Somehow it’s been almost eight months since I started this road trip: I’ve survived 236 days roaming the country in a car that’s hellbent on breaking down in inconvenient places.
I’ve worked on nine farms, couchsurfed in eight cities, pitched my tent in nineteen campgrounds, crashed in fourteen hotels, and slept in one Walmart parking lot. I’ve visited family and friends in California, Washington, Colorado, Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Miraculously, Crush has made it 18,065 miles since leaving San Francisco.
There have been bizarre traffic problems, even stranger people, and entire regions without cell service. I’ve helped butcher a pig, milked cows, and tended corn from seed to harvest. I’ve learned how to stake my tent so Badlands winds don’t carry it away, pressure can pickles and pasta sauce, and drink moonshine without making a face.
While I’ve picked up countless new habits and skills (some are even useful!), the most valuable lessons from this trip have been surprisingly simple:
1. Heaven is a hot shower
You’ve heard it before, but it really can’t be said enough: be grateful for the little things. Nothing made me appreciate the magic of hot running water more than weeks of cold outdoor hose “showers” and $6 truck-stop rinses where the water shuts off with my hair still full of soap. Similarly, I get excited for clean rest stops, flat campsites, good gas station coffee and availability of fresh fruit; things I never paid much mind to before. It’s not always easy, but now when I’m in uncomfortable situations – or worse, bored – I can shift my perspective by focusing on the little gifts all around me.
2. Your world view is no more nor less valid than anyone else’s
I’ve traveled through very diverse parts of this country during the strangest election year of my life, and I’ve had to bite my tongue more times than I can count. It’s taught me that while it’s easy to look at someone else’s opinion as uninformed and just wrong, I can learn a lot more by letting them talk and actively listening. A big goal for this trip was getting to know the USA better, and being openminded to other peoples’ lifestyles and political leanings has helped me achieve that. And if I’m being honest, some of those “uninformed” and “wrong” opinions have helped shift my own mindset on a few issues.
3. If it doesn’t bring you joy, let it go
Living out of a car quickly taught me what I really need to be happy, and it’s a lot less than I thought. As I’ve traveled, I’ve gotten in the habit of leaving things I don’t use or don’t truly benefit from – extra camping gear, keepsakes from old loves, books I’ve finished – at interstate rest stops; maybe they’ll be of better use to someone else. Even when not on the road, you can adopt the mindset of curating your possessions to only keep what’s truly good for you. That book you should read but aren’t really interested in? That shirt that would be perfect if you just lost fifteen pounds? The little knickknacks you’re constantly tidying? Donate what you can and toss the rest – life’s too short to keep anything that brings you down.
4. Amazing people will enter your life who aren’t meant to stay in it (and that’s okay)
I’ve met the most incredible people this year. I discussed theology with a fellow WWOOFer at a rural farm, exchanged dating advice with a stranger I met at a Nashville bar, and gone camping with a girl I lived with at a Hare Krishna temple. I’ve shared meals with my hosts, played with their kids, and gotten to know their neighbors. People all over the country have made space for me in their lives, and I’ve fit them into my own. But no matter how close to someone I get while I’m in their neck of the woods, I’ve had to accept that I’ll probably never see them again – and that’s alright. It’s extremely freeing to be able to jump right into a no-holds-barred friendship without holding any expectations; it lets me be completely present with the people I meet, and it’s helped me to let go of some old relationships I was still clinging to. Even when you’re not traveling, you’re constantly changing, and it’s unrealistic to expect that all of your friends are going to change along with you. This year I’ve been lucky to reconnect with friends from junior college and even high school, but other friendships have faded. That hurt a lot at first, but now I can accept that right now our paths just don’t overlap. Maybe they will again in the future, or maybe not, but either way I’m grateful for the time we spent on the same trail.
is a silly human construct and shouldn’t be taken too seriously
Dealing with time change is weird. I’ve been heading east for a while now, and every once in a while I’ll lose an hour while I’m driving. Suddenly my phone’s clock adjusts itself and a whole hour just disappears, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend every second of it behind the wheel. It’s no shock that two hours of weeding under a hot August sun and two hours of swimming in a gorgeous lake are very different lengths of time. I’m used to keeping a tight work and class schedule, but this trip has taught me that while tracking hours and aiming for good time management is great, it shouldn’t undermine the experience; when I find myself checking my watch when I’m hanging out with friends or out hiking – worrying about starting the next thing – it’s time to take off the watch and just be present.
