10 Life Lessons From My Solo Road Trip Across America

As anyone who travels a lot will tell you, life on the road isn’t easy. Whether you’re taking a short road trip or trying to live the nomadic life full-time, you’re going to face some unique challenges that only the road can present.

In preparation for my 2-month, 9,000-mile cross-country road trip, I’d formed several goals and expectations about how healthy I’d be (and further become), how much I’d do and see, and all the great self-reflection I’d achieve. I had pretty idealistic visions of how productive this trip would be for me. And this wasn’t my first rodeo, but it certainly was the longest and most ambitious road trip I’d ever undertaken.

So despite my every intention to give my physical, mental, and emotional core needs solid focus, I still found it difficult to actually implement them on the road, where every day is different. What saved me was my predilection to make plans and lists, and give everything around me structure. Without that, I would not have been able to navigate what I discovered to be a very challenging way of life. Even for someone as free-spirited as me. As a dear friend of mine once put it, “create deep structure to allow for deep chaos.”

I’m certain I will repeat this experience again, possibly even make it a more regular and recurrent lifestyle. So it will be vital to figure out how to keep myself healthy and happy in the process. Here are some key lifestyle lessons I learned on this epic road trip and fully intend to better embody as I adventure onward.

#1. Find Your Own Road Routines

Good food, enough sleep, and regular exercise. These are the core fundamentals we need everyday to stay healthy, happy, and well. Going into this trip, I knew I’d have to keep a very strict focus on these basic needs. Because life on the road can make it that much harder. And because at the start of my road trip, I was the heaviest and most unhealthy I’ve ever been. So I knew I’d need to set some strong ground rules and (most importantly) keep iterating on them, learning what’s actually feasible and compatible with my road trip life.

It’s pretty easy to create a healthy routine when you have a stable home, work, and relationships. But when all three are constantly in flux and on the move, the formula gets exponentially more complicated. So it’s important to figure out what works for YOU and how you live your on-road lifestyle. For my bedtime routine, I learned that I like to pull into my overnight spot just after sunset, have some settling in and reading time, and hit the hay by midnight. Then I’d let my body wake up naturally, which would often fall between 8am-9am. If I’d parked somewhere a bit less on the up-and-up, however, I might have to set an alarm to get up and out of dodge before any cops came a-calling. But this was rare.

I also set clear goals around what I’d let myself eat, and found that I could get decently healthy options at gas stations if I aimed for the larger truck stop travel centers (like Pilot and Love’s) which often had hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, and fruit in stock. For exercise, I designed my route to take advantage of my 24 Hour Fitness membership and hit as many of their gyms as possible on my way. 24 Hour Fitness US map.pngIf you don’t have a similar gym membership, you can still find a way to regularly exercise. I got additional cardio from national park hikes and occasional morning runs. Plus, I’m a big fan of calisthenics you can do anywhere, like lunges, squats, crunches, planks, and, my personal favorite, push-ups. No matter where I am, I have a goal of 100 push-ups a day. I rarely hit this, but just having the goal motivates me to get at least some in every day. You gotta figure out what works for you. And then don’t stray!

#2. Budget For More Than You Expect

This means both in finances and in time. It will cost you more of both than you originally estimate to get yourself from point A to point B to point C and so on. Why is that? Well you may not find the gas prices you forecasted. Or you may have a sudden travel expense you didn’t expect. Like needing to replace your car brake rotors. That gets mighty pricey, believe you me.

It’s even more important with respect to time, the one resource you can never get more of. I guarantee you it will take longer than you expect to drive (ride, bike, hitchhike, etc) to each next point in your journey. Or to explore each of those destination points. If I had a nickel for every time I wished I’d had more time to explore the various national parks I visited on my trip… well I’d have a whole lot of nickels. A few hours is simply not enough, even for a quick driving tour. And one to two days was not enough to get to know each of the amazing cities on my route, like Austin, New Orleans, and Nashville. Especially when you’re already weary from all that travel, some sleep deprivation, and perhaps even a little altitude sickness.

Ultimately, my ambitious plan to drive across the entire country (and back) and visit almost every state in two months proved to be much more hurried and harried then I’d anticipated. And I knew it’d be tight to begin with. So learn from my mistakes and give yourself more time and budget than you think you’ll need.

