Revisiting Nature

The last week we’ve largely spent revisiting a lot of our favorite summer spots to see them in the winter. I’ve loved the quiet nature time, but it also makes me long for summer and the first couple months of our trip. I miss the long hikes, being totally alone in the mountains, and feeling warm outside. The Tetons, Glacier, and Banff are certainly gorgeous in the winter and there is a quietness that is unique to the snow, but to me winter feels limiting. I think David feels just the opposite, as he loves winter and snow brings him a joy I can’t quite understand.

The Tetons

The Tetons were one of my favorite summer spots and I can still so clearly remember the backpacking trip we did to Paintbrush Divide. In the winter, much of the road through the Tetons is still open with lots of places to snowshoe or ski. We stopped at a few places for photos, a short snowshoe, and a winter walk. I think what is toughest for me about the winter is I want to get farther and higher into the mountains than I can safely do so, scared by the cold and avalanche risk. In the winter we are typically viewing the mountains from afar, versus the feeling of being immersed in the mountains we got in the summer.

versus summer:

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is largely closed in the winter, at least from the east side. We were very grateful that one campground, St. Mary’s, is open in the winter and, as far as we could tell, free. You have to bring your own water and only a pit toilet is available, but it was plowed and completely empty. We enjoyed an incredible night sky and woke up for sunrise.

Given Glacier’s popularity in the summer, it felt like a completely different place. In the summer vehicles line-up early in the morning to get a spot at the first-come, first-serve campgrounds and the roads and trails are busy. Now the place feels deserted, with the nearby hotels, gas stations, and restaurants all boarded up. We saw a single other vehicle in the park, leaving us to wonder where its driver went.

verus summer:

Lake Louise

We spent a couple days in Banff and Yoho, visiting several new places we hadn’t seen in the winter. We also revisited Lake Louise, which is significantly easier in the winter. I couldn’t find any statistics of visitors to Lake Louise or Banff by month, but based on the ease of finding winter parking right next to the lake, I have to guess the winter visitors are a small fraction of the summer visitors. The lake is still beautiful, although the distinct color and reflection of the mountains are a big part of the appeal to me. It is pretty cool to walk on the lake and stand right in the middle of it.

versus summer:

Before visiting Lake Louise, we stopped in Banff for a night and did a hike through Johnston Canyon. The canyon is one of the more popular winter spots and a was a bit crowded, but we didn’t mind. We decided our crampons were overkill and enjoyed sliding along the path, which fortunately has a railing for most of it.

Yoho National Park

Yoho National Park is just west of Banff and on the drive between Lake Louise and Golden, but we didn’t visit it in the summer (we took a more roundabout route to the south). We hardly saw anyone here and especially enjoyed hiking to Wapta Falls.

Big Sky

While it doesn’t fit with the theme of my post, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Big Sky, given it is one of David’s favorite places. His family went on a weekly ski trip here almost every year while he was growing up and he still talks of the place with awe. I couldn’t believe how much he remembered, as he seemed to know every run and maintain a clear mental map of the place. I was able to view the place more objectively and still agreed it was one of my favorite ski resorts we visited. The views were probably the best and it wasn’t too crowded, even on a Sunday. We enjoyed skiing a few runs and having dinner with some of David’s family friends from Cleveland who own a condo next to the mountain and visit yearly. We spent our evenings relaxing by the fire in the Huntley, the hotel David’s family would stay in. While David was excited to see that things hadn’t changed a bit, we did learn it would be undergoing renovations next year. I expect David is likely the only person bummed by this news.

Colorado Time

We are currently in Jackson, Wyoming after spending the last couple weeks in Colorado (spoiler alert: we didn’t actually go to Taos as I indicated we would in my most recent post). Themes from our time in Colorado include:

Changing Plans

We were prepared to leave Salt Lake City to head to Taos, allured by the prospect of sunny skies, slopeside parking, and pretzels and beer we had seen on a van friend’s Instagram. However, when we looked at the snow and weather forecast the night before leaving, we realized a cold front was on its way to Taos, bringing single-digit temperatures. We also saw that Colorado was due for some big storms, while Taos wasn’t expected to get much snow in the near-term. The luxury of living in a van with little to no commitments – you can change plans as often as you want! So we plugged Steamboat Springs into the GPS and left Utah for sunnier, snowier Colorado. We stopped at Dinosaur National Monument for a night on the way and were the only one in the campground. A ranger even had to open the Quarry Exhibit Hall for us since we were the only guests. The perks of visiting National Parks and Monuments in the winter! This place was so much cooler than I expected. If you find dinosaurs the least bit interesting or enjoyed Land Before Time half as much as I did it is definitely worth a visit.

