Now is the season for road tripping. That glorious time of year when doors fling open, car engines start and people disappear into the backwater of the country. At the moment, a couple of friends and I are embarked on one such adventure. As I write this, I am seated at a picnic table somewhere on the side of highway 16 in South Dakota. These are my top tips for a successful road trip:
Avoid the Interstates
Don't get me wrong, interstates are great. I use them when I need to get away from my home territory in a hurry. But once I'm away from familiar ground, I leave the interstate routes in exchange for the two-lanes. Interstate highways make travel across America quick and efficient, but quick and efficient aren't always the best ingredients for a unique experience.
Make a Mental Fuel Marker
I use the quarter tank mark. When I get to that point, I start looking for gas stations. When traveling, especially out west, there's no guarantee that running out of gas will coincide with the presence of a gas station, a lesson I learned a few years ago while in Montana. Pushing my luck, I ran out of gas within sight of a gas station, much to the amusement of the cowboy who gave me a lift.
Camp Out Along the Way
Rather than spend money on a hotel room, spend little or nothing on a good campsite. Something gets lost when you shut yourself into a room, order movies and play dominoes instead of being under the sky with a good bottle of wine, a small fire and a warm sleeping bag. Most towns have a commercial campground, and of course there are always the national parks and forests. Besides enjoying time around the fire in the evening, nothing awakens and energizes me for a day on the road like a cup of hot coffee in the cool, morning mountain air. It's the best breakfast in the world.
Select Your Traveling Companions Wisely
The initial excitement of departure fades quickly as do the temporary guises and graces we have the tendency to adopt in order to be socially appropriate. If you don't already know the people you're traveling with, and they turn out to have different needs or desires in relation to the experience, then you have a potentially explosive situation. On the other hand, a road trip can be one of the best ways to get to know someone. It's risky though, especially if you and your companion are stuck at a rest stop on a closed highway during a blizzard. But that is a different story.
Be Easy Going
If you are traveling with friends, everyone must have the flexibility of a gymnast, meaning that everyone in the car should put their needs aside for the greater good of the group. It's a true exercise in both democracy and voluntary socialism. Currently, I'm on a cross-country road trip with two friends of mine. So far we've traveled 2,500 miles together without a single heated disagreement and only one "incident." We've made it this far without any problems because we approach any collective decision with indecisions. It also helps that there's three of us, so one will always be a tiebreaker.
Be Seasonally Aware
It doesn't take a strategist to understand that traveling to Glacier National Park in December is a potentially dumb idea. But it needs to be said that planning, even if you're interested in an unplanned adventure, will prevent showing up in a particular part of the country during an inconvenient time of year.
Simplicity is Key
My cousin owns one of those outdoor stores that has everything you need for a trek into the wild. Equally present is a lot of what I call MJ gear; or Mumbo Jumbo gear. MJ gear is the stuff you will probably never need, unless you just like shiny stuff. A Sheppard's crook looking contraption, designed so that the lone traveler can give himself back massages, is a classic example. These types of items further an already present problem — the tendency for the traveler to try to plan for and pack for every conceivable situation. Generally, I've found that I can get away with about a quarter of the material I initially pile up before leaving the house. One strategy I've developed is to arrange everything on a large surface, like the bed, and then reduce the quantity by half. Then do it again. You can repeat this as many times as you want until you are down to things you can't live without.
Record the Adventure
I've found that people bring the bubble that they live in out onto the road with them. They live on the road much as they do at home: just going about a routine, but counting miles instead of minutes. Recording the adventure in some way is a way to train yourself to keep both eyes on the passing landscape. Whether you write, draw, enjoy photography or just take mental notes of scenery and history, recording those experiences, for me, has always been a way to locate meaning from them.
Bonus tip: Know How to Identify a Hostile Drinking Environment
When in an unknown bar, especially if you are by yourself, and more than three people are staring at you at any given time, then you are in what I call a hostile drinking environment. You have two options at this point: You can leave or you can initiate damage control. This happened to me and my two traveling companions just a few days ago at a small bar in Colorado where we were being watched like lambs among wolves. But after gracious tipping, many jokes and a round of shots for the bar, we left hours after closing with pockets full of business cards and phone numbers.
Serial road-tripper, Ryan O'Reilly, is the author of the travel novel Snapshot and his latest book, Nourish and Consume. A free-lance contributor to various newspapers and periodicals throughout the country, O'Reilly divides his time between Austin, Texas, and a small farm in Clever, Missouri.