Taking the Long Route: 7 Reasons You Should Drive to Trail
Most thru-hikers don’t live adjacent to trail, so they must decide: drive or fly? As a tried-and-true land-lubber, I can’t force myself into a vomit-inducing tin can death ride more than a couple of times a year, and I like to reserve those for family events. I’ve learned to love the LART (Long Ass Road Trip) and even for those who don’t share my distaste for the skies, there’s still reason to consider taking the long way.
Driving provides the ultimate flexibility. No need to worry about getting your pocket knife through security! Bring all the water you want! Your vehicle, your rules. If something causes a delay, there’s no panicking about a potential missed flight. You make your hours and the only timeline you are beholden to is your own.
I’ve never stayed in a hotel during a road trip. What began as a financial concern (#dirtbagbudget) has become my favorite part of car travel. Searching for places to camp (preferably for free) every night has led me into strange pockets of national forests and state parks I never would have sought out otherwise. It’s easy to assume there isn’t natural access in places when you aren’t looking for it. Is every campsite a stunner? No, but enough of them take you by surprise for it to be worth it.
If you are tired of constant overcrowding, these sites are also often incredibly under-utilized. Frequently I am the only person, or one of only a couple of people at a camping area. There are some heebie-jeebies to get used to at first, especially if you’re finding your spot in the dark, but if solace speaks to you these unusual nights alone might be right up your alley. Not to mention, the car is a wonderful arena to reflect and sort out your life.
Sunrises and Sunsets
Need I say more?
Let’s face it, traveling long distances by means other than foot, animal, or bicycle is bad for the environment. While burning gallons and gallons of gas hauling across the country is bad, it is the lesser of two evils. In most circumstances between contrails and carbon emissions, air travel leaves a larger footprint*. Jet fuel is also heinously unsustainable (not that gas is all that much better). If you can manage your journey by way of public transit, that’s the better scenario.
See the Sights You Want to See
If you open Google maps and do a preliminary plot of your route, you might be surprised to find that you will be going by a spot you’ve always wanted to visit, but could never find the time or motivation to travel specifically to see. On my drive to the southern terminus of the Arizona trail, I was surprised to find I passed only 10 miles South of Carlsbad Cavern’s National Park and Guadalupe National Forest. I never thought I would find the time to travel to New Mexico to visit Carlsbad, but as luck would have it I was going to be right there! On my drive from Colorado to West Virginia, I was able to take a northern route and hit the Wind River Range, Yellowstone, Badlands, and Devils Tower. America has so many incredible and unique national parks, forests, and monuments that chances are you’ll find yourself within spitting distance of at least one.
See the Sights You Don’t Want to See
One of the biggest myths is that of “flyover country.” That vast swathes of America are not even worth addressing on ground level. I’ve driven Nevada three times, Kansas twice, South Dakota, Wyoming, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas. While they lived up to their reputations as boring in certain respects, they each held pockets of surprising and fantastic beauty. More so, even in the flattest and most dull parts they still hold value.
If you would allow me my soapbox for a moment, I firmly believe that all land is good land and all land tells a story. Sometimes that story is deeply tragic. When driving extensively you will inevitably pass ruins from people forcibly removed, economically displaced, or economically restrained. You will see how highways, litter, mining, and farming have disrupted and permanently undone natural processes. We must reckon with these impacts, however unpleasant. Sometimes you need sugar with your medicine, other times you need medicine with your sugar. Then when you look deeper you will ultimately find liveliness and resilience in apparently barren places.
Part of thru-hiking is slowing down and absorbing the minutia of a landscape. While driving is still fast-paced, it is slower than flying and more in line with this ethos. The less cared for landscapes deserve the same respect and slow treatment as others. It is easy to care about protecting Yosemite, it’s harder to care about protecting West Texas.
*Overall impact can be difficult to quantify, and there are somewhat rare circumstances in which this may not be the case. The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) has an online tool that estimates the emissions for any given flight, and there are many emissions calculators available for car travel. Do your research and consider purchasing carbon offsets regardless of your choice.
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