Might want to grab a drink because this is a little long.
After several test rides, talking to LBS owners, and many late nights spent reading online, I still cannot choose a bike, so I'd appreciate a push in the right direction. More or less, I'm not sure whether I want a road bike or a mountain bike. It's a little hard (but not impossible) to find info on this since it seems like most people already know if they want a road bike or a mtb, just they need suggestions on a specific bike.
Keep in mind, the last bike I rode was a cheap $80 Target bike with "dual suspension" that probably weighed close to what my car does. I clocked on nearly a thousand miles (5 miles at a time, since that was my commute) before I sold it before I moved. So with respect to that bike, almost any entry-level (like, sub-$500) bike will be a significant improvement over what I used to ride.
More or less, I'm not looking to climb mountains or ride on trails barely wider than a bike tire with steep drop-offs on one or more sides. I'll probably ride on road 80% of the time or more. But, I don't like to just hit the pavement and pedal and pedal to eternity. If there's a quick dirt trail next to the bike path that's a short cut, I'll take it. And I'd rather ride down stairs and jump curbs for the minor thrill and rather than having to take the long way or go around. I'd also cut across grass in a park (which I learned is pretty much like hidden potholes) or jump onto the state beach alongside the highway and pedal on the sand and through a few small creeks with fresh/salt water. Sometimes all in the same ride.
I've also ridden my $80 POS for 30 miles near-nonstop on the pavement at an easy 15MPH while I watch other cyclists on $2000 road bikes turn up their noses when they pass by. Not saying everyone is like that, but I don't blame them. What is the first thing you're gonna think when you see a kid (I'm 19) on a cheap Target bike going slow? Probably not that I'm aspiring to ride with them one day or anything like that.
This pretty much led to my dilemma. I will rarely hit up an actual mountain, but I don't like to just pedal on the pavement forever. Although I'd also like to throw a rack and fenders on it and use it as a commuter if I'm physically fit enough to pedal the 15 miles (mostly through flat farmland) to school. One LBS suggested a hybrid (the Specialized Crosstrail base model), and it was a nice ride, but I don't really like the idea of an "in-between" bike, even though I may seem like an "in-between" rider. Having one of those to me is like (because I'm a car guy) driving a Ford Escape with "intelligent 4WD" (not doggin' on the Escape; my Mom drives one because she likes how it looks). It's like, you don't want an all-out 4x4 truck, but you don't want a car that's lower to the ground and FWD, so you settle on something "in-between". But in reality, it's not much higher than a car, and it sucks at going off road because you pretty much have to pray that the "intelligent 4WD" will kick in before you get stuck.
So because I like to get off the beaten path but still ride on road for significant distances all in the same ride, I was thinking about getting a mountain bike with thin road tires. This, in my eyes, would be like getting a small 4-cylinder pickup truck. It's not exactly like a car on the road, but because it's a small pickup and not as high or as big/wide as a full-size pickup, it's easier on the road and has better road manners, as well as the better gas mileage of something smaller. But when you want to go off road, you can still hit up the trails better than an Escape since it's body-on-frame and can go pretty far with a bit of throttle modulation.
But that doesn't leave road bikes out of the question. If a road bike can do all that, then I wouldn't mind riding one of those either. I've ridden a Specialized Sirrus, Crosstrail, and Hardrock, a Giant Rincon, and a Trek 820, all base models, and I don't have a preference or an immediate attachment to any one bike. They all have their quirks about seating and whatnot, but I could get used to their individualities, given enough time. I took each one for a few easy laps around the block because I don't really like pushing things that aren't mine, so I didn't want to take someone else's bike down a flight of stairs or through a creek or something. They all shifted way better than my $80 POS, which would jump 2 or 3 gears when clicking down one gear. And they were all way easier to pedal and much lighter. The Sirrus and the Crosstrail seemed a little faster, but I think that was more to do with the tires than the bike. I kinda liked the suspension forks more than a rigid fork, but the rigid fork is something that I could get used to if need be.
So given my situation (poor college student who wants the equivalent of the small pickup truck of bikes), what would you suggest? My budget is around $300-500, which I know won't get me anything super fancy, but every base model I rode blew my $80 Target bike out of the water in every aspect, so having the fanciest rig on the block with the best components available isn't a concern to me. Keep in mind, I rode my Target bike for a thousand miles on almost all original parts. The only things I changed were inner tubes (three front and two rear). I seriously wouldn't mind a road bike or a mountain bike; I just need a pointer on what you would suggest so I can get something and head out to the open bike lane and ride. Just don't say "both" since I can't afford two bikes.
Anyway, if you're still reading down to this point, I thank you greatly for your time. I always like to give more detail than be too vague, because I think it's easier for people to help if they know what I'm asking. Hope that wasn't too long of a read. Ride safe and don't end up in a ditch like me (that was my fault...being distracted coupled with crappy brakes on a crappy bike [like having ice cubes as brake pads, seriously] led to missing a hairpin turn on a bike path and hitting a ditch about 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep...ouch).