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> Long-Distance Driving
  Driving in West Texas

Long-Distance Driving

Here are some tips for long-distance driving, where by “long distance” I mean anything that takes a day or more, although anything upwards of half a day or so is similar. I'd say these were memes for good driving, except they're not about driving per se, they're about things that go along with driving. I figure truckers probably know all about this, but I've never seen what they know written down.

Driving in the daytime takes far less concentration than driving at night—the two are as different as night and day—so to make it easy on yourself, you want to use as much daylight as possible. So, you want to start around dawn, or maybe an hour earlier. Besides the practical value, you also get to watch the sun rise, which is not only visually nice but also psychologically rewarding for some reason. It's an interesting feeling, I can't really describe it.

Just the other day I learned that my grandfather used to like to start early, too, which just goes to show, there's nothing new under the sun.

Of course, if you're starting early, you also need to go to bed early. Another thing that's nice is to arrange for a quick start. Here's how I like to do it. First, the night before, when I've found a town to stop in, before I find a motel, I go by a gas station to fill up the tank and clean the bugs off the windshield. Then, the next morning, I don't eat breakfast until after I've been driving for an hour or so. So, when I get up, I can just wash, get dressed, and go.

Sometimes it's nice to have something to drink in the car, in which case you can get a cup of coffee from the motel when you're checking out. Or, if you like, you can get a bottle of orange juice or whatever from the gas station the night before.

In any kind of long-distance driving, you'll soon discover that few restrooms have decent soap or towels. Instead of bar soap, which you almost never see, you'll get oily goo, or nothing; and instead of soft white paper towels you'll get scratchy brown paper towels, at best, or more likely a hot-air drier, or nothing. So, as the day passes, you feel more and more unclean … and that takes a lot of the joy out of driving.

It took me years to put two and two together and realize there's a simple solution. Following the Hitchhiker's Guide, you should always know where your towel is, and from there it's just a small step to having some good soap with you as well. If you want to bring a real towel, more power to you, but I mostly just use these cheap little towels I found. They're only 16" square, and a little thin, but they work fine. As for soap, what you'll need to do is get yourself one of those little plastic boxes they make, so you have something to carry the wet bar of soap in. If you wear glasses, like me, it's also nice to keep an extra handkerchief around so you can dry the glasses off properly after you wash them.

One other detail: when you stop at a gas station, it's better to wash your hands after you pump the gas and clean the windshield; the same goes for restaurants and eating.

Speaking of eating, it took me a long time to understand that large meals make one sleepy; in fact even not-so-large meals do the same. So, what I like to do nowadays is have one sit-down meal during the day, plus lots of snacks while driving. A snack doesn't have to be junk food, it can be half of one of those presliced triangular sandwiches, or whatever; the important thing is that it not be too much food.

And, yes, eating while driving is a distraction, so don't do it in traffic. The same goes for changing tapes and finding radio stations. Ideally you want to be the car, and be comfortable enough in your skin that you can manipulate all the controls without taking your eyes off the road. (This can be a real problem in rental cars and other unfamiliar cars.) In that sense, a cup holder is like a control for food. I prefer to keep my food and drink in my lap, but that's just me.

What about talking on cell phones? I don't have one, so I've never tried talking on one while driving, but I suspect it requires qualitatively more attention, and so shouldn't be done while driving, ever.

But I digress. Another thing to be aware of about food is that since you're sitting basically immobile for hours at a time, you aren't using as much energy as usual. So, you shouldn't feel obliged to eat as much as usual, either. I like to remember what Bankei said (in The Real Miracle):

… when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.

Fruit juice is a good option to keep in mind, especially if you're feeling twitchy from drinking too much soda. Orange juice is my favorite, but others are good too. Basically, I try to have physical awareness, to be aware of what would go over well at that particular time. Sometimes I want sugar, so I'll get a candy bar; other times I want salt (chips or pretzels) or protein (nuts or beef jerky). For drinks, sugar and caffeine are the main factors, but even there there are other possibilities, like chocolate milk.

Here's something Bankei didn't say, but should have.

When I feel tired I sleep.

Even without large meals, you'll still get sleepy sometimes, and then you ought to pull over and rest. If you can catnap, that's ideal. I can often do that … I just tilt the seat back a little, doze for 15–20 minutes, and wake up alert and refreshed.

It's funny how the mind knows to wake up. That reminds me of another trick I can do: at night, if I concentrate on what time I want to wake up, I can usually hit it within five minutes or so … although nowadays I'll usually set the alarm as a backup. I don't know if everyone can learn to do that, or to catnap, but certainly you won't know unless you try.

If you're not in the mood for napping, I've found it's beneficial just to sit with your eyes closed for five minutes. That gives the visual system a nice rest.

Finally, there's the matter of how you break up your driving. If you just get in the car and drive, knowing you want to go, say, 750 miles that day, time is almost guaranteed to drag. But, if you look at the map first, and divide the day into five 150-mile hops, time will pass relatively quickly, since you can always tell you're making progress. In other words, you should have subgoals as well as goals.

However, there's more to the idea of hops than just subgoals. It's no accident that I picked the number 150, above … with the car I have now, I can go about 300 miles on a single tank of gas, so I can make two hops before I have to stop and fill up.

Why not call that one hop? Because that's too far for me to drive all at once. I have to stop every hour or three to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. And, that “stretch” can be literal … sometimes I even like to do a bit of yoga. (I also try to do the same two things while I'm driving, by opening the windows to get fresh air and paying attention to my posture in the seat.)

Of course, a stop is also a good time to get snacks.

So, as you can see, the length of a hop depends on many things; you'll probably want to adjust it to reflect your car and your tolerance for driving.

Also, if you're driving toward the sun, it's nice if you can arrange to be stopped while the sun is on the horizon … but I doubt you can plan that in advance.


  See Also

  Hiking Checklist
  Physical Awareness

@ June (2004)