10 Roadtrip Struggles & Misconceptions

I’ve been out roadtripping solo for 3.5 weeks, and it’s time for some real talk about how to roadtrip, the struggles you might endure, and the joy you can find:

1. Everything you think about Arizona (and the mid/southwest, and America’s geography in general) is wrong. For example, today I woke up just like I fell asleep, in the middle of a herd of grazing cattle: 

Waking up in sub-freezing temperatures this morning 20 minutes from Flagstaff, Arizona, just 160 miles from Phoenix where it will be 105 degrees tomorrow, was surprising, even to my weather app, which thought it would only get down to 41.

When you’re rapidly moving through extremely varied landscapes, climates and populations, it quickly becomes clear that to really know what it’s all like, you have to see it for yourself.
2. Solo road life can be randomly expensive, especially vehicle maintenance and seemingly necessary purchases. Need a good rain jacket that can handle hiking, wind, cold, packing in a car or backpack, and has a decent warranty? $200. Solid hiking boots so you don’t break your ankle or fall and die? $200. A backpacking tent that’s small and light enough to carry, and also doesn’t waste space in the car? $200. A massive battery backup (30-pound marine battery with 120-volt and USB outlets, basically) and solar panel so I don’t have another day where all my camera batteries and laptop are dead? $600. New tire and an oil change in whatever town you happen to be in, where there are no deals or Groupons? $135.

While getting an oil change and new tire today, because one of mine was literally showing metal wires, I entered all my repair receipts into a spreadsheet. I’ve put about $4,500 into this 1997 Camry, and approximately 39,000 miles, since leaving for my first nomad trip in September 2014. That includes about 4,100 miles in the last 26 days. Including gas and all expenses, it’s been about $2,000/year since my parents gifted this car to me in 2009.

3. I totaled my Jetta on the Long Island Expressway as the last car of a 5-car accident in 2009. If my parents hadn’t been able to give me a used car my dad had bought about a year earlier for himself, and buy himself a new car, I likely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I’d still be working in an office paying off a car. Thanks to them for being incredible and generous, thanks to mom for convincing dad to get a new car, and thanks to dad for allowing himself to be convinced. Some travelers can be completely unassisted, but for me it definitely took some circumstantial help. The point is, if you want to travel in the U.S., a car and gas money is really all you need. You can sleep for free. I eat for about $5 a day, and eat better than I did at home – no junk food besides dark chocloate, way more fruits and vegetabls because they last a while and provide good sugar energy, and always fresh, never frozen anything because I do not have a freezer. Making good food on the road is just a matter of time and energy spent, not necessarily money.
4. Being responsible for everything all the time can be absolutely exhausting. Every part of every day is a conscious spontaneous decision, with minimal external obligations, input or prior planning. I’ve only slept more than 5.5 hours twice in the past 26 days, usually being awake by 4:30 a.m. and up til 10 or 11 p.m. Or alternately up til 2 or 3 a.m. and sleep til 7 a.m., or stay up til 11 p.m., sleep til 2 a.m., wake up to take pictures of the night sky and sunrise, nap from 7 a.m.-9 a.m., and then go hiking/exploring/driving all day. If you have a constant urge to see as much as possible, the road makes you weary that way. Some days, like today for me, you absolutely need to do housekeeping, relaxing, catching up with friends on the phone/online, vehicle maintenance, and cataloging your adventures. That’s the only way I’d be able to share these:

Sunrise at Boynton Vista, Sedona, Arizona


Kit Carson Cave

I just edited that cave photo right now, but took it several days ago. I have hundreds, maybe thousands of images that I haven’t even looked at yet, from random days over the past 3 weeks. By the end of this four-month trip I could be looking at a solid week of just review. But I love it. Even if you’re just taking snapshots with your phone, or selfies, you’ll end up with way more photos than you need, more than you can share on social media, and you’ll have to go through them at some point to pick the good ones and trash the not-so-good ones.

5. Traveling in a sedan, even solo, can be challenging. I don’t sleep in the car because I love it, but becaue it’s simply the most convenient option. Removing the back from my passenger seat and laying it down across the rear seat legroom to form a padded bench just big enough to fit my 5’7″ frame changed the game. Tent camping is great, but when I’m out til after dark hiking or photographing awe-inspiring scenery without even knowing where I’m going to sleep, I simply don’t have the energy or the time to find a spot and set up a tent and airbed. I usually only use the tent if I’m backpacking or staying in the same spot for more than one night, which I usually do not. Freecampsites.net saves my life several times a week. And this may be one of the best purchases I’ve ever made:

Because, and this is important kids, drawers are better than bins. Almost always.

6. In the southwest U.S., you can never have enough water. You’ll run out. You’ll drink 1.5 gallons a day and wonder where it went, and your skin will still turn to leather. The sun is simply closer to you and more damaging when you’re at higher elevation, on flat ground with no vegetation or water to soak up the sun. It just bakes. Then at night, it evaporates quickly. 50-60 degree swings are not uncommon because there’s simply nothing to retain the heat. Also, private waterways and campgrounds are sometimes hard to come by, which is why I haven’t had a proper shower in… too long to share. Cleaning up wherever necessary is a fine substitute (in my opinion), and my nurse friends will attest that it does not take a lot of water to spongebathe. Anyway, nobody at Starbucks today turned away in disgust, so there’s that.

