Women Who Travel Podcast The Weird and Wonderful World of Road Tripping With Kristen Meinzer
Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: The Weird and Wonderful World of Road Tripping

Host Lale Arikoglu talks Dollywood, motel meals, and more with ‘How To Be Fine’ host Kristen Meinzer.

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With summer only a few months away, now is the time to start planning that road trip—especially if you're based in the U.S., where one of the best ways to see the country is by car (there are so many iconic American road trip movies for a reason). Enter, our guest this week: Kristen Meinzer, an author and podcast host who has spent much of her travels road tripping around the Midwest and staying at kitschy motels. Lale chats with Meinzer about her favorite roadside attractions across the country (hello, Corn Palace), how she sniffs out a quality motel, Dolly Parton, and more.

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Lale Arikoglu: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu. And this is Women Who Travel, a transportive podcast for anyone who's curious about the world. Today, I'm talking to a guest who's used to tackling all manner of topics. Everything from movie criticism, to the royals, to wilderness. She's Kristen Meinzer, broadcaster, cultural critic, and the author of two motivational books, So You Want to Start a Podcast? and How To Be Fine. She also loves to travel, especially when it comes to road-tripping around the US in the Midwest, where she grew up, in particular. But before we get to that, here's Kristen on her podcast.

Kristen Meinzer: I have a podcast that I co-host with my friend, Jolenta Greenberg, called How To Be Fine. We are self-help critiques who have lived by the rules of nearly 100 self-help books. And in each episode of How To Be Fine, we look at trends in the wellness industry, um, we cast a critical eye on, you know, what's popular, what's trending with influencers on TikTok, with Gwyneth Paltrow, whatnot. I very rarely, not as often as I would like, get to be on travel shows, and I'm such an avid traveler. I'm always like, "Please talk to me about travel." [laughs].

LA: Music to my ears. Well, we're so happy to have you on. I feel like you've been very vocal about your loyalty to the Midwest.

KM: That is very true, yep. That's right, I grew up in Minnesota.

LA: You know, I think sometimes ... I'm saying this as an outsider, having moved- moved to the states from the UK, but I often feel like, my impression is that the Midwest sometimes can get a little bit of a bad rap.

KM: Oh, absolutely. Here on the coasts, we refer to the Midwest as oftentimes the flyover states, um, backward middle America, the part of the country that's ruining it for everybody. Uh, ignorant red staters. [laughs].

LA: The list goes on, right?

KM: On the coast, I- I ... The list goes on and on and on. And- and for certain people on the coast, there seems to be the impression that roughly 44 states in the US are all exactly the same place [laughs], regardless of natural geography, immigration patterns, uh, climate, et cetera.

LA: Were you aware if- if that sort of level of derision, um, before you moved out of the Midwest, or was it a real shock when you kind of moved to the East coast and started to hear the way that people spoke about the place that you were from?

KM: I was really surprised by it.

And I think part of that's because Minnesotans, we are people with a very strong identity.

I have to say that in Minnesota, we kind of fancied ourselves special in a certain way. We all thought of ourselves as more educated than most of the US, because, um, I believe the ... At least when I was growing up, the attainment of higher education was higher in Minnesota than in most states. And we also prided ourselves on being very left leaning in almost every election. For the last 100 years, we voted democrat. So, we never identified with the red state stereotype. Minnesotans also I think fancied themselves [laughs] very literary, very musical, very much, you know, in media. We had, you know, people like Prince, and Bob Dylan.

LA: You're responsible for Prince. Like, what a gift for the nation and the world.

KM: We were, we were very lucky to have him.

LA: For people who only know the coasts and, you know, where would you recommend that they go? Uh, is it a road-tripping region of the country?

KM: Well, at least when I was growing up, it very much was. My family every summer, um, school break, et cetera, we would get in the car and go on road trips. And I'm pretty sure I saw, by the time I graduated from high school, 40 of the states. And it was just a very normal thing to do. And when I moved to New York, I was fascinated to find that so many New Yorkers had only been to six states. And I'm like, "What? How have you been to so few states?"

We can stop by little roadside attractions. We can go to mom and pop businesses. We can see the signs that say, "Only 5,000 miles till Wall Drug." Wall Drug was, um, and is a trading post [laughs] in South Dakota that back in the old West pioneer days, people used to, you know, meet there and trade and so on. And get their supplies. And it's still a major tourist destination to people in the upper Midwest.

The Corn Palace, which is also in South Dakota. It's an entire palace made out of corn, Mitchell, South Dakota. There are all these amazing attractions where a little town will say, "I want to be a stop on people's road trips. What is something unique about us? Oh, we- we grow a lot of corn. Let's have people come and see our corn. We're so proud of our corn."

