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