It’s Been Awhile – Continued

It has again been awhile. I’ve been hesitant to write as I continue to feel uncertain about our travels and plans given all that is going on with Coronavirus. My feelings are mixed as we try to decide the right thing to do, whether it is okay to continue to travel and whether we are having adverse impacts on the communities we travel through. It is harder to find joy in our trip, although I certainly feel very fortunate to have so much access to the outdoors. We continue to seek to avoid crowds, only going inside for groceries or the occasional bathroom stop. We are struck by just how crowded small towns are, especially Jackson, which we drove through between hiking stops. I won’t focus too much on Coronavirus here, as I feel I already dwell on it too much. All we can do is be as safe as possible.

Colorado

We spent several weeks in Colorado, enjoying the much cooler weather, thick forest, and mountain views. Many places we’ve visited we enjoy for the novelty and unique views, but wouldn’t make them home. Colorado feels like a place that could be home, although we don’t plan to move anytime soon! While in Colorado, we:

  • Backpacked in the Indian Peaks Wilderness with my sister, Lauren. It was peaceful and the views stunning. Most of all the time with my sister was so welcome.
  • Climbed four 14ers, including La Plata Peak, Mount Columbia, Quandary Peak, and Mt. of the Holy Cross. Mt. of the Holy Cross was particularly special, as we had intended to climb it on a visit to Colorado about seven years ago. This was an early trip for David and me, when we were still living on different sides of the country. We were a bit ambitious for the weekend, especially given our lack of acclimation to the altitude. The trip was a rough one, with David experiencing severe altitude sickness day one. This hike has stayed on the to-do list since then, so it was a good feeling to finally accomplish it! We also really enjoyed La Plata Peak, in part because there were so few other people on the mountain.
  • Spent several days in Denver with Lauren and her boyfriend, enjoying some time in a comfy home and the opportunity to work on a few projects, including converting David’s bike tires to tubeless. The bike trails around Denver are quite impressive and we enjoyed being in an urban environment, despite lots of mask wearing.
  • Met up with several of my family members in Breckenridge for a family reunion, Coronavirus style. We made all our meals in our rental home and mostly ventured out just for outdoor recreation. Everyone masked up for their travel there and many of my relatives got tested just before the reunion. We debated a lot whether to hold the reunion, but we hadn’t gotten together for three years and we knew it was important for my grandmother to see everyone. It was an amazing time, especially after not being around more than a couple other people since Coronavirus started.
  • Found several great dispersed camping spots, one we returned to several times! We loved the area around Twin Lakes and enjoyed seeing a van friend we met during the winter, Jenny, and meeting a few of her friends. We miss the meeting people part of travel, which has been largely absent with our intent to minimize contact. Even when chatting with new people outdoors at a safe distance, it is hard to not be distracted by thoughts of Coronavirus.

Indian Peaks Wilderness Backpacking Trip

14er Summits

Family Reunion

Wyoming

After leaving Colorado, we headed to the Wind River Range in Wyoming, a couple hours south of Jackson. Multiple people told us we had to go to the Winds when we were in Jackson last summer, but we couldn’t fit it in. We did a two night trip to Seneca Lake/Titcomb Basin. I think this is the first backpacking trip where I almost turned around two hours in. If we hadn’t just spent several hours driving to the trailhead and packing our bags I might have. The mosquitoes were out of control. I don’t think I’ve ever been bitten so much while hiking and wearing bug spray with deet. We asked several backpackers coming down if the bugs got better higher up, and they warned us they got worse. One poor father said his two sons had stopped talking a couple hours ago because they were so covered in mosquito bites and just wanted to get to the car. We kept going, figuring we could take refuge in our tent once we got to a camp spot and leave the next morning if we needed to. I don’t think the bugs got worse farther into the hike, although I also don’t think they got better. Luckily after dark it got too chilly for the bugs and we were granted some peace, as well as a beautiful view of the NEOWISE comet. We did a day hike from our camp spot to the Titcomb basin the following day, and were wowed by the views. We kept comparing the area to one of our favorite spots in Washington, the Enchantments.

After the backpacking trip, we debated heavily whether to attend an adventure van expo in Targhee, held at a small ski resort. The event would be purely outside, with masks and social distancing encouraged. I was super hesitant to go, but David loves hardly anything more than talking to other people about vans. We decided to go, with some strict ground rules (such as wearing masks anytime we were talking to other people and letting absolutely no one else in the van). The weekend went smoothly, with David having the opportunity to talk to lots of other Revel owners and meet some followers of GNRWGN. I got to go on an amazing run at the ski resort and we both enjoyed the mountain bike trails, tame enough we could handle them on our gravel bikes. We enjoyed the trails so much we decided to stick around for a few extra days of riding, after taking a short side trip to hike up Table Mountain.

David getting rad (me struggling to catch my breath)

What’s Next?

