8 Lessons from 8,400 Miles

My husband and I took a road trip this past summer.  We loaded up our little bright blue Honda Fit with our luggage and the dog, and started driving west on I-90.

We drove from Boston through corn and soybean fields and then more corn fields until we were driving through fields of hay and wheat and ranchland instead.  We turned north in Montana then headed back southwest just as we were waiving at Canada.  Down through the Cascades and on to San Francisco we saw old cedar and pine forest then sage brush then more old growth pine before the land opened out to orchards and more ranches.  We dipped our paws in the Pacific.

Then it was time to turn back east: I-70 through the salt flats and desert and into the Rocky Mountains along the headwaters of the Colorado River.  Then it was fields of hay and sunflowers, then more corn, rolling deciduous forest as we turned slightly north to head home.  We parked the car back in our driveway at nearly 11pm on a rainy Sunday night, thoroughly saturated with new experiences and deliriously happy to be home.

We didn’t buy much in the way of souvenirs on the road, but I will always have the stories, the 1,200 photos, and the following life lessons by which to remember our grand adventure:

1. A good map is comforting, but not essential.

Being able to put my finger down and know “this is where we are, and this is what’s coming next,” was very reassuring and empowering.  But as we would strike off the beaten path in search of hotel, dinner spot, or trail head I could feel the anxiety mounting.  Not knowing exactly where I was or which way to turn at this intersection that isn't even on the map!, sent me into existential crisis.  After quite successfully winding our way to several un-mapped destinations, I realized: this is the story of my life.  I've always wanted the map: to know that if I do these things for this amount of time, I’ll end up there.  And maybe, if you only stay on life’s interstates, it can work that way.  But the best things - like the unexpected farm stand with the ripe, cold cherries - are on the side roads.  So put down the map and trust your own internal sense of direction.

2. Who’s in your bed is more important than where it is.

We spent four weeks on the road.  That’s a lot of hotels, spanning a wide range of comfort and, of course, the whole country.  Yes, of course, things like a comfy pillow and a nice duvet are wonderful; a view of something other than the highway out the window is nice too.  But night after night I slept well and felt at home simply because of my two bed-mates.  Having my husband by my side and our dog at my feet was enough to make anywhere home.  Even (especially?) when they’re both snoring.

3. Seize opportunities to take care of yourself.

Whether it’s using a flush toilet when one is at hand, stopping for a meal if something looks good, or dozing off when not driving or navigating, the little things add up.  It was easy to feel the pressure the “get back on the road” and not take advantage of a small creature comfort, but every time I did, I regretted it.  Taking care of myself habitually, at every opportunity, turned out to be the best way to be prepared for whatever the road - or life! - might bring.  

4. You regret the things you don't do more than the things you do.

As with taking care of yourself, opportunities come up in unexpected places along the road.  At 70 mph there’s not a lot of time to stop and discuss the pros and cons of stopping to see something or whether it will be worth it to take that scenic detour.  After a few missed chances that lingered we decided that if one of us was intrigued enough to point it out, we would give it a go.  After all, when are we going to be in the middle of nowhere South Dakota (or Montana or Oregon, etc.) again?  Even when stopping to see a waterfall in Idaho meant getting caught in a thunderstorm and ruining my cell phone, I was glad we did.  I got a new phone in a few days, and we’ll never forget that story!

5. People are people no matter where you go.

Despite the obvious differences in religion and politics that make the different regions of the country unique (and put them into conflict so regularly), we have more in common than not.  Even when masked by passionate billboard slogans, it was clear that we all want basically the same things: good lives for ourselves and our families, freedom to do as we like, and to be treated with compassion and respect.  No matter where we were, kindness begat kindness and folks were just trying to get by as best they could.

6. Reservations are a double-edged sword.

Trying to find a hotel that would accommodate us and our dog after dark and a long day of driving was not a fun experience for me.  Having a reservation obviously made this unnecessary - we knew where we were spending the night.  But knowing where you’re spending the night means you can’t just stop when you feel like it.  Two of the most fun places we stopped we didn't have a reservation: one was in the Cascades and was a tiny old motel that I never would have given a second thought to online but turned out to be one of the best night’s sleeps and breakfasts we got. Planning has its benefits, but so does just going with the flow.

7. Sitting still is a luxury.

Covering so much of the country in such a short time was an incredible experience; I’m grateful for the technology and infrastructure that made that possible.  In the midst of so much movement, so much hurtling through space, a few quiet moments of stillness felt magical.  Being still in nature somewhere beautiful was obviously wonderful, but even just pausing under a tree at a rest area, the breeze in our hair and the dog lolling in the grass, was luxurious.  While daily life doesn't usually see me covering an average of 300 miles a day, it can still feel like a whirlwind: finding quiet moments in the midst of that motion is just as restorative.

8. Don’t keep a bucket list: just make it happen.

This comes back to regretting the things you don’t do more than the things you do.  There are always reasons not to do something.  Things are expensive, you have other commitments, etc.: life will always have its demands and you’ll always be able to come up with very reasonable-sounding excuses.  The challenge is separating the reasons from the excuses, ignoring the excuses, and then getting to work on resolving the reasons.  I know how fortunate we are that we could afford to do a trip like this, but I also know how easy it would have been for us to never go.  Making it happen may take a while, but it’s worth it.