There's a town in Illinois, I'm so sorry Illinois people, I'm blanking out on the name. But al they have in the town is large things. You know, a 30 foot pencil. A two story tall rocking chair [laughs]. Uh, ev- everything you can imagine that's large, that's what their whole town is. And it's fun to take photos in front of those big things. And there's something really sweet about the idea of a town getting together, in my opinion, and deciding, "This is what our identity is going to be for tourists."

LA: I now know what the name of that town in Illinois with the world's largest items is, it's a town called Casey.

KM Yes, that's right, Casey. That's right. Casey is adorable. Everyone should go to Casey. They also have a good coffee shop there with nice pastries.

LA: I imagine your parents were the ones who were really wanting to like get the family out and on the road and exploring the country. Were they ... You know, what do you think the impetus for them was?

KM: Well, I think we weren't a rich family, so the idea of flying from one place to another just, it- it wasn't feasible to pay for plane tickets. So, it was a chance to go to other places, whether it was, uh, Mount Rushmore, which we went to. Graceland, uh, home of Elvis Presley, which we drove to. We drove from Minnesota down to Disney World [laughs] and, you know, we drove to all of these great American tourist destinations and stopped at a lot of places in between and ate at lots of diners. Ate at lots of truck stops. Learned the joys of how to interact with truck drivers. You know, when you signal the window as a kid, "Please pull your horn," you know? And just being able to be with people who were not part of our everyday life.

Growing up in Minneapolis [laughs] I saw malls, and I saw city buses and skyscrapers, but I didn't ever see farms. So, our road trips were also a chance to see things like farms.

LA: Do you think it made you more interested in nature and the outdoors? Is that something you like now or did it confirm yourself as a, as an urban person?

KM: Oh, it confirmed me as an urban person. The idea of living on a farm, I- I am so grateful to America's farmers. They feed us. You do great work. So appreciative. I love eating. Thank you, thank you, thank you farmers. But the idea of being on a farm and knowing that my closest neighbor to walk to their house takes an hour, that alone is just like, I can't do this. I'll probably get murdered, you know? This is just too spread out. Uh, it's amazing to see and it's amazing to see things like cows, and pigs, and chickens. I still think all of those animals are super cool. But as a kid, it just confirmed, I couldn't live like this. If I can't walk down the street and, to see a friend, this- this just sounds like a nightmare to me [laughs]. Sounds like the beginning of a horror movie. Even as a kid, I thought it did. [laughs].

LA: Isn't funny how like, um, sort of what you grew up knowing ends up informing like what makes you feel safe. Because I've, you know, I grew up in the center of London. I've only known cities and so I find the silence of the countryside like deeply unnerving and ... I mean, my grandparents had a farm. My in-laws now live like somewhat out in the country in Pennsylvania. And I'm like deeply unsettled by the quietness. I need sirens. I need to know that they're people no more than like a few feet away from me at all times. I need to live on top of each other.

KM: Yeah. I mean, if somebody's chasing me with a chainsaw, I want somebody to hear me scream. And if I'm in the middle of rural, you know, America, or rural anywhere, no one's going to hear me scream. They're just going to think someone's chopping down a tree with their chainsaw.

LA: Yeah, exactly. It's ... Chainsaw's too normal a sound in the countryside.

KM: [laughs]. Exactly.

LA: After the break, Kristen on the kitschy, retro charm of America's many roadside motels. And her endless love for icon, Dolly Parton. If you're enjoying this episode of Women Who Travel, then please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. We read them all.

KM: We live in the era now of Airbnb, and VRBO, and so on. And, you know, those have a time and place for sure, but there's something really special to me about motels, about the history of motor inns in America and the role they played in spreading tourism and taking advantage of our new roadways in America and so on. And how each one tried to brand themselves as something special. And I- I love quirky little motels.

I love that it seems that they're not mass manufactured. You know, there's something that they wanted to do to stay out. And maybe they have a gimmick and I like a gimmick. I'm not somebody who looks down on gimmicks. I think that it's really sweet that they wanted to have a gimmick, something that makes them stand out. I just think there's something so special about ones that maybe you don't know what you're going to get. It's not going to be predictable, it's not going to be the Best Western where you always have, you know, one ashtray and, you know, an orange pillow in this room, or whatnot, you know? Instead, it's going to be, who knows what color the bedspread's going to be. And maybe they'll be six ashtrays. Who knows what's going to be in this place? [laughs]. Maybe it's not going to have, uh, four perpendicular walls, but maybe the room will be circle shaped. Who knows?

