21 Life Lessons from an Unplugged Road Trip: 14 Days and 3200 Miles (Part One)

nathan glacier


Earlier this month, I embarked on an amazing road trip.

While I’ve been traveling for almost a year, there are two experiences from before this new chapter began that still stand out: road trips I took to and from Seattle in early 2010.

(See part of the one heading north, and the entire trip heading south.)

For those two trips, I had allowed myself five days to make the trek along the West Coast, giving myself plenty of time to discover, see, and experience what was a very new part of the country. It was unbelievable, and some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I knew I had to structure another trip just like it.

The two weeks I just spent on the road were…well, awesome.

I totally dove into the Pacific Northwest, and there’s still so much out there!

I visited/camped/hiked in Crater Lake, the Crater of the Moon National Monument, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, the Lewis and Clark National Forest, Glacier National Park, the Lolo National Forest, Mt. Rainier,  Mt. St. Helens, and Hood Mountain National Forest. To boot: every place was completely new to me. This is how I like to travel.


With Labor Day coming up, and often with it, the last hurrah of vacations before summer officially ends, here is Part One of what I learned on my road trip – the PRACTICAL ideas.

Whatever kind of weekend you have planned, I think there’s something here for everyone.

I’d love to hear what you do, to make your vacations healthy and memorable.

Part Two will be out next week – sharing the more reflective lessons that bubbled up.


#1. Great Storytelling Never Gets Old

I’m a huge fan of audiobooks. On the road trips I’ve taken, two of the books I’ve listened to, and that have stayed with me, are (read by Tim Robbins) and  (read by Simon Prebble) – both highly recommended!

Most recently, I enjoyed read by the fantastic and sadly missed, Ron Silver. Whether you saw Ron as Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune or as the Senator in Timecop (a JCVD vehicle!), he was always excellent. The book was definitely intriguing: a re-imagining of history, where Charles A. Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1936 election.

As the car I’d be using had no stereo, I found a 4th generation iPod Nano on Craigslist for only $55 and loaded it with not only that book, but also a number of podcasts, particularly those with stories: the stand-out is This American Life – I’ve been listening to this show for years, and I never tire of it. I think I could probably listen nonstop if I needed to. I’ll mention that the Freakonomics shows were also fun.

FYI – there are affiliate links up there for the books. If you click on those and make a purchase, I get a percentage. If you’d prefer not to do that, no worries, and please use these links: , , .


#2. Sitting by a Waterfall Can Melt the Rest of Life Away

To me, there’s something absolutely calming about sitting next to roaring water.

As I mentioned before, it reminds me of nature’s power, beauty, energy and tranquility.

Some of my favorite hikes on this trip were when I hiked out to a waterfall, or by a rushing river or stream. It is so clear that you’re out in nature when you see this stuff.


nathan waterfallVirginia Falls in Montana…


If you find yourself near one, take a few minutes and sit quietly; focus on the sound, the smells, the energy – much like a river, the thoughts in your mind may start to drift away.


#3. When It’s Dark, Go to Sleep

We’re so accustomed to being up late.

Unless you’re a farmer or camping, you probably stay up well past the sun setting – and for plenty of reasons – there’s lots going on in the night hours.

We’re also bombarded with artificial light, which stops melatonin production, one of the natural antioxidants within our body.

I took my road trip as an opportunity to hit the sack early, and I loved it. I was in bed by about 9:00 pm (or earlier) just about every night. Sure there were other people cavorting and enjoying campfires (and I did enjoy a couple over the two weeks), but with a day of hiking and driving behind me, and ear plugs in place, I found no problem falling asleep.

I’m definitely looking to integrate this kind of schedule into my life. Now that I’m back in “civilization,” though, I do find it challenging to stick to this routine. A week in Ashland watching theatre and hanging out with actors didn’t help me get to bed early. :-)


#4. Getting Up Early is Awesome

And when you go to bed early, you can get up early! :-)

Believe me, as someone working in theatre for many years, I did not consider myself a morning person. But when it’s 6:00 am and you’ve gotten nine hours of sleep, it feels OK – and actually great – to start the day!

