I’ve always dreamed of taking a road trip across the US. I’m sure most of you can say the same. So with 21 straight months of school looming ahead of me to finish up my veterinary degree, I knew it was time for this adventure to finally come to life.
Earlier this month, my 17-year-old brothers and I took a camping road trip around the Central United States to end my “last summer” and kick off their senior year of high school. As I am currently trying to visit all 50 States, this was a big deal for me. 7 new states in 10 days! We visited National Parks, roadside attractions, cities, and more, learning about our country and ourselves along the way.
My family is notorious for not shying away from long-distance driving. 18 hour drive to Disney World? No problem! 6 hour round-trip to Washington, D.C. for a day trip? Piece of cake! 12 hour “commute” to school? Sounds fine to me! So while my brothers and I didn’t necessarily flinch at the almost 3,500 miles and 50+ hours we were about to endure in my Subaru Forester, I have to admit that there was some nervous energy as we embarked on our first solo trip as siblings. And while it certainly wasn’t perfect and mistakes were surely made, I wouldn’t trade the stories that now live within me from this trip for anything. Of course with mistakes and mishaps come lessons. So here are the top 5 things I learned while taking my first road trip that I hope will translate to my everyday life – and maybe yours too.
- Go outside of your comfort zone.
This may seem like an obvious one, but seriously good things can happen when you try something new. Traveling outside the realm of where you feel comfortable doesn’t have to come in giant leaps, like climbing up a rocky cliff or driving down a muddy road into the middle of nowhere (trust me, I’ll come back to that story). No, getting outside of your comfort zone can be as simple as pressing a button. A cruise control button.
Now I understand that using cruise control, especially while on long, straight roads is pretty standard practice. But for all of my previous long distance driving experience, I can’t say I enjoy using it. It makes me nervous when it speeds up on its own or when I feel like it’s going to send me flying around a curve. I know it’s a useful tool, but I don’t usually use it.
While on the road trip, I continued this habit of refusing to use cruise control. Being the oldest in the group I was also doing the bulk of the driving, especially for the first few days. By day 5, my right leg was a little sore and by day 6 it actually hurt to go up and down stairs just because I wasn’t comfortable using cruise control on long drives. Needless to say, that was enough to finally convince me maybe cruise control wasn’t all that bad after all.
Now this might seem like a silly example, but it spoke pretty powerfully to me. Just by not using cruise control I had impacted my ability to enjoy the rest of my trip. Doing things you aren’t comfortable with can be difficult, but sometimes, not doing them can be even worse.
- Don’t always rely on technology.
I don’t have to tell you that we live in a time dominated by technology. Without the technology we enjoy using every day, I wouldn’t be able to share these stories with you! But it can also be healthy to step back and just immerse yourself in the world around you instead of in the screen in front of you. We were in some pretty remote places on this trip and we definitely had our share of spotty cell service. It was good to remember that instead of looking at our phones and just waiting for a shred of service to come through, we should take a look around and enjoy what was passing by outside out window instead.
Now, all of that being said, we got pretty lucky and had service most of the time. That is when it got more difficult to not get attached to our technological tools, especially Google Maps. While I like to think I have a pretty good sense of direction, I don’t know anyone in my generation, myself included, who doesn’t rely on Google Maps or a similar app for pretty much all of their driving directions. So it was only logical that we would use said app for directions while on our trip. And that’s where we were led astray. I told you I would come back to the muddy road story!
While in Wyoming we were looking for what we thought was a National Grassland Visitor Center on our way to Devil’s Tower. The area where we were was very rural and there were gravel roads off of the two-lane highway we were primarily driving on. About an hour of driving after we crossed the South Dakota-Wyoming border, Google Maps dutifully instructed us to turn off onto a gravel road. Ok, seems logical so far. Maybe this is a short cut! Long story short – it wasn’t.
We ended up driving down the gravel road long enough for it to turn into a mud road. Well, it was probably supposed to be a dirt road. But I forgot to mention that it had rained pretty heavily that morning. All-in-all we ended up driving 9 miles in on the mud road before we had enough sense to think “maybe this isn’t the right way.” As we zoomed out on the Google Maps image the realization sunk in that the GPS was just taking us to the end of a road in the middle of a bunch of grazing cattle. There was no visitor center. Just a random address in the middle of the National Grasslands. Oops.
We made it out ok, my Forester’s wheel wells full of mud and all of us a little shaken from one too many close calls with the ditches, ruts, and puddles on the muddy road. We drove a total of 18 miles on that muddy mess, amazed all the while that Google Maps even recognized it as a road, let alone a route to anywhere. The lesson here seemed simple after that experience. Don’t always trust technology, don’t always rely on computers. They can be wonderful tools, but so are your own common sense and critical thinking skills. While that crazy mishap of an adventure we had in the open range of Wyoming will always be a great story to tell, a stressful couple hours of driving around looking for a place that didn’t exist and praying we didn’t get stuck could’ve been avoided if we looked past the little glowing rectangle shouting out directions from the dashboard.
