Solo road trip: How I fell in love with solo car travel

by Aug 31, 2021Essays

Long Road Solo Road Trip

When the world came to a grinding halt in March 2020, the days began to melt one into the other. Until I discovered the joy of a solo road trip. This is the story of solo car travel as transformative travel and how it opened my mind and soul.

Life changed, after March 2020. The world shut down, and the days started to drift by, one seemingly the same as the next, sans the spark of joy and anticipation experienced when planning travel. The only answer to the yearning in my soul was to find a way to safely hit the road. This is the story of how I fell in love with the solo road trip.

Great childhood vacations with the destination as king

As a child, my parents would pack us up in the car every summer for that renowned family driving vacation of the ‘60s. I think we checked off every national park, ice cave, historic site, state park, monument, seashore, lake, and cavern in the Far Western states. Canada’s West and Baja California were also part and parcel – frankly, anywhere the car could reach and get back from within two or three weeks was fair game for our family road trips.

Family Vacation Dad Baja 11581505

Dad posing by our travel trailer in the late ’60s. I think this was in Baja California.

I liked the road trip destinations themselves, but getting there? Not so much. I checked out as many books as the library allowed, stacked them on the floorboard of the back seat, scrunched myself down with my knees on the back of the front passenger seat, and read. For hours on end. Until we arrived at whatever campground or motel was our lodging for the night. That’s when the fun began in the parks. This thing called “getting there?” That wasn’t on the fun list.

Park Pennants Family Road Trip

My collection of now-vintage souvenir pennants from national parks and other cities and sights from our family road trips.

When I was 15, I begged my parents for a 10-speed bike and my older car-loving brother pooh-poohed the idea. “You won’t want to ride it after you get your driver’s license next year,” he said, cockily. Wrong. I even waited months after I could have gotten a license to finally do the deed. That wonderful bike took me out country roads, along canals, and to and from school and friends. I loved the wind in my hair and the miles I could cover. A car was nothing I fancied.

With strong memories of being crammed in the back seat for hours to get somewhere, once I did have my own car, I took road trips only when I had to. Sitting behind the wheel was not something I really enjoyed. Any driving adventure more than about four or five hours meant tedium, leg cramps, and a lot of rest stops to get a little air. Six hours? Shoot me now. A long solo road trip? Forget it.


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Drive, I must, but not for a solo road trip then

But drive I had to. Unfortunately, it’s just part of the American Way, unlike other countries where you can take metros, subways, and buses. Or just walk. Walking was usually my savior while traveling. You could see so much when in slower motion than in a car. And you could stop and poke around down a side street, in a shop, or around an interesting public square. Not so when in a car. I shunned taking four wheels. Slower travel was my friend.

Thinking back, I also had some bad memories of long drives. A boyfriend when I lived in Germany loved pushing the speed limit and passing cars on the autobahn. When we passed a quaint town, castle on a hill, or beautiful blue lake surrounded by rolling hills, and I’d press my nose to the window and say, “Ooooo, look at that, can we stop?” He’d just look perturbed and spew something like, “What?! Why?? I just passed 10 cars, and they’ll get ahead of me again.”  Instead, I watched all these wonders rush past my window in a blur.

Road Trip In Germany 1983

A meal on a road trip in Germany was at a rest stop. Of course, I’m smiling; I was allowed out of the car!

A solo road trip is about the journey, not the destination

My problem with a solo road trip or any driving vacation was not the drive itself, I realize today, but how one approached traveling by car. You see, destination was king on those days before I fell in love with my own solo road trip. Not the journey. Even as a child, the destination was where it was at. Stops along the way were efficient, well-planned lunch breaks. My mom would pull out the foam ice chest and unpack packaged bologna, sliced Wonder Bread, iceberg lettuce, and mayonnaise so we could make sandwiches on these carefully plotted stops. To this day, I hate every one of those foods.

Family Vacation Grand Canyon Therese

At Hermit’s Rest in Grand Canyon, posing for the requisite “I was there” shot for my parents. From a family road trip in about 1970.

