How To

How to Road Trip

Driving at least once from Connecticut to California should be required for all Americans, but how to survive the trip is less understood. Timeless advice for a tiring journey.

They say you never really know someone until you travel with them, and there’s nothing like a road trip to reveal someone’s true Buddha nature. Much poetic waxing has been spent on the lure of the open road—with too little attention paid to the harsh reality of several consecutive days of living in a car. Before embarking on a road trip you must set certain absolutes in place. As someone who’s been on over 100 road trips ranging from 90 to 2,500 miles, I can confidently tell you that in order to experience any measure of success on the road you must heed my advice, outlined below.

It Is the Destination, After All

The question ‘If you don’t know where you’re going how will you know you’ve arrived?’ sounds like a chapter heading from one of those business books with a guy in a tie giving the thumbs-up on the cover, but I assure you this is practically the ultimate Zen koan of the road. Bear in mind ‘five days,’ or any other specified amount of time is as equally an acceptable destination as any star on a map. The primary reason is not so you will know when you’ve arrived, but more practically so you can gauge when to turn your ass around and head home. Not making it back in time for something important because somebody in the car demanded that we all stop for a tour of the Alamo can not only ruin an otherwise perfect road trip—but otherwise perfect relationships.

No Bombshells

There is something intimate and hypnotic about riding in a car with others for long stretches of time. Riders may feel safe and relaxed—remember the position of car seats prevents easy eye contact, thus setting up a non-confrontational environment. Still, resist confessional urges—this is a poor time to announce you’d like to see other people, are gay, or are worried an embezzlement charge will catch up with you when you return from vacation.

Don’t Try to Corner Rats

It’s a fact when rats are cornered, they attack. Stuck in a car for days on end is not the right time to try and find out if your boyfriend thinks you’re prettier than his ex, if your girlfriend really likes your mom, or what the guys from your band’s honest opinion is about that thing you do on stage with the jumping.

Your Hair Looks Fine

On the road even the most meticulous must let go of the expectations they have of their hair. Strange water, sample-size shampoos, the wind, and tiny mirrors all conspire to make your hair so willful it may seem like an additional passenger at times. Let it go. This isn’t about looking good, it’s about feeling something new; all new feelings worth their salt eventually mess up your hair.

Driver Controls the Music

Passenger gets two vetoes per three hours or 150 miles, whichever comes first. No exceptions.

No Bogarting the Twizzlers

Share and share alike. If your passenger is asleep you may eat their candy, but you must be prepared to make a pit stop to replace it within 30 minutes of their waking up. Road-trip snacks should not be underestimated.

Motel 6, Ritz Carlton, or KOA?

Have a sleeping strategy everyone agrees on in place before you leave.

The Road Wants What It Wants

Some are inspired to be chatty, others find long car trips more meditative. Driver can call ‘Quiet,’ and it can last 30 minutes out of every 90 they are behind the wheel. Similarly there may be stretches of the trip where at least one person who is not driving needs to keep the driver company. You may resent this duty, but losing a little beauty sleep beats losing your head if the driver drifts off to sleep.

The Trunk Is the Only Place for Storage

It’s tempting to crap up the back seat with a bunch of junk for easy access, but the only items allowed in the car are snacks, a small cooler, camera, CDs (or a tapes if you still roll like that), one book or magazine per person, sunglasses, a map, and a light sweater. Otherwise the physical chaos permeates into the psychic space. Sounds a little new age, but I assure you this is old-school wisdom.

You’ll Never See Those People Again

This means it’s perfectly okay to let go, ask for directions, look a mess, visit the Mystery Spot, or play Journey on the jukebox.

The Medium Is the Message

On a road trip it’s best to do road-trip things. If you want to be fancy or you have a low tolerance for inconvenience, then the road trip is not for you. Exploring small towns, interacting with strangers to learn about wherever you are, and eating at roadside stands that sell odd fare like fried pie (Independence, LA) and broken chicken (Pike County, KY) all require a sense of adventure and a suspension of disbelief that four-star cuisine doesn’t demand.


To the woman who worries she’d be in over her head with her boyfriend because they bicker constantly: Chances are a road trip won’t work unless you’re both ready to adhere rigidly to the rules of the road. Relationships based on constant arguments are either meant to be marriages or sitcoms. So, unless your trip is part of a reality TV show where others can extract entertainment from your misery, my sense is no good will come of it.

To the guy who wants to live in a buddy flick, grab his pals, and ‘hit the road’: I have a feeling you’re also the same guy who wouldn’t be able to get over the hair rule. People who want their lives to seem like movies also typically expect to look the part.

And to almost everyone else on earth: Pack a bag, gas up the car, and get out of here. Don’t forget Graceland is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every Tuesday from November through February; cell phones are to be used for outgoing emergency calls only; and every time you stop—even if you don’t have to go—at least try.


TMN Contributing Writer Leslie Harpold was a pioneer in web design and online publishing. At the time of her death in 2006, she lived in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where she was working on a novel and “dreaming alternately of an ├╝ber-urban or ultra-rural future, as she is not one to do things by halves.” More by Leslie Harpold