5 Months on the Road: Wait No More, Your Full-Time Camper Life Update Is Here

December greetings from warm and sunny Tucson, Arizona!

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Month #5 has been a continuation of our journey in the West and Southwest, and I’m definitely still loving the region. We finished up our stay in Salt Lake City, spent a couple weeks in Moab, and a couple days at the Grand Canyon before showing up here.

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We had to adjust our plans a bit due to cold and single-digit temperatures. Being in Tucson right now wasn’t the original plan, but I’m loving the 70-80-degrees and sunshine, so the switch-up was a success. These “snowbirds” really know how to live life right.

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Another interesting development is that we bought a GoPro as a holiday gift to ourselves. So we’ve been experimenting with the different mounts and putting it on our heads, chests, windshield, and even the dog to capture videos of our adventures. I even wore it on a horse!

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Places We’ve Been: Month #5

Here’s a quick rundown of how those places played out.

Moab, Utah: Home on the Road #24

  • Highlights: The otherworldly arches at Arches National Park and canyons at Canyonlands, horseback riding on Sassy (and she was!), mountain biking on the Bar M trails, slacklining festival on Thanksgiving, great campground Wi-Fi and scenery, nice community rec center in town to lift weights and swim laps, scenic winery next to a western film museum, Corona Arch as an uncrowded alternative to Delicate Arch, small-town Christmas festival

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  • Lowlights: Restaurants are way too busy, and un-fun, mediocre local brewery, consistently cold nights in the 20s, hilly bike trails too hard to bike with Monkey’s trailer, getting a flat jeep tire on the side of the road

Grand Canyon, Arizona: Home on the Road #25

  • Highlights: Dog-friendly hiking trails around the rim, shopping for family Christmas gifts and finally finding some, a weekend that didn’t up feeling as cold as we expected, beautiful art gallery at Kolb Studio

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  • Lowlights: Very icy sidewalks and trails that made hiking with Monkey really hard, being underwhelmed by the Grand Canyon (who’da thought that was possible?!) because of all the other amazing canyons we’ve been seeing

Tucson, Arizona: Home on the Road #26

  • Highlights: The amazing Saguaro cactus(!!!), Arizona Sonora Desert Museum that we could have spent several days at, private campground bathrooms (no sharing!), salsa dancing class for a different kind of Friday night out even though it was HARD, great bike trail right behind our campground, bringing home a little cactus to decorate the camper, discovering Govinda’s Vegetarian Restaurant, days warm enough to do yoga and work outside (or until my laptop overheats and powers down)

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  • Lowlights: Many parks (including Saguaro National Park) not being dog-friendly for hikes, crowded campground with sketchy WiFi, Monkey getting cacti stuck in her paws on trails

Random Ramblings: Month #5

In no particular order, these are some random thoughts that came to me over the course of month #5 on the road.

  • Moab was the first place that really made me question why we keep moving on and don’t just stay put for a while. It’s an outdoor lover’s paradise in every sense of the word, and we would have been perfectly happy there for a while. In the end, the only reason we left after two weeks was because of the cold temperatures rolling in that would have made outdoor activities pretty miserable going forward.

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  • I have a t-shirt that’s probably a decade old with Grover from Sesame Street on it that says, “Anywhere I am is here. Anywhere I’m not is there. I still wear this shirt occasionally and it reminds me of the old saying that wherever you go, there you are. No matter how what city or state we’re in or how long we’ve traveled, the same things still make me happy, annoyed, anxious, excited, frustrated, etc. Many years ago, I saw a shrink (hey, Tony Soprano did it, so why can’t I?). At that time in my life, all I wanted to do was move far away and start over. I wanted to get out of my rut, leave everything behind, and find out if the grass was greener somewhere else. I remember said shrink telling me some version of “wherever you go, there you are.” He suggested that I’d still have the same personality/issues when I woke up to different scenery. It all sounds pretty obvious when I think of it now, but it was a novel idea that had never occurred to me back then. And it still rings true today.

