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What I learned by quitting my “good” job and driving around the country all summer long

15 lessons from cruising the USA on local, two-lane roads for 80 days and 17,000 miles.

Early last summer I left my job at a top strategy consulting firm in Manhattan, my high rise apartment, and what would have been a six figure income had I stayed in consulting for a third year. At the time, a lot of people thought I was crazy, and their skepticism made me wonder if what I was doing was insane. However, three months and seventeen thousand miles later, it seems crazy that I waited so long to do it. I returned to NYC last week after, as one of my college pals put it, “living a lot of life” in the last few months. Here’s what I learned on my journey.

1. Few people will actually take the leap to make a dream real

I heard it over and over again, from people all over America: “I’ve always wanted to take a trip like yours.” I heard it from farmers, entrepreneurs, investment bankers, and hotel clerks. I heard it from sixty-five year olds, twenty-five years olds, and people all along the spectrum in between. They’d all invented reasons for not going. Financial concerns (I did my entire trip for about $6k); family concerns (you can leave for two months — you’ll be back); career concerns (you don’t even like your job, why are you afraid to leave it?).

Although the leap to make many dreams real isn’t too big, most people will never jump. Be in the minority that does — make the leap.

Grinnell Lake, Glacier National Park

2. All the worrying most people do is baseless — it’s your adventure, not theirs

Had I listened to everyone who said, “you’d be nuts to go to _____, it’s dangerous there!” my trip would have lasted three weeks instead of three months. The warnings came in from all directions — family members, locals with an opinion, the news. Ethanol content in Midwestern gasoline is too high; it’ll kill your motor! Williston, ND is full of murderers and rapists. Detroit is more dangerous than Mexico. Watch out for banditos in Arizona. Southerners will run you New Yorkers off the road. Bad shit happens, but in no way is it likely to happen. It’s important to mitigate obvious risks by traveling with companions, packing the right supplies, and checking weather reports (lest you have a scrape with a flash flood). However, don’t be curtailed by other people’s fears unless they are remarkably well informed (which is rarely the case).

A perch high above Canyonlands National Park in Southern Utah

3. The wealth of protected American land extends far beyond National Parks

Everyone knows about National Parks, the crown jewels of the American conservation movement. Less known are the millions and millions of acres of pristine land preserved in national forests, national monuments (think canyons, not Washington, DC), and recreation areas. Places like Glen Canyon (UT), the Black Hills (SD), and the Sierras (CA). And let’s not forget the additional places protected by state and local governments — for example, the Adirondacks and unadulterated stretches of the Pacific Coast. Any traveler would be remiss to draw the line at National Parks.

Sunrise in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation area on the Tennessee-Kentucky border

4. Starting to live simply is easy; staying simple is hard; but the longer you stay simple, the less you come to need

It’s easy to adapt to having less (especially if you have no alternative); what’s hard is maintaining your simpler life when confronted with the expensive, convenient lifestyles of others — gorgeous houses, comfortable cars, hot water all day everyday. That’s what I meant when, one month ago, I wrote, “starting to live simply is easy. Staying simple is hard.”
I found that the lesson doesn’t end there. It’s not just that staying simple gets easier, but that the simplicity curve is sort of exponential — every consecutive day that you live without creature comforts, the number of comforts you rely on will decrease dramatically. For example: after Day 1, you might realize that you can shower once a day rather than twice. After day 2, you might realize that you can wear the same shorts two days in a row and eat a cold breakfast. After day 3, you might prefer answering emails and text messages just once each day, and eating soup straight from the can is just fine, and one pillow for sleeping is such a luxury (you used to needtwo). Your ability to adapt accelerates with every consecutive day lived simply.

Waking up in Badlands NP

5. All it takes to really “get away” is 2 or 3 days

“I need at least a week. Anything less and it doesn’t feel like I got away.” That’s what I used to say about vacations. I must have been going to the wrong places, doing the wrong things. Any block of 2 or 3 days from my trip would have been the best two or three days of my post-college years. Anywhere in the country, you’re only a few hours (on two lane roads, of course) and a couple of days from a new adventure.

6. Hypothesis confirmed: two-lane roads > highways

The beauty of any community is in the details — the mom and pop diners and hardware stores; the seventy five square foot post office next to the town pool; the different varieties of recreational vehicles that dot yards all over the country. Those details aren’t visible when you’re going ninety miles per hour in the middle lane of some massive highway. No matter where you’re going, there is usually a two-lane alternative to interstates, and it will almost always weave its way through miles of Americana that highways do not.

