I’ve been gradually archiving our blog offline, which has involved going through all of our documentation – photos, writing, mapping – and sometimes in this vast trove of stuff I come across something I haven’t seen before. Today, while looking for a picture of a sandwich at Couchon Butcher, I found a folder of Greta’s photos in New Orleans which I hadn’t seen before. I liked them so much, and they were so different from my pictures of New Orleans, that I thought I should share them with you all.
On this wet, chilly Mardi Gras back in Eugene, we’re recalling Mardi Gras in New Orleans last year. I’ve put together a nine-minute video which captures the images and especially the music of that day, from parading with the St. Anthony’s Ramblers and the Panorama Jazz Band through the Marigny, St. Roch and the French Quarter, ending up at the amazing party at Constantine’s in the Pontalba on Jackson Square.
More photos and commentary from that day at this post.
Life on the road turned out to be different from normal day-to-day life in almost every way. By the end of the trip, we realized what had been the biggest change: for nine months, we didn’t have to deal with any bullshit. No interminable meetings, no irrelevant email threads, no forms to fill out, no middle school classes, no difficult associates. Every day, we had just a few fundamental, primal questions to answer: What should we eat? Where will we sleep tonight? How do we climb up that rock?
Other people have also recognized this salient aspect of travel. Jonathan Raban, in his essay “Why Travel?”, writes:
“If you admit the real reason, you’re liable to attract the attention of men in white coats, or the police. For travel is a kind of delinquency, more often rooted in the compulsion to escape the boredom and responsibilities of home than it is in any very serious desire to scale the Great Pyramid of Cheops or walk the length of the Great Wall of China. It’s kinder to say, ‘I’m going to Surabaya’ than just to say ‘I’m going’ – but as you wrestle your bags through the front door and into the street, it’s the leaving-behind, the going for the going’s sake, that quickens the blood and makes the street itself look suddenly different, full of promise even on this bleak morning.”
That was definitely true for us as we imagined the trip. I needed a break from the university – not from my students (who were often the one point of sanity in my work day), but from the institutionalized lunacy of the machine. Greta also saw no point in another year of middle school – the pace of learning was painfully slow, and the pressure cooker of young teen drama was simultaneously boring and wearying.
But while our motivation for the trip might have been avoiding-the-negatives, as we progressed the trip took on a life of its own, which was surpassingly positive. As we looked ahead, there were certain places we eagerly anticipated (Yellowstone! Chicago! New Orleans!), but there were many more about which we knew little or nothing, and it was that sense of discovery and surprise that dominated our lives throughout the year. We may have been fleeing large parts of our lives, but we discovered a different way of living that was often deeply satisfying.
This sense of discovery wasn’t just about natural wonders and cultural artifacts. One of the many goals for the trip was to expose Greta to different places, different people, and different walks of life. Oregon is a pretty homogenous place – it’s overwhelmingly white, and very middle class – not a lot of extreme urban poverty, but not a lot of very rich people either. Since we were travelling along the coasts, we necessarily saw a lot of places inhabited by the rich – big cities with wealthy neighborhoods, but also smaller, historic, affluent coastal towns. But driving through rural areas on two-lane roads, we saw a lot of small, poor towns, and in big cities, we necessarily came across a much broader swath of people.
We made a conscious effort to get out of our comfort zone, to do things and go places that were different from what we were used to. Sometimes this pushing the boundary was out in nature, where we attempted some semi-scary climbs, or went down into caves until we felt that we had hit the limit of what we reasonably could do. In Arches National Park, Greta spotted this fin where other hikers were having their picture taken.
She clambered out there to so I could snap her picture – but as she moved further out on the fin, she reached a point where she looked at the fall-off and just didn’t want to go any further. It was a nice, precise plotting of her comfort level gradient (which was further out there than mine).
We tried to not categorically avoid any experiences (except when poisonous snakes were involved), but to give everything a shot and base our trajectory on how things felt, rather than preconceptions. Our third day in New Orleans, we wandered through the Lower Ninth Ward, much of which is still devastated and half deserted, ten years after Katrina.
Rationally I knew it was pretty safe, but much of it looked sketchy, so I would check in with Greta every once in a while, asking her if she felt comfortable. She always did, and pretty soon we developed some street smarts and felt at home all over New Orleans. One day we were walking home and I suggested going down a certain street. Greta said, Let’s skip that block, dad, there’s a couple of crack houses there. Apparently there were things she was learning from other kids in the neighborhood.
As I’ve mentioned, most of my travelling in the past had been by myself, but in the past decade I came to really enjoy travelling with Linda and Greta, both for the company and the new perspectives it opened up. However, this trip was qualitatively different from any prior travel we’d done – not a two-week vacation from our normal life, but a nine-month journey where we’d spend almost every waking moment together; it was more a new way of life than just a hiatus from our standard one.
As we were imagining the trip I thought back to prior long trips in my life, and tried to clue Greta in to what I thought would happen. I told her that on such a long trip there would days where everything was terrible – the weather would suck, and things we wanted to see wouldn’t be open, and the food would be awful, and she’d be bored and tired of me and wondering why we had done this and she’d want to go home. But that wasn’t an option: we’d be committed to this trip, we couldn’t bail out, and she would just have to believe that the next day would be great. So we were both prepared for the worst when it would arrive, and it just never did. There were a few days with more annoyances than enjoyment (not being able to find anywhere to sleep in the whole state of Wisconsin, blowing out a tire in the middle of the Mojave), but there was never a day where, on balance, either of us really wished that we were home.
Even more shockingly, we never had a fight. I would express annoyance once in a while when Greta wasn’t paying attention and made a navigational error, and she would get frustrated when I dragged her to yet more architecture, but it never escalated beyond that. At some point a friend asked if we were driving each other crazy, and I said no. Greta said, Yeah, he’s been driving me kind of crazy. I scowled at her, and she said, Dad, I’m a teenager – I have to say that.
I think a lot of our getting along came from recognizing our differing interests, and being willing to accommodate them. We didn’t see all the architecture and art I wanted to, but we saw all that Greta could stand. And I certainly spent way more time in natural history museums than I ever would on my own. Some of our favorite places were where we could diverge and indulge our own interests without having to worry about the other person, such as the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh or the Smithsonian, which have astounding collections in both natural history and art. In other places, such as Chicago, negotiations led to a good solution. When I had reached my limit on science museums there, I suggested that the next day I could drop Greta off at the Shedd Aquarium while I walked down to IIT to see the Mies buildings. Greta said that she didn’t know that she was comfortable being by herself in the big city, even if she had a cell phone and it was a controlled environment with guards, etc. I said okay, I understand, I don’t want you to do anything with which you’re uncomfortable, so why don’t we go to IIT in the morning, then we’ll head up to the Aquarium for the afternoon? Greta thought about it and replied, I’m fine being by myself.
We drove 20,859 miles together, and walked around cities and landscapes for days, so there was a lot of time just being together on the move, not at some planned destination. What we did was look around and talk. Wary of the horrors of the presidential campaign always just over the horizon, we never turned on the radio, and never watched TV. (The one time we did, sitting in a Jamaican restaurant in Savannah, where a Republican primary debate was on CNN, convinced us we’d made the right call.)
For the first six months we didn’t really have music – my truck is so old that we couldn’t plug our iPods or phones into the sound system, and a little speaker we bought was so bad we just gave up on it. Back home in March, we picked up a bunch of CDs to play, and I managed to achieve one of my unspoken goals: by the end of the trip, Greta was completely into the Clash, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers, and the Cars. I walked by her room a few weeks ago, and she was listening to Aqualung. She has really weird tastes for a 14-year-old girl in 2016.
Greta almost never put on headphones and tuned out the world; a few times, when we were driving through an incredibly boring landscape, I’d offer that I wouldn’t be offended if she listened to music or a podcast on her own, but she usually demurred – she found looking out the window and observing this alien place to be entertaining. We’d comment on things we were passing, and we started noticing the same things, such as strange signs by the side of the road.
After so much time together, we were pretty attuned to what the other person would find amusing, and we always pointed things out. (We now have a large supply of in-jokes we can work for the rest of our lives.) Greta got so good as spotting barricades for me to photograph for my other blog that she demanded that I list her as a spotter if I ever get a book published on them.
This was our first big trip when cellular communication was constant, and it worked out incredibly well. We talked to Linda almost every evening. In general, Greta is a lot less obsessed with her phone than most other teenagers, and that carried through on this trip. She had a few friends with whom she texted a few times a day – I always knew when it was lunch time at her middle school, as the texts would roll in. But that was the extent of it – she was completely aware of being in places she might never visit again, and she always preferred to live in the moment, rather than staying wrapped up in her social life thousands of miles away. I think there was one occasion on the whole trip where I had to ask her to put the phone down and pay attention.
