Reflections on Eight Weeks of Vanlife

IMG_5339Intermission. It’s been eight weeks since we left home – two adults, two children, and two cats. We still have six more weeks to go!

Yesterday I flew from West Yellowstone to San Francisco to pick the kids up from their dad to bring them back out on the road for more adventures. So today we will fly back to Yellowstone and keep on rolling. Since we sublet our house for the summer, I stayed over last night at a good friend’s house, and some other friends stopped by in the evening. So I had four people asking me questions about our trip, and me all alone (Glenn, help!) to try to answer them. I surely rambled a lot and didn’t make much sense, but they were nice to me anyway.

One thing I’m learning is that LOTS of people want to do what we’re doing. “Tell me all about what it’s like – it’s a dream of ours!” I try… But it’s not all that easy to explain what it’s like. It’s pretty much what you’d imagine it’s like: four people and two cats in a van can be cramped, cat hair ends up everywhere all the time, and there’s never enough places to put everybody’s shoes.

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Even the cats are piled on top of each other

The biggest difference for me in daily life has been developing the essential routine of stowing. Stowing is not cleaning or tidying or organizing. It’s usually all of those things, but it’s also putting items away securely. One simply cannot make “piles” in a van. Everything has to get stowed. Here’s all of the stowing that happens between waking up and driving somewhere:

  • Put bed in upright/couch position
  • Strip sheet from bed
  • Stuff 2 blankets into their stuff sacks
  • Stow sheet, 2 stuff sacks, and 2 pillows in cabinet above bed/couch
  • Remove 2 cushions from being part of the bed
  • Remove table top from being part of the bed, fetch table leg, erect table
  • [make coffee, cook/eat breakfast, change clothes, brush teeth, etc.]
  • Empty coffee maker, stow in the lowest cabinet, somehow squeezing it between the pots and the Tupperware
  • Wash all the dishes, dry them, put them away (sometimes this can wait, if everything can fit securely inside the sink, and if we’re not going to be on any bumpy roads that would make it all rattle around a ton)
  • Fold pajamas and put them away (you can’t just leave them out because you’ll step on them in the tiny hallway, or the cats will lay on them and get hair all over them, or something will spill on them; and they usually have to be folded because otherwise they simply won’t fit in the place they belong)
  • Stow table leg and table top
  • Move fruit basket from counter to bench, where it (usually) won’t slide right off onto the floor (we used to keep it in the microwave, but then we’d forget about eating the fruit and it would get overripe)
  • Stow all books, electronics, games, EVERYTHING
  • Arrange our rechargeable fan just-so on the back cushion that it can still recharge and blow, but hopefully won’t crash onto the floor
  • …and that’s when it’s just me and Glenn. With the boys’ beds in the mix, there’s even more.

Stowing is not to be confused with STASHING. Before we started our trip, I knew we’d need more storage/stowage than what we had. So I ordered us some stretchy mesh pockets to mount on the wall – I call them stash pockets.

 

The idea is that some items should be readily accessible, and that storing them inside a cabinet or box is impractical because they’ll just get buried in there and you’ll never be able to find them when you need them. So instead, they need “stash spots.” These can be parts of the car like a cubby, cup holder, or glove compartment; or, they can be add-on stash pockets. But the idea only works if you use the same stash spot for the same item all the time. Otherwise you can’t remember where you put the thing the last time, and it might as well just be bopping around in Granny’s junk drawer for all the luck you’re going to have locating it.

Some examples of stashes: by the bed, which is also under the TV, and next to the charging ports, we have a stash pocket which holds the remote controls, charging cables, and Chapstik. The Chapstik is the stash. In the upper stash pocket by the sliding door, we keep cat treats, the cats’ leashes, walkie talkies, and cameras. Honestly, everything in there is a stash, but the thing I grab most often from there is the good camera. The keys to the cargo box have a stash spot that we both use religiously, which is kind of a miracle. The trouble comes when you get lazy and don’t re-stash your stash after using it. Or worse, if you stash it somewhere else. This bad habit of mine long ago earned me the taunt “Stasher!” Now if some always-easy-to-find thing goes missing, I get called a stasher and get shamed for stashing it somewhere random. Yes, stowing/stashing/organizing is so important in our lives that it was the genesis of a new kind of domestic teasing.

By now someone’s thinking, “Nobody cares about that boring stuff! What about traveling all the time?!” Well, it’s awesome. And taxing. It can be a lot of planning – doesn’t always need to be, but can be. And a lot of driving. And we eat “in” a lot more on the road than we do at home in the city, so there’s a lot of shopping, cooking, and dishwashing to do. But yeah, getting to see cool different places all the time is rad. Duh!

