It’s no secret that the United States is a deeply weird place, but its staggeringly complex, infinitely fractal weirdness can really only be appreciated properly by seeing it up close. This is why I chose to spend three months driving 25,000km alone around all the most boring parts of the country.
I’m mostly exposed to other people’s van trips through Instagram, where artistically dishevelled semi-affluent white couples with dreadlocks and roughspun clothing post pictures of their feet dangling out the back of the car, partially obscuring sunsets over national parks. They seem to enjoy a time of quiet, comfortable reflection and rustic car sex, accompanied only by bulky but very whimsical typewriters, wildly expensive film cameras from the 1960s, and, of course, #wanderlust.
This was not my experience.
I spent three months in a beat-up old van that was not waterproof enough to keep the rain out but, paradoxically, airtight enough to trap me in with my own farts. I am not in a position to tell you what to do on your Great American Road Trip, but I am in somewhat of a position to tell you what not to do.
Pictured: Look at this piece of shit.
Please heed my warnings.
Don’t get your dates wrong when you’re figuring out your visa waiver
You might think that you specifically made it 89 out of the 90 days allowed on the ESTA so that you had some wiggle room if something went wrong but, as the lady at customs will inform you, you made it 90 days, you complete dumbass.
Don’t think you will get any sleep flying overnight from LA to Indianapolis
You will not. 10pm to 5am doesn’t sound too bad on paper, until you actually get there and remember that a) there’s a three-hour time difference, making the flight about four hours long and b) you basically can never sleep on planes anyway. This is particularly important if your plan for the day you arrive is to pick up your van and drive to Chicago.
Don’t immediately lock your keys in the van
Many experts will say that locking your keys in your car is a ‘dumbshit thing for an idiot to do‘, and I sure wish I’d listened to them. Having the very first thing you do on your van trip be barring yourself from being able to enter said van is not only terrible for morale and your itinerary, it’s also going to set you back around $120 USD.
Don’t expect your van to handle perfectly normally when all of the seats have been removed
It turns out the suspension in your van is balanced based on having quite a lot of weight in the back. When you’re sleep deprived, upset because you just had to fork out a huge amount of cash to a locksmith, not used to driving on the other side of the road, and the van seems to be threatening to fly off into space every time you cross a minor bump in the road, you are going to find the relatively short three-hour drive from Indy to Chicago feels like an eternity in hell.
Don’t just assume that the headlights don’t work because you didn’t read the manual
A fun novelty about a lot of American cars is that the gear stick is on the steering column. This is incredibly badass and makes you feel like you’re in a ’70s car movie, but it also takes up a bunch of the control real estate usually given over to things like windscreen wipers, indicators, and headlights.
Instead of, just as an example, wildly assuming that your headlights don’t work because you can’t figure out how to turn them on, you should maybe just google “2000 Ford E150 manual” and discover that the headlight control is the little thing that looks like a cigarette lighter, just to the right of the steering wheel.
Don’t estimate how much money you’ll spend on fuel based on the last time you drove around the US
The last time you were in the States you rented the cheapest and thus smallest possible car, which seemed to travel almost indefinitely for the price of about $10 USD of petrol. The van is apparently powered by one of the engines previously used in the Titanic, and will, at times, cost you around $80 – $100 AUD a day. I still cry thinking about this.
Don’t wait until you’re driving through a disconcertingly heavy thunderstorm to find out if your van is waterproof or not
Spoiler alert: it is not. The leak is situated in the third brake light, which is above the rear doors and allows the water to fall with a freakish accuracy directly onto your pillow. You can fix the leak quite easily by using a caulking gun to wack a bunch of silicon around where the previous sealant has cracked and fallen away, but all of your bedding will remain damp for quite some time.
Did you know that Oklahoma has some really gnarly thunderstorms? I sure didn’t.
Don’t buy all the homewares you need from Ikea before remembering that you can get everything from op shops for an eighth of the price
Op shopping in America is an absolutely incredible, next-level experience. Unfortunately, while I was furnishing the van with bedding and cooking stuff, I somehow blacked out and completely forgot that op shops exist. Instead, I spent a huge chunk of my very precious and limited money on a bunch of (admittedly very cute) brand new things.
