Car reservation

The dream of the open road collides with the reality of $5 a gallon gas

Gasoline prices have gone up almost every day since our trip began on May 12. According to the AAA tracker, the national average hit $5 a gallon on Saturday. We had no choice but to adapt to the high prices, and in retrospect, I think that was for the best. Instead of hitting the cool museums and restaurants and big cities of the Southeast — inflation made it all too expensive — we leaned into the road itself, letting America reveal itself by chance. Since it costs a small fortune to be on the road, why not make it the center of our trip?

We’ve decided to stick with trade routes – designed to take you through city centers instead of around them – and back roads, the original”blue highwaysslowly crossing old low bridges that put us at eye level with marshes, fragrant honeysuckle hedgerows and local glaciers. Taking these less worn roads meant traveling slower than expected, but it also meant we got to see rare slices of America. Also, if you stay under 50 miles per hour, says AAA, you get better gas mileage.

The photos I took don’t show many people, as we didn’t see many. As we passed through small, medium and large towns in almost every mid-Atlantic and Southeast state, few people seemed to be travelling, either for pleasure or for work – although we did see truckers, construction workers and a few nurses.

At a hotel in Alcoa, Tennessee, south of Knoxville and on the edge of an industrial park, people have set up a grill, dart board and chairs in the parking lot so they can cook and relax without having to spend money in a restaurant or bar.

No matter where we drove – through downtown Mobile, Alabama, the countryside of Townsend, Tennessee, or the mall-strewn suburbs of Atlanta – we usually had the roads to ourselves. I don’t know if it was inflation or gas prices or a lull before the summer storm, but things looked sleepy, if not downright desolate. We even got a parking space right next to a waterfall at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We also noticed that gas stations were understaffed, as were restaurants. “Help Wanted” signs were everywhere. Many restaurants had removed indoor seating or drastically reduced it. We also saw many “Open” signs about closed businesses.

More people showed up at places that are inexpensive and obviously aimed at locals, not tourists, like the skate park next to the massive BeltLine walking path in Atlanta. In New Orleans, people showed up to a $10 comedy show and a $25 car race in a local highway. (And the Dollar General, which was everywhere on our trip, had no trouble filling the parking lots.)

In New Orleans, we also went to a $10 musical show in the back room of the famous Maple Leaf Bar. It’s normally crowded, but the crowd that night was so small that the bartender thanked each person individually for coming and urged us to come back every week.

I drove across the country in late 2020, during the height of the pre-vaccination pandemic, and in some ways this trip was similar. It was even less crowded back then, and everything was extremely cheap compared to today, but on both trips I could kind of feel the struggles. So many of my decisions were forced by things beyond my control, but each one brought me unexpected happiness. You could probably attribute this to the magic of the open road.