Road trips are far more exciting and adventurous than a typical vacation. Vacations are usually meticulously planned out in advance by at least one person in the group. In our family, that would be my husband. He orders travel guides, makes reservations months in advance, researches everything there is to do, and plans out activities. The very act of planning brings just as much joy to him as going on a trip. However, with a vacation, generally, there’s no room for showing up late or taking detours. One rises early and sets their sites on the destination, eager to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time with the least amount of trouble.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a road trip is not a proper road trip if there is any planning. Impossible. The very purpose of a road trip is to explore. To throw away expectations or plans and travel with eyes wide open and radar up for any opportunities or points of interest. In a road trip one soaks in every landmark, cloud formation, and point of interest sign on the side of the road and you’re never quite sure where you’ll spend the night. If you have a destination, you don’t fret over what day or time you arrive – you get there when you get there.
A road trip is an unexpected journey.
SEASIDE, FL ROAD TRIP
There’s something truly glorious about a road trip with girlfriends. Back in my mid-20s, my best friend and I decided to do a road trip from Arkansas to Florida. The destination: Seaside. A mutual friend visited the town earlier in the year and shared how amazing it was. So, we invited another friend, took a few days off of work, and loaded up her 1987 silver Toyota Corolla for a road trip to discover the Florida town. Our goal was to find a place to stay in Seaside, but we decided to leave that detail for when we arrived in the panhandle. The only plans? We liked good food so we packed a cooler full of our favorite foods, wine, and extra pots and pans. Also, we would camp instead of getting a hotel as we were three broke, single ladies. But camping sounded more adventurous anyway. Yet, as we were already fond of fancy picnics under random trees, on friend’s sailboats, or in our backyards, we knew we would take camping to the next level – long before we ever heard the word, glamping.
Also in the car: vintage table cloths, proper plates (no paper allowed), candles, a lantern, watercolor paints, books, dresses, and swimsuits. Once all was packed, we tied three bikes to the back of her car and took off. It was all very spontaneous.
We drove slowly and talked long. Arriving in Destin, we stopped and walked around, asking about good places to camp close to Seaside. We scoped out potential places for a night of dancing or dinner. Someone mentioned Grayton Beach for camping. Pulling out our map (these were the days before GPS and mobile phones), we found a little dot indicating where the beach was. It took us much longer than expected to find and it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere (I understand that these days, Grayton Beach is quite different?). Once we arrived, we inquired of the gate guard if there might be a spot available for us.
Sure enough, he happened to have a tent camping spot right on the beach. We were delighted! While there was a low sand bar with tufts of tall grass and small pools of water between us and the fine white sand that touched the crystal blue waters of the gulf, it was as close to the water as one would want to be for sleeping. As we set up camp, we noticed spots of trampled grass – as if it something had bedded down there. Then we saw the sign…
WARNING: watch for Alligators!
As three girls in their twenties who really had no idea what we were doing and this being quite a new experience for us, this sign was a bit unsettling; each one imagining that a giant alligator was bedding down at night right where we were going to be camping for the week.
After a bit of a struggle, the tent was up, sleeping bags rolled out, and bikes ready to go. Then, we figured it was time to take a bike ride to Seaside and discover this little town. What was idyllic in our minds proved to be more difficult than we imagined. The romantic idea of riding bicycles through Seaside was abandoned and we drove the few miles to the little town. We fell in love with absolutely everything about it. So quaint, vibrant, stunning, and quiet; the perfect small town you’d see in a movie, but here it was in real life.
Walking up and down the neighborhood streets, we admired how the residents diligently cared for each detail of their home and yard. Exploring the shops and restaurants, we made the only plans for the week: our final night before returning home would include shopping, a nice dinner at the local, upscale restaurant, followed by a late-night walk on the beach. The three of us decided to dress up (good thing we packed dresses, just in case!) to make it extra special.
The remainder of our trip consisted of enjoying the most amazing beach – and having it all to ourselves – except for the one “beachcomber” we met. Long brown hair, a shaggy beard that reached down to his chest, tan from head to toe, and barefoot; like a beach Jesus. He was so kind and filled us in on the history of this place. He enjoyed walking along Grayton Beach because, at the time, it was still relatively unknown.
Back at the campsite, my best friend was a professional artist and so she taught us how to paint mini watercolor pictures of the campground and beach. We read books, snoozed in the sun and marveled at the super fine white sand, almost like powdered sugar. We cooked fancy foods and savored delicious meals and wine by candlelight and, a lantern hung from a tree branch completed the dreamy ambience of our little campsite. Almost like a whimsical Mad Hatter tea party on the beach.
On one particular day, we thought to drive back toward Destin and check out a grill & bar we saw on the way in. But when we arrived, we changed our mind, deciding that the little space we created at the campsite was much more to our liking.
Our final night arrived and the swordfish dinner in Seaside was amazing. We splashed in the ocean waters at midnight in our pretty dresses and collected sand in lovely translucent blue vases that we bought from a gift shop.
SIDE-STEPPING THE WELL-TRAVELED ROAD
With no plans, we simply allowed our moods and the conversations we had with other people to dictate where we went and what we tried. We woke up when we woke up. No watches were allowed so we never knew what time it was. It was simply time to do whatever we felt like, and it was splendid.
I’ll never forget the face of the man on the beach, or how we relished a private slice of heaven with fine white sandy beaches and turquoise waters and made lasting memories. (Another time I’ll tell you about the raccoon and the alligator!). I’ve never had a “vacation” like this one before or after. I only wish we had more time to stop and explore other places on our way back – but, life responsibilities called and we had to return to work.
Our experience was perfect. I wouldn’t trade our tent and sleeping bags on a white beach in the middle of nowhere for a second in a hotel or B&B. Or the exhausting bike ride, dinner by candlelight on an old wooden camping table, or terrors in the night (i.e. raccoons and alligators). The entire experience was exhilarating and left me ruined for the typical well-planned vacation (though I do prefer an RV to a tent these days!).
While not entirely a true road trip as we only had one stop, it was done spontaneously with little to no planning. I suppose I love the concept of road trips because it forces us to slow down, explore, and enjoy the little things we encounter in a particular moment. In the process, we learn a bit about ourselves and about the interesting people in the world. One can learn about places that are otherwise unknown. But most of all, there’s no pressure for anything, no expectations, and it’s a chance to let life happen rather than dictating steps that follow within well-trodden paths.