1 – Driving past old haunts like the Catalina Odeon Cineplex Cinemas and remembering when Tom and I, newly in love in journalism grad school at the University of Arizona, would ride our bikes on dates, coming out after the movie to cycle home in moonlight and warm breezes. The poor shuttered Cineplex is looking a little worse for wear, slightly decrepit, should I say, aged, but don’t we all.
2 – Dinner with our journalism professor Jim Johnson and his wife, Marilyn, who we value for their career-long encouragement and support, and have developed a deeper friendship with over our shared love of camping. Eating Marilyn’s delicious beef, mushroom and artichoke casserole with gluten-free biscuits, recalling students who complained because they were required to read the paper EVERY morning for the news quizzes and me having Tom quiz me every morning because I couldn’t EVER remember the names of international despots. Sharing a somber moment in memory of our other professor Don Carson, who showed such grace and integrity while being a proud and fearless journalist. He rose to my defense when the publications board tried to oust me as editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat after we sued the university over an athletic-slush-fund scandal. They didn’t like the syndicated sex column I published either.
3 – Happy hour at The Shanty with our former Republic colleague Terry Cornelius at a patio table still reserved every Friday for the staff of the Tucson Citizen, which closed in 2009. The long table, filled with former staffers and sources is a testament to something: dedication, resilience, pride, the unwillingness to go quietly into that dark night, killed by shitty media economics. I remember as a baby journalist in grad school, coming to The Shanty and seeing the Arizona Daily Star’s great Ray Ring sitting at the bar. He was the quintessential romantic figure of a hard-drinking, hard-driving, in-your-face, truth-to-power reporter, and I wanted to be just like him.
4 – Festivus with my step-brother Kevin, sister-in-law BAM and nephew Brian, where my silly sister Nancy and our family friend Pam wore panties on their heads from the white elephant gift exchange, and my mother was truly excited when she got the glass on a rope to hang around your neck.
5 – Hiking in Romero Canyon in Catalina State Park, dwarfed by towering saguaros, awed by stunning panoramic views, happy to see signs of Bighorn Sheep Management Area, imagining the wild rams we’ve been reading about in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, by the late Ellen Maloy, who tracked a recovering band of bighorns in Utah’s canyonlands and advocated for more connection to nature. I’m sad that I only found her beautiful writing after she died, knowing I can only read through her body of work with no hope of future treasures.
6 – Visiting the Mission Gardens Project, a re-creation of the Spanish Colonial walled garden that was part of Tucson’s historic San Agustin Mission, with my step-brother, Kevin, who is on the board of the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, which is leading the project. Kevin has always been on the right side of nature, preservation and environmental education, working for the National Parks Conservancy, Native Seed Search, the Audubon Society and other admirable efforts.
7 – The view from “A” Mountain, where it’s strikingly obvious that Tucson is no longer a sleepy, dusty berg, but a bustling metropolis, a view I never saw the entire time I was in grad school, even though A Mountain is the visible symbol of the university, and it’s a rite of passage to paint the A and guard it from the evil Sun Devils for the annual rivalry game. Ahhhh, well, I was a mildly interested, fair-weather sports fan, although I do think Wilbur the Wildcat is brilliant.
8 – Birdhouse Yarns, because I was in deep mourning over Jessica Knits, the third knitting store to die on me in Phoenix (Arizona Knitting and Needlepoint in 2011, Knit Happens in 2013). It was like the time they cancelled Thirtysomething in 1991, and I vowed never to love a TV series again. But I did, and I do, and I binged Russian Doll in one sitting, and I’m impatiently waiting for the next season of Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies. Birdhouse Yarns, with its lovely walls of color and texture, made me dip my toe back in the fiber waters, and I think I can love again.
9 – The way Siri pronounces Ocotillo Road, like armadillo, or the way Napoleon Dynamite’s grandmother says, “Make yourself a dang quesadilla.”
10 – Tumerico, a new find, where chef Wendy Garcia makes you feel like a long-lost friend and makes food magic. Our table had Cuban tacos filled with napolitos, amazing green corn tamales and a vegetarian power bowl.
Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.
So says the iconic scout song I learned as a Brownie, too many years ago to count.
The sentiment is true. The past four years full-timing in The Epic Van has been a testament to this theme. We’ve driveway surfed from Washington to California to Kansas to New Orleans, looking up old newspaper colleagues scattered to the four winds. We’ve broken bread with relatives near and far. And we’ve camped with and made fabulous new friends on the fly in Idaho, Montana and California.
There is an odd rhythm to nomadism, a dance, a feeling of slight disorientation as you get to know and embrace each new spot you call home, even if only for a few days.
Now, in year four of our journey in The Epic Van, we seem to have gotten better at it, reaching a comfort level we didn’t have in the beginning, when each new place felt wildly exciting, exotic and fascinating, but a little foreign.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, Tom has become a true tree freak.
On hikes, he frequently stops to gaze upward at branch arrays, set his hand on a trunk’s bark, count the number of leaflets in a bunch and test the spikiness of needles against his fingers.
He takes photos of the whole tree, the leaves and the bark, and then compares them to photos and descriptions in his tree book when he returns to The Epic Van.
He’s so thorough that I’m beginning to know the difference between an Engelmann spruce and a limber pine.
And so, when we were at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada this week, we headed for the ancient Bristlecone Pine Grove on Wheeler Peak.
At Arches National Park, we scrambled over clusters of rock to walk along a sandstone fin with sheer sides, heart-stopping dropoffs and amazing views. I felt like I was queen of the world.
At its sister-park, Canyonlands, we looked out over miles of canyons, spires, and cliffs, cut by the Green and Colorado rivers. I felt small and insignificant.
And both parks, created from eroding and ever-changing rock forms, made me think about the impermanence of things that seem permanent.
When I think of Big Sur, it is the wild radish I will always remember.
The crunch of it in my mouth, similar to the texture of a radish, but a milder, sweeter flavor.
A wilder flavor.
You know I love The Epic Van. And I love the company that makes it, Roadtrek.
The first year we were on the road, we went to the Roadtreking Photo Safari near Yellowstone. It was a gathering of my kind of people. We still have friends from that first meetup.
Now, three years later, we just finished our second Roadtreking Photo Safari, this one near Glacier and, once again, it was a blast.
My personal thank-you list is looooong. So, here goes. Thanks to:
The Florida Everglades, the River of Grass, feels fragile, like any moment a hurricane will wipe it off the map, or humans, after decades of abuse, will finally kill it, or invasive species will forever alter it.
The longer you’re there, the more fragile it feels.
By Tom Nichols
I never heard any of my outdoor-loving friends in Arizona mention Grand Mesa National Forest. There are so many wonderfully eroded canyons and expansive mesas in Utah and Arizona, so many famous peaks and alpine parks in Colorado’s Front Range, it’s little wonder that Grand Mesa National Forest, the nation’s biggest tabletop mountain, is never mentioned.
By Tom Nichols
There’s nothing more liberating than returning to The Epic Van and setting course for Glacier National Park, the next leg of our Year Four adventure. I feel like a first-grader on the first day of summer vacation.