Every Place I Slept

Some of you may remember a post I did awhile back about choosing a thing to do in every place I visited. While I did take many photos of people taking pictures (more on that later), I also went ahead with my plan to photograph my sleeping arrangements for every night. Few of these photos are interesting on their own, but in aggregate they seem to tell a story. I hope you enjoy:

 

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Budget for a Four Month Road Trip

Four years ago I was sitting in my office back at my old job when I made the decision to travel the country. I pulled up a handful of cities on Google Maps to see how long it would take. My list only included 14 cities, so the mileage came out to 7915 (this would be about half of the actual mileage). The driving time added up to 132 hours, or 6 hours a day for 22 days. Then I started to do the real math.

I speculated it would take me 120 days, and guessed I’d spend an average of $30 a night. I don’t know where that number really came from, but it seemed right considering some of my lodging would cost much more, and some of it would be free. I looked up the average price of gas in the country, added a few dimes, and came up with $1400 in gas.

Adding together my speculative figures I came up with a number close to $8,000, which I rounded to an even $10,000 to be safe. This was my goal, and I had three years to do it.

Lodging: $3,164.96

The most I paid for a bed to sleep in was $184.31 for a single night at the Sunset Inn in Provincetown, MA on the end of Cape Cod. I probably could have found much cheaper accommodations, but I hadn’t planned ahead and was feeling especially tired by the time I had to pick a bed. I chose the Sunset Inn because it was the first place I saw with signs for both vacancy and free parking.

The cheapest lodging (excluding all of the fantastic friends, family members, couchsurfing hosts and occasional free camp site) was camping for $8.32 at Chickasaw State Park in Alabama. I was the only one in the park, which was fortunate when a thunderstorm rolled in and I had to move my tent into the pavilion.

Food: $1,512.33

The most expensive single meal I had was split with my sister the night we got back to the top of the Grand Canyon. We had decided ahead of time that we would treat ourselves to the place we had been assured was the fanciest in Grand Canyon Village. It cost us $59 each and was the weirdest dining experience I had the whole trip. For some reason the front of house staff was in a constant panic. When we arrived at 8:13 for an 8:15 reservations, the hostess actually told us to come back in two minutes. Despite the frenzy out front, the restaurant itself wasn’t busy. It looked like a completely ordinary dinner crowd. Our waiter had a strange voice like he didn’t belong to any dialect, and the food was decent but not spectacular. I have no idea what was going on in that place.

Car Maintenance & Gas: $3,711.38

The most I paid for a single tank of gas was $59.40 in Michigan, but that doesn’t say much. I did my best never to get below a quarter tank, and often filled up just after hitting the halfway mark, so it’s likely that I just waited longer to fill up that day in Michigan. I can say that the highest single price per gallon was in the middle of the redwoods in California. I only bought enough to get me out of the area, as it was more than $5.50 a gallon.

The largest single expense was getting my driver’s side window fixed in Kansas City for a whopping $427.92.

Entrance Fees, Audio Tours, Overpriced Internet: $820.72

Biltmore (the Vanderbilt mansion) was the most expensive attraction at $69. The lowest (outside of free) was a $1 donation I made to the Old North Church in Boston.

Gifts and Souvenirs: $123.81

When you have to carry everything you buy, you don’t buy much. There are really only three things in this category:

1) Site-specific gifts for my couchsurfing hosts. I would pick up little candies and soaps along the way that were indicative of the places I had visited, then leave them as thank you presents for hosts later on in the trip. Friends in Oklahoma got dried fruit from Oregon, that sort of thing. Most people got honey sticks from Pike Place Market that I picked up before leaving, which turned out to be the easiest gift to transport, and the most forgiving of high temperatures.

2) Shot glasses. I have a large shot glass collection that I have been curating since I was 11 years old. I tried to be a bit more reserved on this trip, and purchased less than a dozen over the entire four months.

3) Postcards for Rob. Along the way I purchased postcards from the places I visited, then sent them to my boyfriend with messages that confirmed my well-being but suggested impending doom. “HAVE NOT BEEN ATTACKED BY BEARS YET.” “DID NOT FALL OFF A BRIDGE.” And my personal favorite for Roswell, New Mexico: “NOTHING HAPPENED.”

The cheapest postcards were $0.30.

Public Transit: $77.70

San Francisco wins for most money spent on public transport, with Boston a close second. However both are only in the running because their transit systems are so good I barely used my car.

General Supplies: $222.71

This is the category for hiking poles and contact solution, as well as replacements for broken sunglasses, broken cameras, and whatever it was I kept buying at Walgreens.