After a few days in Steamboat Springs, we planned to head to Aspen and then Copper before spending a few days in Denver with my sister. However, we again changed plans and opted for a single day at Copper and a few extra days in Denver. I needed a break from skiing and really wanted more time to spend with my sister. We filled our time in Denver with ski boot buying (I got a pair of $75 backcountry boots on Craigslist that are so comfy), ski boot adjusting (David’s saga of boot adjustments continued at the Denver Evo), bike frame paint stripping (my sister has become a little addicted to buying cheap bikes and fixing them up), couch lounging, beer drinking, dog photographing, and exercising with Lauren (I took my first Orange Theory class and failed terribly, with almost the whole workout in the red zone).

Record Setting

Our time in Steamboat Springs coincidentally lined up with the town’s annual winter carnival. David quickly decided Steamboat Springs is one of his favorite ski towns, with the local ski hill, family feel, cute downtown, and hot springs. We got to feel a little like locals during the carnival, attending a charity pancake breakfast, kid’s skijoring, hilarious downhill bike race on a ski course, and ski/fireworks show. The best part was witnessing the world record for largest firework.

Here are links for more information on the record setting firework and Lighted Man.

We experienced a lot of snow in Colorado, especially Steamboat Springs, which got around 3 feet of snow while we were there. I don’t know if this was technically a record, but everyone was talking about it like it was. At least a foot of snow fell the night before we went backcountry skiing with my sister at Bluebird Backcountry.

*I may have slightly bumped into David

I think we also set a personal record for dirtiest van before David washed our van for the first time ever in Denver.

Lastly, we experienced our coldest temperatures yet in Colorado. The negative temperatures and high elevation proved too much for our poor van, resulting in a dead furnace and frozen water tank. We are learning to work around these winter issues, with David perfecting his technique for fixing the furnace (involving climbing under the van to pinch the fuel line), taking out the drawers and running a van to get more warm air to the water tank, and washing the dishes with water bottles. On the positive side, David is getting lots of opportunities to perfect his ice beard.

For accuracy, I should note not all these photos were taken in Colorado. However, I only picked six photos out of at least fifty.

Pip Photos

An added benefit of spending so much time with my sister was spending time with her dog, Pip. David is honing his pet photography skills for a potential future career change. Again, I picked a few examples from an extremely large sample size. Having access to David’s photos is amazing.

We took significantly less photos with Lauren, but here are a couple.

Thanks for an excellent stay, Colorado!

Mostly Skiing

We are still in the Salt Lake City area and are starting to feel like locals. We have a gym spot, a few usual parking spots, a grocery store, and a few other van friends. We’ve visited every ski resort on our Ikon pass at least twice. This past weekend we enjoyed the luxuries of daily showers, a hot tub, a garage to wax skis, and full kitchen as we spent the weekend in Park City with my sister and some of her friends. This is our annual Sundance trip we’ve now attended five years in a row, despite me breaking my leg skiing year two. We saw two excellent movies – Boys State and Minari. I’m still thinking about them and images from Minari are so clear in my mind. It was the kind of movie you don’t want to end because you feel so attached to all the characters.

Tomorrow we move along, headed south to Taos. I hope for sunnier skies, small ski jumps, Class Pass options, and minimal cold toes. My daily photo taking has dropped to near nothing, but luckily David is still going strong with lots of van and skiing pictures. These photos sum up the last week or two pretty accurately. While I’ll admit I’m not loving all the skiing and still wrestling with some occasional anxiety (breaking your leg skiing is pretty traumatic!) I’m enjoying winter so much more than I thought I would. I’m relieved to feel so light and adjusted to winter van life.

This seemed so much bigger from my perspective.

The Start of Winter

We are in full winter mode and I have been pleasantly surprised that we have stayed relatively warm and clean. Winter has provided its share of challenges, but it’s also brought a slower pace with less driving and more evenings spent in the van. I haven’t managed to curb my maximizer personality on this trip yet, but I feel like winter will be good for me in slowing down and spending more time reading and thinking.

Winter Setup

While in Bend at my parents’, we swapped out our bikes for skis, backpacking gear for snowshoeing gear, and shorts and tee shirts for long pants and flannel. Overall I think we have less stuff than before, or at least it is better organized. We added a soft bin between the front seats to hold all our many water bottles and car snacks (largely candy). We also added a similar bin to the back for the Instant Pot, cook set, and plastic bowls. Without the bikes we can keep the bed a bit lower so it is only slightly higher than intended (due to our bins – wish we had thought of our winter setup when we bought them). My mom and I (mostly my mom) added a mattress topper and made new sheets for the bed. The bed is in three parts – the main bed that goes up and down and small sections of mattress that stay in place in the bulb outs on the side of the van. This makes everything bed-related more complicated. All our skis are in the roofbox, which takes a little time given the ladder has to be relocated to the side of the van. Overall we are happy with the setup – especially some LED lights that we’ve lined the ceiling with to keep things more cheerful.