We realized that a lot of texting is like a lot of eating – our day-to-day lives are often rather boring, so we text or eat or websurf to amuse and distract ourselves. When life is interesting, we don’t need to do those things. On balance, the texting was a real positive. I had been worried that Greta would miss her friends, and that this would initiate feelings of wanting to go home. But the texting was natural enough, and constant enough, that she never really felt out of touch with them. She missed them a lot less than I expected, and she didn’t feel completely cut off from her life at home. And when her friends would text that they were heading off to a boring history class, she could send a text back saying, Well, I’m here:
As I’ve quoted before, Jonathan Raban argues that “…this kind of pure, serendipitous travel is a solitary vice…travelling in pairs and families is the continuation of staying at home by other means.” He may be right in his idea that certain kinds of disoriented experiences are only open to the out-of-contact, displaced, solo traveler, but I found this engaged travelling together to be preferable in most ways. I remember travelling in Europe about 30 years ago, and realizing that no one I knew had any idea what country I was in. That sense of literal alienation is intriguing at first, but becomes tiring. Having a constant, excellent companion, and bringing our own little home along with us, reduced the psychic wear and tear. We didn’t get lonely or homesick. There was a good balance between living in the moment, being attuned to what was different and new around us, and still being enough connected to our other lives that missing them didn’t interfere with our pleasure in the trip.
We settled into a consistent rhythm to our days fairly quickly. Travelling in the fall through the spring, the sun didn’t come up too early, and the mornings were often cold. Since neither Greta nor I likes to jump out of bed really early and head out into the weather, we devolved to hanging around the trailer for a while until the day warmed up. While we ate I’d scan the Times on my phone, and Greta would update her favorite web comics. Then we’d either write – blog posts and fiction (in Greta’s case). We’d firm up our plans for the day if we hadn’t already, setting our sightseeing or driving destinations, and we were always in motion by 10:00.
We’d spend the day out and about, driving, walking or sightseeing, and when it started to get dark, we’d eat some dinner and then hang around the trailer again, unless we were with friends. When we started the trip I thought I’d have a lot of free time in the evenings to read – I brought a big box of serious books; with nine months and no job, how could I not plow through them all? It turned out that almost every evening was spent hanging out with friends, blogging, planning the trip, or sitting outside looking at the stars. The big box of books is still sitting here.
When I first floated the idea of this trip to Greta, I pointed out a number of aspects I thought she’d find appealing, but the one that cinched the deal for her was the plan to eat barbecue all across the South. Greta’s interest in good food has expanded incredibly in the past couple of years, so eating new and interesting food was one of our main goals from the start. Given that orientation, it didn’t make much sense for us to go to a lot of trouble cooking for ourselves. About the third day out we came to a fundamental distinction: there were meals which were an end in themselves (cooked by somebody else) and there were survival meals, which we often made ourselves. On average, we’d aim for one good meal and two sustenance meals per day.
The trailer cooking arrangements were adequate, but obviously not as accommodating as being at home. Our propane stove worked very well, and turned out to be shockingly efficient: in daily use for nine months, we never had to refill the 5-gallon tank even once. We used a 26-quart ice chest, which would stay cold for three days maximum on a recharge of ice. (It turns out that the only place in the country where you can buy block ice – which lasts longer than cubes – is in Utah. But the advantage of the cubes is you can make Manhattans.) Cleaning up was more problematic, with a 10-gallon water tank connected via a handpump to the sink, which then drained outboard into a 5-gallon bucket. This was a pain, so to minimize the washing up, we used paper plates and bowls, leaving just pots, glasses and silverware to be washed.
We kept the pantry stocked with a small assortment of staples: canned soups (not bad when you’re starving after a long hike and there are no other options), crackers and cheese, fruit, peanut butter and jelly, bread, cereal, milk, nuts, dried fruit, coffee, and of course, Nutella. We got pretty good at enhancing the basics, such as by adding fresh broccoli into a canned soup base.
I’ve never seen the point of eating breakfast out – it takes too long when you want to be doing something else, it costs too much money, and it gives you way too many calories. So unless there was a compelling reason to eat breakfast out (such as getting out of a freezing trailer into a warm restaurant, or having your pancakes delivered on a toy train), we made it ourselves. Coffee was first on the agenda, prepared with a manual grinder and the excellent AeroPress. Breakfast was always cereal and fruit, which presented a regional problem. About the only cereal that we can stand, as it’s not too sweet, is Quaker Oat Squares, which we buy in bulk at Costco. But in the South (which we learned is Costco’s Texas-centered region), Costco doesn’t stock this item (it’s probably too healthy for Southerners, and they’ve re-allocated that shelf space to liquor). We had to make do with inferior cereal for a few weeks, and then when we flew home for a visit at spring break, we picked up four giant boxes of cereal at our usual Costco, and that constituted our carry-on luggage on our flight back to Phoenix. The TSA technician did not raise any questions.
The two strangest things that happened on this trip were that we liked Texas, and that we became pretty dependent on Walmart. On Whidbey Island we might go to Walmart once a year to acquire some houseware that isn’t available anywhere else on the island, but otherwise we shun them, for aesthetic and political reasons. But when you’re in small-city America, a Walmart is your best hope for finding everything you need – food, ice and gear – without wasting a lot of time searching. You know what brands are available, the layout is close enough from store to store so you can find things, and the parking lots have lots of room for trailers. For camping, we are big fans of those 4 ounce sealed milk packages (like kids’ juice boxes) that don’t have to be refrigerated, and Walmart is the only place in the country that consistently stocks them.
Lunch was usually a subsistence meal too, unless there was a unique opportunity for something good. We were always doing something in the middle of the day – either sightseeing or driving – and we didn’t want to take the time to sit down in a restaurant. We might grab something quick if we were walking around in a city, but if we were driving or hiking, we always made our own lunches, mostly sandwiches. We ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly. I’d usually ask Greta whether she wanted a subsistence meal or should we look for a restaurant option, and she usually came down on the side of no-frills calories so we could keep going.
At the end of the day, when we were tired and it was usually dark and cold, a good meal was very appealing. Many of the friends we stayed with fed us wonderfully, but when that wasn’t possible, Greta was in charge of figuring out our options. She has become a master of interpreting Yelp recommendations. We were always looking for good food that wasn’t expensive, so the $ or $$ categories were our focus. Greta looked at the rankings, but she also became adept at digging beneath the surface, reading enough of the reviews to understand their basis. She might say, This restaurant has a good numerical rating, but all the people giving it a thumbs-up are idiots. (She also discovered that people from Colorado are never satisfied with anything.) She’d do her research, then lay out four or five options, which we’d discuss and then decide upon. We found a lot of very good places through Yelp, often places that our local friends hadn’t even heard of.
Last December, the Washington Post published an article on the 10 Best Food Cities in America, Ranked. Since we were visiting nine of them, we followed up on some of their recommendations (the cheap ones). There were some great ones we never would have found otherwise (such as Leon’s in Charleston), but some others were a disappointment (such as Nam Giao in Houston).
The other helpful source was Roadfood.com, a website started by Jane and Michael Stern, the authors of many fabulous road food books and frequent NPR contributors. The emphasis is on regional cuisine, often hole-in-the-wall places with long histories. Most of the recommendations were good, but sometimes the quality of the meals was less than impressive; Roadfood isn’t just about the taste, it’s mainly about the cultural experience. So we ate at a few places where the food was different but mediocre, while the ambience was notable.
In a year of eating on the road, we discovered one constant: every meal served at a normal American restaurant is large enough to constitute two reasonably-sized meals. Except in Utah, where every meal (or desert) can make three reasonably-sized meals.
This may not be a problem when you’re at home and maybe over-eat out once a week, but when you’re eating in restaurants almost every day, it’s definitely a problem. We could have followed the Zimmer girl protocol of splitting entrees, but we always wanted to try out more than one thing on the menu. So we’d order two meals, and when the food arrived, we’d do a quick assessment of what half would work best as leftovers, and what half should be eaten immediately. We always had an ice chest in the truck, so we’d pack things away, and then eat them for lunch or dinner the next day. We got to eat a wide assortment of great food (Greta and I always shared our dishes), and we pretty much cut our restaurant budget in half by doing this. Having no microwave or toaster oven, we got to be really good at reheating things in a frying pan. Greta is thinking about writing a diet book, called Leftovers Keep Me Skinny.
Left to our own devices, we came up with a few trailer-cooking recipes, which Greta hasn’t gotten around to blogging about. We think that cold s’mores, made with sliced giant marshmallows and Nutella, are actually better than the original. The precise method for making satisfying tuna melts in a frying pan took some experimentation to derive. A variation on the Piglet Deluxe, a sausage or hot dog with lots of onions, peppers and cheese, became a more frequent dinner when we were camping in the Southwest, far away from all restaurants. But our best invention was Banana Nutella Toast.
While the food was good in most of the places we went, the cocktails were generally terrible. To get a good cocktail you pretty much have to head to a bar where they care about these things, and hanging around in bars was not how I was going to spend my evenings with a 14-year-old in tow. I had notably good cocktails in a handful of places, but in general I made my own. I stocked rye, Carpano Antica vermouth and bitters in the truck, and would often spend the evenings with friends mixing Manhattans. My friend Ray suggested that we might reprise Jon Favreau’s movie Chef, where he travels with his son across the South in a food truck, but in our case turn the Scamp into a bar.
The driving itself was a big part of our experience, but not as much as you might think. 20,859 miles is only about 1.6 times the mileage the average American drives each year, and we averaged 93 miles per day over the whole trip. We never exceeded 400 miles in a day. On my solo cross country drives I had sometimes approached 1000 miles in a day, but we had no desire to turn any of this into a forced march. We were out to appreciate all of the trip, so we did everything we could to make the driving engaging.
