What sets a road trip apart from any other vacation is it’s so much more than your destination. It’s about the places you pass through on your way, the many opportunities to have a unique experience, discover new people, places, and ways of living.
As I mention in my article Map It!, planning a route that takes you off of the beaten track of highways will enrich your vacation enormously. If possible, try to make your entire route consist of smaller back-roads and byways that take you through the heart of wherever you’re visiting. Stop regularly to explore. Check out that bizarre sights like the largest ball of twine or a house built of soda cans!
If you’re planning a road trip in the U.S., realize that this country is really a bunch of smaller countries banded together into one. Different heritages flavor each area depending on who settled there back when the country was new. How Americans speak, cook, entertain, sing, and work (and much more) changes from state to state, even in so-called “parts” of the U.S. like the Northeast. People from Rhode Island are very different from those from Maine. It’s really fascinating!
So many people go somewhere and don’t even try to experience where they are. I’ll never forget the time I led a trip (a job I used to have) to Florence, Italy for a group of Americans.
On our first day, I asked our guide, Michelle, to help us locate a great Northern Italian restaurant for lunch. He found us a great one with long rustic wooden tables, earthenware jugs full of red wine, and the smell of delicious food filling the air. The tables were crowded with Italians – it was obviously a local favorite.
We sat down and realized that no one could read the menu as it was in Italian. No problem, Michelle offered to translate and make suggestions. I was discussing what I should order with Michelle when I realized the whole group had stood up and been filing out of the restaurant! I chased after them and asked what was wrong.
The answer: nothing. They wanted to have McDonald’s!
McDonald‘s in a city renowned for its amazing cuisine! It was so sad that they passed up a chance to eat what turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip so that they could have the same old fast food they could have any other day. They just wanted what they knew.
This experience led me to wonder: why go somewhere if you just want to stay home? Do you want to “see” the Eiffel Tower, but otherwise want everything to be like it is in your town? Don’t go – just look at photographs or videos. There is no point in traveling all that way if you’re not going to really be there.
How do you really experience a place, whether it’s Idaho or Switzerland? Besides seeing everything, which everyone focuses on when they travel, engage all of your senses.
Listen to it, the voices, the music, the birds – every sound that is part of that place. Smell it! Breathe in the smell of salt air, frying fish, and Coppertone by the shore, or the sweet smell of pine needles and wood smoke in the mountains. Try the cuisine of that area – just a little if you’re scared, but at least try. You might like it! Touch everything – get your hands dirty, you can always wash them.
One of my favorite sayings – actually it’s part of a title of a book – is “Be here now”. There is no time more essential that you be there truly than when you’re traveling because it is such an amazing opportunity to expand your horizons and broaden your experience. For details about how to truly immerse yourself in a place, check out Being in the Moment.
Another benefit of travel is the perspective you gain about your life at home. Almost every trip I’ve been on has brought me home a changed person in terms of my day-to-day life, at least in one way. Read my article about gaining a perspective to find out more. It may help you see your next vacation as a chance to examine your life from a distance and make improvements to it. It’s amazing what you will find out if you only look.
A planner most of my life, I’ve gotten carried away many times. I literally tried to plan a trip to Nantucket down to the minute! It was a mess because life doesn’t work that way. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” You can enjoy road trip planning if you also learn how to let serendipity have its way as well. Check out my Planning and Serendipity article to find out how to strike a balance.
Even if your trip (and road trip planning) is over, that doesn’t mean that the opportunities for personal growth have ended, too. Harness the power of coming home with this tried-and-true method of tackling important projects or goals in your life.
One of my favorite road trip songs is “Every Day is a Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow. I always shake my head and say, “Isn’t it, though?” Your next road trip can be so much more than a drive to your destination – it can be a journey into the world and into yourself, something that becomes deeply meaningful to you and benefits you for the rest of your life. All you have to do is open your mind to it – and go down that winding road.