GRAND TOTAL: $9,633.61

I know my numbers aren’t precise (they don’t align perfectly with the bank statements), but they are within an acceptable margin of error. I won’t bother doing a line by line comparison because ultimately it doesn’t matter if I spent ten extra dollars on gifts or twenty fewer on entrance fees.

I was told I’d spend a third of my money on gas, which was true. I expected the total would be between $8,000 and $10,000, which was also true. My original estimates for food and lodging ended up being switched – I overestimated the cost of food and underestimated the price of a campsite. My original gas estimate was off because it was based on the wrong mileage (once I plugged the correct mileage number in it was almost perfect). I also vastly overestimated the cost of “fun.” Turns out a lot of fun is cheap or free.

To me, staying under ten grand for a four month tour of the entire country is pretty good, though I doubt I’ll be selling any copies of “How to Do America on $79 a Day.” And in the interest of total honesty, there was another $1000 that I spent on reusable supplies like my tent, sleeping bag, backpack, etc. But I’ve already used most of these things again since returning (and will certainly use them more in the future), so it’s hard for me to count such items as trip expenses. That’s a slope that gets slippery fast. I bought shorts right before I left, are those trip shorts or my own shorts? Do I have to count the other pair of shorts I took, even though I’ve owned them for years?

I could have easily spent thousands less than I did. All it would have required was a bit more planning, and few different choices, and an alternative outlook about what kind of trip I was on. I could have couchsurfed more and saved hundreds on lodging. I could have eaten in my car more and saved on diner food. And I could have decided that I’d rather spend an extra day in a national park than a few hours touring a deadman’s indulgent home. I could have driven less and stayed in each location longer. But these aren’t the choices I wanted to make for this trip, and I was willing to spend the money.

I make this point because I don’t want anyone to confuse my budget with THE budget. You can do America on a lot less money, and many have. I spent $10k and could have easily spent half that. Ultimately the money doesn’t matter, as is often the case with money. And don’t forget I would have spent $6,000 over the course of four months back home, just putting in my normal expenses for rent, food, etc. After asking how I managed to take four months off work, people always ask where I got the money. But the cost of travel is what you decide it is. You decide if you need a hotel or a hostel. You decide to eat at world renowned restaurants or street corner hot dog carts.

The only thing that’s difficult is that you have to decide.

When It Counts

My boyfriend spent several years of his childhood living in Europe. His family always said that it counts as visiting a country if you go to the bathroom there.

I’ve been asked many times how many states I visited on my trip. I always struggle to do the math, and often find it’s easier to work backward. I count the states I didn’t visit. But even this isn’t as easy as it seems. For example, I can say for certainty that on this particular trip, I never set foot or wheel in the following states:

Utah
Colorado
North Dakota
Indiana
Kentucky
Ohio
West Virginia
Delaware
Alaska
Hawaii

So that’s a list of 10 states, meaning that I visited 40 states on this trip. But it’s not as easy as that. I’d always wanted to know how quickly a person could drive across Rhode Island, so I never got out of the car the entire time I was there. I did the same thing in New Hampshire, but that was because there didn’t seem to be anything worth stopping for. Does that count?

BenchI ended up leaving Madison a day earlier than planned, so I decided to swoop down to Dubuque, Iowa after a brief detour in the northwest corner of Illinois. I was probably in Illinois for about 20-40 minutes, though I do believe I stopped to get out of the car and stretch my legs. Does that count?

My first night in South Dakota I slept in Vermillion, which is just across the river from Nebraska. It was so close, I went ahead and drove my first hour of the day inside the Nebraska borders. I got out at least once to take a picture of a tiny Statue of Liberty, and nearly ran out of gas I was so far from civilization. Does that count?

I’m starting to think that whether or not it “counts” is based less on time or distance, and more on what you expected the place to be. I spent the night in Iowa, and took a couple hours the next morning to see the local museum. I even went to the Effigy Mounds National Monument, though I’ll admit that the heat kept me from hiking up to see most of the park. The point is, I put in my time in Iowa. I slept there, I talked to people there, I went to the bathroom there, I spent money there, I have memories there. But in my mind, Iowa isn’t the roads along the west bank of the Mississippi River. Iowa is that great stretch of boring farmland in the middle. Iowa isn’t Dubuque, it’s Des Moines.

Perhaps that’s why it’s easier for my to say that I went to New Hampshire and Nebraska, even though I barely did anything there. My experience in those states matched my perception of them. I went to Nebraska and I saw farm land. That’s what I assume most of Nebraska to be. I don’t think of native burial mounds and river museums when I think of Iowa. When I look back on those experiences, it’s as though they must have happened somewhere else.