6. Roll with the ankles
In April, a housemate from the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple and I went camping in Moab, Utah with a plan to hike through Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. In an unfortunate turn of events, a night at a dive bar led to an early-morning urgent care visit and a shiny new pair of crutches. A severe ankle sprain was enough to ruin our plans and keep me in a brace for the next two months, but I quickly realized it wouldn’t do any good to pout about it – we only had three days booked in Moab and I wasn’t going to miss out on it. Sure, we couldn’t hike, but we could and did get to enjoy the scenic drives, fun restaurants and quirky stores. It wasn’t what I expected to be doing, but it was still awesome, and learning to be open to changing plans and handle problems as they arise has given me a lot more freedom in my travel.
7. Do the damn thing
You’re more likely to look back and regret not doing something new than wish you hadn’t tried it. I’m still kicking myself for not renting a sandboard when I was at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park – especially since I hiked up High Dune anyway. Sure, it was probably the right choice economically not to pay the $30 rental fee, but I think the experience would have been worth it. Months later, I was camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and didn’t want to pass up the chance to drive the Cades Cove Scenic Loop, an 11-mile road that gives visitors access to most of the historical buildings in the park. Queue the most aggravating eleven miles of my life: it was like being stuck in a parade of morons, all going 5 miles per hour and ignoring every pullout they passed. It was worse than L.A. traffic, and when I got out of the car I wished I’d stayed at my campsite, but I know that if I hadn’t gone I’d wonder if I missed out on something spectacular.
8. Fear doesn’t serve you
Act with caution and be prepared (and don’t be stupid), but don’t let fear rule you. There have been countless situations this year when I’ve been afraid, but when I set off I promised myself that fear wouldn’t keep me from experiencing my life, and it hasn’t. When I spent a misty morning hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee, I was sure that either a black bear or a hillbilly was going to get me, and almost bailed after the first mile. But I wanted to hike up Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the trail. I held a rock in one hand and my knife in the other, but I spent a gorgeous day on the trail and made the summit.
9. Learn what grounds you (and use it)
Sometimes I don’t feel like hiking or socializing or working; I just want to wallow in my homesickness and boredom. So I watch my favorite movie – Alice in Wonderland – and have some tea and I feel better. If I feel frustrated or rushed, I can meditate. When Crush’s engine starts making weird noises, I grab a corner store ice cream bar before I decide what to do. And when things are really rough, I know that swimming in a natural body of water will fix it. These things bring me back to the present moment so I can’t spin out and panic about the what-ifs; they’re all in my toolbox for happiness. It might take some time to learn what you need to have in your toolbox – maybe it’s a favorite CD or a game or a book or a prayer – and maybe it takes some practice to learn to open the toolbox rather than just freaking out, but it’s worth it, I promise.
10. You’re not a tree
So many people have said it: “I wish I could do what you’re doing.” What if I told you that you could? What if I told you that you’re the only person in charge of your life, and if you want something you can go get it? If you don’t like where you are or what you’re doing, move. If you don’t like who you’ve become, make steps to find your way back to yourself. Don’t let pride keep you in a bad place, and don’t settle for anything less than what you deserve.
These lessons haven’t always been easy to swallow, but I’m all the happier for learning them. What do you think? What lessons has travel taught you? What should I be learning as I cross the last seventeen states off of my list?