Winter Challenges

Things are harder in the winter in a van, but I also find things harder in a home in the winter. We are working things out and right now we are in Salt Lake City where van living is easy. These are the challenges we’ve had, so far:

  • Filling our water tank: water is much harder to come by in the winter as dump stations, gas stations, and parks turn off their water to keep it from freezing. We had to make several stops in North Bend, Utah before we later found a truck stop that had a faucet still on. When I asked at an Ace Hardware if we could fill up, the kind cashier even called her manager to see if they could turn the water back on for me (they couldn’t). Here in Salt Lake we’ve relied on the hose at an apartment building our friends are staying at for the month. We expect we’ll constantly be on a hunt for water fill-ups this winter, especially when in ski towns. We’re keeping our many water bottles filled up between the gym, grocery stores, and ski resorts. I even filled our growler at the gym water purifier, which was only a little embarrassing.
  • Dumping our grey tank: we thought dumping our grey water would only be hard because of fewer open dump stations, but our biggest challenge has been that the dump valve has a tendency to freeze. We spent several days desperately trying to open it before we received a little sun that finally thawed it out. When our furnace is on it cycles glycol around the tanks to keep them from freezing, but the valve for opening the grey tank is on the outside of the van and is frequently buried in snow. We bought a cheap heat gun that will hopefully solve this problem in the future.
  • Low batteries: our batteries only can charge to 100% from solar or from plugging in. They also charge from the alternator when we are driving, but only up to ~75-80%. We can only run the batteries down to 50% since we have AGM batteries which would be damaged if depleted below 12V. This means that without sun we don’t have too much power to use. Add to this frequent furnace use and our batteries are constantly low. While the furnace runs on diesel, it uses a decent amount of power for the fan and to cycle the glycol. We haven’t had much sun, even in Utah, so we’ve had to start idling the engine for a few minutes in the morning and evening to use our induction stove. We also aren’t driving much here due to a convenient ski bus. While we were at Crystal ski resort in Washington, we paid $40/night for an RV parking spot and electric hookup in the parking lot. We spent two nights in the lot after spending our first two nights in a back country camping spot. The unlimited electricity was glorious, allowing us to cook more elaborate meals and drink all the hot chocolate we wanted.

One advantage of the winter is that slippery parking lots can provide a lot of entertainment.

Where we’ve Skied

So far we’ve skied at Crystal (4 days), Snoqualmie (2 days), Brighton (2 days), Solitude (1 day), Snowbird (Kelly 2 days, David 3 days), and Alta (Kelly 1/2 day, David 1 day). We’ll be in Salt Lake City another week and then we’ll head to Park City to meet up with my sister and her friends for our annual Sundance trip.

Crystal – David decided he likes Crystal even better than our home resort Meadows due to the terrain. Since I stuck to the blues and avoided all terrain, I didn’t have much of an opinion. This is the first place I’ve resort skied since breaking my leg skiing at Park City four years ago. I was surprisingly less scared than I thought I’d be, although I did have a hard time sleeping the night before our first day. I’m not pushing myself too much and went in early a couple of the days to snowshoe or do art. David has been a great sport about sticking with me on the easy runs, although I occasionally convince him to go off and ski what he wants to.

Snoqualmie – while we got a decent amount of snow at Crystal, we read that the real snow was happening at Snoqualmie so we made the couple hour drive for a few more days of Washington skiing. I couldn’t get over all the buried cars in the parking lot, wondering where their owners were. We stuck to the main part of the resort and I only got stuck in the deep powder once. However, the van got stuck in the snow several times when we tried to leave our parking spot in the lot we’d camped out in for a couple nights. A converted school bus was stuck and blocking one of the lot exits, and when the lot was plowed the other exit was blocked with snow. We manually cleared the area the snow plow had obstructed, but then got stuck in the soft snow several times. We got to put our recovery tracks to use, which were amazing at helping us get out of the snow. We then went back to try to help the bus now that we could access the front of it, but even the Gnar Wagon couldn’t pull it out. Luckily the ski resort sent a tractor to help them out as we were leaving.

Salt Lake City Ski Resorts – I haven’t taken any pictures while skiing here and don’t know enough about ski resorts to provide many insights into the characteristics of each place. I like Brighton best because it has lots of blue runs with areas in the trees that I can handle with very tiny jumps that I love. Solitude requires you to buy a locker if you want to leave a bag in the lodge which is a bummer. We went to Alta on a day with so much powder and so little visibility I was floundering and only skied half a day. Snowbird has the nicest lodge and a tram that takes you to the very top I don’t enjoy.

