This is a guest post by Rachel Herrmann, a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin. Her twitter is @Raherrmann.

In my second year of graduate school, a professor assigned a section of historian Forrest McDonald’s memoir Recovering the Past, in which McDonald describes traveling around the country and sometimes sleeping in his car while carrying out dissertation research in the 1950s. As someone who was raised in Manhattan, I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty. I had never owned a car, and I found the idea entirely foreign. I thought to myself, “I will never drive around the country in pursuit of a PhD.”

And then at the ripe old age of 24, I decided to write a dissertation that involved going to almost every U.S. archive known to man. With little more than a few trips to the grocery store made using my roommate’s car, a seven-hour maiden land voyage in which I drove my newly-acquired used car from Oklahoma to Austin, and one semester of driving around town on my own, I found myself embarking on a similar kind of cross-country expedition undertaken by McDonald sixty years prior. Last semester, I had a laptop, a printer, and two suitcases in my trunk, a six-state, four-month agenda—beginning with a 3-day drive to Virginia—and I was terrified. This summer, I drove through the other half of the country to take up a fellowship in California, and so I spent a few days driving from Austin to Los Angeles, and many, many more hours driving in California traffic.

Having undertaken these trips, I’ve learned a few things—about cars, history, and myself.

1.Upon realizing that I would be on the road a year, I got a AAA membership so that if something broke, I could call someone else to fix it for me. I made sure my insurance was up to date, and I put extra printouts in my wallet and glove compartment. I took my car to a good auto shop a week before leaving, had my oil changed, tires rotated and filled with air, and new windshield wipers put on. I told the mechanic I’d be going somewhere cold and needed to make sure my antifreeze would work, and that my spare tire was still in good shape. He patiently walked me through the process of checking my oil, and let me know exactly when I needed to find another mechanic to look over my car when I was on the road. I did not imagine that I would be doing any of these things when I applied to graduate school.

2. Next came the mapping out of my trips, during which I allowed the compulsive planner buried not-so-deeply inside of me to run free. I printed maps for every single city and each university campus I thought I’d be going to, with detailed directions for where to find non-parallel parking, and how to get from the garage to the library or archive. I noted libraries’ opening and closing hours, and tried to ensure that I could visit libraries that were open on days when others were closed. University libraries, for example, tend to be open on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, whereas some state archives are not. Other historical societies stay open late on one specific day of the week or month, and will let you make advance appointments; knowing these sorts of things helped me plan my trip.

3. Given my newness to driving and my unwillingness to drive while reading a map, a GPS spared me the stress of not knowing where I was going. I had a smartphone, but I was also aware of the fact that my Blackberry would only tell me just how lost I was and how to fix that problem if my car was sitting absolutely still, I gave it approximately ten minutes to figure out where I wanted to go, and it could tell I was in no hurry. I decided that these issues were not ones I wanted to deal with when it was 10 p.m. and I needed to decide which exit to take in the next thirty seconds.

4. Stay Calm. Graduate students can’t really afford speeding tickets, so I had to learn to try to relax while stuck in traffic in the middle of Georgia, or during the fifteen hour drive home for Thanksgiving that I undertook from South Carolina to New York City. It is similarly useless to attempt to get anywhere in Los Angeles within the time span of thirty minutes or less, and also wholly unrealistic to expect anyone in the lanes next to you to signal when they’d like to cut you off.

5. It helps to plan your stops ahead of time, using Google Maps, or a similar application. I stop somewhat more frequently than some people because I have what has been described as a goldfish-sized bladder. These are not the “stops” I’m talking about. I mean that when you stop for food, stop somewhere that makes the food to order, and where you are forced to sit down and stay for half an hour. Try to avoid going to some place where you can pick up your food and get right back to staring at the ever-unchanging road.

At the end of last semester, when I was driving back from Georgia to Texas, via Alabama and I-10, I realized how proud I was of myself for making it through half a year with nary an incident. I hadn’t hit any deer, no one had crashed into me, and I’d never been stranded anywhere because I’d neglected to fill up my gas tank. Perhaps I will never be as hardcore as Forrest McDonald—and not just because I still haven’t had to sleep in my car—but I was amazed at the sense of confidence and independence I felt after getting myself from archive to archive. I felt ready to tackle anything. Even the first chapters of my dissertation.

What is your advice for traveling to do dissertation work? 

[Image by Flickr user Gabriel Saldanas and used under Creative Commons License]


3 Responses to On Driving Your Car Across the Country

  1. Lillian says:

    Great tips! I heartily support the AAA membership, primarily because you can get really good hotel deals. Be aware, though, that the Basic AAA membership allows only for some small distance towing (e.g., 5 miles or so I think) and while they will come out to unlock the car if you’ve accidentally locked your keys inside, many auto insurance companies will offer the same services for a fraction of the AAA membership price (and sometimes it’s included in the rate already).

    There are several other items I would recommend:
    1) A fleece throw blanket – in case you decide to take a snooze at a rest stop or actually sleep in your car overnight.
    2) A box of granola bars or some other similar snack in case your planning falls through. Or in case you just get hungry. You don’t have to eat the snack while driving – simply having it in case you need it is enough.
    3) A case of water to make sure that you stay hydrated. Most people don’t realize how easy it is to get dehydrated while driving, but it is very easy! Having the water shouldn’t prevent you from taking a pit stop, but it may help curb unnecessary spending on sodas or other at gas stations.
    4) Tunes! Plan ahead and make some mix CDs or playlists on your iPod / iPhone to rock out to while driving. Driving alone may not be as fun as driving with passengers, but when you’ve got tunes, you can rock out and have just as much fun!
    5) Sunscreen in the car – perhaps not the first thing you would think of, but any geologist would tell you that you better slather it on if you plan on driving with the windows down…or else you may turn up at your destination rocking a lobster-pink tint.

    • Lillian says:

      OH, and of course, the most important:

      Leave a set of your travel plans with someone so they know where you will / should be at all times. That way, if something happens, they will know where / how to find you!

  2. Sheepy says:

    1) Motel 6 can be relied on to be $50-75 a night about 90% of the time, but there are exceptions. It’s company policy that they have the lowest price of all hotels/motels in a given area. They have a physical guide to Motel 6 locations; get it. You won’t always have 3g to search on your phone, and when I drove across the country this summer I found that there were listings in the directory that didn’t show up on GMaps. Lifesaver.

    2) If you’re staying in a big city (and are comfortable with big cities) hostels or “boutique hotels” are an excellent, affordable option. I stayed at the Ocean Island Inn in Victoria this summer and it was awesome; I also regularly stay at The Opal when I’m in San Francisco.

    3) I’d go a step further than Lillian and say bring a cooler and replenish the ice regularly. This gives you the option to pack real lunch foods or to keep restaurant leftovers, which can be a real time and money saver.

    4) Large parts of the country do not have rest areas. Gas station bathrooms are not as scary as you might think.

    5) Podcasts. For those long stretches of nothingness when you’re driving through Nebraska.

    6) Bring a buddy. Seriously. Even if that person does nothing but keep you company and drive for an hour a day, it’s better than driving alone for a week.

    7) Make sure you budget in at least an extra day for your trip. Something will go wrong and throw you off track.

    8) Pack extra batteries for your digital camera. You’ll want it for both the trip and the archives.

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