Spokane is an excellent jumping-off point for some of the best routes through the Great American West — and you should drive east. Really. Get on eastbound I-90 and don’t stop. Get through the towering evergreens and postcard mountains and enter the wide-open land of eastern Montana and the Dakotas. Anyone who calls this flyover country is missing the point: This land is made for driving through.
There’s a reason South Dakota’s official nickname is The Mount Rushmore State, and that doesn’t even begin to do justice to its status as the headquarters of roadside Americana. Yes, it’s worth a stop by Mount Rushmore National Memorial to gawk at the giant president faces. But as far as monuments carved out of mountains go, the one you must not miss is the Crazy Horse Memorial outside nearby Custer. After helping with Mount Rushmore, Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski accepted the invitation from Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to create an even larger monument. Work started in 1948 and Ziolkowski died at the site in 1982; his children continue to oversee the slow progress. The face, completed in 1998, is bigger than all those president heads combined.
Not too far off the freeway you can stop at Deadwood, where you can pay homage to America’s lawless frontier at the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, or South Dakota’s beautifully rugged landscapes in the Black Hills National Forest and the Badlands National Park.
This year’s theme was holidays, with scenes of Christmas and the Fourth of July; the upcoming theme is “Remember When,” with panels for the drive-in theater and other icons of American nostalgia. Inside the border trim of rye and grasses, a small crew of mural artists will work all summer, one panel at a time, to create the new scenes. Last year’s drought caused a shortage of the specially grown corn, particularly the blue color, but Schilling says this year’s supply is going well so far.
Turn back west in time to travel with rumbling packs of motorcycles heading to the 73rd annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, this year on Aug. 5-11. You’re just as likely to run into dentists and lawyers as Hells Angels among those who ride from all over the country each year, but every person you meet will have well-traveled suggestions about where to go on your next road trip.
Back before cars and highways, fashionable Europeans crossed the Atlantic on cruise ships and continued by train across most of the continent to admire the beauty of the Canadian Rockies in western Alberta. They were onto something. Drive up through Sandpoint and into the mountains to visit Banff National Park — Canada’s oldest, established in 1885 — and hike around the area’s stunning turquoise lakes before continuing north on the Icefields Parkway, one of Canada’s most scenic routes. Tour the grand, historic Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise, but pitch a tent at one of the area campgrounds to save your cash for gas money. Total miles: 800
The secret truth about our nation is that it’s not really that big — you can leave Spokane at 6 am and be in Las Vegas by midnight, even with a few short stops. But if you really want to cover ground, leave at noon and take shifts driving all night. There’s nothing quite like the pre-dawn glow of the sun coming up over the desert. Sleep through the hottest part of the day and get ready for a night on the town, or continue on — it’s less than four hours into California for Joshua Tree National Park, or a little more than four to go past the Hoover Dam and into Arizona for the Grand Canyon. Total miles: 1,100 to Vegas
There’s a lot happening in Portland this summer, but getting there should be half the fun. From the Tri-Cities, cross over into Oregon to drive the Historic Columbia River Highway where it splits off from Interstate 84. The two-lane highway stopped being practical for heavy traffic almost as soon as it was completed in 1922, but its winding turns along cliffs and waterfalls are worth the time for unhurried travelers. (Abandoned stretches of the highway are open as trails for hikers and bicyclists, too.) Stop by Portland for the Oregon Brewers Festival (July 24-28) or Pickathon (Aug. 2-4), then continue to the Pacific and swing up through Mount Rainier National Park (free on Aug. 25) on the way home. Total miles: 900
With average gas prices hovering above $3.50 this summer, it pays off to be discerning at the pump. But we’re all in this together now with crowdsourced apps like GasBuddy, which alerts you to the cheapest gas prices in the area. Help out by submitting the prices you see — you could win prizes, but mostly it’s just modern road etiquette. Before you leave, budget your route with GasBuddy’s trip calculator: Enter your destination and the make of your vehicle, and it tells you where to stop along the way. Other top-rated road apps include Trip Cubby, an easy-to-use mileage log, and Where To Wee for the inevitable last-minute bathroom stops.
You don’t have to know much about cars to know they always decide to break down at the least convenient time, like when you’re admiring the scenery on a remote national forest route or out in the middle of South Dakota. That’s why AAA expects to help almost 150,000 stranded motorists in Washington and North Idaho this summer. They suggest this to-do list before you hit the road: 1. Check fluids: oil, windshield washer fluid, antifreeze. 2. Inspect tires: check the pressure (and don’t forget your spare). 3. Consider your battery: If it’s more than 3 years old, get it tested.
A dozen hours on the open road — what better time to finally get around to the book that’s been on your reading list since high school? Check out the late Frank Muller’s reading of On the Road by Jack Kerouac or All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy — anything read by Muller, really — or track down Jake Gyllenhaal’s new reading of The Great Gatsby. Or browse for a newer hit at Auntie’s Bookstore or the library: Edoardo Ballerini’s reading of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins just won a 2013 Audie — like the Oscars for audiobooks — or go for something lighter with the new Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, written and read by humorist David Sedaris.
Complete your carefree, wild-open-spaces look with a killer pair of sunglasses — the more outrageous the better. (It’s not like you’re going to see anyone you know.) Trends this summer include geometric shapes — think perfect circles and multi-sided polygons — and thick, translucent frames. Also look for mirrored and metallic lenses, and oversize cat-eye frames in classic colors.