Road-tripping solo: The joys and pitfalls

My trip by the numbers

Days on the road: 15

Total miles: 5,275

Traveled through: 9 U.S. states, 1 Canadian province

Temperature range: 46° F (East Glacier, Montana) to 101° F (Cheyenne, Wyoming; Williston, North Dakota; Pueblo, Colorado)

Thunderstorms: 3 (Spiritwood, North Dakota; La Junta, Colorado; Santa Fe, New Mexico)

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Driving into an intense thunderstorm on I-94 east of Jamestown, ND

Speeding tickets: 1 (Glendive, Montana, Highway 16)

Construction zones: 1 billion 🙂

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One of dozens of similar stops along the way – the most annoying aspect of road-tripping in the summer

In July 2016, I embarked on my longest solo road trip to date. While I had put in more than 3,000 miles in September 2015 on a trip from Arizona to Northern California, this year I was setting my sights even farther.

Glacier National Park in Montana had long been on my “must” list. Even though I had grown up in border-state North Dakota and had visited the nearby Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks numerous times, I had never made it to Glacier.

A quick look at a map shows that the Arizona-to-Montana route is an intimidating one. It reaches from nearly as far south as you can get in the U.S. to almost as far north. And knowing that I would be doing most of the driving by myself, I spent months gearing up – thinking about what I would need to make the trip easier, and plotting my route.

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Now home, I have 15 days and more than 5,200 miles under my belt. That gives me a pretty good idea of what is amazing about being alone in a car for hours on end, and what can become almost intolerable. Here are some of the major highs and lows of road-tripping alone.

Joy:

Over-pack if you want. You have the whole car all to yourself! This luxury of space allowed me to pack a separate bag for a quasi-dressy outfit for the high-school reunion I was attending in North Dakota, as well as another bag for hiking in Glacier National Park and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. For me, that meant being able to pack my heavy-duty hiking boots, as well as my much more comfy Chacos hiking sandals. And believe me – with the extreme temperature variations I experienced along my route (see above) – I also was happy to have an assortment of hoodies, sweatshirts, tank tops, and flip-flops on hand. An added benefit of traveling alone: No raised eyebrows when you leave the house lugging a rolling bag, a computer bag, an overnight bag, two coolers, and three hiking backpacks.

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My car as I was starting out

Pitfall:

No one to help you get all of your gear to your room and back into the car. On one of my first stops at Glacier Park Lodge, I made the mistake of carrying multiple bags to my room on the third floor – not realizing that the historic lodge wasn’t equipped with elevators. Beautiful, yes; convenient, no. I ended up making multiple trips up and down the narrow staircases, lugging my bags.

Joy:

No one to blame but yourself. I realize this could be a joy or a pitfall. For me, it was mostly a joy, because it meant freedom to screw up, and not get that judgmental look that the directionally gifted can bestow on the directionally challenged. Because I freely admit: I somehow missed out on the “compass gene.” My iPhone, with its Apple and Google maps, has helped dramatically to level the playing field. Still, I can take a wrong turn out of a restaurant parking lot that I entered just minutes before, or forget the way back to my hotel multiple times. I’ve learned through the years that getting lost is always fixable; it just requires a deep breath and an acceptance of some wasted travel time.

Pitfall:

That said, I must admit that sometimes when traveling alone, I have longed for some basic travel input: Is this detour worth it? Should we stop at this overlook, or wait for the next one? Could Apple Maps possibly be right when it appears so wrong? Even though I depend heavily on my iPhone, I do miss having a real-life navigator in the car.

Joy:

Audio books. This might be the solo road-tripping tip to beat all others. As anyone who has traveled across the country knows, the car radio has its limitations. Even if you have satellite radio, which I didn’t on this trip, the choices can get boring and repetitive. And opting to depend on the regional radio stations is almost hopeless, unless you enjoy an endless stream of country-western music. (Yes, Blake, I KNOW she’s got a way with words. Clever, but a little mean!) Audio books, on the other hand, can take you all sorts of places while you’re going places. On this trip, I listened to four books – two novels, and two non-fiction books. I went everywhere from Scotland’s Loch Ness during World War II (At the Water’s Edge) to Arizona’s Red Lake during World War I (Half-Broke Horses). Of course, you could just as easily listen to audio books if you’re traveling with someone else as when you’re traveling alone. But I’m not sure everyone would have indulged me in the 13 hours of “Franklin and Winston” – an intimate portrait of the friendship of FDR and Winston Churchill. Sometimes a little dry, but it got me through some long nights in Utah and Wyoming!

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Electronics and audio books make all the difference!

Pitfall:

All of the driving falls to you. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but it’s not that easy being behind the wheel 10, 12 hours a day without a break. For about 500 miles through Montana, my son joined me on my road trip, and it was such a luxury to be able to sit in the passenger seat, watching the rivers, trees, and ranchland flash by.

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My son and me after our long trip through Montana

Joy:

You set the agenda. Although I love taking trips with my family and friends, it IS sometimes nice to do just what YOU want to do. Because one of my joys is taking back-road photos, a solo trip gives me the chance to stop frequently. On this trip, that meant that if I saw a field of wildflowers, I could veer sharply right onto the next overlook. And if another vehicle was in the way of my perfect shot? No problem; I just waited. It also meant that I could get as many shots as I wanted of the never-ending road. Especially in Montana, where there was little other traffic, I stopped many times and ventured into the middle of the road. I know it soaked up a ridiculous amount of time, but who cared but me?

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Wildflower stop #18?

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Wildflower stop #24?

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Open road shot, # who knows? 🙂

Thankfully, my road trip was virtually trouble-free. I didn’t have to face the trauma of car trouble, and I didn’t have any accidents – both of which would be magnified for a solo traveler. Overall, I enjoyed a good 4,999 miles of my trip – with the notable exception of those one billion road-construction zones.

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