For my German boyfriend, it was all about the car, the drive, and getting to wherever you were headed. Don’t waste a minute. Our stops were devised to ensure we didn’t lose time so we could arrive as scheduled. Sometimes that meant a stop at one of those only-in-Germany highway cafeterias (“Autobahnraststätte”) that serve mystery meat with a fancy name on white rolls. Or a slam of sauerkraut with some other kind of nameless sausage. Clean, efficient, and oh-so-German. He’d pick one, we’d pile out, grab a sausage, and stand to eat it (sitting meant wasting more time), then he’d demand it was time to go. And we did. (No, that relationship didn’t last, are you surprised?)

Sausage On A Plate Road Trip

Although not a photo from one of those autobahn rest stop cafeterias, this could have been from one.

It wasn’t until I discovered the solo road trip decades later — and the transformative travel opportunity that it offered – that I finally realized the journey could be the star in a car, too.

Enter summer 2020 of pandemic limitations and the solo road trip

Then along came summer 2020, when suddenly flying across the globe or frankly even heading to a city to walk around was a big no-no. Something had to give. My husband and I got along well, but at some point, we all need a break, right? I needed a break, and he probably did, too. Since COVID-19 had started to wane, a photography workshop across the country I had signed up for many many moons earlier was suddenly a go. Yes, that meant flying – and I was a bit anxious about that part – but I knew I had to get away. I planned my rental car and as few lodgings as possible to minimize contact. I packed my disinfectant wipes, sanitizing spray, hand sanitizer and masks.

Once I arrived at my destination, picked up my car, and headed out, I felt my heart open to the opportunities of a solo road trip. I stopped on the way to my first inn to grab a bite and waited more than 30 minutes for a sandwich, splurging on my first lobster roll in Maine. There was nobody to scowl, to say it was going to take too long and rush me away. I could stand and watch the people coming and going, inhaling the night air, feeling my insides slow.

Ice Cream On A Solo Road Trip

Ice cream? Well, why not?! When you are on a solo road trip, people lined up on a hot day must signal good ice cream. In Maine, in July 2020, I had to find distance, de-mask, and eat fast before I had a puddle of chocolate instead of frozen chocolate.

And so those two weeks progressed. I’d head for a destination, but quickly realized with nobody to pile me back into the car, tell me I could not stop, or force a bologna sandwich down my throat, that I needed to allow twice the time that Google said it would take. I was now actually enjoying the journey part of car travel, the part that was in my opinion the key to solo road trips. If I saw an interesting side road on my solo road trip adventure, I’d take it. If I spied a tiny historic cemetery, I’d stop and explore. If a crowd, albeit safely distanced, was gathered around a popular ice cream joint, I’d pull over and say, what the heck, it’s ice cream time. My heart began to sing.

Outdoors Hike Road Trip Safety

OK, OK,…so my Maine road trip in July 2020 wasn’t REALLY solo — I had Fox Fury along for company. He made up all the way up the big scramble to Ocean Lookout at 1,300 feet above sea level. That’s Camden, below.

Granted, with the pandemic still in full swing, this also meant staying out of cities or anything more than a small burg. I headed outdoors and to quiet wooded trails or parks. Recreational shopping was no-go – not that I’ve ever been a shopper – and instead shopping only meant hunting and gathering for snacks and lunch nibbles for the car to keep me safely out of restaurants. Which frankly allowed even more independence since there was no looking for restaurants, booking a table, or waiting for service. A can of soup in my room with fresh spinach, sliced fresh bread, and cheese – don’t forget the glass of wine – was on my schedule, whenever I planned it.

Road Trip Hotel Meal Soup

A perfectly yummy hotel room dinner, easily prepped in a hotel microwave – quick, healthy, money-saving, and quite satisfying on a solo road trip.

