When we left our regular lives with the intent to see the United States on a long-term road trip, I knew we’d receive an education we could never duplicate by staying in the same spot. It’s not that I set out on a journey to ‘find myself’ per se, but I was due for an alteration and broadening of my world view. I figured now might be a good time to pause and reflect on what this lifestyle has taught me and compile it in a list.
#1 Your preconceptions about regional personalities are mostly wrong.
We’ve all heard and maybe even agreed with some of the assumptions thrown around about certain areas’ inhabitants. Labels like Rednecks/Hillbillies. Claims such as “California is just a bunch of liberal potheads” or “Midwesterners are so boring/stoic” or “Southern people are bible-thumping idiots”. I’m guilty of judging some in my home state of Tennessee for being uneducated or racist. Others assume southerners are all friendly and charming, that other regions are made up of less friendly people. We’re all wrong–rednecks are everywhere. No seriously, I saw rebel flags and swastikas in Oregon. All kidding aside, the fact is that we as humans love to put those who differ from us into an ‘other’ category, one we can name and make fun of or insult with others in ‘our’ perceived group.
One need only hop on Facebook to witness this sort of tribal tendency transpiring in our modern world. But it’s easy to judge entire groups of people from the safety and comfort of your couch as you watch talking heads on the screen, telling you what to think. It’s easy to assume you have an understanding about a religion or culture when you read about it in a book or Facebook thread. It’s easy to harbor dislike for those who seem unreal or far removed from your life. It’s another thing entirely to actually meet someone different from you face to face and still retain the ability to judge them with your closed mind–because just encountering them is opening it, even if slightly. Getting out there and meeting people all over this country has shattered the notions I previously held and caused me to admit how futile it is to categorize people this way.
#2 Most people everywhere are kind.
There are jerks everywhere, but they’re outnumbered. Kindness always wins, and the stats prove it. Researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology studied human kindness and cooperation and found that humans are naturally more kind rather than selfish. My experiences echo this study: I’ve had real, meaningful conversations with people in fancy shopping malls and last-resort laundromats, on hiking trails and at truck stops. We’ve dealt with a flat tire on the side of the road close to the Mexican border, only to have many people pull over to ask to help in what was rumored to be a dangerous area. In fact, any time we pulled over, people stopped to see if they could assist us. These good samaritans wanted to help– they truly cared about this stranger struggling.
In California, while traveling on I-8 to get to San Diego, we encountered overheating issues due to the steep grades in the mountains. One man pulled over and gifted us 2 large jugs of coolant to add to our radiator. He didn’t ask for anything in return, he just wanted to aid us.
When we tent camped in Big Sur, our truck decided to stop working (the fuel system lost pressure; it was a simple fix that we weren’t aware of) and a college student camping nearby spent 2-3 hours with Scott, driving him somewhere he could make a phone call from a landline because there was no cell signal in the area. He didn’t have to do anything. He could have enjoyed his afternoon in this beautiful oceanside landscape and I wouldn’t have faulted him a bit. But he saw a family who was basically (we thought) stranded far away from civilization with no car and decided to do something about it. We didn’t even know his name.
A woman who heard Finn crying in a Texas park came running with tweezers when she learned he had fallen into a cactus. I’m not trying to trivialize the suffering and chaos occurring in our time, but I just wanted to point out that in every state and country, every demographic, every ideology–most people are kind, generous, thoughtful, and good.
#3 You can find beauty anywhere, oftentimes in the places you least expect.
Everyone knows Yosemite is grand, the Rockies leave you breathless, and visiting Yellowstone is a life-changing experience. It’s easy to find stunning vistas within these national treasures; I mean, even a photo taken on my old Motorola RAZR would have been able to capture their effortless beauty. But what about the places less known for visual appeal? Everyone goes to Yosemite because, well, everyone knows about Yosemite. (And by the way, it was crowded–I nearly had a panic attack because of the claustrophobic feeling I had in the visitor center area.) But not nearly as many people know about Big Bend National Park in southern Texas, which features 1,252 square miles of mountains, a geothermal hot spring perfect for soaking, and wide open spaces that truly make you feel you’re ‘away from it all.’ I never thought Texas was that beautiful of a place (I mean, at the breathtaking level) until I experienced it firsthand.
Another example is Florida–many Americans who live in the eastern half of the US have vacationed to Panama City Beach, Destin, Orlando, and the Keys. We know those beaches are relaxing, that seafood restaurants and towering condominiums dot the coast, and that the theme parks are a blast. How far outside of those destination cities have you ventured? Have you ever felt like you were truly away from civilization in Florida? When we stayed at St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park, we were amazed at the natural, preserved environment we found. This gem is miles away from any restaurants, walmart, target, starbucks–you name it. The nearest real grocery was a good 35-40 minute drive. I wasn’t expecting to experience any awe in this flat, very commercialized state, but I was blown away.
#4 You can feel sadness and other negative emotions even when you’re pleased with where your life has led you.
Traveling has brought me to new levels of joy and renewed my love for life. I’m proud of the way we are living and how we are raising our children to never stop exploring. Furthermore, I feel accomplished in the sense that we abandoned the traditional notions of success and followed our own dreams. Having these positive feelings about our life choices is great, but it doesn’t stop other regular emotions from creeping in. I don’t know if there is a word for this, but I’m homesick, not for a place, but for certain people. It has been an issue a few times throughout our trip, particularly when we went long periods of time without hanging out with other adults.
