To see the country, road trip is the only way

I am an avid air traveler. The hustle and bustle through the airport, being investigated by security and standing in line gave me chills. But road trips are different. Although the transit time is long, the opportunities to get off the beaten path make it worthwhile. I see places and interact with people and cultures that I would otherwise miss, rediscovering how far you can go and how much you can experience without ever leaving the United States.

So when my son said he wanted to tour the Kansas State University campus after receiving an offer of admission, we threw our luggage and a case of bottled water in the car and hit the highway.

One of the attractions of traveling in a car is the transition. Arizona’s meteor craters, two guns, and painted deserts give way to New Mexican pueblos, then agricultural towns. Midwestern wheat fields replaced western farms. Mesas and red rocks give way to open plains where oil derricks and grain elevators are the only features that rise above the endless miles of plains.

That flatness creates an unexpected challenge when you’re used to pulling into the Arroyo for relief hours after tossing an empty water bottle in the back seat. When there’s nothing to fall back on, roadside privacy is elusive. Fortunately, our nation’s truck drivers solved that challenge long ago: You can’t do anything unless you don’t mind doing it in public. Not that a rural Kansas roadside is all public.

Eating on the road can also be a challenge. For basic sustenance, Anthony and I relied on Subway sandwich shops, which served the same reliable fare at each location. While not exactly a sample of the local cuisine, they didn’t regret our lunch when we returned to the Clocking Mile.

We’ve made time for more interesting dishes, from New Mexico green chile to Kansas beef. Salads were curiously hard to come by in the college town of Manhattan, Kansas, though we had no complaints about the burgers and barbecue. The best breakfast we had was at Charlie’s Speak and Span in Las Vegas, New Mexico. I ate way too much chorizo, eggs and papitas, wrapped in a flour tortilla. Anthony’s teenage metabolism allows him to devour a chile verde breakfast burrito the size of his head.

Las Vegas stood for Calumet, Colorado during the filming of the 1984 Cold War classic. Bloody morning. The headquarters of the invading Commie forces in that movie was an old Harvey Hotel, the Castaneda, built in 1899 for railroad passengers. It has since been acquired and expertly renovated by the same outfit that restored La Posada in Winslow, Arizona.

Not all roadside shelters carry so much history, but they attract in other ways. In Springer, New Mexico, the owner of the Broken Arrow Motel lived off-site and left our room door open so we could let ourselves in. When he stopped by later to hand over a big ceremonial key, we ended up chatting about kids and college. Turns out her daughter is in Virginia, where she went to study biology and settled after marriage.

In Manhattan, the boutique Bluemont Hotel put us across the street from the Kansas State University campus. Exploring Aggieville’s college-centric bars, restaurants, and shops, walking the streets, and meeting people were just as important as touring the school’s impressive engineering facilities.

“I definitely see myself here,” Anthony told me one day after visiting the classroom and sharing notes with other prospective students. That made the trip right there. Well, that and Bloody morning connection

Unlike airport travel, which is often characterized by friction and even collisions, our journey was completely pleasant. When you meet people in their natural surroundings after hours of changing scenery, it’s easy to remember how big the world is and to appreciate that many of its inhabitants are perfectly happy living separate lives from the people down the road. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

As it turned out, the biggest source of stress was the frequent reminders that my son changes lanes like he’s afraid of missing a sharp turn. Fortunately, this is a travel hassle that can be fixed.