Posts By Judy Nichols

Pandemic left us out of camping shape

  • The Epic Van at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, happy to be on the road again.

As we roll back out on the road this year, it’s clear we’ve lost some of our camping sea legs, so it’s good we’re out on a soft start visiting our camping buddies Jeff and Ann, who are camp hosting at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, a mere 45 minutes from my mother’s house, where we’ve spent copious amounts of time during the pandemic.

We’ve done several short trips and one or two long ones during the pandemic, but haven’t been out nearly as much as we’d like. This year, we’re planning loops to both the East and West coasts, with family reunions, hiking, biking and rafting along the way. We’re pretty pumped about it.

So, only 45 minutes away, we thought. A breeze. We’ll get up, do some last-minute errands, and roll in around noon. We arrived at 4:30 p.m.

First, we were getting our room, which becomes the guest room when we’re not there, back into guest shape with clean sheets and stuff stuffed into the closet.

Then I spent an hour madly searching for the cord bag for the Jackery battery, a vital piece of equipment that keeps our phones and iPads charged when we’re parked and not plugged in (most of the time). I looked through all the (limited) places it might be in the van, NOT in the wire shelves with the books and cans, where I ALWAYS keep it, NOT in the tiny closet with our clothes, cheese board and (new) mousetraps, an oddly satisfying juxtaposition, NOT under the bed in back, NOT ANYWHERE. Back to the bedroom, NOT in the closet or on the shelves in the closet, NOT on the bookshelf, NOT in the many stacks of books on my side of the bed, NOT in the many stacks of books on Tom’s side of the bed, NOT in any dresser drawers, NOT under the bed, NOT, alas, hanging from the ceiling. Finally, FINALLY, found it. On the shelf of my bedside table in plain sight. I say it’s because it’s black and was in a shadow, NOT because I’m blind or senile. Another hour of my life I won’t get back.

Then I had to run to my Periwinkle Polka Dot studio to drop off the last lot of Kantha quilts from India, freshly laundered the night before, so they’ll happily be waiting for me when I return.

Then we threw the rest of our clothes, the coffee fixings, and toiletries in the van and headed to the grocery store to stock up. No problem.

Last thing, propane.

Off we roll to our regular propane spot at the U-Haul on East Indian Shool Road. No can do. Someone stole the adapter for RVs. Later, we learned, it’s because they’re solid brass and worth something on the scavenging circuit. On to the next U-Haul. Out of propane. On to a third. Only the manager fills RVs and he’s not there. Onto a fourth, no connector. Finally, fifth one’s a charm.

When we FINALLY rolled into the park, Jeff and Ann were on duty at the kiosk, laughing at our tardy buts. We settled in before dark, had a margarita when Jeff and Ann got off duty and slept soundly in the dark, quiet hills, happy to be back in The Epic Van.

Like I said, good thing it was a soft launch to get us ready for the Death Valley trip that starts this weekend with camping buddies Keven and Georges. Stay tuned.

The Epic Studio: Finding a nomad’s utopia in a pandemic

  • Upcycled denim overalls, cut off and made into a dress using a vintage pillowcase.

I have a studio. Which, I guess, makes me a nomad with a little perch. It definitely makes me happy.

Carmel and Big Sur: Feels like home to me

  • A panorama shot of Carmel Beach.

We’ve been visiting the Dahl House in Carmel for decades as the grateful guests of my step-brother Barry and sister-in-law Leslie. And after our visit to the eastern Sierras, we stopped here again.

Winging it: When you find a good spot, stick

  • Light through the clouds in the Sierra.

Winging It Rule #1: When you find a near-perfect campground, stick around for a while. (I just made up this rule, but I like it. Kind of like Jethro’s rules in NCIS.)

A winging success: Surviving the deserts, near-perfect camp

  • The endless road through the Mohave Desert.

When you’re winging it, all camps are relative. It’s a balancing act between weather, availability, hiking access and routing.

Post vaccination: Back to winging it on the road

  • The Epic Van in our campsite at Roosevelt Lake.

We took off Friday for our first big post-vaccination jaunt: eight weeks through Arizona, up the eastern Sierras, then the California coast, then Oregon and Washington, and back past the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho. We don’t have reservations anywhere. We’ll find our camp spots where we stop at night.

It’s a feeling of freedom similar to when we first got in the van and headed down the road seven years ago.