We averaged 14 miles per gallon for the whole trip, about 2 mpg less than I get in the truck with no trailer. Our timing for gas prices couldn’t have been better – we paid an average of $2.15 per gallon (and as low as $1.22 per gallon). If gas had been $4.00 per gallon (which we expected), it would have cost us another $2700.
Whenever possible, we drove on two-lane roads. We all know how boring interstates are, but we never truly appreciated just how boring until this trip. Even travelling through an uneventful landscape, we’d sometimes be on a two-lane road, skirting around farms, going through banal little towns, and mildly interested in what we were passing. Then we’d get on a interstate, and be completely bored within half an hour. The zone of homogenization around an interstate guarantees that you can almost never see anything interesting – no amusing little sign, no decrepit vernacular building, no sign of life. There is always a big, straight vista ahead of you, and the act of driving itself is relentless.
There were two exceptions to this rule. When driving across big empty states where the landscape was pretty uniform (South Dakota comes to mind), there were sometimes no good alternatives to the interstate, and the experience was not that different. The other exception is driving though sprawl. Sprawl is basically the same everywhere, there is nothing really to see in it, and driving through it is absolute hell – stop and go traffic, stuck at red lights in front of Arby’s. So when we were in the countryside we always drove on two-lane roads. When we reached the postwar sprawl at the edge of a major metropolitan area, we’d jump on an interstate if we could. And if we were driving into the pre-war core of a city, we’d get back on the city streets.
Pulling a trailer through a big city downtown was not something I looked forward to, and in general we avoided it. In most of the big cities we visited (Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, DC, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, etc.) we left the trailer with friends out in the suburbs, and either drove the truck or took transit into the city center. We did end up driving into and parking in a few decent-sized cities – such as St. Paul, Buffalo, Albany, Paterson, Baltimore, Houston, Santa Cruz, and especially New Orleans. Generally I disdain configuring cities for the convenience of vehicles, but we became pretty sensitive to whether it was or was not possible to park with a trailer; Rochester was great, but Buffalo was impossible.
After a few weeks, we worked out a method for navigating. We don’t have smart phones with GPS navigation which give you step-by-step directions in real time. We have Windows Phones, which we consider semi-smart, but they do have GPS-enabled maps in them. Every night I would draw what I thought would be our likely path for the next day. I would start with Google Maps online, and look at the range of options it laid out, such as going on a freeway or not. I would then open up Google Earth in my computer, and plot the preferred route, factoring in considerations other than just the shortest travel time. (We learned to not trust Google Maps driving time estimates, which must be based upon driving at precisely the speed limit and never hitting a red light. We started multiplying those estimates by 1.5.) When we were moving, Greta would follow that path on the computer screen (which was completely static, not showing our location), and also follow our progress on the map in the phone. She learned how to interpret many kinds of information – the road should be bending to the right then straightening out, we should be coming to a small town soon, we’ll be going over a bridge, etc. She would anticipate our next move (we should make a left turn soon, probably at that next light), and then check that we were still on track.
Sometimes she would have to improvise, adjusting our track to changing conditions. Her biggest test came as we approached Houston during the Friday evening rush hour. I had sketched a route to her cousin Joe’s house, using the I-610 loop. But that afternoon Joe texted us to never get on that highway, especially at rush hour, as it would be completely jammed for hours. So as we approached the city on I-45 from the north, I told her that we were just going to drive straight in to the center of the city against the rush hour traffic, and she would have to figure out how to get to her cousin’s in the southwest. She did it flawlessly, looking at the map and evaluating alternatives, moving us off the interstate and onto surface highways and arterials.
One of the goals for this trip was for Greta to learn things that she couldn’t if she had stayed home, and this could be one of the biggest: Greta may be the only member of her generation who has serious map-reading and navigational skills, and who won’t be lost if her smart phone goes on the blink. Past a certain point on the trip, any time I questioned her directions she’d get annoyed with me, and eventually I realized I should just trust her calls, they were right more often than my doubts. (I started calling her R2.) I’ve become completely dependent on her for getting through unfamiliar places, and I may have to stop travelling when she goes off to college.
We discovered a lot about American drivers on this trip, and here is the central insight: they are terrible everywhere, but in different ways. In Boston they are oblivious to everything around them and are just assholes. In the South they drive insanely fast, even when they can’t see ahead. We saw some very near-misses with cars passing on two-lane roads, and all the insanely dangerous passes were on the Navajo reservation. We couldn’t figure the drivers out in Albuquerque, until Mark Childs explained that no one in New Mexico is used to driving in a city, so they all drive as if they were still out in the desert with no one else around. In California they are incredibly aggressive, but also highly skilled. And when we were nonplussed at how people drove on our return to Oregon, Greta observed, Wow, they’re really slow and kind of stupid, but nice.
We tried to be considerate drivers on this trip, as we knew we were sometimes an impediment to other vehicles, and we were in no hurry. This was especially the case when we couldn’t be passed, on narrow, twisty roads, such as on the California coast. Most places have laws that say you have to pull over if there are five or ten cars stuck behind you, but we would do it as soon as we could if there was one car behind us. Every time we did this in California, the driver passing us would toot the horn and wave. Californians are aggressive, but they appreciate good driving.
Getting out of the vehicle
The most important thing about driving was to not do it, any more than we had to. We discovered very early that neither of us could really enjoy or understand a place from inside a car. (I recalled a conversation with my teacher, the landscape historian JB Jackson, who travelled from his home in New Mexico to his jobs at Berkeley and Harvard on his motorcycle, as he felt you couldn’t experience the landscape while sitting in a box looking out a window.)
There is a huge forward momentum driving in a car – you spot something interesting, but you have this impetus to keep moving. It’s partially practical (you’re going fast, there’s no place to pull over, you’re trying to get somewhere and any stop will add ten minutes to your trip), but its largely psychological – you are so in the mindset of the car and on the road that it’s hard to consider changing your mode of being. Pulling a trailer just made this even harder – you can’t make sharp turns, you don’t want to brake rapidly, you need a bigger space to pull over, you don’t want to park on a side-slope. So often we would keep going, and I would yell at Greta to grab her camera and snap a picture while we were moving. They’re not the best pictures, but at least they are a record of some weird moments.
There’s also the problem of where to stop when you’re not at a specifically notable point, but just travelling through a fairly uniform, yet different landscape. (This also happens in cities – how to capture the typical cityscape rather than the iconic building.) Sometimes you don’t want a photo of the special view, you want a record of the typical view, but it is hard to figure out where to best capture that. Sometime I would just randomly stop, (such as here, north of Ft. Davis in West Texas),
but often I wouldn’t (knowing it would be a lousy picture anyway). The new technology that solves this dilemma for us is Google Earth Street View. As we have been reviewing the beginnings of our trip, one year later, we find ourselves remembering a little town or landscape, zooming in on the general area, then using Street View to give us the perspective from the road. This may actually be better than trying to record it ourselves – you can spin all around in Street View, look in any direction, then move up the road a few hundred yards and see what’s different.
But even more critical than the issue of getting out of the car to see a spot is the issue of moving through the landscape on your own feet. Even when there are marked viewpoints and turnouts and lots of parking, we both found the experience of getting out, looking, taking a photograph, and then getting back in the car, to be less than satisfying. Often it’s the only thing you can do, and sometimes there are walks that don’t do much to change your perception of a place, but we found that our appreciation and enjoyment of a place, whether a building, or a landscape, or a neighborhood, was directly correlated with whether there was a good hike to be taken. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey makes the case that National Parks should ban cars. Everyone should walk, or borrow a bike, or take a shuttle bus if they can’t self-locomote. We found this be true everywhere, and we often took long walks that weren’t on the official agenda. For example, at Zion almost everyone takes the shuttle bus, getting off to hike designated trails to specific destinations. But we decided to skip the bus (in one direction) and hiked 13 miles up the canyon, able to see the views unfolding and changing at a speed where we could comprehend them.
The same applied in cities. One day in Chicago I walked fourteen miles and Greta walked nine: we could have taken a bus, but we just wandered through the city, coming to an intersection and deciding which direction seemed more appealing. It is hard to capture the typical, but it is easier to experience it, if you move through a lot of it. Your understanding of a place becomes not a series of discrete points, but rather a summary or integration of an almost infinite number of places.
This way of travelling and seeing became our norm, and it led to a repeated conversation. We’d be approaching some place at a high speed, trying to decide whether we should pull over. I’d say, Should we stop? And Greta would say, Why not? And if we couldn’t come up with a good reason to not stop, we’d stop. Often we’d have a great experience, and we’d be bemused at how close we had come to missing it.
Documenting the trip
When we started out, we knew we’d be taking lots of photos and doing some kind of a blog, and maybe keeping a journal, but we really didn’t know what would be involved. Our first blog posts were pretty minimal – a few photos with captions to let people know where we were and what we were up to.
Some of you have remarked on the photos we’ve taken, so I’ll pass on a little basic information. I was using a Fuji X-E1, a spectacular “mirrorless” camera. It is relatively compact (the body is the same size as my old Leica CL), but it has a large APS-C sensor (important for dynamic range, not blowing out highlights or shadows), some of the best lenses being made, and a real, (albeit electronic) viewfinder, so you don’t have to use the screen on the back unless you want to. (I am old enough to feel that real cameras have viewfinders and dials, not screens and menus.)