Sheets, towels, blankets, pots, pans, cups, glasses, knives, forks, camping stoves, storage tubs, weird portraits of John Wayne – you name it, you will be able to find it for under a dollar.
Don’t stay overnight in a spot you can only get to by one dirt road when there’s a storm forecast
Two of the great things about America (the west, in particular) is just how much of it is public land, and just how much you can sort-of do whatever you want while on public land. Camp anywhere! Start any fires you want! Burn any wood you can see! Ride your quad bike around! Fire as many guns into the air as you feel like! Anything goes!
A lot of these public lands allow you to camp for free away from developed campgrounds, which rules, but obviously means that there are no facilities and often times picking a spot means going a little offroad. Although the previous owner of the van might have put ludicrously big off-road tires on the van (so big in fact, that if you turn too far in either direction, the tires will start rubbing on the inner wall of the wheel well), it is not a four-wheel drive. If, say, you have to drive down a narrow dirt road that crosses a stream to get to your campsite and overnight it rains heavily, you might find it nearly impossible to get back out without getting bogged.
Luckily, if you’ve kept the offcuts from the shitty bed frame you built for the van, you can use them to get unstuck and carry on with your drive.
Don’t leave the edibles you bought in Colorado in the sun
Buying legal weed in Colorado is a wonderfully easy process. You show someone at the front your ID, then you are ushered into a space where a bunch of huge weed nerds talk to you for 20 minutes about the different strains available. Because you never actually learned how to roll a joint, you will, of course, ask them what sort of edibles they have.
You will buy these weird chocolates.
i'm in Denver pic.twitter.com/Zt2S9x9Nym
— thomas violence (@thomas_violence) August 13, 2017
The thing about chocolate is that it melts. The thing about your 2000 model Ford E150 is that it doesn’t have working air conditioning, and it’s fucking hot as. This leads into my next point.
Don’t eat an unestimable portion of the edibles when wilderness camping
Most edibles seem to be broken into around roughly 10mg doses of THC, which is a fairly reasonable amount by itself. It turns out, if you try and estimate how much a tenth of a giant gooey mess of melted chocolate is, you are going to get it very, very wrong, and you are going to end up extremely high, extremely paranoid, and unable to sleep, while completely alone in a forest in the middle of nowhere. Alone, I should say, except for the seemingly endless parade of animals making terrifying noises at a distance of what seems like mere inches from your head.
Not a great time.
Don’t buy your SIM card from a weird money exchange kiosk at LAX
Because, for some reason, the T-Mobile SIM card you bought from them has a hard time limit for how long it can be used, and you cannot possibly recharge it, even if you spend two hours on the phone with a customer service person.
It turns out the only solution is to go to a store in person, but because you have no data, you just have to blindly drive around the incredibly confusing city of Las Vegas while looking for a T-Mobile store, or even just a McDonald’s at which you could steal wifi from to figure out where a store is.
A smart person would use the McDonald’s wifi to just download an offline map of the entirety of Las Vegas. I am not a smart person and had one of the worst afternoons of my life. Driving around in a boiling hot, unairconditioned van in a bustling desert city populated entirely by crazy people while trying to randomly come across one single store is not, on the whole, a good time.
PLUS, weirdly, the T-Mobile employee you get will trap you for 20 minutes while he tells you about all the different kinds of game animals he would one day like to eat. What a country.
Don’t forget to check where the Hoover Dam is
You will unknowingly drive right past it, only remember that it exists days later, and kick yourself when you realise just how close you were to it.
Don’t drive up to the gates of Area 51
It’s about a half-hour drive up a gravel road into the middle of the desert that eventually leads to some razor wire, a giant camera, a bunch of signs about not taking photos, and some guys in a ute parked up on a hill looking down on you, who appear to have guns. I was too scared to take a photo and (as previously mentioned) very, very sweaty. Although it was nice of the lady at that one weird store with the giant metal alien statue to tell me how to get there.
Pictured: They serve cold beer here too, just FYI.