Back to IowaForty is a nice, round number, so I think I’ll stick with it. Were I to remove every state I was unsure of I’d be down to 35, which it still round but not as much. The other thing to consider is when I might count them in the future. It was easy to not count every state for this trip, since I knew I wasn’t going to visit all 48 in the continental United States. However I’ve already been to Ohio and Indiana, and one could make a solid argument that I’ve been to Colorado. Hawaii and Utah are both states I’d like to see within the next 5-10 years, which leaves only five out of fifty. Once you start getting that close, it becomes nothing short of a mission. Kentucky and West Virginia are right next to each other, and I’ve got a friend who’s itching to have me see Louisville. A few choice members of Rob’s family are moving to the Washington D.C. area, so Delaware isn’t much of a stretch, and I’ve always been a bit intrigued by those cruises up to Alaska that are regularly pushing off from the Port of Seattle.

I guess the point is that whether or not I want to count it is entirely up to me. If I never make it back to New Hampshire but I visit every other state, you can be certain that I will count it. I guess that means I only have one problem left.

Anyone know a good reason to go to North Dakota?

The Long and Winding Road Towards Leaving on a Jet Plane

We interrupt your regularly scheduled road trip to bring you a wedding.

I’ve known Shannon for many years and have had the chance to work on some terrific theatrical projects with her. She’s helped me through my relationship woes, and I’ve watched as she systematically narrowed down the field of available men until she found one she wanted to spend her life with. I’ve been excited to see Shannon get married since long before she was engaged. Since long before she was dating her would-be husband, in fact.

So when she announced her wedding date earlier in the year and I realized it would be smack in the middle of my trip, it took me all of five seconds to respond with a shrug: “I’ll just have to fly back then.”

Trip EstimateMy plans started, as they so often do, with math. I looked up the distance between each of my 24 benchmark cities and used them to calculate the overall milage of the trip. Then I took that estimate and split it up into milage markers by percentage in intervals of 10 percent. I then matched up those milage marks with the matching cities, and with a corresponding set of percentage markers for calendar dates. It sounds like a lot of work until you realize how much I love making referential fields in Excel. The end result was a date for every city on my list. As I traveled I would know if I was running ahead or behind my goal of getting back home in four months. This list was helpful for a lot of planning on my trip, but it was crucial for the wedding. It showed me that to stay on track, I should be near the mid-atlantic coast by the weekend of Shannon’s wedding.

I looked up flights online, utilizing my years of practice as a personal assistant booking flights for my boss. I tried a selection of major airports in the area, and all signs pointed to Baltimore. Every flight I could find was cheaper flying out of Baltimore. This included one flight that went from Baltimore to New York and then to Seattle, but was still cheaper than taking that same plane straight from New York. I guess they have trouble selling those Baltimore flights. The wedding was on Saturday, so I booked a flight for Friday evening. Because the time change would be on my side, I could leave at around 6PM and still get to Seattle before midnight. For the flight back, a red-eye was my only option. Nothing left during the day on Sunday, and I knew I didn’t want to try to fly out the night of the wedding. So I would leave Seattle late Sunday night and arrive back in Baltimore early Monday morning.

Now for my car. I knew several people who lived in the greater D.C./Baltimore area, so I considered asking one of them if I could park at their place. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to look up airport parking and I found that at the Baltimore airport, long-term parking is only $8 a day. They really want people to fly out of Baltimore.

Before I left I explained my plans to my boyfriend Rob. After I said everything he repeated it back to me to make sure he had it correct.

“So you fly out of Baltimore on Friday evening and get to Seattle that night. You’ll have the morning to rest and then we’ll go down to Tacoma for the wedding – ”

“Wait,” I said, “How will we get to the wedding?”

“Drive?” he said, a bit confused.

“In whose car?” I asked him.

There was a brief pause as we both realized that out primary means of transportation would be 3000 miles away on the day that we had to dress in fancy clothes and travel an hour out of town. Luckily we had plenty of friends who would be making the same drive from Seattle to the wedding that day, and before long we had managed to secure two spots in my friend Carrie’s car.

In packing for the trip, I had to decide ahead of time what I would wear to the wedding. If I knew what I was wearing, I could bring back any needed purses/jewelry/shoes I had brought with me on my trip. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. The last time I went to Europe I had to fly straight from Rome to L.A. in order to be at my cousin’s wedding. I had to choose my outfit and give it to my mother two months in advance so she could bring it down with her and I wouldn’t have to lug it around the European continent. But these are the things you do when important stuff is happening to those who are important to you.

