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Solo Travel: Is it Possible to Drive Cross Country by Yourself?

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Heavy fog blankets the Pacific coastline in Big Sur California

Melinda was afraid.  On the cusp of embarking on her gargantuan solo travel cross country road trip, she and I are emailing furiously, running down the list of typical “what if” questions:  What if my car breaks down?  What if I get lost?  What if I get mugged?  We spent weeks putting together a plan for her road trip, and now that it’s finally time to go, she’s understandably nervous.  After all, it’s not every day that you undertake a 7,000 mile road trip by yourself!

Melinda first emailed me back in April of 2019, asking for some basic guidance on travelling back roads on an upcoming road trip out West.  This was before I offered the “Plan My Road Trip” service, of course… it was the experience of planning her trip that inspired the idea, after all.  With no indications that I might be able (much less willing) to help, her email truly was a shot in the dark.

But her request intrigued me from the moment it came in.  I was about to embark on a cross country road trip of my own, and the idea of helping her plan was appealing.  Plus, I started Take Back Roads to motivate people to experience American culture by getting off the interstate… so it would be a bit hypocritical if I didn’t offer my assistance!

An empty blacktop back road swerves through rolling hills in California
Let’s hit the open road!

Planning a solo cross country road trip

I responded in the affirmative, introduced myself, and we proceeded to fumble our way through plotting out her adventure.  Though I’ve streamlined the process significantly since then, it was all completely new to me when we met.  Not only did I not know where to start, I had no idea about the best way I could help her plan.

The feeling was compounded by the fact that, as much as I’ve traveled, I’ve never taken a cross country road trip by myself.  I could give her plenty of information about what to expect and how to prepare… for the logistical aspects of the journey.  But I had no idea how to help her to prepare mentally or emotionally for what she had gotten herself into.

So I focused on the nitty gritty details of the where, when, and how.  I plotted maps, I gave “fatherly” advice about car maintenance, and I answered her questions to the best of my ability.  I offered to be available when I could – I was, after all, going to be on my own wild adventure at the same time – and gave her three different route options to choose from:  direct, indirect, and insanely out of the way.

A brilliant blue sky filled with fluffy white clouds expands over the flat plains of New Mexico

Surprisingly, and quite bravely I might add, Melinda chose the last option – the utterly insane, drastically ambitious, and slightly intimidating circuitous route south, west, north, and back east again.  I threw the option in almost as a joke – no way would she pick this ostentatious dream route!  I put it together as much for me as for her – it’s a trip that I still to this day want to take myself!  But damned if she wasn’t up for the challenge, and the multitude of adventures that awaited her along the way!

We emailed several times while she was on the road, and she sent me a plethora of pictures and anecdotes.  We still correspond to this day, and we exchanged a number of emails discussing how to approach writing about her travels.  To tell her story properly and comfortably, we settled on the idea of putting together a lengthy Q&A session via email.

My hope is that, in reading through her answers, Melinda’s story helps you find both courage and motivation to take a solo road trip of your own!  

(NOTE – all photos in this post were taken by Melinda on her trip)

Thin wisps of fog linger over the green rolling hills of California's Big Sur coastline and Bixby Creek Bridge

1. Let’s start off with the easy stuff.  Tell us a little bit about your trip: where did you go, when did you travel, did you visit people along the way, how long were you gone, etc? How many states did you visit? What kind of vehicle did you take?

My trip began in early May of 2019. I left my home state of Tennessee, alone, and headed south then west. I traveled through 11 different states, all by way of back roads.  I drove my personal car, which was an Infiniti G37.  I had considered getting a rental car  for my trip, but decided I would be more comfortable in my own car.

Although, there were definitely times I wished I had a rental, especially when I would get lost!  I was concerned that my license plate would let everyone know I was a tourist. During my travels, I took some time to go visit a cousin of mine who I hadn’t seen in almost 30 years. While visiting with him and his family, I was able to get a personal tour of his home town:  San Antonio, TX.