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  • Division of labor makes camper chores manageable, and yes there are camper chores! Fortunately, we are both reasonable people who understand what sharing responsibilities means. For example, I take care of putting together (i.e. not cooking) breakfast and lunch, while my husband cooks dinner. He does the grocery shopping, and I do the laundry. And we take turns with doing dishes and dog walks. This goes for travel research too. He’s better at big-picture planning, and I’m better at figuring out daily details. So we tend to stick to what we’re each good at to avoid duplicating efforts and getting at each other’s throats. Been working pretty well for 5 months!

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  • Constantly looking for things to do is exhausting, but it does keep us on our toes. Ultimately, I keep coming down to the same research topics no matter where we are, which reiterates the point that wherever you go, there you are. Here are some of the things on that never-ending research list: hiking trails, yoga, comedy shows, local theater, bar trivia, breweries/wineries/distilleries, community rec center, dance classes, festivals, dog parks, cafes to work at, driving range, bike trails, fun neighborhoods, concerts.

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  • I really thought I’d have more free time while traveling like this but I really don’t. Between 50+ hour work weeks and squeezing in time to explore new places, there’s really nothing left. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted and just want to zone out watch The Sopranos in bed. Times that I draw in my sketchbook, do personal writing (like this) that’s not for money, and play guitar are few and far between. I thought I’d be trying to learn more new songs on guitar by now, but I’m stuck on the same old ones and not getting any better.

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  • I prefer non-standard holidays to tradition. We celebrated Thanksgiving by going to a slacklining festival across a canyon in Moab. Admittedly, it would have been nice to see my parents and grandma back in Illinois. But doing the same thing every year out of nostalgia or sentimentality doesn’t appeal to me, and unfortunately, that’s what traditional holidays are all about for most people.

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  • Monkey did great in a totally free-range, open-play environment the last time we “practice boarded” her in Moab. I think she’ll do great at the pet resort in Phoenix while we’re back in Illinois for Christmas. It’ll be weird without her, but I’m feeling much more confident about leaving her for five days.

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  • We’ve run into a few more campgrounds with breed restrictions. I’m looking at you, Las Vegas. I won’t get on a soapbox for very long, but these pit bull bans are absolutely ridiculous and unfounded. I wouldn’t want to give my money to these types of discriminatory business owners even if they’d take it.
  • The dry weather of the west makes my hair so much more manageable and easy to take care of. No more Midwest/East Coast-style frizzy tangles!

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  • I had to repair a button on a shirt the other day and it made me how much I miss sewing and crafting in general. My sewing machine is sadly sitting in a storage unit in Atlanta collecting dust 🙁
  • I also realized I miss swimming laps. I’m not a great swimmer by any means, but it’s great exercise and really helps relax my muscles and clear my head. I found community rec centers in both Salt Lake City and Moab with public lap swim hours and only a $6-7 daily fee. Also a great way to lift weights and work these noodle arms. I’ll be looking for cheap rec centers like this in future places we go too.

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Looking Ahead to Month #6

Month #6 will be an interesting one because it’s smack dab in the middle of holiday season. This will be a nice taste of what’s it’s like to be traveling full-time during a very busy and traditional time of year.

We’ll be relocating to Phoenix soon for a short stay before flying out to Central Illinois to celebrate Christmas with my family. The plan for New Year’s Eve is Las Vegas, so that should be a fun way to kick off 2017. And after that, on to California!

If you made it this far, congrats and thanks for reading! Although I’ve still only been getting around to it once a month, it’s still nice for me to take a moment to reflect upon where we’ve been and where I’m at personally in relation to that. Cheers!

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Chronicles of the Pop-Up Camper: Adventure #1 of 1,000,000

It’s not yet the new year, but a new era of travel an adventure has already begun!

We recently bought our very first camper, a tiny pop-up that’s perfectly sized for two and in awesome condition. You hear nothing but horror stories about Craigslist sales these days, but here’s a success story. A random dude in Sharpsburg, Georgia took amazing care of his pop-up and was selling it to upgrade to a larger one to fit his wife, toddler, and dog. But for two people (like us) and no extraneous beings (like we don’t have), it’s perfect.

IMG_0643We live in an apartment complex that isn’t exactly camper parking friendly. Fortunately, we have a one-car garage that it fits into perfectly, while the cars sleep outside. Chief the Jeep likes it outdoors better anyway.