The best part of skiing in Utah has been the company, even though everyone is a way better skier than me. David’s friends Ben and Deirdre are here for the month and we’ve loved spending time with them. We skied for a day with David’s cousin who is an incredible skier and spending the winter traveling to different resorts in his Highlander. We’ve met tons of van friends that we were connected to through a couple we met at a back country spot in Idaho. They are the best networkers and have amassed a large group of fellow Ikon passers from all around. We are all camping in the same park and ride lot and feel like neighbors, greeting each other when we see each other in the lot and occasionally getting drinks or coordinating our ski days. David is loving all the socializing and I think it’ll be a bit hard for him when our time here is up. I’m getting my needed alone time through gym trips and ski days off. I’ve also started driving the van when I’m by myself, which is a big accomplishment for me! There is a ski bus that picks up right by our park and ride lot which makes it easy for David and me to split up for a day or afternoon.

The Holidays and More

The main way I realize how quickly time is going in the van is to look at our blog and think, wow, is that really the last time I updated? I thought I made a post last week! We are a month away from being halfway through our trip and we are both in serious denial. Life is very different from the last time I updated, as we now sit in the RV parking area at Crystal Mountain. We are in a completely different part of the country and fully immersed in winter mode. For the sake of keeping a record of what we’ve done, I’ll do a quick recap of the holidays and everything in between first.

Sunny Florida

We spent a couple weeks in Florida enjoying really the only hot weather we’ve had so far in the van. Looking at these photos now makes me long for the feeling of the sun on my arms. We spent most of our time on Casey Key at David’s Grandma’s house. We left for a few days to meet up with Meghan and Vinny (friends from Portland) and take a mini tour of the Keys and Everglades. We had so much fun hanging out with them and experiencing traveling as a group after so much time as just the two of us. They joined us for Thanksgiving on Casey Key with lots of David’s family. We alternated between beach walks, eating, playing with David’s cousins, and chatting with family. Casey Key is a reminder to me of how dramatically diverse the United States is. While I don’t think I’d ever be happy living in Florida, I can see its appeal (especially since the highs are in the 80s on Casey Key right now).

Tennessee Touristing

After a quick stop in Atlanta for another visit with David’s aunt and cousins, we continued to Tennessee and stopped in both Nashville and Memphis. We both agreed we preferred Nashville, especially enjoying some live music we caught at a brewery one evening. We toured the state capitol and spent a lot of time just walking around and exploring. Our main stop in Memphis was the National Civil Rights Museum, which is partially housed in the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I’d previously visited the museum while in Memphis for a work conference. It is hard to describe a museum about a tough subject that is well done. Typical adjectives aren’t fitting. The museum made me sad, outraged, and reflective.

Arkansas – Bikes, Nature and Art

Arkansas impressed us. I didn’t realize just how much we did in Arkansas until going through my pictures and realizing I have so many I want to share. I think these cover most of our time in Arkansas.


We continued our museum streak with the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa and Fred Jones Jr. Museum in Norman. Both were incredible and well worth the stop. David spent a year of his childhood in Oklahoma City and remembers searching for rose rocks at a nearby lake. With some internet researching he found the spot and we went back to find tons of rocks.

After talking about visiting for years, we spent a couple days with David’s college friend Leif and his family. His wife Laci was so welcoming and warm and we had a blast playing with his two young daughters. We can’t wait to visit again.

Bend Again

We very swiftly made our way from Oklahoma to Bend, with David excelling behind the wheel. David likes early driving so we started most days at 5 a.m., allowing me to do lots of napping. Soon after we arrived in Bend David took off to spend Christmas with his family in Marblehead. I enjoyed over two weeks of sleeping in a bed, cuddling with Scout, making huge lunch salads with my mom, brewing beer with my dad, running with my sister and her boyfriend, making and eating lots of cookies, showering, shopping, and organizing the van. It was glorious and I’ll admit I didn’t want to leave. Maybe I will be ready to return home once this adventure is over.

Continuing South

We made three main stops between the Smoky Mountains and David’s Grandma’s house in Casey Key (excluding a side trip to Bend): Charleston, Savannah, and St. Augustine. After some cold weather in the Smoky Mountains I was so excited for some sunshine and warmth. I’ve always thought while living in Portland and enduring gray winters that I’m unaffected by the weather. I’ve told myself I don’t mind cloudy or rainy days as you can still bike or run and the rain just makes Portland green. However, our time in the van has me seriously rethinking my emotional connection to the weather. I find my mood darkening on overcast days and disappointed when rain ruins our plans or results in wet shoes and clothes in the van. In contrast, I feel such a lightness and realize myself subconsciously smiling on sunny days. In the van we are so much more influenced by the weather and connected to the outdoors. While the van feels cozy at night with the sound of rain on the roof, in the daytime it just feels dreary. This realization has me nervous about the winter and searching for ways to cope. One strategy we’ve pursued is joining Class Pass. For a monthly fee of $29 we get 15 credits to use at gyms and fitness studios. A drop-in pass at a gym is typically 1-2 credits, while a yoga or barre class might be 3-4 credits. Class Pass seems to be in almost every city and gives us options almost anywhere for getting in a workout or rejuvenating yoga session. I’m already hooked. We are also developing a big network of people to ski with, thanks to another van couple we met early in the trip who has started an Instagram group for vanners with the Ikon Pass.


