How To Drive Cross-Country By Yourself
This is written in response to Molly Templeton’s call for submissions in response to the New York Times‘ How-To issue.
Everyone should drive cross-country at least once in their life. Driving with a friend or a car full of people, it’s a life-changing experience. But by yourself, it is a moment of reckoning. Those hours and hours and hours behind the wheel with only yourself and your iPod playlist are as transformative as round-the-world travel.
The changing landscape, the weather, the horizon, the rolling hills, the flatness, the mountains, the clouds, the sky, the grass, the desert, truck stops, street lights, bad roadside attractions; with only yourself to filter these things through, they become more profound. I drove cross-country by myself twice, and to this day I still carry the very vivid images in my head. I have only ever thought “wow, that thing about the purple mountains majesty is true” when driving cross-country. I have never seen so many trains in my life.
You have hours to think. Hours and hours and hours. This can be good or bad, or both, often at the same time.
I have driven cross-country from Seattle to NYC three times, twice by myself (part 1 | part 2). I did this in 2003, which is almost another century in car travel given the advent of smartphones and mp3 players. While there are endless sites telling you what to see and what route to take and where to stop to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, there are some basic tenets derived from experience that I believe apply to a successful cross-country car journey.
1) Don’t rely on your GPS or your smartphone. Get a map, learn to read it, study it.
Data signal will fail you when you need it the most, on a dark rainy night when you took the wrong turn off of a detour and there is no one around to ask for directions. Get maps. Find someone with a AAA membership or just buy some. They give you context for the journey that you just don’t get by putting two points into Google Maps and asking for directions. By all means, do that, but then look at the route on a map and see if it makes sense to you, try to figure out your likely stopping points, see what’s interesting along the way. (I mourn for the demise of Expedia Streets & Trips. I still have my printout of my route filed away.)
You don’t need a GPS. It’s overkill, unless you are totally winging it, and even then, it defeats the point of totally winging it if you know exactly where you are. Get some maps.
2) Figure out how many hours you can really drive in a day.
I took some shorter trips, like Seattle to LA, before I did the big one and figured out that I can comfortably drive for 10 hours a day, which is closer to a 12 hour day by the time you factor in stops for food, gas and bathroom. I have done 12-14 hours a day with a second driver, when I needed to make time (moving back to New York in July with no air conditioning and a cat). I once stupidly did 17 hours in a day because I couldn’t figure out a good stopping place that wasn’t so close to my final destination that I didn’t keep thinking “I should just keep driving.” (I literally fell out of the car when I pulled into my sister’s driveway and she opened the door.) It is better to factor less hours rather than more if you do not know. You can always build up to more as you go along.
3) Start early and end early.
I love to drive at night something fierce, but when I did my trip, I drove from 6 or 7 a.m. until 6 or 7 p.m. I didn’t need my mom’s paranoia about truck driver serial killers to give myself nightmares about getting a flat tire at 2 in the morning along the interstate. If you drive at night, you won’t see anything except the stars, and you can’t appreciate those driving 65 mph. There is a beauty to the dawn drive anywhere, whether it’s the rays glinting off the frost on the prairie or the sun peeking out behind skyscrapers. Finishing around dinner time means you can talk to some humans and calm down before going to sleep (and even then it will feel like your body is still moving. You get used to that.) You can get up at a normal hour and drive until after dinner, but I think those are the hardest times of the day to drive. I liked beating rush hour and finishing just as it started.
4) You don’t have to plan all your stops, but at least think about them a day in advance.
Before the days of 3G, I planned out a couple of key overnight stops and booked the motels in advance, and was somewhat spontaneous with the rest. The problem with the former is that you are committed and if you run into construction (and you will always run into construction) you then have to make time for no reason besides a motel reservation. The problem with the latter is that you will get to a town you think will be easy to find a motel and will discover that there are tour groups or a church convention and then you have to go from motel to motel to try to find something (thanks a lot, Bozeman, MT). The worst motel I ever stayed in was because I thought I could make it to Cleveland and then realized 15 minutes later it was too far for the night, and turned around to go back to Youngstown. (At least all I discovered was that $26.95 a night was just cruddy, not dangerous.)
Nowadays, when you can book a hotel from your phone and there’s wifi at McDonald’s (get a McFlurry, or one of those salad shakers) I would tell you to just look at the route for the following day and think about where you might want to stop, and figure out whether you’d need to get off at the first exit or the third exit. If you want to camp out or sleep in your car, you’ll definitely need to plan ahead somewhat. I’m not suggesting you plan out every minute of every day. Just know, a little bit, where stuff is along the way.