The destination for our first “trial run” with the new camper was Mistletoe State Park, a random state park along a lake near Augusta, Georgia. I packed the Jeep with bedding, pillows, towels, and kitchen items to use inside. It might be small, but it is mighty. There’s a kitchen inside with a sink, stove burners, and ice box. Our seller even threw in a free mini fridge.

IMG_0644The size of the camper makes getting gas not too much of an ordeal, which is nice. Because of construction and traffic, it took nearly three hours to reach our campground. A Dairy Queen ice cream stop was definitely needed to ease the nerves.

IMG_0646The campground was pleasantly vacant, though the temperature still pretty warm. Gotta love the south! Like idiots, we had left the manual at home and sorta kinda forgot where to stick some poles for the set-up. Fortunately, you can find everything online, so the internet came to our rescue.

Ta da!

IMG_0647The set-up was actually pretty easy, even for a first time. We picked site #31, and when we checked in there were 56 sites still available. We were right on the lake, which would have been perfect for some kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. But alas, it was a bit chilly and rainy for all that.

The interior of our new camper is in surprisingly wonderful condition, considering it’s a 2002 model. The cushions and curtains have no rips or stains, and all camper interior designs are retro ugly so there’s really no way around that.

IMG_0649I had a blast setting up our new house-on-wheels and getting everything organized. It felt wonderfully spacious, cozy, and clean. As expected, there were a number of things that we forgot to bring…things that you probably wouldn’t think of until you’re in-the-moment and in the camper. These are things like water hoses, plastic bins for dishes, an outdoor bristled floor mat, long lighters, spice shakers, and a bucket.

IMG_0662I popped open a bottle of wine to celebrate our first camper set-up success and enjoy the peaceful view. And rightfully so…take a look at this perfect outdoor scene!

IMG_0672It was a little hard to leave it behind, but we also wanted to check out the city of Augusta while it was still daylight. There’s a really nice river walk area in the middle of town that makes for a scenic stroll. Our stroll ended at Hive Growler Bar, which had a zillion types of craft beer on draft and served up a mean vegan bean burger with kale slaw. Definitely a recommended food and drink spot downtown.

IMG_0676Then a completely random idea came up…why not play bingo at an Army base? You know, seriously, like why not?

Coincidentally, my dad actually stayed at Fort Gordon when he was in the army before I was born. He was part of the military police and stood guard at the entrance where we passed through in search of bingo fame and fortune.

IMG_0680Security was incredibly tight here, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect since I’d never been to a military fort/base before. After passing by the guards with guns, we checked in at the entrance and had to hand over everything from social security numbers to fingerprints and our intentions for the evening.

The fort wasn’t all that interesting to drive around honestly – a lot of residential buildings but not much in the way of restaurants or shopping centers. After a considerable amount of driving, we finally reached BINGO PALACE.

IMG_0681Now I’ve played bingo at a couple bars around town on weeknights, and I remember a particularly random Saturday afternoon back in college with my girlfriends when we went to a hardcore bingo hall in Peoria, Illinois. I’ll never be able to get those images of super-intense bingo-ers with their colorful dabbers, good luck charms, and spread of cards out of my brain.

But unfortunately, this bingo outing was a flop. The woman working at the front advised us that it was a “high stakes” night and it would cost $60 per person minimum to play. That’s a bit rich for my non-gambling blood, so we bailed to spend the remainder of the evening in the new camper instead.

But I didn’t really mind. I can entertain myself pretty damn well with a knitting project, bottle of wine, and storytelling podcasts. This night’s picks were a winter beanie hat I was making for my dad’s Christmas gift, Riesling, and The Moth.

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With a wide open schedule for the next day, it seemed like the perfect setup for a lazy Sunday morning. In a rare moment of laziness, we spent all morning lounging, reading, and just looking around the camper that was ours…all ours.

When the temperatures warmed up after lunch, we packed up to hike through the state park, starting on the Cliatt Loop to the Rock Dam Trail.

IMG_0690This was an 8-mile hike, but we took a few wrong turns and blamed the abundance of dead leaves on the ground obscuring the paths. This made our hike a couple miles shy of the full route, but it was still a nice day to be out and active in November.

Besides, this trip was all about trying out the new camper. Just looking at her next to my Jeep was perfection and made so much sense. Although I’m still trying to think of a name to call her.

IMG_3315What’s next for Little Miss Nameless Camper?

