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How long to drive from NY to CA?
#81 - You'll be surprised how quickly you can cross the USA in a car.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all the familiar comforts of home and friends.”
Why take a road trip?
When I travel, I prefer not to fly. Because to be honest, I love looking at corn. What can I say? 🌽
And if you also love looking at vast swaths of corn, sandwiched between steep mountain passes with dramatic views on all sides, then you might want to take a road trip across the USA next time you travel.
There is no better way to more intimately understand the land you live on than by moving your awareness across it.
Your choice to tramp on foot, by bicycle, RV, thumbing, rail, or in a car, is an important one. Each one of these modes will provide its own unique experience, and will force you to make trusting decisions without having all the information.
Being alone and exposed will challenge you in ways you never could have anticipated, no matter how hard you prepared before embarking. You’ll have to rise within yourself to face sleeping fears, and when you champion them, the worth in your struggle illuminates.
Every staggering sunrise—every morning you wake somewhere safely, after taking a bet on your instinct the night before, you are rewarded with the feeling.
So today, for some perspective, we’re looking at how long it takes to drive the express route from New York to California, just in case you’re feeling the itch to go for a road trip this Summer.
And you might be surprised at the speed it can be done…
How Big is the USA?
3 years ago, I took my first big road trip in a car, driving 3,128 miles from Brooklyn, NY to San Jose, CA, in two stages.
I left Brooklyn in the Fall and drove Day 1 to Lexington, to reconnect with my Mother through the Winter.
And in the Spring I headed back to California on Days 2 through 4.
In total, it only took me 3 long driving days to reach California from New York. And at the time, I couldn’t believe how fast the trip flew by.
So please forgive me now, because my perspective is biased, warped, and solely based in my own experience, which I do not recommend you repeat as I did.
After driving 1200 mile days enough times, changing several states per day became my normal routine, and this country started to feel like my own back yard.
I’ve pushed myself, my car, and my dog harder than I now believe to be sane. So when I car tour these days, we shorten our daily routes, to spend more time at camp before the sun goes down.
The following story outlines a cross-country car trip I did 3 years ago, after completing a 3 month bicycle tour. I wanted to get home quickly, so I pushed it hard.
And my advice to novice Road Warriors, after this experience and others after it, is to take your time on the road to merge with the scenery, rather than trying to go as fast as possible like I did.
Brooklyn, NY to Lexington, KY
I took a train across Brooklyn from my friend’s place where I slept, to the car rental agency. And less than an hour later, I was on the road with my bicycle and gear stuffed in the back.
Driving out of NYC was hectic, but thankfully traffic was lighter than I expected, so I breezed through the Holland Tunnel and across the state line without issue.
Crossing the hellacious landscape of New Jersey, I had flashbacks to a week earlier when I had accidentally smashed my bike’s rear wheel on a Turnpike bridge expansion joint, after my mapping app gave me no other route options to complete my last day of riding.
“I hope to never return here again after today,” I facetiously giggled to myself as I pressed toward Pennsylvania. “Bless your heart, New Jersey, never change!”
My goal was to get to Mother’s house in Lexington, KY as quickly as possible. So I only stopped when necessary to get gas, and to hit the head.
The Appalachian Mountains rolled a sea of green trees along the interstate, and as I passed the C&O Trailhead in Cumberland, my heart fluttered, remembering the two beautiful days I spent riding it, and how it had offered my only wipeout of the bike tour within the first 11 muddy miles.
“Wow. The Tour really is over,” I thought to myself. “And I haven’t seen my Mother in a long time. I hope she remembers me.”
Entering the state of Kentucky, the Sun went down 20 minutes later, and I drove on in the dark. When I arrived in Lexington a couple hours later, my younger years flashed before my eyes.
It had been around 15 years since I’d been there, but I still recognized a few places, and I was looking forward to spending time with my Mother for the Winter.
Leaving Brooklyn around 8:30am, I arrived in Lexington around 10:30pm.
Lexington, KY to Oklahoma City, OK
After an endearing Winter of reconnection, Spring came, and it was time to go.
Leaving my comfy bed at Mother’s house in a different rental car, I strategically crammed my bicycle and belongings along the passenger side of the cargo area, leaving an aisle on the left just wide enough for me to sleep.
I had no idea how far I would make it, and preferred not to think about how many miles were still up front. I figured I’d just drive until I got tired and then find the best sleeping arrangement I could scrounge.
Crossing Kentucky into Illinois, and through Indiana, I found peace back in Corn Country, allowing my mind to unpack all the new experience I had just stuffed into it.
The Midwest offers immense fields of green which hug the powder blue sky on the distant horizon. And the open views sprung fruit in my open mind.
St. Louis was hectic, and I saw the Arch in bumper to bumper traffic. Breathing deeply through my nose, I realized what a country boy I’d become as I yearned for the solitude of the desolate roads in front of me.
I paid each toll I passed, and by the time I reached Tulsa, I was running on fumes. But I kept going anyway—Why? I couldn’t tell you.
But reaching Oklahoma City, I skirted off the freeway the first time I saw a Walmart sign near an off-ramp.
“I’m not falling asleep behind the wheel ever again,” I quietly reminded myself as I made the right decision.
Tucking into my down feather sleeping bag, I was restless in the back of the mid-sized SUV rental. The windows were tinted, yet I felt exposed under the bright parking lot lights, despite having slipped into the darkest corner I could find.
