After a breakup, Nathan Pettijohn was looking to shake things up in his life, so he rented an RV, packed up his German shepherd puppy, and hit the road for three and a half weeks. Along the way, he visited iconic parks like Zion, Yosemite, and Yellow Stone, and found even more pleasure in taking the roads less traveled. His memoir Travels with Hafa, details his experiences, and in this interview, Nathan takes us on a tour of the Western US that’s off the beaten track.
Emily Gindlesparger: I’m sitting down today with Nathan Pettijohn, author of Travels with Hafa: In Search of Ourselves. Nathan, I’m so excited to talk to you today about your adventures, how the book came together, and this time period of your life.
Nathan Pettijohn: I’m excited to be here, thanks for having me.
Emily Gindlesparger: Let’s start by giving the listeners a kind of quick idea of what this book is about and why you decided to write it.
Nathan Pettijohn: The book is a travel log about a road trip I took in an RV last October with my dog. I went for about three and a half weeks and the book takes place over those three and a half weeks.
Emily Gindlesparger: You went to a wide variety of places, in the Pacific Northwest and in the West from Utah to Oregon to Washington. It looked pretty incredible.
Nathan Pettijohn: It’s just a big circle, like 11 states. We went through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and then back down south through Oregon and California, back to Los Angeles.
Emily Gindlesparger: What motivated the trip?
Nathan Pettijohn: I write in the book that I had just been through a breakup, I wanted to get out of town and clear my head. In the past few years, I’ve traveled a lot more. I’m lucky that I get to work remotely–I worked in digital marketing so it’s been possible to do that. Last year, I got this dog and he was still a puppy and I didn’t want to leave him for a long stretch at a time, so a road trip seemed like a good way to be able to bring him along. He was about eight or nine months old at the time, so it was also a special way to bring him up. All he had seen before that time was Los Angeles and fences, and leashes, and packed in neighborhoods, so it was really cool to be able to show him the greater world.
Emily Gindlesparger: What were some of his favorite places?
Nathan Pettijohn: I talk about the best day of your life in a couple of different chapters because in Wyoming when we got there, he had the best day of his life running around by the Snake River. In Montana, he had the best day of his life in Billings. We stayed on a ranch, it’s like 17,000 acres, some cows, and was really cool. In Diamond Lake, Oregon by Crater Lake, we stayed by this beautiful lake. We were the only ones there and he just ran around, and was jumping in the water and carrying sticks and chasing birds, and I say that was the best day of his life.
Basically, I reference that movie, Office Space, where the main character says he’s having the worst day of his life, and yesterday was the worst day of his life, and tomorrow’s going to be the worst day of his life. I was saying how my dog is able to do the opposite, and have the best day of his life every day.
The Best Day of Your Life
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, to be so in the moment that most days or every day is the best day. That’s pretty awesome.
Nathan Pettijohn: Yeah, totally, you can learn that from him.
Emily Gindlesparger: What was it like being on the road? I imagine you were still training him as you’re going and then also trying to balance work. How did all that go for you?
Nathan Pettijohn: Yeah, I brought a mobile hotspot and tried to stay at places where I had reception so I could work because it wasn’t like I took a vacation, I was still working. There were certain spots like in Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, or Yosemite, a few spots where I didn’t have any reception or WiFi and a few places there wasn’t anything. The generator stopped working, and there was only a payphone two miles away, so that forced me to unplug in some instances when I wasn’t expecting it. But for the most part, I was able to keep the wheels running on my company.
Emily Gindlesparger: How was it traveling with a young puppy?
Nathan Pettijohn: He loved it. He sat in the passenger seat next to me, and he was my copilot. Every place that we stopped, he’d look at me like, can you believe this? He saw his first real rain on that trip, he saw his first real snow, he played in the snow a couple of times, we went to the desert, different kinds of forests and terrain. I’m sure if he saw me loading up an RV again, he would just start barking and howling and be ready to jump in. He loved it.
Emily Gindlesparger: Were any of these landscapes, weather patterns, or environments, were any of them new to you as well?
