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.

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.

When pleasure touring turns to truck driving

  • Smoke from local fires and from California drifts into the Idaho forests.

Hurricane-force winds and an Arctic blast in early September wiped out our Rocky Mountain hiking days during our basin-and-range trip, the longest in a COVID-shortened travel year.

Turns out The Epic Van is hedonic thwarting machine

  • Daybreak at our camp at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in northern California.

There are some things you just know. In your gut. But it’s nice when science proves you right.

Like I know that I’ve been measurably happier in the six years since Tom and I quit our jobs, sold our house and started wandering the country in our fancy-ass camper van. When people ask, I tell them, without irony, that I love every minute. Every minute.

Now I know why. Scientifically. And it’s called thwarting hedonic adaptation.

From the archives: Big Bend National Park

  • A roadrunner welcomed us to the last site at Cottonwood Campground.

While we’ve got the emergency brake on, I thought we’d share some of our favorite spots from our five years on the road.

One of the top 10 is Big Bend National Park. Here’s the post from our visit there:

Big Bend National Park: Two campsites, four hikes and a burro ride

Emergency brake on

  • The beach at La Manzanilla.

Like everyone across the world, our plans have been disrupted by coronavirus.

We’re grounded, grateful for a place to shelter, dreaming of the day we’ll be back on the road, and reviewing the fabulous times we’ve had in five-plus years of nomadic living.

West to East Chronicles – A report card on our coast-to-coast adventure

  • Rolling along the highway.

Judy and I renewed our nomadic vows for our longest Epic Van journey since we began in 2015. We vowed to use best practices learned over nearly 100,000 miles of wandering to make our 2019 journey from Oregon to Maryland, and back to Arizona, our most rewarding adventure yet. For us, best practice revolves on leisurely rhythm and simplicity: wake up at 9 a.m., stop for a couple of hours every day and appreciate our natural heritage and neighbors; witness our history, through trails, landmarks, national parks and forests, historic downtowns, museums and roadside oddities; read something from a book and share one together; improve healthfulness through better diet and frequent hiking, and blog about it a little bit more! So here’s our report card on 10 weeks and 8,449 miles on the road:

 

West to East chronicles: Transition on Oklahoma 51, Gathering intel in the Ozarks, Paducah and National Quilting Museum

  • Fall colors and bluffs on the Buffalo River near Hasty, Arkansas.

A depression in the ridge marks where throngs of cattle passed on the Great Western Trail near Arnett, Oklahoma.

October 26 – Transition on Oklahoma 51

It’s clear and cool, near 50, with a few puddles left from showers last night as we skirt downtown Tulsa and go west. Since leaving the Blue Ridge foothills of South Carolina six days ago, we’ve traveled lands of abundant forest and plentiful rain. That’s all fading on Oklahoma 51, our lonely route to the Texas border, pavement fissured by oil and gas trucks and convoys carrying oversize pylons for windmills. Judy warns: “We’re going to have to get off this road if it doesn’t get better. It’s bouncing my tits off.” Central Oklahoma is transition country, not east but not west. Wheat is taking hold in fields of black, not red soil, and golden prairie grass is in retreat. We do a speed walk, one hour, at a high school track of asphalt in Canton, along the North Canadian (river). Judy and I travel past miles of windmills atop ridges and patches of snow east of Arnett, Oklahoma. We stop at a signpost near the 100th meridian. A plaque and post commemorate the Great Western Trail, the last route opened for cattle driven from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas, and points north. Settlers with barbed wire, quarantines to protect northern herds from Texas cattle fever and the arrival of railroads and refrigerated cars led to the demise of the Great Western Trail in the early 1890s. A compacted, eroded U-shaped portion of the hillside is evidence of more than 2 million cattle driven through here. Entering the Texas Panhandle, Judy and I agree we are getting close to our home, the West. Early evening shadows lengthen on U.S. 60 as we climb and dip through hills and folds. Snow is a few inches deep in wooded bottoms. We flatten out on the Llano Estacado before entering Pampa, Texas.

Fall colors and bluffs on the Buffalo River near Hasty, Arkansas.

October 25 – Gathering intel in the Ozarks

Judy and I are on a scouting mission in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas. We want to include water travel in our wandering next year. The Buffalo River, designated as America’s first scenic river in 1972, is on our bucket list. We want to float in mountain country to see bluffs of sandstone and limestone and look for basswood, Pawpaw, blue ash, witch hazel and spring flowers. Our challenge is to figure out how to synchronize our annual trip through the South to visit my sister Ronda and family in South Carolina with water flows on the Buffalo River, which peak in spring. Judy and I talked to a ranger at Tyler Bend Visitor Center near St. Joe, Arkansas. She gave us information on kayak and canoe rentals for the middle portion of the Buffalo River, from Carver to South Maumee. It’s the stretch of 120-mile river that fits our skill level: beginner. Judy is in for this adventure, as long as we float before the sweltering Arkansas summer.

One of the Paducah, Kentucky, murals depicts the day all three of the Delta Queen’s Steamboat Company’s boats docked simultaneously in 1996.

October 24 – Paducah and National Quilting Museum

I was ready to blow off Paducah, Kentucky, a once dominant ship and rail hub on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, now a backwater, like so many historic places we poke around. My thoughts were fixed on 1,500 miles of road ahead and a medical appointment in Arizona in less than a week. We stopped last night for German food and drink at Paducah Beer Works, a converted bus station on the edge of downtown. Instead of retreating to the Walmart on the outskirts of town, we ventured for ice cream on dimly lit Broadway, Paducah’s commercial center at the riverfront. Neither of us were impressed with downtown, but Judy saw a sign for the National Quilting Museum as we were leaving to overnight.  We decided to check out the museum today, even though we should be driving for eight hours or so. We discover more merit in downtown in morning light. You can see the Ohio River and a mural of Paducah’s history. It’s a mighty social and economic narrative of a town that thrived in an era of steam ships and locomotives and faded with the triumph of the auto and airplane in the 20th century. It’s the best community mural we’ve seen in five years. One of the panels depicts the massive flood on the Ohio River in 1937, which left 95 percent of Paducah under water, and led to construction of a miles-long river barrier protecting the community. The National Quilting Museum, is a fabulous collection of contemporary quilting, global in scope. Never judge a town in the dark. That’s why I’ll always remember Paducah.