In the summer of 2015, I packed up my 2009 Nissan Pathfinder with a month’s worth of supplies and drove a loop around the country by myself… well, mostly by myself (I’ll get to that detail later.)
What was originally a casual discussion of potential plans amongst some friends and I, then became, “I’m just going to do it by myself.” At that time I had just discovered Erin Sullivan (aka Erinoutdoors; link to her blog here) on Instagram and was inspired by her recalling sleeping in her car and solo traveling around the country. My strong urge to go on a road trip combined with a little motivation to, “do something that scares you every day,” and boom. A solo cross country road trip was in my metaphorical planner.
The time between when I decided I was going and the day I left was frustrating and very silly for me. My parents took some convincing, but I pulled the old, “I’m an adult and I can do what I want.” After that, I got a lecture almost every day from my father in which he wanted me to reconsider but I said no. Of course because of this, the closer I got to the day I would leave, the more I wanted it. Naturally, I also had to tell a lot of my regular massage therapy clients why I would be gone for an entire month.
Most people felt a combination of emotions including fear, confusion, disapproval, jealousy, excitement for me… but mostly confusion. Most people just wanted to know, “why?” But the funny thing is that I never really had a straight answer. Looking back, I didn’t actually know why. I knew that I wanted to travel, that I missed seeing mountains, and also that I was ready.
I was ready.
People say that after college, you’re in “real life.” It’s mostly “adult stuff.” Well, I had ditched my college education for a massage therapy license. The education I went through for said license blended seamlessly well into the time that I would have started my fourth year of college. So, I guess that after massage therapy school, I figured I was done. I had moved on from the education phase of my life and into the “adulting” phase. I was working 5 days a week, nearly full time. I was making enough money to consider moving out and going on to do… adult stuff?
So, as a 22 year old girl who had big dreams of moving out of New Jersey, it makes sense now looking back why I made such a bold move. I was ready to move out of my parents house and do adult stuff, but I didn’t know where I would go. So, on the surface this trip was an attempt to put out some feelers.
But why alone? Why not bring friends or family, or even my boyfriend (who was dying to come, mind you.) To me, it was about having the ability to write my own story.
I wanted to write the book.
I didn’t want to cater to someone else’s wants or needs. I wanted to be the one to decide when I stopped and when I went the extra mile. I didn’t want to compromise and make plans to visit places that I had 0 interest in seeing. With that being said, I wanted to be the one who called the shots, and if anything was lame or lousy, no one would suffer because of me.
I craved the freedom. I also was eager to push myself far outside of my comfort zone. I thought it was shameful to be afraid of being alone- I wanted to overcome that, and stand up to say that I did it and I survived. Hell, maybe I even enjoyed it a little bit. I wanted to prove to myself and anyone who doubted me, that I, a girl, was strong enough in every way to do something like drive myself around the country.
The other big thing for me was feeling like I was independent from the help of a boyfriend, brother or father. I identified that I had a habit of looking to certain male figures in my life for assistance when it came to my car, or my money, doing heavy lifting, having safety or taking control of tiresome situations. I thought I was ready to put myself in a place where I needed to step up and be strong and in control. That meaning that if I fucked up, I had to manage and not pass the torch over to someone else.
I wanted to learn from my own mistakes.
It’s intense being alone and existing outside of your bubble, especially if you’re a young girl. During that trip, I felt that intensity especially in moments of weakness. When it was getting dark and I didn’t know where I was going to sleep at night. When I was at a sketchy gas station and men were oogling and cat calling me (with my New Jersey license plates.) Having driven for nearly 8 hours, crying exasperatedly at the wheel out of anxiety and exhaust.
I feel that I could confidently and honestly say that the trip was more stressful and tiresome for me than it was exhilarating and life changing. Sure, my takeaways include a lot of logistical information on how to plan a road trip and what to pack. But more so I learned a lot about asking for help. I learned about truly knowing myself and listening to my body.
I learned about the strength that it takes to accept defeat.
I was on the returning route home, when I hit a figurative wall. The last state I planned to really spend time in was Colorado. I got to Estes Park, which is a town right outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. I booked two nights at two different campgrounds within the park, but for some reason I really craved the security of a hotel room. By the time I got to some random hotel, Best Western or something, I was in flat out fight or flight mode.
The 40 minutes I spent waiting for a hotel room to be ready were some of the most anxious and uncomfortable moments of my life. I paced around the hotel property, calling my parents and my boyfriend; I couldn’t make sense of my thoughts. I suddenly realized that I was very far away from home and I had a long way to go. I cried, I felt like I was going to shit myself or puke. I didn’t know what to do with my body. When I got into the room, I sobbed and sobbed. Tired was an understatement.
My parents could fortunately afford to buy a (very) last minute plane ticket to fly my boyfriend to St. Louis, Missouri. We all agreed that I would do the last 48 hours of driving from Estes Park to St. Louis, where I would pick him up and he would take some of the load. End of the story is that he essentially overnight shipped me back home, driving across 4 states within less than 24 hours. He then went to work the next morning.
It’s incredibly frustrating when people walk away from all of this saying, “the moral of the story is that you shouldn’t travel.” After all of the emotional, terrible feelings that I endured on that road trip, I still encourage anyone to travel solo at least once.
What did I learn from all of it? First, something like driving across the country by yourself is not guaranteed to make you a different person overnight. My dad and I jokingly had a conversation before I left that I would “be a different person” when I got back, and part of me kind of believed it. But I wasn’t. I was the same stubborn 22 year old girl except I was more drained than I had ever been in my entire life. I was also angry. I felt embarrassed and ashamed for giving up. I thought that people would judge me for needing help and breaking down. I felt that I had hyped it all up, only to come back with my tail between my legs saying, “I couldn’t do it.”
In the end, I did need help from my parents and my boyfriend. I still struggle with asking for help and swallowing my pride, but this trip taught me a lot about why it’s important to accept help when help is needed. Plus, I did learn from my mistakes after all. I learned that assuming I was capable of driving hours and hours, day after day, without mentally breaking down was wrong. I also learned that having company from others is sometimes so necessary. Seeing beautiful things and having amazing experiences is only elevated when you are sharing it with someone else.
To me, I didn’t walk away from my road trip with a golden sash that says, “strong and independent woman.” Instead I got a sash that says something like, “sometimes falls down really hard but gets back up and finds the silver lining… and also is a woman.”
In a perfect world, we would take on these big projects or ideas, and things would fall through so seamlessly. Then the lessons at hand would be displayed in gold lettering, nicely written out for you to comprehend. But most of the time, from my own experience, life is never really linear. Things are messy; some pieces fall and get completely lost and other pieces you can catch and cling to forever.
What matters at the end of the day is how you choose to perceive any given situation.
I choose to let all of this be a positive lesson for me. I hold up these things that I do see as failures in a positive light. Don’t let downfalls stay downfalls. You have the choice. So in the end, I continue to write the story. I choose not to let it end as a tragedy. What are you choosing to take control of your perspective of yourself?