By what could be described as either luck or misfortune, four days before my flight I caught my tire on the sharp end of a curb while pulling off at a viewpoint on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The scrape wasn’t severe and didn’t seem to be leaking air, but it wasn’t pretty and it made me nervous. At the same time, I was about to hit another 5,000 mile mark on my odometer and felt like an oil change and checkup might be in order. As I drove through Virginia I tried to figure out when might be a good time to take my car in to the shop. Ideally I would do it while staying with friends who had a vehicle, which would allow me to drop it off and not worry about timing. Alternatively I considered trying to schedule an appointment on a day when I didn’t have much planned, and I could hang out at the shop while they did the work. And then it hit me: I could have them fix my car while I went to the wedding.

I found a Volkswagen dealership not far from the Baltimore airport, and I looked on their website to see if they offered a shuttle service. They did, provided you were within 15 miles of the dealer. The airport was 13 miles away. I called to make my appointment and confirmed that it would be okay if I wasn’t able to pick up the car until Monday. And that’s how I managed to get free parking at a secure location and complimentary transportation to and from the airport while not allowing vehicle maintenance to take away from my other travel experiences. I felt like an absolute genius.

The wedding was beautiful and Rob and I were there for a full eight hours. The event was at a friend’s private home, which meant the couple could invite people to show up early as well as stay late. It was nice to have a somewhat accidental chance to say hello to all my friends in the middle of my trip. And it allowed me to finally answer a different question when talking about the journey: “So where are you right now?”

Several of us chose to get hotel rooms in town for the evening, and Shannon invited us back in the morning for a post-wedding breakfast. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a wedding where I had so much bride time, and over breakfast we discussed the various traditions the couple chose not to bother with (first dance, throwing the bouquet, cutting the cake) and how none of those traditions were really missed. Many of my friends are in long term relationships, and we’re getting to the point where we no longer talk about potential wedding plans with embarrassment. It’s funny to think that there is that time during your early twenties when you both want to talk about it but don’t want to let anyone hear you, for fear you’ll accidentally turn on the pressure for both you and your partner. At this point we’ve all survived the pressure, and no one is concerned about complimenting the choice to have bridesmaids match with a color pallet rather than a particular dress.

After breakfast we took it upon ourselves to help clean up the house and yard, which I think made us all feel better about getting such a delicious free meal for the second day in a row. The team of a dozen or so friends and family made quick work of collapsing the tables, gathering the linens, and taking down the couple hundred candle lanterns that were used as light and decoration the night before. Shannon kept insisting that we didn’t have to help, and we kept helping anyway. A good time was had by all.

We drove back home with Carrie and our friend Laurie (also visiting from out of town), and I managed to spend my last remaining hours cleaning up all the junk I had brought home that I decided I didn’t need on the trip. I kissed Rob goodbye, and went to wait for the #40 bus to take me downtown to catch the light rail to the airport. As I stood on the corner waiting for the bus, it occurred to me how ordinary it all felt. There was no sudden jolt with coming home. It was all easy and natural. My home, my neighborhood, my friends – all of them were exactly as I left them, and I felt just as unchanged. As I type that it seems like a negative, but it was a comfort. It was proof that making big choices and having big adventures won’t always require or cause big life changes. Your friends are still your friends, your city is still your city.

There was one part of flying back home that was unsettling. It happened on Friday night on the plane ride to Seattle. I had to change planes in Texas, and I remember looking out the window as we were about to touch down. Texas. It had been so long since Texas. So much had happened even before I got to Texas, and so much had happened since then. And here it was again, right below me. It took me 37 days to get away from Texas and only 3 hours to get back. And soon I would be home, two months and 7,000 miles away.

I suppose it was closer than Rome.

The Deep South

I got the idea for this trip from my older sister and her friends back when I was in junior high. They would talk about taking a similar route around the United States, and I would overhear their conversations. For whatever reasons their plans never manifested, and the whole thing just sat in the back of my mind.

In my sophomore year of college I got an idea for a novel, following the adventures of the main character as she wandered around the United States (hiding from her past, unable to go home, that sort of thing). I wrote small bits of the story whenever I got inspired, but never really focused any effort on it.

My senior year I was suddenly filled with inspiration for the novel, and made a conscious effort to sit down and write more. There was one particular section of the story I felt sure was best placed in the Deep South, where things would be hot and sticky and rural and racist. But as I sat down to write, I had nothing. I couldn’t picture any details. Everything looked generic. I realized that my hot sticky rural racist South was based entirely on movies and books. I was setting my story in someone else’s novel.

