Road Trip Dos and Don'ts
Over 2010 and 2011, I went on a long road trip around America. I had some good times, some bad times, and made a lot of mistakes. And so through a series of mundane errors, I discovered a way of road trip life that worked best for me. So here’s a list of painfully basic rules I’ve compiled for future road trippers. It’s my advice for the American wanderers. Good luck to you – and may you make your own far more colorful blunders.
1. Never, under any conditions, wander to an unknown town with a nice name. If it's called Pleasant, Rose Mountain, Happyville, you will live to regret it. Wander to Hicksmith. Trust me.
2. Don’t get hungry. I know it sounds dumb. Everyone gets hungry. It’s even good to be hungry! Maybe that hunger nicely mirrors your own hunger for life (which is why you went on this damn road trip in the first place.) Don’t do it. Hungry people make poor decisions, or just plain survival decisions, which doesn’t include absorbing and admiring the life around you. And it really is much harder to gauge your hunger when you’re alone in your car, because it creeps up on you softly. The colors dim, your mind might clear a little, but your twitchy anxiety will make up for whatever new level of consciousness you think you have achieved. I have routinely had a feeling at 5 pm that life is just not worth living and that I should just pull over on the side of the road, curl up into a ball and end it now. Because it is a big world, and I’m a little person, and what’s it all about? And then I notice that I haven’t had anything to eat since 9 am. Which brings me to:
3. Snacks. Snacks are key. And snacks are key because not eating McDonalds is also key. Don’t get me wrong: there was hardly a secret BBQ joint I left untouched in the South, but there’s a difference between great food that will give you a heart attack, and terrible food that will give you a heart attack. So when you’re on a two lane highway for 300 miles with no real lunch prospects in sight, you need to be prepared.
4. Don’t watch TV. And really, this is the rule I broke with the most abandon, because it’s right there, in your seedy hotel room at midnight in the middle of nowhere, staring you right in the face. And what could it hurt, just one episode of Bravo’s “Drunk Feral Ponies Competing for the Love of Ray Jay”? It won’t hurt at all! You deserve this! But traveling is about experiencing new things, making yourself vulnerable enough to be changed for the better, or some bumper sticker saying like that. So if you end every day watching the same sitcom bullshit you grew up with (because lets face it, it’s comforting) you’re not being true to the path you set out on.
5. Take the two-lane highway. At all costs, even if it looks boring, and avoid the big interstates. There are whole oeuvres (Blue Highways, etc.) written about this very choice, and it’s consistently the best one I made throughout my journey. On the last leg of my trip down California, I had to take Superhighway 5 for a while through Shasta, but then cut off to a small grey road barely visible on my map. It turned on that this road was unpaved most of the way, with wildflowers blooming on both sides for about 50 miles. There were calves startled to see a car who ran to their mothers. There were goats grazing by streams on hillsides filled with lupins. It was amazing. I forgot my snacks, and it was still amazing. Take the small roads, you will never regret it.
6. Drive slowly. Stop rushing, start looking.
7. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. There are places I lingered for weeks longer than I should have, intent on rooting out every last square mile of Somesuch County in some misguided attempt at thoroughness. You can’t do it all. I repeat, you can’t do it all. So with your limited time and resources, focus on the places you actually want to be, for whatever reason, and don’t be too hard on yourself. I admit that I lingered in terrible Florida, and I have no shame about it. I have ended my road wanderings after a year without having done Texas or the Southwest, which is what’s actually shameful. But now I’m broke and tired, and I could have fit that in if I had cut the fat in other places.
8. Watch out for the rut. One would think that living footloose and fancy-free would mean a different schedule every day. And sometimes it does mean that. But other times (most of the time, I’ve found) you create your own schedule because that’s what humans do. Ironically, getting into a rut on the road is easier than getting into a rut in real life, because there’s no one around to check your bad habits, and you can indulge them completely. I’m not sure I have any good advice about how to de-rut, but just know that the danger is there.
9. If you are West of the Mississippi, check your gas tank like a crazy person. You can get away with a lot on the East Coast and in the South where towns are close together and gas stations are plentiful. But chances are, at some point, you will be in Montanaa on a LONG stretch of road with no foreseeable destination, and it will slowly dawn on you that you’re going to get stranded. It’s a bad feeling.
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