By Associated Press Travel Editor
updated 6/21/2006 1:09:10 PM ET 2006-06-21T17:09:10

Day 1: My family embarks on the classic American vacation -- a road trip, obsessively planned out over 18 days in three-hour blocks. We fly today from New York to California, then will drive 3,000 miles through six states, with stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Disneyland, Universal Studios and Las Vegas. Plus the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and 10 other national parks -- not that I'm counting.

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I expect it will be something like my favorite stupid movie, "National Lampoon's Vacation" -- minus the dead aunt in the back seat. Yes, we are headed to Walleyworld. And when we get there, it will be closed.

Did I mention that I hate the nomad life? That I like my socks in the same drawer when I wake up each morning? That I am appalled by the idea of extracting my children's underwear -- or worse, someone else's -- from underneath hotel beds?

When we reach the Grand Canyon, I may have to throw myself in.

Day 2: We reserved a small rental car to save money, but, joy, no small cars available! We're forced to get a minivan with three rows of seats, even though my husband Elon says he can't see out the rear window to park. Minor detail! What's important is that each child has his own row. We'll skip lunch for a week to pay for the extra gas.

I've read that Mark Twain did not say, as is alleged, that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. But it's true for us. It's 55 degrees and we're wearing all the clothes we brought -- and I mean all of them at once, layering T-shirts over tank tops, shivering as we sightsee.

We're staying with our cousin, who lives a block from Haight-Ashbury, but I'd rather not explain to the kids why that's cool. We do Golden Gate Park and Fisherman's Wharf, eat great cheap Mexican food at Los Hermanos (2026 Chestnut St.) and great expensive dim sum at Yank Sing (in the Rincon Center). Our cousin is a real-life private detective and points out homicide scenes as we drive around. As New Yorkers, we feel right at home.

Day 3: Every place we go here looks like a different planet. Today we are on the Planet of the Giant Redwoods, better known as Muir Woods. We wake up very early (we're still on New York time) and arrive long before the crowds. The forest is magically quiet as we walk the easy loop to Cathedral Grove. Just as we leave, a tour bus arrives, breaking the spell. Slideshow: 10 great American road trips

Next stop, Point Reyes National Seashore. We hike for a couple hours, past abandoned ranch houses and along the bluffs near Tomales Point, overlooking the coast. Suddenly we notice the elk. Dozens of them, all around. They blend in so well with the brown and yellow brush, you almost can't see them until you're next to them. Then they take off in thrilling stampedes.

Day 4: Santa Cruz amusement park. Nathaniel, who is 7, likes it better than all the big theme parks because he's tall enough to go on nearly every ride here.

Day 5: Yosemite and our biggest challenge yet: Stifling road rage while crawling up mountains behind RVs going 10 mph. Did I mention that the parking lots are all filled? The long lines for food? The crowded valley floor? It's almost like being in New York.

The good news: Great buffets at Curry Village Lodge, and a perfect family hike to Sentinel Dome. We practically have the place to ourselves -- unheard of in the summer in Yosemite -- as we climb the trail for a phenomenal view of the famous peaks Half Dome and El Capitan.

The bad news: Coming down, we lose the trail. Trees everywhere. But no path. And no one to ask.

After 15 minutes of bushwhacking, we spot a fanny pack and a Maui T-shirt through the woods. Thank God for tacky tourists. We tail Maui Man to the parking lot.

No trip to Yosemite is complete without lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli, a famous eatery next to an unassuming Mobil station in the town of Lee Vining, east of Yosemite near Tioga Pass. Best lobster taquitos for 500 miles.

Day 6: On to Muir Woods' sister planet, Sequoia, to see the largest trees on earth -- the General Grant tree, the General Sherman tree ... or as our eldest son Danny regards them, the Generally Boring trees. This city boy can't take another woodsy moment; he runs back to the car.

Elon -- fearing our firstborn might be, what, kidnapped by a tree? -- runs after him. Nathaniel and I follow slowly. Our pace is rewarded: We see a mama bear and cub, and find pine cones the size of chihuahuas.

