Several times a year I travel to the Midwest to visit family, and instead of booking a flight, I pack up the car and hit the road, all 3,800 miles from Seattle to Minnesota and back again. By myself.
People always look at me like I’m crazy when they hear I am driving alone. Aren’t you afraid? Isn’t it a long ways? You should have someone with you. What if something happens? I see the proverbial wheels turning in their minds as they take stock of my remaining shreds of sanity.
The truth is, I adore these road trips, which are a restorative respite from my usual frenetic workday routine. Over the past 23 years, I have traveled across the US more times than I can remember: maybe 25 trips between the West Coast and the Midwest, and several more journeys in vast loops around America that covered 8,000 miles and took three weeks each. Once, compelled by an odd delusion that perhaps the Great Plains might look different in another country, I drove the Trans-Canada highway in early December, a journey that surely taught me just how much more frigid Canada is than its southern neighbor even in early winter.
These trips are now so routine that I have packing for it down pat. Summers and winters require slightly different provisions, although I still get the car ready the same way: an oil change, a top-off of all fluids, and a check of hoses, tires (including the spare), and brakes to make sure everything is in good working order. In my “car box” I pack two extra quarts of oil, some coolant, windshield washer fluid, jumper cables, a few choice tools, and a working flashlight.
For long road trips, one should always have enough provisions to survive comfortably for a few days in case of a major breakdown. So I pack bottled water and juice, canned meats and other foods, a can opener (very sad if forgotten), pillow, blanket, and clothing suitable for whatever weather conditions I may encounter. In the winter, I travel with a sleeping bag rated to minus 15 degrees in case I have to bed down in the backseat during a North Dakota blizzard, tire chains for crossing snowy mountain passes, and a small shovel for scooping out snow around stuck tires. In the summer, I carry extra water and considerably less clothing.
The trip between Seattle and Wisconsin usually takes me a little over two days. In recent months, however, I’ve made new land-speed records on the return trip, sometimes making it back in scarcely a day and a half. Of course, this involves driving 16 or 17 hours a day, and yes, I do usually stay overnight in a motel somewhere along the way.
Driving long distances is tiring in ways that sneak up on you. As hundreds of miles yawn by, physical and mental fatigue constantly threaten, and over the years I’ve developed many methods to combat it. Snacking is enjoyable (beef jerky, rice crackers, carrots, apples, bags of kale and spinach—a less caloric alternative to potato chips—and of course, coffee and Mountain Dew). I practice my pathetic singing, and stop to do stretching exercises. Satellite XM radio and podcasts are godsends in desolate areas, and lately I attribute my record return times in part to compelling audiobooks.
Of course, there is no substitute for just stopping for a good old-fashioned catnap. Rest stops are handy, but truck stops are even better and safer for this. There is nothing like a Flying J or Pilot travel plaza, where you can find handy items and victuals of every kind for the road. If you have spent the previous night napping in the car, you can wash away your itchy grime by paying a few dollars and taking a shower here. Hot water is beyond bliss in times like these.
The driving itself on these long sojourns is altogether a different kind than everyday running-about. One reason I enjoy it so is that there is no other time in my life when I can spend all day just doing a single activity, one that becomes very meditative for long stretches. I do my best thinking on these trips. A strain of evocative music or a fascinating story begins in the ascent of a mountain pass, winds it way across the summit, and threads along hours of valleys, badlands, and rolling grasslands, weaving the country’s vast scenery indelibly in its narrative and notes. The car and I become one, hurtling along, sharing the day, the darkness, the almost unimaginable vastness of empty space and time.
My respect for truckers has always been immense; they are the ultimate veterans of the highways. I see all sorts of things on the road during these journeys: people hauling U-Hauls, vacationing, driving crazy, driving slowly, darting too closely around tractor-trailors, and piloting RVs that range barely bigger than a large SUV to tour-bus size. I see ranchers tooling about in their big 4 x 4s, teenagers running about in ubiquitous Pontiacs, seniors lolling in cushy Buicks, and everything in between. Bikers in Sturgis in summer, skiiers heading for the mountain passes in winter, the little pronghorn antelopes skipping across the Montana grasslands, the suicidal ring-necked pheasants lingering along South Dakota roadsides, and the huge wind farms in Minnesota.
In all the years of driving cross-country I have had only one major breakdown that left me stranded for a time. Given that I have no cell phone coverage across three-quarters of my travels, I am glad that today’s vehicles are as amazingly reliable as they are. I always think of the harrowing travels of Lewis and Clark the first time they trudged through the American West, and I am beyond grateful and bewildered at how easy the Interstate has made that journey today.
And I always wonder how these plains looked when the buffalo numbered in the millions, and the Native Americans weren’t relevated to the desperately poor reservations they live in today.