Not to mention – you’ll get a jump on everyone else still snoozing away. Whether you take the early hours to read, be creative, or hit the trail, it’s most likely going to be some quality time with yourself.

I was routinely the first one on the trails in the morning – not only was it fantastically quiet, but I also got to experience nature as it’s supposed to be, without hordes of people streaming through. A couple of times, I even stumbled upon wild life, who would definitely be off deep into the woods in a couple hours.


#5. It’s Possible to Eat Really Healthy While on the Road

Even with a road trip, if you plan ahead a bit (and I know I just railed against plans), you can still eat in a way that supports your health. Surviving on the junk food and processed foods one finds at convenience stores and rest stops does not have to be the way.

Prior to my trip, I picked up a good amount of nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. I was eating tomatoes like apples, and apples like peaches. :-)


road trip foodthe bounty I took on the road…


The nuts and seeds (Brazil nuts, Almonds, Pecans, Currants, Coconut flakes, Sunflower and Pumpkin seeds) lasted all the way through the two weeks, and the produce that I found that lasted the longest (without refrigeration) were:

    • Apples
    • Bananas
    • Carrots
    • Tomatoes
    • Avocados
    • Dates

Eating this way reminds me of the mechanics I’d go to in Santa Monica: when I thought I needed a 60K-mile check-up and every place I called was offering me their standard service, the mechanics I eventually went with just asked, “How does your car run?”

Similarly, when I look back at how did my body operate during this period, I know that I never felt sluggish or tired, I felt alert, and I always had enough energy, which includes the 30+ miles of hiking I did.

I did notice that after a while of just eating nuts and seeds, my body was really craving something fresh; I did make a couple additional stops during the two weeks at a farmer’s market in Wyoming and a health foods store in Montana.

Oh, and bonus: eating ALL parts of the fruit or vegetable actually works – that includes where the vine was connected to the fruit, and the seeds, etc. When you’re faced with the direction to carry out everything that you carry in (on hikes), it definitely makes you look at your food differently.

In full disclosure, the two processed foods I picked up were Almond Butter and Dark Chocolate – two great and healthy foods to have along, and as long as it’s not too hot, not something you need to worry about refrigeration. I even picked up these single-serving packets of sunflower seed butter that were very convenient out on the trails. All these items had minimal processing, and I could pronounce every ingredient.


#6. You Don’t Need Plans

For many times in my life, I’ve planned everything down to the very last detail. With this trip, I didn’t have that luxury; it all came about so quickly, and I made it so colossal, that I only had time for a handful of details.

And honestly, this was part of the fun: I didn’t really know what I might encounter out there, and I was excited to see things instead of poring through dozens of pictures online to acclimate myself.

I had a tent and a sleeping bag, and 14 nights ahead of me, but no reservations – and I was heading into some of the most popular places during the most popular season. Every night, though, it worked out – I even scored campsites inside Yellostone by showing up the day of. I’m sure some of the other campers had planned months in advance – now I know I don’t need to. :-)


#7. Make the Time to Do What You LOVE

Whatever excites you, make it part of your life!

Want to go to the beach? To the mountains? To the greenhouse? GO!

And go NOW, while you literally are still able – make no excuses – even Old Faithful at Yellowstone is wheelchair accessible. While I was at Glacier National Park in Montana, I learned that they estimate the glaciers will be GONE by 2020 – if you want to see those (and I think you’d dig ’em), I’d get on that pronto!

Thanks to Sean Ogle, I found a “clock” online that included no numbers – it simply asked a question: are you creating or are you consuming? It was a great reminder to me that it’s so easy to fill my day reading about what other people are doing – what about my stuff?

Now I’d like to take this idea a step further – while I think it’s wonderful to create, I think it’s also important to connect with what energizes you, what rejuvenates you, what inspires you – that may be your family, nature, a good book, or in the best case scenario, your work.

So, are you creating or are you experiencing life?


