It was fourth-year College student Jessica Krechel's last summer before she had to enter the "real world," and she wanted it to count.
"I'm going to be a fourth year and I have to get a job," Krechel said.
With her final year of college looming large, Krechel and her boyfriend decided to forgo the popular backpacking across Europe trips in favor of sticking a little closer to home--a month-long trip across the country.
"Everybody does Europe," she said. "We decided before we saw a foreign country we should see the U.S.," Krechel said.
Krechel's boyfriend, a 1997 College graduate and a second-year student at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, also wanted to travel before his responsibilities swamped him.
"It was pretty much the last summer in my life," Les Levin said, "And I wanted to have fun."
Levin, who had friends who had made similar jaunts across the U.S., had saved up money for a trip.
So the two hit the road in mid-July, traveling in Krechel's car. In the span of 30 days, they traveled through 24 states. At $3,000 for both Krechel and Levin, the expense of the vacation was a fraction of what an equivalent vacation in Europe would cost.
The couple saved money by camping when they could and staying with friends and family or at youth hostels.
Starting from Krechel's home in Virginia Beach, the two traveled to Cincinnati, St. Louis, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Oregon and California. They did most of their camping on their northern route to the West Coast.
"It's the last time I'd have a free summer," Krechel said. "It was really carefree."
Krechel said she and Levin had a schedule, but it wasn't strict, and they made no reservations in advance.
"If there was a campground, there was a campground," she said.
Krechel and Levin planned their route to follow famous parks and places they had always wanted to see, she said. The couple spent two days in Yellowstone National Park, spotting a bear, a wolf, elk, moose and mules. They also saw Mount Rushmore, South Dakota's Badlands, the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, and Custer State Park--home of the largest buffalo population in the nation, Krechel said.
"You don't have to travel outside the country to see lots of spectacular things," Levin said.
After Yellowstone, the two traveled along the Oregon and California coasts, stopping in San Francisco, the Redwood National Forest, San Diego and Los Angeles.
"There's literally a cloud of smog over L.A.," said Krechel, who also called Hollywood "disappointing."
Levin, a golfer, had wanted to golf at Pebble Beach, Calif., but the couple nixed the idea when they found out it cost $305 to tee off.
While golf proved too expensive, the two did have time for other diversions. They went to Dodgers' and Giants' baseball games (in San Francisco the fans had to wear winter coats at night), Universal Studios, Sea World, and on a "cheesy tour" of L.A. homes.
After California, the two drove to Las Vegas, missing an earthquake by two hours. Levin and Krechel stayed up until 7 a.m. playing blackjack--they won $100.
The two continued through New Mexico, and saw the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
"You can't even grasp how big it is," Krechel said. "That was one of my favorites."
The southern leg of the trip was so hot (temperatures were often above 100 degrees), they didn't camp much.
"We had to go in and watch movies because it was unbearable," she said.
But when the two saw "The Blair Witch Project," in New Orleans, they didn't miss being able to spend their nights in the woods.
"If we had seen that before we went camping, we wouldn't have gone camping," Krechel said.
But Krechel said the camping, although dirty at times, was well worth it.
"Some of the best experiences I had were camping--finding really cool places to stay and staying outdoors."
Throughout the trip, Krechel and Levin, who have dated for three years, were inseparable.
"The only time we were apart is when we had to go to the bathroom," Krechel said. "I think our relationship is even stronger since we did this."
"We realized if we could spend all day together and all night it's a pretty good relationship," Levin agreed.
They only had two arguments in 30 days, Krechel said.
When Krechel and Levin returned, they showed their pictures to Levin's parents, Jackie and Elliott Levin, who had taken a similar trip in their first year of marriage.
"Some of the pictures were identical to our own pictures, which was really, really weird," Krechel said.
"They had reminded us of a lot of things we had forgotton," Jackie Levin said. "When they showed us [their pictures] it brought back all our good experiences."
The Levins had taken their trip in 1971, in a yellow 1967 Plymouth Fury convertible that had no air conditioning.
Although "things were different then," Levin said she felt comfortable with her son's trip once she gave the couple her cell phone.
"I felt pretty good about them going," she said. "I knew if they were in trouble, they could call."
Far from trouble, for Krechel, who is executive coordinator of University Union, the trip was a welcome break from worries.
"I lead a pretty stressful life," she said. "This trip--I was away from everything."
Krechel said she planned to make a web site in CS 101 this semester to help other would-be cross-country travelers.
"There are hardly any web sites about going cross country," she said.
Krechel, who may face some ritual fourth-year angst this year, said she is glad she took advantage of her last summer break.
"It was like the perfect trip," she said.