5 lessons learned from 5 months of traveling across America

Whoa, it’s July already – when did this happen? Sitting in a coffee shop overlooking the water in Seattle, Washington, it’s hard to believe that just a few months ago I was living in Tallahassee, Florida about to begin the crazy journey of living in my big yellow van for all of 2013 while traveling across America.

Best fortune cookie ever: "Your life is like a kaleidoscope."Yesterday marked the 5-month milestone of my van-dwelling adventure with Niko, and in that time I’ve learned an incredible amount of wisdom about life on the road, the condition of the American spirit, and the unbridled glory of the great outdoors. I could (and eventally will) fill an entire book with every bit of knowledge I’ve gained during this journey, but today, in honor of the five-month mark, I’ll share five of the most impactful things I’ve learned during the Simply Adventure trip thus far:

1. People are always inclined towards kindness.
Something that has really stuck with me during my travels is the fact that from ranger stations in national parks to crowded truck stop parking lots along the interstate, everyone we’ve encountered on this trip has been a good person. There was just a single instance in which we happened upon someone “bad,” but that individual was clearly on drugs – so I’ll call it a mulligan.

Folks just genuinely want to spread kindness. We’ve been welcomed into acquaintances homes, dinner parties have been thrown in our honor, lumberjacks have stopped on forest service roads to give the van a jumpstart, and the climbing community has been a constant source of new friendships, shared campfire meals, and invitations for adventure. If you approach people with a kind spirit, that kindness will nearly always be returned.

2. Small towns beat big cities, any day.
Almost every single day, Niko and I reaffirm something we’ve realized during our travels across the country: we belong back in the southeast, and we belong in a small town.

During stints of exploration that keep us in rural areas, we constantly find ourselves falling in love with little farm communities, shy mountain towns, and the hospitable charm that blankets them. The vibes are calm, air is breathable, there’s no traffic, and you can nearly always pick up fresh food from a local farmer. My kind of living.

Then we inevitably hit a big city, and are instantly overwhelmed. It’s like hitting an enormous wall: everything and everyone is so urgent, impatient, and anxious. It’s infectious too; I find myself constantly feeling rushed and uneasy when I’m in a big city. Where’s the enjoyment in life? And more importantly, where are all the cows and farms? I may have been raised in bustling Miami, but I am definitely a converted small town kinda gal.

3. Make-up is overrated, but feeling feminine is not.
Since the first day of our trip, my make-up bag has sat lonely in a drawer, only unleashed once in a blue moon (like when I flew to NYC for a wedding). I brought it along with the intention of continuing to wear make-up in an attempt to hold onto any shred of ladylikeness I could muster while living like a dirtbag – but I quickly realized I don’t need it. A sun-kissed complexion is easily the best “make-up” I’ve ever worn. Plus, going cosmetics-free has really helped keep my skin clear. I hardly have to wash my face anymore!

That said, maintaining my femininity has been a continual process that I’ve realized is essential to my personal wellbeing while living on the road. After a rut of sweatpants and unkempt hair, I found that while looks aren’t everything, it’s important to feel good about yourself. So I chopped my unmanageable hair into a cute crop, had my mother send me some skirts and sundresses from home, and started making an effort to make sure I felt pretty every day – even if I’m just sitting in a small town doing laundry. Focus on what makes you feel beautiful, even if you haven’t showered in a week.

4. You should always, always have a real map handy.
Yes, GPS technology is great – and yes, I use it on a daily basis to steer me towards that cheap taco joint recommended on Yelp – but when you’re spending quality time in the no-service zone, you can’t rely on your iPhone to get you where you need to go. Having a paper map is essential for the true road-tripper.

In addition to helping me find the nearest national forest area to camp in when Google Maps can’t get connected, my wrinkled old atlas is my favorite way to keep track of my journey. Every time we venture to a new place, I highlight our route – it’s inspiring to watch the map fill up with yellowed lines zigzagging across the country.

5. Travel is the ultimate method of testing a relationship.
If you’re dating someone, and are curious about whether it’s the “real deal,” you ought to do some extended traveling with that person. Sure, you’re compatible when it comes to picking movies for date-night, but how will your relationship fare when it’s 2:00 in the morning and you have no place to sleep? What about when your vehicle won’t start in the middle of the woods, and the nearest cell service went caput at least 10 miles back down the road?

