For most of us, the idea of dropping our jobs to spend months traveling the country is nothing more than a pipe dream. A distant fantasy — like a car commercial with plenty of lens flares and acoustic guitar strumming in the background. Sure, it’d be great to leave it all behind and just hit the road, but who has that kind of time? Who has that kind of money? Is such a thing even possible in 2016?
Meet Jay Zantos, the man who took his bold vision of traveling through all 50 states (and all their national parks) and turned it into the adventure of a lifetime.
Zantos — an engineer by trade — didn’t just get into his car and go. Like any big project, his “epic road trip” took time and planning. If you also yearn to leave the “real world” behind to seek a life of adventure, you’re sure to go through some trial and error. Luckily, Zantos is refreshingly open and eager to help fellow vagabonds, and he was more than happy to share lessons from the road with Uproxx.
After seeing photos of Zantos’ trip on imgur, we spoke to him about his odyssey, the loneliness of the open road, and whether people really are (as The Twilight Zone suggests) alike all over. If nothing else, we learned that it’s unlikely you’ll get eaten by a bear and that you can sleep overnight at a Walmart.
What inspired you to travel through all 50 states?
I knew I wanted to take about a year off from work, just to travel around. I’d thought about maybe going to South America or Southeast Asia. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was a lot in the United States that I hadn’t seen, and it’s a pretty good-sized country. Plus, it’d be a lot easier because I know the language and the customs. Transportation’s a lot easier because I had a vehicle.
That’s when I was like, “Okay, I’ll just travel through the United States and go see the South and the Great Lakes.” I’m an outdoors kind of person. For a long time, my family had a tradition of piling into the motor home and taking long road trips. I knew that I liked to see the country that way. I had taken a few road trips before that grand one, just to test out if I liked being on the road for a week at a time by myself and that sort of thing. The more I got into it, the more I enjoyed who I was on the road.
Finally, I decided, “Okay, well for this year off, I’ll just try to road trip in primarily the natural progression. I guess I got to try to see all 50 states.” Then I wondered, “Once I’m in these states, what will I try to do?” “Well, if I buy this national parks pass, then I can go to all the parks and monuments and battlefields.” It’s fairly priced — it would be an inexpensive way to get my foot in the door at all these cool places.
What were your thoughts traveling through all 50 states? Was it any easier than going to another country? Or was it like learning the customs of a different country in every state?
There’s so much diversity. The South and the East Coasts and the Midwest and the Great Plains and the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast. They’re each their own self-contained units. Then, at the same time, everything blends, because as you road trip, you don’t get plucked out of some place and then dropped off somewhere completely different like you would on a plane. You see the transition in the gas station attendants and people’s accents and what cars they drive.
It was just really cool to be able to see the complexity of those stereotypes and how in some ways, yeah, they are true. But it’s not like everybody is going to be rude or overly nice or overly adventurous wherever you go. There’s those tendencies, but to see it as more of a whole picture was really pretty cool.
Where did you have the hardest time fitting in?
It got hard in the cities. In New York. A little bit in Boston. Philadelphia. Chicago. When I’m walking around these cities, obviously I’m on vacation, so I’m in a pretty good mood, but it’s true that everybody just regards each other with this stoic moving-right-along attitude. I think that me walking around in my boots and my backpack, my CamelBak, and just excited to explore the city, was definitely a different shade than most of the people there.
Was there anything on your trip that really surprised you?
There were certain national parks that I had heard of like Yellowstone and Yosemite that were phenomenal. But, really, the parks I saw along the way that I hadn’t heard of were really equally amazing, in part because they are so undiscovered and there’s not really that many people who go to them.
Capitol Reef in Utah was one I’d never heard of before. It’s an amazing place. It’s this one huge crease of cliffs that you can drive down. Then, there’s a place like Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. It’s one of the deepest canyons in the United States. I had never heard of it before this trip, either. I think that was really the surprising thing. Going into these parks, not really having a great idea what they were going to be like (because I tried to limit the number of pictures I looked at beforehand), and then just being awestruck that a secret this cool could go unknown by me.
