Highways or byways? The idea of taking different paths is one that has resulted in several travel cliches throughout time — not unlike the title of this article. “You take the high road, I’ll take the low…” “The road less traveled…” “Life is one big road…” People the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and even JFK have alluded to roads in some of their finest speeches and quotes. There is something elusive and inspiring about one of the best American summer pastimes: the epic road trip. The question is: do you take the most direct, fast and efficient route or the one that might lead to unexpected travel surprises and maybe a few flat tires?
Summer Roadtrips: Highways or Byways?
The questions revolving around getting from point A to point B have intrigued me since I was a Ford Motor Company Transportation Interpretation intern for the National Park Service way back in 2003. (Yes–that was a real thing!) Over the years I found a pattern–I’m a byways traveler.
What suits your travel style? We’ve narrowed down the reasons that top the list for both means of getting to your destination, so read on before you hit the dusty (or well-developed) road!
Interstates: Life in the Fast Lane
Interstate highways are a beautiful thing in function, just not as beautiful aesthetically. By definition, they are: “one of a system of expressways covering the 48 contiguous states.” There is nothing more reassuring than looking at a map of the US and seeing that there are a few arteries that will get you to most regions with much trouble at all. These roads are efficient (most of the time) and though they are prone to summer construction just like any other route, generally the detour is fairly efficient as well.
A perk of traveling this way is that you’ll rarely go without amenities. Interstates tend to connect metro areas which usually have all the fine-dining, five star hotels, and fabulous extras that you want for a more cushy vacation.
They also have traffic, construction, and can be a little on the boring side, unless you like turnpike concrete walls and the very cookie-cutter style of most rest areas. Cost can go either way — sometimes the backwoods station has you cornered, while other times the funneled traffic of interstates can up prices too–so that’s not a real big factor for either route.
This is likely the most direct and usually the fastest route. If you plug in your starting point and your destination, Google Maps (or any other mapping system) will usually give you a few options, most times the interstate route is indeed quickest by their estimates. Some of the main East/West running routes are I-94, I-90, I-10, and I-70. They pretty much connect the east coast to the west in some form and are largely unavoidable if you want to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific fast.
America’s Beautiful Byways
Last summer, driving along the interstate near Des Moines, during a particularly rough morning with the kids in the back of the car and my husband (really crabby that day) in the passenger seat, I missed my exit. All of the sudden traffic closed in on me from both sides and I had what I assume was a mild panic attack while in the drivers seat. This was new to me — I didn’t ever LIKE busy roads, but I’d never freaked out and bawled because of the busy traffic battle before! As soon as I could exit I did and from then on, we chose byways when I was driving wherever possible.
By definition, a byway is: “a road or path not following the main route; a minor road.” Ahh, yes. That’s where you’ll find me, panic free!
These roads, known to be more adventurous and more beautiful usually do not disappoint. When I dig out the maps, much to my husbands dismay, I will route us through Arizona to get to Montana if it means I won’t need to go through a big city and use interstates and expressways in the concrete jungles of the country!
Your odds of seeing wildlife are dramatically greater when you travel the “backroads.” We’ve witnessed moose, bears, and lots of birds while meandering along the less-trodden trails along the fringes of society in this country. We’ve also had to wait hours for AAA to reach us when we had car trouble. For us, the “risk” of being in the wilder country is worth.
We also find amazing little diners and are able to give our business to “mom and pop” joints — which we aim to support — and we’ve found the food at these little roadside restaurants is often a more delicious, classy memory-maker than sitting in a sticky booth of a chain restaurant.
More options lead to more memories. There is usually only one, maybe two options for main arteries of travel. There is an absolute spaghetti maze of options from dirt two-tracks to crumbling blacktop back roads and depending on your level of adventure (and patience) you can map out a truly unique experience. We’ve even done this in the confines of a National Park — shhh! We may be on some blacklist somewhere for shenanigans such as that one, BUT we saw hillsides and varmints and we did not see any pesky tourists along the way!
Choose an interstate. Choose a big city. Camp out under thousands of stars instead of opting for the four or five star experience. Dare to drive on dirt. The most important thing is that you get out there! Naturally, you’ll find me cruising the rural scenic byways. But mile by mile, whatever road you’re on, make sure to enjoy the journey in the moment!
Which route do you travel? Busy interstates or dusty backroads?
Amanda can be found connecting with nature with her children where she writes about their outdoorsy adventures at Field Guide to Parenting Outside.