Mom, Can You Drive Me Home?
Falling in love with America on a cross-country road trip home
Cici Pandol is a travel blogger & HearHere partner. She was compensated to test out the HearHere app.
HearHere is an app that allows you to bring along a tour guide wherever you go. As you drive, the stories on the map tell you about what you’re looking at and the history that made those places significant.
I thought it would be like a high school American History textbook, all about battles and founding fathers; too focused on the small details to tell a compelling story.
While there certainly is that kind of information where it’s relevant, there is so much more HearHere has to say about our country, including Native American history, innovators that changed the world, and incredible geographic phenomena. I don’t consider myself a history buff, but listening to the stories of the land as I was driving (or standing) by it was 10X more engaging than just reading about it. How did I find myself using HearHere? You’ll just have to read on to find out!
After graduating with my MBA from the University of Michigan, I decided to exit the cold forever and move back to California. Since I’d accumulated so much stuff, including a used car, it seemed like the perfect time to do a cross-country road trip. And who else do you call when you need a ride home but your mom?
Making the Plan
Mom and I are different travelers. Where I like the grunge, she likes the comfort, and where I like to roll with it, she likes a little more structure. But what we both like is to know all the facts and the stories behind the places we visit.
Knowing that, I first plotted out our route using a road trip app to give her a visual of where we’d be headed. I then made a Google Doc outline of each day with our hotel and the total hours of driving. We added some fun stops along the way and downloaded the HearHere app to tell us about all of the places and things we would be driving by.
Day 1- Ann Arbor, MI to Dollywood, TN
We hit the road Wednesday morning with a quick stop at The Big House - Michigan’s 110,000 person capacity football stadium. We decided to load up our first day with driving while we were fresh, so we had 8 hours, not including stops, ahead of us. As we were heading out, I looked at my mom and immediately burst into tears. I pretty much wept until we hit the Ohio border.
I can now say from experience that if you are leaving somewhere you loved, road tripping it out is so cathartic. It gives you time to cry out the sadness and then start getting excited for the next step you’re about to take.
This was also the day we realized the value of HearHere. A long-haul day could have been so boring with few stops, but instead, it was rich with color. In Ohio, we noticed some space and aviation-themed shop names so we opened HearHere and learned — 🔊 Auglaize County Since 1848 — that Neil Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta, OH. In another story, — 🔊 Birthplace of American Aviation — we learned that in nearby Dayton, the Wright Brothers’ airplane was built in a cow pasture! Surely, stories of two notable beginnings were a good sign.
Crossing into Kentucky, we learned the origins of the Post-It Note — 🔊 Cynthia & "Post-it Notes". Then, after hearing that KFC’s founding store was nearby, — 🔊 London, KY & World Chicken Fest — we actually went to check it out!
Watching the landscape change that day from flat Michigan and Ohio to rolling, fence-lined hills in Kentucky to the Great Smoky Mountains rising up around us, was something to behold. We pulled into our little B&B outside of Pigeon Forge, Kentucky as the sun went down - excited for our visit to Dollywood in the morning.
Day 2- Dollywood, TN to Birmingham, AL
We committed to a daily morning walk to stay healthy and sane. On this morning we explored the perimeter of rolling hay fields surrounding our B&B. After returning for breakfast served alongside the other inn guests, we looked out at the view of the blue mist that gives the Great Smoky Mountains their name. I would have been happy to just go for a long walk in this unique landscape, but we were just a 6-minute drive from Dollywood - Dolly Parton’s Great Smoky Mountain-themed amusement park. After listening to podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” while on a road trip to Vermont earlier in the year, this had become a must-stop attraction for me.
Dollywood was more a celebration of mountain culture than a theme park. We walked around, watching blacksmiths and glassblowers perfect their craft, saw rescued, bald eagles up close, and toured a replica of the tiny mountain cabin that Dolly and her 11 siblings shared. It was hard to fathom how so many bodies fit in such a small space!
While it was lovely how, unlike Disney parks, Dollywood didn’t shove consumerism in your face every moment, I also ended up getting pretty hangry and couldn’t find an overpriced snack anywhere. We had decided to eat twice a day, 11am and 4pm, to be time-efficient and kept healthy snacks in a car cooler, which I highly recommend. After spending probably too long at Dollywood, and having a quick snack, we hit the road to Birmingham.
Day 3- Birmingham, AL to Laurel, MS
Mom and I both love the home makeover show “Hometown”, so Laurel, Mississippi was a stop we built a lot of time around. Because of that, we could only go for our morning walk in Birmingham. I went on Google to find the most historic neighborhoods and found a recommended walk through Highland Park. It was exactly what you’d expect from an old Southern city; huge, leaning trees, intense humidity, and grand houses with wraparound porches. We read the signs in front of many of the houses that detailed the year the house was built and info about the families that had lived there. We grabbed a local blueberry iced coffee at O’Henrys and headed back to shower, refreshed from our morning sweat.
