Today is the halfway mark on my four month trip around the lower 48 states. It’s been amazing! I’ve made it all the way to the southernmost part of the U.S., and to the lowest point in the North America. I’ve watched dolphins play in the Atlantic, swam with fish in the Gulf of Mexico, descended into the depths of Carlesbad, hiked hundreds of miles, and marveled at the vistas from mountaintops and mesas. After all that, I thought I would stop for a moment to share what I’ve discovered so far from this wonderful time I’m having.
Gratitude really is the secret to happiness.
Now, I realize that it would be pretty easy right now to look at my life and think, “Of course you’re grateful! Who wouldn’t be if they had four months to just travel and see the country!” I get that. What I have to say in return though, is that while I feel incredibly grateful for this opportunity, that’s not the gratitude I’m talking about. What I’m noticing is the impact on my life of the gratitude for the smaller things. I’m talking about gratitude for things like:
- Running water and electricity in my camper.
- Backing my camper into the assigned parking spot with only five tries.
- Strangers who help out by greasing my wheels and adjusting the tire pressure when I mention that pulling the camper is more difficult than I expected (that totally helped!)
- That quesadilla truck in Moab, UT that comped my meal when I brought them gluten free wrappers from the local grocery store (they had run out, but they didn’t need to do that!)
- Waking up to the sound of birds.
- Seeing stars from one horizon to the next in the night sky of the desert.
- Making it around the tight curves on sheer cliffs in the mountain passes.
- The smell of coffee in the morning.
- Strangers who greet me with a smile as they pass by on hikes in the middle of the desert.
In other words, it’s the daily gratitude for smaller things that really matters. I’ve always been a person that believes in being grateful, but during this time I’m developing a much better understanding of how fundamentally important it is to my happiness.
The more I see, the smaller I feel (and that’s a good thing).
As I was traveling west on Highway 70 through Utah, the thought occurred to me that I was undergoing a mental shift for words like “huge” and “magnificent”. To me, the entire Colorado Plateau is one big lesson on how small and physically delicate humans are. It’s a lot easier to see how you fit into the planet organically when you strip away the roads, buildings and other conveniences of suburban life.
The importance of connections. Connections require vulnerability.
As I’m exploring cultural legacies along the way, I’ve noticed that every single native culture seems to make the point over and over that we are all connected, both to our surrounding environment and to one another. I know that sounds super woo-woo, but it’s true. I am slowly realizing how much of the stress in my life over the past few years has come from feeling increasingly disconnected.
I have found two lessons here. One is that when something isn’t working, the answer isn’t to stay in the same place and try to mentally disconnect from the experience, but rather to make the changes necessary so that you can be fully engaged in your surroundings and the people in your life. The more I connect with the natural world around me, away from the distractions of life that I would normally hide behind, the more obvious that becomes.
The second lesson is that connections require vulnerability. I couldn’t connect to nature the way I have been along the way without leaving the comfort of the campground and heading out into spaces that I have to share with heat, cold, sharp rocks, and wildlife. I couldn’t connect with people through this blog if I wasn’t willing to be honest about my experiences, and I couldn’t connect with people I meet along the way if I wasn’t willing to share something about myself that might work as a starting point for a conversation that is based in humility. As a person who likes being safe and making plans, and generally trying to avoid surprises whenever possible, the power of vulnerability is worth remembering.
I have my own rhythm.
This is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to set my own pace, and build awareness about what that is. The biggest benefit of that (as far as I can tell) is that I feel much more present, in the moment, and aware of things around me, because I’m not rushing. It turns out that rushing all the time has not been a great thing for me (duh!). I don’t know what the future holds, but whatever I end up doing next, I’m going to honor this rhythm better.
Most people are incredibly kind.
The people I’ve met have been overwhelmingly nice, thoughtful and super supportive when I’ve bumped into challenges. This may be somewhat related to the fact that most of the people I’m encountering are also out enjoying nature and cultural points of interest, but if that’s what it takes to keep people happy, that’s worth noting.
There have been challenges as well, and I can handle them.
The most difficult part of this trip for me has been the driving, and that is what I expected since I don’t really enjoy driving to begin with. I’ve learned to try and limit my driving for any given day to about 200 miles, max. That doesn’t always work, but I don’t do back to back long haul days and if I have to do a long stretch, I allow an extra day of rest.
Here’s the “stuff” I brought along that I am most happy about:
- My camper (a 2017 Forest River RPod 179) and tow vehicle (2016 Ford F150 4×4 with a V8). Together they provide the perfect combination of comfort and manageable size. I upgraded the mattress in my camper, but other than that have left it pretty much the way it came. The truck came pre-loaded with a tow package, including anti-sway technology.
- My camera. I have an older Nikon D90 digital SLR and I’m super happy with the photos I’ve captured (shooting raw images). Unfortunately, I’ve managed to lose all three lens caps I brought.
- My hiking boots. I bought a new pair of Ahnu Women’s Montara waterproof hiking boots before I left and they are the most comfortable hiking boots I’ve ever owned. They fit close to the foot and ankle, have plenty of cushion and yet are flexible enough that I can feel where I’m stepping. The tread is also made of some kind of sticky rubber stuff that has kept me from sliding even on slick rocks in canyons. I love these boots!
- Walking poles. Mine aren’t fancy. I don’t walk with a lot of weight on mine, but rather use them to help with balance.
What I wish I had thought to bring:
- Reverse osmosis filter in the camper. I’m using a lot of bottled water, and that’s not an environmentally friendly thing to be doing.
- Mechanical jack. I stopped in Florida to have one installed.
- Better tires. I actually stopped in Las Vegas to upgrade to Goodyear Endurance tires on my camper. The truck tires are fine.
- My portable Bose blue-tooth speaker. I could use some jams at night!
What I brought that I haven’t needed.
I jokingly refer to my truck as “The Truck of Bad Decisions” because it’s filled with crap I don’t need. I don’t need a gas grill cooking for only one person. I don’t need an extra tank of propane gas (there are plenty of places to refill along the way), two extra containers of gas for the generators or really, even the generators. I’m not parking overnight in the wilderness alone, and I’ve stayed in campgrounds every night but one, when I couldn’t get the generators piggy-backed anyway. In an attempt to provide for every possible challenge along the way, I’ve created the separate challenge of a truck weighed down with stuff I’m not using. Lesson learned.
So there they are. The lessons of the road at the halfway mark. Today, I’m driving to Yosemite, which has definitely been on my bucket list for years. Afterwards, I’ll head north to the area around San Francisco, where I’ll get a break from camper living and time to visit with a friend before I begin wandering my way back east. I will probably take a short break from this blog as well, but I promise there will be more stories to tell and photos to share!