#3. And Expect Less Productive Time

At the same time, don’t expect to get as much work or other sedentary productivity done as you intend. Like reading. Boy did I have ambitions there. I’d designed one of the shelves in my custom cabinetry to the exact height for my books. Essentially, I built myself an in-car bookshelf. IMG_20190924_181547680_PORTRAITI packed the thing with about ten of both my favorites and ones I’d been meaning to read for forever, fully intending to finish some and at least start the rest. But being on the road makes it very hard to actually do any of that. Not unless you (once again) budget in the time for it.

By this, I mean giving yourself designated time being still in one place (not mid-traveling) to sit and work with your full focus. While on the road, I’d also intended to do a lot of writing (like on this blog), not to mention research into new potential career paths. However, my trip had such an aggressive timeline of ground to cover that the vast majority of my schedule was necessarily budgeted for driving time. And as I discovered, reading and writing (and even Googling) are near impossible while also driving behind the wheel. I only got any decent work done when I made the time to stop in a town and stay put for a while to eat a good meal, relax, and access some reliable Wi-Fi.

So if you have any intentions on this as well, my advice would be to set aside some solid stationary time for your own work, or whatever still-sitting, high-focus activities you intend to do on the road. It will likely eat into your driving time and extend your overall timeline. So make sure you weigh where your priorities lie and design your road schedule accordingly.

#4. Make Better Use Of Driving Time

If you’re too busy driving to read or work, you can take advantage of all that driving time for other valuable activities instead. Like thinking through stuff. I do some of my best self-reflection while driving. So this road trip was basically that on steroids.IMG_20190529_192138799IMG_20190529_192137674_HDR

I’d set a goal of making some significant discoveries and decisions about my next career and life path on this trip. So I made good use of all that time behind the wheel, driving mindlessly on one highway for hundreds of miles at a time, to do some solid soul-searching and what I call “self-talk.” Yes, I talked to myself. Out loud. A lot. One of the benefits of driving alone. My car is my little safe space where I can talk or sing or scream to my heart’s content without judgement. And personally, I also process things better out loud. I’ve just always been that way.

Maybe you can relate. And if you do, I highly recommend embracing the relatively soundproof bubble of your vehicle to let your vocal ponderings fly free. Or do whatever else you find valuable and meaningful that doesn’t require your eyes and both hands. Maybe just your vocal cords and a few small one-handed gestures. Like belting out your favorite Disney songs. Or composing voice-to-text if you’ve discovered some magical software that doesn’t suck at that. Whatever fires your jets and greases your wheels.

#5. If You Must Use Your Phone, Mount It

I can’t tell you how incredibly valuable a car dashboard phone mount can be. It’s the bees knees of sliced bread, or whatever. It saved me time, focus, neck pain, and so much more. Of course, ideally we aim not to use the phone at all while driving. 😉 But there are always going to be exceptions. Like navigating with Google Maps. Or responding to urgent (or even non-urgent) texts. Or looking up the few words you forgot in that Disney song.

I also discovered, upon using all that driving time to think through things, that I then felt a strong urge to write down all those great thoughts before they faded into the limbo of my mind. And if I hadn’t had the dashboard mount to keep my phone in easy viewing and typing distance, I would not have been able to capture all those great personal insights, or at least not without seriously compromising my driving and safety.

So be safe, be smart, and get yourself a dashboard mount (or finally install the one you bought months ago). Or if you’re super cheap, just use a binder clip and a rubber band.

Binder clip phone mount.jpgBinder clip mounted.jpg

Same difference.

#6. Be Prepared For Driving Pains

Sitting still in a driver seat for many hours at a time, whether or not you have your phone car mount handy, will inevitably take a physical toll on your body. Car seats are surprisingly NOT designed to be particularly ergonomic. Which means, as I discovered, that considerable back and shoulder pain will inevitably ensue. As well as arm weariness if, like me, you’re still determined to try and do things on your mounted phone while driving. Holding your hand nice and steady next to the car mount is actually surprisingly tiring.

My lesson from this is thus to incorporate some preventative means of maintaining better driving posture, like a back brace, or lower back pillow (or just a spare sweater you can shove down by your lower back in a pinch). You should also have ready some reactive means of addressing the pain once it occurs, like tiger balm, or a neck massager, or just a tennis ball you can once again wedge down behind you and awkwardly roll against as you drive.