I carried only one lens – the 18-55mm (equivalent to a 28-90mm range on a 35mm camera). This took care of almost all my needs. The camera plus lens weighed around two pounds. For wide angles, the in-camera panorama mode is one I liked and began to use a lot. If I wanted to zoom in closer, I could just crop a picture later in Photoshop (lots of extra pixels to throw away), or have Greta shoot it for me (she was using a Panasonic DMC-ZS15 point-and-shoot with a much longer telephoto, which she got for shooting wildlife). It’s an interesting strategy – instead of carrying a big, heavy telephoto that I would need infrequently, I just used Greta as my telephoto. The Fuji is by far the best camera I’ve used since going digital 15 years ago, and many professional photographers are ditching their 35mm full-frame cameras for the Fujis.
The format of the blog really changed about a week into the trip. We were so horrified by what had been done to Mt. Rushmore that I needed to analyze it and write it down, and from that point on our blog posts were more thematic, figuring out what there was to say about a place rather than just posting some information. I’d never blogged before, and I hadn’t really written that much in years – for my class lectures, I write out some notes on the points I want to make, and I select a lot of images, but I never fine-tune the writing, I just stand up and talk from notes. In contrast, Greta is a constant writing machine. She was working on a few novels throughout this trip, and in November she completed NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month, cranking out 50,000 words on one of her novels.
I thought blogging would be like keeping a journal, but they have little in common. Whenever I’ve kept a travel journal, it’s been more just the raw material – notes jotted down on what happened, maybe a few observations. No one wants to read another person’s journal, and I’ve never been too excited about reading my own later. But just knowing that a few people are going to read what you’ve written changes everything – you have to take some care with organizing and expressing your thoughts. That act of paying attention changes everything again – you’re suddenly really thinking about a place, not just recording impressions. Having to come to a conclusion made me think much harder, and I think much of what we learned on this trip wouldn’t have occurred if we hadn’t made the effort to write for an audience. I’m very grateful for those of you who have followed this blog so closely – I was not just pleased to know that you cared enough about us to follow it, but also grateful that your attention motivated us to make the effort to think more clearly about everything.
Blogging took way more time than I expected. I thought I could throw up some pictures and dash off some ideas; I talk off the top of my head in class a lot, and that seems to work out pretty well. But actual writing was much slower. My usual writing speed was about 500 words per hour, although a few times I hit my stride and pushed it up to 1000. So by the time I figured out what I wanted to say about a place, selected and Photoshopped the photos, wrote the text and put it up online, each blog post was usually a full evening’s worth of work, then another couple of hours in the morning. I found that I could think, mess around with photos and rough out an outline at night, but I couldn’t produce finished writing then – that was better done when I was fresh in the morning. This is why the blog has been consistently months behind – it just took so much time, and our choice was always to do something cool if it were an option, rather than sit down and produce.
Things we would do differently
So much on this trip went better than we had ever hoped that it seems wrong to regret anything, but we did learn a few things en route that we wish we’d known earlier.
There were things that changed from place to place that we wished we’d documented more rigorously. Like road kill. The amount and nature of road kill changes dramatically – in Wyoming there is a dead mammal literally every 25 yards. Some places skewed more reptilian. Some places didn’t have any. (We never saw an armadillo by the side of the road in Texas.) Greta, with her junior naturalist viewpoint, thought this was fascinating.
Another weird change – those signs that warn you that the bridge you’re approaching might freeze earlier than the road you’re on – every state phrases this differently, and we spent some time discussing the semantic implications of every new one we came across.
We wish we’d met more locals. When we were staying with friends we always had an entreé to the local culture, but when we were on our own, we found most of our conversations were limited to people who were providing travel services – waiters and clerks – or to other travelers we met in a campground or at a viewpoint. In Europe I had always attributed this to the language issue, but it wasn’t much different in our own country. I don’t know how to solve this – when you’re travelling you’re really in the travel zone, and sometimes the conversations with the locals working in that zone can be enlightening (I noticed this especially on Indian reservations). But we spent a lot of time in the South, and I can’t say that I understand Southerners any better than I did before we left. (Except in New Orleans, where we were introduced to many people and welcomed in. But they’re not really Southerners.)
We spent a lot of time talking with old friends, and I wish I’d taken notes on those conversations. I discovered that as my friends have aged, they’ve become even more insightful and wise. A number of people have suggested that I should write a book based on this trip (but a book just seems so 20th-century compared to a blog!), and the thing that absolutely keeps me from attempting it is not having any record of those conversations. They were a huge part of the trip, and a travelogue of observations about places would not be nearly as interesting as a book that incorporated those dialogues. It seems like a good excuse to do the trip over again, and just pay more attention next time.
Now that we’ve been home for a few months, life on the road is a distant memory. You come back from a trip, full of excitement, and determined to not fall back into the rut of your day-to-day life. I wish I could say that we’ve avoided that, but largely we haven’t. Greta and I touch on the Groundhog Day analogy – every day is the same, more or less. There are no big surprises in normal life, nothing to shake you out of your complacency. We don’t dislike our lives at all – we have many wonderful friends and colleagues, we live in beautiful places, we have interesting and meaningful work to do, and we are deeply grateful for all of that. (Frequently on the trip, I would ask Greta if she’d like to live in the place we were visiting, and she usually answered that she’d go crazy.) But the sameness numbs you out to a certain extent – it’s unavoidable. We were lucky to be on the road for long enough that it did become a way of life, not just a short break, and we became really comfortable and happy with that life. After a few weeks at home, Greta and I decided that the only two things that were much better about this return to normal life were seeing Linda, and indoor plumbing.
If you’re going on a two-week vacation, you can do all your detailed research beforehand, and come up with a plan. But if you’re going for a year, you can’t anticipate all the places you’ll go, search out every detailed destination, and map out an itinerary. Or perhaps you shouldn’t even try; Jonathan Raban, in his essay “Why Travel?”, says:
“Yesterday’s creature of duty and habit is today’s creature of accident – a free spirit, a traveller, open to adventure as the dictionary defines it, That which happens without design; chance, hap, luck. Travel in its purest form requires no certain destination, no fixed itinerary, no advance reservations and no return ticket, for you are trying to launch yourself onto the haphazard drift of things and put yourself in the way of whatever chances the journey may throw up.”
I had sometimes travelled that way in the past, when I was single: I’m going to northern Europe, and when it starts to get cold, I’ll probably go to southern Europe. But in Raban’s estimation, all real travel like this has to be undertaken alone: “For this kind of pure, serendipitous travel is a solitary vice. Going with a companion is cosy, but you might as well be going with a coach party…. Adapting Clausewitz, travelling in pairs and families is the continuation of staying at home by other means.” I agreed with him completely when I was young, and found that even if I came across a simpatico friend while travelling, it was better if we went our separate ways during the day and just met up for dinner. If I was excited about the place where I was, I just didn’t want to compromise with anyone on how to spend my time – it was a too rare and distant adventure to not completely indulge my own instincts and manias.
This all changed when Linda and I were married, and came to a head 15 years ago, when we were on a 10-day bus tour through Sweden and Finland with American architecture students, run by the DIS school in Copenhagen. I found myself getting antsy and impatient , and realized that not only had I never travelled with students, or on an organized bus tour, but I had never really traveled with another person. My attitude completely changed six years ago, when Linda and Greta and I took a two-week roadtrip through northern California. I discovered that having to accommodate the likely interests of an eight-year-old wasn’t a problem, it was a pleasure, and it opened me up to seeing the world in a new way, and appreciating things I would not have given a second glance otherwise. It was the best trip of my life, and much of the pleasure came from sharing things with the girls. I still appreciate Raban’s insights, but I think he’s a bit more of a misanthrope than I am.
As we began to think about this trip, I knew I’d have to make more definite arrangements with Greta in tow than if I were alone – it’s harder to imagine showing up late at night in a strange city with no idea where you’re going to sleep. So I took an approach not unlike that of designing a building – you initially map out the big moves, and then you get more detailed as you change the scale at which you’re working.
I used Google Earth to plan the trip – it allows you to plot and classify your own spots (Placemarks, they’re called) and routes, coding them with icons and turning layers on and off as suits your needs at the moment. It’s a way of jotting down notes about what you want to visit, and you can then see how they relate spatially to other places and possible routes. As we travelled, it also allowed us to plot all the places we did visit and roads we’d driven – we now have a complete cartographic record of our trip so Greta can start with that when she recapitulates this trip with her own kids in 30 years (her idea, not mine). If you’re interested in a copy of this data to jump-start your own trip planning, just let me know and I’ll send you a copy. But this doesn’t guarantee that all our friends will let you camp in their driveways.
The first thing I mapped was where all of our friends and family lived. That gave us around 50 preliminary destinations (of which we visited 37, once we decided to skip the middle of the country). The big determinant for our schedule was the weather – we’d be travelling through the fall, winter and spring, and we wanted to be in places where the temperature and precipitation would allow us to be outside for much of the day. I looked at monthly average high and low temperatures, and developed a chart which showed those parts of the country where the daytime temps were in the 50s or higher, and the nighttime lows were usually above freezing:
This chart revealed a few big determinants: in the summer, you want to be in the Northwest or the Rockies. In the winter, you want to be in the South (and not too far north of the Gulf). Every place else in the country is best visited in the fall or spring, except California, which is perfect all the time. I then analyzed two scenarios – a clockwise loop and a counterclockwise loop. Starting from the Northwest in the fall, a clockwise loop worked best. (In Texas we met a couple from California who started in the winter, in which case a counterclockwise loop was better.) So given these parameters, our initial, big-picture plan was:
- September: across the country
- October: the Northeast
- November: down the East Coast
- December: the Southeast (including family in Florida at Christmas)
- January: the Deep South
- February: Texas to the Southwest
- March: the Southwest
- April: the Colorado Plateau
- May: California
- June: home
We pretty much stuck to this, except that we got going two weeks later than expected (as it took so long to find the trailer); when we were in the Northeast, the weather was 10 degrees warmer than normal, so we took our time heading down the coast; and when Glen pointed out that Mardi Gras was only a week away, so there was really no point in our hurrying out of New Orleans.
