Road trip!


For all of Saipan’s tourism attractions, there’s something the mainland offers that paradise doesn’t: road trips.

The longest stretch I ever went without seeing any of the 50 states was about five years. The only thing I really missed was the open highways of the American west. That’s prime road trip territory.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Route 66, a legendary western artery, certainly qualifies as an internationally famous attraction. I’ve encountered tourists from Asia and from Europe who have gone to the states just to check out Route 66.

Much of the appeal is folklore. Today’s super-highway system, known as the Interstate system, stole the thunder from the old roads like Route 66 several decades ago. But there are sections of Route 66 that are still alive. Some of these stretches are populated with souvenir shops and restaurants that feature kitsch from the 1930s through the 1960s. Heck, I’ve seen Route 66 theme shops that were probably 100 miles from Route 66, so its charm seems to run wider than its pavement.

As for the Interstate system, it has so many miles of roads (forty-something thousand miles) that it could pretty much circle the world two times. Its longest road, Interstate 90, is about 3,100 miles long, stretching all the way from the Atlantic (Boston) to the Pacific (Seattle). For all my love of the U.S. Interstate system, I have, for some reason, never driven this route. It cuts across the northern part of the country and I’ve always steered for more southerly routes.

It won’t surprise you that American road trips have figured prominently in some famous American books. These include two of my favorites: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, published in 1974, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter Thompson, published in 1971.

Another well-known book was called Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. This book came along in 1981. It spent 42 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The title‘s “blue” term comes from the fact that secondary roads (as opposed to the big Interstate highways) were depicted as blue on some maps. The author chose these roads so he could take a look at small-town America away from the slick environs of the modern Interstates.

Anyway, Route 66 in specific, and western highways in general, are hot stuff in some tourism circles these days. I was discussing this with some tourism pros. I don’t have any brilliant insights into the gig, but I’ll chew over a few random observations.

First of all, from what I’ve seen, it’s fairly cheap to rent a car in the U.S. as long as it’s being picked up and returned to the same place. A few hundred bucks a week can oftentimes do the trick. By contrast, whenever I’ve checked into one-way rentals they’ve been really expensive, sometimes in the thousands of dollars for a weeklong coast-to-coast drive; it’s not the “week” part that gets you, it’s the “coast-to-coast” part that does. By the way, I’m not offering a comprehensive analysis of all the possible scenarios here, I’m just pointing out what I’ve seen in my own travels.

In those travels the biggest expense I’ve seen isn’t cars, or fuel, or food. It’s hotel rooms. Even in the middle of nowhere, where you’d think demand would be slight and prices mild, a mid-tier hotel can be around $120 to $150 a night.

There are, of course, cheaper options. You can find motels with signs advertising $38 rooms if you look hard enough. When I was in college, a swarm of us would often commandeer some cheap motel rooms during road trips. After all, we were more a threat to the rooms than the other way around. Those were great times, but they’re gone, for us at least since you can’t turn back a sunset.

Speaking of sunsets, a pal of mine owned a friendly little beer joint in the isolated American west. He died several years ago. I knew him for over 25 years. I had a chance to take a look at the old place a year or two ago. It had become a dusty old relic. On Saipan, the jungle reclaims everything. But in the American west, the desert preserves everything. I think that’s one of the appeals of driving through such areas; there’s a lot to see for the simple reason that so much of it is still standing.

Well, I’ll admit I’ve steered a pretty random course on this road trip thing. But that’s OK. After all, many road trips are random wanderings. Today’s discussion just upholds that tradition, and, better yet, I didn’t even have to fork over $135 for a hotel room.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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