My aunt Laura lives in Charleston and we enjoyed staying with her and her partner Keith during our time in Charleston. They also kindly watched the van while we left it for a side trip to Bend. We largely spent our time wandering around downtown Charleston and eating some of David’s favorite foods – donuts and BBQ. I loved looking at the old houses and huge trees covered in moss. We also visited the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, which we choose since we read it provides a more honest account of plantation life and the perspective of enslaved people. I think what was most striking to both of us is just how recent the history of slavery is. There is a tree on the McLeod property that is estimated to be 600 years old and it is hard to think how late in the tree’s life the plantation was in operation.


Neither of us knew much about Savannah but it seemed like a logical place to spend a night given our route. We were both so impressed by all the parks, greenery, art, and historic buildings.

St. Augustine

David read somewhere that St. Augustine is one of the most European-feeling cities in America. The narrow pedestrian streets, Castillo de San Marcos fortress, and old architecture definitely made me feel like I could have been in a European city.

A Bend Side Trip

We made a quick side trip to Bend to see my family (including Lauren and her dog Pip!). I think we both realized how much we miss the mountains and the west coast. We had the best time hiking, biking, doing yoga, drinking beer, and playing games with my family. Oh and seeing our cat Scout was of course the best. How I have missed that little fluffer.

Blue Ridge Parkway

I’ve been interested in driving the Blue Ridge Parkway ever since I learned about it during college. I saw bits of the parkway on hikes in college, but never traveled very far south from Charlottesville. The Parkway is most popular in October for the fall foliage, so we were a bit late (starting our drive in early November). On the plus side, this meant we nearly had the road to ourselves. It also meant some rest stops were closed (which is no problem when you carry your own bathroom) and some of the trees were a bit bare.

“The idea is to fit the Parkway into the mountains as if nature has put it there.”

-Stanley Abbott, Chief Landscape Architect for the Parkway

The history of the parkway is really interesting – you can read more about it here. President Roosevelt originally conceived the idea for the Parkway, after visiting Skyline Drive in Virginia. The Parkway was intended to connect Shenandoah National Park with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Construction began in 1935 but the Parkway wasn’t completely finished until 1987 as a 7.7 mile stretch near Grandfather Mountain proved tricky due to ecological concerns. A short summary of the Parkway from the National Park Service website:

  • “It is the longest road planned as a single unit in the United States.
  • It is an elongated park, protecting significant mountain landscapes far beyond the shoulders of the road itself.
  • It is a series of parks providing the visitor access to high mountain passes, a continuous series of panoramic views, the boundaries of its limited right-of-way rarely apparent and miles of the adjacent countryside seemingly a part of the protected scene.
  • It is a “museum of the managed American countryside,” preserving the roughhewn log cabin of the mountain pioneer, the summer home of a textile magnate, and traces of early industries such as logging, railways, and an old canal.
  • It is the product of a series of major public works projects which provided a boost to the travel and tourism industry and helped the Appalachian region climb out the depths of the Great Depression.
  • Stretching almost 500 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains through North Carolina and Virginia, it encompasses some of the oldest settlements of both pre-historic and early European settlement.”

While we originally planned to cover every mile of the Parkway, returning to where we departed if we made any stops, that quickly proved tedious. The Parkway is far from the most efficient route – driving from the start to finish could be done in 379 miles and speeds much higher than the Parkway’s 45 mile per hour speed limit. I had a hard time giving up my mission to see all of the Parkway, as once I make a plan I like to stick to it. However, we also have a schedule to stick to and I don’t like to drive more than necessary. In the end I think we likely covered two-thirds of the Parkway, dropping off completely once we got to Asheville to take the most direct route to the Smoky Mountains.

Ridge Region

The Parkway is divided into four sections. The northern section, entirely in Virginia, is called the Ridge Region. It starts a bit west of Charlottesville and ends a bit south of Roanoke. It mostly goes through National Forests with tree-filled views and lots of rolling hills. Humpback Rock, which I hiked frequently throughout college, is located right on the Parkway. We also stopped at several scenic overlooks before arriving in Roanoke to spend the night. David took most of the pictures in this section, so they largely feature the van.

After spending the night in Roanoke, we deviated from the Parkway for a while to visit the Virginia Museum of Transportation (in Roanoke) and Duncan Imports & Classic Cars. The museum is very eclectic, and feels more like a hobby shop for old car, train, and plane enthusiasts. It was a fun stop, especially for David.

