9 things I wish I knew before embarking on a 6-month road trip

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15 years ago my husband Dave and I lived in Estes Park, Colorado, a quaint mountain town just minutes from the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. For all its beauty and access to nature, living full-time in a tiny tourist town deep in the mountains has its downsides.

There was little work at Estes Park so we faced long drives down the hill. After our long days we were too tired to enjoy our mountain community and we began to long for a fresh start.

With no kids, no pets, and with a decent balance in our savings account, we decided to put away most of our worldly possessions, packed our trusty Toyota Echo with camping gear and everything we thought we might need, and headed for a 6th… -month-long adventure with the goal of discovering our next hometown before the money runs out.

For six glorious months we explored off-the-beaten-track roads, met the locals, hiked miles of trails, sampled the local cuisine, then tired of our tent and the occasional each other, started to miss cooking in our own kitchens, and slowly looked up run out of money. At the end of the trip, we settled happily in Missoula, Montana, winner of our next hometown contest.

Despite all the challenges and even after all these years, we often reminisce about our great adventure. As we approach retirement age, our fond memories of the journey intertwine with dreams to do it again and do it even better, knowing now what we didn’t know then.

Grand Canyon National Park

Photo credit: Dave Wall

1. Budget for a plan change

Planning is a fun part of any trip and helps build the excitement. But if you plan several months in advance, many of those plans will inevitably change, causing unexpected expenses. I don’t blame us for, for example, leaving a deposit at campsites that we knew would be full when we arrived.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the unexpected cold front that arrived at Grand Canyon National Park at the same time as us. Despite several miserable nights at the campsite, and despite frozen faces and frozen water bottles, we were reluctant to give up our tent and pay for a hotel room. We finally broke down on day four, but I would have felt better if we had put some money aside for these kinds of changes to our plan.

Acadia National Park in Maine

Acadia National Park in Maine

Photo credit: Dave Wall

2. Mother Nature has her own itinerary

When our plans changed, it was often because of the weather. We were all camped in Shenandoah National Park. We spent most of the day doing laundry, so we were ready to relax the rest of the evening and watch the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains while we planned our hike for the next day. Out of nowhere came the most violent storm I have ever experienced.

We took a minute to consider our options and soon found that our tent wasn’t room to wait it out. We had just enough time to throw our clean laundry in the car and race down the hill to the next town, all the while crossing our fingers that lightning wouldn’t hit the car. When we returned the next morning we found our tent flooded and our supplies soaked. Hiking plans had to be put on hold as we spent the day in a hotel room while our tent dried in the sun.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

Photo credit: Dave Wall

3. Having alone time is not a sign that our marriage is falling apart

One of the best parts of this journey was sharing it with Dave, but that didn’t mean we had to spend every minute together. Between our tiny car and our tiny tent, we always stood by each other. No matter who you’re traveling with and how well you get along, this lack of alone time is bound to create friction. Of course we wanted to experience everything together, but I think we also worried that spending time apart is a sign that we’re getting tired of each other.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to take the time to do each one their own thing, whether it’s finding a quiet place to read or touring a museum your traveling companion doesn’t care about. As they say, absence makes the heart beat faster.

Colter Bay Campground, Grand Teton National Park

Colter Bay Campground, Grand Teton National Park

Photo credit: Dave Wall

4. Rest days are essential

I’m the type of person who likes to fill every day with activities on vacation. That’s fine for a shorter trip, but I was beginning to realize that this holiday was different. My body and mind got tired from being on the go all the time. As the journey progressed, we proactively planned days where we would just sit next to the tent and read or watch movies in the comfort of a hotel room all day.

Looking back, I don’t feel like we missed anything or the trip didn’t live up to our expectations because of those rest days. They just gave us time to regroup mentally and physically so we could jump back on the road with excitement.

5. The importance of focusing on self-care

In addition to establishing rest days, we also had to make an effort to take better care of ourselves. Many days we spent hours in the car and many nights we spent in a dusty tent. Neither of us were ever very good at cooking at camp, so we ate out a lot, which meant heavy meals and often unfamiliar and unhealthy foods.

I was starting to feel tired like I had an idea. We should have been proactive to take better care of ourselves. Take time for a walk. Drink plenty of water. Of course, sampling the local cuisine is fun, but meals of seared catfish and bison chili are balanced with the occasional salad or a visit to the local farmers’ market for fresh fruit and vegetables.

6. Nobody cared how we looked

Before embarking on our trip, I was reading a book written by a woman who had been traveling in an RV with her husband for a year, and she had mentioned that she had brought a few outfits that needed dry cleaning. I thought that was a bit extreme, but then I brought some “nicer” outfits with me in case we wanted to spend a night on the town.

These items of clothing inevitably never left the suitcase. We rarely went anywhere that I felt like we needed to get dressed, and even if we did, what if we went to a nice restaurant in jeans and t-shirts? Nobody cared. Pack enough clothes so that you only need to do laundry once a week, and make sure those clothes are comfortable and can be thrown in the washing machine without any problems.

Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park

Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park

Photo credit: Dave Wall

7. I would like a record of our trip

In the beginning, when everything was new, Dave and I kept journals and diligently recorded the events of the day. Then we slowly stopped taking our time and went for weeks without opening the magazines. Then we stopped altogether. I regret that. Of course we have our memories and photos together, but nothing that documents how we felt every day, the challenges we faced and the adventures we had.

Even if you’re not disciplined enough to do it every day, set aside time once a week to jot down a journal, type a log on your laptop, or even record a message on your phone. It will give you a valuable record of your journey to look back on for years to come.

Waterfall in Watkins Glen State Park in New York

Waterfall in Watkins Glen State Park in New York

Photo credit: Dave Wall

8. Always ask a local

We spent months planning this trip, scouring websites, ordering guidebooks and collecting glossy brochures. We assumed that we knew everything about what to see and do in each of our destinations. We quickly learned that there is no substitute for a local resident’s inside knowledge.

The focus of our stop in Watkins Glen, New York was to explore the incredible Watkins Glen State Park and its numerous waterfalls. While we were in town talking to the bartender at Rooster Fish Brewing, we learned that the surrounding Finger Lakes region is also famous for its wineries. We quickly added another day to our itinerary and spent it wine tasting. Take the time to politely chat with locals. You’ll find them excited to share their hometown’s treasures with respectful tourists.

Quebec

Quebec

Photo credit: Dave Wall

9. Great rewards came when we stepped out of our comfort zones

We remember many of the mundane details of our journey, but the times we look back on with the greatest fondness are when we put ourselves in an unfamiliar situation or faced a fear. We forgot our seasickness caused by huge ocean waves when humpback whales swam under our boat during a cruise with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. We enjoyed the most delicious meal of our trip in Quebec City despite having to order from menus in our broken French. Zion National Park wouldn’t have been so memorable if we hadn’t overcome our fear of heights to hike the Observation Point Trail along the cliffs.

Looking back, there are definitely things I would change if I went on another trip, but I don’t regret a moment.

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