So far we’ve been to five states and ten national parks. We’ve climbed in more different spots than I can accurately count without doing a lengthy look back at our records. Wildflowers blooming all over the Rockies, elk and mule deer munching grasses, raptors screeching to defend their nesting area, chipmunks and squirrels chirping out an alarm when the cats come outside to play, marble-size hail bouncing off the van and the ground, the smoke-tinged horizon glowing peach and hibiscus at sunset, rivers bending gently through a grass valley or raging ferociously through a rocky gorge, and craggy peaks high above, daring us to climb them; these are the sights and sounds of our summer so far. And I can’t wait to get back to them.

Blue-Green Hawaii – Part 2, the Helicopter Tour

Motion sickness for the privileged few!

How the Hell We Ended Up Doing This

Planning our trip to Hawaii was an interesting challenge. It would be my boyfriend’s first real family vacation with my kids and my mom. I wanted to make sure he and I got some time away from the family, and it was also his first time in Hawaii, so I wanted to make sure he got to do some cool stuff.

I guess I was feeling particularly flush, because one activity I offered to take everyone on was a helicopter ride. This has been on my annual list of things to do (I don’t do resolutions anymore, I only do lists of cool experiences I want to prioritize for the year) for the past 3 years, so I felt like it was time. Let me describe for you the options I was offered by our concierge, all with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters:

  • Option 1: Expensive. 50 minutes. Leave from Hilo (1h 45m drive from our rental house).
  • Option 2: Very expensive. 1 hour 45 minutes. Leave from Waikoloa (40 min drive from our rental house).

When going over the options with everyone, I said that we could all do Option 1, or Glenn and I could do Option 2. Well, the kids did not like the idea of driving three and a half hours round-trip to do the 50 minute flight. I can’t blame them. I didn’t really want to do that drive either. But I’m not sure they realized what they were passing up…

Pre-flight

Bonus: you get to wear these cool personal flotation devices around your waist!

So, I booked just the two of us on the longer flight, and even paid for the special upgraded helicopter (bigger helicopter, individual seats vs. bench, floor-to-ceiling windows which increase viewing by 50%). And so, on day 3 of our vacation, we said goodbye to the family after lunch and headed up to the Waikoloa Heliport.

Just before we left, Rowan begged me to come along. I felt so guilty leaving him behind, but stuck to my guns. There was no way I’d be bringing a 7-year old along on that expensive of a flight. Sorry, kiddo.

Regarding Air-Sickness

In retrospect, eating a light lunch and then snacking on day-old malasadas in the parking lot was not a good idea. Donuts always upset my stomach (not cool, universe!), and I usually feel more nauseous the emptier my stomach is. And I didn’t bring the Sea-bands I bought on the snorkel cruise, which was a huge mistake. Pro tips #1-3: Eat a decent-sized meal about an hour before your flight, and maybe munch some saltines just before takeoff. Don’t drink a ton of fluid, or anything caffeinated – two hours in the air is longer than you think. Wear your Sea-bands.

Turns out, this particular helicopter tour was voted #1 by The Travel Channel as the “World’s Best Helicopter Thrill.” In thinking about this tour, the term “thrill” hadn’t really entered my mind. I just envisioned sweeping aerial views of volcanic eruptions, lush canyons, and towering waterfalls. You know, an awe-inspiring perspective on nature’s marvels.

So… you know how when you’re flying over the Grand Canyon in a passenger plane, the only people on the plane who can see it are the ones on *that* side of the plane, and only in the window or middle seats? Go figure, turns out that’s true on helicopters as well. You can’t see shit out the opposite side of the helicopter, and if you’re in back, you can’t see shit out the front. And apparently what people want more than anything is to come away with cool photos and videos, so the pilots are all about getting your window facing the action. Think about that. How do you get EVERY window to face the action? YOU SWOOP.

Not only do you swoop. You swoop in figure-eights. We’re talking G-forces, people. Varying speeds, dips, climbs, swerves left and right, all at the same time. Total disorientation relative to the horizon. Oh, and it’s hot. Pro tip #4: Even if you get cold with the A/C vent blowing on you during the boring 15-20 minute ride from the heliport to the volcano, DO NOT close your vent. I did. I regretted it. Being cold is vastly superior to being hot when you’re motion-sick. Go with cold.

The Flight

First we went to the main cauldron of the Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting continuously – without pause – since 1983. Apparently, this is actually Madam Pele’s home. The Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park headquarters is situated at the lip of the Kilauea Caldera, which seems like a truly terrible idea. On a previous trip there, the fumes were so noxious, and the wind was blowing in such a way, that they told visitors not to be outside for more than a few minutes. From above, you wonder what genius put the visitor center right there, and if it was the same genius who thought it was smart to build a golf course and town just beyond.

