10 American Habits I Lost After Road-Tripping Across the US
1. Needing a car
I made it 8,430 miles around the country and only spent a total of four hours in a car. And, yeah my bus driver was hauled away in an ambulance in the middle of rural Alabama due to a heat stroke from no A/C, and yeah, my train arrived in Encinitas seven hours past schedule. But it all helped me shed that need for control that comes with having a car. Not to mention, I never had to pay for parking.
2. Getting embarrassed by others’ nudity
I encountered topless women in Austin, guys in gold g-strings on Haight-Ashbury, nude sunbathers on Collins Beach in Portland, a nudist from Alaska, a casual game of naked volleyball behind a girl’s Quinceanera photoshoot on Baker Beach. It wasn’t that I realized nudity isn’t a big deal in other places, it’s that I understood why nudity isn’t a big deal. Simply put, it’s just some skin. Wear it proudly.
3. Expecting to shower every day and have fresh clothes
I got lucky a few times that my hostel or host had a laundry room. But unless the opportunity presented itself to me, the cleanliness of my attire was at the bottom of my priorities. This mentality was even further enforced after seeing a twenty-something guy from Houston throw a bitch fit because the washer at the hostel was broken and he was out of clean socks. He refused to leave the laundry room until they fixed it.
As for showering, I would try to find creative ways to keep up with my hygiene. I bathed in ponds and Amtrak sinks. It wasn’t that I didn’t give a shit about how I smelled, it was just that I learned how to prioritize my traveling habits. Making sure I had a good pair of shoes to do a lot of walking in? Now that was my priority.
4. Requiring a bed to sleep on every night
After spending 44 hours on a train, arriving at my host’s house and being shown the corner of the living room where I’d be sleeping on the hardwood floor was a beautiful sight. Couches with lumps and questionable stains, mattresses with jabbing springs, a tent floor with no sleeping bag on a rocky beach, the back of a public library — just about anywhere began to look like a potential sleeping surface to be grateful for.
5. Expecting everyone to do something for me
Turns out, not everywhere bags your groceries. I learned this the hard way in Austin by staring at the counter covered by my recently-purchased food, waiting for them to be bagged with a long line of pissed off people behind me. And as for a ticket guaranteeing a seat on the bus? I realized that if you happen to throw any sort of negative look in the bus driver’s direction, regardless of his own attitude, he can kick you off with no questions asked.
It also turns out that complete strangers who let me stay in their house out of sheer generosity have the right to kick me out for just about anything. I learned this the hard way by getting asked to leave by my host in Portland because he had too many guests already and I was “sleeping in” till 9 am. Confused at first and pretty pissed off, I set up a tent down the road on the Sellwood Riverfront. Drowning in self-pity, I wondered how someone could do this to me when I really didn’t do anything to them.
But, as the jogger who struck up a conversation later that day reminded me, it was his house, and he really didn’t owe me anything. Now that was some tough shit to swallow.
6. Expecting no one to do anything for me
I’ve always had a Tennessean way of thinking. I’ve always believes that Southern hospitality didn’t exist anywhere else in the world. I didn’t realize just how inaccurate this was until I met a New Yorker who missed her stop on the subway just to help me find my way around the city for thirty minutes, a couple from Denver who let my boyfriend and I borrow their car so we could camp in the mountains for a weekend, and the owner of a macaroni bar in San Francisco who noticed our backpacks and kept his restaurant open past closing just so he could cook us whatever we were craving.
“I’ve been right where you are,” he said, pouring us some beers on the house. “And I know people will be kind and help you out in more ways than you could imagine if you just let them.”
7. Fearing hostels (and strangers in general)
“Aren’t you worried about staying in a total stranger’s house? Couldn’t he just, you know, rob or murder you?”
“Can’t you stay in cheap hotels instead?”
“I mean, have you seen Hostel?”
These were a few of the questions I was asked leading up to the trip, and I can honestly say that now, the seclusion of hotels and motels makes me far more uneasy than a stranger’s couch. I mean, have you seen Vacancy?
8. Being only familiar with my culture
It wasn’t until my two and a half month long loop around the United States that I realized the different cultures existing within my own country. Sure, I had always known and loved the fact that I was born in a melting pot, but growing up in the South, I was shortchanged in terms of experiencing cultural diversity firsthand.
By staying in hostels and couchsurfing, I met people from all over the world — a nurse from Dublin who was motorbiking around the States on a Honda Shadow, two girls from Guatemala who had moved to New York to attend culinary school, a Canadian couple traveling the country to pick fruit, a hitchhiker from Munich, and a train kid from Boston who had been roaming for three years with his pitbull Gracie. I found myself so immersed in their accents, how many syllables they used in the word “film,” what foods they ate on certain holidays, and comparison of life here versus life there that I realized the diverse array of people I was meeting were the driving force in my travels.
This story was produced through the travel journalism programs at MatadorU.
9. Traveling quickly
With a mixture of stress, disappointment, and advice from other travelers to take my time, I realized that sacrificing experiences to cover more ground was one of the biggest mistakes I was making. In the last half of my trip, I learned to slow down and break away from the rigid schedule I had mapped out. It was like a light switch had been flicked. Everything about my travels then became so much more enjoyable.
10. Thinking that money is the biggest thing keeping me from travel
I met freelancers who picked up any work they could find, traveling street performers living off a dollar, and a single mother traveling the world with her six-year-old son. They were the people who truly embodied the phrase “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” And in terms of traveling, there’s always a way.