White line fever. No, that’s not an affliction that plagued the bad guys in Miami Vice, but it’s just as nefarious and a whole lot less fun.
White line fever is what they call it when you drive for way too long, especially at night, and slip into a hypnosis state from the monotonous thread of painted highway lines. Anyone who’s deadheaded middle America in an attempt to fast-forward to the fun parts of an epic road trip will know what I’m talking about. That fugue state where sound and vision spiral into one great black abyss and your mind goes blank, an ironic dip into Zen just before smashing your aging Camry through a few Jersey Barriers and into a rolling field of Jersey cows somewhere in Nebraska.
OK, that’s a little over the top.
But seriously, have you driven across the United States lately? It’s so big and empty. Miles and miles of nothing. Endless waves of amber earth stretching sunrise to sunset, punctuated by truck stops, WalMarts, and concrete bunker-like Lion’s Den Adult Superstores. At least you can get a venti oat milk nonfat latte if you need one—these days, chances are if a town’s got a post office, it’s got a Starbucks.
The Great American Road Trip is a trope for a reason: because it’s fucking amazing to leave your life in the rearview. It’s an affordable vacation with the added bonus of adventure and perspective. Why not hit the highway? Experience a few of those Instagram moments you keep covetously tap-tapping IRL. Grab your friends or dog, get in the van, and go. I’ve driven cross-country well over a dozen times in the last decade. There’s nothing better than stretching your legs in a different time zone and climate than the one you started the day in, even if you spend some of that stretch worrying your truck’s faux-velour seats are giving you bed sores.
Now, I recognize that not everyone is an under-employed writer/photographer with enough free time to spend weeks wandering aimlessly around America, so I’ve compiled a few tips below on how to get the most out of your Jack Kerouac experience.
Part 1. Before You Go.
The Vehicle. Your car (truck, SUV, whatever) is your chariot. You’re asking it to safely shuttle and shelter you over some 3,000 to 7,000 miles. Treat it like the invaluable blessing it is. If you’re not running a relatively new car, and by that I mean under 20k miles, take it to a garage and tell ‘em what you’re about to do. Have them check tires, brakes, oil, etc. They’ll know what to look for. The last thing you want to deal with is some mechanical issue on a Saturday night 90 miles from the nearest incorporated town in a place where cell service means knocking on that murder shack three exits back and hoping they have a land line you can borrow. Also, make sure you have a functioning stereo with a plug in for your smartphone. CDs are so last decade, and trust me when I tell you that you aren’t gonna find good radio stations every 15 minutes along the highway. Sirius Satellite Radio really earns its stripes on cross-country trips. Also, make sure you have a spare and a jack (and know how to use ‘em).
Supplies. No need to go crazy, but some basics such as a sleeping bag, flashlight, first aid kit, cash for tolls and emergencies, bottle opener / corkscrew, knife and fork, reusable water bottle (single use plastic sucks), travel mug, and a variety of clothing—remember, the climate fluctuates wildly across our great nation. Basic hygiene is important—bring deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap (Dr. Bronners is good, as it does it all), and dry shampoo. Also, if you can find one, an old-school trucker’s atlas can come in real handy when your GPS signal shits the bed in the middle of nowhere.
Companions. The crew you roll with can make or break your trip. Avoid anyone higher maintenance than you are. It’s generally good advice to avoid mixing couples and single people—their perspectives and approaches to life often vary too widely for this sort of close quarters action. Bring people who are fun, easygoing, up for anything, can support themselves, don’t have warrants out for their arrest, and have a valid driver’s license. Also, dogs are great, but make sure Fido can a) fit in the car and b) likes being in the car.
Part 2. You’re really doing this!
Don’t Overschedule. It’s good to have a plan but don’t fall into the trap of organizing every moment unless you’re good at handling disappointment. Make realistic goals for where you’re gonna stop and pick a select few things you’re dead set on seeing along the way. This is supposed to be a fun adventure, not a day in the office or cruise with your grandparents. Leave room for spontaneity and serendipity; you never know when a random sidetrack could turn into the best part of your trip.
