Quick question. Where could you be in 12 hours?
The first time I asked myself this, I ended up in New Mexico with my best friend in the passenger seat. Okay. So it took a little longer than twelve hours. We made a detour to view the sunrise from the top of Red Rock Canyon in Oklahoma.
This spur of the moment three day road trip to New Mexico changed the way I understood travel.
I admit, skipping town out of nowhere isn’t for everyone. That doesn’t mean planned time off can’t be full of serendipity and adventure. Not planning a vacation opens the door to possibilities you won’t find in a guide book.
Here are three lessons from my first road trip that help shape every adventure I go on.
Don’t book hotels.
When I decided to drive to New Mexico, I didn’t have time to book hotels or make any extravagant plans. I also didn’t have the money for that. I did hop on Couch Surfers where I found a lovely host for at least one night in Santa Fe. I wanted a roof over my head for at least one night. Besides, it was her birthday. She promised pumpkin carving and feasting.
That night, we rolled in pretty exhausted from our adventures. Our host greeted us and told us we were welcome to bring in our stuff. As we gathered a few things, a car parked on the curb in front of us. We didn’t think much of this.
A man with a snowy beard, long black robes, and a big silver cross got out of the car. He looked at us, smiled and asked a question I will never forget. “Is all well?”
My friend and I exchanged a quick glance, the kind with the full force of a silent conversation behind it. No one asks if all is well. We settled on an answer. “Yes?”
Then, he walked into the house we were about to sleep in followed by his wife.
We felt outside of our element. As other guests arrived, we learned they were Antiochian Orthodox. They were hosting a supra to celebrate three birthdays. They brought this tradition back from Georgia (the country, not the state). It involved toasting, storytelling, and poetry.
They blessed their feast with song. And they all had beautiful voices. To this day, I still sing Now I Walk In Beauty to myself and think of this strange celebration I happened upon. I’ve never booked a hotel since.
For those of you who can’t fathom staying more than a night or two in a tent, I’m not saying don’t stay in hotels. Even when I pack a tent, I sometimes end up in a hotel room.
The freedom allowed by waiting until I am there has landed me some of the best places to sleep. A cabin without electricity in the Colorado mountains. A sleek hotel room snagged at a cheap rate last second. The east rim of the Grand Canyon without spending a dime.
Talk to the locals.
Earlier that year, I traveled to the other side of the planet (that story is for another time). For the first time in my life, I saw mountains. Not just any mountains. The Himalayas! This is how I learned mountains are to me what the beach is to a lot of people.
This is, in large part, why I headed to New Mexico. These were the closest mountains I could find. Aside from that, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I got there. So we started talking to people.
A crystal shop owner in Taos told us we had to see the Rio Grande Gorge. This little journey taught me the joy of serendipity.
The gorge itself has a lot of character. The flat land drops down to this blue strip of water, hard at work, carving into the rock. In the distance blue mountains sit against a bluer sky. Everything is vast, big, open. Coming from the thick Ozarks, this view is foreign and spectacular.
You can park and walk along the bridge for a better view. On either end, there are people selling crystals, jewelry, and a coffee bus. Normally, if I had my heart set on somewhere to be, I might not have stopped. The landscape and the strange vendors would have blurred by. My mind would have been on some other destination.
Once we soaked it all in, we continued on the road. Not too much further, we found the Earthships. I wasn’t expecting to come across these. I had read about them before and drooled over the self-sufficient lifestyle. I was surprised to find we could stop to explore even though they weren’t open. We felt like we were on another planet, and we had arrived by accident.
We made it back to Santa Fe, full of wonder. The next day, someone told us to check out Bandelier National Monument. This would be our last stop. When we got there, we reluctantly paid for the experience and took a bus down into the canyon that happened to be packed with a synchronized swimming team. Those ladies were a hoot.
We knew were were going to see cliff dwellings. We didn’t know we could climb into these dwellings and look out on the canyon. We didn’t know a magical grove of trees grew around the river that cut its way through the monument. Did I mention we got lucky? The trees were golden. This place captured my curiosity so intensely that I went back two more times to explore the parts we didn’t get to.
The locals we talked to suggested places we didn’t know existed. Maybe if I had read some guidebooks or blogs, I could have found these gems. A sense of wonder would have been lost on knowing where I would end up every day. I had no preconceptions of what I was getting into. Everything surprised and delighted.
When you set out, you have a destination in mind. In this case, I had my heart set on mountains. I find leaving time for exploration and asking the locals what to see will get you the greatest sense of adventure. Don’t plan out every stop. See what the world has to offer.
Take the back roads.
This is my favorite lesson. The result haunts me, and I’ve been searching for the same feeling like a drug.
After Bandelier, we had to pull an all-nighter to get back in time for my friend to go to work. Google Maps could do the navigation. The how didn’t matter anyway. It’s highway and interstate all the way home, right? No reason to stop anywhere in the middle of the night.
The bus driver on the way back up played music from soundtracks. My partner in crime started shouting out the answers, which built up a jovial dialogue with the driver. No one really got into the trivia most of the time, he said.
As part of the drive back up, he told us a story about the land. A long time ago, a volcano erupted and blackened the sky. The natives believed a bear spirit placed its paw over the volcano to stop the smoke and ash from spreading. The driver pointed to a line of mountains in the distance. That, he said, is the rim of the ancient super volcano.
Back to soundtrack trivia.
Before we could get off the bus, the driver asked us where we were headed. We told him back to Arkansas. Remember how I said talk to the locals? This local knew a back road that would spit us out near Albuquerque where we could take the interstate back east. And it happened to take us right through the extinct super volcano.
We took him up on this advice. Up and up we climbed in my little Toyota. The air got thinner. Patches of snow and burnt up tree skeletons passed us by. Even though the temperature dropped, we left the windows open. By the time we got to the top, night had set in. The land was flat and pale even in the dark. This was the Valles Caldera.
Call me crazy but you can feel the power of the place beneath your feet. At some point we pulled over. A glimpse of stars got our attention. We climbed onto the top of my car and sat back to back. Above us, bright behind the peaks, stretched the milky way. Never in my life have I seen so many stars. Never in my life have I seen color in the night sky.
The dark shadows of the mountains and the immensity of the sky were sublime. We felt scared in our awe. But we sat there for a long time, staring.
The main roads get you places fast but the back roads get you to places that steal your heart.
This style of travel isn’t for everyone. A lot of people tell me they don’t know how I do it. They like to plan more, they like more structure, they like to know where they are going. I used to think about my vacations in that context, too. Then, I learned the pleasure and freedom of planning less.
I’m not telling you to head off in a random direction without any idea of where you’re headed. Just leave yourself some time to explore and discover on your next vacation. Leave yourself room to be surprised.