What I Learned from Driving Across the US
When it comes to summertime road trips, many of us share a familiar dream: to see America by car. With the breezy beaches in North Carolina to the epic grandeur of the California coast, the United States is home to so much magnificent beauty awaiting our discovery. Unfortunately, daily routines, jam-packed calendars, and a slew of obligations tend to get in the way of making this dream our own reality.
Yet not too many summers ago, my boyfriend (now husband) and I made the decision to press pause on our hectic schedules and hit the road to make this cross-country drive. Having just graduated college, we knew life was only going to get more chaotic, and since we didn’t have many major commitments anchoring us down, we couldn’t imagine a better time to finally embark on this adventure. Because if not now, then when, right? So after months of planning — and what seemed like endless visits to AAA for travel tips and route guidance — we packed his silver Jeep Cherokee to the brim and off we went.
Over the next 31 days, we managed to drive through 19 states and cover over 8,500 miles. We embraced the open road as home just as the people we met in new destinations welcomed us with open arms. From the snow-capped, jagged mountains in Colorado to the densely-packed salt flats in Utah and windswept prairies of the Midwest, our eyes soaked in more beauty during those four weeks than I ever could have imagined. And to think we barely scratched the surface of all the natural treasures this great country overflows with. With our belongings in the back and our future ahead, each mile brought forth new places to discover, new faces to meet, and of course, new memories to be made.
But as glorious as our time spent on the road turned out to be, I’d be lying if I said it was by any means glamorous. See, for the first leg of the trip, time was not on our side, as we already had concrete plans to meet family in California by the end of the week. Since we started the trip from our hometown outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, this meant somehow zooming over 3,000 miles in just under seven days. I still remember the moments we’d enter destinations into the GPS only to see we had about 499 miles to go. But after a few 10-hour driving days — and one-too-many petty arguments — we persevered. And fortunately, so did our relationship. Yet if I could press rewind, I certainly would have carved out more free time for roaming and wandering.
How’s the saying go, “hindsight is always 20/20!?”
Come to think about it, I cannot help but giggle at all the little mishaps we stumbled upon along the way. Being the broke college students that we were at the time, we knew the only way to even afford an adventure of this size was going to be through good old-fashioned camping. But oh, I will never forget that first night of sleeping under the stars. Having put all of our sheets, pillows, and sleeping bags in the cargo carrier on top of the car, we didn’t even realize it wasn’t waterproof until after the torrential downpour as we made our way across Kentucky. As you can probably imagine, our stuff was completely soaked, making neither one of us happy campers.
Thankfully, as time marched on, our roadside skills improved — as well as our common sense! — and we became quite the experts at pitch-tenting. While sleeping on solid ground doesn’t sound as appealing nowadays, it was what made this unforgettable journey possible. That, and of course countless PB&J sandwiches. But hey, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got, and those mundane meals tasted pretty scrumptious at the time.
Looking back on our journey, my heart swells with gratitude for the life lessons I learned from that month on the road. For starters, I was able to recognize that a road trip of this kind is not only doable, it can be extremely affordable, too. As mentioned above, camping was the remedy for stretching our travel budget to the max. By utilizing inexpensive campsites throughout national and state parks, we reconnected with nature and were able to rest our heads at night for as little as $20. The only drawbacks we found with these parks were many of them had no hot water when it came to the bathhouses. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather skip a shower altogether than stand under the freezing cold!
That said, we also took advantage of other reputable campgrounds, such as KOA. While these campsites were a bit pricier (starting at around $40 per night) they had all the amenities we needed…including hot showers.
In addition, we ended up saving a ton of money by fixing our own meals. From farmers markets and roadside produce stands to hitting up the familiar aisles of Trader Joe’s, I was surprised by how creative we became with eating on the road. And when we did eat out — because hey, what’s the point of road-tripping if you don’t partake in a little local cuisine!? — we made sure to scope out food deals. For instance, we rarely ate dinner out since it’s the most expensive meal, and when we did eat at restaurants, we opted for takeout to avoid tipping, etc.
This journey also allowed me to experience the kindness of the American people firsthand. No matter which state, region, or town we drove through, we were embraced with friendly faces, warm hearts, and open arms. One particular moment I hope never escapes my mind was when we arrived at our campsite in the Grand Canyon. We had been hiking all day and were exhausted and hungry, to say the least. Yet our moods lightened as soon as we were unpacking and noticed a pile of firewood. On top of the stack rested a folded white note stating, “For your nighttime fireside chats. Love, The Honeymooners.” What an incredibly sweet and thoughtful gesture from two complete strangers!
These overwhelmingly cheerful vibes dissolved any negative sentiments I might have had wedged in the back of my mind and gave me a greater appreciation for this country I am so fortunate to call home.
Lastly, this adventure opened my eyes to finally grasp just how big America truly is. While this country seems rather large on a map, it isn’t until you spend hours upon hours driving in a single state that you start to comprehend its depth in size. Although the vastness of the U.S. can seem overwhelming, it oozes with inspiration from all corners and will require a lot more than just one epic road trip for any one of us to fully absorb its greatness and complexity. Yet what a magnificent feeling knowing this country is home to such stark beauty and diversity. And the best part? It’s all right here in our backyard.
While I’m not sure when I will ever have another day where I greet the morning with a hike to the Hollywood sign, only to stand under the twinkling lights of the Las Vegas strip at night, I must move forward with appreciation that this unforgettable experience took place. And I can only hope I’ll have flashbacks of running through lush vineyards in California’s wine country or taking in a fiery Grand Canyon sunset forever flooding my mind.
If you’re walking the tightrope on whether to hit the road and discover America, do it! I urge you to grab the opportunity and go for it. Yes, there will be long, monotonous days of driving, mornings waking up in soggy sleeping bags because it rained the night before despite the forecast calling for clear skies, and even a few bone-chilling cold showers you’d rather not remember. But hey, isn’t it these kind of downs that make the ups so unforgettable? Trust me, as you zigzag your way across the country, you won’t trade moments from your car window for anything.
So go ahead, pack your bags, hit the road, and enjoy the ride. And if you have a few minutes to spare and are interested in learning more about our journey and specific route, you can check out the video my husband created of our adventure here.
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Image sources: top image; the rest by Kathryn.
Kathryn McLamb is a writer and photographer on a mission to inspire others to celebrate the everyday. She runs her blog Pineapple Street, and when she’s not plotting her next travel adventure, you can find her wandering the colorful city streets in San Francisco.