As we drove the three hours south to Laurel, we started to notice a pattern; rain. The rain had followed us everywhere so far, and we would continue to inadvertently chase the early summer storms for another few days. Downtown Laurel was under construction when we arrived in a downpour, so it wasn’t the warmest welcome. We went straight to the Bird Dog Café, a little lunch spot that had been redone on the show, and then proceeded to shop the afternoon away, finding treasures in vintage home décor shops and stores run by the show hosts.
If I’m being honest, for how excited we were to see Laurel, there was considerably less to do than I expected. As a credit to the show, it was obvious that while there were a few spots celebrating the show, this was just a beautiful small town that people enjoyed living in.
Day 4- Laurel, MS to Hot Springs, AK
The next morning we headed out to drive through the historic downtown where so many of the forgotten houses resided that the show turned into gorgeous homes. This was by far my favorite part. We listened to a HearHere story — 🔊 History of Laurel, Mississippi — which told us that Laurel was once the top producer of yellow pine in the world and the home of timber barons, hence why the plethora of beautiful, well-built homes existed. In fact, A Streetcar Named Desire was set here, with Laurel as the home of the lead wealthy timber duchess.
We turned our sights next to Arkansas, where we would be visiting some family. Unexpectedly, this drive ended up being one of the most impactful for me specifically because of what we listened to on HearHere while driving. The terrain changed from green forests to the flat Mississippi River Delta, and we started to notice the intense lack of houses or development. This story — 🔊 Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Here! — explained the tale of Issaquena County, which was once the second richest county in the US because of the “property value” of the massive slave population in this cotton-growing region. At the time, 92.5% of the county’s population was slaves, with some residents owning more than 700 slaves. When river traffic was replaced by train traffic, the county slowly shrank to become the least populous county in the US and, at $18,000 per capita income, the poorest in the nation. To see the land where these people lived in slavery while listening to their story was hard to hear, and it stuck with me the rest of the trip. It made me thankful for the changes that have happened in this country and feel ever more committed to continuing that work.
After a quick lunch with our family, we rolled into Hot Springs, Arkansas for the night.
Day 5- Hot Springs, AK to Oklahoma City, OK
We didn’t have a ton of time in Hot Springs so this was another day where our morning walk was our walking tour. Hot Springs is actually the smallest National Park and includes the 8 bathhouses on Bathhouse Row. We left our hotel and joined a well-paved trail that overlooked the bathhouses, but Mom loves to take a turn and see where it goes so we turned left up the mountain onto a trail that took us straight uphill. It was a damp, green forest socked halfway in by fog, giving it a creepy vibe. We finally reached the top and encountered an observatory but all we could see was a sea of gray fog so we turned around down another path. We ran into a few turtles hanging out on the trail and drank the freshwater from one of the cold springs bubbling out of the mountain. When we hit Bathhouse Row, we found one that was managed by the park and free to tour. We finished our adventure with a good ole’ diner breakfast of eggs and bacon and had a fun fight with our waitress who felt very strongly that we needed an order of the homemade biscuits (my mom eats gluten-free so sadly it wasn’t in the cards).
After a morning full of adventure, we headed out on a fairly long drive to Oklahoma City with no plan about what we might stop and see. There were lots of stories along our way, but we heard from this story — 🔊 Spinach Capital of the World — that Alma, Arkansas was home to a Popeye statue and was the Spinach Capital of the World. We were feeling a bit slap-happy so we pulled into town and grabbed a photo… and then we headed out because there wasn’t much else to see.
Day 6- Oklahoma City, OK to Santa Fe, NM
As much as I researched, the drive from Oklahoma to New Mexico via the Texas panhandle is just a pretty barren place as far as tourist attractions go, so we woke up knowing we had a 10+ hour drive day ahead of us. Despite that, we decided to skip our morning walk in favor of visiting the Oklahoma City Bombing Museum. Rarely does a museum make me cry, but this museum brought you into the moment right away with a recording of a mundane meeting that was interrupted by an explosion out of nowhere. Even knowing it was coming didn’t make it any less shocking. Seeing the 168 chairs on the lawn where the building once stood memorializing the victims, including children at the daycare center there, was a touching visual and well worth the visit.
My mom is a nervous passenger, but at this point we were 6 days in and she hadn’t let me drive once. I was starting to feel guilty so I made her let me drive us out of town. We got about 20 minutes down the highway, and, sweaty palms gripping the door handle, she exclaimed that she just couldn’t take it. I’d say this is one of the few mother-daughter moments where the phrase “it’s not me, it’s you” is appropriate. I accepted the permanence of my role as navigator and tour guide in the parking lot of a Chili’s as we swapped seats and headed out.