Since we usually don’t have the truck when we are out of the Northwest, this shaped our itinerary too, skewing it towards places which you really can’t reach without a vehicle. So instead of spending more time in places like New York (where having a vehicle is a negative), we allocated more time to places like Cape Cod or Harpers Ferry – places unlikely to be destinations on their own, or to which we would fly. We were also biased towards places we will probably not go to again for a long time – Florida is a common destination to see family, but Charleston is just too far off the beaten path.
As I looked over the list of possible destinations and estimated how much time we might want in each, I told Linda that we really needed two years to do this trip. She said, “You get one”. So even thought we covered a lot of the country, there were still important places that didn’t make the final cut. As we drove through Seneca Falls, Ithaca was 40 miles away at the other end of Cayuga Lake. We looked at the clock, and kept driving on to Syracuse. It was the closest I’ve ever gotten to the Cornell campus, but it still wasn’t close enough, and I’m starting to doubt that I’ll ever get there.
I discovered that there are some big geographic facts that are not apparent in advance, For example, the distance on the Colorado River between Moab and Las Vegas is about 450 miles, and there is only one place in that whole length where you can drive across it – the Glen Canyon Dam outside Page.
I also hadn’t realized (until I started searching for routes) that it’s essentially impossible to cross the Sierras for most of the year, anywhere between Bakersfield and Sacramento, 300 miles apart. When you mention these hard-won insights to locals, they look at you like you’re crazy, probably because they’re just so obvious (like not knowing that you have to transfer from the 2 or the 3 to the Broadway Local at 96th, otherwise you end up in Harlem instead of at Columbia).
As we approached a region, I’d start doing more detailed research about a month in advance. What cities did we want to visit, what were specific museums, buildings, parks, sights, restaurants etc. We’d alert our friends in the area with our rough plans and see if those dates worked for them.
Finally, I would start planning our itinerary in detail about a week out – how many days to spend in a specific city or National Park, was there a good campground for which we needed to make reservations, what days were the museums closed, where was the best barbecue? All of this research took a lot more time than I expected, and it was one of the main reasons to stay in a commercial campground, so we could search on the internet for places and attractions.
This method also allowed us to adapt to changing conditions, such as the weather, which we did quite often (including completely changing direction twice at the last minute in the Southwest). As we were about to leave Monument Valley, I saw that the forecast had changed, so I looked at the ten-day forecasts for nine locations, plotted them in a matrix and then shaded the cells where we didn’t want to be, with boxes representing our possible trajectories. So instead of following our original plan of Mesa Verde to Chaco Canyon in this period, we hung out at a low elevation in Page for three days to let the snowstorm go by, then headed to the Grand Canyon and on to Hopi, Tsegi and Chaco from the other direction.
There were some online resources that helped at this detailed level too, such as Roadside America, with its state-by-state maps of kitsch and Americana. We wouldn’t have gone too far out of our way to see the life-sized, revolving Ray Charles music box in his hometown of Albany, GA, but once we had a basic route roughed out, it was easy to look at our kitsch options and diverge from the straightest path to check this one off.
When we did get to a place, the best recommendations always came from friends – we were given great tours of their cities by many of them. How else would we ever have found the Windhill Pancake Parlor (where breakfast dishes are delivered on a toy train) if Aaron and Heather hadn’t taken us?
That became our modus operandi – we always knew our general direction, and we’d often have a destination or two planned and a campground reserved, but when it came down to immediate activities, we just played it by ear. Many mornings, Greta would wake up and ask me, What are we doing today? And I’d say, I don’t know, what do you feel like doing? That usually worked out fine, and maybe Jonathan Raban would have approved.
One year ago today we took off on our big trip. This year, instead, I am finishing up a tenure case review, and Greta is slogging through geometry. As she headed off to high school this morning, I suggested to her that she could just hide in the trailer until Linda went to work, then we could pack some leftovers in the cooler and take off – we’d have an eight-hour lead, and could get across Oregon before she’d notice we were gone.
But what we’ve decided to actually do every day for the next nine months is review what we did one year before – look at our map, calendar, photos, notes, and blog posts. Then as we reminisce about the day, we’ll jot down whatever we remember. (I know it must seem that every moment of our trip was posted on the blog, but we actually skipped over a lot.) The further we get from the trip, the more it seems unreal, and we want to make one last attempt to cement it in our psyches.
We do still have a few more posts to put on the blog to finish it off, and we may put together a couple of summary posts, but we’re closing in on the end – unless we come up with great new insights during our daily reviews, in which case this blog night run for another nine months!
Once we got our trailer, the next question was, where do we park it? We ended up staying in three really distinct types of venues: commercial campgrounds, public campgrounds, and friends’ driveways. Each of them had different advantages, and sometimes we alternated amongst them on purpose.
We didn’t attempt to camp off-the-grid: although you can camp legally for free on National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands (as long as you are a certain distance from the roads). We weren’t usually off in the wild – as we wanted to see a combination of natural and built environments, those camping options weren’t usually close. It would have taken some time and effort to explore and find good spots, and we didn’t want to spend the time – camping for us was a means, not an end. And with a fourteen-year-old girl along I was more concerned about amenities and safety than I might have been alone (especially as we’d be travelling in parts of the country with heavily-armed rednecks).
Our first night out was at the Crystal Crane campground in eastern Oregon, a private hot spring hippie resort (which later became renowned for inadvertently renting their community room to the Bundys one evening). We arrived in the dark and the rain, and were pretty clueless about how to set up our trailer, and how to organize everything for comfortable living. But the next morning we began to get the hang of it, sitting in the hot spring before hitting the road.
The next night at Craters of the Moon National Monument introduced us to the National Park camping experience. First, if you show up after 5:00, there’s usually not anyone working there, so you just wander into a campground and find a spot. The spots were close together, but well-sited – usually with vegetation (or in this case, large mounds of lava) in between to give you some privacy. The bathrooms were minimal but fine. Greta began to learn that you don’t need a shower every day.
I had discovered a few weeks before that if you want a campsite in a popular National Park, you usually have to make reservations months in advance. Luckily I was connected on the phone to a helpful guy who found us three nights available in Yellowstone in mid-September, at Madison Village, the only campground there that stays open past Labor Day. (That became our first destination – the fixed reservation that got us out of town on a certain date.) We arrived in a thunder snowstorm, having pulled the trailer over the Continental Divide, in the dark, as traffic had slowed to a crawl with the weather. The office was still open at 8:00, and as they processed the paperwork for all the weary campers, they informed us that a grizzly bear had been spotted in the campground the day before, so if we spotted one, we should stay in our trailers and give the office a call.
Huddled inside eating a can of soup, we realized the essential character of our trailer: it was a hard-shell, bear-proof tent, which is not a bad thing. For the first of many subsequent occasions, we were grateful that after a long drive, we didn’t have to set up a tent, roll out sleeping bags, arrange gear, cook a meal and then put our food in a bear-proof enclosure. We opened a door and stepped into a completely dry, wind-proof space, where we could turn on the lights, heat up some dinner and crawl into comfortable beds. Venturing out to the bathroom later that night, I was startled by some eerie sounds that I couldn’t identify, which turned out to be elk calling down by the lake; the grizzly did not make an appearance. The next morning, we awoke to 25 degree temperatures in the trailer, pulled our clothes on while under the covers, and zoomed off in the truck to find a warm restaurant for breakfast; this became our modus operandi for the next few days.
At 2:00 in the morning, a train showed up to load grain, repeatedly maneuvering with its loud diesel engine, and often backing across an intersection, which caused gates to descend and bells to sound, waking us up for hours. It turns out that many commercial campgrounds are right next to railroad tracks, or even freight yards. This is probably because many western towns are located on rail lines, and I think that when you’re looking for a parcel big enough and zoned correctly for a campground, you’re often going to find sites that formerly housed industrial uses, right along the railroad lines. As I considered campgrounds in the future, I checked for possible railroad noise, but it often was unavoidable – there would be no other options in the area.
Another commercial campground in Chamberlain, South Dakota, made us more aware of the highway noise issue, as it was located right off I-90. The noise is more continuous, and not as disruptive as trains, but the air brakes on an 18-wheeler coming down a slope are still very noticeable. This was also the first place where we clearly saw where our little Scamp fit in the hierarchy of RVs in a campground, and Greta had an image of a ramp coming down from the back of a moving RV, and we would drive our whole rig right into it, in a sort of James-Bond-goes-camping movie.