You do not get scenes like this on interstate highways

7. Stretches of emptiness abound all across America, and no two are the same

I explored this idea a bit in a post I wrote after one month on the road, and I feel even more strongly about it two months later. The vast majority of America is wide open, and every stretch has characteristics that don’t exist anywhere else. I was most surprised by the high desert in eastern Washington, and the unexpectedly lush mountains and meadows interspersed between red rock deserts in south central Utah.

Country roads in South Dakota
Open road en route to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim in the Arizona Triangle

8. No matter where you are you can find both likeminded and people who seem totally crazy

Back in July, I wrote about the prevalence of Republicans in Colorado, which I wrongly assumed was a hippy state through and through. The lesson I learned from Colorado holds in general: no matter where you are there will always be people whose beliefs fall on either side of the spectrums of politics, religion, and pretty much anything else.

This story sums it up well: I worried for weeks about how Southerners would react to my New York license plates. Yet, when I finally drove through the Deep South in late August and early September, the people I met were nothing but nice. In fact, the only time I was called a Yankee was in the place I least expected it: Portland, Oregon. Are you kidding? I never would have predicted that.

9. On the road, there is strength in numbers

It’s more than the idea that experiences are best when shared with others (though I subscribe to that belief bit time). It’s the idea that testing one’s comfort zone — exploring back roads; swimming, climbing and hiking in unknown places; visiting the rough parts of a new city — is easier in the company of other people. They are a safety net if anything goes wrong, and they will (hopefully) keep you from doing anything too crazy. I would never have driven down as many dead end dirt roads or grabbed a stool at so many local watering holes had I been traveling alone. Maybe I’m weak; but if I’m weak in this sense, then so are most people. Travel with company — you’ll experience so much more.

Lumberyarding in NorCal

10. Confirmed: pickup trucks are the most popular class of automobile in the USA

I’ve always been aware of the sales figures indicating that in the USA pickup trucks outsell every other class of vehicle. However, it’s one thing to say and another thing to see. Beyond the outer rings of our cities, America remains a land of the working man (and woman), and pick up trucks — able to navigate rough roads, weather different climates, and carry heavy tools — are America’s vehicle. I ate at several diners where my Chevy Suburban was the smallest vehicle in the parking lot, dwarfed by F-250s and F-350s.

11. For 99% of people, itinerant living will get old after some number of months (though that number is different for everyone)

Drive down the California coast and you’ll meet people who’ve been traveling their whole lives. I used to think they were enlightened, that they’d found something that would appeal to the rest of us if we would just give it a try. Having given nomadic living a try, however, I learned not that they had found some universal nirvana, but that their tolerance for constant movement is exceptional. Most of us will tire of traveling after a certain point. For me, that point was about two months. Judging from theare you coming home yet’s that I heard over and over again from friends and family after the one month mark, most people would prefer less than that.

RV living on the Oregon coast

12. Nothing gets random people in any bar, anywhere, talking like a road trip

If you ever on the road and want a dose of local culture, ask a local what the most popular bar in town is, go there, and mention to the bar tender that you’re on a road trip. People will line up to hear about your route and what you’ve seen, and they’ll be eager to share their own stories. This happened everywhere: Minnesota, Idaho, California, Louisiana, the list goes on…

13. Life goes on in your absence

When I returned to Manhattan in late September I found that New York City, and my minuscule sphere within it, had persisted unchanged. Friends I hoped would leave the jobs they hated are still in them; most people had a “normal” Summer and were looking forward to a “normal” Fall. Embarking on an adventure will change you. However, while you’re out driving American roads (or cycling around the world like this badass Englishmaneveryone you know will continue to live life as usual.

14. As hard as it is for city folks, particularly those from the BosWash corridor (i.e. the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and DC metro areas), to believe, there are millions of people who want to live as far away from big cities as possible

The distance between towns (and, in some instances, between houses) in places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, southern Utah, eastern Washington, and southwestern Kansas is shocking. Nearly every day I passed through a town that made me wonder, out of curiosity, not arrogance, “why would anyone want to live here.” In any one of these towns, most of the residents were born either in town or nearby; they love life for what it is in that slow, simple (in my eyes) place; and no matter how befuddling it might seem (cue the Tupac), “that’s just the way it is.”

15. There will always be more to see

Eighty days on the road seems like forever, but it’s a blink in comparison to the time it would take to really get to know America. Even if I had traveled twenty five percent longer, for a hundred days, I would still have had only two days for every state. It would take a lifetime to really see everything in any one state, let alone the entire country. What a gift: there will always be more to see.

The view from High Dune, 600 feet above the valley floor at Colorado’s (yes, this is Colorado) Great Sand Dunes NP
This article also appears on Medium and is published here with the permission of the author

 

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Written by Aaron Flack

Founder @ Gravy. Occasional freelance writer. ex-consultant @ Bain.

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