Voices from the Road

The Great American Road Trip: My 16,000-mile solo vanlife excursion across the U.S.

This Great American Road Trip was my long-awaited post-grad trip. I graduated from Pepperdine University in May of 2020 and initially intended to travel to Europe for a month, but COVID-19 quickly ended those plans. In the end, I was able to make this trip happen because of the pandemic. 

Meet Val

After working part-time for about a year with no end in sight to the pandemic, I decided I wanted to travel again. I planned on driving my Ford Edge across the country but, conveniently, my mom had recently purchased a newly-renovated sprintervan for her camping adventures and all the modifications were completely finished in June. I asked to borrow the van (named Valencia, or “Val” for short) for the entire summer and because my mom loves me very much, she let me put 16,000 miles on Val in 3.5 months. 

The van made the trip infinitely easier. Equipped with a mini fridge and freezer, induction stove, lots of storage, an adjustable bed, a large water tank, and even a shower, I almost never had to leave the van. Val was also surprisingly easy to maneuver in big cities and I became a pro at parallel parking her, even on hills in San Francisco.

I started in Salt Lake City, Utah, and generally began my trip in the Dakotas, then worked my way over to Seattle and down the West Coast. Afterward, I started heading east through the American Southwest until I hit San Antonio and Austin, Texas, and then I headed north into the Midwest. 

My initial plan was to head directly south after St. Louis, Missouri, but my good friend who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, asked me to join him there for Labor Day weekend—as a solo traveler, I definitely wanted the company after a few months on the road by myself. I adjusted my itinerary accordingly, and spent some time in Nashville, Tennessee; the Great Smokies; and Asheville, North Carolina, before heading to Charleston—I’d love to return to explore those areas for a longer period of time, especially North Carolina.

After Labor Day, I headed south to Savannah, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida, before traveling west through the American South. After exploring the South, I cut through Tennessee once more and began the trek east. I hit a few national parks and small towns before spending a few days in Washington, D.C. From there, I drove up the coast until I reached Portland, Maine. 

Then, I visited my aunt in Vermont and a friend in New York City before beginning the journey westward. I have family in Sarnia, Canada, so I crossed the border for a few days to spend Canadian Thanksgiving with them before continuing on my journey. My last few stops were in Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Stillwater, Oklahoma; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Colorado Springs, Colorado, before I made it back home to Salt Lake City. 

Planning my solo road trip

a frenchie dog on a beach with rocks, sand, and water

Technically, I traveled solo, but I never felt alone because I brought my best friend, Milo, a 4-year-old Frenchie, on my big adventure. We definitely got along, even though he liked to hog most of the space on the van bed.

I had a general route planned but included many “days off” for flexibility with driving and sightseeing. I didn’t want to be too rigid with my schedule in order to alleviate stress but I also know that I travel best with at least a rough schedule and itinerary.

I stayed with friends and family when I could, but I often found myself in campgrounds and Walmart or Cracker Barrel parking lots. I also signed up for Harvest Hosts, which is a membership program that allows RVers to park overnight at unique properties (such as wineries, breweries, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc.) in exchange for patronizing those businesses. 

Related How to find a safe place to park your RV or van for the night

There are Harvest Hosts all over the country and most of them will accept a same-day notice if they aren’t full, so on days where I thought ahead about lodging, I definitely chose to stay at a Harvest Hosts location because they felt the most secure and I was able to meet like-minded travelers. I ended up staying at 22 Harvest Hosts locations, including a blueberry farm, lavender farm, honey farm, smokehouse, cheese factory, brewery, and some wineries. 

Trip highs and lows

Overall I visited 21 of the 63 national parks: White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, Big Bend, Hot Springs, Gateway Arch, Mammoth Cave, New River Gorge, Great Smoky Mountains, Congaree, Shenandoah, Cuyahoga Valley, Indiana Dunes, Theodore Roosevelt, Badlands, Wind Cave, Glacier, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, and Redwood.

There were a few challenges that came with being on the road for so long. The first was typical vanlife logistics, such as finding a place to use the bathroom or shower. I had most amenities available to me in my van, so I was lucky, but showering in a Walmart or Cracker Barrel parking lot would most likely be frowned upon, so I tended to save my shower time for rec centers or campsites. It was also an adventure to find parking every night, especially when I hadn’t booked a Harvest Hosts in advance.

The most unexpected part of my journey was when I drove through a flash flood in Texas. We had just taken photos at the Prada Marfa and were on our way to Austin when the storm hit, and driving was extremely tumultuous for about 10 minutes. I grew up in Utah, so I’m used to driving in all kinds of inclement weather, but the flash flood was definitely the scariest.

Solo travel and safety

I loved seeing the beauty of the U.S. with my pup alongside me. We had such an amazing time and he was the perfect travel companion. I tackled the loneliness that comes with prolonged solo travel by talking to my dog, talking to strangers (sorry Mom), and calling friends and family at night or on long driving days. 

a view of a large canyon filled with red rock formations

I never truly felt scared or lost because I had carefully planned my set itinerary and my loved ones had access to it. I was also comforted by the security of my van and I tended to park in safe places. Additionally, I carried pepper spray with me in case of emergencies. Believe it or not, I learned that the U.S. is one of the safest places to solo travel, as long as you have your wits about you and remain a bit wary at all times. 

The U.S. is also one of the most diverse countries in the world in terms of landscapes, cuisine, culture, people, and much more, and yet, many of its citizens don’t take the time to travel outside of their home city or state. I strongly encourage you to travel to a state or city that you may have deemed “not worth the time” to visit, because it may very well surprise you. I would have loved to prolong my trip so I could have spent more time in each state. 

Three months on the road may seem like an eternity to some, but despite traveling to every state in the lower 48, I feel like I’ve only cracked the surface in seeing what the U.S. has to offer. I still have many cities, monuments, obscure sites, and national parks left to visit.

Meet the Roadtripper