Turkeys, trails and chance meetings at High Jinks

  • The Epic Van parked at Peppersauce Campground near Oracle, Arizona.

In January, we camped for two nights near Oracle, Arizona, in the Peppersauce Campground where, the first night, we were all alone.

The next morning we were greeted by a rafter of turkeys. (Trust me, I looked it up.)

Ringing in the new year with bourbon and cookies

  • The Epic Van sharing Jeff and Ann's camp host spot.

We rang in a chilly New Year at McDowell Mountain Regional Park with our Yellow Pine, Idaho, pals, Jeff and Ann. We ate Tom’s Hoppin’ John around the picnic table wrapped in winter coats and blankets, toasted with champagne, then broke out our bourbon with Christmas cookies. When the alcohol no longer kept the cold at bay, at 8:30 p.m., we retreated into our respective vans. The only thing howling at midnight was the coyotes.

Looking backward, it felt like 2020 fell into a black hole of despair. We lost friends and family members to COVID. We feared for our own safety and that of everyone we love. We donated to food banks, heartbroken by the long lines of hungry people.

Our travels were severely curtailed with parks, campgrounds, museums, and historic sites closed. And we hunkered down for long stretches in Scottsdale with my sister, Nancy, and our 90-year-old mother, grateful that they remain well.

We found joy, hanging out with our son, Nate, taking short looping camping trips to southern Arizona, Utah and even up to Idaho, where Jeff and Ann installed a new bed in The Epic Van. We cooked a lot, read a lot, and put together a lot of puzzles.

On New Year’s Day, we got up with the crows, literally. They glide around McDowell Mountain Regional Park in pairs, looking for peanuts that Jeff puts out and monitoring the comings and goings of hikers, bikers, and horseback riders, all hitting the trails that head into the foothills just steps from our campsite.

Tom took off on a 10-mile New Year hike, while Jeff and Ann, volunteering at the park, manned and womanned the front kiosk, checking in campers and day users, sharing their expertise about the many mountain bike trails and the competitive track. They also ride the trails, checking for problems, picking up trash and monitoring visitors. And they cooked us delicious meals, like stuffed peppers topped with egg. 

I took the slow roll, having coffee in our new bed, then unfurling my yoga mat in the sun, like a lizard, getting in an hour session (on my iPad) with a view of Four Peaks, gathering strength for 2021.

Yellow Pine upgrade, Part One: The bloodletting

  • When we arrived in Yellow Pine, our friends Jeff and Ann were helping Nickie and Merle build a log house. Nickie, above, sprays some of the logs with borate, a preservative.

Somebody going to emergency, somebody’s going to jail. – Don Henley

Well, no one got arrested, but by the time we left Yellow Pine, Idaho, a guy we don’t know was lying at home with more than 30 stitches in his hand, and our friend Ann had routed off the end of her pinky finger.

Yellow Pine upgrade, Part Two: The bed

  • The Epic Van bed as it came from the manufacturer, a convertible couch that went up and down, with a push of an electric switch. We slept parallel to the long side of the van, our feet on seat cushions that met the couch when it was flat.

We bought our Roadtrek RS Adventurous in 2014 and it was perfect. I loved every square inch of it, every cabinet, every drawer, the four rotating captain’s seats, the combo bathroom and shower, the tiny kitchen with its dorm fridge, two-burner propane stove and little sink with collapsible faucet, the awning on the side, the solar panel on the roof, the back doors that swung open all the way to the sides so you could zip a screen into the back, the television and VCR installed on the wall, the pump and macerator that sucked all the stuff out of the waste tanks, making dumping a breeze, and the convertible couch/bed in the back.

I marveled at the years of design and thought that created this perfect vehicle, so perfect that Tom and I could sell our house and live in it. I couldn’t imagine anything I would do differently.

I loved it so much, I agonized when a cabinet latch broke, or one of the covers for the LED lights fell off. My heart broke when Tom backed over a log at a backcountry camping spot, taking out a chunk of the fiberglass skirt that hid all the valves for the tanks and propane.

And I didn’t want to change ANYTHING, in case SOMETHING HAPPENED – one of us got sick, the stock market crashed, camping was outlawed – and we needed to sell it. I wanted it to be in pristine condition, just as it came from the factory.

Fast-forward into our sixth year in the van. It has matured and so have I.