5) Coolers, Ziploc bags, and provisions
My former car had no air conditioning but that didn’t stop me from driving it everywhere. I did, however, have two coolers, one in the trunk and one in the car, and two cases of water and Gatorade, which I rotated into the coolers. I would fill up the bags with ice every morning in the motel and they would last until I reached my destination; if I needed more, you can usually buy or obtain ice from a fast-food drive-through restaurant just by asking nicely outside of lunchtime rush. Having supplies in the car meant I didn’t waste time getting off the highway constantly in search of something to drink.
When I would arrive at my evening’s destination, I would find a grocery store or somewhere to get sandwiches and fruit and snacks for the next day, and keep them in the cooler. That way I could picnic at a rest stop or a truck stop and not have to eat fast food crap for lunch. I would also replenish the water and Gatorade for far cheaper than it would have been on the road.
6) Give your friends your itinerary and encourage them to call you.
Make sure someone knows the route you plan to take and that someone knows where you actually are. I don’t care if you’re tweeting things you overhear at rest stops or taking Instagram photos of the World’s Largest Cow, make sure someone can keep track of you. My friends and family called me a couple of times a day, and I usually got online when I stopped for the evening and let people know where I was. Do this. You will have enough “me” time. You will want to talk to your people.
7) Mechanical things.
Unless you are driving a rental, have your garage look at your car before you go anywhere. Hopefully you have a mechanic you trust and can say, “Pretend your son or daughter is about to drive this car cross-country. What would you fix?” If you have done regular maintenance on your vehicle it will probably be fine. If you haven’t, make sure you have a credit card and spend the money on AAA or your insurance’s roadside assistance. Even if you do have a vehicle in good shape, it will help you in case you run out of gas or lock your keys in the car or get a flat tire. Having one number to call is better than having to figure out the closest exit and then figure out which garage to call that isn’t going to rip you off (and also assuming you will have data signal wherever you break down).
8) Talk to humans!
People who live in big cities get used to being suspicious of everyone they meet. I am not saying let your guard down completely, but sometimes people genuinely just want to have a conversation. I would talk to people in gas stations and souvenir shops and at rest areas, and I heard stories about South Dakota winters, ghost stories in Nebraska, and advice for cheaper gas down the road in Indiana. I had a AM/PM clerk insist on making me fresh coffee because I was the first person to say hello to her in three hours.
When I would get to my motel, I would ask the girls at the front desk where they would go to dinner. After they dutifully tried to sell me on the diner next door or the Red Robin, I would ask, “No, no, where do *you* go out to dinner?” and I never got a bad recommendation. I would always sit at the bar and talk to the bartender and would just have a actual conversation with another human.
(That said, I always said I was stopping at the next town or that my husband was meeting me the next day. You can take the girl out of New York City, but etc. etc. etc.)
9) The beauty of truck stops.
People (like me) who live in big cities and don’t drive out past the ambient city glow on a regular basis don’t know about truck stops. You have your Flying J and your TA and your Pilot and your Love’s, and a whole host of other smaller names. I like stopping there more than I like stopping at smaller gas stations because there is always more going on and I always feel safer. There are always more amenities, like food and clean bathrooms and interesting stuff to look at in the store, and you can take showers and do laundry at the bigger ones. (Almost all of them have wifi now, too, and I have filed stories from the road by sitting in my car more than once.) When I was researching my first road trip, many people encouraged me to camp or sleep in my car and use the truck stops for personal hygiene. I would never do it, but there was one point I considered doing my laundry since I was traveling light and things were getting gross.
10) Coffee and other stimulants
The monotony of the road will make you tired, or just bored. Cold water, loud music, opening the window, lowering the heat (if it’s winter), and coffee or energy drinks or something with sugar are going to be necessary, even if it’s not something you consume in your daily life. I used to favor this disgusting orange Mountain Dew flavor that I affectionately referred to as “Orange Death.” It was cheap and easy to get, and didn’t make me jittery like the energy drinks did. That said, I always had a can of Monster in the cooler just in case; South Dakota, although one of my favorite parts of the driver, was probably the hardest drive.
The rest of it is up to you, whether this is a drive on the super-slab (as the veteran roadtrippers call it) or secondary roads, whether you are going north or south, how many days you have to make your trip, how much you want or need to see. If you feel like doing the drive, you should do the drive. You will love it and you will hate it. Your friends and your mom will think you are crazy. But you will remember it forever, guaranteed.