When a Dog Is Your Co-Pilot, a Cross-Country Drive Is No Walk in the Park

By Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 15, 2009

On a cold December morning hours before sunrise, I stood in the doorway to my bedroom, where my beagle, Darwin, was curled up on a pillow. "Want to go for a ride?" I asked. She tilted her head, and her ears flexed out like an elephant's.

"By the way," I added, "we're going to California."

I don't know how much Darwin remembered of our last coast-to-coast drive, just 18 months before, but she seemed game. She stretched and wagged her tail in agreement, and we loaded ourselves into my Honda CRV. I zeroed the trip odometer, set my iPod to a Johnny Cash collection (which we listened to straight through to Nashville), belted Darwin into the seat beside me, and we were off.

Before our first D.C.-California round trip, people said it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The second time, they simply asked, "Why?" There are much faster and less expensive ways to get to the left coast, and, frankly, covering 350 to 750 miles as a solo driver every day is a lot of work. But the payoff was so rich and treasure-filled the first time that I was drawn to make the journey again in December.

On both trips, I had a schedule to keep. The first time, I was headed to a friend's wedding in Palo Alto; the second, I was helping my grandmother move in Palm Desert. Darwin and I didn't travel as quickly or as cheaply as possible; rather, our goal was to make a safe, comfortable drive there and back with some mini adventures along the way. In the end, both trips were priceless.

I was awed by our country and its beauty, its open stretches and big sky, its spectacular parks and the remarkable highway system that makes these trips possible.

If you are considering a solo cross-country drive, you need a dependable car and, preferably, a dependable dog.

Beyond that, anything goes. Here's how it went for us, and some lessons we learned along the way.

1. Prepare

This may seem counterintuitive, but clean your car before you hit the road. It will be your home for weeks, and the more organized it is, the better.

Before my first trip, I stopped by a AAA store and learned from the experts about routes and distances. I studied maps for weeks, looking at interstates that cross the country, such as I-80, I-70 and I-40. Pick a few things you don't want to miss, such as Badlands National Park in South Dakota or Arches National Park in Utah. You can estimate the distance you'll cover daily, but expect snags. We ran into snow in Montana (in June), traffic in Arizona, debilitating fog in Arkansas and oppressive heat in Nevada. Remember that the speed limit is 80 in many western states.

Pack as if you're hiking the Appalachian Trail. You can always buy things on the road, but it's best to stock your vehicle. Make sure you take along a flashlight, pocket knife, pens, a mini first aid kit, paper towels, trash bags and rags. My gadgets included a cellphone, Bluetooth earpiece, iPod and GPS device, all of which charged in the car (with a priceless double adapter). Darwin brought her crate, rabies documentation and tennis ball. I picked up empty wine boxes to organize the car: my snacks in one, Darwin's food and toys in another, maps and guide books in a third. Keep your food, gadgets and maps within arm's reach.

Trader Joe's was my go-to place for snack shopping. I had an ample supply of trail mix, chocolate-covered ginger, pretzels, individual applesauces, juice boxes and dried fruit. I brought a travel mug and a couple of Sigg water bottles so Darwin and I would have plenty of water. I kept one credit card and a checkbook separate from my wallet, just in case.

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