Scott and my relationship has strengthened and I’m sure glad I don’t tire of his company, but having other friends to laugh and just be with is a must for us both. We have enjoyed skyping/facetiming with friends back in Michigan and Tennessee, and with family members all over. Also amazing are the encounters we have had with friends living in far-away states with whom we rarely, if ever got to spend time when we had a regular, stationary life. And we have met amazing traveling families and couples along the way with whom we enjoyed having hikes, meals, and talks. But there is something to be said for being a block away from your best friends who can come over whenever you need them. And man, I sure have realized how much joy I derived from hosting dinner parties and pot lucks–it’s like a part of me is missing in that way. These considerations remind me of the complexity of the human mind, and how one can feel bittersweet emotions without having the need to claim just one side of the coin.
Acknowledging and owning negative feelings and then working to remedy them if possible is a vital part to personal growth.
#5 Education and experiences squash fear.
If you never get out and do the things you want to do because of fear, you won’t ever know what you’re missing, and you won’t ever stop fearing them. You won’t ever discover that town you passed through on the way to your destination. You won’t try new foods because they look weird or have strange names. You won’t meet new people who are different from you. Instead, you can just continue to judge places and people from the ignorance and comfort of your own bubble. That is, unless you pop that bubble and experience life outside your own norm. I promise you, it will be worth it. Taking a jump and going for something despite being afraid is one of the most liberating feelings in the world. It shows you that most times, you’re the thing in your own way. And hey, if your fears come true and something goes wrong, at least you’ll have a good story!
#6 Growth happens when you move out of your comfort zone.
Speaking of stories, think back on your own life and tell me, have your best, life-altering experiences happened while you were comfortable in your everyday life? Or have your times of personal growth occurred during times of change or movement of some kind? Big trips, relationship changes, losing a loved one, gaining new employment–these sort of experiences bring about incredible personal evolution, whether negative or positive. But having every day look the same, all the time…well that doesn’t lead to much growth. Saying yes to an experience even if you’d rather give in to fear or do the same old thing you always do–these are the moments in which you develop, the moments that define you.
I’m not aiming to say that the simplicity and beauty of every day life is not important or should not be appreciated. But when you’re stuck and you’re hurting, or when you’re soaring and feeling truly blessed, how do you act? I learned this first hand–you find out what you’re made of when you’re sitting on the side of the highway in a tiny Texas town and you don’t know how or when you’ll get to your next destination. You discover what truly lies beneath the surface you show to everyone else when you climb a mountain and realize you can’t climb high enough to escape your grief. That sort of experience moves you, whether you like it or not. Would I have faced the same profound moments had I never left, had I chosen comfort and familiarity? The answer is unequivocally no.
#7 Time in nature might not completely cure anxiety/depression, but it definitely aids in coping with it.
Any time we were camped in a more natural environment with more trees and beautiful landscapes, we felt a difference in ourselves. In fact, there were at least two occasions that led me to feel almost drugged because I was overwhelmed with awe and wonder at nature. As we drove up to Mount Shasta in Northern California, the dense fog and plentiful evergreen trees struck us with their moody beauty. But nothing could have prepped me for the moment the mist parted to reveal an enormous, snow covered volcano towering just ahead of us. Tears formed without reason, and none of us could even speak.
John Muir, one of America’s most influential conservationists, once wrote of this exact experience on seeing this sight: “When I first caught sight of it [Mount Shasta] over the braided folds of the Sacramento Valley, I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since.” I discovered this quote of his after my own “blood to wine” experience and chills ran down my spine–I was amazed at his ability to put into words what I had been unable to name. My body had felt weak at the sight of this unbelievably beautiful place, and there’s good reason.
Being outdoors has a profound effect on our brains–studies show time and time again that being in nature is good for us. I understand that chronic depression and anxiety cannot simply be defeated by going outside of a building, but it’s truly incredible to experience the shift in your mood when you surround yourself with the natural world. And why wouldn’t it make sense? Our species didn’t develop indoors. “Going to the woods is going home,” as John Muir also famously penned.
#8 Letting go of the notion you can control everything takes time.
When we first started selling and donating most of our possessions, I freaked out! Everything was changing–I was letting go of all of these things I’d thought I’d needed. Nevertheless, I was still pretty much in control. I could have pulled the plug and grabbed that vase from the lady who was waiting to buy it at my yard sale. I could have called it all off and clung tight to my structured, happy life. And who could have blamed me? Having control over our circumstances is comfortable and it makes us feel powerful, peaceful even. Having total control is also a lie. When you don’t stray far from the normal routine life you’ve created for yourself, you almost forget how fragile your managing facade really is.
Only a small amount of things can go wrong or depart from the norm when every day looks almost the same. But when you step away from that comfort, when something goes wrong unexpectedly, you remember how little control you really have. And that messes with you! I remember feeling that familiar sensation of anxiety rising up my skin, my face tingling, and my breath shortening as we first encountered an issue on our trip. Stepping outside of my neat little box was the scariest thing I’d ever done, and my brain took time to adjust. No matter how hard I could feel upset, nothing would change. I couldn’t help the weather, I couldn’t help the tire blowing out, I couldn’t change the fully-booked reservations at our anticipated destination. I soon felt like I couldn’t control anything. But instead of feeling defeated and powerless, something unexpected happened…I accepted the limit of my control. I could only truly control myself and my own actions, and despite being told this truth my whole life, it took me until now to fully realize it.
How freeing it felt to let go of the need to immediately react to any negative stimuli! Soon I was taking any negative life stuff in stride, modeling to my children to accept that “shit happens.” Because it does, and you never know when it will! The only thing you know is that you’ll get through it, and I suppose that is control–control over your mind.
Seize the day, dude. You never know if it could be your last. Why spend your whole life doing the same thing over and over, or the same thing everyone else tells you to do? The world is your oyster, if only you see it as such.