#8. If You Want to Meet People, Wear a Conversation Starter

When traveling, it can be easy after a while to feel lonely. The nice part about traveling is that there are usually people everywhere. :-)

I don’t always have a knack for immediately striking up conversations, but on this trip, I had help: my Vibram FiveFingers!


nathan vibramcrossing the ICE COLD stream…


I wore these shoes on all the hiking I did and on multiple occasions, people would stop me to ask how they felt, how they held up, or even what they were! :-)

I quickly found myself in chats with people from all over about what they did, where they were headed, and what I’m up to.

Thanks to my shoes, I realized one of the other most powerful lessons during this trip: I sincerely enjoy one-on-one conversations. As fun and easy as emails, online chats, or texts can be, they just can’t replace actually talking with another person in the same space as them. To me, it’s just fun, and I know I need to involve this in my life more.

As for the shoes, what did I think of them?

In a word: awesome. I thought they were outstanding on the trails – after 30+ miles, my feet never hurt and I felt so connected to the ground. I found much more flexibility and stability while hiking. The most hiking I did in one day was close to 10 miles, and the shoes never let me down. (In case you’re curious, I have the Treksport.)

They’re also very lightweight and quick-drying – two qualities I think that are hard to come by in other hiking shoes.

I did not find them to be too helpful on pavement (and I don’t think they were designed for this use), so I used my sneakers whenever walking around towns or while driving.


#9. Sunscreen and Bug Spray is for the Birds

I’ve been working for the last couple years with removing as many chemicals from my life as possible. It wasn’t until I was on Kauai last year, though, that I thought about giving up sunscreen.

As a guy with Irish heritage, I figured it was my destiny to go from pasty white to lobster red, with no stops in between. I remember the pain well of many burns over the years.

Well, I can safely say, after two weeks of being in the sun, I don’t need sunscreen.

Of course everyone needs a healthy dose of Vitamin D. Here’s the deal: just be smart about how you’re soaking up the sun’s rays. The hottest part of the day, and when the sun’s rays are most intense (think super-powerful UV rays), are from about 10 am – 3 pm. Outside of those hours, you can pretty much be outdoors without thinking too much about covering up.

If you are going to be outside during mid-day (and I was), wearing long-sleeves, long pants, and a hat are absolute musts. I’ll confess that my hands and my nose got a little pink, but there was definitely no burning.


at Glacier Basin at Mt. Rainier – and all covered up…


All this logic applies to bug repellant, too. I found that when I was wearing the clothes mentioned above, I had less trouble from the flies. If you do want to throw something on, or are in a super muggy and buggy climate, a ranger in Grand Teton who studied mosquitoes (I like to think of her as a “mosquitologist”) said that wearing lighter-colored clothing is helpful and if you want to use a product, check out citronella oil. DEFINITELY avoid DEET, no matter how it’s marketed (now with 35%”). :-)


#10. What a Beautiful Country

Whenever I mention I’m a full-time traveler, I feel like I’m just pretending since I haven’t done any international travel (Canada excluded).

While I think there’s much to be learned by traveling abroad where you’re suddenly a minority in terms of culture and language, but there’s no rush to leave your own country.

There is so much for me to discover here in America – I could stay plenty busy touring around the states. I do know I want to get back to Montana, and I haven’t really investigated many of the southern US states. And now that I have an annual pass to all the National Parks (good through August 2012!), I do see more nature and wildlife in my future!


crater lakefrom Day 1 of my trip at Crater Lake in Oregon…


I’m sure I’ll get abroad soon – I’m currently reading Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, and the international bug has definitely bitten. There’s something fun thinking about hopping a flight to a distant country and just seeing what happens.  Like many books out there, Rolf explains travel in a way that makes it seem so easy (and yes, much of it is)!



So that’s Part One.

Check in next week for Part Two, where I’ll share some of the larger lessons I took away from this trip – more of the big-picture stuff.


What are some of YOUR practical lessons from past trips (be it in planes, trains, or automobiles)?


I’d love to hear your answer along with any other comments you have below.

Until next time,


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