Five Lessons From The Road
It’s been almost two years since I quit my job and we moved out of our apartment to live on the road in an ’86 Dodge Ram commuter van. Since then, we have transitioned into a truck and visited over 30 states. We have learned a lot. With all that experience under our belts, friends have started referring other potential nomads to us. As such, we thought we would present a list of lessons, big and small, that we have learned over this past year and change:
Choose The Twist Cap
This may seem small. But it isn’t small when you are set up for a couple nights in the back country with no running water and box of equipment covered in sunscreen and toothpaste.
We didn’t put much thought into provisioning when we first packed for the road. Our main restraints were around heat: we had a cooler but wanted to predominantly rely on foodstuffs that didn’t need to be kept cool. What we didn’t think about was pressure.
Any item that involves pressure to close can be opened by the same means. This goes for water bottles, plastic tubs of food, toothpaste, shampoo, sunscreen, and plenty of other items that have spilled in Dodgy since we first left home. Our latest mistake involved a container of brie. It was in a plastic container, so we thought we were all set. Unfortunately, pressure from a few items on top of the brie dislodged the lid and water from the melting ice in our cooler mixed with the brie. The brie was thrown out. The stench remains.
In the case of anything liquid—such as water or juice bottles, toothpaste, etcetera—don’t buy it unless it has a screw top or you are desperate. If you are desperate, store it in a ziplock bag.
Elevation is an important variable
In the northern hemisphere, there is the general rule of thumb that north is colder and south is warmer. But the variable that we forgot about was elevation. When traveling to a region with which we are unfamiliar, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, it is good to check the elevation so that you know that, while the city is located in a southern state, it also happens to be 7,000 feet above sea level.
Truck Stops are Better Than Walmart
We love camping in a national park, but sometimes we are on the move and just need a place to crash. Sure, we could stop at a hotel, but that’s $80 we would rather use to other ends. So, if it’s 11PM and all we want is a place to sleep, there are several businesses that will let you park overnight in their parking lots and have bathrooms open 24 hours a day, such as:
- Bass Pro
- Cracker Barrel
However, just because the business doesn’t mind the odd nomad crashing on their proverbial couch for the night, sometimes the community does. Before taking a couple sleeping pills or swigging a beer, it’s important to confirm that there aren’t any signs announcing that community laws disallow over night parking. The last thing you want is some cop shining their light in your window and banging on your door at 2AM. It’s annoying.
But it’s also annoying to drive to a spot, ready to sleep, only to discover that you cannot spend the night. While this has happened to us many times with Walmart, a core part of a truck stop’s businesses is providing a spot where truckers can park and sleep. Thus, you won’t find a truck stop in a neighborhood that won’t let their clients sleep over night. While they are fewer and further between, truck stops are a sure thing.
Side Note: Stop at Pilot & Flying J
Quite often, fueling up your car or crashing for the night is combined with a trip to the bathroom. Gas station bathrooms can be some of the most rank bathrooms around and many chains can be incredibly inconsistent. Yet, Flying J and Pilot are the most reliably clean and pleasant bathrooms in the road. They are sister companies and both chains have gone through major remodeling on the bathrooms.
Keep Your Schedule Flexible
If you only have a long weekend to travel, odds are, you have more time to plan than you have to travel. In such a case, it can make sense to have a schedule and make reservations ahead of time. Yet, we are constantly traveling, and recognize the value in both planned and unplanned stops. There are times to have a firm schedule and times to keep it open.
Popular stops mean more than just crowds, they can also mean booked hotels and filled campsites. So it is important to plan ahead and have reservations when visiting major National Parks and other popular sites in high season. If you want to visit Yosemite, pick a date and plan around it.
Yet, in traveling, there will be many surprising discoveries that deserve extra time along the way. It is a shame to have to drive by an enticing attraction just because you haven’t budgeted enough time to stop. The more you travel, the more you will understand your own rhythms and how long it will take to cover a given distance.
I tend to keep a map with highlights marked out and plan my trip around those sites. If any stop is clearly going to pose a challenge in finding a camping site or other conveniences, (such as National Parks) we will look into reservations or make sure that we arrive at a less busy time. Yet, in making reservations, we also make sure to leave plenty of time for a day or two side trip, between scheduled stops should we come across anything unique.
Don’t assume you’ll get it right the first time.
As programmers, we are all about iteration. We build a simple program and improve it in stages. Similarly, in this trip, we started simple and invested in tools as we saw they were justified.
We have read a fair bit from contemporaries that have attempted the nomadic life but threw all their savings into what they considered to be the ideal solution at the time. Custom campers, vans, and trucks do not come cheap and weather it is a truck that lacks the pulling power for the fancy trailer you bought or an RV that costs too much to maintain, one needs to allow sufficient funds to restructure plans on the fly or else the entire lifestyle could be a bust.
Research, of course, is an important component. When we started considering this lifestyle, I was eyeing 25-foot refurbished Airstream trailers. They are beautiful and have a two room floorplan so that we would have a place to sleep and a separate office space to work. Fortunately, a relative offered us his van. We accepted this much more affordable solution as an opportunity to get a better sense of what features were needed. It worked out well. We quite quickly realized that an Airstream trailer was not only overkill but would limit our travel options where tight turns, dirt roads, parking garages, and low overhangs were concerned. Over the months we arrived at the conclusion that what we really wanted was 4 wheel drive truck with a popup truck bed camper.
This is not at all to assume that our solution is right for others. But the take-away is that the obvious answer isn’t always the right answer. We should keep our options open so that we can gradually narrow our focus and invest in the best tools over time.
Even over a year into this journey we do not assume to have things perfectly resolved. We just invested in a new, four wheel drive 3500 truck with the intent of outfitting it with a slide in camper. But until we have had to opportunity to visit potential vendors, we are using a shell with a mattress in the back. What is best for us will change with our circumstances. But we’ll keep moving and will not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.