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The town of Volcano

Anyway, there it was. Inside the caldera was the gray, cracked Halema’uma’u Crater. Within that, you could see a black crescent where the newest flowing lava had hardened. At the center of that crescent was a round collapsed crust, steaming and sinister, with a glowing red arc on the outermost edge. Later, zooming in on my photos, I could perceive glowing orange hairline fissures throughout the crater. Apparently this glowing arc is considered a lava lake. So it’s probably much bigger than it seemed from above. The helicopters have to say pretty high above the craters, presumably so they don’t get…ya know…erupted onto?

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Halema’uma’u Crater erupting

To show us all of this, the pilot cruised by with the crater on one side of the helicopter, then swooped around and back across so that the other side could see, then back again, making figure-eight patterns across the sky, each time climbing to the apex of our arc, then diving, turning, climbing, swooping, and generally – diabolically – trying to make us all vomit.

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Before takeoff, before green

Oh! And the music! Something you would never have even thought about! You know how they give you those cool headphones for hearing protection? Well not only can the pilot and passengers communicate through those, but they can also pipe in music to enhance your experience. On the way over to Kilauea, we listened to chill Hawaiian-esque grooves from Jack Johnson and the like. But once we got to the crater, the DJ spun up something that sounded like the score of a Bond movie. The music got your adrenaline up. It was exciting! It was sickening…

 

After the Halema’uma’u crater, we cruised a bit further over recent lava flows of various ages – distinguishable by whether / how much new vegetation had begun to grow – to the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent. This one was spectacular. Three areas of spewing lava, which looked like caves to me, tucked under the ledge of this crater. We swooped some more, and some more, and…you get the idea. This is when I realized I was nauseous. I searched for the horizon, tried to lean into the turns like I was riding a motorcycle, and took deep breaths.

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Puʻu ʻŌʻō Vent erupting

The final area of volcanic activity was at Kamokuna, where the lava flow was entering the ocean. You can actually walk out to this point, but I doubt you’d actually see much from on land. Even from the helicopter, out over the ocean looking back toward land, we couldn’t see the lava. Just a lot of steam. And the strange murky waters surrounding what’s apparently a new peninsula growing where a 26-acre chunk of land recently broke off into the sea. This is when I realized I should re-open my A/C vent.

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Kamokuna flow entering the sea

The pilot then said, “I bet you could all stand to fly straight and level for a while now.” Um, yes, please. So, north we flew, past Hilo, whereabouts I realized I also had to pee really bad. But who am I to ask for a pit stop? So we kept flying, with Mauna Kea and her observatory to our left, onward to the Hamakua Coast. Here in the Waipi’o and Waimanu Valleys, we got to see waterfalls as tall as 2,600 feet, impossibly steep cliffs covered in vegetation, and deep canyons that were beyond mysterious and verging on menacing. It was windy here, so there was some turbulence. Thanks, nature.

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Mauna Kea, home to a super-bad-ass observatory which I will visit someday

The waterfalls were of course spectacular. But damn if the pilot didn’t swoop right at them! And up and down them! More than once I thought we might fly right into the cliff just so my side of the helicopter could see the falls. Dude, I’m good – just don’t kill us!

As you can tell, by this point I was growing weary of the swooping, of the whole thing, honestly. But at least I kept it together. The lady in the front seat asked for an “aloha bag.” Suddenly the cabin filled with a strong lemony scent, and the pilot opened his window. Then I looked forward and saw her bring the bag to her face. I looked out at the falls and thanked the universe that it was too noisy for me to hear what came next. The pilot got us out of the canyon, leveled off, and gently turned north again.

Here only Glenn and I could see the towering coastal cliffs, and the needle-thin waterfalls cascading down to the sea. The folks on the other side just got to look at the ocean. Sorry (not sorry) guys, no more swooping. Here we were treated to the music of Lindsey Stirling, which made me laugh. I began to picture her as Zelda, dancing through the Hawaiian jungle below.

There were some cool rocky beaches, some bizarre little settlements, a road with a 30% grade down into a canyon, and then the cliffs softened into rolling hills as we turned southwest to return to Waikoloa.

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Awww, a cloud-bow!

Cattle ranches and rainbows were visible beneath us, up here in paniolo country. I couldn’t wait to get back to the heliport, and go track down some ginger ale and saltines. Soon we were making the actually-quite-exciting landing, and feeling like we accomplished something meaningful.