One week into our trip, the differences between public and private campgrounds started to become clear to us:
Cost and amenities
Public campgrounds were usually in the $15-25 per night range. Commercial campgrounds were usually $30-50 per night, although there were outliers on each end. These costs reflected different levels of amenity. Public campgrounds had perfectly fine, functional bathrooms, and sometimes a sink for washing dishes. Showers were really uncommon, although at major parks (Yellowstone, Bryce, Grand Canyon, etc.) they could be accessed for a fee in what was often a centralized facility you might drive to (probably added in later years when Americans’ obsession with showers became stronger). Commercial campgrounds always had less spartan bathrooms and showers. Some of them were incredibly luxurious, such as this one with stone and etched-glass in Apalachicola:
Public campgrounds sometimes had a holding tank dump station, but almost never had any utilities at the campsite. Commercial campgrounds offered a range of hook-ups – from full (water, sewer, 50-amp power, cable TV), to simpler 30-amp and water sites. Very few public campgrounds had wifi, whereas most commercial ones did. (We found the wifi very variable – sometimes it was almost useless, as they probably had enough bandwidth to accommodate email and web-surfing, but the patrons would stream videos, and it would slow to a crawl (until all the old people went to sleep after 10:00).
These differences in amenities reflected the differences in clientele, which were notable. In a nutshell, commercial campgrounds were full of giant RVs and fifth wheels, usually towing a car, whose owners only stopped watching their widescreen TVs inside when they needed to take their rat dogs for walks. We almost never met anyone in a commercial campground – they even often used their own bathrooms rather than the common ones.
Public campgrounds had some big RVs (if the terrain permitted), but were usually a mix of tents, pop-up-trailers, normal trailers, and mid-sized RVs and conversion vans. Our neighbors were usually outdoors – building fires, and walking their very big dogs. We got to meet really cool people, such as Patty and Danny, retired psychologists from the Carolinas who had a 16-foot Airstream next to us in Big Bend, whom we met because they would sit outside at night drinking bourbon and playing the banjo. Or this other lovely couple of semi-retired teachers from Dallas, with whom we crossed paths and chatted several times in Big Bend.
The essential difference between the residents is this: in commercial campgrounds, people are living in their RVs. They are bringing all the paraphernalia of normal American suburban lifestyles, and they are looking for comfortable places which facilitate those lifestyles. Many of them are snowbirds (we were camping a lot in the South and Southwest in the winter), and many of them are retired (Greta was usually the only kid in an off-season campground). Outside Charleston, our campground was full of people who’d get into their pickup trucks every morning and go off to work – I think many of them were utility workers who’d come from far off to work on short-term contracts.
In public campgrounds, people are living in campers so that they can experience those places. They are purposefully leaving suburban American lifestyles behind, and they are into exploring and experiencing the places where they’re camping, including meeting the other campers. They don’t care much about amenities, as those can get in the way of the experience.
The difference in lifestyles also explains the dogs: people in big RVs have rat dogs as they’ve acquired a small dog to live in what is essentially a small house. People in small trailers have big dogs as they’ve just brought along the dog that lives with them at home.
I used to get nervous about getting old and living in such a way that I mainly associated with other old people; this trip has given me a different perspective on that. The retired people we met in National Parks were some of the coolest people I’ve met in years. I’d be happy hanging out with them, and I’m already plotting my second career as a National Park volunteer campground host (it comes with a free campsite, and I’d have an excuse to talk to everyone).
Public campgrounds: sites and locations
National Park campgrounds are located right near the reason you’re there, and the areas right around the campgrounds themselves are often beautiful. This is looking down on our campground in the Chisos Basin, in Big Bend. We were hundreds of miles from any city, and at night every person in this campground came outside, built a fire, and sat looking at the stars.
Even when you are surrounded by others, the Park Service planners take care with the layout of individual campsites, trying to ensure some privacy and engagement with nature. For example, here is our site, backed right up to the bayou, in Davis Bayou in Gulf Islands National Seashore. It was dark and humid, and when Greta got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she had to contend with lurking raccoons and swamp rabbits.
Commercial campgrounds: sites and locations
Commercial campgrounds were more focussed upon getting as many vehicles onto their property as they could, and we usually got a large parking space between other RVs, often with a picnic table, but no real privacy. As we were travelling in the off-season, this didn’t bother us much – we were inside at night, with the windows closed. In the summer it would probably be less pleasant – I assume there’d be lots of kids running around, lots of grownups noisily drinking beer by their campfires, and lots of generators running air conditioners. (Generators were less of a problem than I’d imagined – most campgrounds have reasonable quiet hours, and the cool weather kept the usage down).
The campgrounds in the Midwest and East were mainly parking lots with utilities, and while the facilities were often fine, the locations were determined more by finding a large property near a metropolitan area, rather than by any attractions in the landscape. However, once we moved into the South and West, even commercial campgrounds were often in beautiful locations.
Outside Macon, Georgia, we found a strange campground run by the Shriners, located behind their meeting hall, on a rolling rural parcel. (There was a serious security gate, one had to rouse the on-site manager – who lived in a mobile home and who seemed loathe to actually accept payment – to get access, and we were one of only two campers there.)
The campgrounds at the Lake Mead and Lake Powell National Recreation Areas were hybrids – inside units of the NPS, but run by contractors, and seeming more like commercial campgrounds. They had lots of the giant RVs, wifi and utilities, and in the summer I’m sure this place fills up with motor-boat fanatics.
The Wahweap campground on Lake Powell was quite wonderful, with desert sunsets, privacy plus utilities, an evening program of stargazing, and most importantly for Greta, an overabundance of jackrabbits.
Another hybrid was at Canyon de Chelly, a National Monument situated on the Navajo reservation, so the campground is part of the Navajo park system. It was a beautiful spot among the cottonwoods by the river, but perhaps the most interesting aspect was the presence of res dogs wandering around. Greta made the mistake of petting one, who then didn’t leave us alone for two days, except when he had an opportunity to tree a cat.
At one point some water leaked out of our drain, and as it contained some of the water out of a tuna can, we got to watch another dog lick it off the pavement. The next night this dog ran off with one of my clogs, and I found it 200 yards way, with tooth marks. Part of the pleasure of this campground was getting the whole reservation experience.
State and local parks
We didn’t often stay at state and local parks. As we were doing our research on the fly, it was often hard to find out about them (whereas the National Park Service runs almost all of its campground information and reservation services through one contracted website). Our first attempt to find a local campground was in Wisconsin, where we couldn’t get any information in advance and so just showed up, and after half an hour driving around, discerned that there were no campsites available. We realized that most local campgrounds are used by local people who make a reservation way in advance so they can recreate – they’re really not geared to travelers and don’t make any accommodation for them.
The one great exception to this is Florida. We first found a municipal campground outside Jacksonville, as it was listed on the NPS website, as the only campground within the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. It was fantastic, camping right on the beach at the mouth of the St. John’s River, across from the Mayport Naval Station. It was beautiful, cheap and secure, as there was a guard at the gate to keep non-campers from showing up late to party.
Through this we learned about the Florida State Park system, which has a website similar to that of the NPS. You can search for available sites, and even pick your spot online. The residents were a cross between those found in national park and commercial campgrounds – campers, but many medium-term, and there for the recreational opportunities rather than any particular features in the landscape. The campground in the bayou at Chassahowitzka was hot and humid, with lots of bugs beneath the cypresses, and seemed to be mainly filled with Canadians, who were having pizzas delivered.
Our favorite was at Tomoka State Park on the Atlantic coast, where we discovered the Celery City String Band in the community room, practicing for their New Year’s Eve gig the next night. They invited Greta to sit in on washboard.
Ten miles outside Tucson, we stayed in the Gilbert Ray county park immediately adjacent to Saguaro national park, found again because it was listed on the NPS website. It came with packs of coyotes.
Choosing a campground usually depended on what was available – if we were heading to a National Park, and they had available sites, we’d go there – they were better and cheaper, and we usually didn’t care about amenities. This process was facilitated by the http://www.recreation.gov webpage, where you can check availability by date and make reservations. I set up a rough itinerary for our trip on the website, selecting all the National Park sites where we were likely to go, and as we closed in on one, I’d call up that info and try to reserve a campsite. Some National Parks have a first-come-first-served policy, and it is hard to know how to play that one. The park website will sometimes tell you what the likelihood of getting a site is – such as at Mesa Verde, where we were early in the season, and they said the campground almost never fills up. At others it can be iffy, but we did learn that the NPS often has a fallback plan. Even in campgrounds where they take reservations, they may say the campground is full, but they hold some sites back, in case people show up late with no other options. It’s not likely that you’ll show up at Big Bend after a drive of hundreds of miles and they’ll tell you to turn back.
If there were no public sites available, we’d look for commercial ones. For example, when we made a last-minute decision based upon the weather to head towards Zion rather than the Grand Canyon, there were no public sites available, and we had to head to a commercial campground in Hurricane, 30 miles away. It was sometimes frustrating, as the campground system is geared towards people who can plan their lives six months in advance. We wanted to go to Yosemite, but by the time we knew when we might be there, there were no public camp sites available, and we couldn’t find any commercial campgrounds available anywhere near it.