Day 8: A glorious weekend in Los Angeles -- Melrose, the Grove, Hollywood, Venice, and brunch at the Ivy. No celebrity sightings unless you count our 20-something cousin Ben, who, like a lotta locals, is working on a movie deal.

Funniest remark of the trip: On the Universal Studios tour, riding through a movie set about a monster ape, Nathaniel chirps: "It's Hong Kong!"

Everyone laughs. He adds: "I mean Kong King!"

Day 9: Last stop in California: Disney. It's fine, it really is. Except for the other 3 million people and the vomit outside the Grizzly River Run water ride.

But I'll admit: Soarin' Over California is the finest theme park ride ever. Unfortunately I've ridden enough to know.

Day 10: Did I say Disney was our last stop in California? It was, until we made a 100-mile detour to spend 30 minutes at Joshua Tree National Park. Was it worth it? I'll let you guess.

At night we swim in a warm outdoor pool in Palm Desert. Stars sparkle overhead. It's 97 degrees. Welcome to the Spa Planet.

Day 11: Crossing the desert into Arizona, the outside temp on our van thermometer reads 108 degrees. Then suddenly we are engulfed by a black cloud, thunder and lightning. We are on the Storm Planet. Five minutes later, it's 62 degrees.

Day 12: As we take our daily four-hour drive to wherever, I realize I'm getting used to the nomad life. We sing songs, play geography, take pictures out the car window. I let the children eat cheddar cheese potato chips for breakfast. I give myself foot massages with lotion purloined from hotel bathrooms. And I drink wine in small cardboard boxes from 7-Eleven.

Day 13: Up at dawn for a 2-mile sunrise hike down Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon.

We realize belatedly you can't see the sunrise here, because the horizon is behind the canyon. Duh! The kids, exhausted, collapse in the car after breakfast and refuse to budge until the next hotel.

Day 14: After two days of tours in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Ariz., and Mesa Verde National Park, Colo., I feel like I could write a Wikipedia entry on the ancient cliff dwellings of Ancestral Puebloans.

Day 15: Some road trip bests:

Best place to take photos: For the kids, standing on the borders of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona at Four Corners National Monument. For mom, standin' on a corner in Winslow, Ariz., just like the Eagles song says. P.S. In my next life, we'll skip the nearby meteor crater.

Best food in the middle of nowhere: Tortillas at the Wayside Cafe, 1150 W. Hopi Drive, Holbrook, Ariz., just down Route 66 from Winslow.

Best meal in a chain motel: Posole -- hominy and pork in a spicy stew -- at the Junction Restaurant, part of the Best Western in Chinle, Ariz. Nice change from the Four Road Trip Food Groups -- Coke, fries, burritos and bacon.

Best scenery from the car: Arizona's Painted Desert.

Day 16: Can you say hoodoo? We're in Bryce Canyon, Utah, playing cowboy on a horseback tour. Yee-ha!

Bryce is known for having one of the darkest night skies in the Lower 48, so we go stargazing. But Danny won't come. He stays in our room at Ruby's Inn to watch the MTV Video Music Awards. So we take Nathaniel alone to see the Big Dipper and everything else.

"I feel like I could pick the stars right out of the sky," he whispers.

Day 17: Here's what's cool about Moab, Utah: The red rocks at Arches National Park. Whitewater rafting. And Hogi Yogi, which sells Teriyaki Stix to go.

Day 18: It's 108 degrees with a hot wind blowing when we arrive in Vegas. If you wonder what that feels like, put your head in a 400-degree oven.

We survive in the shade of palm trees by a fake lazy river at the Monte Carlo resort, where the kids play in the water while Elon and I share a 60-ounce rum-filled hurricane. At night we join a gazillion people jamming the Strip.

From here, it's the red-eye home. Can't wait to show off my 347 digital photos. Now that it's over, I can honestly say our road trip was a lot of fun. We're planning our next one already.

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