Tomorrow marks a month traversing the United States as a van dweller and it feels as if we’ve been on the road for years. It seems so long ago that the River City was disappearing in the rear view mirror, while everything known to us was left behind in the evening sun.
To say the trip has been filled with exciting and interesting new experiences would be an understatement.
Looking at Google Maps brings to light an unfamiliar feeling, of being away from home for so long, yet having twice as much time before returning to old familiar settings. The same people and the same places.
That same thick, humid air resting over the home of the Kentucky Derby. Thus far, no regrets have arisen and the anticipation to see more in this life through a lens absent of priorities and civil responsibility is still there.
The Gateway to the West
The adventure began August 16, 2016, making our way to the Gateway to the West in a van with three amigos – or as we like to call ourselves, Khaki Bastard (Jon), Dirtbag Bob (myself), and Voodoo Charlie (Mike).
Memories of Louisville still rested near the surface of our minds, but when the Ohio River flowed beneath our wheels, new thoughts came about.
We were in reality, doing it.
Later that day the Arch was in view and soon we would be resting comfortably in the basement of Theresa and David Mills, my generous and amiable aunt and uncle. There we explored one of the countries more interesting botanical gardens before planning the next stop of a so far incredible escapade — onward to St. Paul, Minnesota.
A true nomadic life commenced from there on out.
Bound for the North
On the way to St. Paul we decided to sleep at a free camp site in literally the middle of nowhere Iowa, which is something worth looking into if you’re considering the vanlife.
We found freecampsites.net to be extremely resourceful when searching for spots to set up shop and rest. Anyways, when we arrived midday a massive system crawled its way across the sky and soon after a cacophonous ten-minute storm ensued.
Quarter sized hail started smashing against the shelter we were under as well as the van. We honestly thought a tornado was going to follow that, but it ended up being a decent first real night on the road.
The next morning we made our way to Minnesota and had perhaps the most delicious meals of the trip thus far, courtesy of Andrew Payne, my cousin and Jon’s brother. His and Emily’s hospitality were also much appreciated. I’ve considered driving back up north just for more of his burgers.
As we left St. Paul, all we could think about were the Rockies. The tallest mountains any of us had seen were the 6,000 feet “peaks” of the Appalachians. Just outside of Denver rests Mt. Elbert, standing at 14,433 feet, the highest peak of the entire Rocky Mountains.
The Road Leads West
In Denver, we have a buddy named Shane who lives with Seth and Addie, some kind folk I’d met a while back in Louisville. Their apartment was just south of the downtown Denver and right at the foothills of the Rockies. They agreed to let us stay, so for a week we explored the suburban area.
They had beautiful parks and a nice disc golf course minutes from the mountains, where we spent much of the days relaxing, exercising, and reading while Shane, Addie, and Seth went to work. It was an interesting week to say the least.
Much music was played and listened to and we indulged a bit in west coast craft brews and the devil’s lettuce. I have to admit that walking into a dispensary and buying weed legally was amazing.
But the best part of Colorado was indeed conquering Mt. Elbert.
We camped two nights at the base of the peak, ascending on the second day of our stay. The night before, Jon met two fellas from Ohio, Taylor and Alex, who invited us to join them for a 3 A.M. summit to catch the sunrise. We agreed and woke up to complete darkness, meeting our two new friends at the trailhead.
Turning on our headlamps, the ascent began and I can vouch for Jon and Mike when I say it was the most grueling, strenuous, though rewarding adventure one can partake in.
At 6:26 A.M. I reached the final ten feet of the “King of the Rockies” and at once the hair on my skin stood straight up and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, combined with an inexplicable awe for the world’s beauty/relentlessness, rushed through me as the sun poked its head above the ridge. No such feeling had been felt in me before.
Minutes after I summited, I became concerned for my toes. In the last leg of the hike, the sweat on my feet became increasingly colder and I started to worry about frost bite. At this time I started to descend, where I came across Mike and Jon before heading back to the van. The rest of the day consisted of eating and sleeping for the three of us.
Saying goodbye to Shane, a long time amazing friend, was bittersweet, but we had to continue the journey.
Next up was Grand Teton and we almost couldn’t contain our excitement.
So we wished each other farewell and headed through Wyoming, stopping halfway in Rawlins where we slept at a Wal-Mart and had the oil changed in Caroline (a recent poll by our followers decided this would be the name of the van, named after mine and Jon’s beloved grandmother).
