For years, I’ve wanted to go on a road trip around the U.S. In college, I spent some longer periods of time abroad; and while I love international travel, there’s something about a domestic road trip that has always seemed like the ultimate chance at freedom. After all, it’s sort of the American dream, in the most 1950s way possible: Just you, your car, your tent, and a map.
Traditionally, I think that as a woman you’re expected to either have an eccentric BFF or a bank-robbing boyfriend along for the ride. But as it turns out, not everyone can take six weeks off to become an overly-ambitious road warrior — myself included. For a while, I hemmed and hawed, never finding quite the right time to go. But in the end, I just went. Sans-sidekick. Sans-vacation. As a freelancer, I could work on the road. I’d find the time. Right?
In the end, I had an amazing time and learned some lessons firsthand, which I’ve provided here so you don’t have to. But you know what? You probably should anyway.
1. Plan a strategic route.
I.e., a route that contains the most friends you can stay with. A handful of mine are conveniently scattered along the west coast, so I decided that a west coast tour of friends would be more realistic than a road trip across the entire U.S.. A bit of a bummer, the perfectionist in me thought, but alas. Flexibility is key.
Roughly, my route, starting from Missoula, MT, was Portland → San Francisco → LA → San Diego → Joshua Tree → the Grand Canyon → Tucson → Big Bend → Dallas → Bozeman, MT.
I’ll spare you the exact details, but let’s just say that I envisioned long walks on the beach, hikes through the desert, and in general more time than what I ended up with. However, with only a few modifications and sacrifices — like not taking Highway 101 the whole way down the coast — I got to experience a little bit of everything and miraculously stayed on top of my work. #Winning.
2. You’re not actually in this alone.
Traveling alone to visit friends affords you the best of both worlds — you don’t have to worry about keeping your travel buddy entertained, but you get plenty of social time. And it was amazing to catch up with old friends and realize that aside from new cities, new jobs, and new partners, not much has changed.
The world, as it happens, is also incredibly small. Traveling alone forced me to reach out to my network with questions about who they know in specific areas, which opened the door to many new friendships and interactions. Criticize the Internet all you want for taking away face-to-face interaction — I hear you — but if you use it right, it can actually make more of these connections possible.
For instance, while in San Francisco, I asked Facebook who was in the area, and ended up spending a day with a friend of a friend and his partner, who are both awesome. I also met their new friend who had recently moved to town, and the next day, we explored the city together. In San Diego, I found an online group for local creatives via Craigslist, and ended up tagging along on a photoshoot in L.A. and making two new friends through that. In Arizona, I contacted an acquaintance via Instagram and stayed at his house, then he rode with me to Tucson and introduced me to his friends who live there…
Are you sick of me saying the word “friend” yet? I think you get the picture. Use your resources and don’t be shy.
3. Gas stations are weird.
Stop in one gas station, and you won’t think much of it. But stop in a gas station every few hours for a few days, and you’ll start to wonder if it’s Groundhog’s Day. No sooner do you walk through the door then you’re assaulted by an onslaught of brightly-colored packaging. Or, if you’re in Texas, pickled things in jars. I’ll admit I was actually grateful to see them — aside from those jars, all these places look pretty much the same.
I don’t mean to complain, because I know it could be so much worse, but man, eating healthfully on the road is tough! Bring a cooler, fill it with carrots, string beans, and protein bars, and you’re set. That’s my advice.
4. Texas is huge and everything is really far apart.
By far the most difficult stretch of the journey was driving from Tucson to Big Bend National Park. Texas, as it turns out, is extremely flat, and way more rural than I expected. After passing Van Horn, I drove along a straight and narrow two-lane highway for hundreds of miles and only passed a handful of cars. And then, the sun went down. At this point, I was actually getting a bit creeped out.
Outside Big Bend, in a town called Marathon, I stopped to gas up, and I could not believe how dark it was. There was nothing, just a super expensive hotel and an RV park and a gas station called Alon. And since I was only about an hour away from the park, I decided to go for it. In the end, I found an amazing campsite with a sky full of stars and warm breeze. Worth it.
5. Solitude is a gift.
As much fun as I had meeting new people, laughing with old friends, and feeling like a tourist in each city I visited, I was also usually pretty ready to get in the car and drive for a while once the time came. I’m obsessed with podcasts — in fact, I produce one — and hours of uninterrupted listening time is actually something of a dream come true. And although it was somewhat frustrating to not have the time to stop and explore every nook and cranny, I still enjoyed watching the scenery go by, listening to music and letting my mind wander.
My first night in Joshua Tree, I had this epiphany I’ll never forget. I was about halfway through the trip, and I was in my tent wrapped up in my cozy sleeping bag. And lying there listening to the coyotes, I felt a soaring gratitude — first, for those heat-producing objects making up my mobile home; then, for being in that beautiful place. And after that, for everything leading up to the moment, and for everyone responsible, no matter how inadvertently.
But eventually, I ran out of people to silently thank in my head, because I never could have done this without myself. I was the real MVP, as cheesy as it sounds, and accepting responsibility for being where I was felt like the ultimate power.
You can read more about Mariah’s travels and listen to the podcast on her blog, the Millennial Search for Meaning.