What I learned when I took a two-week cross-country road trip alone

Back in October, I had to get my car from Chicago to L.A…. and it was all the DMV’s fault. In California, your car has to pass a smog test each year, and since I’d been living abroad for nearly two years, I was a bit overdue. I tried thinking of ways to get around it — like registering my car in Illinois instead — but keeping it registered in California made the most sense since I’d live in L.A. again if not overseas. So I decided to take a road trip — all alone.

I’d done other road trips solo before — I found them to be therapeutic — but without a DMV deadline; I’d had more freedom to take my time. In this case, my smog test deadline was November 1 and my cross-country road trip began on October 16.

Technically, it’s about 2,000 miles from Chicago to L.A. if you go straight across the country, passing through states like Nebraska and Colorado. However, I wanted to see fall leaves change color (I’d missed that while living abroad), so I decided to take a northern route through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, a bit of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and then California. However, this route quickly racked up hundreds of additional miles. No big deal, right?

Of course, the big deal was doing most of this trip alone. A male friend went with me for the first 500 or so miles, about eight hours, from Chicago to a rural area outside of Minneapolis, and then I did the rest of the drive on my own. Although part of me was scared, the other part knew I had done smaller-scale road trips alone before, so that helped quell my fears. Plus, I’d have freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted.

From finding an old chapel in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin to seeing bison crossing the road in front of me as I drove through Custer State Park in South Dakota — which was intimidating yet awe-inspiring — there was never a lack of amazing scenery. New surprises were around every turn, as well as valuable lessons I learned along the almost-three-week-long journey. Here are some of them.

1. Don’t rely solely on technology for directions

Although I love paper maps, I’d become so accustomed to using Google Maps while living in Europe that I didn’t take into consideration that I wouldn’t have phone reception (i.e., no internet) for hours at a time — which meant no directions while in the middle of nowhere. After dropping my friend off at his family’s farm in rural Minnesota, I realized I had no idea where I was, surrounded only by farmland and no cell reception. I relied on following the sun and the freeway west for several hours, until I finally spotted a Target on the side of the road; it seemed like a mirage. I went inside and bought a good old-fashioned road atlas, which became my copilot. I also bought a pack of multi-colored highlighters to indicate where I’d already gone and where I was headed. Then I continued to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where I’d spend the night.

2. Have a portable hotspot on hand in case you really need to get online

For more than half of my cross-country trip, I had no phone reception or data while on the road — except for random rest stops or at my Airbnbs — which got scary at times. Going forward, I’ll be sure to have a portable hotspot on hand, such as ROAMING MAN or Skyroam Solis, in case I need to get online to find anything from gas to housing. Plus, since I’m a digital nomad — meaning, I work remotely from various locations — having WiFi readily available is essential.

3. Do most driving in the day

Aside from feeling safer driving in the day versus at night, in case I have car trouble, animals were another big reason to stay on the road before the sun went down. In South Dakota, there’d be a sign on the freeway that said “Deer, next 10 miles” — I’d think, OK, I can keep driving, no problem — and right when I thought I was in the clear, there’d be another sign that said, “Deer, next 10 miles,” and this would continue for hundreds of miles. There were a few close calls with the deer themselves: they’d appear out of nowhere on the side of the freeway, about to cross, and other animals had no hesitation about jumping in my path on the road, including mice, raccoons, coyotes and bison — even a snake slithered across at one point. After veering one too many times to not hit an animal, I learned driving at night was not worth the risk.

4. Always be aware of your surroundings

Although I carry a self-defense cat keychain and pepper spray at all times, it’s still important to always be on guard; when I’m not driving, instead of looking at my phone, I make sure to pay attention to my surroundings. At one rest stop, when I was leaving a McDonald’s bathroom (McDonald’s bathrooms are among the best during a road trip, I think!), a man smiled at me and I smiled back.

I’m one of those people who smiles at everybody, but when you’re driving across the country alone, you have to be careful, as a smile can be misconstrued. The man then proceeded to watch me walk to my car and came outside and just stared. I quickly drove off and to a gas station across the street. No sooner than I got out of my car to pump gas, he was suddenly crossing the street toward me. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get gas and drove away instead. It was a great reminder to always, always, always pay attention to what’s happening around you.