LA: How do you seek them out? Are you researching in advance or are you genuinely seeing a sign for a motel on the side of the road and taking a turn and taking a risk?

KM: I do some research. Every once and a while it'll just be like, "Oh, that looks like an interesting place to stay." I do like also when there are many signs for hundreds of miles that keep mentioning this one hotel. It's like, "Wow, this one hotel really wants me to stay there. We've been seeing signs for two states. I better go check out this hotel." And that can be pretty fun too.

LA: Are there any sort of telltale signs that m-, that say you see like a neon sign or something that you think, "Oh, this is going to be a good motel?"

KM: [laughs]. Oh my gosh. I personally, if the motel looks like it's been around longer than 80 years, I'm like, “Yeah, that's a sure thing. I'm going there. It looks like this place could have asbestos, I want to stay in this one.” I don't really want asbestos, but there's something about-

LA: Some people are looking for a well stocked minibar and you're like, "Asbestos, I'm in."

KM: [laughs]. Does this hotel look like I could get tetanus here? I want to stay here.

LA: Uh, tell me about some of your favorite ones that you've uncovered. Are there any that you, um, always go back to, or that you just think about regularly for the utter quirkiness and kitschy-ness and weirdness?

KM: Oh my gosh. One of my favorites, because I am a movie lover. I'm a film critic on top of all the other things I do. Um, one of my favorites is The Fairlee Drive-In Theater Motel in Fairlee, Vermont. And each room comes with a ginormous picture window where you can look out onto the drive-in cinema in the backyard. Or if you want to, you can get into your car and then drive to the drive-in cinema. So, you can watch either from your room or at the drive-in theater itself. The food is delicious there too, I have to say. Um, if I'm not mistaken, they actually grind up all their own meat themselves to make the hotdogs and hamburgers.

LA: When I was doing my research about, um, some of, some of the ones that you've stopped by in the past, um, one that has hot tub cabins. Tell me about that one.

KM: Yes. Okay. So, my husband and I when we got married, um, we decided we were going to do our honeymoon in Dollywood. I'm a huge Dolly Parton fan and Dolly was going to be playing a show the same week we got married. So, we're like, "Oh, yeah, yeah. We're going to go down to the Great Smokey Mountains. We'll rent a car. We'll do a mini road trip while we're down there." And one of the places on our mini road trip was a town called Hot Springs, North Carolina. And we stayed at a motel called The Hot Springs Log Cabins. It was just half a dozen log cabins and they're all situated on the land so you can't actually see any of the other cabins. It really feels secluded. And I did worry at one point I was going to be mulled by a bear or murdered. Because I'm like, "I'm not used to this kind of seclusion."

LA: We've established, you're not, you're not good in the wilderness.

KM: I'm not good in the wilderness. But, it- it was made better, because we were drinking champagne in a hot tub. Because every one of the Hot Springs log cabins has its own hot tub on the front porch. You can listen to what sounds like bears that are about to attack you. You can do all of it. And it feels to me so much of what I imagine the Great Smokey Mountains are about and why people want to go there.

LA: You mentioned a love of Dolly Parton and I actually clocked behind you that you have a Dolly Parton print.

KM: [laughs] I have a lot of Dolly Parton in this room. I don't know if you can see how many things I have [laughs].

LA: Uh, yeah. That's- that's a Dolly wall.

KM Yes. We call my office, um, the Dolly room, because I have Dolly videos in here and she's just the best version of what we should all be, right? Um, uh, kind, generous, charitable, creative. She cheers for people. She's the underdog who got ahead and cares about other underdogs. Uh, I just think we're very lucky to be alive at the same time as Dolly.

LA: I really share your love of Dolly and, um, I love that you brought up Dollywood, because, um, I went there a couple of years ago right when we were sort of emerging from the initial pandemic haze for a friend's bachelorette. And-

KM: Oh my gosh, what an amazing place for a bachelorette party.

LA: It was ... Oh my God, it was spectacular. There was something so kitsch about going to Dollywood and, you know, sh- ... It was all so Dolly, but I think we were all brought there by like th- this shared love of her and kind of appreciation for that kind of laundry list of qualities that you just, um, listed off. And I can't help but think that your love of road trips and exploring the US and its, and all its multitudes is somehow tied in with also your love of Dolly Parton. It seems like you just really love America.

