In August of 2016, at the tender age of 64, I gave away most of my possessions, rented my house to friends, and bought a small used RV, a nineteen-foot van conversion. I lived in the van for the next three months with my two dogs, learning the ropes of RV life before departing from my hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for a nine-month cross-country journey.
I knew I wanted to write about the experience, so I started a travel blog right away, because in truth, journeys begin the instant we decide to take them. Many of my blog followers have shared their own dreams of a similar adventure, and several are already actively planning their trips. They continue to send lots of questions my way—about traveling alone as a woman, about my itinerary, about buying and managing life in an RV, about travel with dogs, even about blogging.
In my amazing year of living nomadically, I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve managed to distill that experience into what I hope is a useful 10-item guide if you ever choose to drop everything and go.
I can do it!
John Steinbeck famously said, “You don’t take a journey; a journey takes you.” Once I committed to my sojourn, it took on a life and momentum of its own. That’s when the freak-outs started. How will I ever make it? What was I thinking? Across the whole country? Are you kidding me?
So I made a deal with myself. “You can go home whenever you want,” I promised, with offers like, “Let’s go to La Grange, Texas. Then if you want to go home after that, you can,” and, “You know if you need to quit after Las Cruces, New Mexico, it’s okay!”
That kind of permission got me through the first couple thousand miles, allowing me to build my confidence, and by then I was too hooked on the adventure of seeing new places and meeting new people to think about turning around. Twelve thousand miles and 17 states later, I returned home, both astonished at and proud of my own accomplishment.
Since I’d never owned or driven an RV, I did careful research before buying mine, reading online reviews and poring over web-based forums. That homework paid off when I found the right vehicle for me—easy to handle on highways and in city traffic, a reputation for reliability, and able to “boondock” or camp without the need for water or electricity hookups. Add in the tiny kitchen, and I was in heaven. Since I’d studied the market, I was able to move decisively.
Before I ever got on the road, I looked up dozens of state parks and RV campgrounds and read reviews for all of them, opting for those that got high marks for security, updated facilities (especially bathrooms and showers), attentive on-site managers, and being dog-friendly. I never stayed anywhere I hadn’t thoroughly assessed, and that includes the Walmart parking lot in Bozeman, Montana where I spent one very interesting summer night between a row of towering 40-foot RV’s with air conditioners blasting on one side, and on the other a congenial group of homeless men camped under some bushes, their voices rising and falling in the dark.
Pets are people, too.
My dogs, Connor and Beasley, were more than animals I tossed in with me as afterthoughts. They were my buddies, my traveling companions, and passengers whose needs for comfort and support I carefully considered.
Connor, at nine years old, was on medication for anxiety and joint pain. Beasley, still a young four, had been known to eat a rock if it looked like a kibble, so my vet helped me put together a comprehensive kit for both dogs with first aid and other supplies that anticipated a number of scenarios. I brought hard copies of both dogs’ up-to-date vet records and could also access electronic files via my smart phone. And wherever I landed in a new place, I made sure I knew the location of the nearest vet and emergency clinic.
Aware the cramped space and constant mobility could put a strain on my boys, I kept our routines as predictable as possible, observing regular feeding and walking schedules, and I set aside extra time to sit and cuddle them, which also blessed me with a kind of meditative stillness I needed. I sought out dog parks whenever I hit a new town, and read the online reviews before I took the dogs for play time, since some parks are better regulated than others.
Before I left home, I registered with a national network of fully vetted pet caregivers, so that along the way I could hire local providers to take Connor and Beasley for part or all of a day. Those times gave me the opportunity to relax and enjoy activities that excluded pets but were great for humans, and it gave the dogs time away from the close quarters of the RV and a chance to socialize with a variety of people.
I can ask for help.
Doing so doesn’t make me any less of a badass solo traveler. I know and respect my limitations. After I got past my initial shyness and approached neighboring RVers with questions about my rig or the campground, I discovered people wanted to help. They were generous and kind and offered support, information, suggestions, and sometimes even wine. Then they asked to hear my story—where I was from and where I was headed and why I was on the road—and freely shared theirs. Many of these interactions remain among my favorite memories of the entire year.
It’s okay to trust my instincts.
As a survivor of sexual assault, the idea of journeying by myself had some definite fear triggers in it, but part of my goal was to reclaim my sense of safety in the world. It definitely helped that I was traveling with two big dogs, one of them, Connor, very protective of me and perfectly happy to let that be known.
From the beginning, I decided that if I did not like the looks of a place or got an “uh-oh” feeling around a person, I would trust that and move along. Two times in nine months I became uncomfortable in a situation, and in both cases I abruptly left the area. No apologies or excuses. Just, “Bye.”