David had seen a commercial for Duncan Imports & Classic Cars when we were at Starr Hill and recognized it from used car listings he’d viewed online. Of course David has a pulse on used car collections all around the United States, even in small towns in Virginia. The place is hard to describe, half used car dealership and half car collection. From what I can tell online, it started as a hobby and grew into a business, now attracting attention from car enthusiasts across the country. David could have spent all day ogling the cars, but I kept us moving along. I can’t caption the photos below as I don’t know what vehicles they are, but for more photos and obscure car facts David is on hand.

Plateau Region

After our car stops, we rejoined the Parkway in the Plateau Region. This stretch of the Parkway is flatter and more focused on the rural landscape and culture of the region. We didn’t make many stops here, except to walk around an old mill, spend the night at Walmart, and make breakfast at a scenic stop.

Highlands Region

This section starts at the Virginia/North Carolina state line and winds through lots of natural areas and small towns to Crabtree Falls. This might have been my favorite section. We stopped for a few small hikes, scenic overlooks, and van photo shoots. We also walked around the town of Blowing Rock, which has a great art gallery and lots of cute shops. Just outside of Blowing Rock is the Moses Cone Manor, which the National Park Service is starting to fix up. The Cones developed a huge amount of trails around the house, which are available for use. We ended the night driving up a very exciting road to a back country camping spot in the Pisgah National Forest, a bit off the Parkway.

Pisgah Region

The final stretch of the Parkway was a special one as I drove the van for the first time (excluding moving it to a different parking space once)! My stretch of driving lasted nearly 20 miles and ended in an easy yet stressful parking challenge. The experience confirmed I’m much happier as a passenger and I haven’t driven again since. I realize I should learn to be comfortable driving the van but there is always some reason not to drive – wind, traffic, rain, narrow rides, sleepiness. I’ve committed that before our trip is up I’ll be a competent van driver and parker.

We stopped at Mount Mitchell, which is the tallest point east of the Mississippi and requires walking less than half a mile. The fact that you can nearly drive to the top made it not super exciting, but we did meet a nice van fan who asked to take our picture (making it our second photo session by a stranger). We also spent a night in Asheville, which is a lovely town with delicious food and beer. Our top recommendation, passed on from my parents, is Biscuit Head. David got what my mom termed “Biscuit Head” from his brunch. The prescribed fix is a nap and cup of coffee.

Smoky Mountains

We took the direct route from Asheville to Smoky Mountains to get in a day hike before meeting up with Jamie and Mike for a one-night backpacking trip. Jamie was wrapping up a work project in Knoxville and they’d already talked about the trip before realizing our plans would line up perfectly! We hiked to Mt. Crammerer the day before meeting up. Unfortunately, the mountain was in the clouds and the sun refused to break through. The snow and ice on the trees was so beautiful we weren’t too disappointed.

Jamie was one of my main backpacking partners in Portland before she moved to the east coast and I’ve probably spent more nights in the woods with her than anyone else (excluding David). It felt so good to be out with her again and reminisce about the best and worst trips we’ve taken. We rarely let rain or cold stop us, chalking the weather up as “so PNW.” This trip was a reminder of just how much I miss her and the adventures we shared together in our just out of college years. Since I didn’t quote Thomas Jefferson in my last post, I’ll end with one of my favorites of his about friendship.

“But friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life, and thanks to a benevolent arrangement the greater part of life is sunshine.”

– Thomas Jefferson

The “Northeast” Continued

In an effort to catch up an increasingly behind blog, I’ve lumped the rest of our time in the “northeast” (term used very loosely) into this catch all post. As the next couple posts will reveal, our October and November were largely spent bouncing between friends/family and nature. We are lucky to have such a community on the east coast and to be able to spend time with friends we don’t see very often. Our time after leaving Boston and New Hampshire included:

  1. The REAL New Haven style pizza. Pizza has also become a theme of this trip, as it is the only meal out David can immediately talk me into. We spent an evening at a farm just east of New Haven (through Harvest Hosts*) and decided we would be crazy not to take the opportunity to have New Haven pizza. My favorite pizza place in Portland is Scottie’s and I’ve always considered New Haven style pizza my favorite. However, the real deal was slightly too burnt for even me, although still very tasty! We shared a small pizza with the intent to hit a second pizza place, but found ourselves too full after Frank Pepe’s pie.

*When we returned to the farm after pizza, we saw another van that David just happened to recognize from Instagram. He messaged them and we met up in the morning to swap van tours – what a small world! The van owners are potentially moving to Portland after their year off traveling, so hopefully more shared van time is in our future!

  1. Many friends. We visited college friends of mine in DC and Philadelphia and our friend Jamie (David’s friend from college and mine from Portland who introduced us) and her boyfriend in Brooklyn. We had so much fun (especially me) visiting the new babies of two different friends of mine in DC and got to spend a day in the life of a parent to a 6 month old (thanks for letting us tag along all day, Jeff!). We also met the cutest puppy my friend Kayle in Philadelphia had just adopted. Jamie and Mike showed us all around Brooklyn, but we really just wanted to play with their cat 🙂 We still enjoyed exploring Prospect Park, touring the amazing co-op they belong to (a real one where you have to work shifts every couple weeks), and eating delicious food.
  1. Two many breweries to name. We were persuaded by my friend Sara’s husband to make a stop in Richmond to check out the growing brewery scene. He did not lead us astray and we were super impressed by the hazy beers and sours.