KM: I- I do and I can see all the ways that America's screwed up at the same time, you know? My- my love of America also comes with an awareness of the many, many, many problems we have in America. Which I think is the best way to love America. It's not blindly. It's- it's kind of like that one aunt or grandmother who I know, you know, maybe has a problem on some things and maybe is a pain in the ass here. But that's my grandma, don't you dare say anything bad about here. Um, I'll say the bad things about her, but you better not. And I know everything that's wonderful about her too. So, yeah, I- I kind of think of America the same way as I do about certain family members.

LA: It's, um, kind of like that James Baldwin quote, right? Um, where he said that he loves America more than any other country in the world, and for that reason he has the right to criticize her perpetually.

KM: Exactly.

LA: What have been the more challenging parts of seeing so much of the country?

KM I mean, one thing is I'm not white and depending on where we are in America, the fact that we live in a white supremacist culture is more obvious in some places than others. And, um, it's something that I've experienced firsthand being otherized, or treated like a foreigner, or when I'm with Black family members, having them be treated in ways that are reprehensible. Being stopped by cops for no reason at all, other than they're Black. Um, so that's very obviously a problem in America. But I would also argue that that's a problem outside of America too. I just think America, we talk about racism more openly. I've certainly experienced, um, my fair share of racism even in London, where you're from.

Um, there's been no shortage [laughs] of, um, racist altercations or verbal abuse I've had to deal with abroad. So, it's not just America. I just think that we talk about it more openly in America. And then, the class disparities. Um, it's just, it's astounding when we go into some poor rural areas in America and we see where the wealth goes. Um, especially in those rural places in the South where the laws are set up and the taxes are set up to not give anything back to the poor people. Um, you know, there's not a social safety net in a lot of those poor rural areas. And I'm not saying cities are fantastic and perfect, but for the most part, in the North, in large metropolitan areas in the North, there's more of a social safety net set up than there is for poor rural Southerners in the US.

And it's very obvious on road trips sometimes in some places how great the disparities are between rich and poor. So, um, that's really tough to see too. And then, the Jim Crow South is still in a lot of ways the Jim Crow South with regard to what is the wrong side of the tracks. Where do we still see the vestiges of red lining, you know? All of that is still visible in different areas. Not just in the South, in, you know, in parts of the North too. And so, that's, you know, that's tough to see. It's tough to see where maybe a religion in some parts of America reaches further than I would like religion to reach [laughs].

Where we see different, you know, uh, giant billboards in different towns, or as we approach different towns that are announcing different things that their town is about, or what they believe there, which maybe not tolerant. Which may in my opinion be anti-woman, or anti-gay. I've certainly seen those kinds of signs on the side of the road in Pennsylvania, in upstate New York, in Virginia. They're right here on the coast too. It's not just in the middle of the country that I've seen those signs.

LA: My husband's from Pennsylvania, so I have driven through that state a lot. And yeah, there's, um, th- ... A lot of those billboards. Um, which as someone, you know, who still has a lot more of this country to explore, it's, um, always quite jolting to see them. Pivoting back to motels. You know, just to ... A- after the heavy stuff, going to go back, going to go back to the kitsch. Um, you mentioned that at that, uh, at the Fairlee Drive-In in Vermont that they had great food and that they, you know, grind their meat and make their hot tubs, hot- hot tubs.

KM: [laughs].

LA: Hopefully not make their hot tubs. Make their hot dogs [laughs]. And I feel like motels get a bit of a bad rap when it comes to food, but it sounds like you've had some positive experiences.

KM: Growing up, my family on road trips, one thing they would look for in motels is, is breakfast included. Because that's going to save the family a meal or maybe two meals if we eat something that's so large, it's like brunch. Now we don't have to stop along the side of the road and get breakfast and lunch, because we're each eating these enormous brunches before we start our drive. And some of the food I have found in some motels is quite good. It's not just the box of doughnuts. Sometimes it's the box of doughnuts and I'm not going to say no to a powdered doughnut. They're delicious. They're great.

But, uh, sometimes it's really fun, more regional foods like biscuits with sausage gravy, and scrambled eggs, which I've had many times in motels in the south. And I'm like, yeah. I'm saying yes to that. Um, you know, oftentimes they'll be a waffle maker, or a basket of what they consider the best fresh fruit for the season in their area. And, you know, ev- every area has a different idea of what really great fresh fruit is and what that is. Maybe it's a little plastic container of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail.

LA: Coming up after the break, Kristen shares her money saving techniques for seeing the world. And how study abroad actually helped her save on the cost of college tuition.

You have said in the past, uh, you know, you've- you've kind of brought up money and kind of traveling on a budget and doing it kind of in- in affordable ways. And it sounds like you kind of learned a lot of money skills when it comes to life and travel from these kind of early experiences. And I think I'm right in saying that you managed to pay less for college by studying abroad, uh, multiple times.

