Year Two begins: Ruins and reflection

  • A doorway at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

After many weeks at “home” in Scottsdale, nesting in the guest room at my mother’s, we left the driveway on Friday, Feb. 5, for Year Two of our full-timing adventure.

We pointed The Epic Van, our home on wheels, toward Tucson, the first stop on our planned path from the sunbaked Sonoran Desert to the damp sands of South Carolina.

As we rolled south, I read aloud to husband Tom at the wheel: Blue Highways, William Least-Heat Moon’s tale of driving the nation’s back roads. Although Moon was leaving a lost job and failed marriage in the rear-view mirror, and Tom and I are together, having walked away from careers in journalism, Moon’s travels were one of our inspirations to chuck the corporate life and put our faces to the wind.

Moon captured the feeling of setting out after a long rest.

“The wanderer’s danger is to find comfort,” he wrote. “A weekend in Shreveport around friends, and security had started to pull me into a warm thrall, to enfold me, to make the wish for the road a craziness. So it was only memory of times in strange places where the scent of the unknown is sharp that drew me on to the highway again.”

The first scent we followed was a close-to-home treasure, Casa Grande, a four-story caliche structure built by hand more than 650 years ago by the Sonoran Desert people, who also dug hundreds of miles of canals to irrigate corn, squash, beans, cotton and tobacco. Before it was protected as a national site, visitors carved their names into the walls of this amazing structure, which archeologists believe was a gathering place, a place of community.

I was feeling the tug-of-war between family (my mother, sister Nancy, and son Nate), friends, my circle of writers, and the open road, the strange places, the thrill of the unexplored attraction around the next curve in the blacktop, the vista over the next rise on the hiking trail, the surprising new tableau outside my window each morning.

In fact, our departure was delayed nearly a week because we stayed in Phoenix to hear two friends read pieces about the single life at Barflies, the monthly storytelling event held by Phoenix New Times.

The first author made us laugh and cry with her tale of a childhood devil-friend who punished her for every accomplishment, until she called the friend’s Elvis-loving ass on the lies she told. The second stood, strong and defiant, and told how she left her husband, who deserved leaving, how, even though she now has a wonderful partner, she learned that we are each alone, that we need no one to “complete” us, a lesson she wanted her daughter to understand.

Their beautiful, powerful words mingled with Moon’s in my head, as I contemplated the nature of aloneness and connectedness, the issue most often raised by others when they hear about our life in a van.

“I need community,” said Marilyn Johnson, as we sipped coffee in Tucson with her husband, Jim, our former journalism professor. They regularly hit the road in an RV but have eschewed the idea of full-timing.

As we talked, as I described the people we have met, the visits with far-flung family and friends across the country and the quality time at home for the holidays, I was genuinely surprised at how our community has strengthened since hitting the highway. I feel more connected, more in touch, than I did in my long-hours-at-work, long-hours-at-chores life.

On the road, we’ve met other van owners at Roadtrek rallies, like Mary, the former Forest Ranger rafter, Linda, the mom of a long-haired dachshund named Pancho Villa, and Campskunk, the ponytail-wearing, unrepentant hippie, ex-state employee who fixed our broken shower door and cabinet hinges. In the Cochise Stronghold, we met Jeff and Ann, the motorbike-racing, medic-nurse combo we visited at the Harmonica Festival in Yellow Pine, Idaho. We met Crystal and Janice, a lovely Wisconsin duo while birding at Patagonia Lake. And there are countless others we know by face and name through Facebook groups.

We visited family and friends in Arizona, Oregon, Illinois and Washington state, and attended our annual get-together with fellow Stanford Fellows at Manzanita Beach in Oregon. Mom and Nancy met us in Washington, and Nate flew in for the family reunion in Illinois and the Fellows gathering.

And although we were gone nearly 10 months last year, the jobless, deadline-free time we spent at “home,” was rich with connection.

We cooked and canned together, celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Eve, attended my sister’s beautiful art show, watched Nate start writing for the New Times, went to the movies, attended numerous author readings and saw Pink Martini. Tom and I went to holiday gatherings where we connected with dozens of our journalism soul mates, many of whom have moved on to other fields after buyouts and layoffs. I sewed for hours with my friend, Tami, and we sold our children’s clothes through our new Periwinkle Polka Dot booth at craft fairs. I had lunches and coffee and drinks with friends and former co-workers. I visited the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Heard Museum with my friend Meredith, remembering our visit to Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City with our friend Jackie and all our kids. And Jackie, Meredith and I yarn-bombed the orange tree in Meredith’s front yard.

