Friday, March 11, 2011

Three in one!

My car is my vehicle. It is sometimes my office. It is oftentimes a hotel room.

Traveling by car is a great way to hit smaller markets, save money on the road, and- of course- take in the cross-country landscape. With very few exceptions (Manhattan!), driving is my preferred means of travel. But it took me awhile to get my legs under me, so to speak. I'd like to share some of the insights that I've gleaned the hard way, for others who are looking at extended travel by car.

Do not underestimate the value of organization. I started out packing my car in a way that everything fit neatly, with some consideration for accessibility. I did not take time to consider what needed to be accessible from where. Will I want to be able to access the cooler from the driver's seat? Which clothing bin should be on top when they're stacked? Will it REALLY be practical to move that bag from the back to the driver's seat every single night and morning that I sleep in my car? Some organization comes from trial-and-error, but forethought can help quite a bit.

Sleeping in my car has saved me a ton of money. Sleeping in my car has also made my back hurt. Happily, there are ways to avoid the latter. My car is a hatchback, so I sleep down one side of the "trunk" and on the back of the folded-down back seat. I try to even out the bump where the seat folds over as much as possible with padding, then put a thermarest over the entire thing. Sometimes it becomes tempting to tell myself, "Oh, it won't be that bad" as I skimp on padding. I inevitably regret the decision to skimp on padding. Having a very toasty sleeping bag has also been invaluable. If you error to one side or the other, error on the side of more warm and squishy things, rather than fewer.

Rest stops and truck stops
It turns out that if you just park on the side of a meandering scenic road with "No Overnight Parking" signs, you really will get a 2 AM wake-up from a cop. It sucks. Rest stops are great for overnight stays, as are truck stops. Try to park such that lights won't be shining directly into your eyes when you're curled up in your car nest. I wouldn't recommend staying at the same place for more than one night in a row- I just use rest stops and truck stops when I'm doing multi-day drives.

My preferred truck stops are TA, Pilot, and Flying J. Rest stops in California are frequently closed- if you're starting to get sleepy and see one that's open, pull off. Don't believe the sign that says there's another in 40 or however many miles, as it may be closed. That said, I've found that California rest stops tend to have great views. I really love staying at the rest stop on I-80 just on the Utah side of the Utah/Nevada border- waking up at the edge of the salt flats is great.

Do not doubt the power of the almighty cooler. Do not doubt the importance of actually keeping ice in the cooler. It's really, really nice to be able to keep refrigeration-required food on the road, but you can go through ice pretty quickly. I tried to eat food that was less forgiving of temperature swings first.

Cups of dehydrated soup which only require hot water are fantastic if you want to feel like you're eating something resembling a real meal without sitting down at a restaurant. I use the hot water dispensers at gas stations (by the coffee maker) where I've filled up. I try not to take advantage of gas station services without buying at least SOMETHING- gas, peanuts, whatever.

Extended travel by car can be a great adventure. Even though I'm not longer a full-time nomad, I do enjoy roadtrips, and the chance to use my car not just as a vehicle, but as the three-in-one wonder that it really is.

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