While commercial campgrounds were sometimes the only ones available, and sometimes a fallback, sometimes we chose them on purpose. If we had been in public campgrounds for days, getting electricity, showers and wifi started to sound attractive. The other big determinant was the weather. If it was down in the 30s or lower, being able to run a heater at night was very nice. Eventually I found a very useful website, RVparkreviews.com. It is geared towards RVers who want full hookups and serious luxury, but the reviews are detailed enough to steer you away from the really ratty RV parks, of which there are quite a few. (One common recommendation seems to be to not stay in trailer parks which also have long-term residents, as they are living different, noisy lifestyles, with kids, late-night parties, and starting up the big diesel to go to work early in the morning.) We also got a KOA discount card, and would sometimes skew towards them, as they ensure a baseline of decent accommodations, although not always in the most convenient locations.
Overall, staying in campgrounds and trailer parks was much better than I expected it to be. It was never terrible, and was often fantastic. A couple of times on this trip we had to stay in motels, and that just reinforced our decision to go camping. We hated the motels with their thin walls, noisy TVs and general lack of appeal. I even considered going back to the parking lot at one motel to sleep in the Scamp.
No campers allowed
There were places without campgrounds where having a trailer (or even a truck) was a problem. When we reached a big metropolitan area where we would be staying in the city (or other place where we didn’t want to take the trailer), we left the rig on the outskirts with other friends – with Aaron in Woodstock when we went into Chicago, Mike and Cathie in Scituate as we headed for the ferry to the Vineyard (avoiding hundreds of dollars in ferry tolls), my brother outside New York, Norman and Ginny outside DC, etc. The most annoying situation was where we had family or friends to stay with, but we weren’t allowed to park a trailer in their neighborhood. As Northwesterners, with our laissez-faire attitude towards life, we hadn’t anticipated this world of CC&Rs at all; the places where it occurred were new developments in the Sunbelt, as distant philosophically from the Northwest as they are geographically. (Although we appreciated the irony that these hotbeds of Republican property-rights mania had all these restrictions, while the commie hippies of the Northwest let you do what you want.) As Greta remarked, there should be a sign which reads, Southern Florida, a Gated Community. So in Florida and Phoenix we had to track down RV storage yards, where we could park our rig for a few weeks.
The other, very different place we camped was in friends’ driveways, and this was the best. Besides seeing friends and being on the receiving end of their hospitality, we were also getting local informants and guides to the places, who would tell us what to see and where to eat. (And as I mentioned, we hoped that bringing our own guest room would eliminate some of the imposition.) Most of these camping sites were normal suburban driveways, but some stood out for their unusual locations.
We first stopped in St. Paul, where Josh and Laura didn’t have a driveway in this older residential neighborhood, but they got us a spot in the alley behind their house that belonged to their college boy neighbors. Greta slept inside where she got a feline companion, while I tried out urban camping. It worked just fine, and Greta and I started thinking about parking in random city alleys, spending the night and being off in the morning before anyone started to wonder about us.
In Baltimore, we didn’t have any suburban location where we could ditch the rig, so we drove into the center of the city. Neelab and Ben live in a rowhouse and don’t have a driveway, but they pointed out the street around the corner from their house with no-permit-required, perpendicular parking, where we put the trailer and truck in two adjacent spots. I was a little nervous about burglary, so I parked the truck up tight to the trailer door, so you couldn’t open it. We slept in their house, and everything was fine. Except that six months later, we got a parking ticket in the mail from the City of Baltimore, with no explanation or citation of what law we had broken. The burglars left us alone, but the City got us.
In Santa Cruz, it seemed that Jerry and Gunilla had designed their house with driveway camping in mind. It felt more like a courtyard than a driveway, with a nice privacy gradient from the street provided by the porte-cochere, and easy bathroom access around the back.
But by far the most amazing urban camping experience was in New Orleans at Glen and Michelle’s. For the first couple of weeks we stayed in Glen’s mom’s apartment while she was back home in Cut Off. But when she came back to town, Greta and Glen and I pushed the Scamp through the vehicle bay in the Marigny firehouse (which they operate as a shared office space), and into the courtyard in the middle of the block. There were bathrooms and a shared kitchen right off the courtyard, and we got to chat with all the young creatives who would walk through the courtyard on the way to their offices. It was idyllic – urban camping in the center of the city – quiet, but close to all the action. As in so many other categories of our trip, New Orleans provided our favorite experience. I thought that maybe we should leave the trailer there, Glen could rent it out as an AirBnb while we were gone, and we could just come stay for Mardi Gras every year.
We started this trip with trailer camping just as a pragmatic means, but it came to be an important part of the trip. We really loved many of the places we stayed, and we remember all of them vividly. For our last nights on the road, we wanted to camp somewhere cool and memorable. We thought of Crater Lake, but the campground wasn’t open yet. So we headed to Redwood National Park, where we stayed in the Elk Prairie state campground. As I made a reservation, I asked Greta whether she wanted a site in the redwoods, or one nearby on the prairie. She said she wanted the spot where she’d be less likely to run into an elk on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. So we ended up in this dark spot in the forest, surrounded by the giant trees.
Many people have been curious about the logistics of our trip – how we decided where to go, our route, where we stayed, camping arrangements, etc. – so I’ll be putting up several posts about the practical side of the trip. This first one is about how we decided to buy a trailer, and how we set it up for the trip. Subsequent posts will deal with campground living and life on the road in general.
Accommodations strategy . As we began to imagine this trip, one of the central questions was, where would we stay? So as I roughed out a map for our route, the first thing I plotted was where we had family and friends we could visit, since seeing people was one of our main goals. This ended up being a lot of where we stayed – 37 different friends’ households, for a total of 102 nights – about 40% of our trip. This covered much of the territory from Minneapolis to the East, and down the East Coast to Florida, with later friends in New Orleans, Texas and California.
When I considered the big gaps in between friends, at first I thought we might just stay in cheap motels like I used to, then I reassessed. Cheap motels used to be $30-40, but now I was seeing them around $100 in some places. They were seldom comfortable, had uncontrollable ventilation systems, and were usually noisy – I always seemed to get a room next to someone who would turn on the television full-blast when he came in drunk at 2:00 in the morning. There’s the growing bedbug issue, and with a fourteen-year-old girl in tow, I worried more about safety than I did when I was on my own.
There were also the less tangible issues of inhabitation. This wasn’t going to be a short trip – we would be on the road for nine months, and I realized Greta needed a home for that period, rather than schlepping her stuff into a strange motel every few days. (And not insignificantly, having to pack stuff up all the time, with the problem of leaving things behind.) Then I thought about where such motels were usually located – on big arterials at the edge of metropolitan areas, ground zero for sprawl. Staying in motels would sentence us to spending a good portion of every day negotiating unfamiliar sprawl, with its illegibility, horrific traffic, terrible chain restaurants, and general ugliness; we would travel the whole country, but often be in exactly the same homogenized environment. A final problem was that we planned to spend time away from cities and civilization, where finding a vacancy in a motel might be difficult. When I looked at all these issues, it became clear that we needed a vehicle to live in.
I had never owned a trailer before this trip. In fact, I’d never slept in a trailer, RV, van or whatever. In my family, roughing it was a house with one bathroom. I did a reasonable amount of backpacking and hiking when I was young, and my family didn’t get it – why would you sleep in a tent if you weren’t in the army? As I got older I never made the transition to car-camping, with its stationary aspect and its loads of gear. I would sleep in sailboats on coastal cruises, and after I moved to Oregon I would sometimes sleep in the back of the car on one of my not-infrequent cross-country drives (I’ve just competed my 11th). But as I never saw the point of motorized camping, I knew nothing about its requirements and customs, and so I started from scratch a year ago as we began to plot this trip.
I also realized that the camper idea would be useful for visiting friends, as we could sleep in their houses, or we could stay in our camper in their driveways, essentially bringing our own guest room with us. This latter strategy worked quite well, as it lowered the imposition factor: we felt more comfortable inviting ourselves to stay with people if we could say that at a basic level what we really needed was a driveway, an extension cord, and access to a bathroom. They could decide of they wanted to have us sleep in their houses, but if it already was a pretty full house, being able to get out of their hair and not disrupting their daily routines made it much less of an imposition.
Finding a camper. So I began my research for a camper online, and was bewildered by all the options – old VW buses, conversion vans, camper tops for my pickup, RVs (which have a whole confusing nomenclature of Class A through D, which it is assumed you understand), fifth-wheels, pop-ups, trailers. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I was looking at used vehicles online; I also knew from almost 50 years of sailing that only completely ignorant or very well-off people buy new boats, as the cost-benefit ratio of used vessels is so much better. Given my complete lack of experience and knowledge in this arcane world, I postponed my search until we got to Whidbey Island last summer, where I have two friends who both have a lot of experience with campers, and who are experts in guy toys: if it has an engine and wheels, Mike and Craig know all about it.
I knew I didn’t want an RV – nothing that big, expensive, hard to navigate around cities, and gas-guzzling. As I already drove a pickup with an eight-foot bed, I started by looking at camper tops that would fit in the back, and eventually found all their problems. They make a vehicle top-heavy, and I’d have to retrofit some serious tie-down anchors on my truck (as well as air bags for the suspension). They aren’t very roomy. As I looked at their specs, I realized that most of them are built more like mobile homes than vehicles – they are framed with wood and have sheathing applied, which means that the old ones are often leaky and rotting, and all of them are surprisingly heavy. My truck is full-sized, but it is only an F-150, and while I can tow 7000 pounds, I can only carry about 1500 in the bed. After weeks of searching for a cheap, light, and not-terrible camper top, I gave up – it is just too depressing spending your time online looking at really crappy old campers.