We (I) also loved walking around the Maymont property in Richmond and touring the mansion. If old homes of rich people are your thing, check it out! The home is particularly interesting as Mrs. Dooley (who died a few years after Mr. Dooley) bequeathed it to the City, given they had no heirs. Therefore, the home is unusually complete and reflective of a Gilded Age estate from the late 1800s/early 1900s.

  1. Many old favorite spots around Charlottesville. David has only been to Charlottesville once, and it was with a broken elbow on the way to my family reunion in North Carolina years ago. I was so excited to be back with him and revisit some spots from my college days. Charlottesville is a beautiful location, filled with tasty food, beer, wine, running trails, and hiking. We did my two favorite hikes: Old Rag and Humpback Rock. Near the end of Old Rag we ran into an old friend of mine from cross country – what an amazing coincidence! Colleen and her mom were visiting from Northern Virginia and we had so much fun chatting for the last few miles of the hike. We also did a double dinner of dumplings and pizza, ate Bodos bagels and Crozet pizza, walked around UVA, and toured Monticello. Charlottesville is just as beautiful as I remember with even more breweries. I can’t help but get a little wistful for college when walking around UVA, of course remembering the best parts of college – running on the many trails, living with so many friends, biking everywhere, carefree nights out. I’d never go back in time and it is easy to idealize the college experience, but sometimes I do miss it.

I’d visited Monticello once during college but hadn’t done a complete tour. It was fascinating and informative. In addition to a house tour, you can walk around the grounds and view exhibits in the wings of the house and outlying buildings. We went on an additional tour focused on slavery during Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime and some of the questions that can’t help but come up – namely how could a man who called slavery “moral depravity” own slaves? You can read more about this on Monticello’s website. It certainly isn’t an easy topic to wrestle with but an important one to think about.

Back to Nature

After several weeks of side travel and time with family and friends, we spent about four days in New Hampshire focused on the outdoors and fall foliage. This trip has confirmed for me how introverted I am, after growing up always thinking I was an extrovert. While I value quality time with others, I really need time alone to recharge. David and I spend so much time together and have so few boundaries I count time with him as “alone time.” We both were eager to get back to the van and our usual schedule. It’s funny how we have created a typical van routine, even though each day looks very different. We have our breakfast routine, driving routine, grocery store routine, dump station routine, etc. I think these things make the van really feel like home and keep me from craving a day at our Portland home just relaxing.

We were super tempted to venture farther north, wanting more time in Maine or Vermont. However, we accepted that there wasn’t enough time before Thanksgiving for all we want to do and the weather is also suggesting we head south. Therefore, we crafted a short trip through New Hampshire that would include time for biking, hiking, and a one-night backpacking trip.

We spent a day at Bear Brook State Park mountain biking and enduring a classic Nor’Easter. We quickly realized our tree-heavy camp spot was probably not the best place to be during the storm, but were fortunate that the only thing that went down around us were small twigs and leaves. The fall colors here were absolutely beautiful. We hit the sweet spot where the leaves on both the trees and the ground are full of color.

We next continued north to Conway and the L.L. Bean outlet, which we have been talking about visiting for years based on David’s stories of crazy deals and our shared love of flannel. Despite spending at least an hour in the store (David would say two) we left empty handed. I’m trying to stay committed to my new policy of only buying things I love. While living at home it was easy to buy something I didn’t really need and add it to all the other stuff in our house. However, in the van a new shirt or jacket takes up our limited available space and I feel the impact of each new thing we acquire. We were able to use up an ancient coupon to Friendly’s that David had been holding on to since college. The poor cashier had to call in her manager to figure out how to use the coupon, but was determined to make it work for us.

The next day we did a short hike just north of Conway and continued to soak in the fall foliage. I was confused as to whether the trees were pre or post peak, given the juxtaposition of fully green trees and bare trees. Unfortunately the clouds were extremely thick at the top of our hike (Mt. Crawford), limiting views to about 40 feet. Luckily I like hiking for the sake of hiking and don’t need a view to be satisfied! We agreed the views from the road were probably the best of the day.

