So, you want to travel. Your closest cronies are all locked into unavoidable obligations that prevent them from tagging along, but a lack of co-pilot candidates shouldn’t deter your adventurous ambitions. Solo travel is a great way to explore the country, and you’re guaranteed to experience life-changing places and people throughout the journey.
During September 2011, I embarked on my own solo road trip. My adventures in solitude took me to the peaceful mountains of western North Carolina, the unfamiliar streets of Kansas City, the sprawling flat lands of middle America, cities that I would eventually move to, and even back to my balmy hometown of Miami. Armed with the knowledge obtained during my travels, I want to share some insights to, hopefully, inspire others to pursue road tripping alone.
#1 BUY A MAP. The first step for any modern road warrior lets technology take a backseat for a moment – there is nothing more tangible or exciting than flipping through the pages of a map or road atlas. Although I have many reasonably sized atlases and region-specific foldout maps, my favorite road trip tool is the enormous, and horribly outdated, map I inherited from my father. While your GPS will inevitably take control as you navigate the country, keeping your map and a highlighter handy will prove to be an invaluable method of tracking your route. I like to use a different colored highlighter for each of my trips – it’s great to retrace paths you’ve already trodden, and thrilling to ink up a fresh section of map as you venture towards uncharted sights. Plus, it will become a handy visual for post-trip storytelling.
#2 PLAN (IN MODERATION). Now that you have your map and a noggin bursting with ideas, it’s time to start planning – but not too much. It is all too easy to spend weeks and months researching attractions, estimating distances, and anticipating all the wonderful things you want to see and do, but beware. Preparation is essential to any successful road trip, but over-planning confines your experiences. I learned that the best way to plan is to choose the destination, scope out a few options for places to rest your head, and keep up to date with local happenings. However, if there is a major attraction that you’ve been dying to visit, don’t hesitate to make a commitment. Leaving your campsite a few hours early in order to arrive at the next town in time for a once-a-decade festival is worth the planning. On the other hand, skipping town early for the sake of “sticking to the plan” isn’t worth missing out on an afternoon of hiking with those rowdy fellas you met at the bar last night.
#3 LET IT HAPPEN. The perks and downfalls of planning provide a perfect segue to this next issue: spontaneity. Your home life has probably accustomed you to certain habits, expectations, etc. Life on the road is an entirely different beast; things happen, whether you like it or not. Campsites and hotel rooms fill up, weather conditions change without warning, the only restaurant within a hundred miles might close for the night – and you must learn to roll with the punches. The successful solo traveler will view these obstacles as opportunities for alternative adventures, rather than road blocks. Arriving at a town with a grumbling belly and ‘closed’ signs on every cafe isn’t the end of the world; now is the perfect opportunity to head to a gas station, pick up some provisions, and cook a meal over a campfire – you were always curious about Spam and eggs anyways. Remember this: every misadventure makes for an excellent story.
#4 BE PREPARED. If you’re going to be rolling with the punches, you’ll need to prepare for what life on the road will throw at you. Traveling by car is my favorite way to explore, and if you take a peek in my glove box you’ll always find a stash of items I refuse to adventure without. I cannot express enough how important biodegradable wipies are. No, I’m not kidding. Travel is inherently dirty, and after four days without a shower, wiping yourself down will feel like a spa treatment. Other important items include a first aid kit, extra water, plastic bags, flashlights/headlamps, emergency snacks, a small towel, and my father’s favorite, pepper spray. Paranoia has no place in the solo traveler’s mind, but keeping defensive protection at hand will always provide peace of mind.
#5 GO. No amount of research, planning, not planning, budgeting, packing, pepper spray purchasing, or calendar countdowns can properly prepare you for what lies ahead – you simply must go. You will forget your wool socks, you’ll leave without running that important errand – it’s inevitable, and as #3 dictates, you must just let it happen. Now you’ll just have to buy a new pair of wool socks in the Rockies (a perfect and practical souvenir), and perhaps you’ll have to pick up a small trinket to mail back to whoever ends up running that errand for you. The hours leading up to your departure will surely leave you with a gray hair or two, but as soon as you leave city limits and begin your solo journey, you will feel an exhilaration unlike any other. When weather gets nasty, go. When the vagabonding girls you share a hostel room with invite you to ditch your plans and travel to the desert with them, go. When you become bored, go. When you are homesick, keep going. You’ll find that once you finally settle back home, you’ll be filled with a longing to go.
Solo travel is a beautiful and complicated task. It involves an appreciation for solitude, an openness to befriend and trust strangers, and an unwavering determination to experience. Throughout my own solo trip, I collected a lifetime’s worth of memories. I’ve chased trains down the barren highways in New Mexico, picked apples in North Carolina orchards, built my own fire in the woods of Kentucky, shared wine with eighty-year-old women who journeyed along the same routes, and became an entirely different person than who I was when I first packed up my car and hit the road.
But I am not special, nor am I extraordinary in any way. Anyone can do this. You simply must go.