In the morning after some driving, off in the distance a set of majestic peaks came into view. They looked savage and treacherous, reaching high into the sky with a mask of cloudiness (it turned out four massive forest fires in Yellowstone were bringing smoke down via lake winds).
These were the Tetons.
We spent days camping and hiking up near Mt. Teton, enjoying mornings and sunsets at the beach of Mt. Signal Lake, which rests just below the three mighty beasts — Mount Moran, Mount Teton, and Mount St. Johns.
The peaceful solitude and quiet waves along the granite coast was something out of a movie. Each picture taken resembled a desktop screen saver and, similar to Mt. Elbert, when one walks up to the range, it takes your breath away.
From pebbles to boulders, nearly every rock along the lake was smooth like a dinosaur egg and completely different from what we have back home. It was splendid. But like our previous destinations, we had to move on and so we left Teton for Yellowstone, just a short drive 28 miles north.
“There’s Bears Here, Ya Know?”
Yellowstone National Park offered an array of interesting sights and unique geographical structures; though I wouldn’t say it completely rivaled Teton.
While there, we saw Old Faithful erupt, numerous hot springs bubble up to the earth’s surface, and some of the country’s most magnificent waterfalls.
One in particular, Lower Falls, has a height of 308 feet where it roars through the Yellowstone Grand Canyon. There was a plethora of bison that roamed the streets as if they were their own.
While staying both here and Teton, it was a bit nerve racking at first, being that we were in bear country. It didn’t help that a park ranger informed us about the 10 wolf packs and 840 bears, including grizzlies that the park housed.
By this time van dwelling was becoming more natural, though the smell of three grown men without a shower in a week after numerous days of hiking cannot be accustomed to (baby wipes can only do so much). I mean, at one point we thought there was a decaying body in the van.
Staying overnight at Wal-Marts and free dispersed campsites started to feel less awkward. Finding spots to refill on water and deciding on a steady diet became easier. If you’re ever in need of a shower and don’t have a gym membership, campgrounds will usually let your use their amenities without staying by the way.
The hardest thing to get used to is the fact that you might not always know how next to get a shower or where you’re going to use the restroom. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows, but this lifestyle has been such an incredible and worthy experience.
Eyes on the Pacific
That being said, we left Yellowstone and headed for the ol’ state of Washington to explore the Cascades, temperate rainforests, and old growth forests.
For a day we visited Seattle, exploring the city’s hipster area, Capitol Hill, and partaking in some brew consumption.
The next day, it was Olympic National Park.
In my opinion, Olympic has only been second to Grand Teton in terms of majesty. The old growth forest hosted trees hundreds of feet tall and had widths larger than cars. An overabundance of ferns lived under the canopy, as well as mosses.
At the northern side of the park resides the Cascades and, despite the cloudy forecast, snowcapped peaks could be seen intermittently as winds blew across the range. From there we continued on to an amazing backpacking trip down the longest wilderness coastline in the country.
The hike was 6 and a half miles through dense woods and along beaches of the Pacific. It involved steep, muddy inclines with a few places that required placing your trust in a rope that very well may have been there since the ancient times.
Ultimately, we reached a glorious camp site at Toleak Point just in the woods with a helluva view of the ocean. The beach was our front porch. Out past the beach lied Giants Graveyard, a grouping of large jagged rocks that withstood the time of erosion.
It was here we watched our first sunset over the ocean from the west coast, sipping on bourbon and reminiscing about the trip before a beach campfire. For we knew the next few days would be our last as a three-man team.
After a brutal trek back to the van the next morning, we took an excursion to the fabulous city of Portland, Oregon. It was a unique and friendly city with a long boardwalk beside the Columbia River.
That evening, final beers were drank in a nearby bar before heading to our Country Inn, where Mike would depart the next morning for his flight to Albuquerque.
It was bittersweet; actually we’re ecstatic he’s gone (kidding). We took long, glorious showers that morning, and then Jon and I drove him to PDX before parting ways. Best of luck to ya Voodoo Charlie.
And Then There Were Two…
Down to two, we’re currently resting at a Wal-Mart in Lebanon, Oregon, with a trip to Crater Lake National Park possibly in the forecast…who knows? It’s sort of nice that way though.
We may backpack in the Suislaw National Forest along the coast as well. What we do know is that soon it’ll be time to tackle Cali. Yosemite National Park, as well as Death Valley, waits patiently for us.
For now, I’m going to make a nice peanut butter and banana sandwich and listen to Faces by Mac Miller.
Until the next time hooligans,