2. Have you ever done a cross country road trip before? If yes, how was this trip different from the other(s)?

I have never done a cross country trip before.  I’ve barely been out of my home state, let alone, travel all by myself.  In the beginning of my trip, I was so scared! I often wondered what the hell I was doing! I would be fine as long as I was in the car traveling, but the minute I would get into my hotel room, I would break down and cry. By the time I had gotten to my fourth hotel room, I wanted to go home. I went as far as to seeing what it would cost to ship my car home and what the cost of flights were. But, the next morning I woke up with the determination to keep moving to my next destination.

A pair of dead trees perfectly frame the blue waters of Bass Lake in California

3. Why did you go on this trip? What were your specific goals?

I took this journey in an attempt to discover who I really was. I had either been married or raising children for nearly my entire adult life, and it was time for me to get to know myself.  Being alone on the open road was the perfect opportunity to do that.

4. What prompted you to reach out to me for help? How did you find me?

I originally joined a travel team to take my journey and meet new people. One day, while driving through my home town by way of some back roads, it struck me that this would be a far better way to travel cross country:  strictly on back roads.  I determined I would get online and attempt to put something together.

The problem with that idea was I had never traveled out of my home state, so I had no clue where to begin, where to go, what to avoid, and what to see.  My only thought was, I knew that I wanted to go west.

While searching the internet for help, I came across a website Take Back Roads.  I sent out an email asking for help to put this trip together. I honestly thought it would be a long shot if anyone would even respond, but to my surprise, I received a quick response from the owner of the site.

A gritty back road cuts through the desolate hills in Death Valley National Park, California

5. What were your expectations for the trip before it began? How did the trip meet – or not meet – those expectations?

I had many expectations on this trip. I wanted to see parts of the country I’ve never seen before, see how other people lived, but most importantly, I expected to discover me. I know that sounds so cliche, but you have to remember I have not ever been on my own before and I’m in my 50’s!

I was so awe struck over the beautiful scenery, so rich in colors and textures, and the people were so kind every where I went. I discovered a few things about myself as well: one was being braver than ever thought I could be… although I think I need another trip to finish discovering that!

6. Did your expectations or your goals for the trip change once you were underway? If so, how or why?

My expectations didn’t really change. There was so much to take in all along the way that I was so overwhelmed. I couldn’t have expected or hoped for more.

7. What was your favorite place to visit? Why?

My favorite places to visit were all the parks. I went to Big Sur, Joshua Tree National Park, Yosemite National Park, Grand Canyon (North and South Rim), Bryce Canyon, and a few others. I enjoy hiking a lot, so every chance I had, I would visit a park to go hiking. I was so amazed by all the beauty in each of these parks. Each one had it’s on texture, colors, landscape, aromas … not to mention the variety of wild flowers.

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8. What was your least favorite place to visit? Why?

New Orleans was my least favorite place to visit. I only stopped there for lunch and decided to head to my next destination. There were only two photos I took of New Orleans, and that was all that was needed. Those pictures were of two totally different views of the city. I probably would have enjoyed New Orleans better if I had a companion.

9. Where did you stay overnight (hotels, B&Bs, people’s houses, etc)? What did you do for food and drinks?

Throughout my trip, I stayed mainly in hotels, except when I would find those unique places such as the cabins (Pioneertown) and the tent (Under the Canvas). I would research my next destination the night before I was to leave where I was currently staying. I would look at what there was to do in the next town, places to stay, and places to eat. I’m not much of a foodie person, so I was always looking for healthier alternatives rather than what was native to the area.

10. What was your favorite place to stay? Favorite meal of the trip? Did you try any new foods or drinks – if so, what?

There were a couple of places I stayed that were my favorite. The first one was a little town called Pioneertown, which is located just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. I stayed in a cabin located on an old movie set. There was no cell service, no telephones, and no televisions. It was so serene and picturesque. The second place was in Valle, AZ where I stayed in a tent at a place called Under the Canvas. It was the serenity again that I enjoyed so much: no cell service, phones, or tvs.

