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7 things I learnt living on the road for 5 months

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A year ago my friend and I bought a sturdy Ford Focus, and with nothing but a trunk full of clothes and gear we hit the road to begin a 5-month road trip around the USA.

In those five months we travelled from the east coast to the west and back again, through 37 states (and two Canadian cities), in just over 16,000 miles. When we began our trip in March we had been planning and saving for almost two years, so to finally see it become a reality was exhilarating and terrifying. I had never been away from home or travelled for that long before, I didn’t know what to expect or how I would handle it.

As you probably figured, those five months ended up being the best experience of my life so far and these are a few things I learnt along the way:  

   

Taken somewhere in Arizona                                               

 1. You don’t need all that stuff

Having to consolidate my whole life into a suitcase made me realise how much unnecessary bulk we accumulate over time, not just when we travel, but also at home, in our day to day lives. Living out of a suitcase was so liberating, I began to focus less on what I had and more on what I was doing in the moment. All my things at home, my books, keepsakes, clothes, well, I never missed them - and when I tried to visualise them, it was just a blur of all this ‘stuff’ I could only think of as a burden.

 2. Embrace spontaneity

 One of the things I struggled with at the start of the trip was accepting changes in our plans, either spontaneous or due to ‘bumps in the road’, whether that be my friend’s sudden desire to drive an hour out of our way to visit Butch Cassidy’s grave, or a snowstorm that changed our route through the blue ridge mountains. Planning the trip was my pride and joy and when things suddenly didn’t go to plan I found myself incredibly frustrated. However, over time I learnt that these spontaneous changes we inevitable, and often led to wonderful discoveries, like when a detour through the backroads near Flagstaff, AZ, led us to find a natural waterslide and swimming hole. It was the bumps in the road that led to some of the best moments during our trip.

 
Hiking in the Grand Canyon

 

2. Talk to strangers

Coming from England, where curious conversations with strangers are few and far between, it was a bit of a surprise adjusting to American’s boundless friendliness. Everywhere you went, strangers would start conversations like we were old friends, wanting to know our life story. At first my jerk inner-reaction to these people would be, “Why are you talking to me?”, and we’d try to end the conversation as quickly and politely as possible. But we warmed up to American hospitality and by the end of the trip I’d go out of my way to start conversations with people. I quickly learned that everyone has a story, from the former Rodeo cowboy in Cody, Wyoming, who had been a park ranger at a quarter of the national parks in the country, to the hat maker in Santa Fe who supplied period hats to all the Hollywood westerns for the past 20 years. Not only was this a great way to learn about the life and culture of an area, but locals give the best advice on what to do and where to eat.

 4. Don’t forget to stop

When you’re constantly travelling it’s easy to forget to stop and take a breather every once and a while. Often I’d get caught up planning, always thinking of the next destination, next activity on the road, instead of just pausing and enjoying the scenery.  While keeping on track is important, it never hurts to take a break and switch off for a bit, or you can burn yourself out.  Sleep in, take a walk, see a movie! In all of the five months we never stayed anywhere more than a week, but the breaks we took made all the difference. Four days without any internet connection in Yellowstone National Park left us feeling grimy (also no showers) but mentally refreshed, and don’t even get me started on our week sunbathing and relaxing on Venice Beach!

 Walking in Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, near Santa Fe

 

5. Treat yourself

Obviously watching your budget and not over-spending is important when traveling for long periods of time, but you don’t want to be so frugal that you miss out on great experiences. For example, while in New Orleans we splurged and got a real taste of Southern Living on a sunset cruise down the Mississippi with dinner and Jazz in the country’s oldest steamboat. While most of our nights were spent with family friends, at campsites and motels, we also spent a few nights in nice AirBnBs and hotels. The extra money was completely worth the R&R and home comfort. I’d also say it is always worth treating yourself to a great meal every once and a while, especially if it’s eating local cuisine and specialties; your stomach will be happy and you’re immersing yourself in culinary culture!

6. You can adapt to anything

Living on the road for five months taught me that I could adapt to anything. Starting the road trip, I was so nervous that I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress and irregularity of constant movement, sleeping in a new place every night, not having a bed to ‘come home’ to. The exact opposite was true - just like anything else, I adjusted to change, fell into a routine, and what felt so odd at first became normal. I thrived off the constant movement, loved the ever-changing scenery, new experiences every day, the thought of being stressed was overwhelmed by my love for travel. Home became the car, my travelling companion, and I found pieces of home everywhere we went, I created it.

 

Watching the sunset in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas

 

 7. It’s ok to not miss home

5 months is a pretty long time to be away from home. I think the longest I had ever been away from home before the road trip was two months, which is still a decent amount of time, but those extra three months seemed to make a difference. ‘Almost half a year’, I kept thinking. But what I realised quickly was that I had combined sense of place with my family and the people I cared about. While I did miss my family and friends (Skype calls in the car were frequent), I didn’t often miss my house, or England. I loved travelling on the road, the new places we visited, I cared about my home, London, my normal life, but I didn’t have a strong desire to return to it. I had originally thought I’d be joyous at the end of the road trip, but I was incredibly sad, I didn’t want it to end, the thought of being in one place daunting.

Obviously our road trip couldn’t last forever, but it taught me that it isn’t hard to start over in a new place, find opportunity and happiness on distant shores. It showed me that I am a lot more independent and self-reliant than I had ever thought, and I know when that next great adventure reveals itself, I won’t hesitate to take it.

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