KM: Yes. I did three different study abroads and on the surface that might, um, appear because I'm wildly wealthy and I just love living in other countries. But, uh, I went to the University of Minnesota and Minnesota had a reciprocity relationship with the University of Wisconsin. Which back when I went to college had the most affordable and, in my opinion, the best study abroad programs in all of the US. So, for example, it was I believe my sophomore year, I went to the UK and that trip included roundtrip airfare, a six week road trip in a coach where we traveled to, I believe it was 12 countries around Western Europe.

And then a whole semester of living in London and getting small tutored courses led by ... My feeder class was a West End director and we'd meet with him once a week and we'd go to plays. And then, there was a history professor who normally taught at Cambridge and he would come down once a week and teach us things and so on. And so, it- it was kind of an unconventional educational experience all sponsored by the University of Wisconsin. All meals, housing, that road trip, that airfare, tuition, everything included, it was $3500.

And one of your requirements to be a well rounded liberal arts graduate was to be fluent in a foreign language. And the way most of us did that was by taking four semesters and two summer sessions of a foreign language. And I did some research and realized, you know what? I could go to Guatemala for a few months and, um, do some volunteer work there and go to a local language school. My time in Guatemala was three or four months. In the end, that saved me two years of language classes in school. My time in Guatemala, I believe, cost about $1000. I did another Wisconsin program to go to India. That was $4500, including housing, food, tuition and a six week road trip for that one. And then when I moved to New York and I was a grad student at NYU, I was in shock with, "Oh my gosh, people at NYU do study abroads in Dubai, or in Florence, and they spend $50,000 or something insane like that." And I'm like, "What? That shouldn't cost you extra to do this thing." [laughs].

LA: Well, that's so interesting you say it, because to me, study abroad feels like a- an added thing. It's almost like an added luxury and like isn't necessarily accessible to all. And I think one of the problems with so much of travel and opportunities to travel is the lack of financial accessibility.

KM: Yes. And I agree with you.

LA: You have a love of New Zealand, I think, and a connection to New Zealand.

KM: Yes, my husband is from New Zealand and- and I love it. New Zealand is a magical place. It's ... To go back to the prohibitive cost of travel though, it's extremely expensive to get to. And so, other than my work trips and seeing my family in Minnesota and Arizona, a lot of our money just these days goes towards trips to New Zealand, because it's not cheap to fly there and it's a huge time commitment as well.

LA: Um, what is it you love about it? I mean, what an opportunity to get to experience New Zealand. Like, you probably didn't think that that was going to become a part of your life.

KM: No. I mean, what are the chances that a country that only has five million people, that I would end up marrying one of them, you know? [laughs]. There are more people in Brooklyn than in New Zealand. Isn't that nutty? [laughs]. Um, so, some of the things that I love about New Zealand, um, my husband is from the South Island and the South Island is kind of like in the US, the South. It's more rural. There are more sheep than people. And the geography is fascinating to me, because as somebody who went on road trips that we would drive up to 12 hours a day, on the South Island of New Zealand, we drive, um, you know, each day on a road trip, we always road trip when we're there.

We might drive three hours and that's their whole driving for the day. But in those three hours, we may have gone from plains, to a rain forest, to a glacier all in three hours. And I just find it so fascinating. In the US, because the US is so vast, that would be days of driving to see those three different kinds of climates. But in New Zealand, it really can be three hours. There are so many beautiful sights to see, but also fantastic animals. I love animals and I have to say here, the animals in New Zealand don't want to kill you. It's not like American animals or Australian animals, which all want us dead. They have no snakes. Th- they're just ... The birds are so gentle that half of them can't fly. It's- it's just a beautiful animal kingdom experience that doesn't terrify me. And everything's so cute. I love it.

LA: As someone who grew up in England, I s- can never quite adjust to being in a place where animals can kill me. There's like nothing that can kill you in England-

KM: [laughs].

LA: ... from the natural world, that is.

KM: Yeah. Well, you would love New Zealand then.

LA: Okay. Well, fabulous. I think this has been great. We're so happy to have you on.

Next week, we're very excited to be joined by an Emmy Award-winning TV director who's worked on many of the most successful shows of the last three decades. Shows like Big Little Lies, Homeland and much, much more. She's Lesli Linka Glatter whose new HBO series, Love and Death, set in her home state of Texas is out later this month.

I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me, as always, @lalehannah on Instagram.

Our engineers this week are Gabe Quiroga and Amar Lal. Our producer is Jude Kampfner. Thanks for listening.