In Tucson, my sister-in-law, BAM, took me to hear her brother-in-law, Charles Alexander, and another poet, Bernadette Mayer, read at an art gallery. Their words of reflection washed over me, sinking in as they paused for trains whistling just feet from the open gallery door.

In my old life, I would have missed this. I would have missed the train whistles from tracks all across the country, the moments with kindred spirits. I closed my eyes and implanted the memory.

Tucson is a fitting start to this second year of wandering. It was where Tom and I met in graduate school, and where Americans found the Wild West, riding the rails of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which arrived here in 1880. We wandered its historic downtown, returning on the new Tucson Streetcar to play pingpong at my step-brother, Kevin’s home.

When we leave this old town, the beginning of our life together so many years ago, we will be making new memories, exploring the community of artists in Marfa, Texas, the wilds of Big Bend National Park, whooping cranes in Port Aransas, Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, connect with family and friends in New Orleans and South Carolina, before returning to Arizona for Nate’s college graduation. Later, there will be gatherings in Washington, Illinois and Kansas.

And then we’ll nest again in Scottsdale, until memories of times in strange places and the sharp scent of the unknown draw us back to the road.


  1. Reply
    Michael Ging February 12, 2016

    Happy to see you are on the road again and made room to take us all along. You always were a gifted writer, it even comes through more, when you write about something you love.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols February 12, 2016

      Thank you so much, Michael. So glad you like it.

  2. Reply
    Marian Frank February 12, 2016

    Loving your blog Judy. We hope to retire to Argentina and you and Tom can take a long trip down to see us!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols February 13, 2016

      I would LOVE that.

  3. Reply
    Peter Corbett February 12, 2016

    Enjoy the journey. I love the photo gallery. I hope you’re blessed with tailwinds and new friends along the way.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols February 13, 2016

      Thanks so much. I’m loving your posts, too. There’s so much to see in Arizona, I feel we’ve only scratched the surface.

  4. Reply
    Dee Hall February 13, 2016

    Bon voyage and !buena suerte amigos! Hope your wanderings take you to Wisconsin again. Andy and I will be waiting!!

    • Reply
      Judy February 13, 2016

      We expect to hit Wisconsin in July. Would love to see you. We’ll send you dates when we know.

  5. Reply
    Keven Ann Willey February 13, 2016

    Love all this. We are planning a perimeter of the United States trip ourselves in our 17 foot Casita in the not-too-distant future. Love hearing about your experiences. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols February 13, 2016

      Wonderful! Perhaps our paths will cross in the future.

  6. Reply
    Corbin Shouse February 13, 2016

    So glad to hear that you are back on the road! Have fun in your explorations of Big Bend. It is quite a special place! I spent a good amount of time there as a child, and it holds fantastic memories of my own RV travels with my family.

    • Reply
      Judy February 13, 2016

      It’s amazing. Hiked Into Santa Elena Canyon today. Wow!

      • Reply
        Corbin Shouse February 13, 2016

        Santa Elena is fabulous! I would also recommend the Window Trail and the Lost Mine Trail if you have time. Both are excellent hikes. Have fun! 🙂

        • Reply
          Judy Nichols February 16, 2016

          We’re heading out on the Lost Mine Trail today. J

  7. Reply
    Meredith Stewart February 15, 2016

    Dear Judy and Tom,
    This post really connects with me. Your post, Judy, really expresses the truth that the more you are “away” …the closer the connections you can have. I loved our lunch the three of us had at The Stand. Would we have had that time together if you lived in Phoenix and never had started on your adventure? Would we have pushed to make time for Frida exhibit? Would we have gone from talking about yarn bombing to breezing through all the different steps to make it happen? It seems like you DOING IT…traveling and adventuring in the Epic Van makes other more minor “adventures” or experiences …more easily come to happen. Truly, we were close before your take off In the Epic Van…but, I feel way closer to you now that you have gone on your adventures.
    Happy Valentine’s Day my friends! I love you and I love your adventures and you sharing, so I can be apart of too!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols February 15, 2016

      I feel absolutely the same way. And, no, I don’t think we would have made time for all those things. It seems human nature to procrastinate, but a deadline forces action. The fact that we are only in one place for a limited time makes that time more precious and makes us use it wisely. I’m so glad you are following The Epic Van in its travels, and I look forward to the fun we’ll have when it makes its way back “home.”

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