Long Drives

knowledge accumulated by Philip Greenspun; updated September 2008

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Chew Gum

"Chew gum," my friend Donna said. "My brother does a lot of long distance driving and he says it will keep you awake."

Donna is beautiful, well-traveled, international, and sophisticated. I listened to her. She was right.

Drive a Quiet Car

An old Journal of the Acoustical Society of America article studied the effects of moderate amounts of noise. Ambient noise above 70 db SPL was found to make human subjects tired and impair their thought processes. Noise below the threshold was barely fatiguing at all. Note that a car traveling at 70 mph generates approximately 70 db SPL of noise.

If you have a Lexus luxury sedan, you're safe because the noise level at 70 mph is about 65 db SPL. Note that every drop of 1 db is significant and 5 db less noise is much much quieter. This is a logarithmic scale after all. If you have a modern standard car, you're probably between 68-70 db. Minivans and compacts tend to be noisier at 72-73 db SPL. A sports car such as a Corvette or a Porsche will be well above 75 db SPL. Car & Driver magazine reports these important numbers if you're interested in a particular car.

Every person's threshold will be different, but basically you can drive much longer distances comfortably if road noise isn't wearing you out.

Avoid Stupidity

Your soul isn't going to be improved by listening to the Eagles' Hotel California for the 1000th time. You probably won't be able to appreciate the subtleties of the Bartok String Quartets above the noise of the road. Interstates don't have to be wastelands. Listen to a book on tape. Listen to a lecture.

I prefer abridged books on tape. You can only listen about 1/3rd as quickly as you can read. Something that might be compelling if read for three hours can be boring if drawn out to nine hours. Most modern novels are badly written but have very interesting plots. An abridgment preserves the plot and skips some flowery prose that was probably not up to Henry James standards anyway.

I even like abridgments of classics. I listened to Ulysses for six hours while driving across Kansas in Travels with Samantha. It didn't need to be longer.

If you really decide to get serious about learning while on the road, a good thing to do is stock up on foreign language tapes. My favorite by far is the Pimsleur series:

To hear a lot of unfamiliar words, but still be listening to what is nominally English, the Teaching Company sells audio and video tapes of America's most dynamic university professors. You'd be surprised how compelling history, literature, and philosophy lectures can be. Check these Teaching Company reviews for specific course recommendations.

Get a Minivan

There is a luxury to having enough space for everything. Motorhomes are cumbersome. A minivan is perfect if you don't mind sleeping in a tent and scrounging around for a shower. I have owned a Dodge Caravan and a Toyota Sienna (full review of the Sienna). They were fairly similar in their utility and propensity to develop rattles. The Honda Odyssey is, by general agreement among car magazines, the driver's minivan. The Sienna is the most comfortable and is the only minivan available with all-wheel drive. The Dodge/Chrysler minivans are cheaper.

Of course, after 10 days in an Acura NSX, the minivan feels dangerously out of control, but eventually the longing for an automotive partner fades and you can live with the automotive appliance again.

Use Hanging Folders

Someday I would like to erect a shrine to Mr. Pendaflex who has done so much to organize my life. I file all of my negs and slides in Pendaflex folders (the plastic ones, allegedly archival), in Steelcase 42" wide lateral filing cabinets, arranged for front-to-back filing. I keep personal and work files in Pendaflex folders. Why not do it in the car?

During the Alaska trip, I used the following minivan filing system:

When crossing a state line, move a folder from the crates in back into the small bin up front.

Buy Stuff from Chain Stores

Chain stores with lifetime guarantees are the traveler's friend. I bought some Shimano mountain biking shoes at REI in Anchorage. In Juneau, I discovered that they wouldn't fit into my Shimano pedals. I exchanged them at the REI in Seattle. I'd saved the receipt in my hanging folders (see above).

Drive Slow

The Travels with Samantha trip was 15,000 miles in approximately 100 days. That was 150 miles/day. If I'd gone any faster, I wouldn't have learned anything. If you can't arrange the trip so that it is 150 miles/day or less, then you might as well fly because you're mostly going to see the inside of your car.

Text and pictures copyright 1993-2008 Philip Greenspun


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