I Survive Cross-Country Road Trips By Making My Car Feel Like Home

I Survive Cross-Country Road Trips By Making My Car Feel Like Home

After doing it six times in three years, my dog and I have become experts in figuring out what we need to be happy when on the move.
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When asked "have you ever driven cross country?" many people may say sure, once or twice. You may have either embarked on a chaotic, stressful drive in a packed U-Haul with a screaming cat or hit a bunch of national parks on a meandering road trip, but is there really anyone who—truck drivers and van lifers excluded—is insane enough to make that coast-to-coast trip routine?

Well, yes, and that person is me. For each of the past three years, I have headed west for the winter from my home in upstate New York. The tradition began out of a bit of cabin fever, literally: in the fall of 2021, the world was creaking open but I was still living in my peaceful, lovely, but very rural home. I did not long to return to Brooklyn, nor did I particularly long to uproot my life and move to the West Coast. Instead, I wanted to live what so many of us aspire to—the bicoastal dream, for as long as I could get away with it. I am also a big skier. Driving west meant I could hit mountains in several different states. I could visit friends and family across California. And, perhaps most importantly, I could bring my 70-pound dog, Basa.

Now, as spring arrives in Los Angeles and I am about to drive cross country for the sixth time in three years, and the eighth overall, I feel equipped to say that those 20,000 miles have made me, if not an expert, than uniquely well-versed in both the practical and philosophical tools needed to make the journey safely, how to live out of your car for several weeks without losing it (your mind, or the car), and how to do all of this with a faithful canine companion.

You need to be organized (or at least try to be)

Despite decades of a desperate desire to be more organized, and a classic flirtation with a possible late-in-life ADHD diagnosis, my natural state tends towards outward disorder: I am responsible but messy. I always begin my trips with an organizational system that inevitably falls apart by the end, but beginning with one ensures it will take longer to fully unravel.

I don’t drive an SUV or even a Subaru, but a Prius, so space is at a premium. Hatchbacks are generally more versatile than sedans, but the ability to fold the seats down is moot when your dog gets a nice little "hammock" all across the backseat to herself (How nice for her! Her travel bed also rolls up easily.)

Frisco Water Resistant Hammock
Frisco Water Resistant Hammock
Protect your car’s back seat and floors with this hammock car seat cover made from quilted, heavy-duty Oxford polyester that’s resistant to water, spills, stains and color-bleeding.

Luckily there are a lot more places you can stow your gear than just the trunk: the narrow space underneath the two front seats are my "library," where I stack my books. I slot anything small enough between the front seats and the backseat: a bin with toiletry refills, a bag of cleaning supplies (all purpose cleaner, dishtowels, a designated towel for Basa on the days she decides to take a dip in the muddy Rio Grande).

In the front passenger seat is my cooler, which gives me easy access to La Croix and snacks on a long driving day. In the console I store essentials I need easy access to while driving: Tums, ibuprofen, hand cream and gum, so I don’t just snack mindlessly when I’m bored. I am begging car manufacturers please stop competing to create bigger and bigger touch screens using awful proprietary software and to please just build in a sturdy phone mount because every one I’ve bought has been completely mediocre, so much so that I won’t even link to the one I currently have. I would say that those that slot into the radiator seem sturdier than the dash mounted or magnet ones, although that of course comes with the side effect of blocking air flow.

Soft-sided suitcases are generally the move when you’re trying to force a lot of luggage into a small space. I allow myself to bring one bag into the hotel every night: The Patagonia Black Hole 55, a duffel with backpack straps that has plenty of room for my overpacking and toiletries and laptops and cords and three books from the "library" that will never get read. A larger duffel gets stowed in the very back of the trunk, with everything I don’t need for the road-rat segment of my journey: nice clothes, heels, any remotely restricting pants. I have a separate smaller bag for Basa’s bowls and food and, with luck, these two bags are all that end up with me in the hotel room. This also reduces my opportunity to accidentally leave things behind. "Upstairs" is my cargo box, which stores all my ski, camping and sporting gear.

When I first decided to head cross country, I knew that there was no way the Prius itself would fit all of my important cargo! (read: crap). But cargo boxes are shockingly expensive when bought new, especially considering that they seem to mostly be made of plastic. Thule and Yakima are the two brands that generally crop up as the best in the business; I bought my Yakima second-hand from a woman who left Northern California for Connecticut because her son had asthma and couldn’t handle the wildfire smoke. Delightful! And despite the fact that every time I unlock it, it feels like it is going to snap, the big plastic box has worked without fail for three years and counting.

Yakima SkyBox 16
Yakima SkyBox 16
Get your friends in the car and your gear into a SkyBox. Versatile, yet sleek and aerodynamically designed to reduce drag and wind noise. Internal lid stiffeners add rigidity while the SuperLatch™ ensures security.