Under the Canvas tent hotel in Grand Canyon National Park
Under the Canvas tent “hotel”

Even though I’m not much of a foodie person, I did enjoy the variety of food in different regions.  Cambria, CA and Santa Fe, NM had some of the best food.  Two of my favorite restaurants in Cambria were Indigo Moon, and the Black Cat Bistro. These two restaurants had more of the healthier options I enjoy.  Plus the food tasted so fresh!  In Santa Fe, Restaurant Martin was an awesome place to dine outside, and their desserts were amazing.

11. What was the most difficult challenge you faced during the trip?

The most difficulty I had during my trip was trying to find a place to park in San Luis Obispo, CA….haha! I was planning to go to San Luis Obispo and stay there a night or two, but I ended up booking a room in Cambria, CA near the ocean.

I arrived late in Cambria, but there was still a little time for me to go to the beach, take some photos and then go to bed.  I was determined to get up early and go sightseeing in San Luis Obispo. The next morning, I was gathering my things together to head out, and I discovered my driver’s license was missing!  I must have dropped it on the beach when I was taking photos!

I went down to the beach and searched for two hours trying to find it without any luck. I went ahead and drove to San Luis and thought I would worry about it later. After spending a while driving around town searching for a place to park, I finally found a spot. I put my money in the meter and went to find a place to eat and do some shopping. I returned to my car to find a parking violation!  I had parked in a towing zone and didn’t realize it…..not a good day, didn’t like San Luis Obispo much after that!  Oh, my driver’s license was returned to me……. but that’s another story for a different day.

12. What was your favorite drive of the trip (or your favorite place to drive)? Why?

One of my favorite drives of the trip is when I left Kanab, Utah and took the Scenic Byway 12 to get to Durango, Co. You drive through so many unique little towns, and the landscape is absolutely gorgeous. The terrain changed constantly as you traveled along the highway. You drive through the red rocks, the little towns, and then end up in the forest where you can smell the trees as you’re driving…… it smelled like Christmas!

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However, although scenic byway 12 was one of my favorite drives, it doesn’t compare to one I made by mistake!  I was leaving Santa Fe, NM and was to travel by way of Route 66, but totally missed it and ended up driving through Navajo Country!

This drive was one of the most peaceful drives I took.  Initially, I was terrified because I had heard all about how there is no cell service, no gas stations, and no policing in Navajo Country.  But this drive ended up being so serene and unique.

The day before I left Santa Fe, there was an art show going on in the town.  I was admiring a photographer’s work when he approached me.  He handed me a postcard with a picture of a wild horse on the front of it.  As he handed me the postcard, he said

“This is for you, this is your story…. go, and be free.”

The photographer had no idea who I was or why I was there.  For all I know, he could have said that to other people who stopped to admire his work, but on the back of post card was a story that resonated with me.  The story is about a wild horse everyone was trying to catch, and the horse was asked, “Why do you pass up the sweet oats that are left here for you?”

The horse looked at the man as he ran, and said in reply, “Is the baited hook worth your freedom in the ocean?”  As I was driving thru Navajo Country, I had to stop and let this wild horse cross the road…. I felt as free as that wild horse, and didn’t fear the rest of my drive thru Navajo Country.

13. What was the worst and/or most boring place to drive? How did you cope with the challenge or boredom?

Driving through parts of Texas would have to be the most boring drive. I can’t tell you what roads they were, but it was as I was leaving Lubbock, TX.  Even though there wasn’t much to see, I wasn’t too bored because it was all so new to me.  But, to make it a bit more enjoyable, I had the windows rolled down and the radio cranked up, jamming along to the music as I drove!

14. Did you enjoy your time of traveling alone, or did it ever bother you? If it bothered you, what did you do to cope with the loneliness?

When I first started out on my journey, I was so lonely that I was shedding a lot of tears. But once I settled into a comfortable rhythm of driving and exploring, I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude of traveling by myself… and finally being independent and determining the course of my own experience!

