At the end of 2013, I made a New Year’s resolution – the first of my adult life. I didn’t vow to lose weight or to save money. Instead, I set a wildly ambitious travel goal: I decided to spend one night in all 50 states in 2014.
This simple resolution gave me an excuse to see the country. Along the way, I explored several national parks. I climbed a frozen waterfall. And I stopped at one roadside oddity after another, including Carhenge and the Blue Whale of Catoosa. But, none of this surprised me.
What surprised me was what I learned about myself. Over the course of the year, I developed an interest in landscape photography; I learned to love local bars in small towns; and, I discovered road trips to nowhere. All three of these interests have had a lasting impact on me, both as a traveler and a person.
With that in mind, I decided to put together a guide for anyone who wants to travel to all 50 states. Regardless of whether you want to see the country in a year or a lifetime, this seven-step guide should help you plan for your trip.
1. Define what “counts” as seeing a state.
There are many different definitions for what “counts” as seeing a state. Some people will only count a state if they’ve had a meal in it. Others feel they need to spend a fixed amount of time in the state — an hour, a day, etc. My definition included, at least, one overnight stay. In truth, it doesn’t matter which of these approaches you take. Just make sure you define the rules of the game.
2. Set a deadline.
I set out to see the country in a year. Without this deadline, I think I’d still be a few states short of 50. Obviously, you don’t need to see the whole country in a year. But I do think that it’s important to set a deadline of some sort.
Here, again, there are a number of options. Some vow to see the country in a fixed amount of time. Others commit to a certain number of new states per year. One of the more creative approaches is to visit your 50th state on — or before — a milestone birthday (e.g. 50 by 50).
3. Develop a strategy — and then refine it.
At the start of the year, I had a strategy for how I’d get to all 50 states. Or so I thought. The “strategy” went something like this: I’d travel to 25 or more states for work, and then I’d tack on the remaining states towards the end of the year. Sounds easy, right?
Well, it wasn’t. Halfway through the year, I realized that I wouldn’t get to 25 states for work. Instead, I’d only get to about 10. As a result, I needed a new approach — and fast.
After giving it some thought, I adopted a “neighboring-states” strategy. That is, I used business travel as a springboard to explore nearby states. For instance, on one of my four trips to Wichita, Kansas that year, I rented a car and drove to Oklahoma and Arkansas. This new strategy saved me time and money in the long run, since I didn’t have to plan a bunch of one-state trips at the end of the year. But it also reinforced the importance of constantly refining my travel strategy.
4. Incorporate an interest or a hobby.
Whenever possible, I incorporated two things into most of my trips. I photographed a national or state park, and I stopped at a local bar in a small town for dinner. This one-two gave me a better sense of each state — both the landscape and its people. More importantly, it made the entire trip more fun.
With this experience in mind, I’d recommend that you incorporate an interest or a hobby into your trips. You could watch a baseball game, eat a slice of pizza, or go on a hike in each state. Regardless of what you choose, it will give your trip more structure, and it will provide you with a unique view of the country.
5. Find ways to cut costs.
A trip around the country isn’t cheap. But, it doesn’t have to cost your life savings. There are simple ways to cut costs. For instance, I used travel sites to find last minute hotel deals; I regularly ate fast food on the road; and, I redeemed points and miles wherever I could. It wasn’t always glamorous, but I did save some money.
Another option is to find a travel buddy — either for part or all of the journey. In my case, my father joined me on several legs of my 2014 trip. We drove to the Glade Creek Grist Mill in West Virginia. We explored the Sand Hills of Nebraska and the Black Hills of South Dakota. And, we caught both rainbow trout and the aurora borealis in Alaska. My father helped lower some of the costs, but more importantly he made each of these trips better.
6. Be prepared for things to go wrong.
If you decide to visit all 50 states, things will go wrong. I can guarantee it. For instance, in November 2014 I drove to a lake in Northern Louisiana. When I arrived, the lake was empty. (In case you’ve never seen a waterless lake, it looks a lot like land.) Then, two days later, I locked my keys in the trunk of my car in a questionable part of Dallas, and I missed my flight back to Chicago.
Both of these experiences were frustrating at the time. But over the years, they’ve become two of my favorite memories from 2014. They were an important part of my yearlong adventure. And they are a reminder that things will go wrong if you travel long enough.
7. Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!
If you’ve signed up to see all 50 states, get ready. You’re in for an unforgettable experience. The trip will challenge your perceptions of certain parts of the country. It will push you to meet new people, explore new places, and wrestle with new ideas. And it will have a lasting impact on you.
When I visited my 50th state in December 2014, I assumed my journey was done. But I recently signed up to do it again — albeit with different rules. I’m currently working on a photography project called The Fifty. As part of this project, I plan to take one print-worthy photo from all 50 states. I hope these images, not only showcase the beauty of the country, but encourage people to explore the 50 states for themselves.