Two months ago, my friend Alyssa asked me if I would go with her from our tiny town in Florida to her tiny hometowns in Kansas and Missouri. The drive was roughly 18 hours each way, including stops; on the way up we stopped at a hotel in Nashville, but for some reason we decided it would be better to just do the trip home in one straight shot.
After twelve hours of the car getting steadily hotter and stickier, we realized that we were idiots.
“Oh my God, I want to cry” is not normally the first thing I say when I walk into a Panera Bread. It’s probably not the first thing anybody says when they walk into a Panera Bread, which is probably why the cashier in Olive Branch, Mississippi, treated me so gingerly while I ordered my sandwich, but I couldn’t help it; it was the first air conditioning I’d experienced all day since leaving Missouri in Alyssa’s 15-year-old car, Marv.
If you’ve never driven through the entire state of Mississippi with no functional A/C, you should know that it’s not something I recommend.
You should also know that the time I did that was totally worth the sweat, because it was the time that I returned from the best two weeks of my entire life. I met new friends, I did some shopping, I got unbelievably borderline-Siamese-twin close with Alyssa and I learned more than I ever thought it was possible to learn in a two week vacation. (In Holden, MO, there is a Pizza Hut in the middle of a cornfield. Just picture that for a sec.) Even so, I think one of the best parts of that trip was the actual traveling—the day and a half, total, that it took Alyssa and me to get there and back.
What’s funny about really long road trips is that on paper, they look like a terrible idea. Being stuck staring straight ahead in a tin can with the same person or people for hours or even days at a time shouldn’t be fun, particularly if you add in limited bathroom access and late June southern humidity. However, something about the small space and the rush of seeing unfamiliar territory rush by your window is… well, magical. People open up. Minds expand. Friendships grow. It’s dangerous and uncomfortable and expensive and you should totally, totally do it.
Of course there are safety rules to follow, but we’re not going to cover those today. You can read about them here. What we’re going to discuss are the plethora of non-safety related pitfalls that your road trip can fall into: hunger, boredom, and crabbiness are just a few. Here’s how Alyssa and I avoided them while we were Thelma and Louising it through the American Midwest.
What is not sucking? In the realm of extended vehicular travel, not sucking is defined as making it from your point of origin to your destination, not only without dying or killing your fellow passengers, but while having fun along the way.
1. Gather provisions. Get some water bottles—they’ll keep you hydrated and make sure your skin doesn’t break out on the road. Everything else is up to you. Try to get an even balance of sweet and salty, unless it’s summer and your A/C is broken, in which case anything with high sodium is counterproductive. Check with your fellow travelers if you’ve got an affinity for snacks with strong smells (sorry about the salt and vinegar chips, Alyssa).
2. Roll the windows down. I love air conditioning as much as the next girl—maybe more. However, road trips are way more interesting when you’re relying on fresh air to stay cool. Listen to the wind. Figure out what a river smells like. Stick your hand out the window and do that wavy-arm thing. Experience the world outside your car.
3. Select your soundtrack carefully. Tunes are the number one most important thing to bring with you on a road trip… besides, you know, a valid insurance card. Happy, bouncy, danceable stuff is best, but there’s also a place for quieter, more pensive music while traveling. Read the mood in the car and DJ accordingly, or use an app like Songza that provides you with lists of potential playlists just for driving. (The pure organizational nirvana of this app makes it maybe my favorite ever.)
4. Stop where it looks interesting. On your way back from wherever you’re going, nobody will blame you for just trying to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible, particularly if you’re driving through the entire state of Mississippi with no air conditioning. However, on your way to your destination, take some time to pause at the places that catch your eye. Some of my best travel memories happened during the interlude between point of origin and destination, and they were almost never planned. America is full of weird stuff—enormous versions of everyday objects; tiny, oddly specific museums; restaurants that claim to be “international” because they serve fried chicken next to “Italian” marinara sauce and “Chinese” sweet and sour sauce on a buffet. Embrace the weirdness. You’ll end up with good stories.
5. Go with people you love. A road trip by yourself is just a commute. What makes long-distance car travel so memorable, so joyful, so… fun are the companions you choose, and the new ones you find along the way.