We've been home for a week and today I finally started unpacking our suitcases. As I emptied one more packing cube and the campfire scent filtered past my face, tears threatened and I thought "It's over." I sighed. "It's really over."

Our epic road trip is over.

But it isn't, not really. To say "it's over" implies that nothing has changed and things will go back to the way they were, before we uprooted our lives and took off for a month to chase my childhood dream.

We may be home again, but our lives are definitely not the same. We have grown and changed because of this experience, in ways that we never could have imagined. It's almost a cliche to say that I will never be the same again, but on that trip I was happier than I've ever been, except for my wedding day. When you leap across the chasm, and your partner leaps with you, and you both land safely and happily on the other side, it's a beginning more than it is an end.

Jim and Theresa in Cottonwood, Arizona
Why - why did this trip mean so much? It's bigger than just the concept of fulfilling a dream; I have a long way to go before that's complete. The meaning, for me, comes from the lessons I learned. These lessons are now a road map, if you will, of how to ensure happiness, peace, and maybe keep a little bit of sanity in this crazy thing called life. 

8 Life Lessons Learned from an Epic Road Trip

Time passes slower when you're present

Before this trip I can't tell you how many times a week I would think "how did it get to be *that* time?" Every day I see the same complaint from others; everyone's trying to do everything all at once.

On a road trip you do one thing at a time. Maybe two. You drive. If you're the passenger, you read. Listen to a podcast. Sing. Write. Sometimes I had to work in the car, but each time I did I wasn't sure how long my connection would last so I focused on getting that one necessary task completed. When we weren't driving somewhere we focused on what we were doing right at that moment, whether it was hiking or eating fried pickles or visiting a museum or setting up camp.

Even though we were busy almost constantly, we were present, and time seemed to last longer. 

Lesson 1: Be present

Success requires preparation

The idea of jumping in the car and taking off with no plan at all, Kerouac-style, is romantic (unless you've read On the Road, which I do not suggest doing when you're actually on a road trip or you might start craving salami sandwiches on white bread), but you know what's even more romantic? Planning and preparation. 

Hear me out - if you plan ahead, if you prepare, then you are free to enjoy the open road because you know if something happens you've got it covered. Lost your GPS signal? Grab those maps you picked up at AAA before you left. Since you've got the maps, that means you've got a AAA membership, which will come in handy if you get a flat or somebody leaves the overhead light on all night and the battery dies*. If you know that campground where you're planning on staying doesn't have any firewood, you can pick some up at the nearest town instead of driving back and forth an extra hour once you find out**. By packing enough snacks and drinks it won't matter when you don't see a restaurant for several hours, because you've got snacks. (p.s. You can never have too many snacks on a road trip. If it's a choice between pillows and snacks, chuck the pillows.)

*This didn't happen to us.

**This did.

It's fun to just dive in. It's more fun to dive in when you're prepared. Trust me on this one.

Lesson 2: Be prepared.

Leave room for spontaneity

Planning is great. I love lists and checking things off and knowing what's supposed to happen before it does. Schedules are my pal and my bullet journal is my new best friend. If you wonder how much I love planning, see above.

Except...one can over plan.  I know - blasphemy! But it's true, especially on a road trip. If you have every minute planned, you have no time to stop at that amazing scenic overlook you just passed. You'll miss lingering over omelets to chat with a retired teacher whose husband grows apples.  You won't be able to hear about the World War II vet's harrowing moment in the ambulance corps as the Germans flew up and over them, and his gut wrenching sorrow from what he viewed at Dachau, because you'll be too busy looking at your watch.

Plan, yes. Prepare, yes. But be open when possibilities present themselves.

Lesson 3: Be spontaneous

Patience isn't just a virtue, it's a necessity

If ever patience were required, it is on a road trip. Something's going to go wrong. It will. I don't care how prepared you are, or how OK you are with spontaneity, something is going to upset the apple cart. Plus, you're in a car, on roads, which means you're going to have to deal with other drivers. There will be construction. There will be traffic. There will be 25MPH towns (I'm looking at you, Nevada) and 80MPH highways (yay, Utah!). Your GPS will be wrong. Your ice will melt and your sandwiches will get soaked. Your road trip partner will get on your nerves and fluctuating gas prices will drive you bonkers.

It's going to happen. Deal with it. As I like to say when we're about to enter Costco on a Saturday: embrace the chaos.

Sometimes things go wrong and there is nothing you can do except breathe, take a step back, and find another way. Sometimes there's nothing you can do except wait and be patient. 

Lesson 4: Be patient

When you see a chance, take it

If there's one sacrosanct road trip rule, it's to do things before they're necessary. Fill the tank way, WAY before it hits "E." Take a bathroom break before you're doing the dance. By being proactive you reduce the chance of an emergency. Nobody likes emergencies. Emergency rooms don't even like emergencies. If you're proactive, if you anticipate a future need and fill it, you stave off any potential drama. It's like scheduling your credit card payment in advance, or taking the chicken out of the freezer the night before, or entering your expenses as they happen instead of waiting until the last minute. At the time it may seem like an inconvenience, but it saves you from a headache later.

Reminder: pick up more contacts so I don't have to wear my seven-year-old glasses. Reminder #2: get new glasses.

Lesson 5: Be proactive

Stuff is overrated

We lived out of a car (actually, a crossover SUV - thank you, Kia!) for a month, and there were still things we brought that we didn't use, and clothes we packed that we didn't wear. And we didn't miss them one single bit. Not one iota. Nada. There wasn't one time that I thought "I wish I'd brought..."

What I did think, when we got home, was "we have too much stuff." I've never been materialistic, but I still have about thirty t-shirts that I've never worn, a wardrobe I'll never wear again, a collection of glassware collecting dust, and a file cabinet full of I-have-no-idea-what.

I didn't miss any of that when we were gone. I was too busy living to worry about all of that stuff. 

Lesson 6: Choose experiences over things

You can't do it all

If this trip does one thing for me it might be to teach me how to make a to-do list that I can actually DO. I am the Queen of the impossible expectations. I always think I can get much more done than is humanly possible. This translates to travel. Jim told me my "travel eyes are bigger than my travel stomach." My eyes order a buffet when my stomach can handle an amuse bouche. It's almost embarrassing how much I think I can get done vs. how much I can actually do.

Time to be more realistic. Just because I think I can stretch time (see above), doesn't mean I actually can stretch time. In fact, by packing more into my day it seems like I have less time because I'm trying to do too much and don't really appreciate any of it.

Choices have to be made. For every scenic overlook we visited, we bypassed five. For every historic marker we read, we skipped many more. That's OK though; it just gives us reasons to go back.

Lesson 7: Be realistic

Never take your blessings for granted

At the Travel & Adventure Show a man came to our booth and began talking to me. He learned what we were doing, about the road trip, and he told me how much he wants to travel. He wants to see the solar eclipse this year, and he was at the show to find someone who might be able to help him do that. He'd retired, but his wife was still working. His desire was a plea, his yearning was palpable.

He wasn't the only one we met who was envious of our journey. There were many who wished they could do the same. I was already grateful, and each time I met someone with wanderlust in their souls my appreciation for this gift grew. Every morning before we left, every dawn of the trip itself, and every waking moment since we've returned I am thankful for what we were able to experience.

Lesson 8: Be thankful

Following your dreams isn't easy - nor should it be. Following mine has taught me so much more than these eight lessons. Many of them aren't clear, yet, but they will be. And when they are, I'll share them. 

These are just some of the lessons I learned from our epic road trip. What have you learned from your own experiences?