Jess: Exploring the US (and How to Travel on a Budget)

Thinking back to the first trip you took that left a real lasting impression, what memories stand out? 

It was my first trip to Alaska, flying over the mountains and into Fairbanks. I remember my excitement and absolute awe. I was definitely not in Michigan anymore. I remember landing and how bright it was outside, and then stepping out of the airport and noticing how different it smelled. I think it was then I knew I needed to travel. I needed to collect these memories, these smells, these sights.

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As a kid my family would go camping every year. We would fish and forage and tent in rural upper Michigan. When I was about 12, we made our first cross-country road trip. Those experiences made me a confident traveler—knowing what I needed, how to find my way around, and how to react when things didn’t go as planned.

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It was those long days in the van, watching the terrain change from mountains to forests, forests to fields, fields to oceans that I knew roadtripping was my preferred mode of travel.
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It seems like a lot of people outgrow their sense of wanderlust once they “grow up.” How do you keep your adventurous spirit alive?
I travel with my mom as often as I can. She has a constant air of adventure and is always up for something different.
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 When I start to feel like I need to get out of where I am, when I feel the need to travel and see things, when I need to just get up and go, I call her. She’s always been there for me to lean on for advice and inspiration. Even if we’re not traveling together, she is a constant bug in my ear telling me to go for it, and to just do it. My father, on the other hand, was always the voice of reason, my do it, but let’s be safe and logical about it.
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 As an adult I’ve surrounded myself with people who fuel my passions the way my parents did. My husband is my voice of reason, but he’s always up for an adventure. Like the one day I came home from work after a long day and told him we were moving to Alaska. He simply said, OK when? I said one month. In that month we packed what we needed and sold the rest. He actually sold his motorcycle so we’d have enough money to make the trip.
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What are some of your favorite US destinations? 
Alaska, Northern Michigan, and the Pacific Northwest. They’re all so wild to me (despite the Portland traffic). I fall in love with landscapes— forests especially—and these places each tell a different breathtaking story.
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How do you typically document your trips? Photos, journal, ____ ?
Photos! They never do the scenery justice though. I’m working on being more present in the moment and enjoying it rather than seeing things entirely through my camera. Get the shot, then enjoy the moment.
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The ocean—on it, in it, or stay on dry land?
In it! Snorkeling is one of my absolute favorite things to do. Being in the water is being in a completely different world.
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Most interesting food item you’ve tried while traveling?
When JD and I were living in Hawaii, a classmate brought sun-cooked octopus over for us to try. It was salty and delicious and disturbingly soft. While in Hawaii we also ate the reproductive organs of a sea urchin—raw. Eating the food of the area is one of the most important things to me and JD when we travel. It’s how you really get to know a place.
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Mountains, ocean, desert, or forest? 
Forests. There’s something about the patterns and colors and the way all organisms within it work together and against each other for survival. It’s so beautiful to me.
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 What US state tops your bucket list? 
Louisiana—mainly because it’s one of the only states, along with Texas, that I haven’t been to. But also for the food and culture and to experience something I haven’t before.
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What are some of your road trip essentials? 
  • Organization and planning is key!
  • Test out your car’s set up. Figure out how you will need to fold the seats/arrange your belongings to get a decent night’s sleep. Pack memory foam or dog beds to sleep on. Don’t assume you can get by only sleeping on the seat or the folded down seats with a few blankets. You’re not that tough, trust me—and after one or two nights of that you’ll want to spring for a hotel.
  • Bring lots of water and snacks—stores may be few and far between. If you stop for a hike, you want to make sure hydration and hunger won’t be an issue.
  • An atlas (I like the state-by-state national park version)
  • Don’t over-trust electronics. Have a plan B.
  • Toilet paper and paper towels!!
  • Flashlights
  • Jumper cables
  • Protection—gun, pepper spray (Raid for bees works just as well and shoots further), bear spray, crow bar. Just in case. Better to have it and never need it than to need it and not have it.
  • Sun visor + sheets/towels to roll up in your windows for sleeping privacy. When I’m not in a good area to sleep roadside, I find a well-lit parking lot and sleep there. 24-hour stores like Walmart are great for feeling safe, plus you can restock in the a.m. and use a real toilet.

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What home comforts do you miss most while roadtripping?
Showers and my blow dryer. Once when I was about 16, I was roadtripping the east coast with my mom and stepdad. It had been seven days since our last shower and we had been hiking‚—a lot. The smell of the car and of us was enough to clear a national park. I finally demanded we find a place to shower. My mom pulled over the van in the state park we were in, pointed to the river, and told me to get in. Freezing-ass-cold river showers for everyone. It was the kind of cold that gives you an instant headache the moment you submerge. I didn’t complain much about the smell after that. (Pro tip: lots of laundromats have showers).

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How do you balance work with travel?
This is what works for me: I tell my boss my plans and I go in prepared for some unpaid time off. I think many people are afraid to ask at all, but I’ve had far more employers excited about my travels than mad about me not being there for a few weeks. I work hard, plan, and prepare for when I’m gone. In turn, I haven’t met too many roadblocks, even when taking month-long trips.
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Do you prefer to keep work separate from traveling? Or would you like to eventually find a way to make a paycheck while on the road?
I think if I traveled a lot for work, traveling would feel like work. I like the autonomy of planning my trips and taking them with people I love. And I don’t think there are too many live-out-of-your-van-down-by-the-river jobs. Unless you have a travel channel show. I don’t believe that your passions and your career have to be one in the same. I enjoy my job and I use it as a way to afford my passions.

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 What is your dream job?
Travel Channel 🙂 Or at least being the assistant to a Travel Channel personality. Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, I’m looking at you.
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What have you learned about yourself through traveling? 
I’ve learned how much I like solitude. I’m kind of a social butterfly, but it’s in the areas that are so beautiful and untouched that I’m able to decompress. I’m always amazed at the confidence I’ve gained through traveling—being able to problem solve and meeting new people has really changed me.
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What tips do you have for fellow wanderlusters? 
  1. Don’t let the why you cant’s be louder than the why you can’s. Trips go from unattainable to cheap just by making a few simple sacrifices. If you don’t have money for a hotel, go to Hawaii and sleep in a rental car. At least you’re there. Shave hotels from your budget and it’s crazy how much more you can afford.
  2. Go during off season—it’s way more affordable.
  3. Get a credit card that gives you companion tickets and flight miles for your purchases (I like my Alaska Airlines card). My flights are damn near free because I use my card to pay for groceries and bills.
  4. Take opportunities when they arise. Someone wants you to come visit them? Take em’ up on it!
  5. Travel close to home. You’ll be amazed by what your area has to offer when you go looking for it.
  6. Take long weekends!
  7. Colleges have unbelievable travel programs that are affordable.
  8. Group travel sites. Find people who love traveling—then share your knowledge with each other, travel together, and share costs.
  9. Don’t live your life wishing you would have done something when you had the chance. Just do it.

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What does your life look like five years from now?
I hope I’m doing the same thing I am now. Traveling  and exploring as much as I can. I do hope to branch out and go abroad. Europe is at the top of my bucket list.
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