How One Family Did a Bucket List Cross-country Road Trip During the Pandemic

These long-distance do-gooders drove 5,000 miles — then gave away their car.

Photo: Design/Illustration: Emily Lundin & Sarah Maiden | Photo: SÁNDOR SUBERT

Marianna and Sándor Subert wanted to donate their car to charity. They also wanted to drive cross-country. Then it occurred to them: Why not combine the two? In late August, the couple and their 20-year-old son drove their 2006 Volvo S40 from Northern Virginia to California, visiting multiple national parks and cities before donating the car to Goodwill in San Francisco.

“Driving cross-country was on our bucket list and because of COVID this seemed like the time to do it,” Marianna says.

Subert family selfie
Marcell Subert

But could a 14-year-old car with 200,000 miles survive a grueling 5,000-mile drive? Their car was in decent shape, but it was starting to need minor repairs — and the family had planned an ambitious two-and-a-half-week trek. They would drive west on Interstate 70 for five days to Colorado; hike for a day in Rocky Mountain National Park; zoom north through Wyoming to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks; cruise through Idaho, Utah, and Nevada; then head to California with stops in Lake Tahoe, Sacramento, and San Francisco. It was like asking an aging athlete to run a marathon, but their car vroomed across I-70 without any clanks or clunks. The only engine anxiety occurred in Yellowstone: As they were driving through the park, the check-engine light flashed on.

Yellowstone National Park
Sándor Subert

“We thought that was the end of the trip,” Sándor says.

Yellowstone National Park has six service stations, so they stopped at one near Old Faithful. A mechanic theorized that the altitude had affected the oxygen sensors and triggered the engine light, but ultimately it didn’t matter — the light went off and they kept on driving.

Weeks after the trip, the Suberts are still buzzing about their journey. They’d do it again in a heartbeat, but have some advice for cross-country travelers:

Subert Family at St. Louis Arch
Sándor Subert

Give the car a checkup.

Before hitting the highway, the Suberts took their car to a mechanic, who suggested they change the oil and replace the front tires. Marianna cautioned, “He said it could go another 5,000 miles without major problems, but after that we would need to change the timing belt.”

Don’t dread the planning process.

Researching the trip was one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience. “It was exciting — like we were living the trip just by planning it,” Marianna recalled.

Lose the flyover stereotypes.

“I’ve always heard people say that Kansas is flat and boring, but seeing pristine rolling fields was nice,” says son Marcell. “I was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful it was.”

Leave time for spontaneity.

Their detailed travel plan included daily destinations — Indianapolis on day one, St. Louis on day two — but they left room for serendipity. This allowed for unplanned stops in places such as Russell, Kansas, hometown of former U.S. senator Bob Dole, and an extra day in Utah. “We had been to Utah before, but each time we go back, it’s just, wow — another beautiful mountain, another beautiful canyon,” Marianna says.

Wasatch Mount State Park Lake Blanche
Sándor Subert

Stop at state parks.

With their unplanned day in Utah, the Suberts hiked to Lake Blanche in Wasatch Mountain State Park, one of their favorite stops on the trip. “State parks are not on everybody’s radar,” says Sándor. “This was one of those hidden gems that locals know but not necessarily people who traveled from afar.”

A colorful mural honoring Black Americans in Topeka, KS
Sándor Subert

Turn sitting into sightseeing.

Marianna worried that the cramped car would feel claustrophobic. “Sometimes we drive to New York and I’m kind of whining — Oh, it’s too long, I need to stop — and that’s only 250 miles,” she says. The invigorating scenery, however, overpowered any boredom. “The excitement of exploring is such a beautiful feeling,” she says. “Every place was beautiful because it was new.” To break things up, each family member took turns driving. They also discovered some cool coffee shops where they could stop, stretch and have a cup.

Donating the vehicle in San Francisco led to one last adventure. Goodwill instructed them to park the car, email the location, put the keys in the glove compartment and remove the license plates. But Sándor feared that the seemingly abandoned car would get towed (their hotel was in upscale Nob Hill), so he taped signs on the windows begging police not to remove it.

“It sat there for two days,” he says. “We were already home when we learned that Goodwill had picked it up.”

Leaving the Volvo behind was sad, Sándor admits, but the couple is already eyeing their other car, which has 240,000 miles, for another possible drive-and-donate trip in 2021.

“This trip had everything,” Marianna says. “The ocean, lakes, mountains, canyons, cities, fields — it was everything this country has to offer on just one trip. And giving away the car at the end felt good.”

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