It doesn’t have to be one of those things. Think about it: when was the last time you had four, six, eight or more hours to yourself? You set the pace; you determine the route. In a world that seems to be constantly moving faster, with increasing obligations and more distractions, such large chunks of relative free time are a rarity.
Just because your hands are on the wheel and your eyes are on the road doesn’t mean they are, does it? Right? – doesn’t mean you can’t be deeply engaged in other ways. Here are three expert tips on how to make your next epic solo ride a rewarding and enlightening experience.
To be selfish. Before you take offense to this idea, read on. “I really believe in the virtue of selfishness,” says Todd Kachdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University who has studied the benefits of travel. “You have to meet your own needs and you have to understand what those needs are. It’s really easy for them to be subverted by other people or other motives. Selfishness is a way to replenish your energy, to unravel all the relationships and psychological connections you have in your life. When you travel alone, you do everything for yourself. You should really enjoy this mindset on your trip, but hopefully you’ll bring some of it back into your day-to-day life.
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Tackle a difficult book. There are many apps to enjoy audiobooks. Rather than just opting for the one you know you’ll love, try a more challenging title. “You may be able to browse it as an audiobook,” says Finn Murphy, author of “The Long Haul: Tales of a trucker’s life on the roada memoir documenting more than three decades of working as a driver for moving companies, adding more than a million miles to his odometers. “It doesn’t have to be highbrow either. I couldn’t read the Harry Potter books; they pissed me off. But when I put the audiobook on, the player was amazing and did all the voices, so I ended up listening to them all and enjoying them immensely.
Write your own book. Do you have a novel or a screenplay that’s stuck in your head? Perhaps you want to write a memoir, either with dreams of publication or simply as a way to preserve family history. An oversized stretch of road is a good place to start expressing your thoughts, sketching out scenes, and even dictating text. This is how Murphy began writing what became known as “The Long Haul”, despite having started so long ago that he was using a microcassette recorder. These days you can just record voice memos on your phone or take it to the next level by using an app that will transcribe your spoken words into text, like dragon anywhere, Round Where SpeechNotes Plus.
Compose a song. Nashville-based folk singer-songwriter ira wolf travels the country in his van and racked up over 100,000 miles while posting his adventures on Instagram. She does not consider these hours spent behind the wheel as wasted time. Instead, they are an opportunity for creativity. After about an hour on the road, she turns off all distractions and focuses her attention on herself. “If I can slow down enough and let things flow, it’s fascinating what my subconscious is holding onto and seems to be processing,” she says. “I can be inspired by the landscape or by an emotional process that I am going through.” If there’s a line or melody she can’t get out of her head, she jots it down for later.
Improve your musical knowledge. If you’re not a budding songwriter, enjoy music creatively instead. Listen to an artist’s entire discography in chronological order. Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in a genre that is new to you or that you want to understand better. Enjoy a mood-driven playlist on your favorite streaming service. Or soak up the local vibe playing artists born in the state you pass through.
Memorize a poem. Want to wow the other guests at the next dinner party or cocktail party you attend? Spend time behind the wheel learning a beloved poem. Murphy perfected Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. The memorization process had an added benefit. “You analyze the poem in chunks, so you end up having a broader appreciation of the poem,” he says. “It takes on a deeper meaning.”
Have a great conversation. Kashdan notes that not talking to people face-to-face can have huge benefits for the scope, depth and tone of conversations. If you have a hands-free device for your phone and traffic presents no challenge, solo car trips can be a good time to call someone you want to have a long, meaningful conversation with. “You don’t have the added emotional pressure of them watching your reaction and you watching their reaction,” he says. But be sure to keep the discussion low-key; the last place you want to be hurt is in the driver’s seat.
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Stop for fun. Do not travel the world without stopping from time to time to understand everything. Wolf considers his route ahead of time to see if there are any good hikes along the way – a great way to get some exercise while breaking up long trips – or if there are any lakes where his dog, Winnie, maybe you could take a quick dip. As she drives, she keeps an eye out for photo ops. “I love taking pictures on the road, so I watch for lighting that I like or beautiful scenery,” she says.
Become a better driver. We tend to think of driving as a means to an end rather than a skill. Readjust your mindset, so that you see it as a skill you can hone every time you get in your car. Murphy suggests thinking like truckers because it takes them longer to turn, accelerate and stop. This means that they look at what is happening nearby, but also that they look to the future, both literally and figuratively. “Essentially you’re looking ahead to see where the next risk factor is going to be,” he says. “Maybe there’s a meltdown coming or there’s a crash coming. This approach will make you the ultimate defensive driver and help you rack up crash-free miles.
Treat yourself to good food. Rather than settling for drive-thru fast food or whatever is at the next rest stop, be intentional about where you eat on the road. This will require research, so you don’t absentmindedly ask Siri for the nearest Mediterranean restaurant or try to type “best cheeseburger” into Google while driving. Good resources for learning about primo pit stops are “road foodby Jane and Michael Stern and theGreat American Dining Experiences” guide published by National Geographic. Even though Wolf has a full kitchen in her van, she has a thing for donut shops. “They will always trump dinner prep,” she says.
Do nothing at all. While there’s a tendency to occupy our time when we’re alone, there’s a drastic alternative: try doing nothing at all, says Kashdan. Let go of the feeling of having to do anything other than drive. Just watch the world go by. Even if you stop somewhere for a sit-down meal, resist the temptation to read, flip through your phone, or put on your headphones. “There’s something really cool about sitting there and listening to the chatter of the room,” he says. “It’s about enjoying the moment.”
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice webpage.