Don’t leave your phone in the sun driving through Death Valley
Here’s the thing about Death Valley: it’s real fucken hot. Like really, really hot. Like, even driving at about 120km/h in a car with no air conditioning, the air outside the car if you put your hand out the window is still hotter than it is inside. Here’s the thing about iPhones: they turn off if they get too hot. This poses a bit of a problem if you were using your phone to navigate – if you happen to be the sort of person who didn’t bring paper maps and a sextant like an ancient mariner.
This will make trying to get through it a chaotic and extremely stressful hell. Luckily for you, on the other side at Panamint Springs, there’s a place that has absurdly cheap campsites, three fridges full of cheap, delicious, ice cold craft beer, and the sunsets in Death Valley are fucking ridiculous.
Pictured: I was already about seven beers deep by the time this happened.
Don’t travel to Yosemite National Park while the entire state of California is on fire
Yosemite is known for the breathtaking granite cliffs that rise toweringly over the valley. You will not be able to see these cliffs at all if the area is currently engulfed by wildfires. You can’t plan whether or not wildfires are happening while you’re visiting, but you can choose to look into why the entire drive to Yosemite was punctuated with emergency road closures. I did not.
Don’t try and go across the Canadian border in a very suspicious looking van with two suitcases full of VHS tapes
It’s a weird thing for you to do. They are going to ask you a lot of questions, go through your phone, search you and your van, swab your glasses for cocaine and heroin, and make you very, very late for the dinner plans you made with your friends in Vancouver.
Don’t tent camp in subzero temperatures when you have an actual bed in the van to sleep in
Because I was raised to be a) polite and b) a coward, when the only available campsite at the Columbia Icefield in Canada’s Jasper National Park is marked for strictly for tent camping only, I do what that sign says, even if it means sleeping on the ground and nearly freezing my penis off.
Do not do this.
Don’t only remember the ranger warned you that there are wolves in the area while you’re outside in the woods in the middle of the night without a torch, mid-piss
The fear will startle you so much that you will stop pissing mid-stream, which is a really weird sensation.
Don’t buy Sarah Palin’s autobiography because you’ve run out of books and it was the only thing at the op shop
It’s not even entertaining to read as a joke and it will just make you really sad.
(She named her son ‘Track‘ because she really likes running. Jesus Christ.)
Don’t double back from Montana to Washington, adding days to your trip, just because you want to replace the weed you had to ditch before you went into Canada
Just kidding, it was absolutely worth it, and I would do it again.
Don’t hike alone in bear country
You won’t get eaten by a bear (at least, I didn’t) but it’s very bad practice.
Don’t leave your headlights on while hiking alone in bear country
If you do that, your car won’t start, and it turns out that there aren’t a lot of cars driving through that part of Yellowstone National Park at sunset. To make matters worse, the parking area is off the main road, meaning that, while trying to flag cars down, you don’t look at all like someone who has broken down, but instead like a crazy person standing in the dark in the middle of nowhere.
The first few cars won’t stop at all for you and the first that does stop won’t have jumper cables (side note: have your own jumper cables). Luckily, the second car that stops will be a lovely middle-aged American couple who will insist on taking a photo with this strange young Australian man they saved from certain death.
Don’t assume every trail is made by humans when you’re in buffalo country
Buffalos love making trails, and they sure aren’t in a hurry to go to the same place you are. This is good information to have if, perhaps, there is a buffalo blocking the trail you are meant to be hiking on, and you go around him because he looks very cross indeed when you get close. There is a fair chance that what you believe is the other side of the trail is, in fact, one made by animals, and you will become lost for quite a few hours in a completely unpopulated section of North Dakota.
Pictured: I got lost because of you, fucker.
Don’t laugh when you drive through the town of Gaylord, Michigan
It’s a perfectly normal name. Grow up.
Don’t eat 12 pieces of cold, marked-down, day-old fried chicken in the parking lot of a supermarket in Sunrise Summit, West Virginia
Not only will it make you feel incredibly lonely, depressed, and ashamed, it will also make you surprisingly unwell for the next six to twelve hours.
Don’t make your last stop before you leave the country Muncie, Indiana
It doesn’t matter how much of a fan you are of Hudsucker Proxy or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there is nothing that makes visiting Muncie worthwhile.