It’s been pointed out to me before that being in the southeastern United States in July is going to be miserable. That is, generally, the point. If I want to write about that misery I’m going to have to experience for myself. I’ve been accused before of being too autobiographical in my writing, which to me is a silly accusation. Every writer is writing her own story. Every writer is writing the relationships and settings and characters that she has seen inside herself and in the world around her. Some just disguise it better than others. In my experience, the more you disguise it the more like your real life it ends up being anyway, but that’s a story for another time.

My point is, the Deep South is on my must see list so I can see and feel and taste what it’s like to be there. Unfortunately being there is the only thing on the list.

Deep South MapAs I mentioned before, I’ve been keeping track of possible U.S. attractions in Evernote. When I go to my notes on Mississippi and Alabama, all I’ve got on the list of possible places to see is the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, and I’m not even sure I want to go there. These two states stand as a single, solid block of “I’m sure I’ll find something.”

I can’t help but wonder what this is implying. Is it that I don’t know anyone who has visited either of these states? Or is it just that they don’t have any good news to report? I know I want to spend some time on the Mississippi river, so that’s a start. But what then? On all my maps thus far I take a straight path from New Orleans to Jacksonville. While I’m sure the gulf coast is nice, it seems an awful long way to go just to stay on the edge the whole time.

Perhaps I should just do what my main character does: head towards Alabama and get myself into trouble.  I don’t know if it worked for her, I haven’t written that yet. But I suppose that’s true for both of us.

California I’m Coming Home

After taking way too long to realize that Google Maps lets you drag and drop destinations, I’ve recently taken to adding locations at random and sorting them out later. This caused me to create the following image. The best part is that the journey starts in the center:

California Death Spiral

California Death Spiral aside, I eventually settled on a much smoother, coastal path through the state:

I’ve heard from a lot of people that Highway 101 is among the most beautiful stretches of road in the United States, so I’m excited about that. I had a pretty long list of things to see in California, but in the end nearly everything on my list was on Highway 101, in San Francisco, or near Los Angeles. There were a few interesting things on the east side (as demonstrated in above-pictured death spiral), but I think they’ll be destinations better served on a future trip. A trip with friends and proper hiking equipment perhaps.

I realized today on my drive to work that I haven’t thought about what I’m going to do and see in San Francisco. I knew I wanted to have expensive meal at Chez Panisse, and tour the Winchester Mystery House. But beyond that I don’t have much planned. I’ve been told by many people who know me and know the city that I would really like San Francisco, and I believe them. But so far I’ve been taking notes on what to see in America in general. Now I need to look at one city specifically.

The other day a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was going to be in New York City for a few days, and wanted ideas for what she should see and do. A flood of suggestions came in, and now she’ll have to figure out how to cram it all into the few short days she will be there. Today I realized that I’m trying to do the same thing for a continuous 120 day period. I’m starting to see why so many fellow travelers have warned me against over-planning. The potential for being overwhelmed by this trip is incredible.

Perhaps I would do well to add only the Golden Gate Bridge to my list and call it good. No more plans for the city, I will figure it out when I get there. I can wander if I need to. Or rest if I want to. This is an adventure, not an assignment. I can’t do it wrong.

Must See List

In my planning, I try to keep an open mind about where to go, what’s worth seeing, and what really qualifies as a detour. After all, nothing is really out of the way when you’re not going anywhere. My trip is a circle, and the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” is overly applicable. Things can only be out of the way if they make it impossible for me to see something else. So I’m going to have to prioritize. I thought it best to put together a “Must See List” to give myself more direction. So, as of right now, here are the eight things I feel like I Must See on this trip:

  1. Grand Canyon
  2. Niagara Falls
  3. San Francisco, CA
  4. The Deep South
  5. Roswell, NM
  6. Memphis, TN
  7. Glacier National Park
  8. The Oregon Vortex

One thing to remember about this list, is that it is personal to my experience. This is not a Must See for the United States. For example, if I had never seen any of the U.S. before, places like Mount Rushmore and New York City would be obvious choices. They’re not on the list because I have already seen them, so if I miss them on this trip it’s not a big deal.

There are a few other places that I originally thought were must see destinations, but in the spirit of setting priorities, I had to make some tough choices. When thinking of a destination, I asked myself if I might visit this place again one day. Certain cities, such and Chicago, IL and Austin, TX, are places I intend to see someday regardless. If not this trip, then the next one. More importantly, they are destinations by themselves. A year from now I could see myself flying to Chicago for a week. I can’t say the same about Niagara Falls.