Anatomy Of A Road Trip….or, Living Out Of A Car

This is my car. There are many others like it but this one is mine.
This is my car. There are many others like it but this one is mine.

On September first of 2009 I set out on a 3 month trip of the American and Canadian West. In those three months I put on about 13,000 miles and visited 2 provinces and 25 states.

On July 28 of this year, I headed out for a month to visit the Canadian Atlantic Provinces. On this trip I visited 6 provinces and 16 states and drove over 6,000 miles.

At some point during this last trip I realized that I had spent 4 months of the last year traveling and living out of my car. An entire third of a year road tripping.

Toss in over a month and a half of driving through Australia and three weeks of driving around New Zealand, and I’ve spent almost half a year of my last three and a half years of traveling in a car.

Why Travel By Car

I have difficulty doing anything for an extended period of time. I’ve done my share of backpacking, and I enjoyed it and will certainly return to it, but I also wanted to do something else. I would meet people traveling around the world to told me they were planning a visit to the US and wanted suggestions on where to visit. The problem was, most of the places I would recommend (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite) I had never visited. The road trip was my attempt to visit the places in my own country that I had never been to.

One of the many, amazing things I've seen from the window of my car.
One of the many, amazing things I’ve seen from the window of my car.

Transportation systems such as buses, trains and planes are designed to take you from point A to point B. They don’t do a very good job at letting you explore the places in between. The problem is, those places in between are often the best places to visit.

In a country the size of the United States (or Canada or Australia) a car is really the only way to properly explore the country. There is too much space, too many small towns, too many places which are not serviced by bus, train or plane. Whenever I speak to someone who is thinking about visiting America for a few months, my suggestion is always to buy or rent a car. You will find that gas is cheaper than most other countries in the world and you can get a motel room in many places for the price of a hostel dorm bed in Switzerland.

The other primary advantage of a road trip is the ability to travel at your leisure and go exactly where you want to go. It is certainly the freest and most liberating form of transportation available. The one thing I enjoy most about driving is the time you can spend just enjoying the road, thinking listening to music.

Why I’m Never Doing A Road Trip Like This Again

The North American road trips I’ve taken during the past year have been the sort of trips you take when you visit a place for the first time. They were large, expansive and very broad in ambition. I visited many places but didn’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time at any one place.

I totally screwed up my most recent trip to Canada. At the start of the trip, things were delayed and screwed up by the passing of my father. On the back end of the trip, I had a pretty hard date to be in Minneapolis for the wedding of a college roommate. My estimates for how long I’d be driving and the distances I’d have to drive were off. I spent far more time driving than I did actually exploring and seeing things. I don’t regret going on the trip, but I also have no desire to spend so much time driving again.

In addition to just the sheer amount of time spent sitting on my ass in a car, the other major downside to that much driving is all the junk food you end up eating. There are few options for eating well off the highway. Fast food and junk food found in truck stops are your primary options. The bad food combined with the sedentary nature of driving will probably lead to some weight gain. I can live without that too.

My Future Road Trips

I’m planning on making an American road trip an annual event, but I’m not going to do the grand, epic style like I have been doing. They will be more focused with less driving and more…..doing stuff. Next year I’m thinking of driving to the Grand Canyon and doing a rafting trip and/or doing a rim-to-rim hike. Another trip I’d like to do is visit Yellowstone again, but spend a full week there taking photos.

I’m also going to put more thought and planning into my trips. The fact is that my normal method of seat-of-my-pants travel just isn’t working anymore, especially for road trips. I had dozens of people who wanted to meet me when I passed through their town, and there were dozens of people I wanted to meet. It is hard for people to schedule time when you have no clue when you will be there. Lesson learned.

I view this as another step in my attempt to add some variation to how and where I travel. I figure it will be a never ending process.

10 thoughts on “Anatomy Of A Road Trip….or, Living Out Of A Car”

  1. Hi Gary, Love the road – it’s part of my living and working free lifestyle in this stage of my life. I completed a 6300 mile road trip from VA to OR (to record two audio books with an author) to Fresno, CA (through Yosemite) and back to VA driving part of the way on historic Rt 66, with stops at the Grand Canyon (which I’d only seen from 35,000 feet many times before), Memphis where I visited the STAX Records museum and Nashville – where I met a new friend who gave me a tour of the city (that I love) including touring one of the few surviving vinyl record pressing plants. I’m preparing to leave the end of this month on another 3500 mile road trip to SD and then back to Chicago (where I’ll meet a friend/colleague and spend three days recording a conference) and then back to VA. I love seeing everything there is to see and meeting the people.

    Like Wayne, I can and do work from the road and I’m completely virtual. I consult, record, edit, produce, write, create anywhere I am. Love the lifestyle. My plan is to acquire an older, modest, but nicely equipped motor home and use that as my home/office/studio wherever I am. I’ll tow a small car (which I just acquired) to explore the region I’m at. I’ll be driving through MN on this next trip and adding another new state to my list (only a few left to go). Hope to cross paths and trade “war stories” one day.

