It doesn’t have to be any of those things. Just think: When was the last time you had four, six, eight hours or more to yourself? You set the pace; you determine the itinerary. In a world that seems as if it’s constantly moving faster, with increasing obligations and more distractions, such sizable chunks of relative free time are a rarity.
Just because your hands are on the wheel and your eyes are on the road — They are, right? Right? — doesn’t mean you can’t be deeply engaged in other ways. Here are tips from three experts on how to make your next epic solo drive an enriching and enlightening experience.
Be selfish. Before you take offense at this idea, read on. “I really believe in the virtue of selfishness,” says Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University who has studied the benefits of travel. “You have to satisfy your own needs, and you have to understand what those needs are. It’s really easy for them to be subverted under other people or other motives. Selfishness is a way of replenishing your energy, untangling all the relationships and psychological ties you have in your life. When you’re solo traveling, you’re doing everything for you. You should really appreciate that mind-set during your trip, but the hope is you bring some of that back with you into your everyday life.”
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Tackle a difficult book. There are many apps for enjoying audiobooks. Rather than simply opting for one you know you’ll love, attempt a more challenging title. “You might be able to get through it as an audiobook,” says Finn Murphy, author of “The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road,” a memoir documenting more than three decades of working as a driver for moving companies , adding more than 1 million miles to his odometers. “It doesn’t have to be something highbrow, either. I couldn’t get through the Harry Potter books; they annoyed the hell out of me. But when I put on the audiobook, the reader was amazing and did all the voices, so I ended up listening to them all and enjoying themly.”
Write your own book. Do you have a novel or screenplay kicking around in your head? Maybe you want to write a memoir, either with dreams of publication or simply as a way to preserve family history. A supersize stretch on the road is a good place to start putting down your thoughts, sketching out scenes and even dictating the text. That’s how Murphy began writing what became “The Long Haul,” though he started so long ago that he used a microcassette recorder. These days, you can simply record voice memos on your phone or take it to the next level by using an app that will transcribe your spoken words into text, such as Dragon Anywhere, Rev or SpeechNotes Plus.
Compose a song. Nashville-based folk singer-songwriter Ira Wolf tours the country in her van and has racked up more than 100,000 miles while posting about her adventures on Instagram. She doesn’t see those hours behind the wheel as wasted time. Instead, they’re an opportunity for creativity. After an hour or so on the road, she switches off all distractions and focuses her attention inward. “If I can slow down enough and just let things spill out, it’s fascinating what my subconscious holds on to and seems to be processing,” she says. “I can be inspired by the landscape or some emotional process I’m going through.” If there’s a line or melody she can’t get out of her head, she makes note of it for later.
Level up your music knowledge. If you’re not a burgeoning songwriter, enjoy music in creative ways instead. Listen to an artist’s entire discography in chronological order. Use the opportunity to do a deep dive into a genre that’s new to you or one that you want to understand better. Enjoy a curated mood-focused playlist on your favorite streaming service. Or steep yourself in local vibes by playing artists born in the state you’re driving through.
Memorize a poem. Want to wow fellow guests at the next dinner or cocktail party you attend? Spend time behind the wheel learning a beloved poem. Murphy perfected “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. The memorization process had an added benefit. “You parse the poem into pieces, so you end up having a broader appreciation for the poem,” he says. “It takes on deeper meaning.”
Have a big conversation. Kashdan notes that not talking to people face-to-face can have huge benefits for the scope, depth and tone of conversations. If you have a hands-free device for your phone and the traffic doesn’t present any challenges, solo road trips may be a good time to call someone with whom you want to have a long, meaningful talk. “You don’t have the extra emotional pressure of them looking at your reaction and you looking at their reaction,” he says. But be sure to keep the discussion low-key; the last place you want to get wound up is in the driver’s seat.
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Stop enjoying yourself. Don’t whiz by the world without pausing occasionally to take it all in. Wolf considers her route in advance to see whether there are any good hikes along the way — a great way to get in some exercise while breaking up long trips — or whether there are any lakes where her dog, Winnie, might be able to take a quick dip. As she drives, she keeps an eye out for photo ops. “I love taking pictures on the road, so I watch for lighting I like or nice landscapes,” she says.
Become a better driver. We tend to think of driving as a means to an end rather than a skill. Readjust your mind-set, so you consider it a proficiency you can hone every time you get in your car. Murphy suggests thinking like truck drivers, because it takes them longer to turn, accelerate and stop. That means they’re watching what’s happening nearby, but also looking ahead, literally and figuratively. “Essentially, you’re looking into the future to see where the next risk factor is going to be,” he says. “Maybe there’s a merge coming up or there’s an accident ahead. This approach will make you the ultimate defensive driver and help you rack up accident-free miles.”
Indulge in good food. Rather than settling for fast-food drive-throughs or whatever happens to be at the next rest stop, be intentional about where you eat on the road. This will require some research, so you’re not distractedly asking Siri for the closest Mediterranean restaurant or trying to type “best cheeseburger” into Google while you drive. Good resources for discovering primo pit stops are “Roadfood” by Jane and Michael Stern and the “Great American Eating Experiences” guide published by National Geographic. Even though Wolf has a full kitchen in her van, she has a charm for donut shops. “They will always trump cooking dinner,” she says.
Do nothing at all. Although there is a tendency to fill our time when we’re alone, there is a drastic alternative: Try doing nothing at all, Kashdan says. Let go of feeling obligated to do anything more than drive. Just watch the world go by. Even if you stop somewhere to enjoy a sit-down meal, resist the temptation to read, flick through your phone or put in your ear buds. “There’s something really cool about just sitting there and just taking in the chatter of the room,” he says. “It’s about enjoying the moment.”
Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. His website is nevinmartell.com. Find him on Twitter and Instagram: @nevinmartell.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.