Traveling alone: Reflections from Mid-America

If I had a dollar for every time I heard:

“Why are you traveling alone? I could never do that, your husband is letting you do this?  Are you Crazy!”

I could have paid for all of my gas from Milwaukee to Tucson. Seriously, I was shocked by the reactions of family and friends. So for all those worried and curious about my sanity…

Let’s Go Learn Things about traveling alone……

The Plan

Why the Old Santa Fe Trail?

The “Plan” was to drive 3500 miles from Milwaukee, WI to Tucson, AZ and back. I would loosely follow the Old Santa Fe Trail. Alone. So yes, maybe I am a little crazy.

I chose the Old Santa Fe Trail instead of the more common Route 66 because…well, because it was less common. Also, my interests lie more with older history (pioneer trails) than pop culture (Route 66). 

Most of the pioneer trails, Santa Fe, Oregon, and California, converged in Independence. Missouri. So I used this as my kicking off point. Cities and towns along the way included Independence, Kansas City, Cottonwood Falls, Larned, Dodge City, La Junta, Raton, Las Vegas, Pecos and Santa Fe. 

This bronze resonated with my traveling alone. Imagine this woman riding across Colorado in 1873. Certainly many thought she was crazy. 

Which route? 

After weeks of research, contacting tourism boards and playing with Google Maps I had a plan for my route. The Santa Fe Trail had a choice of the northern mountain pass or the southern prairie route. My plan was to take the mountain route going West in early October and finding a southern route coming East with possible weather issues in late October. To use a favorite cliche, “best laid plans…”

traveling alone Santa Fe Trail
The Route

Traveling Alone

So what kind of plans did I make for traveling alone? This wasn’t my very first trip traveling alone. 2018 has turned out to be my year for venturing out alone. In March I took a 600 mile round trip to Indianapolis and in August I drove 1000 miles round trip to Western Michigan. 

From the previous trips, I knew that 4-6 hours was my comfort zone for a day of driving alone. Lodging was mapped out in advance with a mix of hotel, AirBnB and staying with friends. My car was loaded with audiobooks and podcasts. An advantage to driving is that you have room for a broad contingency of shoes and jackets. Turned out, I used them all! Everything else? I was traveling alone through America, my credit card and cash should take care of everything else.

traveling alone Pecos National Historic Site
Selfie at Pecos National Historic Site in New Mexico

Warning!: This post will have too many selfies.

traveling alone selfie Pawnee Rock
Pawnee Rock was a recognized landmark on the Kansas prairie
traveling alone meeting Smokey Bear
I was very excited to meet up with Smokey Bear

Execution of the Plan

With a few minor exceptions, and a little help from my friends,  I executed the plan with great success. I visited 10 museums, 5 NPS units, 4 historic forts, 5 craft breweries, and took over 1000 pictures.  Encountering rain, sleet, snow, prairies, high plains, mountains and desert, I returned with my car and myself in one piece. To avoid repetition, I refer you to my overview post here

Pin these other posts about the trip

The Ups

What are the advantages of traveling alone? For me, the museum-lover, I was able to spend hours in museums reading all the plaques. I could chase down any rabbit hole I fancied.  Even dining alone required no negotiations. Contentedly bellying up to the bar I never waited for a table, or felt awkward about being alone. In fact I met some fascinating people. Best of all, I acquired a supreme sense of empowerment. 

Look what I did, all by myself

The Downs

Freedom vs partnership

Let’s be honest, it was not all roses. Driving alone is kind of a drag. I love long car rides loaded with books, knitting, and writing to keep me entertained while someone else drives. Public bathrooms are really gross, but that is true if you are alone or in a group.  While traveling alone gives you complete freedom to make choices, it also takes away a valuable second opinion on vital decisions. All decisions, good, bad and ugly are your sole responsibility. 

Weren’t you afraid?

Fear can be motivating or paralysing. Life is more fun if you choose to use it as motivation. Over the course of  2 weeks and 3500 miles I only experienced three moments of fear, no, I have to say panic.

Panic #1

The first was in the middle of nowhere between Kansas City and Dodge City, Kansas. I was on backroads following remote Santa Fe Trail markers. With a jolt of fear I noticed my fuel light flash on, telling me I had 25 miles left. After driving a few miles berating myself I pulled off the road and used Google Maps to find the nearest gas station.

Nothing for 35 miles!

Now what!? Problem-solving is my superpower but I felt Kryptonite creeping up on me. As efficiently as possible I found a bigger highway, drove at a moderate speed and whispered sweet nothings into my vehicle’s ear. I also steeled myself for a 15 mile walk in 45 degree rain. The universe and my amazing Mazda CX-5 carried me on fumes to the gas station. I am still whispering “thank yous”.

Panic #2

The weather forecast for Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado on the day I left Dodge City was for an early winter storm.  This is where I missed my partner. I wish someone had talked me out of traveling that day. Truthfully though, my usual traveling partner/husband would have scoffed at the weather just as I did. After all, we are from Wisconsin, we are used to driving in snow. Sleet and ice and mountain roads are a different matter however.  I went about 4 of the 7 hours with no problem but again I send thanks to the universe and my Mazda. I hit a sheet of black ice on a very lonely road and skidded from shoulder to shoulder for what felt like an eternity.

Panic #3

As with the first two panics, this one was the result of my own poor decision-making. I made it a point of checking into my lodging each evening before dark.  Except for the night I left Santa Fe headed for the only Airbnb I had booked.  I miss judged the slow mountain driving and arrived at dusk.

I knew it was going to be remote, I also knew that my kids had told me I was crazy for booking this spot.  The junkyard in front of the lean-to/cottage, which was  behind a chain link fence put my heart in my throat. The voice in my head said “you know that your husband would say NO WAY if he was with you, how can you consider it alone?”  Problem-solving had to kick in again. There was nothing else for another 350 miles because all around me was a reservation. It was 7pm and the next stop was my new house 6 hours away. I had to make some on-the-fly arrangement for my 2 AM arrival and drove  into the rainy mountainous night. 

PS: The Airbnb was already paid for so I just cut my losses and took off.

The Lessons Learned

Collective wisdom tells us that we learn from our mistakes. So given my true confessions of panic, I have some lessons to share.

In retrospect, I would highly recommend opening a Triple AAA account before your trip. A wise, fatherly man I met in Dodge City, suggested always filling up at half a tank. (Now you tell me!)

My plan to always check in before dark remains a great idea. This is not to say that you don’t go out later. But get into town and assess your surroundings while it is still light.

Research  your route vigorously and then give yourself permission to modify it if weather or circumstances prove scary. 

Give everything a chance before judging it and embrace U-turns.

Most importantly, be sure to Thank the faithful NPS rangers and docents sitting in remote  lonely museums waiting to share their part of history. Because it was shoulder season, I was the only visitor at some of these spots. Every one of them met me with a friendly face and  a contagious passion. 

Traveling Alone

I loved it! It is not how I want to travel every time, but wild horses couldn’t keep me from trying it again. How about you? I encourage you to give it a try.

traveling alone Museum of the West

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Traveling Alone: Reflections from Mid-America
Traveling Alone: Reflections from Mid-America

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