Similarly, I learned to not tell strangers that I was driving cross-country alone. Although I believe there are many, many good people out in the world — and I love meeting new people — as a woman traveling alone, you never know. (And it’s not just about being a woman traveling alone — people of color and other gender identities may have similar or greater safety concerns, as well.) I’m the kind of person who will talk to anybody, and also probably be a bit too honest, i.e., “Yep, I’m driving to L.A. all alone.” When one guy started asking way too many questions, I found that creating a road trip companion (in this case, “boyfriend”) who was with me (back at the Airbnb or in the bathroom or what have you) was especially useful when it came to uncomfortable situations, and as a safety precaution.

5. But remember, most people are helpful and have good intentions

In Mountain View, Wyoming, there were so many eclectic farmhouses, it was hard not to stop and take photos of them. One morning, I had just left my Airbnb and it was drizzling, but I couldn’t resist pulling over to take a picture of this turquoise farmhouse. Barely any cars were in sight, so when a car pulled over and stopped in front of me, I panicked: Was it an undercover cop? Was it illegal to pull over? Would this picture cost me a pricey ticket? The female driver got out of the car and approached me; I took some deep breaths. “Are you OK?” she asked. What?! I told her I was great; isn’t this farmhouse amazing? She said she just wanted to make sure I wasn’t having car trouble, and if I needed anything, she’d be happy to help. She was a great reminder that although there may be creeps out there (like the guy above), there are also good people, too.

6. The best local spots are found via word-of-mouth, so talk to locals

At Mount Rushmore, I asked a couple to take my photo — and it turned out one was a writer who’d written a guide book about South Dakota, Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills. So, without hesitation, she took my paper map and circled all the places I should go, from mom-and-pop diners to the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park, where you can see animals — like prairie dogs and bison — roaming around in their natural habitat.

7. Tell a friend — or a few — where you are at all times

At one point during my journey, I realized that no one knew where I was. Sure, friends knew I was “driving from L.A. to Chicago,” but they had no idea about my exact location. At first, I thought this was almost freeing, but then I realized it could be dangerous. So I started a group email among my best friends — everyone could see who else was on it — and not only did I update them a few times a day, but at the end of the day, I’d also recount what I’d done and seen, so it became a great journal of sorts. Although I barely had WiFi access during much of my trip, when I did, I’d use Facebook Messenger to share my location with a friend so they could follow my journey in real time; it was almost as if they were in the car with me and gave me an extra safety cushion.

8. Slow down & practice living in the moment

A road trip helps get you to be less distracted and live in the moment. When you do, putting one foot in front of the other — or one foot on the gas pedal, as it were — you’re fully present: your sole attention is either on the road in front of you or on whatever roadside attraction you’re looking at, not on your phone or work or any combination of other things. In this overly digital rush-rush-rush world, being on a road trip is like going on a digital detox: you learn to slow down and that there are more important things in life than being on your phone or online 24/7. For instance, instead of looking at road trip destinations on social media, you’re looking at them in real life, and that’s the most fulfilling part of all.

9. It’ll help you work on becoming more independent

When you road trip alone, you make all the decisions alone — where you’ll stop, where you’ll stay, how long you’ll stay, what you’ll eat and so on. Even if the thought of a weeks-long solo road trip is intimidating, you can always start small — a day trip here, a weekend trip there — and build up to longer ones. All the little successes add up. (You’ll see.) I thought I was independent before my cross-country trip, but once it was done, I realized my independence quotient had gone up; I felt as though I’d achieved a big milestone.

10. You’ll see how beautiful America is

Since I’d been living abroad for most of 2017 and 2018, when I’d do my remote jobs from cafés, it would not be unusual to have a view of a castle outside my window, as though I were living in a child’s book of fairy tales. But once I began my road trip, I rediscovered how beautiful America is, too. Sure, maybe I won’t see a castle in the middle of South Dakota (although the Corn Palace — yes, made of corn — was close, and is now one of my favorite U.S. roadside attractions), but I’ll discover a small town, like Hot Springs, SD, full of natural hot springs and cute shops that look like they belong in a movie set.

11. You’ll find that road trips are full of wonderful, unexpected moments

Even if you have the most detailed road trip route mapped out in stone in advance, there will be likely many unexpected detours, literally and figuratively, along the way — and usually for the better. I had purposely taken a longer way to L.A. since I was following a fall foliage route, but many of the states had already experienced cold fronts, which meant the leaves changed color earlier than expected. In more than 2,500 miles, I ended up only seeing a handful of multi-colored trees and leaves. But maybe it was a blessing in disguise because I then focused more on the other scenery around me, from visiting the iconic Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills to hiking among sky-high burnt orange rock formations in Utah’s Bryce Canyon. It’s exactly these unexpected moments that make the trip.