It was somewhere in the middle of the Texas Panhandle when it really started to look “west” outside my window. Then it hit me- I’m coming home for good! No more cross-country flights or three-hour time difference calculations when calling home. I hid my tears behind my sunglasses, embarrassed at how emotional this made me, and turned up the radio
After an emotionally draining day, I was craving some social time, so I headed to the bar of our little updated Santa Fe motel called El Rey Court. I had an absolute blast sipping cocktails and chatting with the more than friendly other folks, meeting a very New Mexico-esq young couple who had matching flat-brimmed hats and bandanas tied around their neck and had a passionate conversation about the superiority of the New York Times Cooking app with another couple from Colorado who was visiting for a birthday weekend. It really refreshed my traveler spirit even more than sleep could have and well worth my teensy hangover the next morning.
Day 7- Santa Fe, NM to Mesa Verde, CO
We had a great morning walk in the now dry air in nearby Railyard Park, visiting the farmer’s market and capturing a few photo ops with a Santa Fe sign. My mom had done a cross-country road trip with her family when she was young and remembered heading through Santa Fe. All five siblings and two parents were packed in a van in the 1970s, and since she’s the youngest, she had lots of fun stories of being harassed by her older brothers and sister.
We did a quick tour of the town square and walked Canyon Road, the famous road where all of the galleries in this artsy town are. I absolutely loved the earthy desert vibe of Santa Fe and wanted to stay longer but we needed to head out. Our motto, and the curse of road trips, is “there’s always more to see than we have time for” so I put Santa Fe at the top of my list for return visits, checking flight prices from San Francisco on the drive out.
We stopped in Taos for a quick but so sweet visit with some old family friends who had moved away a few years back. These visits with people we knew and loved were so refreshing. After a bite of local vegan ice cream, we hit the road out of New Mexico and into Colorado. It was wild to watch the landscape shift around us as we crossed each state line. Texas and New Mexico had been dry and flat, but just a few miles from the Colorado border we entered lush, green terrain seemingly out of nowhere. We followed it up the mountain to Mesa Verde National Park and checked into our lodge inside the park for an early sleep.
Day 8- Mesa Verde, CO to Lake Powell, UT
When you’re road-tripping, knowing what time you will be where is hard to pin down so we couldn’t book any tours ahead of time. Often this meant we didn’t get to do some cool stuff, but it also led us to other spontaneous adventures. On this morning there wasn’t space on the tour of the famous ancient cliff dwellings that are the impetus of this park, so we chose to hike the Petroglyphs Trail instead. As we started walking, we looked to our left and there was the cliff dwelling! The tour would have let us explore inside, but for free we got to take photos of the dwelling and saw the amazing petroglyphs up close on a fun and scrambly three-mile hike in the park.
We headed out of the park for our drive through three states, weaving between Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. This is the heart of gorgeous native land, and as we drove through the epic landscapes of Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods, we listened to stories about the Navajo Code Talkers — 🔊 Navajo "Code Talkers" Mural — who used their native language as a secret code in WWII, and many stories — 🔊 Keet See & Betatakin — about the civilization of cliff dwellers that we had seen in Mesa Verde. Actually driving through the massive expanse of land these people occupied so long ago was powerful, and I started to realize I was falling in love with America in a way I never expected. Seeing the landscape change day after day while hearing the stories of the history and people there brought to life the incredible richness of this country we live in.
Day 9- Lake Powell, UT to Las Vegas, NV
At this point, I was READY to be home, and Mom was getting a bit cross-eyed, eventually driving all 3,569 miles through 16 states herself. We had a lovely morning walk on the beach of Lake Powell, which was extremely low due to the continued drought, and headed West. We stopped for lunch in Kanab, Utah where we learned from this story — 🔊 Kanab, UT — that many old western movies were filmed in.
We finally rolled into Las Vegas in time for dinner and champagne to celebrate our last night before the final push home. It was really interesting to learn about the founding of this vice-filled city while we were stuck in traffic coming into town from this story — 🔊 Las Vegas, Early History. Originally built by ranchers and railroad workers who loved gambling and prostitution, it was ultimately built up by east coast organized crime.
Day 10- Las Vegas, NV to Bakersfield, CA
Other than stopping for some alien-themed doodads near Area 51, we put our heads down and drove the four hours home. One of the most interesting stories was about the town of ZZYZX, — 🔊 ZZYZX, California — a spa town built in the middle of the desert by a professional scam artist. We also learned about the town of Boron, — 🔊 Boron, CA — home to a rocket test site and the world’s largest borax mine. This led to much googling about what borax was used for and discussion about spa treatments that we couldn’t wait to have once we got home.
We drove straight to the iconic Bakersfield sign for a final photo op and then home for much-needed rest. We certainly didn’t take the most direct route, but we saw a fascinating slice of this amazing country and learned SO much more about the things we were driving by with HearHere than we ever could have known to look up on Google. Now we both have a list of places we want to return to and a much greater appreciation for the many states we saw.
Until next time, Happy Trails!