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Miles and Memories: 4 Lessons Learned During Back-to-Back Cross-Country Road Trips

Miles and Memories: 4 Lessons Learned During Back-to-Back Cross-Country Road Trips

By Annie Seekins

In April 2022, my partner and I set out for the first of two cross-country road trips we would make last year. 27 states, 7,000+ miles, and one big loop around the U.S. Our decision to drive from Arizona to Maine and back again came about as our summer filled up with family events and milestones we didn’t want to miss. Faced with several months of family time and our pick of either driving a few thousand miles or bouncing between our respective childhood bedrooms, bringing our home along seemed the obvious choice. 

Aside from plans to see a few people along the way and our deadline of making it to a wedding, very little of our trip was planned out in advance. Whether this was due to confidence in our ability to wing it or logistical oversights, I honestly couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is that a few years of living both in a van and out of a backpack has given the two of us a lot of trust that some things will just work out. 

Three years ago, traveling without a solid plan would have been impossible for my nerves to handle. Navigating life on the road changed that. Our lifestyle has tested us and taught us one lesson after another, and four months spent driving across the country highlighted a few core ones.

Be flexible and allow time to be spontaneous.

Allowing flexibility in our route and time spent in each area is one of the earliest lessons we learned during our cross-country trips. We had a deadline to reach Maine for a wedding, so on our drive north this mostly played out as an extra night or two at a site when we came across an area we wanted to explore, as well as a last-minute reroute through northern Texas to visit a friend. 

Our second trip was another story. We left New England in late summer with our only plan being to stay ahead of the cold as we made our way back to the southwest. Every week or so I looked up things to see and do in the general direction we were heading. I can’t stress the “general” part of that enough, as our only rule was “no backtracking.” Each time we found ourselves debating whether something was worth driving to go see, one of us would inevitably say “well, we might as well while we’re here,” and with a shrug of agreement we’d change course again.

This “why not?” approach led us to new peaks in the Adirondack Mountains, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, an afternoon at Niagara Falls, and a loop through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, perfectly timed for a hike in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore during near peak foliage. Aside from hiking in the Adirondacks, the rest of these were things we might never have made a special trip to go see. Incorporating them into a drive we were making anyway was perfect for us.

Slow down.

One of the biggest lessons we learned is to simply slow down. Sometimes this meant taking a few extra days at unexpectedly wonderful campsites. Other times it meant sitting on the van’s side step, our “front porch” as we like to call it, to enjoy a cup of coffee before a long day of driving. It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to make good time when we have somewhere to be, but with our home and our vehicle being one and the same, long-distance travel doesn’t have to be so stressful. 

Intentionally slowing down and giving ourselves ample time to get to know different areas has opened us up to so much beauty in places that would have been easy to drive straight through without a second thought. For our first drive across the U.S. last year, we gave ourselves three weeks to get from southern Arizona to coastal Maine. We arrived with only two days to spare, due largely to spending almost a full week in one dispersed campsite we fell in love with as soon as we pulled in. 

Balance work and play.

Like many full-time van lifers, my partner and I are able to live the way we do because both of us have been self-employed for a while now. It’s an incredible privilege to have the level of flexibility this affords, but the flip side is that it can be difficult to fully disconnect when we step away from work. 

Last fall we took a meandering route through Utah to see how many national parks and monuments we could visit before nights got too cold in the van. Up until this point we had both been trying to maintain consistent workloads with varying degrees of success. The time we spent exploring the parks always came with the expectation that the following day would be a workday. 

After a day hike in Canyonlands NP where our conversation was dominated by talk of which nearby campsites would be best for working, we decided we needed a change. In most of our time on the road we had been treating our stops as breaks from work and driving. We were several thousand miles into the kind of road trip some people only dream about and we weren’t even fully present.

That week we agreed to wrap up the work we had and not take on any new projects until we reached the Arizona border. This was the first time in the van that we took what was essentially a week and a half vacation to focus on nothing but exploring new places. Carving out time to enjoy this side of van life renewed our appreciation for it immensely.

Practice gratitude.

Is this an obvious one? Maybe, but it is one of the most important. Living in a van comes with so many trade-offs. Without a conscious effort to see the good in the situation, the downsides quickly become reasons to call it quits.

Both my partner and I have had days where we’ve been at our wits’ end with our living situation. There were moments on our road trip we wondered why we’re still doing this, why haven’t we bought a house or land yet. Spending a few consecutive days stuck inside a 6’ x 9’ bedroom/office/kitchen with a significant other due to inclement weather is an easy way to make a small space feel a lot smaller.

In moments like that, it all comes down to keeping things in perspective and knowing that the grass might not actually be greener on the other side. When our life looked more traditional it was a tease to get to the mountains only on the weekends. Traveling to new places beyond a day’s drive required time off from work and maybe a flight as well. We used to dream about seeing more of the U.S. like this. Now that we’re here, I don’t want to take it for granted. 

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