5 stages of grief you may experience on a cross-country road trip

The open road sets the scene for the ultimate American adventure. Pioneers ventured through vast plains to reach California’s blue waters in the 1800s; hippies drove back from California to Louisiana on motorcycles in the 1960s. Restless young adults today drive on personal quests to Colorado and Washington.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, the American highway — be it the I-40, I-80, I-10 or any of the others — takes you on as much of a spiritual journey as it does a physical one.

Hire KickAss RoadTrips to do the driving (and the hauling, and the planning) and you'll have plenty of time to make memories. Photo: BrigitteStanford/Twenty20

“You guys, we’re making memories!” Photo: BrigitteStanford/Twenty20

But let’s be honest: Cross-country road tripping, especially if you are going it alone, can be mind-numbingly boring — like “I’m going to kill myself if I have to look at the road for one more second” boring.

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This is why the “spiritual journey” that road trippers most often share in common is the five stages of grief, or what hospital patients go through when they’re told they’re terminally ill.

Not convinced? Let us elaborate.

Denial and isolation

Road trippin' with pro surfers Cory Lopez and Peter Mendia; photo by Ruddy/Surfing magazine

Road trippin’ with pro surfers Cory Lopez and Peter Mendia. Photo: Courtesy of Ruddy/SURFING

The first stage of grief is to deny the reality of the situation.

As you stare at the desert wasteland rolling past you, unable to distinguish one mile from the next, you tell yourself you’re following in the footsteps of American pioneers, and you might even feel special at touching a part of our country’s history that most Americans never will.

This adventure will be awesome and exhilarating! And American!

Anger

stressed woman in car

The anger starts when you realize that you’re not yet at the halfway point, but it feels like you’ve been driving for months. Photo: pathdoc/Shutterstock

Eight or nine hours into a 30- to 40-hour drive, the reality sets in that you’re just driving a painfully long way from point A to point B by yourself. You’re tired; your muscles start to ache, and your eyes want a break.

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The anger kicks in when this moment hits: You’re not even at the halfway mark.

Bargaining

eating food in a car

In an effort to regain a sense of control, you begin eating items from gas stations that only vaguely qualify as food. Photo: Martin Novak/Shutterstock

The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness is the need to regain control.

Around the halfway point, you start to bargain with yourself, using your diet as your primary bargaining chip. If you can get so far without stopping, you deserve that McDonald’s Big Mac or a Dairy Queen large milkshake. Don’t try to justify it; just go for it.

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Life’s too short and the drive is too long to eat right the whole way.

Depression

girl in car window

Once you enter the depression phase, you begin to ponder deep and unanswerable questions like “What am I doing so wrong with my life that I am always finding myself on long, solo road trips?” Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Past the halfway mark, dark thoughts begin to creep in — thoughts you usually banish from your mind with the help of everyday routines, deadlines and trivial errands.

Thoughts of “What am I doing with my life?” and “Maybe I made a huge mistake by breaking up with him” pop up among the endless rows of cattle and strong smells of piss and manure as you pass through Amarillo, Texas. Bills pile up in your head, important tasks left undone.

Why is being an adult so hard?

Acceptance

meditation

Once you’ve reached the stage of acceptance, a unique harmony washes over you. Photo: Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

At some point, usually with four to five hours remaining, the mind empties.

You enter into the state of ultimate nonchalance. No more excitement, anger or depression. The bills will get paid, or they won’t. Things will work out. You’ll get to the destination when you get there.

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In the era of to-do lists, obligations and work, we live in a state of constant stress and guilt over not getting enough done. The beauty of the long road trip is that you’re doing just enough of something to allow yourself a day of nothing.