Plotting the next transformative solo road trip adventure

It wasn’t long after I arrived back home that I was hatching a plan for another solo road trip, having learned the joy of being on my own exploring unknown areas. This time, it would be one that did not involve flying to get to the road tripping part of the journey. Three months later, I had the chance to head to Southern California. Yes, I would be meeting a girlfriend for part of the trip, but everything before and after was just for me. The first leg of the journey was supposed to take 6½ hours; it took me about nine. Lesson re-enforced: Plan on at least 50 percent longer than mapping programs say when you are looking to heed the transformative part of the journey.

On the way home after about two weeks, I took the long route, stopping to have coffee with a friend, and choosing to overnight along the way rather than rush home. I’d stop and snap a photo of a glorious sunset, vintage neon sign, or abandoned building. The journey was now king.

Family Vacation Dad Baja 11581505

Sometimes perfectly whacky stuff grabs my attention for a photo, especially on Route 66. When alone, you can stop for a snap whenever you want. Doubt the gas really was 18 cents anymore.

And now I felt my soul itching for even more solo car travel, something I had never done before the pandemic. I found the personal escape exhilarating. I only answered to me. I ate what and when I wanted. I’d head out at odd hours to take photographs, not worried about inconveniencing anybody. I pulled over at far-flung state parks or explored infrequently visited trails.

I was expanding my understanding of the personal evolution of taking on the new and unknown in a strange place … on your own. Now, my solo road trips opened their arms wide to embrace what is called “transformative travel.” This is a journey of self-reflection and self-discovery, which means you incorporate the growth experienced on a trip into your day-to-day life once home. The Transformative Travel Council defines it as “intentionally traveling to stretch, learn and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.”

Solo road trips for women build self-confidence and trust

The stretching, learning and growing part spoke to me. I took on all responsibility for myself on these transformative solo road trips – I suppose you could call it being selfish because I then never have to compromise or negotiate with another. I combined the inspiration and personal adventure of getting to a destination with the insights gained from luxuriating in the solo-ness of the journey. I learned to trust myself more. I built even more confidence in what I planned. I could not ever rely on another to check, plan, do, schedule, or research. I also didn’t have to succumb to anybody trying to tell me what to do. It’s all you, baby, and that for me was a wonderful feeling of elation in today’s twosome culture.

Sure, you may have doubts along the way, especially as a woman. There are certain freedoms, great independence, and the ability to be totally spontaneous when you are on your own, but you also may experience doubt and even anxiety. And, as odd as it sounds, a lack of certain freedom, too. As a woman on a solo road trip, I had to acknowledge that there were places I should not go alone, that taking a walk at night in a strange place may not be wise, and that despite being on my own, I still needed for safety to check in with my husband along the way so somebody knew where I was — I know he enjoyed hearing from me, and I enjoyed sharing a few road-trip adventures, too. Yes, there are certain musts involved in a solo road trip, especially for women.

Road Trip Planning Solo Longhaul

Road trippin’ still means taking the time to plan your route and keep your supply bag filled. My Think Tank Freeway Longhaul Duffel had zillions of pockets for solo road trip organization.

None of that deterred me from thrilling in my own company, from waiting for the next sudden head-swivel when I’d spy something compelling or just plain surprising and stop. Because I could. You just never know what’s around the corner if you are open to it — and when you are not bogged down by the destination – or a German boyfriend tapping his toes.

Life is still changed, although the world is now opening up. The days aren’t so monotonous, and I again have the excitement all travel lovers know of planning an adventure on a different side of the globe. But the joy and love of the solo road trip discovered during the pandemic remains. The yearning in my soul now includes the need for solo adventures in a car.

Yes, I’ll take a road trip for one, please.


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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Passionate traveler, wordsmith, photographer, and observer of people and place, Therese lives a life full of all the above. Trained as a newspaper journalist and a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news team, she now applies those skills to feed her globe-trotting curiosity – and hopes her storytelling in photos and words encourages others to do the same. Winner of multiple awards for photos and stories, Therese loves to get outdoors, be personally immersed in adventurous experiences, and have a front-row spot with her camera and notebook to document stories that offer authentic insights about a place or its people. And she’s never met a cheesecake she doesn’t have to taste, a ghost town that doesn't demand exploration, or a trail that doesn't beckon.