At the same time, when I felt safe, I learned to have faith in my own judgment. Think “sleeping like a baby with rain pattering on the roof beneath live oaks draped with Spanish moss” kind of comfortable. Add twinkle lights, and you get the picture.
My itinerary can be fully flexible.
Within the parameters of the nine months I’d set aside for the road trip, I was free to go where I wanted when I wanted. If I really liked a place, I stayed longer.
Originally, I’d planned to spend two nights in a safari tent at the El Cosmico bunkhouse campground in Marfa, Texas, but the quirky town and the other-worldly high desert setting drew me in. I ended up staying for a week, paying a ridiculously low rate to camp in the enormous gravel parking lot with dozens of other people. Living in our RV’s, trucks, SUV’s, and cars, we formed a small neighborhood of photographers, mechanics, yoga instructors, retirees, musicians, artists, writers, and others, people I am still in touch with.
Conversely, I could leave a place early if I wanted. When I woke in Billings, Montana to find the morning air smokey from distant wildfires and the black flies from the nearby Yellowstone River viciously aggressive, I broke camp and left, even though I’d paid for another night. To me it was worth eating the cost of one site rental to go where I pleased.
I don’t need a lot to be happy.
I’d taken several months to clear out my house, winnowing down to the clothing, books, and kitchen supplies that fit into my RV, putting several boxes of books, manuscripts, and family photos into storage.
I was surprised to discover I’d still brought way too much. In my year in the RV, I rotated between three pairs of jeans, a pair of hiking pants, some leggings and shorts, eight different tops, four sweaters, several tank tops, my Uggs and two pairs of Chaco’s sandals. I’d crammed my small hanging closet full, but I wore exactly three things from it—a pair of wool slacks and a knit jacket in California and a sleeveless black knit dress in Montana.
Halfway through the trip, I packed up two big boxes of clothing and shoes and shipped them home to my kids. And I never once wished I’d brought more of anything.
Chaos is not my friend, but…
…it does help to have a high tolerance for it. I regularly lost paperwork, reading glasses, kitchen gadgets, keys, pens, and books, baffled at how things could simply vanish in such a small space.
I learned to set aside time for reorganizing when I was staying longer than two or three days someplace. I’d use a picnic table to sort through, neaten, and tidy my things before I stowed them away in their proper places.
Also, for some needed variety, I changed up my sleeping arrangements three times along the way. I started out with two single beds, a configuration that created a little extra room for the dogs. Later, I moved the mattresses together to form a king-sized bed, which resulted in less room for the dogs but better sleep for me.
Finally, I stacked the mattresses perpendicular to the rear door, and perched atop them, calling up childhood memories of sleeping in a berth during train travels with my grandmother. That arrangement provided the most room for the dogs as well as easy access to my face for good morning slobbers.
Slowing down is a gift you can give yourself.
You know the person who moseys along at the back of a line so they can take in the scenery? Yeah, that’s not me. I’m the one tailgating you on the sidewalk. Going slowly doesn’t come naturally to me, even though I wish it did.
But my RV is a heavy vehicle, and she eats gas by the half-mile, so I learned to keep my top highway speed at 65 miles per hour to ensure I could afford the whole trip. The bonus? Counter-intuitive but true: Slowing down expanded time. Instead of rushing to the next destination, I relaxed into a reasonable travel pace and let myself enjoy rolling over the smooth highway, wonders revealing themselves all around me—the super-bloom of yellow poppies in the New Mexico desert, blue whales off the California coast, the steep green mountains and deep azure lakes of the Idaho Panhandle.
Loneliness is a thing for solo travelers.
When I started out, I did not know solitude could transition so easily into crushing loneliness. In fact, I spoke with several solo travelers who said the loneliness was the hardest part of the trip.
Early on I scheduled some side trips to visit with people I know and love, and who know and love me. Those visits became touchpoints and kept me centered and connected to my sense of belonging in the midst of being completely uprooted.
Through my travel blog I also made some lasting friends, a couple of whom I got to meet along the way. Many followers sent messages filled with good wishes, encouragement, even generous offers of bed and board. In my loneliest times, I could open my laptop and reread those notes and always be brought to tears by the kindness and generosity of my readers.
And then there are the dear ones I could call, day or night, for a pep talk and a dose of cheering. I would cry and complain and whine and get it all out of my system and nearly always end the call remembering my insane good fortune of making this trip of a lifetime.
I honestly could not have made it without this cast of hundreds who gifted me with their support, friendship, and love.
I only thought I was a solo traveler. In truth, I was never actually alone.