What park would you recommend people visit that may be off the beaten trail and not so well-known?
It’s always a hard question, and I get asked this one often, and they are all so fun. Probably the one that I would definitely want to go back to right now is this park called Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska. It’s absolutely massive. It’s like the size of Vermont. Of the 20 tallest mountains in North America, it’s got half of them or something to that effect. I had never heard of it. I had a general idea of where I wanted to drive. Seeing that vastness of wilderness, I don’t know, it’s just really cool to know that that still exists somewhere.
That all sounds amazing. Is there anything you would tell people who might be interested in doing this? Anything they might not expect?
Nothing that I would say, “Oh, well, you’d better be ready for this.” Except for maybe loneliness. The loneliness was pretty serious at times. It was tough. I came up with a mechanism to deal with that by exercising or calling home or just waiting it out and knowing that it was going to go away eventually. I expected it to be pretty tough, and it was pretty tough. After a day or two, it usually wore off and I realized how lucky I was to be able to go do this. When I look back, I wouldn’t be thinking about those bummer days, I’d be thinking about the fun times.
As far as what I would tell people who are interested in doing something like that would be to start small. Not get overwhelmed with the magnitude of what I did personally. Just think of it as, “Hey, going on road trips is fun.” Take a three-day road trip with your friend or significant other and go to the nearest park. Just do a lap down whatever body of water you have near you.
Then, if you want to go on these extended road trips, you just keep upping the ante. You make it so you can live in your car. See how you like that. Then, you start cooking food for yourself and see how you like that. Then, if they continue to like it, it’s just going to continue to expand. That’s how it was for me.
You need to save up, too, right? It cost around $25,000 to do this?
About $20,000, but that’s not including the cost of my car or the platform I built in the back to sleep and some of my gear that I already had. I’d say as far as gas, food, campsites, hostels, tickets for attractions, souvenirs, all that stuff would be about 20 grand.
And sometimes you’d sleep at a Walmart?
Yeah, so it’s kind of a quirky thing. Walmart allows people to stay overnight in their parking lots. Their parking lots are pretty big, so they usually have a lot of space in the back at nights, so I think their thought is they can have people sleep over. It’s usually like motor homes, not just usually people in cars. If something comes up that they need to buy, they can just walk into Walmart and buy it, and the store will make some amount of money off of it. You’re allowed to sleep in a lot of the Walmarts in the U.S. overnight.
There’s a lot of discussion about how fun this sounds, but what were some of the less fun aspects?
I’m an independent person. I do enjoy just driving in my car, listening to music, listening to podcasts, thinking through things. That’s just fun stuff to me. Having that as a starting block is important.
The real times when I think were lonely was when I didn’t really have a direction. I didn’t know where I wanted to go that afternoon or what to do specifically where I was. The whole time, I’m making up my own routes and figuring out what looks like it would be fun to drive through. If you get to a spot and you’re not really seeing anything that looks fun to do, then your mind starts wandering. It’s similar to short bouts of depression that I think anybody would experience.
You’re on the road and you don’t have a couch to crash on or a place to zone out in. You’re constantly in the public sphere. Either at libraries or wherever you are hanging out. You’re doing it in public. There’s no real escape or consolation from the loneliness. My two best tools would be to call people — call my mom or parents or brother or sister, friends — or to exercise. If I could break a sweat, then I would usually feel better for doing it.
Did you make friends along the way?
Probably only three or so that I will stay in touch with for a while. I definitely met a lot of very friendly people on the road. Pretty much from everywhere in the country, too. You just happen to meet up, but once they heard what I’m doing, that resonated with them, and then we’d get to talking about it. They’d talk about the trips they’ve done. I definitely met some like-minded people along the way.
Did anything frightening happen to you during the trip?