Absolute necessities or game changers are a hand vac, for when you inevitably spill a bag of kibble in the backseat, a trash can; air tags or tiles for your wallet, car keys and car itself; chains if you will be driving anywhere with elevation during the winter months, a physical road atlas and offline map downloaded on your phone, at least a gallon of water, and a handy portable car jumper. I know I’m jinxing myself here, but in my 20,000 cross country miles, I haven’t had a single flat tire or a single ticket (please clap), and though I’ve made three calls to AAA in the last year, every one of those incidents were due to me locking my keys in my car or my battery dying in my home driveway. Still, it is important to be prepared. These are not the trips to skimp on an oil change or, maybe more importantly, a tire rotation. Make sure your wipers are adequately wiping before you are hit with a torrential downpour in Iowa. Basically: think of any car maintenance the loudest man in your life has harassed you about that you’ve ignored and, in an unfortunate win for the patriarchy, do it.

Finally, though this tip might not apply to anyone who is preternaturally blessed with the ability to keep spaces clean and organized, I make sure to do a reorg at least twice on the trip. The deep clean comes when I get back home and wash the mats and seats and wipe down the doors, but an occasional sweep to grab errant socks (it’s always the socks) and throw away string cheese wrappers (it’s always the string cheese) goes a long way. 

The dog of it all

The real road warrior on these trips is Basa, who has logged every single one of those miles with me, sleeping in tents and tiny homes and Motel 6’s and Best Western Pluses. Basa’s presence is at once the reason for the long drives—I have no interest in faking a service dog certification to fly with her, nor should you—and another logistical hurdle.

I book almost all of my hotel rooms with points and then pay for the pet fees. Though several chains are pet friendly, fees will vary widely: from Pets-stay-free (rarer now, but Kimpton for the spenders and and Motel 6 for the thrifty) to almost as much as the cost of the hotel room (I’ve seen as much as $150 per night). I’ve had good luck with low fees at Best Western’s, La Quintas, and Holiday Inns, but many of these chains are franchised, which means the quality of individual hotels will vary widely. I had one of the most haunting hotel stays of my life at a La Quinta in Ohio, and a near-flawless stay at a La Quinta in Utah, save for Fox News blaring in the breakfast room. A Nebraskan Best Western Plus with an Applebees in the lobby almost made me give up on the yearly schlep entirely, but a Best Western Plus in Utah helped me find the light.

With a few exceptions, most national parks restrict pet access on all but paved roads, campsites, and small trails near the visitor center. Please do not ignore those rules, which exist for a reason, namely that pets can be a disturbance to wildlife. But the beauty of the natural world is that it doesn’t follow man made borders: rarely do the sublime vistas and stunning views make a hard stop at the edge of a national park. Usually, there’s an equally-beautiful state park or national forest nearby, both of which are likely to be less crowded and more pet friendly.

 If Basa has one flaw (impossible to imagine) it’s her sometimes mediocre, sometimes awful recall; a treat will never be as appealing to her as treeing a squirrel, which I find, depending on the day, at turns endearing and deeply annoying. That, coupled with varying leash rules on trails at various national parks have made an investment in several biothane leashes a game changer.

Sure, retractable leashes are a great option when used appropriately, and a safety nightmare most of the time. Biothane acts like a synthetic leather: when it inevitably gets muddy, it can be wiped or washed clean, knots are easier to remove than in nylon and it is less likely to cause you rope burn. It doesn’t seem to have caught on with many major brands yet, but several Etsy shops make these leashes in varying length, buckle type, and color. I have a 15 and 30 foot leash. Sometimes I hold the looped end, but often I let Basa drag it behind her.

Basa is also a secret weapon, my solace. She forces me to stretch my legs and helps me find walking trails I never would have; she’s a conversation starter on a bar patio in an overpriced ski town. Though I can’t think of a time when I felt my personal safety was threatened while traveling on my own, I admit she might act as a deterrent, even if the reality is that, if someone actually threatened me, she would probably just ask for a belly rub. She’s by my side, in countless hotel rooms and on cold mornings when I wake before dawn and take a pre-dawn stroll through small town Nebraska.

Accept that things will go wrong

Last year, I had a relatively short day of driving, through Rabbits Ears Pass, as a snowstorm was percolating over the mountains. When I checked the weather, the snowfall looked mild and chain restrictions were not in effect. When I got on the pass, the conditions quickly turned to white out. We crawled along at 5 miles an hour, and I had to tailgate close to the headlights of the car in front of me, because if that car disappeared from sight, I would have no idea where the road was. Basa, cranky that she couldn’t stick her head out the window in the middle of a blizzard, panted in the backseat.

Something about my psyche allowed me to shake off that experience by the time I pulled back onto the main highway, while forgetting my laptop in an Airbnb in Houston left me rattled for days.

For whatever reason you’re making the drive, whether or not you like transience or just need to get to your destination, a days or weeks long road trip is not easy on the body or the mind. Different things will set different people off: I generally keep calm in crisis and spiral out about the little things, because the little things feel more like a reflection on me and what I should be able to control. It’s hard to not be hard on yourself when you feel like you should just be grateful for the adventure you’re having. But this will not keep you safe, nor will it help you feel better. What helps, no matter the incident, is what therapists have unfortunately been telling you and me and us for years: slow down, take a breath. Take a day off if you need. Don’t get back on the road if you’re out of sorts. Take a look at what the land around you has to offer. The road will still be there tomorrow.

  Top photo by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

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