6 Winding Tales of Epic Road Trips
Summer in the United States means it’s time to hit the road in search of adventure, so we navigated the Atlas Obscura archive to find the best road trips stories, from the very first car journey from coast to coast 120 years ago, to the fastest ever (25 hours and 39 minutes) to one of the worst in history. And then there’s all the unexpected sites you’ll see along the way. Keep an eye out for a 6o-ton buffalo, a gun-toting shrimp, and a plaster squirrel named Pearl. Buckle up!
For a century, a “fraternity of lunatics”—inspired by a driving pioneer and a 1980s movie—has raced across the United States: the so-called Cannonball Run. In 2020, drivers Arne Toman and Doug Tabbutt piloted a silver Audi A6 from New York City to Redondo Beach, California, in 25 hours and 39 minutes. Is this pandemic-era record unbreakable?
American highways have something for everyone. Lots of litter. License plates galore. And, if you take the right route, a dinosaur car wash or a supper club in the biggest fish you’ve ever seen. For four decades, photographer John Margolies captured some of the most unexpected sights.
In 1919, Dwight D. Eisenhower traveled with the military in a motor convoy across the country, from D.C. to San Francisco, in “the largest aggregation of motor vehicles ever started on a trip of such length,” The New York Times reported. The terrible experience—62 days of getting stuck in mud and ruts, pushing vehicles along impassible stretches, and rationing water—planted the idea in Eisenhower’s mind that the federal government could and should make improving U.S. highways a priority.
In 1903, Horatio Jackson and Sewall Crocker became the first people ever to drive a car from one side of the United States all the way to the other. It took them 63 days, $8,000, and 600 gallons of gas.
Think of your last road trip. There were sights and destinations, but as much as anything else, there were signs: for businesses, public safety messages, accident memorials, threats directed at outsiders, advertisements for worms, eggs, and firewood, reminders of sin (83-FOR-TRUTH), and, of course, political campaigns. Photographer Brendon Burton has made art out of these practical messages, a sometimes dangerous pursuit. “There was a sign in front of a gymnasium in Montana that said, “Do not open, really pissed off bees inside,” Burton says. “I said, ‘Huh, what does this sign say?’ and moved closer to read it, and then there were bees everywhere.”
The Old Spanish Trail was 2,743 miles of brick, asphalt, concrete, and wooden plank, across the southernmost states from St. Augustine, Florida, to San Diego, California. Today it has faded into a ghost road buried beneath six-lane highways, suburban sprawl, or sometimes dirt, brush and feet of desert sand. But one organization is dedicated to resurrecting the original route. If all goes according to plan, in 2029, a celebratory caravan of cars will start in St. Augustine and travel all the way to San Diego, on the very same trip the road’s founders made 100 years before, when the trail was finally completed.