Yeah. I didn’t really know what the likelihood of any problems with animals would be. Like bears or moose. I heard moose were pretty aggressive to people if you spooked them. I read up as much as I could. I got some bear mace and so I carried that when I felt I needed it. There were a few times that I thought lions, tigers, and bears were going to come and get me. It never really happened that way. I had a couple bear encounters and they were all pretty shocking. They just walked around and looked at me. Didn’t really care.
It’s almost like being afraid of other stuff, like people. People who might want to come and get me or rob me or do whatever to me. That happened a few times. Usually, if I was driving around and a place that I obviously didn’t know very well, or in a place where it looked like the people wouldn’t be happy if I asked them if I accidentally parked on their property or something. A few times, I got into some weird situations trying to find a good spot to park. I’d wonder, “Okay. If I park behind this building, is some homeless person going to get curious? Why does this Honda Element have curtains on it?” But nothing like that happened.
I think that the first question I’d ask someone after coming back from visiting 48 states is “did you die?” The second question, seeing that you’re alive is what are some places people who haven’t traveled the country should visit?
I’ve got one for sure. Not many people know about upper peninsula Michigan. There’s the regular glove of Michigan and the upper peninsula is this spot of land between Canada and the lower peninsula of Michigan. It’s a really cool area. It’s not full of massive trees, but it’s a lot of untouched wilderness and just cool stuff to see, including the Isle Royale National Park. That park’s in Lake Superior, but you access it from upper peninsula Michigan.
I really liked Philadelphia. It’s a pretty walkable city. The Philadelphia Museum of Art was phenomenal. I stayed with a family friend. She had a really cool loft. It was just very, very different than what I’m used to in southern California.
I really expected to coast through the south. It was pretty cool to actually experience it. Especially with the confederate flags being in the news so much this past year. The shootings in Charleston. There’s just a bad rap that the south gets, I think. It was just really cool to put an actual face to all the hoopla that I hear. There are all these confederate flags flying down there, but in general, most of the people I met were super calm. Just regular people. They have pretty serious accents, though.
Definitely. It’s all the sandstone. It’s a bunch of canyons and cool arching and bridge formation. The people down there are very into the outdoors, so, to me, it’s a really cool place. There’s a lot of tourism there, but for good reasons. Because it’s awesome.
The Pacific Northwest is cool, too. I think those forests, that wilderness, it’s so rich. The soil is like black earth and the trees all have moss on them. Everything is just damp all the time. It just feels enchanted.
Did you find yourself getting fitter during the trip?
Fit? Sort of. Another good suggestion for any potential road tripper is getting a gym membership because it’s nice for having a shower pretty consistently. Which is good for morale. Also, if you get a nationwide gym membership, you can work out whenever you find the time and it just feels good to get exercise after you have been sitting down for so much of the day in your car.
As far as total fitness, I don’t think that right now I’m any fitter than I was at the beginning. But I think I hiked like 18 miles through Yosemite and I did a few other pretty long hikes, at least for me. I could feel myself feeling fit or feeling able to hold my breath longer when I was swimming. If you took my body mass index or something, though, I don’t think I trimmed a whole lot of weight, even though I was doing all this national park stuff.
Anything you wish you had the opportunity to say to people reading about you?
I think that traveling is romanticized right now in young people’s lives. It seems pretty glamorous. I totally recommend that anybody that wants to travel should travel. I think it’s super valuable. If that’s not what you’re interested in, then I suggest that you don’t just get into it because you feel like you have to. Whatever other passion that you might have that requires some good size chunk of change to take on seriously, save up for that. Then, see if it works out.
We see people like Anthony Bourdain go around the world and do all this neat stuff. And it is super neat! I think there’s a lot you could learn from traveling. I could say that my message would be it’s good to just have any sort of dream to motivate you to save up, and then hopefully you can be good enough at it to make a career out of it.
Jay Zantos is currently working on turning his road trip into a career as a freelance travel writer. You can check out his blog here, follow him on Twitter, or look at more photos of his journey on Instagram. He’s put together a best-of post for anyone interested in the highlights here.