In a few days, I’m headed out to do something I haven’t done in a while: a solo road trip. For some time there, they were a regular part of my life as I packed up my car and drove an afternoon or an entire day to spend a weekend somewhere training or hanging out with friends. I loved, love, watching the miles go by as I explore the roads and speed my way to my destination and then back home, both parts of the journey bringing me their own anticipations, musings, and joys. While I’m often on a schedule of sorts, the very nature of long road trips means that the time it takes to get from here to there is only so much under the driver’s control. The plus and minus of travel is that in transit, the traveler is somewhat removed from daily life. However long it takes, it’s just you and your car against the world while you’re on the road.
Most of the dangers of driving long distances, especially as a lone woman, are not particular mysteries. All of you have probably read or heard about many of them, from attackers trolling rest stops and gas stations to getting stranded in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of local two-legged and four-legged wildlife. We all know about making sure our vehicles are in good working condition and topped off with gas, about locking our doors and keeping our cell phones charged. Less considered, though, is the danger of ending up somewhere not quite where you want to be.
Even with GPS, you can still get lost, particularly if you like to choose obscure destinations, but even if you just don’t understand its directions in time. Plus as far as I know, mapping apps still don’t let you “avoid high crime areas” when setting your route, and a missed exit or wrong turn can land you places where perhaps you should not be, especially after dark. Many road trips take us to unfamiliar areas, perhaps ones where we don’t even have any local friends who can tell us places to avoid. Even if we know, a bit of inattention, a random app update, or an unexpected road closure or detour can make GPS drop us into parts unknown. Much of this is the nature of the beast: we can’t always avoid potential danger zones, and we won’t always know how to get out of them. Fortunately, we don’t have to resign ourself to our fates because we have options both before and after that happens.
Doing a little early research on routes can give us a heads up on the general roads we should be on and when we should definitely pay attention to or ignore the nice map voice. You don’t have to memorize directions or print them out, but doing that or making sure your mapping apps work when you don’t have reception might be wise if you know you’re going to be in remote areas (and even if not). I said mapping apps, plural, intentionally, by the way. Having multiple options can be helpful when one hasn’t caught up on new traffic patterns, accidents, or just wants to do weird things that don’t make sense. Then, of course, follow the usual precautions of keeping your windows up and doors locked when you are stopped. Consider whether you want to call for help when you recognize you’ve ended up somewhere problematic, say a friend to let them know where you are, or the front desk of your hotel if you are on your way to one. And in really precarious urban situations, think about whether you might want to carefully run red lights – after stopping and looking, of course – or otherwise speed your way out of Dodge.
A related problem is when your directions take you the right way, but the roads and intersections themselves are confusing. Not every area of the country or the world has roundabouts, or right turns on red lights, or suicide lanes. If you aren’t used to them, they can be nerve-wracking, even scary. Experience is one of the only ways to get comfortable with strange traffic patterns or unclear signs and unfortunately, the only way to get that experience is to expose yourself to new and different situations. You can, however, make those first attempts a little bit less stressful. Checking maps and “street view” or local photos and videos ahead of time will make for fewer unexpected moments. If nothing else, you’ll have a general idea of what your GPS will be telling you to do instead of being completely surprised. Consider also doing your best to hit the most unfamiliar areas at less busy times, and certainly not during rush hour, so that you aren’t adding the pressure of lots of cars to you getting in the correct lane or finding that tiny side street.
All of this is even worse if we’re driving an unfamiliar vehicle and might not know exactly how the mirrors and turn signals work, how it fits into different spaces, and how it responds to its controls. Taking a few minutes with a rented or borrowed car to figure out all of those basics is worth the time so that you aren’t struggling with them when you’re also getting lost or trying to manage the strangeness of where you are right then. The last thing you want when you’re merging on to a four-lane highway in a city, much less a state, you’ve never been to before is to be distracted by an alert you’ve never seen or heard before or to learn that the car doesn’t have quite the “go” you’re used to when you stomp on the gas. And while you’re at it, make sure you know how your map app works ahead of time, so you aren’t trying to figure it out while you’re driving, and not understanding its directions in time to help you out. Running into problems with those while you’re behind the wheel can make you miss that exit or find yourself in an undesirable situation, instead of enjoying your journey.
A road trip is a lovely way to escape for a while, but not if you don’t actually end up where you intend. Preparing in advance to make sure that you do, and to have some strategies in place to prevent you from going off your planned route or solving the problem if you do, will let you focus on the drive instead of worrying about the destination.