We originally planned to be in Alaska this summer, the grand finale to our trip. The border is still closed, with it seeming more and more unlikely it will open this year. We’ve heard of other people getting across the border, on the condition they head straight to Alaska. However, technically this is only intended for those with an essential reason to travel to Alaska. Given the uncertainty of getting across, our rule-abiding tendencies, fact that much of what we wanted to see and do was on the way to Alaska, and Coronavirus situation in Alaska, we decided not to try and make the trip. We are currently planning to head back to Portland at the end of August, about a month early. If we can make it happen and the border reopens, we intend to head to Alaska next summer. We are still figuring things out and haven’t set any plans in stone yet. Despite everything going on in Portland, I think we are both starting to feel some excitement about being home. I have a huge list of house projects I want to tackle and there is something alluring about the comforts of home. In the meantime, we intend to enjoy a last month of outdoor adventures.

It’s Been Awhile

It is hard to believe it has been almost three months since I last visited this site or wrote a post. It is like calling an old friend or cleaning out your closet. The longer you put it off, the higher the activation energy required. I decided to at least write a short post, although likely this will end up being pretty lengthy. I won’t include everything we’ve done or all the feelings we are having. We just hit our one year anniversary of leaving Portland and three weeks back on the road. This also means we hit three months until we return to Portland. I’ve tried to sum up what we’ve been up to and what life on the road in the time of Coronavirus is like for us.

Leaving Bend

On May 19th we left Bend for a “trial week” of travel to Steens Mountain. We wanted to see how we felt being back in the world and if we thought we could travel with reasonable safety and enjoyment. The trial was a success and so we returned to Bend to wrap up some van projects and pack up. Of course this took longer than expected, but on June 6th we left Bend to fully return to life on the road. This decision was hard and the departure was certainly bitter sweet. We loved the time with my parents and had fully acclimated to retired life with them. This was the longest amount of time I’ve spent with my parents since I left for college and I was pleased to find we all cohabited very nicely. It was hard to pull out of the driveway and I immediately missed the bike rides with my dad, family TV time, dinners, and game playing. We are so lucky to have had this time. We had a lot of things we were weighing when deciding to start traveling again, including:

  • Can we strategize our groceries to keep stops to a minimum, ideally no more often than a week?
  • Will we find enough places that are open so we can fill our water and dump our grey tank? We usually fill up water bottles at stores, libraries, museums etc. so will need to plan to make sure we have adequate drinking water.
  • Will we enjoy traveling when we don’t stop at any restaurants, breweries, coffee shops, museums, libraries, or other non-essential indoor spaces?
  • Can we find places to hike and bike where we’ll avoid crowds? Lots of our previously planned stops in Utah and Nevada were popular National Parks, so we’d need to find new places.
  • Is it irresponsible of us to travel during this time? Are we putting ourselves and others at greater risk? What is an acceptable amount of risk?

We ultimately decided to resume our travels and focus on the outdoors. David has always enjoyed our city stops more than me, and making all our own food and camping exclusively in nature are ideal for me. Our trip won’t be what we wanted or expected before Coronavirus, but we are determined to make the best of things.

Nevada

We spent about a week in Nevada enroute to Utah. We started off on a very high note, with a couple days at a little known campground on the west side of the Ruby Mountains. We had the campground to ourselves and didn’t see a soul on a day hike we did from our camp spot to the base of Ruby Dome. The solitude was welcome. I love hiking when you know you won’t see anyone else on the trail and can totally focus on the nature around you. The Coronavirus precautions have only amplified my desire to avoid crowds. We next spent a few days backpacking in the Ruby Mountains where we continued to largely have the area to ourselves. We passed other hikers at the start of our trip, but quickly came to a point where there were no tracks in the snow and we knew we were the first this season to go this far on the trail. We set up camp on the edge of Liberty Lake where the snow was patchy and we were able to find a large dry area. We did a day hike the next day and returned to our camp spot for another night before hiking out. Most backpacking trips have their ups and downs and a decent amount of struggle, whether it is bad weather, bugs, blisters, soreness, or just exhaustion. However, this trip was near perfect and our favorite of our van year so far. After a long time away from nature, we’ve lost some of the snobbery we experienced earlier on in the trip and were completely wowed by the scenery around us. We had good sunsets, ideal weather, and most of all couldn’t get over having the place to ourselves.

We got back from our backpacking trip feeling content and looking forward to a relaxing afternoon. However, this is what we returned to:

We found these babies in the van after taking a few day backpacking trip. Luckily the mom was also in the van and was convinced to relocate the babies to a new outdoor location.

Thus began a multi-day mouse adventure. Long story as short as possible, we found that a mouse had given birth to 7-8 babies in a basket in the back of our van while we were gone. The mom quickly took off into the crevices of our van, resulting in a whole afternoon of emptying the van and conducting a thorough search. When we couldn’t find her, we left out a piece of cheese and placed the basket of baby mice back in the van. She came back more quickly than we expected, and before we could remove the basket of baby mice plus momma, she relocated one baby mouse and the cheese to an unknown location on the passenger side of the van. Luckily when we put the basket outside, the momma mouse proceeded to move each baby one at a time to a new location in the woods. However, she wouldn’t enter the van to retrieve the missing baby. We searched and search but couldn’t find either the cheese or helpless baby mouse. The worst part was listening to the pitiful squeaks of the mouse later that night. We even took apart the van door in case we could find the mouse. I’ll admit I shed a few tears over that baby mouse, left behind and separated from his family. This wasn’t our only late night up looking for mice, as we had a couple more mice break into the van over the next few days. We’d locate them and wait patiently for them to get in a spot where we could usher them out. I say we, but it was largely David. We have some no-kill mouse traps we can deploy now when needed and have also put out several scented pouches that are supposed to keep rodents away.

