By Hutson Chilton ’11
After graduating this past May from Rice University, where I majored in bioengineering and minored in sustainability, I took a six-month road trip around the country in an ‘88 Volkswagen Vanagon named Jolene.
My goal was to see as many national parks and people I love as I possibly could. Here are five things I learned along the way...
One of the most valuable things I learned roaming around the country was flexibility. I spent a significant amount of time before the trip planning, even creating a spreadsheet that detailed where I would spend each night for the six months of the trip. This proved incredibly useful, but not at all accurate. Sometimes large swaths of a park were covered in wildfires, the campground I was planning to stay at was closed due to bear activity, or my van broke down on “the loneliest highway in America.”
On the other hand, once I got to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back, but only if I stayed an extra two nights. Or, I decided to stroll the Las Vegas strip because when I was in the Grand Canyon I picked up some wonderful foreign travelers who might not have gotten to see it otherwise.
I had to make pretty rapid decisions about what opportunities I’d say yes to and where I’d sleep that night. This gave me a lot of practice in figuring out when and how to adapt to new situations and when to stick to the plan.
Though I did spend a lot of time on when and how I would get to each park or place, I did little to no advance planning of what I would do when I got there. While this gave me even more practice in rapid decision-making (which was definitely not a strength of mine), it also led to a good bit of anxiety. At the beginning of the trip I was so stressed about picking the perfect hikes or being settled in the campsite at the most optimal times. This was exacerbated when I had people staying with me; I wanted to be the best host I could be and make sure they were having the most amazing time possible. I’d spend so much time stressing that we’d waste time waffling between options. My sister, along with an excellent book I was reading, helped free me of this; once in Yellowstone when I was anxious about getting to our campsite at a specific time, she convinced me to pull over for a short evening stroll around Jenny Lake. It was one of the most peaceful and beautiful spots I saw on the whole trip and well worth our time.
Although it took some cajoling, I learned not to get anxious about optimizing the trip or stressing about the “what ifs.” No matter what trail I hiked or stop I made, I saw something incredible in each national park. Not only that, I enjoyed the experience far more with an open and flexible attitude than constantly worrying about what else I could be missing or fretting about sticking to the plan.
My various mishaps and adventures also taught me confidence in my own capabilities. My first solo hike, a short mile-and-a-half walk through the Minnesota woods, was terrifying. I spent most of it glancing over my shoulder for the wolves that I was sure were going to eat me any second. The rest of the time I spent mentally berating myself for thinking that I was capable of doing a road trip around the entire country alone when I couldn’t handle this short hike by myself. Things were looking grim, but thankfully I kept on moving; the end of the trail brought me to a serene lakeside overlook that I could enjoy in silence. I could hear the wind in the trees and the water brushing the shore much more clearly than if I had been thinking about what to say to the person next to me. The experience was sweeter because I had pushed through my fear to reach it.
That same night was the first night I spent by myself. I didn’t even have cell service to make me feel less alone. Again, I was terrified – I even peed in a bucket because I was too afraid to leave the safety of the locked van. (I do NOT recommend urinating in the same room you sleep in.) But I read and otherwise distracted myself until I could fall asleep, and when morning came, I was glad for more than just the chance to escape the pee stench. After driving through the morning light filtering through the woods, I was able to get on the first boat tour of the day. I got to see billion-year-old rocks and juvenile bald eagles and was thoroughly reinforced in the value of this trip.
It didn’t take too long before I got comfortable—and even looked forward to—hiking and spending nights by myself. There is a certain freedom in being a party of one; though it can be lonely, you get to do exactly what you want to at your own pace. By the end of the trip, I was able to take a 10-mile hike up a small mountain without ever worrying that a wild animal would eat me. This confidence bled into the rest of my life; I am able to approach and make new friends and to handle van breakdowns or other mishaps with much more poise than I ever have previously. Even more importantly, I am brave enough to leave my van to use the restroom at night.
3. Support from others is vital
I could never have done a trip like this on my own. Support from family, not only financially (thanks, Mom, Dad, Munna, and Aunt Margaret!), but logistically was so crucial. Everyone, especially Dad, pitched in their time and effort to make the van safe and livable.
