March 19th, 2019, 8am – We finally departed on our 7-month road trip around The US and Canada. This was a little later than we had wanted, our original goal being March 1st, but things don’t always go to plan, and we had made the decision a while out that being properly prepared when departing was more important than hitting our perhaps unrealistic launch date. If we could do it again, we might have delayed even more to nail down better plans – preparation pays dividends. Now more than a month into our trip, I wanted to reflect on the adventures and give a little insight into our life on the move.
A big apprehension both Alex and I had been struggling with, in our own ways, was the border crossing on our first day of the trip. We needed it to go smoothly in order to continue our route as planned, and border nightmare stories had us both feeling nervous. Crossing from Canada into the US in a self-built van conversion camper, with a good portion of your belongings in tow, for a 3 month duration and an exit point on the other side of the continent, poses a lot of possible complications. Whatever our concerns had been, and how we’d (mis)handled them, the border crossing was no where near as nerve wracking as our worrying had been. The wait was long, but the guard was quick and to the point and let us through without much fuss. We joke that his looking into our van and seeing the safety corner first – our fire extinguisher, Smoke/CO detector, and a strapped down jug of water – probably showed him how dorky and harmless we are. I’ll take it.
Once cast off and over the border our pace was breakneck. We had previous road experience from a Utah trip in fall 2017, which covered 5500 driven kilometers and plenty of outdoor excursions over a 15-day period. We carried that experience into the start of our grand trip. In our first week on the road we travelled a little over 2300kms from Vancouver down to Lone Pine, California, on a route that wound through Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and California, seldom touching interstates.
Clockwise, from top left: 1: Our first morning on the road, Cottonwood Canyon State Park, Oregon. 2: All smiles with breakfast and coffee, time to hit the road again! 3: It’s always a good time for wheelies! 4: Mono Lake, California
Our highlights for that first week were Bend, Oregon – our second night on the road, and an excellent stop for beer and pub grub – and a really cool camping experience in Alabama Hills – free dispersed camping just outside Lone Pine with picture-perfect views of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48.
A collection of photos from our stay in Alabama Hills. Our super cool desert campsite, a quick hike to the Mobius Arch, and sunrise shots of Mount Whitney – the highest peak in the lower 48.
From Lone Pine we made our way into Death Valley National Park. Now, since leaving Vancouver we had been dealing with a complete dogs breakfast as far as weather – rain, snow, some sun breaks, daytime highs in the teens if we were lucky, and overnight lows at or near freezing. Death Valley cranked the heat to 11, broke off the knob, and left it there. We descended into temperatures in the 30’s (Celsius. Units are funny down here, but I’m not abandoning metric just to fit in) and were not quite prepared. We vegged for an afternoon, did a scenic drive in the evening, and got in a short hike in the morning. That was all we could manage, the heat had come too fast for us to adjust and it wasn’t going anywhere, so we decided that we would. Our first foray into the desert heat was a bit too abrupt.
Death Valley. Sunset over the salt flats in Badwater Basin – 85m below sea level! Morning sun illuminating Golden Canyon.
Turning tail from the heat of Death Valley, we set off Eastward without much of a game plan. This will be a highlight of a little “lessons learned” bit I talk about later, but for now we’ll just leave it at that we were flying by the seat of our pants. We managed to get a brief bit of service once outside the park and got some info on what would be one of our coolest camp locations. We spent that night in the Mojave Desert, in amongst the largest, densest Joshua Tree forest in the world. We had a short walk around the camp before dinner, then played with Alex’s camera and tripod for some nighttime photography.
Camping in the Mojave Desert surrounded by the largest, densest Joshua Tree Forest in the World. Catching some nigh time light pollution from nearby Las Vegas.
The next day was a toss-up – just over a week into our trip (and the USA) and we were having a hard time deciding if we wanted to be near or far from other people. In the end we went with the latter, in the biggest way possible – Vegas baby! Vegas! We booked ourselves a room at one of the over-the-top casino/hotels, then spent the afternoon stretching our legs and re-orienting by hiking up Turtle Peak at the nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Then we went to the hotel, cleaned up, stuffed (read: overstuffed) ourselves at a restaurant in town, and walked the strip to take in the sights. We also snuck in some laundry in the hotel room sink, and strung makeshift clotheslines through the room for things to dry overnight – probably not the strangest thing to happen in a Las Vegas hotel room, but we though it was pretty funny.
The only shots of Vegas we got were from the top of Turtle Peak! Red Rock Canyon, National Conservation Area, Nevada.
We spent the next day doing online research – at our hotel, then at a starbucks. As it turns out, living on the road requires you to find somewhere to sleep every night, and you don’t want to hole up just anywhere. We had started with a pretty solid vision for our first week and a half, but were now at some loose ends for route and destinations – there’s a whole world to see, but you actually need to pick some points to land or you’ll never get anywhere or see anything. Our research day proved useful, we came away with some good lessons learned, some new ground rules for our van life, and sound enough camp info to see us through the next couple days to get to Sedona, Arizona, for the last day of the month.
Stats for March:
Kilometers Driven: 3,749
Kilometers Hiked: 22.9
Kilometers Biked: 27
Provinces/States Visited: Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Arizona
Hangin’ out outside Sedona, Arizona!
Our lessons learned from the first leg of our trip:
1. Find camp before dark. You feel better about your surroundings being able to scope them out in daylight. Some of our big drive days found us rolling into camp at or after dark, these nights we were always just a little easier spooked, and overall less comfortable.
2. Research towns before you go there. On our way out of Death Valley, we planned to stock-up and hang out in a town called Baker. It was a decent-sized mark on the map, so we figured it would be a decent sized town… we were very wrong, not to mention the town that was there did not feel very safe. If we’d have known ahead of time we would have cruised right on through.
3. Wear street clothes when you go into towns. We do a lot of hiking and outdoor activities, and have a lot of outdoor clothes for those activities, it gets easy to just stay in them full-time. That leads to a grubby, greasy feeling, especially when you head into town, and this will make you feel like you stick out like an extra sore thumb walking around in an unfamiliar place. Toss on some jeans and a t-shirt, you’ll blend in better and feel better for it.
4. Eat more, eat better. We set a pretty tight budget for the trip, including food, but we were eating thinner meals than we deserved, and not making the time to properly cook, which we both enjoy doing. Camp food doesn’t need to be boring or pre-prepared, and we need to eat portions that are balanced with the amount of physical activity we are getting. I wrote out some lists of proper van meals to help us with this, I might share some recipes at some point. Meals include Indian curries, flavorful stir-frys, pesto-spinach polenta bites, and black bean and sweet potato burritos, to name a few.
5. Keep a rolling 2-week plan. It sucks asking the questions “Where are we sleeping tonight? Where are we going tomorrow?” on a daily basis.
6. Slow down. Our first week was exhaustingly fast, second only marginally better. We need to consciously slow down and appreciate where we are and what we are doing.
7. Civilization isn’t a bad thing. Having the amazing, no-one-else-for-a-hundred-miles campsites is cool, but doing it for too long can make you a little loopy, and jumpy around other people. Re-integrate regularly.