We finished our time in Nevada at Great Basin National Park, which my parents had highly recommended from a trip they took a few years ago. This was our first National Park visit since Coronavirus, and we were a bit hesitant. Two of the parks campgrounds were open and most trails, although the visitor centers and caves were closed. We got one of the last spots in the campground, even though we arrived early afternoon on a weekday. Some of the more popular trails were more crowded than we would have liked, but overall it felt manageable. The sites at the campground were spread out enough and the trails wide enough we could pass other hikes relatively comfortably. We hiked up Wheeler Peak, which I think is a must-do in Great Basin National Park. The drive up to the base of the hike climbs several thousand feet from the flat plains below, and the view is like looking out from an airplane window.

Utah

In Utah we visited Bryce Canyon, Zion, several slot canyons, and Arches National Park. There were a lot of highs and lows of our time in Utah, including:

  • High: minimal crowds at Bryce Canyon during our evening visit.
  • Low: insane crowds at Zion. We had heard stories about cars lining up at 2 a.m. to get into the park. Since the shuttle wasn’t running when we visited and parking is limited, car access was super limited. We realized bicycles were allowed in the park, and thought we had found a secret option to avoid the crowds and early wake-up. We were wrong. Biking on the road was great and not too busy, but the trails were still swamped and the bathrooms packed. I couldn’t handle it and didn’t even take a single picture. I saw minimal masks and no social distancing and couldn’t enjoy myself.
  • High: backcountry camping spot we had to ourselves for two nights, overlooking the canyons and rock formations around Zion. This was a huge relief after Zion.
  • Low: heat. Utah was super hot, especially Moab where it was still in the 90s until 9 p.m. David especially struggled hiking in the heat and we both felt drained after even a short hike. This led us to spend our first (and maybe only) night in an RV park so we could plug in and run the A/C.
  • High: we hiked through several slot canyons, recommended by one of our good Portland friends. Neither of us had ever seen a slot canyon, and we couldn’t get over the crazy rock shapes and colors.
  • Low: we spent over 50 miles on washboard gravel roads in Utah, which at our pace was several hours. Luckily I had a good audiobook and David is a patient driver.
  • High: we got an early start on Cassidy Arch in Capitol Reef National Park, which is one of Utah’s lesser visited parks. We didn’t see more than a few other groups on the hike and were super excited to be able to walk on top of the arch. David particularly enjoyed pretending to walk off the edge of the arch.
  • Low: crowds in Arches National Park. Even though we woke up early (4 a.m.) to go to Arches, it was still crowded and quickly hot. We were still impressed by the Delicate Arch, although for some reason I kept thinking of it as Despicable Arch in my mind (and even started to type it wrong in the photo below).

To be continued…

I keep pausing and continuing this post, and realized it will just continue to be more outdated if I don’t go ahead and post it. This is still a couple weeks behind, so to be continued.

A Quick Update

I’ve been intending to write an update for a few weeks now, but I’ve kept putting it off. I thought I’d write a long post full of my thoughts and reflections on the Corona virus and what it has meant for us. I don’t think I’ve really processed everything that is happening, and am choosing just to focus on now and not try and anticipate the future. So for now just a quick update on where we’ve been.

Maui

We spent a little over a week in Maui with my parents in early March. I’d looked forward to this trip all winter, especially when cold and longing for a hot shower. The trip was all I hoped and we’d later realize just how well timed it was, providing a last adventure before settling in to wait out the Corona virus at my parents house. Our days mostly consisted of snorkeling, hiking, walking on the beach, cooking, and playing lots of games.

Bend

Since returning from Hawaii three weeks ago, we have been at my parents’ house in Bend. We struggled with the decision, wanting to spend a few days in Portland first seeing friends. We’d fit in a few friend visits before leaving for Hawaii, but hadn’t seen everyone we wanted to. We decided it was most responsible to go straight to Bend after landing at the Portland airport. We are living the retired life with my parents and our cat Scout, and we really can’t complain. I think we both feel disappointed about missing out on an unknown amount of van travels, after saving, planning, and looking forward to the trip for so many years. I think we’ve both decided not to think about that and just enjoy our time in Bend and relish the unlimited showers, laundry facilities, comfy bed, time with family, and our health. We are really very lucky.

We had planned to head to California after returning from Hawaii and spend a few months in the southwest. Right now we aren’t making any plans, figuring it will only lead to disappointment. David is immersing himself in van projects and has already purchased another solar panel to put on the roof. I’m learning Spanish on Duolingo and absolutely love it. I’ve also started putting together a quilt and am doing lots of cooking. We haven’t discussed how we’ll decide when we can leave and for now are just focusing on each day.

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.

Oklahoma

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.

Charleston

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.

Savannah

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