Scanning the lot, I saw a few other vehicles which surely housed other sleepers. And knowing I wasn’t alone helped me feel safe enough to finally drift off for a few hours.
Leaving Lexington at 8am, I arrived in Oklahoma City around 11:30pm.
Oklahoma City, OK to Needles, CA
After sleeping on-and-off a few hours, while rolling around and peeking out the window in between, I decided it was time to drive well before the sun came up.
With a fresh brewed cup of coffee, I set off in the dark and by the time the sun rose, I had to pull over in McLean, TX to watch it.
The town looked like it was stuck in 1885—just how I like them. I scanned for tumbleweeds along the dusty street as I stood in the middle snapping photos, and laughed out loud, envisioning myself as a cartoon cowboy in his natural setting.
Pacing around the street, completely alone, I hummed Morricone and drew an imaginary pistol, cracking, “bang, bang!” at an invisible foe. I saw the dust plume as he hit the ground, and blew the tip of my big iron finger before sliding it into my pocket with a laugh.
There is simply nothing like the desert in the morning.
Its barren mysterious landscape has a Soul rousing Spirit which has been calling my name almost long enough to listen now.
It offers hundreds of miles of sage to cleanse my willing mind, and a rising mirror of waving heat to purify my heart.
Further up the road, I stole an illegal left, hooking across rapidly incoming traffic on a busy expressway in Albuquerque, and almost caused a 3 car pileup.
Depleted and hangry, on a mission to get a burrito, I wasn’t thinking straight when I made the turn, and I caught a well deserved middle finger as I skirted disaster.
By the time I hit Flagstaff, the sun was setting and I had no intention of stopping. Clicking on my headlights, the terrain started to shift.
And if I were to make this trip again, I would have preferred to drive those Arizona Mountains during the day, instead.
They threw me up, down, and all around the dark, and I held on for dear life as I flicked my lackluster brights on-and-off to see as much road as possible between other cars. Also concerned about deer on the road, my mission was to avoid them at all costs.
When you start driving before the sun comes up, things can get squirrely once it goes down. Your circadian rhythm tells you it’s time for bed, and you begin to experience shifting feelings of fatigue, which can ultimately cause you to crash if you don’t pull over to rest.
When I started to feel unsafe behind the wheel, I realized there was nowhere for me to safely pull over in the mountains, still with 50 miles left to go. I had no idea where I was, and in the dark I couldn’t see anything farther than 15 feet in front of my car.
So my mission simply became, get to California. And making it in one piece was all that mattered to my tattered Spirit at that point.
Employing every breathing, singing, face-slapping, and window positioning strategy I could come up with on the fly, I kept pushing.
Crossing the California border into Needles, I felt like the fumes I had been running on over the last 100 miles had fully exhausted.
It was close to 11pm by that time, and I spotted an area along the Colorado River on my map where I figured I would likely find camping.
But the RV Resort I found down the hill where my map led wouldn’t let me stay, because I didn’t have a self-contained bathroom in my vehicle.
So I drove back up the hill, and about 50 feet past a sign reading, “PRIVATE PROPERTY”, I found a secluded pull-off area in view of the interstate, and the most brilliant display of stars I had ever seen, overhead.
I stood outside the car, stretching my legs after the longest day I’d ever driven in my life, and marveled at the view, feeling like an amoeba in a petri dish while looking up at the dazzling sky.
Slipping into my bag in the back of the car, I trusted I would be invisible for the night, and was asleep as soon as my eye lids shut.
Leaving OK at 4:30am, I parked in Needles around 11:30pm.
1,072 Miles Driven—2 Timezones Crossed.
Officially crossed the CA State Line in 3 days, driving solo.
Needles, CA to San Jose, CA
Thanking The Land for being a gracious host, and its steward for not catching me, I fired up the car to pull out of my sneaky hilltop perch. Looking at my phone, it said 4am when I hit the highway.
And about a half hour up the road, the time changed, suddenly read 3:30am.
“Looks like I got a jumpstart on my day then,” I said out loud to myself in the dimly lit car. “I hadn’t noticed my phone was still on Mountain Time.”
Watching the sunrise over the Mojave Desert that morning was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever witnessed in my life. It painted the scenery every shade of orange, pink, and yellow. And the mountains created dramatic silhouettes where they cut the soft light.
Zipping up Highway 5 felt like nothing after the 3 days behind me, at that point. Like driving to the grocery store or something.
And around 12:45pm, I arrived at my Home Taqueria, Adelita’s, to find they’d expanded to twice the size of when I’d last been there!
I can still taste that burrito now, 3 years later.
Leaving Needles at 3:30am, I arrived in San Jose at 12:45pm.
To anyone looking to explore the land on their first road trip, my suggestion is to take it slow.
Take your time to pull off the highway to see interesting things. Talk to random people in diners in the middle of somewhere, and discover all you have in common with these beautiful strangers.
I tell this story about how quickly I crossed the country in a car to showcase how approachable traveling by land actually is, in hopes at least one reader will climb off the fence, and into the driver’s seat. Or onto a bicycle saddle!
Wherever you choose to go, carry intention with you, and realize the road will mirror it at every corner.
And when you get into the thick of it, don’t forget to breathe, my friend.
The best part about LIFE is you get to do whatever you want.
But remember—once you buy the ticket, you take the ride.
May the wind be at your back,