I’m no fan of commuting, but I’ve always liked doing summer road trips. Packing the car, cranking up some tunes, and heading out into the great unknown has been a part of my summer ever since getting out of college.
As I finish packing for my move to San Francisco and impending career change, I’m taking a moment to reflect on why, exactly, I find summer journeys like this so fun. Why doesn’t this feel like work? Why do I look forward to trips like this for months in advance?
Here’s what gets me pumped about taking off on a good road trip:
#1 – The Excitement of the Unknown
The allure of the open road is a real thing for me. I love watching my familiar surroundings melt away in my rearview mirror. My mind races with infinite new adventures. Taking in the world as it morphs from plains to mountains connects with something deep within me.
Anyone who has driven west across the United States knows the thrill of finally seeing the Rockies. I have done this drive time and time again and still get a kick out of watching the intimidating silhouette of the mountains appear beyond Denver. At that moment, those endless hours spent chugging across cornfields seem totally worth it.
New Mexico to South Dakota
My wife is from New Mexico and I’m from South Dakota. While we were both freelancing, we would take most of the summer and do an extended road trip back to both states. My wife played harp for the Des Moines Metro Opera (I joined her on bass for a couple of seasons with this orchestra), and I remember the anticipation and excitement of packing up the cars and heading west to South Dakota.
We would hang out for a week in Sioux Falls and then head west through South Dakota, stopping off at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug. Did you know that the first two Corn Palaces burned to the ground? You learn this visiting the Corn Palace year after year. Builders finally realized that the structure should really be built out of stone and then decorated with corn. South Dakotans are proud of their kitschy tourist traps. If you grow up as a musician in South Dakota, you even play All-State Band at the Corn Palace! Of course, stopping off at Wall Drug is mandatory when driving across the state… and how could you not stop after seeing signs for the place for the past 500 miles?
Hot Springs, South Dakota
Somehow, we stumbled upon the town of Hot Springs in the southern Black Hills and fell in love with the town, making it a part of our annual trip. There’s something totally charming about this town, and it is an excellent point of departure for Black Hills exploration. We’d stop there on the way out to New Mexico for a day or two and also on the way back.
Making a South Dakota/New Mexico trip work involves leaving the interstate for many hours and chugging along state highways through little towns like Manville (population 95) and Lost Springs (population 4). Lusk, Wyoming is a metropolis for the region, coming at at over 1600 people. My wife and I planned on staying there for the evening, but as we pulled into town we saw a man dressed as Jesus and dragging a full-sized cross down the sidewalk. We said “yeah…. no” and continued our drive late into the evening to the safety zone of Hot Springs.
#2 – Time to Reflect
My life moves pretty quickly… and I like that. I generally wake up feeling excited about the new day and all the projects that I’m tackling. Though I try to give myself some time to reflect throughout the day, so often it’s “go-go-go” from dawn until dusk, with precious little time to really… think.
Suddenly getting hours upon hours to think while road tripping can be a shocker. But I soon settle into it, and I find that many of the bigger decisions I’ve made in life have happened while silently driving down a highway on a summer road trip. The “luxury of boredom” that happens while doing a long road trip has helped me to make tough decisions or draw unexpected conclusions to problems I’ve been facing.
#3 – Time to Unwind
For over a decade I’ve played bass for the Midsummer’s Music Festival, and as the freneticism of my school job winds down in early June, I start counting the days left until heading up to Door County. My shoulders loosen as I crossed the Wisconsin border, and my mood brightens as I passed Milwaukee and left urban life behind for a few weeks.
Northern Door County presents a life without stoplights, chain restaurants, or expressways. It’s a little slice of heaven protruding into Lake Michigan, and time seems to have little relevance. This place conjures up images of sitting in the park for hours on end while reading an entire novel.
Door County is also time for “deep work” on the bass, going back to fundamentals and pulling out Simandl, Stretcher, and Sevcik. I spend hours practicing technique while gazing outside at the grassy hills and patches of forest. I can feel myself relaxing even as I type this.
That five-hour road trip up to Door County is also a great time to dig into an audiobook. In fact, I typically save an audiobook that I’ve been meaning to listen to for this trip. I love this road trip!
#4 – Time to Develop New Ideas
Stillness. Silence. Allowing myself the luxury of idle time. Boredom, even.
These are the moments when I am really able to synthesize all those thoughts bouncing around in my brain and come up with cohesive ideas. It is so hard to find moments of true quiet, and though I manage to carve them out during my workaday life (running, meditating, stretching), there’s nothing quite like those hours spent driving across the country for deep thought.
Prolonged periods of stillness and quiet are amazing for me. I feel like I figure out so many things sitting in the car and gazing at the passing plains, mountains, and valleys.
#5 – Reuniting with Family
My wife and I have lived hundreds of miles away from our relatives for a very long time. Though Chicago had essentially become my home after 22 years of living there, I still identify as South Dakotan. I get that wistful feeling every time I pull into Sioux Falls, and I know that my wife feels the same when we arrive in Albuquerque.
People who live near family get accustomed to having them as a part of their lives: weekend dinners, trips together, helping with moving the lawn or shoveling the snow. I’ve never had that in my adult life, soothes road trips have always been a great chance to reconnect with family and remember what I miss about all of them.
Follow Along with my Current Road Trip to San Francisco on Instagram!
Speaking of road trips, my brother and I are actually in the midst on an epic one: from Chicago to San Francisco! We’ve got all of my possessions (plus my wife’s harp!) crammed into two cars and are chugging across the country to relocate me to the West Coast. I’m posting my journey on Instagram if you’d like to follow along.