PART I: Journal Excerpts
PART II: What I Did and What I Learned
If you ever find yourself with a car and not much to do, I highly recommend driving off to random places. There’s so much to see! Everything is an adventure! If I didn’t have a car I might have considered crossing the country by train, but the nice thing about driving is that it forces you to stay aware of everything around you, so you’re able to appreciate even subtle changes in scenery. Before this trip, my mental map of the United States was pretty roughly sketched out:
It’s difficult to picture places in detail when you haven’t actually been there. Now, I have sights and sounds and people and experiences to fill in a lot of that space. Reading about it isn’t the same as going there and being able to make your own observations. For example, I went to Tucson specifically because I’ve read a lot of Barbara Kingsolver, but the Tucson I met wasn’t much like the one in her novels. (A lot of time has passed.) If I hadn’t gone there, I would have gone on picturing the Tucson of the 1980s.
This was my first time traveling alone, aside from taking a day’s drive to visit friends. I planned it a chunk at a time. The most helpful websites for planning where to go, where to stay, and what to do were:
Roadtrippers – helps you plot out routes and easily see which cities have hostels. It will even help you calculate how much gas money you’ll spend.
AirBnB – great for finding cheap places to stay where hostels aren’t an option, even last-minute.
Couchsurfing – great for free places to stay and meeting locals, but best to use this one well in advance.
Workaway – helps you find arrangements where you work part-time in exchange for room and board. If you want to spend a larger chunk of time in one place without spending a ton of money, this is a good way to do it. (You do have to pay for a one-year membership.)
WWOOF – similar to Workaway but specifically for farms: free room and board in exchange for farm work. More options during the growing season, and better for rural areas. (Again, you have to pay for a one-year membership.)
National Park Service – if you’re going out west, you should go to some national parks. It costs $80 for an annual pass and it is well worth it, as the parks cost between $10-$30 to enter otherwise.
I made this trip in a 2011 Ford Focus. At various points, I had between 0 and 2 passengers. I packed:
– a plastic bin full of clothes for all weather
– boots, sneakers, sandals, Crocs (a stupid-looking but oh-so-useful piece of footwear)
– a box full of non-perishable food I kept in the trunk, along with a dish, a bowl, a cup, silverware, and a tiny camp stove
– a cooler that I could fill with ice from gas stations and use as a car fridge
– a tent, which I didn’t end up using since most of the places I went were not very warm
– sleeping bag, pillow, blanket
– craft supplies and books
– stationery and stamps for writing to people
– a bucket full of shower stuff
– a dirty-laundry bag
– a square box of tissues that fit in the center console
– DSLR camera and point-and-shoot camera
– car chargers for phone and iPod
My technology use is stuck around 2006, but I have to say that this was one instance where a smart phone would really have come in handy. When I needed to find a laundromat in Spokane, for instance, I had to punch “Find Point of Interest –> Café” into my GPS to get to a Starbucks where I could hover outside with my laptop in the passenger seat running on battery to use Google Maps. I made it work, but it was kind of ridiculous. The GPS, at least, was super helpful, except in northern New Mexico where it got pretty confused, and any time I asked it to help me find a gas station. I landed at a working gas station about half the time, but the rest of the time it was either a convenience store that didn’t sell gas or a gas station that was no longer in operation.
Before I set out, I loaded up my iPod with songs, made a road trip playlist (which I honed as I went), and downloaded a new audio book. I figured I would get super bored with all that driving. Not so! I only got through about 8% of the audio book. Most of the time I surfed through radio stations, intrigued by what people were listening to in each place I passed through. I liked to scroll through all the numbers to take surveys of how many Christian, country, classical, hip-hop, classic rock, and pop stations appeared in each place. I also pulled over to take pictures so often that at times it was hard to get through a whole song.
Driving alone is glorious. I pulled off at every “vista point” without worrying that I was annoying my passengers. I listened to whatever I wanted and had conversations with people on the radio, again, without annoying anyone else. (Sometimes I listen to things that piss me off on purpose so I can argue with them.) I also took a bunch of pictures while I was driving. It’s probably not a great idea, but I was focused on the road—I just held up the point-and-shoot camera, pressed the button, and hoped for the best. 95% of them came out terribly, but at least they jog my memory enough to recall what I was trying to photograph.