Nathan Pettijohn: I’ve lived in LA for over 10 years so I’ve gotten used to this, and in the last five years I haven’t even had a car. I just Ubered everywhere or rented a car if I need one because I do work from home. Driving such a big 36-foot bus, basically, it was a big RV, it took some getting used to, especially in snow and ice. There were some really windy spots, but mostly, the driving on snow and ice was something I wasn’t used to and it was a little bit nerve-wracking.
Emily Gindlesparger: You wrote about driving through a whiteout storm. I can’t remember if it was in Wyoming or Montana, but it just sounded utterly horrifying.
Nathan Pettijohn: I think I downplayed it in the book too because I was terrified. I will always remember that guy–I stopped at a truck stop just to make a pot of coffee, and think about whether I should keep driving in it. I saw a trucker pull in to use the bathroom, and I got out and asked him, “Hey, is it cool to park here?” And he said, “Where are you trying to go to?” I told him and he said, “Oh, that’s only like 13 more miles. Just keep going, it clears up, don’t worry.”
When I asked him, “But you can park at places like this and stay overnight, right?” He said, “I don’t know, I don’t stop. I drive for a living.” He made me feel silly for even considering being scared. I gained a lot of appreciation for those long-haul truckers and people that live on the road like that because it was not easy. It’s not easy for your posture, it’s not easy all day driving that fast, and those kinds of terrains, and all the things you have to look out for. Those people put up with a lot.
Emily Gindlesparger: When did you realize in these adventures that you wanted to write this down and publish it as a book?
Nathan Pettijohn: That was not really the goal until maybe Idaho. I think the first night or the night that I stayed in Idaho, I started writing a bunch of notes about the night before, what happened with the run-in with the police in Clinton, Montana, and I wrote that part while it was fresh in my mind. From then on, I did keep some notes of things that had happened.
The trip was originally inspired by reading John Steinbeck’s book, Travels with Charley. And it was not my goal to go out and do a derivative imitation of it, but I love Steinbeck’s book. His was in 1960, and he was on the road for three months with his dog. When I got back home, I set those notes aside. I wrote quite a bit on the road but a lot of it was journaling stuff about my thoughts on how I got here and talking about different adventures I’d had, different people that I met, aside from this trip.
A lot of that I ended up cutting out. I tried to start a draft in March of this year, and then I accidentally deleted the Word document off my desktop, so I didn’t have it anymore and I had to start over. I took a few weeks to just kind of like think about that because it was pretty frustrating. I think April 1st was when I really sat down and started writing the first draft–the real first draft, and I did that because I was stuck in quarantine because of COVID. Here in LA, they even closed the beaches. Everything was closed, you really couldn’t do anything. My workload wasn’t too heavy at the time, so I was really able to dive in and make this a quarantine project.
I woke up every day, thinking, “All right, what did I do in Wyoming?” And trying to remember all the stuff that happened in Wyoming and then writing that out. It was really cathartic. I think mostly I wrote this book for selfish reasons, for me to get to relive that experience of what it was like to be out on the road, and not be cooped up inside. Remembering that was really a therapeutic process for me, honestly.
Emily Gindlesparger: Cathartic in what way?
Nathan Pettijohn: Reliving it in my head–I’m not stuck in this house, sitting here by myself during quarantine. I’m reliving this trip where I was out on the road and having fun and seeing places. In other ways, it helped me reaffirm my love for traveling, and that I wanted to do this again. I love writing. I have a column on Forbes, and I enjoy writing but a lot of times, I procrastinate, and just like everyone else, it’s hard for me to really put in the work. With this one, I was really passionate about it, I liked the story, I thought that other people could get something out of it, so the process of working on it was really fun.
I got a sense that it was just flowing out of me. During April I finished the whole first draft and there are polishes after that and more work over the last couple of months with Scribe, helping me with the proofreading, the layout, publishing, and the marketing and everything. It’s a big process. During April, that whole first draft came together really quickly.
The Seed of an Idea
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s amazing. Backing up to that story of getting rustled up by the police, I love that story from your book. You’re in Idaho and you stopped to sleep at a day-use area, and then the cops come and rustle you up, and tell you you’re not supposed to sleep there. It read to me, by way of trying to get out of this scenario with the cops, you joke around with them about how you’re going to write your travels down, and I’m curious if that exchange with them hadn’t happened, do you think you still would have thought of writing it as a book?
