers! Near the parking area was a box on a post where visitors can leave a dollar in exchange for a sunflower. So we added two beautiful sunflowers, hung from twine, to the van decor.
Back on the highway, we marveled at the flatness of the land and the straightness of the road that seemed to go on into infinity. It is very unlike the mountains of western Pennsylvania. Everything we saw was different and interesting, from the water towers to the granaries.
Road Stops for Necessities
Along the highway, we saw a billboard for a farm market. We had just been talking about picking up some local honey so we decided to stop. Near the door of the market we were greeted by a barefoot little girl, sitting with a toy riding tractor on its side. “Can you fix this?” she asked, handing the steering wheel up to me. So I took it and tried to figure out the problem. It turns out I wasn’t much help but my daughter, along with a little boy who had appeared from around the corner, managed to get the steering wheel back into place. The little girl’s mother apologized but there was no need. That little sun-kissed, barefoot blond personified Kansas for us, and gave us an awesome memory.
Three hours later, still on the highway, I was getting cranky. Maybe I was tired, or maybe Cali tried to climb on me one too many times, I don’t really remember. But when I saw a sign and casually said, “Oh look, wine tasting” my daughter immediately veered into the right lane and took the exit. “You’re going,” she said, and I had to laugh.
A half hour later and with two bottles of sand plum wine in tow, I was in a better mood.
So. Much. Twine.
We rolled into Cawker City, Kansas just as a parade was winding down and joked that the town must have heard of our arrival. The giant ball of twine wasn’t hard to miss. It’s housed in a pavilion right along the main street. The size of the ball of twine was indeed impressive, as was the acrid, unmistakable smell of baling twine which shrouded the giant ball and hung in the early evening heat. We posed for pictures and added our names to the list of visitors from far-away lands in the guestbook.
Westward Ho… or Not
We weren’t on the road much longer before we decided we were hungry and looked up food options in the next town on our route—Osborne, Kansas. We ordered a pizza and were considering where to stop for the night when my daughter noticed that she had missed several calls from an unfamiliar number. Her voicemail revealed that the caller was an acquaintance from home, asking her to call back right away. Strange. As we pulled up to the pizza shop, my daughter returned the call and received news that completely changed our plans.
Two of my daughter’s closest friends had been in a terrible accident. The doctors weren’t sure if they would pull through. Suddenly no longer hungry, we talked about what to do. My daughter decided that she wanted to return home. Considering the urgency of the situation, I offered to get her on a flight home and drive the van back. Within a half hour we had her booked on a flight out of Denver the next day. (Both friends have since made full recoveries.)
Cali had gotten used to us coming and going from the van, so wasn’t overly distressed when my daughter disappeared inside the terminal. But when I started to drive away she crawled to look out the back window and cried pitifully for twenty minutes. I felt the same way.
Looking Out from Lookout Mountain
So now what to do? I made plans to visit my nephew in Boulder the next day before heading home, so I had some time to explore. And Cali needed a diversion. Lookout Mountain sounded intriguing and wasn’t far away so we set off.
The views on the way to Lookout Mountain were spectacular but nothing in comparison to the views from the trail. Braver people than I were climbing around the rocks and leaning on trees perched precariously along the ledge. Stubbornly defying my fear of the sheer drop, I very carefully edged my way onto some rocks in order to get a better view.
At roughly 7,500 feet in elevation, I hoped my prayer for my daughter’s friends would have a short, direct route to heaven.
An Unexpected Hike
After my first solo camp Walmart experience, I started to meander my way towards Boulder. Along the route, I came across a trailhead with parking that looked like an excellent place to take Cali for a short walk.
With a few hours to spare, I was in no rush as we followed the path along a small stream. It was a beautiful, clear-sky day, the kind that can evaporate your troubles. The trail beckoned us to follow into the forest and we obliged. When the path led up a hill and over some rocks we just kept going. After about a half hour I started to expect the trail to start leading us back around to the parking area, so we kept following along.
Cresting a hill, we spotted a small band of deer in a meadow below. We watched them, the youngsters frolicking through the grasses and wildflowers, until they disappeared beneath some trees. Another fifteen minutes into our walk, I considered turning back, but by now I felt committed. Surely the trail would turn soon.
The terrain became rough in spots and we had to clamber over several rocky outcroppings. Although I wasn’t prepared for such a hike, it was enjoyable. Several vantage points offered fantastic views and the vegetation, unfamiliar to me, was intriguing, despite the thorns that every single plant seemed to bear. Eventually, the trail did loop around, and got quite rough for a while. And then it put us back on the path we had come from. We had to retrace our steps about two thirds of the way back down the hillside. Back at the trailhead, I finally consulted the information sign and discovered that we had just hiked 4.2 miles around Mt. Galbraith. Not bad for a little morning walk.
Boulder–Last Stop of the Road Trip
After a quick stop for a shower at the gym, we made our way to Boulder. I picked up my nephew and was treated to a mini tour. The town was lovely and full of people, especially on Pearl Street, a pedestrian mall full of shops, breweries and eateries. We had a great time catching up over lunch at a dog-friendly restaurant. All too quickly, however, my nephew had to go to work. And all of a sudden, it was time for me to face facts. My road trip without a destination had developed a destination—home. And it was calling me.
I made it back to Pennsylvania in two days. Once I had an agenda, I was on a mission to get the miles covered as quickly as possible, although I did enjoy the sights along the way. Cali, who had spent nearly the entire trip watching the miles roll by the passenger window, was overjoyed to be reunited with her girl at home.
Back at work the following week, the whole adventure already felt like a distant memory. But the feeling of freedom to explore, and of not needing to meet a timetable, has taken hold in my heart. I can’t wait to do it again!
How do you feel about travelling without a plan? Let me know below!