Earlier this year, 25-year-old Caitlin Rush found herself heartbroken after a long-time relationship ended. Like anyone, she allowed for a few days to wallow in her sorrow (we've all been there, Caitlin!), then decided to take that epic road trip she and her ex had always talked about. Caitlin explains how she planned her epic drive from DC to Seattle and back, working remotely, making friends in new cities, plus all the great food she discovered crossing the good ol' USA.
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Molly: Why did you drive cross-country alone?
Caitlin: I initially had the idea to do a cross-country road trip after going through a pretty bad breakup. I was rattled to say the least. I had been involved with the guy I was dating for all of my adult-life and suddenly he was no longer a part of it.
Doing a trip similar to the one I ended up taking was something he and I had talked about. One day it dawned on me that there was absolutely no reason I couldn’t still do this trip on my own. The next day when I looked up prices on monthly, unlimited-mileage rental cars (I don’t own a car), I was shocked at how reasonable the cost was and decided I was going all in.
By the time the actual trip rolled around I was in a much, much better place concerning the breakup. It really turned into this wonderful opportunity for me to do something outside of my comfort zone and entirely for me. It’s also pretty empowering to tackle something so seemingly daunting on your own!
Molly: How did you prepare differently for this trip, knowing you would be alone?
Caitlin: I’m a big planner in general, I joked that I may be the most type-A person to ever do a trip like this, but I definitely planned even a little more knowing I would be alone. I booked all hotels/Air BnBs/couch crashing/etc. in advance when I might have left a little more up to chance had I had a companion.
I also was pretty diligent about planning my route and making sure I wouldn’t be driving more than eight hours in a single day, given that I would be doing ALL of the driving. No cat naps in the passenger seat for me.
Did you plan to stop along the way?
Absolutely! When planning my routes/stops I started with places I’ve always wanted to go and cities where friends and family who I rarely get to see have moved. Once I had those anchor points, I filled in with places that were along the way and seemed interesting that would help keep me within my eight-hour driving limit. In the end, some of those stop over cities ended up being my favorite points on the trip.
What music/podcasts/books/entertainment pulled you through?
I’m a huge music fan and absolutely love making playlists so I made a TON of them on Spotify for different moods, portions of the trip, etc. I Lived by OneRepublic sort of became my anthem for the trip. No matter what mood I was in, it was a great pick me up.
In addition to music, I got hooked on a few podcasts – including Go Fork Yourself (how I ended up discovering this blog!). Other podcasts I highly, highly recommend are Upvoted by reddit, BuzzFeed’s Internet Explorer, Bon Appetit Foodcast, and Stuff You Should Know.
Lastly, I listened to a few audiobooks, my favorite of which was If This Isn’t Nice, What Is, a collection of graduation speeches by Kurt Vonnegut. Though this wasn’t a graduation trip, the themes and messages throughout his speeches really resonated with me, particularly the book’s namesake. Vonnegut’s uncle always made sure to take the time to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” even during the most simple pleasures. Having this mentality definitely helped me appreciate the trip more.
I always worry about falling asleep at the wheel. How did you take care of yourself physically and mentally?
Like I mentioned above, I planned my trip to avoid driving more than eight hours on any one day, and I also did my best to drive during the daylight. I learned my lesson fairly early on in the trip, while driving from New Orleans to Austin, that as bad as you may want to get to the next destination, stopping to stretch and eat is imperative to keeping yourself in a good place on the road.
Physically, I did my best to incorporate exercise into my trip, keeping it fun – walking around the cities I stopped in, going on hikes and even kayaking.
What ended up being more difficult than expected? Less difficult?
Overall, the trip ended up being WAY easier than I ever could have hoped or imagined. Things went so well throughout the trip that I was convinced the car was going to erupt in flames as I drove it back to the rental company in D.C. Something HAD to go wrong, right?
I never got overwhelmed with homesickness or loneliness as I expected to, though working while on the road (I’m fortunate to have a job and a boss who let me do this while working) did present some unique challenges. Setting 6 a.m. alarms for conference calls while on the west coast and discovering that surprisingly vast sections of the country doesn’t have cell service wasn’t ideal, but all-in-all, not bad.
Scariest moment of the adventure? Most rewarding?
As I mentioned previously, the trip really could not have gone better. I was blessed with great weather, no car troubles and no other mishaps along the way.
The few times I did feel even a twinge of discomfort were when I got to Austin, the first stop where I was really on my own and staying in an AirBnB, when I realized I was totally alone in a new city in someone else’s house. Another time was driving into Santa Fe, when I was the only car in site, miles from the last sign of civilization and without cell service. That would have been a REALLY crappy time for the car to break down.
The most rewarding part of the trip is simply being able to say that I did it – I drove across the country and back, 7,477 miles, all by myself. That’s pretty damn cool.
Another rewarding aspect of the adventure was the people I got to meet. When you travel alone I think you give off a certain energy that attracts people to you. You’re so much more open to new conversations and opportunities and you meet the BEST people because of it.
Did you have a moment when you said to yourself, “Wow, I am a lot stronger/braver than I thought I was!”
Constantly! I would never have put myself in the camp of people who could drive across the country alone, go out to eat alone, start up conversations with strangers alone – really, any of the things I did all the time throughout the trip. I expected to have a breakdown at some point where I would just be over it, want to be home, and feel overwhelmed by the road still ahead. But that never happened! I was so excited for each stop along the way and I was really living in the moment.
Best road trip food?
There is so. much. great food in this country! I definitely ate my way across America. I tried not to snack in the car too much, saving my calories for checking out restaurants along the way – and I left no meal behind. The best single dish I had was at Tinderbox Kitchen in Flagstaff, AZ. It was pork belly with and apple compote and blue cheese grits, and it was PHENOMENAL.
Other standouts were the grilled oysters at Acme in New Orleans, everything at Franklin Barbeque in Austin, the quiche at Maurice in Portland, the roast pig at Terra Plata in Seattle, and the duck wings at Linger in Denver.
Advice for someone, especially a woman, planning a cross-country road trip?
Don’t let yourself stand in your own way. Just because something seems daunting or scary or out of your wheelhouse doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I often repeated to myself throughout the trip: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you drive across the country? One mile at a time.”
More practical advice I got from others before my trip and learned along the way:
- Choose some sort of theme to string your trip together and help narrow down where you will go.
- Stay at a mix of hotels, AirBnBs, and friends’ places. Being able to do things as mundane as laundry and cooking at AirBnBs along the way really helped ground me.
- Get AAA. Get AAA. Get AAA.
- Fork over the $10/month for premium Spotify, make amazing playlists and save them for offline mode on your phone so no matter what cell service is like you can rock out.
- Keep a journal or record of your trip to help you reflect throughout and to have something to look back on.
- Make sure at least one person has a list of all the places you’re staying and when you’ll be there.
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Thanks for sharing your awesome story, Caitlin!
As you may or may not know, I am currently loving traveling the great United States. Here's a few of my favorite destinations: the beeyoutiful Grand Canyon (seriously, go now! What are you waiting for? It's awesome!), Palm Springs, and who can forget the crazy road trip my hubby and I recently took to Vermont?
PS Here's another great story in solo lady travel.