A Mom, a Daughter, A Van -- and a Plan

By Joan McQueeney Mitric
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 18, 2003

When my daughter and I drove 3,774 miles from Berkeley, Calif., to D.C., the trip confirmed a few things for both of us:

•The country is vast in scale and glorious in landscape.

• Small roads are more fun than big ones, but signs saying "Speed Enforced by Aircraft" should be taken seriously.

• Strip development is rapidly flattening the regional character of America.

• Humans are a friendly species, by and large.

The idea of a mother-daughter cross-country road trip had begun bubbling in my brain as soon as Julia chose to go west for college. But we didn't plan on spending the first night of our long-awaited odyssey trying to sleep in our packed-to-the-roof rental van in the parking lot of Death Valley's swank Furnace Creek Inn as 95-degree desert winds buffeted our tortured bodies.

This was just one of our little missteps.

Another was the morning we woke up in Lubbock, Tex., and decided to wait till we reached Abilene -- about three hours away -- before treating ourselves to breakfast, only to be trapped by spectacular flash floods that didn't let up until way past lunchtime. A third mistake was skipping New Orleans in favor of Baton Rouge, but even that detour had its rewards.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The trip was a chance to reconnect with my daughter while traversing a scenic southerly swath of America: Death Valley; Utah's Zion National Park; Georgia O'Keeffe country between Abiquiu and Santa Fe, N.M.; Austin's "batscape" and music scene; and the genteel towns of Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.

Along the way, we reminisced, talked about life, love and the dream job, sought out authentic eateries and, of course, squabbled. Fourteen days after leaving Berkeley, we arrived home in Kensington with enough stories to fill a book. Some tips and best bets follow.

GETTING STARTED: We set out in our rental van (average mpg 28) and headed northeast over the Oakland Hills on Route 580. Rolling through bleached hills topped with rows of windmills, we followed signs to Route 99 south through California's Central Valley. Today, most travelers use Interstate 5 for this north-south trip, but I prefer the older, less truck-haunted route, where lemon, avocado and walnut groves still line much of the road. It's hard to forget who gets the food to our tables when farm workers in bright bandanas crouch in the noon sun along your route.

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