Fuel. Food is fuel for your body, but that doesn’t mean it should come from a truck stop or gas station. It’s all too easy to give in to the temptation of fried or fast food and junky snacks, but after a while these things take a toll on how you feel both physically and emotionally. Try to eat local instead. One of the best ways to get to experience an area is by seeing how and where the residents break bread. Skip Jack in the Box and find the highest rated spots online, or ask some folks where their favorite restaurant is. What’s the region known for, food-wise? Get that. Plus, it’s better to put your dollars into local businesses than multinational chains. For snacking, skip chips and candy and hit up Whole Foods or a natural food store and grab some snack mixes, dried fruit, etc. Pro tip: It’s hard to burn off human fuel while you’re burning gas on the highway. Make sure to take more than a few minutes outside the car every day walking around, stretching, and breathing fresh air. I like to run a lap of every truck stop I fill up at, which makes me look like an insane person but also feels great and shakes out some of the stiffness.
Sleeping. Getting enough shut-eye is crucial. Not just for your mental state, but to rest your eyes, which have been staring at a whole lot of repetitive nothingness for a long time. Exhaustion is where white line fever becomes a real risk, so honor those circadian rhythms. There are loads of hotels and motels along every highway, but what fun is sleeping in a weirdly carpeted box choking on industrial cleaning supply fumes and residual sadness? Bring a tent and get a feel for wherever you’re laying your head for the night. Do remember that it can be illegal to camp in a lot of places, so look for campgrounds or state/national parks—these will come with the added bonus of having showers and bathrooms that’ll be much nicer than the ones at truck stops. Car camping is another easy and cheap option, though comfort can vary greatly between vehicle types. Finding a cool Airbnb is usually more fun than Motel 6 or another generic Holiday Inn, plus you’ll have a kitchen to cook in. Pro tip: For the budget conscious, showers and facilities can often be found at gyms, many of which offer free one day try out passes and remember, every WalMart and Sam’s Club allow overnight car camping.
Attitude is Everything. A solid rule for road trips (and life) is, simply, “don’t be a dick.” Driving like an asshole or being aggressive to other drivers is not only unsafe, it can get you into sticky situations like finding yourself face to face with an angry truck driver and his tire iron at the next diesel stop. Besides, you’ll get way more inside information and have more fun being nice to everyone you meet. Be open, try to have actual conversations. You never know what you’ll learn, and even if someone is a total freakshow, it makes for a good story later. Also remember: If you get pulled over, be respectful. The last thing you want to deal with is a pissed off cop deciding to make an example out of you by dismantling your vehicle and everything in it on the side of a highway somewhere. Lastly, remember to send some postcards home. It may seem like a little thing, but everyone loves to get mail, and you’ll be amazed at how stoked people are to hear from you out of the blue. Especially your parents.
Routing. There are major Interstate highways that crisscross our country specifically designed for a uniformly fast journey from, say, New York City to Seattle. These are boring and often tedious to traverse. If you have the time—and you should make the time—find alternative local highways that wind through towns and scenery, and just jump on interstates to stitch together pieces of the journey. Think of your road trip as a playlist—you’re piecing together different tracks / adventures with a little silence and filler in between. Just hitting I-80 or I-90 is kind of like fast-forwarding through a movie. You may get the gist of things, but you’re missing all the nuance. For the truly adventurous and, ideally, mechanically inclined there’s also the Trans America Trail to explore—5,000 miles of interconnected dirt roads that’ll eventually take you from coast to coast.
There are no rules. The most important part of an epic road trip is to have fun and soak up the experience. There really are no hard and fast rules, just make sure that whatever you do, it puts a smile on your face. Don’t worry about making everything perfect. As Yvon Chouinard said, “When everything goes wrong–that’s when adventure starts.” Just don’t stare too deeply into those white lines, and you’ll be fine.
In nearly three decades of wandering, I’ve never not been surprised and delighted by something discovered en route to somewhere else. First light on Maine’s Cadillac Mountain, which sees sunrise before anywhere else in the United States in the fall. Wandering Cassadaga, Florida’s–AKA the psychic capital of the world–eerily quirky streets. Luck, Texas, a western movie set bought by Willie Nelson and transformed into a ghost town/concert venue. The awe—and heady, heavily photosynthesized oxygen—of northern California’s old growth giant redwoods. Crystal clear ice encrusting everything like a thick diamond coating on cold Moab mornings. Sap transforming into maple syrup at a community sugar house in rural Vermont. Wild horses prancing while rare California condors circle around Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. Overdosing on energy foods at an outdoor trade show in Utah. The warmth and welcome of a Friday night fish fry in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. We live in what can sound like scary, divisive times, but spend a week on the road and it’s be hard to believe everything is really all bad. In the wise words of Agent Mulder, “the truth is out there.”