Some experienced friends had strongly recommended vans, which run the gamut from old Westfalias, through modified American commercial vans, to those cool new Mercedes conversion vans that cost $150,000. Many of them seemed to meet our needs just fine, but I confronted the one big problem: I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so a new van was out; and if I were buying a used van, I’d probably be buying an old vehicle with problems, none of which I’d know about in advance. I had visions of wasting time getting unanticipated repairs when we’d rather be seeing the country, and never being quite sure that we could rely on it. My truck was 16 years old, but it only had 75,000 miles on it, and I knew that it had been well-cared for its whole life. So I decided we’d use the engine we knew and could probably trust, and shifted the search over to trailers.
Whereas all camper tops are pretty much alike, there are a lot more options with trailers. Size, materials, appointments, price range. We looked at the short end of the spectrum – under 16 feet, but even most of those didn’t meet our needs. As with the camper tops, they were wood-framed, heavy (up to 6000 pounds), and with their metal-panel sheathing, subject to leaks and rot. They generally present an 8 by 8 foot blank wall forward, the lack of streamlining causing big mileage problems. They also tried to replicate everything found in a house, badly; we wanted a stripped-down camper, not a box crammed with complicated systems that could break. There was also the aesthetic problem. We’re architects, I design housing, and we care about the environments in which we live – we had just spent ten years building our summer house, and every material and detail was considered and finessed ad infinitum. I just couldn’t imagine spending a year in a trailer where all the finishes were even cheaper versions of the crappy materials found in typical American houses, particle-board panels covered with vinyl film imitating wood grain (being inured to our design obsessions, Greta didn’t care).
As with almost all consumer products made in this country, I despaired of finding anything that would meet our criteria, until one evening in Coupeville I ran into our friend Lori. I mentioned how Greta and I were planning this trip, and looking for a camper. She said she and her husband Jim had just bought a Scamp, a small and light fiberglass trailer, and that I should look at a website called fiberglassrvsforsale.com. I did, and realized this was it – the Scamps, Casitas, Trilliums, etc., were small and light, built more like boats than houses. They had relatively simple systems (fewer things to break), and the interior finishes were largely inoffensive. After a couple of weeks searching, I found one for sale in Montana, and my brother and I drove there to pick it up last August.
Peregrine – our 16-foot Scamp
It was 30 years old, and until it was bought by a young couple the prior year, it had been owned by one old guy who kept it in a garage. We paid $7000 for it, realizing that we could just sell it for the same amount at the end of the trip if we wanted. It is a streamlined 16 feet long (including the 3-foot trailer tongue), 6′-6″ wide, and weighs 1300 pounds – I don’t really even notice that I’m towing it, and it seems to take 2 miles per gallon off our mileage. The arrangements were simple – a settee across the bow (Greta and I devolved to nautical terminology, as it is so like a boat), which converts to narrow bunk beds, a closet room for a portable head (toilet), a hanging closet, and then a galley – sink and counter on one side, with a propane range and refrigerator on the other.
Across the stern there is a dinette which can be converted to a bigger berth. There is an operable skylight and jalousie windows for ventilation. A propane tank and 12-volt battery with a small PV panel are mounted on the trailer tongue.
We bought a new self-contained head to put in the closet, to be used in the middle of the night in strange campgrounds in the rain – otherwise, walk to the bathroom. The sink had a pump for water from a ten-gallon tank. The oven was difficult to light, but we realized we’d never use it anyway. The refrigerator can be powered by 110-volt shore power, the 12-volt battery, or on propane. I didn’t want to worry about the complications of energy management on a long trip just to keep some condiments cold, so we decided to use an ice chest when we needed to, and I kept my sweaters in the refrigerator. (When we start using the trailer on short trips, we will probably get the refrigerator going.) There is a propane heater we never used – lighting it was complicated, and I didn’t want to have combustion in our living space when we were sleeping – too many worriers with leaking gas, fire and carbon monoxide. When we were in a campground with shore power, we plugged in and ran a small electric convection heater, which was always adequate. If we didn’t have power, we piled sleeping bags on top of our beds. The few times it was hot and humid in Florida, we pulled a fan out of the truck bed.
In decades cruising in small sailboats, I had never seen anyone eat a meal sitting in a dinette, and as I’ve aged, the idea that one could sleep well on a bed made from a dropped table and four two-inch thick cushions pieced together was ludicrous. If an important reason to have a trailer is to bring your own domestic environment, a comfortable bed seemed to be the crucial factor. So we bought an eight-inch thick king-size latex mattress at IKEA, and used an electric carving knife to cut it into berths for me and Greta, which were permanently in place, not converted to some other use.
When we ate in the trailer, Greta and I sat side-by-side on the edge of my berth, and each of us had a countertop right at hand to hold our plates.
The layout worked very well – rather than lying in two parallel berths with a two-foot space in between, we each had our own end of the cabin, with the galley and closets in between, preserving the illusion of personal space. Linda rigged up a curtain for Greta’s berth in the bow, so if she wanted to get away from me into her own zone, she could just pull that closed. (She also became quite adept at wiggling into her clothing while in this narrow space.)
Most importantly, the aesthetic problems were solved. The Scamp is a fiberglass shell made in two pieces and riveted together, with a white vinyl liner (giving it an R-value of about 1.3). Rather than having frames, the shell is braced by the fiberglass cabinetwork and bulkheads, which are bolted through the shell. (Amazingly, only one of these leaked and was easily repaired.) The cabinets were also white fiberglass and fine – the whole look was very much like a boat. But someone had painted the cabinet doors a depressing grey, and the hardware was the overly-ornate bronze seen all too often. The carpet and upholstery were in the awful patterns not seen since the late 1970s. So the carpet was replaced by rubber sheet flooring, as it struck us that unwashable carpet was a terrible idea in a camper, and the cushions were replaced by the mattresses with sheets. The cabinet doors were spray-painted white, and new chrome hardware was installed. We threw away the horrible curtains (if we needed privacy, we clipped a towels across windows, which also helped the towels to dry). With some big pillows and Pendleton blankets, the trailer was clean-lined but homey, and we felt really comfortable in it. We’d lounge on our berths blogging or reading in the evenings. Greta named the trailer Peregrine (after her spirit animal), and hence this blog became Peregrine Nation.
Getting a trailer rather than a camper top also left the whole four-by-eight foot truck bed available for storage. This turned out to be even more important than anticipated, as we had to take so much stuff for a full year – boxes of books, winter clothes and boots, summer clothes, a laundry hamper, hiking gear, a second spare trailer tire, truck and trailer gear, a small portable bar, an ice chest, sleeping bags and extra blankets, a box for souvenirs and gifts, etc. If we’d had to pack this all into the camper it would have been really cramped, and getting to things would have been very inconvenient. In the truck bed we organized gear into cardboard boxes – boots and shoes in one, hats in another, books in a third, etc. – and we could reach into them while standing on the outside of the truck bed. We each brought enough clothes to last us a month – I didn’t want to waste time in laundromats when we could be seeing cool places instead, so once a month we had a lot of laundry to do, usually at a friend’s house. The truck bed storage also solved another problem – security. We didn’t kid ourselves that the trailer wouldn’t be easy to break into, and we didn’t want to leave cameras and computers in the truck cab, where they could be seen. The truck bed has a very solid fiberglass lid, with automotive-quality locks, and no one can look in and see your stuff. Every time we left the vehicles for more than ten minutes, we locked the valuables in the truck bed, and we never had a problem.
Compared to the giant RVs we came across everywhere, our trailer was so simple and had so few moving parts that there were few problems. Two blown tires were the only notable exception. I had bought two new tires from Les Schwab in Missoula, after an ancient tire that came with the trailer blew on I-90. The new tires were warrantied for 15,000 miles. They both blew out, one in Texas, and one in Las Vegas, with an average mileage of 15, 013 miles. Les Schwab knows their products. After this we carried two spares – one on a wheel, and another not, as we had discovered that if you’re away from large cities, it might take a few days to get a tire to a town, and we had no desire to be driving dirt roads in the Southwestern desert without a spare.
Like everything else on our trip, the trailer turned out to be much better than we expected. It quickly felt like our home – after three days staying with Frances in their beautiful apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, Greta told me that she sort of missed our little trailer. For me the strange moment occurred when we had parked in downtown Albany, across the street from the New York State history museum. We toured around the state government campus, returned to our trailer, unlocked the door, and stepped into our bedroom. I realized I could just take a nap right there if I wanted to. The public/private buffer that we take for granted was bizarrely askew.
At the end of the trip, Greta declared that she considered Peregrine hers – any idea we had of selling it disappeared. Greta had never been very interested in learning to drive before, but now she is motivated, so she and her friends can take camping trips into the mountains. I don’t know how I feel contemplating her behind the wheel of the big rig.
I too have become very enamored of the camper lifestyle, and I can imagine doing this for a few months every winter after we retire. But if Greta will have Peregrine, we’ll need to get our own camper, which will give me the opportunity to correct her few faults. The top of the list is thermal performance, followed by a greater ability to be completely self-sufficient, away from campground facilities. At this point I envision a Passive House level thermal envelope, a rooftop solar array, a composting toilet, and stealth capability, so we can camp on city streets and not be noticed. I’ve got a few years to figure this all out, but until then we’ll keep Peregrine on the road with shorter trips.