    BTW, I also blog and blogged my entire 6300 mile trip and will blog this next trip. I also have a friend, a single Brit woman, who is road tripping the US right now. She’s blogging, too.


  2. Your forgot to mention the BEST part of driving yourself – no need to carry luggage! Carrying luggage from airport to hotel to bus station to hotel to train station to hotel, packing it, unpacking it in every location is a MAJOR hassle that most travelers tend to underplay.

    When I’m on a road trip, all the stuff stays in the car. Best part – you can take stuff with you that’s never viable on other travels, like several sleeping bags for different temperatures, every peice of camping gear imaginable, tons of cooking gear, that ridiculously heavy tripod, ALL your lenses, tons of alcohol (this applies to European road trips, mostly), etc.

  3. I highly recommend the Grand Canyon rafting trip! Some friends did that with a bunch of the guests that came to their wedding – a sort of river rafting honeymoon – and it was a blast! Seeing Arizona from your car can definitely be nice, but combining that with a literal immersion in its beauty will make your trip so much better! And you can maybe invite people interested in hanging out with you to join you on the rafting trip. ;)

  4. Love road trips! My cousin & I did a month-long trip down the eastern seaboard to Key West and back via Georgia & the Smokey Mtns–total 2,903 miles. And since we hit the southern end of US Rt. 1 I’m heading to the northern end of that same route. On the way seeing friends, returning to Acadia NP and checking out Campobello. The only drawback–have to do it in 2 weeks. I do like some planning, but not overplanning–you need to be able to take it that “wow, let’s go see that” place.

  5. I took my penpal on a road trip of America this last summer… we are only 20, so we couldn’t rent a car, which limited us since we had to go in a circle. :) Still, it was amazing – we tried to find a mix between driving and actually doing stuff… sacrificed the first day to driving across Kansas from Missouri, then spent a few days doing horseback riding etc in Colorado, then did the highway to the sky and then went up to Wyoming, then spent a few days in South Dakota seeing the animals, Mt. Rushmore, Deadwood, and rock climbing, then on the two day ride home say the Badlands, Mitchell’s Corn Palace, Omaha, etc. The only really miserable driving day was Kansas. XD

  6. I totally get where you are coming from. Our road trips used to entail driving from Toronto straight to Florida. That meant missing a large part of the states we travelled through.

    Everytime We went I wanted to stop at different places, or take a detour but we were on a schedule…it really sucked.

    Recently we drove from Las Vegas to San Francisco and took 3 days to do it – total driving time about 10 hours – so we really stopped to enjoy each place. That was the way to do it!

    Sorry we missed you in Toronto!

  7. Nothing beats a road trip and I completely agree that train, plane or bus etc don’t let you stop and enjoy the trip andwhere near as much as a car. As a one time photographer I love the fact you can stop when you see something amazing rather than lusting out the window as it screams on past while you sit on an unstopping train!

    I’ve had a similar experience in Canada – completely underestimated distances and times and topped it off with some serious snow! A mistake I was careful not to repeat on my next one round California. I planned ti to within an inch of it’s life and far from ruin it this planning just made it better as we saw everything we wanted and packed a huge amount of activities into each day.

    Ok, this post is making me want to go and plan my next one….

  8. Hey Gary. As you finish up your trip for this year I start out on mine. I can totally relate to your comments and statements. I LOVE road tripping in a car and even though I eventually want to see as many parts of the world I feel I’ll need to have wheels there too.

    I’m going to put the idea of a massive road trip to the test. Unlike you but like some other travelers I’ve read about, I can essentially work from the road and hope to do so. This allows me to take as long as I want wherever I want to visit, excluding most large cities as I won’t be staying in any fancy hotels. I’ve found that burning through and area say the size of Newfoundland can kill a guys gas budget in a real hurry. Slow and steady will win this race, stopping to work remotely to keep gas in the tank while taking in the sights and people of some smaller towns and areas. Planning on doing some web design work and photo editing in local libraries and coffee shops as I did on my last trip I anticipate meeting lots of locals.

    As far as road trip diets go I concur that it’s easy to fall into the fast food weight gain plan. I’m slowly figuring out that there are other options, Cereal bars, fresh fruits and veggies, bulk snacks from the evil large chain stores and now I also carry with me a one burner propane camp stove. There’s lots of picnic and camping areas to not only pull over and make a meal but sometimes one can jump in a lake and get cleaned up as well.

    Until your next trip I wish you well. Enjoy your time at home. Perhaps I’ll see you out on the pavement sometime next year.

  9. The summer before my daughter graduated High School we set out on a road trip. We took 2 weeks and traveled from Eugene, OR to Sioux City, Iowa. We stopped, looked, photographed and explored throughout the whole trip. Often taking the beaten path…esp. in Buffalo Gap, ND just outside of Medora. We drove through WA, ID, MT, WY, SD, IA, MN, and ND. Towards the end of the trip we drove through the Bitter Root canyon between Missoula and Orofino, ID. When I pulled into the driveway I had 5,600 miles on the car. I love road trips!

Comments are closed.