15. How did you develop a budget for the trip? What were some of the unexpected costs (or savings) that you experienced?

I really didn’t have a budget or plan for anything. I sold my house I had been living in for nearly 30 years, so I had money to do this. I was already so stressed out about the trip that I didn’t want to be worrying about a budget. There must have been a guardian angel with me the whole way because I didn’t encounter any unexpected costs!

A mountain wonderland stretches out from Donnell Vista Point in Mammoth Lakes California

16. What were some of the strangest experiences you had, or the most unexpected or unusual places that you visited?

When I tried to think of strange things I encountered on my journey, the only thing that comes to mind is when I stopped in a little town called Torrey, UT……this was my last stop before I made it to Durango, CO. Torrey was an extremely small town with these trees that lined the roads called Cottonwood trees that were “shedding” a cottony like fuzz….it looked like it was snowing in the middle of June!

17. Did you meet any extraordinary or unusual people? Who? Did you make any friends along the way? If so, how?

I met so many unique people on my trip, and they all thought my journey was awesome!  I got so many words of encouragement, advice, and praise for what I was doing.  I made a lot of friends along the way, many of whom I still stay in touch with.

Traveling alone is a great conversation starter!  I got to know the lady in Pioneertown that worked the night shift at the cabin where I stayed. We sat around the fire and talked for hours.  I would even drive into town to pick up dinner for the two of us to eat together. I also made friends with some ladies in Durango, CO who are waiting for me to come back and visit!

The snow-capped peaks of mountains are reflected in the still waters of a small pond in California

18. What did you learn during the trip: About traveling, about the country, about yourself?

During my travels, I learned people are genuinely nice and want to connect with you. The country is boundless, with so much beauty!  As far as what I learned about myself, I discovered that I am stronger, braver, and more capable of taking care of myself than I ever expected…. I don’t need to depend on anyone!

19. If you could do the trip over again, would you? Why or why not? If you did do the trip again, what would you do the same, and what would you do differently?

I would do the trip again in a heartbeat.  I would do it again and take more time to venture out to places I didn’t take time to see or experience.  There are many places I want to go back to and stay in the same places to see the friends I made while I was there.

20. If someone asked you for advice about travelling cross country, what would you tell them?

Traveling cross country can be scary.  So be constantly aware of your surroundings.  Have lots of snacks and water with you and keep toilet paper, paper towels, wipes handy in your vehicle…. you never know when you might need them… HAHAHA!

21. If someone asked you for advice about travelling alone, what would you tell them?

The best advice I could give anyone traveling alone would be to relax and enjoy the ride. Connect with nature.  Take time to breathe and to reflect on your life.  Let the sun hit your face.  Listen to sounds around you.  You are in control of your journey, so don’t rush through it!  If you are searching for answers, they will come to you in their own time.

22. What’s one thing that you want everyone to know about your trip?

What I realized while I was on this trip is if you embrace and love this life, life will love you back.

A lady dipping her toes in Mammoth Lakes hot springs
Until next time!
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3 thoughts on “Solo Travel: Is it Possible to Drive Cross Country by Yourself?

  1. This is a fabulous piece!! Melinda, your courage is amazing. I’d love to see more photos, and the full itinerary. I have a number of thoughts. Which back roads did you travel? On average, how long were you on the road each day? What was the exact tipping point, where you knew you were going to stay the course? I think you’re the one moment where everything clicks and you have to decide, “I am going for it.” (Or, I’m quitting). did that happen? Did you have any unifying factors tying the entire trip together, other than visiting national parks and taking back roads? For example, when I did a trip like this myself at age 20, I wanted to see baseball stadiums as well as national parks. What was the total cost of the trip? Kudos to you; your initiative: impressive!

  2. What an extraordinary adventure! Congratulation, Melinda, for being courageous enough to even think about doing it, but then acting on this adventure is even more courageous! TBR planned a mini-trip for my sister and I (you can read all about it under Recent Posts–Sister Trip…); it was an amazing journey for us. Congratulations TBR’s for adding this marvelous service to your followers!

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