Was that the seed or was it just a desire that came up naturally anyway?
Nathan Pettijohn: Yeah, that’s a great question. It was probably the seed now that I’m thinking about it. Because I honestly had not thought about writing about the trip, but I told them that, during that exchange, I told them that my trip was inspired by reading Steinbeck’s trip. I mentioned that I’m a writer and that kind of thing. He did ask me, “Well, are you going to write about your trip?” At that point, he planted that in my head and then the next day, that was the first notes that I wrote into my phone. That whole exchange, word for word, is verbatim because I wrote that part when it was still pretty fresh in my mind.
I think I got the rest of the dialogue in the book correct too, but that exchange in particular, that is exactly how it happened. You’re probably right, I think if that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have written this.
Emily Gindlesparger: I loved too that before that point in the narrative, there wasn’t really any mention of writing down notes or journaling. Then after that suddenly there is, “Oh yeah, I spent the morning writing.” It is clear that it got in and you started working on it even then. It is pretty cool.
Nathan Pettijohn: I started trying to use the voice to text feature on my phone, and then that got all screwed up too. Once I started writing, it was hard to shut it off. That was such a great feeling. Any writer would know, I have gone months without even writing an article or anything. So, breaking out of that writer’s block, even if it was just as a journaling purpose for myself, it was still really nice to get those thoughts out of my head onto paper.
Emily Gindlesparger: That phone recording script that you’re referencing, I want to share that detail with listeners, because I think it is so funny. It was translating everything into Portuguese for you, but it was just kind of like a jumbled mess of Portuguese.
Nathan Pettijohn: Yeah, not even a Brazilian could have understood. I had my air pods in, and I was driving, and I clicked the little world button on the keyboard, and that changed my keyboard to Portuguese, it would have been an easy thing to click and turn it off, but I didn’t realize it because I was driving. So, I have pages and pages and pages of notes that are in some legible Portuguese.
Emily Gindlesparger: Did you ever try using those in any way like translating them back to English and getting a mess of English or did you just leave them alone?
Nathan Pettijohn: I tried with Google Translate but it was all a mess. It made no sense.
Emily Gindlesparger: There is a poet who writes poems in English and then translates them with Google translate into different languages, eventually brings it back to English, and then publishes, that last garbled mess as a poem. I love that.
So, you’ve traveled all over the west, what is your best of the west road trip guide? Where should people absolutely go see, or what was surprising to you about what you saw?
Nathan Pettijohn: I hadn’t taken an RV out on my own before. We saw a lot of the “bucket list” kind of stops. We went to Yellowstone and Zion, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, all of those lists places that you would go to in the Pacific Northwest. I stayed at a trailer park, I stayed at a parking lot, I stayed at a KOA campground, some RV parks, and I stayed inside the national parks a couple of times.
The national parks are gorgeous and the people that work there are amazing, but from the very first stop in Zion, my gut reaction was just, it was going up a trail, the dog has to be on a leash, and there are like hundreds of other people on that same trail going up and down and you’re just in a Disney like row of people. Everyone is going up there to take the same picture from the same view and we all go back down and post it on Instagram.
There are thousands of places in the United States and in other countries where you can go park off on your own or camp out on your own and have beautiful views and beautiful things to take pictures of, and you don’t have to stand in line. I think that that became really clear to me really fast. The very first night in Zion, I thought, “All right, I want to get out of here and go to some BLM land, bureau of land management,” because there are millions and millions of acres of BLM in the United States and you can park there for two weeks for free.
There is nothing to plug in to, but if you have a generator and water and propane and some food, you can camp out, and then move your rig every two weeks. So, my big takeaway from that perspective is that I liked the boondocking aspect, I liked camping out on the 17,000-acre ranch, or these big empty parks. I went in October, so it was late in the season especially for Washington, Oregon where it was getting cold and snowy and they were shutting some of the camps down.
I got lucky that most of the camps were empty for that reason. As beautiful as the national parks are, I would encourage thinking about going to some BLM land or going out a little bit more off the beaten path.
Off the Path
Emily Gindlesparger: And are there any specific spots that still hold some lasting power for you, spots that you would return to?