The highlight of our time in New Hampshire was repeating a backpacking trip we had done nearly exactly seven years ago on my first trip to visit David in Boston. My weekend visit to David, tacked on to a work trip to Baltimore, became nearly a week trip due to Hurricane Sandy. David planned an epic visit including lots of Boston area activities and a one night backpacking trip in the White Mountains. The weather was significantly more cold this time around, but we were determined to still do the trip given its significance to us. Fortunately we secured the same tent platform we had back in 2012, which proved to be the only site in the sun and again the best choice (I believe we previously picked it for the best star viewing). I love thinking about how different our lives were back in 2012 while the tent platform and surrounding mountains don’t seem to have changed at all. It provides me a calm feeling to think about that tent platform weathering each day and is a nice place to let my mind retreat to.

We left our gear at our tent platform and hiked up to Mt. Liberty. We intended to stay on the peak for sunset, as we had done on our 2012 visit, but given how icy the trail was we thought it safest to hike down before dark. The temperature started to drop quickly as the sun set and I didn’t mind retiring to the tent early! We were both shocked to see a family including two young kids (we were guessing ages four and six) at another tent platform. As the father told me when I remarked on how tough the kids are, they were “tough as nails!” I was not as tough and was so cold I had to break in to some emergency hand warmers.

Here are a couple pictures from the 2012 Liberty Springs backpacking trip. At this point in time, David and I had spent a total of about five days together (between his two visits to Portland and the start of my Boston visit). I have to say if you told me back then we’d be in the same spot in seven years with our van waiting for us in the parking lot I would have believed it. I like to think I have good instincts about people and I knew right from the start David and I would be together. Maybe the van would have been a bit more of a surprise, but even back then David and I were starting to talk about a future trip and finding a way to spend as much time as possible in nature.

A Van Hiatus

We’ve spent the last few weeks primarily out of the van enjoying some family and friend time. We expected to be craving some time away from the van by early October, but were actually sad to leave it behind for a couple weeks of travel. We found ourselves a little homesick for the van, which I think is an excellent sign. However, we won’t pretend we didn’t enjoy a “real” bed and shower. I won’t go into too much detail on our side trips (or I’ll never get caught up on this blog!), but here are some of the highlights.

France with the Somachs

We spent almost two weeks in Paris and on a riverboat cruise around Bordeaux with David’s parents, sister, and grandma. We had a lovely time visiting museums, eating lots of good food, learning about wine, and of course drinking lots of wine. David’s grandma Bobbie lived in France for a couple years and met David’s grandfather Fred there. David’s family took a trip to Paris with his grandparents twenty years ago, so this trip brought up lots of great memories for them. Bobbie found the riverboat cruise in a Viking catalog and we were all easily persuaded to accompany her on it. Despite David, his sister Sara, and me being the youngest on the riverboat cruise (and his parents likely the next youngest), we had a fantastic time. I think we went to bed earlier than most other cruise goers most nights as well. Looking at the photos now that I’m back in the van definitely makes me long for the sunny days and prepared food!

Fall Foliage with Alison

Our good friend from Portland, Alison, joined us in Boston as soon as we got back from France for a long awaited fall foliage trip. Alison lived in Washington DC for a couple years and David and I always promised we’d come visit in the fall – it didn’t happen. So Alison was kind enough to make the trip to us on the east coast to do some fall peeping. Although the weather could have been better, the trees put on a good show and we had fun just getting to spend time with Alison. She is such a good sport she even shared the van with us both nights, breaking in the small bed up front that the bench seat converts into. We spent the second night of her visit in a Walmart parking lot, so she really had the full van life experience (although we didn’t ask her to empty the tanks!). Although I try to keep up with friends in Portland on the phone, I’m not good at. Add in our unusual schedule and a different time zone and I’m pretty hopeless. So it is so good to see a friend from Portland while on the road and feel like we’re a little caught up with life back home. We can also reassure ourselves our friends will still be there when we get back and haven’t forgotten us!

Separate Weddings

Coincidentally, David and I both had good friends from college get married on the weekend of October 12th. While we were both sad to miss the wedding for the other person’s friend, we were glad they were both on the east coast at least! I flew down to Washington DC and hitched a ride with a friend to Charlottesville for my college roommate Lydia’s wedding. David drove up to Portland, Maine for his fraternity brother and post-college apartment mate Ben’s wedding. I loved being back at UVA and am excited that David and I will spend a few more days there on our way south. I went wine tasting, running, bagel eating, and reminiscing with old college friends. David went brunching, dancing, and vanning around Portland. Good times were had by all!

Marblehead Visits

David’s grandma, Jane, lives in Marblehead, just about 45 minutes from downtown Boston. Her home served as our base camp for a few weeks in between our other travels. We were also in Marblehead for her 89th birthday and our first wedding anniversary (October 20th), and celebrated the occasion with two cakes, thanks to David’s mom! We loved showing Jane our pictures from the Bugaboos and hearing her recount the story of her and Jim’s ascent and naming of Mt. Kelvin. Jane and Jim’s travels were a big motivation for the trip and the Gnar Wagon felt right at home in Marblehead. We also fit in visits with David’s aunts, uncles and cousins who all live in the area.