Reflection

Speaking for myself at least, it was a mission accomplished. I don’t think I ever need to do another helicopter flight, but maybe in a decade or so I’d consider it. I texted my mom immediately to have her tell Rowan that he should be glad he didn’t come – he would’ve gotten SO SICK! Bye bye, guilt.


Bonus! Lessons Learned Regarding Photography and Videography

Turns out I was operating my camera incorrectly the entire time, so all of the thrilling video I thought I was shooting was nothing more than me toggling between viewfinder and display screen. Oops. Pro tip #5: Before you bring your nice-but-seldom-used camera on the expensive sightseeing flight with the upgraded helicopter for greater visibility, make sure you know how to operate the damn thing.

Pro tip #6: If you are not seated near a window, you might be screwed when it comes to videography. Glenn’s GoPro footage was pretty garbage, thanks to the difference in lighting from his seat in the middle of the cabin compared to the brightness outside. He got some good shots of us mugging for the camera, but when he aimed it outside, it just turned white. And you don’t get to choose your seat – they assign you a seat based on optimal weight distribution. Sorry, Charlie.

Pro tip #7: The helicopter company will happily sell you an HD video (Blu-Ray disc or USB stick) of your actual flight – including edits of video from inside the cabin, and all the chatter on your headsets – for only $40. Yeah…we opted to do this.

Related: Blue-Green Hawaii – Part 1, the Snorkel Cruise

Aloha in the Air

Flying to Hawaii is unlike flying anywhere else. The flight most similar that I’ve ever been on was the one to Fiji. But flights to Fiji still have a fair number of practical people on them. There are actual Fijians – citizens of a very very remote island nation, who seem a little bummed to be leaving the US to go back into exile. Or they’re business travelers, doing the ho-hum 11-hour flight over, knowing they’ll barely be able to enjoy the islands while they’re there.

But oh, Hawaii. Sure, sure, there are Hawaiian residents (some of them actual Hawaiians!) returning home; and of course there are business travelers. But us vacationers don’t care! We’re psyched to be going to paradise! We’re psyched to get a free Mai Tai on the second half of the flight! There’s also something to be said for knowing that you’re almost all going to the same small island for roughly the same amount of time (the paltry American week-long vacation, if you’re lucky). There are lots of smiles, and a Hukilau-esque camaraderie to the whole thing.

Flying with my kids, my partner, and my mom is amazing. It’s a bit complicated trying to get five people through the airport, fed and watered, but at least the adults outnumber the kids. Someone is always on hand to watch the carry-ons while someone else takes the kids to the bathroom, or to watch the kids while someone runs off to get food or coffee.

img_2867.jpgOn the actual plane, things get interesting. It’s sometimes hard to get five seats together. And even then…who gets to sit next to Mommy? My partner would like to. Both of my kids would also like to. But there are only two seats adjacent to Mommy!

This time around, we had a row of three at the front of the plane, thanks to my status on
Virgin America,
which transferred over to Alaska in that heartbreaking acquisition. But Gram booked two of the seats so she could use her free companion fare, and those seats were at the back of the bus.

IMG_2868Thankfully, the kids have iPhones to keep them distracted. They barely noticed when we split them up – one with Gram in the back, and one with Mommy and Glenn in the front. Heck yeah, I took the front! We’re talking extra legroom and free drinks! Can you say Mimosa made with Pass-o-Guava nectar???

Of course, you do have to fill out the form from the State of Hawaii which tells you that if you bring any fruits, nuts, seeds, plants, or basically anything living other than yourselves into their state, you will be sent to Molokai with the lepers. This precipitates the mad rush to eat the Cuties and Cripps Pink apples I packed for snacks, even though I knew full well I was going to buy that “cheese plate” snack box anyway.

Here’s my question – what do they do with the apple core and the mandarin peels? Or what if I don’t even eat the offending foods, and throw them away whole? Aren’t they still arriving on the island like so many wee biological invaders? Isn’t the hypothetical damage done? And what of the almonds in the freebie snack box they passed out? And the Craisins? Sigh. More Mai Tais please!

One final note on flying to Hawaii: five hours is sooooo long! I know us west coasters have it easy, and that some folks fly five hours from New York and then another five hours to Hawaii. But still, five hours is sooooo long when you’re ready to get off the plane in Kona, go to Costco, go to Safeway, and then realize that you’re still in America after all, and life for the next week might not be as exotic as you’d been building it up in your mind for the last three months after all.

Except – in Hawaii, Costco has palettes full of Spam and macadamia nuts, and leis in the fresh flower section. And that can make all the difference in the world.