Niko and I are far from perfect, and have plenty of learning still to do, but living together in a van for five months has solidified our relationship through rigorous tests, shared victories, and learning to simultaneous experience the adventure as individuals and as a couple. It’s a process, but I’ve never been so confident in a relationship. If we can handle this trip, we can handle anything.Niko and I (and our tape gloves) while climbing at Indian Creek in Utah.

It’s incredible to reflect upon my adventure thus far; to see how many miles I’ve traveled, the places I’ve seen, the food I’ve feasted on, and the people who helped shape it all. A series of unfortunate van repairs may have put the longevity of the Simply Adventure trip in jeopardy, but we continue onwards in our pursuit of living our ultimate dream of exploring the entire country. We’ve traveled from Florida to California, throughout the Midwest, and now up the Pacific Coast in search of meaningful encounters with the outdoors – and America has delivered. I look forward to whatever this beautiful continent has to throw our way as we drive deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountains, prairies, swamps, and seasides.

Thank you all for reading the stories, supporting the adventure, keeping my spirits high when I’m feeling low, and offering advice that has helped us along our path. Without you, I wouldn’t be doing this. This isn’t just my journey, it’s an experience to be shared – and I am forever indebted to those who have hopped aboard to join me for the ride.

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19 thoughts on “5 lessons learned from 5 months of traveling across America

  1. Beth says:

    “…but how will your relationship fare when it’s 2:00 in the morning and you have no place to sleep?” YESSSSSS. (Also for us: “…how will your relationship fare when your partner mistakes your van for a jeep…”)

    Keep on livin’ the dream Katie. You and Niko are welcome with us in Colorado anytime.

  2. Heidi says:

    Hi Katie,

    Wow, what an adventure you having!

    I absolutely love this list. It’s all so very true as I’ve experienced just about everything on this list.

    Number five is poignant. If you don’t travel well with your significant other then there are rough waters ahead. I’ve learned a couple tricks. I always pack snacks for a road trip with Ryan. We tend to get really angry with each other when we’re hungry. 🙂 So even if it’s only a two-hour drive, beef jerky and nuts are a must!!!

    Can’t wait for the rest of your year to unfold!


    • Katie Boué says:

      Thanks for all the love, Heidi, glad your comment got through! #5 is just so, so important. It’s really the key to the success of my trip thus far. Niko and I totally have learned all those little nit-picky things about each other, how to keep each other happy, when to give each other space, etc. Amen to the crankiness when in need of a snack, Niko and I learned that one pretty quickly, haha!

  3. Lindsey says:

    Great list! These are definitely things we learned on our trips, even if they were much shorter than yours (two weeks and three weeks). On our first trip, my (now) husband and I were still early in our relationship and we learned a lot about each other and ourselves on our adventure. It was a great bonding experience and totally solidified our relationship with each other. 🙂

    Congrats on 5 months adventuring!!

  4. Henry "Hank" Guardado says:

    Haven’t had a chance to keep up with your adventures but took time to read this post. It restores my faith in human and triumphs of the the human spirit. Safe travels to you and Niko and look forward to future posts!

  5. Jas says:

    I love reading your blog! Your travels have inspired me so much and it always warms my heart to hear of all the kind encounters you have with people on your journey. And yes, please write a book; I would read it in a heartbeat! Good luck with the rest of your travels 🙂

  6. NZ Muse says:

    YES to all of these! Even though we’ve hosted a LOT of people through Couchsurfing at home, my partner is always still a little sceptical before we head off to the house of a host ourselves. Strangers aren’t always scary!

    I’ve definitely stopped wearing makeup and I don’t bother using a hairbrush most days, but I still love my skirts and dresses and daily showers.

  7. April says:

    There are really things that you learn in traveling because there are a lot of things that would happen along the way no matter how short or long that trip is. From the people you meet, situations you encounter and places you’ve been to. One thing I know that the things you learn are good lessons in life. It’s great that you learned a lot of new things to experience in your travel. Thanks for sharing!

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