- Have faith.
Faith can be a difficult thing to have, especially when you are worried. How can you trust that things will “just work out” when they seem to be spiraling out of your control? As someone with a religious background, I already know that faith can do some truly powerful things. But that doesn’t mean that relying on faith alone is always easy!
Once we finally made it to Devil’s Tower National Monument after our muddy detour, we were disappointed to discover that the sky was overcast and glum. There were grey clouds everywhere – above us and within us. We had been so excited to visit Devil’s Tower not just to see the formation itself during the day, but also to experience the beautiful night sky that was supposed to be almost free of light pollution. The weather reports all showed partly cloudy skies through the night. We thought our chance of seeing the amazing starry sky of eastern Wyoming was gone.
But I encouraged my brothers to have faith. I knew how much this part of the trip meant to them, and to me. My heart was breaking that we might miss out on something we had anticipated so highly for weeks. That our timing could be off by just a few days and we had happened to visit on a cloudy night. And yet I still believed that everything could work out. We might still see the stars. It wasn’t easy, but I tried to place my confidence in my faith that good things do happen more often than not.
Night began to fall and it was still cloudy. We went back into the park to hear a presentation in an outside amphitheater, nervously glancing up every so often to see if the sky had cleared. But it was too bright from the lights around the amphitheater to be sure. Then we stepped away from all the lights…
The view was breathtaking. I’ve been lucky enough to see some other amazing non-light polluted skies, but watching the excitement of my brothers easily makes this experience one of my favorites. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, just millions of stars and the Milky Way galaxy. And just when we thought we couldn’t have been happier, we managed to take photos of it all too. All because we had a little faith.
- Enjoy the little things.
This has always been part of my life philosophy. But it can be hard to practice when life is going by too quickly or you find yourself always “too busy”. When we first left on our trip, it was hard to not worry about all of the big things like the new school year that would start just after our return. We found ourselves doing too much worrying and not enough living in the moment. I love the quote, “collect moments, not things” because it sums up what a great travel experience should be like. In order to make our trip all that we had hoped for, we needed to start collecting moments.
One of my favorite ways we managed to enjoy the tiniest aspects of our trip was by playing the “license plate game”. A simple little competition familiar to almost all seasoned road-trippers, the license plate game is played just by trying to find a license plate from all 50 states while on the road. I suggested this on our first day as a joke, thinking my brothers wouldn’t go for it. But to my surprise, they got really, really into it. By day 6, we only had 9 states left. We found ourselves running through every parking lot just to see where all of the other travelers were from. We were impressed when we found Rhode Island. We were ecstatic when we found Alaska.
And while we ended the trip with two states left (I’m looking at you Hawaii and Delaware), I was left with a feeling of success that something so simple had such a positive impact on our trip. We stopped worrying about what classes we were taking and our upcoming assignments and started looking out the window. We found license plates, but we also found more enjoyable conversation and interesting scenery then we may have otherwise.
So even when life is passing you by at 60 mph, find time to look at the license plates.
- Go with the flow.
When you choose to take a trip where you are sleeping in individual backpacking tents almost every night, I’m not sure you have the option to do anything but. We were extremely lucky for the first few days of our trip to not get rained on overnight. Looking ahead at weather reports when we could, we thought we might get way with that pattern for the rest of the trip. The Black Hills of South Dakota had other ideas.
Just as we were leaving Mount Rushmore to head back to our campground, the skies broke with an intense thunderstorm. We were warned there could be hail. And here we were, driving down and then back up a winding cliff-side road to our campsite (thankfully pitched earlier that day). I’m not going to lie and tell you we weren’t pretty scared. But there was nothing we could do. We were sleeping in tents that night, or if things got really bad, in the car. Luckily, while the storm did last well into the night, it didn’t ever get that severe. Despite all of our trepidations, when morning came we were all safe and dry in our tents. We stayed calm and didn’t panic, even in the face of the unexpected. We were able to go on enjoying our trip the next day because of it.
Trips like this one are elaborate to plan. Just when you have your suitcase or car packed to the brim, you are most likely still going to forget something. When you plan on camping and hope that you will have nice weather, a thunderstorm will find you. But that doesn’t have to ruin your trip. Everything doesn’t have to go according to plan. Don’t let the unexpected slow you down. Just get right back up again and keep going!
Thank you so much for reading my first post here on Everyday Voyager! I hope you enjoyed it! Have you ever taken a road trip? What lessons have your travels taught you? Please leave any stories, comments, or questions you have below!