Epic views: Shot of the day

  • A view from Skyline Drive in Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park.

So many places. So little time. Check out some of the cool things we’ve seen.

All my Montana photos are full of sky.

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.

Riding out dangerous Northwest heat wave

  • The Epic Van in an epic heat wave in western Washington state, trying to hide in the old-growth Douglas fir.

By Tom Nichols

We’re baking in the midday sun, even while sheltering under old-growth Douglas firs at Rockport State Park.

“I’m in the sun again and I’m about to cry,” Judy says, as our chair dance, perpetual jockeying on the checker-boarded forest floor, moving away from sunshine and into soothing shade. It’s our third day in the northern Cascades.

Blitzed by a record heat wave in the Northwest, worst since the 19th century, Judy and I scramble to stay as cool as possible while keeping close enough to a sports bar to enjoy the Phoenix Suns playoff run in the Western Conference finals.

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.