First up is a New Year’s Eve/Day camping trip to Skidaway Island near Savannah and Tybee Island, Georgia. This will be another “first,” because we’ll be trying out camper camping with a dog for the first time! My favorite dog-sitting pup, Roxy, is staying with us for a while, and if any dog I know can handle this adventure it’s her!

Then the ultimate “first” adventure is in talks for February – a multi-week southeast-to-southwest camper trip. New Mexico is destined to be a big part of this journey, and the rest TBD!

I’m certainly not giving up tent camping, which is awesome in its own ways. But the camper adds more versatility to the camping experience and allows us to live in the outdoors even when the weather sucks. There’s a heater and air conditioner inside and semi-soft beds to keep us comfortable and less cranky. And most importantly, it’s way more accommodating for working from the road (a la outlets, a table, and shelter from the elements), which is definitely something I crave more of in 2016 and beyond!

Changing My Perception of Texas: Inks Lake State Park

George Bush worshipers, gun lovers, religious fanatics, pickup truck drivers, corrupt oil tycoons.

Those are a few of the Texas stereotypes I brought with me to Inks Lake State Park last month. I forgot about all of them by the end of the week.

Campsite #87

Campsite #87

After trolling the San Antonio-to-Austin circuit for the second time, I ventured a bit off the beaten path to explore some lesser-known parts of the Lone Star State. Inks Lake State Park is within a two-hour drive from both cities, and just north of Longhorn Cavern State Park.

The park takes up 1,201 acres along the Colorado River and has been open to the public since 1950. We chose this campground over nearby Pedernales Falls State Park because of the tent site area and the Internet situation. If I didn’t make a living working at campgrounds, I would shun Internet access entirely. But alas, something has to fund the nightly fees (which were about $20 per night, by the way).

Cliff jumpers at Devil's Waterhole

Cliff jumpers at Devil’s Waterhole

My absolute favorite places to camp are next to flowing water. We were able to secure a campsite next to the lake for the week, which was mighty convenient for frequent kayaking. Since we have an inflatable kayak, a trip on the water usually entails about 15 minutes of hand pumping. However, our Inks Lake campsite had enough space to leave the kayak sit out inflated each day.

Check out the campsites between space 85 and 91. These have lots of space and nice sunset views, although they tend to get crowded with RVs during peak times. There’s some small, but cutesy, looking cabins a few yards away too if you’re a little less hardcore.

Island picnic via kayak

Island picnic via kayak

Although the lake isn’t enormous, there are a few good kayak routes to check out. One leads to Devil’s Waterhole, where low-key thrill-seekers take turns cliff jumping. There’s also a small island off the coast of the pavilion on the northeast end of the park. This is a great place to kayak to for a secluded lunch or swim to, if you’re not worried about your feet touching the ground.

There’s really only one hiking trail inside the park boundaries, and that’s the Pecan Flats Trail. There are some unexpectedly nice vista points along the trail and a good number of cacti to scope out. Parts of the trail are severely overgrown, so you might have to turn around and head back if the insects are driving you nuts. Take a look at this trail guide to brush up on plants you’ll see along the way.

One of the coolest part about the Texas State Parks is the free fishing. Never have I encountered another recreational area that lends you fishing poles and tackle for free. As someone who occasionally (and impatiently) dips a pole in the water but who has never actually caught a fish, “free” is essential.The park staff isn’t all that concerned about you keeping the gear for a few days either. I was simply asked to bring the pole back at the end of the week when I check out. The park general store sells live bait for a few dollars, as well as souvenirs and snacks.

That general store also rents out kayaks, canoes, and paddleboats by the hour for about $15-20. Since we have our own kayak, we decided to take a paddleboat out on day for a lunch break from work. There’s no way around it – paddleboats are really dumb. However I justified the experience by smuggling a couple beers on board and declaring the peddling to be an adequate leg workout for the day.

I felt simultaneously more work-productive and more relaxed at Inks Lake State Park than anywhere else in a long time. Since I’ve returned home to my home base in Chicago, I haven’t been able to find anywhere near the motivation or focus I had while working and playing here. Not only was Inks Lake a breath of fresh air for my confidence and my state of mind, but it was also instrumental in changing my perception about the state ofTexas.