As of late, I’ve had the opportunity to drive across the country several times. While most of these journeys are made in the company of friends, a lot of them are solo endeavors.
Depending on who you are, a solo road trip would either sound horrifying or amazing. Frankly, it’s both. Being the Lone Wolf on an Open Road takes on the unique characteristic of being a constant battle between liberating freedom and pathetic loneliness. In any given hour, a solo driver can experience the highest euphoria and the lowest self-loathing misanthropy (although truth be told, misanthropy can often be euphoric). However, in my time alone for hours upon hours with nothing but the projected fantasy of companionship to keep me company, I have noticed seven distinct phases one goes through before and during a cross-country journey alone.
1. Enthusaism (before Day -1)
“Hey! I have an idea! I’ll go on a road trip! …by myself! That sounds like loads of fun! There’s no one with which I’d rather be stuck in a car for five days than me!”
Herein lies the seed of an idea and the planning thereafter. Usually ill-conceived, the idea arises from some bizarre excuse (i.e. “I have to be at an interview in New York two weeks from now” or “My second cousin is getting married in Arkansas”). Instead of the logical thinking, which often leads to flying, the thinker thinks, “Hey! you know what’s better than four hours on a plane? Five days in a car!”
For the next couple days, while the idea is fresh, the thinker considers all the little stops along the way that will make the trip worth it – national parks, towns, monuments, silly Route 66 tourist traps infested with biker gangs… yes, it’s truly a chance to see the country, as well as a chance to gain a morsel of introspection.
Also, you don’t need to deal with some asshole passenger cramping your style. You’re a lone wolf. A free human being. No one can stop you. Not even logistics.
2. Anxiety (Day -1)
Suddenly you realize: driving for a week requires driving for a week. It all spirals down from there. Are the bills paid through my return? Will rent be due? Where will I stay? Can I really afford this in both time and money? What is there to see between here and Duluth anyway?
You realize you’re planning on arriving at the Grand Canyon on Memorial Day weekend, but you don’t want to book accommodations because you don’t want to restrict your newfound freedom with an oppressive timeframe. Also your lease ends in two weeks – shouldn’t you be searching for a new apartment? What about your job? Surely it would take longer than a week for them to notice your absence.
Not to mention, a week is a long time by yourself. Are you sure you can handle the solitude?
3. Pessimism (Day 1 [there is no Day 0])
You’re on your way to the freeway when you realize you forgot a crucial item like a wallet or a frosty mug, and you turn back home at least twice before actually leaving for good. Though even when you do leave for good, you realize it’s harder than it sounds; your romanticized vision of the Open Road against the valleys and mountains of the American West is obstructed by several hours of inexplicable gridlock while trying to get out of your city. After the four-car pileup and the stalled vehicle in the center lane (okay Lady – first clutch, then shift, and release the clutch slowly…), it’s suddenly rush hour and you have about twenty miles to show for it. Once you finally get out of town, you’re still surrounded by a mass of cars trying to get to Hillbilly Rockathon Groovy Fest 2012.
By the time you get to an open road, the sun is already down, and you can’t see the land you set out to see. Also, you realize you have nowhere to sleep. “Just find somewhere when the time comes” seemed like a liberating thought during Stage 1, but now that you’re blindly running around the town of Six Mule in the Great State of Utazonexico (home of the Six Mule Maximum Security State Correctional Facility), you kind of wish you had thought things a little more through.
At this point, until you fall asleep, you’re wondering, “Why in God’s name did I think this was a good idea?”
4. Optimism (Day 2)
A good night’s sleep. The sun is rising above the horizon, and you’re off with a full day of open road ahead of you. Finally leaving the bustling interstate in favor of the two-lane deathtrap highway, you can at last enjoy the liberty of open vistas and illegal speeds, not to mention the joy of peeing whenever and wherever you want in the privacy of a deserted roadside. Yes, this is when driving alone achieves its highest highs: drink your Rockstar, put on your Road Trip 2012 assortment album, and relax. The road is yours, and life is good.
5. Carelessness (Day 3 -> Day [Ω-1])
At the journey’s onset, you were going to attempt to maintain some sort of hygienic standard with some regard for health, diet, and finance. Your first night was spent in a budget motel and your second night was camping. You bought your day’s food from the grocery store; mixed vegetables and a whole grain loaf of bread combined with protein bars makes for a well-balanced diet.
Alas, Day 3 has come, and you notice your passenger seat’s foot area is entirely filled with empty coffee cups and 5-hour Energy capsules. The backseat is covered with candy bar wrappers and balls of paper that once contained cheeseburger. The vegetables you were so eager to buy have remained untouched in your passenger seat and are now beginning to wilt and mold. You haven’t showered since the budget inn, and you forget if this is the second or third day on this pair of underwear. Perhaps you feel like a putrid glutton, but you figure you’re probably not going to pick up chicks on this trip anyway, and besides, Whataburger is delicious!
6. Delusion (Day [Ω-1])
It’s been a while since you had actually conversed with anybody, so when you get to the gas station to fill up and get a snack, you start chatting up the clerk. Unfortunately, you forget what it feels like to talk.
“H… h…*cough* … *ahem* …hi!” (Oh God, that’s what my voice sounds like?!)
“Can I help you?”
“Uh… nice day we’re having.”
“I suppose so. …will this be all?”
Human interaction seems novel, and it makes you giggle.
“Ha ha. Cliff Bars are good. I like Cliff Bars.”
“Have… have a nice… uh… ha ha… day.”
“You too. Drive safe.”
You stand in the doorway for a moment and gaze at the clerk longingly.
Back in the car you begin talking to yourself. As the day goes by, you notice your speech shifts from the first person to the second person, and eventually the third person. You wonder if this subconscious shift in speaking patterns indicates something about the duality of self, and how that perhaps implies a deniability of fault in one’s own actions. After all, how can I be blamed for something he does? It’s not my fault we share the same body.
Of course you’re happy that your trip is coming to an end, but part of you is disappointed about how little you actually saw. Then the thought enters your head: Why do I have to be there tomorrow? I can just… keep driving, can’t I? I mean, Canada isn’t too far away. And what about Alaska?
7. Impatience (Day Ω)
You smell like a sewer. Your ankles itch because you’ve had on the same pair of socks for the last four days. You’re pretty sure your butt has at least two clots in it from all the sitting. Your final destination is 700 miles away, and by God, you’re going to get there.
All you can think about is a warm shower, laundry, nutrition, and people… oh yes, people. You calculate: if I drive 75 mph in the 70 zone, it should theoretically cut five minutes of driving for every hour I drive. If I maintain that speed, I’ll get there 50 minutes sooner than my GPS tells me I will!
You’re on the interstate. You pass by monuments you were planning to see and parks where you were considering spending the night. Every moment you’re stuck behind a truck passing another truck, you scream out in rage against the loss of valuable seconds of your precious time. The sun goes down and you’re 250 miles away. That’s a stone’s throw from your perspective.
250 miles becomes 150 miles. 150 miles becomes 50 miles. And suddenly, after what seems like the longest 25 miles of your entire life, you’re there. You’re finally there.
And you have no idea what to do, because you have already forgotten what you did in life beyond driving.
Don’t worry, rehabilitation won’t take very long. It’s a shame the only person you can share your great memories with is yourself.