7. Shit happens. Shitty shit. Just the shittiest shit that the universe could ever shit out. You’ll get on the wrong sand dune hiking trail and end up climbing 3 miles and 900 feet of a mountain you weren’t supposed to, then stupidly try to continue on my 12-mile sandy hike to a creek, so you only make it 8 miles by 9:30 p.m. and have to camp somewhere you’re definitely not supposed to because your soul hurts and your brain opines that it chose the wrong body to grow in. Which also means you’re out of water in the morning and it’s a 3-mile hike to the nearest creek, where a Lifestraw water filter feels like a literal lifesaver. Also things like a car’s 12-volt socket going dead, not because the socket is bad, but because the fuse connection in the fuse box has become loose and fallen back into the inaccessible fuse box, which a mechanic told me could take 2-3 hours (read: $150+) to fix, so screw that. I’ll install a new one on another fuse when I get a chance and learn how on YouTube. And getting hassled by law enforcement, even when the result is friendly conversation, is never a fun experience – but is almost inevitable on a long enough trip.

Also, having a portable hard drive move a centimeter while transferring files, immediately turning it into a useless brick with 10s of thousands of photos on it, which can luckily come back to life several days later with some help from an IT-industry friend or sibling (brother in my case, and I have a duplicate, but it still would have been emotionally rough and cost me another $120 to replace). Or you’ll accidentally drive into an overflowing lake on what is supposed to be a dirt, bushy road at night. Or you’ll lock your keys in your car (I have 4 car keys now, and am still utterly careless and hopeless about it). Or you’ll get excited to do something, jump without fully gauging your step, and slip, fall, and hurt yourself or brake a camera or some other tool you need. Or all your gear will get filled with sand, and some of it ruined. Days like that are difficult, but you have to soldier on, immediately and indefinitely. There is no time to waste, and nobody is coming to help lick your wounds.

8. Everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, has something to offer. Talk to them. That cave photo up in #4, Kit Carson Cave? Two homeless guys who approached me in a parking lot told me about that. You never know what a vagabond will be like, but most are friendly and often just looking for a human connection, to be treated as they are: fellow humans. The cave was pretty damn cool, a great hole in the side of a cliff with 100-foot opening and a spring at the top of the steep, sandy interior. They also told me I should go here before leaving Gallup, New Mexico:

Red Rock State Park, New Mexico

And I’m glad I did. I spent 3.5 hours in that park. I think one of their names was Jake. Thank you, Jake. You’ll see everything from strangers at campsites having discussions about conspiracy theories (believable ones among them), to strangers who can provide the best local attractions or hidden gems, to strangers helping other campers, including me, complete their very first outdoor rock climbing in the phenomenal winding canyons of Wrinkled Rock, South Dakota:

Besides, 99% of people who are camping and hiking are friendly. Probably closer to 100%. Most people on trails say “hello” “howdy” or “good morning” to everybody they pass. It’s so friendly! Or they’ll ask “how much farther is it?”, which is a dumb question because every answer will be wrong, for you. Two hours for someone else could be one hour for you, and vice versa.

And whatever you have to offer, be sure to offer it. Expertise, advice, a talent, a tool, toilet paper, a camera, anything. People love when strangers can show them something cool, or give them something to take home with them, like this image I asked some new friends, who were complete strangers 24 hours prior, to make on the spot:

Climbers ‘R Us

And did you know Ponderosa Pine trees smell like candy? A 22-year-old Minnesotan I met did, and he told me to smell the tree. I thought I was getting punked. Now I can’t stop telling people when I see them on trails out west. If you’re in the west and see a pine tree that has some orange to its bark, stick your nose in it. If it’s a strong one, you’ll swear that tree is how Werther’s makes their butterscotch suckers.

9. More than simply traveling and exploring, attempting to produce some sort of accounting of a trip or product from the road is a trying experience. Any travel blogger you follow is likely one of the busiest people you know. It requires being out almost all day, almost every day, constantly trying new and often scary or strange things, then actually sitting down and writing about it for hours, or editing photos or videos, and making sure everything is charged so you can do it all again tomorrow. It is an extremely enjoyable and mostly fun life, but it is by no means easy. Anybody could do it, but few actually do, and many don’t do it for long. It’s personally rewarding, but often professionally very burdensome. It’s a weird sort of entrepreneurism, where the attention and respect you can garner for yourself is your currency. I have one more number to go, and this has already taken 2 hours to put together, sitting in the driver’s seat of my car at the auto repair shop after it closed, before driving the 75 miles to the Grand Canyon to camp, sleep, wake up and start it all again.

10. This is just seriously the best way to travel. Not necessarily solo, but in a car, and in the wild. Go places you’ve never heard of. Don’t look up everything about them, just find the name and go see it. Plan a couple stops in a week and let the days fall where they may. Take detours on the fly. Meet people from much different walks of life. See all the things that our public education system regretfully leaves out when they teach geography and American and world history. You’ll be blown away. Did you know there’s skiing in Arizona? Rainforests in Washington? Beautiful rainbow-colored sandstone hills in South Dakota and New Mexico? Sand dunes in Colorado? No?

Have you seen the Milky Way, which every human on Earth could see every night from their doorstep just 200 years ago? Well, go camp in dark desolate forests or plains. You’ll see it on a moonless night, or when the moon hasn’t risen or has set. Overcome your fear of heights, or the dark, or wild animals, or talking to strangers. Learn new things, and how to do new things, every day. Become more self-sufficient than you ever thought possible. But don’t carry too much with you. Whether the load is physical or mental, it weighs heavy on the roaming soul. And for the universe’s sake, write things down! People you meet, places you go, thoughts you have. Your memory is laughably unreliable. Only your written and photographic evidence is a true representation of your past. 

Well the sun has finished its set so I’ve got to be going now, for more strange and beautiful things await. If you’re eager to travel, but you aren’t quite sure how or when or where or if you’re capable, I’ll leave you with some wildly out-of-context advice from Bob Dylan: don’t think twice, it’s alright.


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