The emotional support and encouragement of friends and family, especially during the early planning phases, gave me the confidence to pursue this dream. If they had been opposed or even just less than enthusiastic, I might not have had the courage to go through with the colossal amount of planning required. The added stress of knowing I was doing something those who love me thought was a bad idea would have been too much in addition to the anxiety involved with separating from the traditional job/grad school path that so many Rice students are fortunate enough to take. I already felt a vague yet real pressure to start my post-collegiate “real life,” especially since so many people don’t have the luxury of choosing to postpone it. But conversations with loved ones helped me realize that “real life” would wait and that taking this opportunity would not be wasted time. They were right, in that I’ve learned so much that I don’t think I could have learned jumping into a career immediately. I’ve also come to believe that life isn’t less real because I’m enjoying it.
"Life isn’t less real because I’m enjoying it."
Strangers, in addition to loved ones, provided emotional support that encouraged me. Most people I met were very well meaning, but spent a ton of conversational space fretting about whether or not I was safe as a single woman on the road. When I’d safely been on the road for months and all I wanted to talk about was the amazing things I’d seen and learned, it became tiring to continually repeat to people how I’m very careful to lock the van at night and stay in safe campgrounds. It was a breath of fresh air to meet people like the park ranger at Black Canyon who assured me I’d be just fine doing a particular hike by myself when he saw I was on the fence about it. Even more amazing was the couple who gave up their spot at the ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where space is limited and people often reserve months in advance, so that I could have the opportunity to hike in. These were total strangers who knew I couldn’t give them anything in return. I am so incredibly grateful to all these wonderful strangers, and I plan on passing their kindness forward as best I can. You never know when someone needs that extra little encouragement to experience something amazing, or even just to keep pressing on.
Another major way people supported me was sharing their homes with me. Again, the family and friends who let me show up smelly and hungry and gave me food, shelter, and showers knew that I could do very little if anything to repay them. They took me in anyway, letting me rest and recharge so I could hit the trails again. Others allowed me to share my home on wheels with them and journeyed with me. My sister, Rosie, chose to come with me for a whole month! Though I learned a lot from the time spent in solitude, sharing jumps in alpine lakes and gorgeous sunrises meant sharing this portion of my life with people in a way that really gave them the full picture.
4. Home can be a lot of places
I left a home in Houston to come home to Alabama for a month before I set out on this trip. Once I was moving, I was rarely in one place for more than a few days. Home became less of a single place and more of a state. One of the first times I realized this was when my friend, after letting me stay with her for a week, told me that though she’d only been living there a few weeks that “I made it feel like home.” It had felt like home staying with her too, even though I’d never been to Madison, Wisconsin before. And it felt like home hiking up mountains and swimming in the ocean as well, far more than when I was in cities.
My van, Jolene, was home as well, no matter where she was, and even more so when loved ones were living in her with me. There is a lot of freedom in having everything you need with you, not needing to pack or plan. It was also far cheaper than renting a stationary home. It will be nice to transition back into a home with a shower, however.
5. Say yes, take risks
I know that most people do not get an opportunity like I’ve been given, and that associated risks were really diminished by the support of my family and friends. Its part of why I’m so incredibly grateful that I did choose to take this journey. It would have been easy for me to shy away from the planning or from the many nights alone. It would have been easy for me to play it safe, to skip excellent hikes or meeting new friends because of fear. But I learned to say yes to the doors that opened. Each one was a gift, and knowing how rarely people are able to take those opportunities encouraged me all the more. How could I have had the pleasure of new friends living with me across California if I hadn’t stepped out and invited them? How could I have seen so many gorgeous sunrises without stepping out into the cold morning air? How could I have visited 37 national parks and countless people I love without saying yes?
I do not know what doors I will choose in the near future. I don’t know what kind of job I’ll have or where I’ll live this year. I do know this: I have been given far more opportunities than I can even begin to comprehend; my excellent education, relationships, and life experiences are gifts that I am just starting to understand the magnitude of. That is why I’ll continue to say yes, but not only to the fun opportunities. When I’m given the opportunity to reach out to someone hurt or lonely, I will try to do so. When I get the chance to take a risk and speak out against something wrong, I’ll do my best. And when a door opens and I can spend my working hours helping others, I’ll use all the skills I can. Because much has been given to me, and I need to say yes to giving even more back.
Of course, if the chance to take another adventure comes along, I won’t say no.
See more pictures at Sweet Home Alavana.