Nathan Pettijohn: Yeah, all of them. I don’t know if there was one favorite, but the Redwoods in Yosemite are incredible. It is hard to describe what it is like to be around those. I really liked Mount Rainier in Washington, and the days that I was there it was raining, but I got a lot of writing done in those days, and I did hike with the dog a little bit. That spot is just really relaxing and comforting to me for some reason. I am kind of lost for words for why, but that’s one of the spots I loved, and then I guess anywhere in Montana I love.
Emily Gindlesparger: Big sky country. Yeah, having been at Rainier, that place is just super magical. I have never seen a forest that wet and lush and foliage and life on life on life. It is trees growing on dead trees growing on more dead trees and it is pretty amazing.
Nathan Pettijohn: Yeah, it is being out in a real forest. I liked it.
Emily Gindlesparger: I loved in the conclusion, you write that this trip was like a crash course for Hafa on how life should be enjoyed. What were some of the lessons that you picked up about how life should be enjoyed on this trip?
Nathan Pettijohn: I think that probably the big takeaway from the book is this idea of the bucket list. I mentioned that show idea, the Pet Bucket List, that I had worked on with my old boss and pitched as a TV show. That idea was taking dogs to do silly things with their owners, and it could be like taking them to a Michelin star restaurant for a fancy steak dinner or going hang gliding, or hot air ballooning, or whatever silly things with the dog that you can imagine people wanting to watch or share online.
I remember when we first kicked around that idea, it became clear that it would be a depressing show if it is about a dog that is about to die and getting their last hoorah. So, it should be something with a young dog or any animal that people can go experience something memorable with their animal. I equate that to how we think about our own bucket list for people because, a lot of times and in a lot of those movies they have a couple of old guys out doing their bucket list.
The way that our society seems to think about a bucket list is, once you retire, you can go see the Grand Canyon or whatever it is, and until then, you’ve got your routine, and you’ve got your 9 to 5, you’ve got all of these obligations, and it would be irresponsible to go do all of these things. I feel the opposite. I am not super wealthy or anything. I put the rental of an RV on a credit card and said, “I need this investment in my own experience.”
Also taking my dog while he was still young–eight, nine months old–and getting to see that part of the world, and explore and really have adventure and be a dog. It was starting his life out right and I have all those memories with him, and I want to do more stuff like that. It would be a sad thing to wait until the end of the dog’s life to do that and I think people should think the same way that, especially now during quarantine that things are more open now. You could take an RV, and it is less likely you are going to take a cruise, or feel comfortable flying in a plane, or staying at a hotel.
So, the idea that you don’t know if tomorrow is going to come, and you don’t know if you are going to be allowed out of the house. The time to take action on your dreams and your bucket list is not way off in the future. It should be right now.
Emily Gindlesparger: Did this trip teach you that or did you believe that before going on this trip?
Nathan Pettijohn: I believed it, but I think this made it a lot more clear to me and more pronounced. I think the dog helped show me that too. There wasn’t a day where he was feeling anxious or lonely. He was having the best day of his life every day.
Emily Gindlesparger: Well, thank you so much for immortalizing this account for all of us. Writing a book is such a feat and huge congratulations on that, and getting it out in the world. If you wanted people to take away one to two things from the book, what would they be?
Nathan Pettijohn: Well, I hope the book inspires people to go out and take a trip, or go out in nature, and to do it sooner rather than later, the same way that reading Travels with Charley made me want to go take a trip. I think that would be the best thing for me if I felt like readers were inspired to go take their own trips. I share a lot of my thoughts about different things in the book, so I hope that some of it is helpful in some way to people.
Emily Gindlesparger: Well, Nathan, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you and I am so excited about what you are doing with this book. Do you have a trip that you are taking next?
Nathan Pettijohn: Nothing outside California right now. I have been booking Airbnbs every now and then to just mix it up, but now I need to start planning the next big road trip.
Emily Gindlesparger: Very cool. The book again is called Travels with Hafa, and besides checking out the book, where can listeners find you?
Nathan Pettijohn: My name is Nathan Pettijohn. So, you can Google that, and all of my stuff should come up.
Emily Gindlesparger: Great, thanks, Nathan.
Nathan Pettijohn: Thank you.