You’ll also want to pay attention to how frequently your body asks for breaks to stretch and realign. I found that my sweet spot was about every 3-4 hours, at which point I’d find a place to stop and breathe (amazing how therapeutic just breathing deeply can be), stretch, pee, and perhaps refuel with a snack. Driving is especially exhausting on certain stretches of road across the country, like those long flat interstate highways with high winds that push your car about, or the kind of pavement that makes your tires whistle like an angry tea kettle.IMG_20190430_154528057_HDRSo be prepared for the longer hauls, stock up on supplies, and (most importantly) follow the next tip!

#7. Pace Yourself! 

I can’t stress this one enough. I had so much ground to cover on my road trip that my pace ended up quite spastic and aggressive. It was not sustainable, even with back braces and tiger balm and frequent breaks. I ended my road trip completely wiped out, mental drained, decently sleep deprived, and in need of another vacation to recover from that one.

I was certainly in no position to implement any of the revelations I had on the trip, let alone continue uncovering new ones. It took months to get back to a fully healthy state of body and mind. And we simply don’t have that kind of time. Life and responsibilities start nagging, and before you know it, you’re committing to another exhausting and costly endeavor. Why do we do this to ourselves?

So please, for the love of all that is holy and wholey, take it slow as you go. So you don’t have to madly (and unsuccessfully) play catch-up later. Don’t overcommit to too strict a timetable or pace or to do list. And give yourself the freedom to change your mind, change course, or just stop altogether whenever you need to. Your health is more important than seeing the world’s largest frying pan (especially since there are actually six of them across the country all claiming the same title).

#8. This Too Shall Pass

Remember, at the end of the day, this trip (or that particularly frustrating section of the trip) will eventually end. When the going gets tough and you’re running on fumes, try to remember that it’s not forever. It will have an end. And until you get there, you can take it in small sections, with small milestones, one at a time. You can even give yourself a reward as you reach each. Like a whole week in your favorite city visiting your favorite old haunts to congratulate yourself for making it halfway through this insane behemoth of a road trip you’re already drowning in way over your head.

After all, we only have so much time left. So you might as well enjoy the journey along the way and let go of the rest. However hard it may get, or much you may struggle, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses. I mean park the damn van, get out, and smell some flowers. Look at trees. Breathe in some fresh air. Or whatever else that means to you.IMG_20190509_144545346Life is too short to spend the whole thing running around madly trying to cover as much ground as possible, and missing all the great stuff around you in the process.

#9. This Too Shall Prevail

At the same time, in the end, this trip will be worth it. In spite of (and no doubt because of) all these ups and downs, it will prove an amazing journey that will teach you so much about yourself and help you grow in more ways than you expect. It will be a wonderful, challenging, frustrating, amazing, life-changing experience that is entirely unique and special.

So even as you are swearing at the other asshole drivers on the road, or balking at the price of gas, or tossing and turning at night kept awake by bright Walmart parking lot lights and thunderous rain storms, remember how lucky you are to be here on the road living this lifestyle. Practice some gratitude. I try to make this a daily habit every night before I go to sleep. I think of three things I’m grateful for and send out mental thanks to those people (or places or things). And then I let that fond feeling lull me to a gentle sleep. Works like a charm.

Do whatever you need to do to find that same inner calm (like the next tip). And know that it will all be okay. More than okay. It’s going to be triumphant.

#10. Find Your Inner Peace

My mantra is: Breathe deep. Seek peace. Beat free.IMG_20190416_122057086_HDR

No matter where you are or how rough the road may be (literally or like totally litrally), you can always press pause, take a deep breath (remember how good that is for you), and find a little slice of peace, however small and bite-sized. Take it in and let it fill you. There’s no better cure for the many kinds of pain that the road will inflict on you. Unless, you know, you’ve got some serious pain, and then maybe take some medication or go see a doctor.

I got this great fortune cookie once that I’ve since taped to my laptop, so it’s always front and center (well, technically top and left). It says, “No person is important enough to make you angry.” And it’s true, of everyone and everything. IMG_20180912_160218193So no matter what upsets you as you travel on your own journey, remember these mantras. Or find your own mantras or other tricks to bring yourself back to a peaceful state of being.

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