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.

Summer Climbing Tour 2017

 

IMG_0460No, my kids will not be doing summer camps through Rec & Park this summer. Don’t worry, I think I’ll be able to keep them entertained.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I had an epiphany last summer, and bought myself a van. Technically, it’s a Class B motorhome, but I’m too young to own a motorhome, so I just call it a van. All the cool kids are doing it. Ya know, #vanlife and all that.

The plan was to hit the road this summer for my family reunion in Denver in July. We live in San Francisco, so there’s a…how would you say?…fuck ton of cool shit between us and Denver. Especially for climbers. And then you get there, and there’s even more climbing. And you’re already halfway to all these other remote awesome places, so you might as well just make a summer of it.

Without further ado, it is time to unveil our plan:

  • 14 weeks / 102 Days
  • 6,515 miles + local exploration
  • 10 states + 1 Canadian province
  • >25 climbing areas*
  • 15 National Parks
  • 8 National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, and State/Provincial Parks (probably more, hard to remember what all of these places are, I’ll get back to you)
  • 1 climbing stewardship workshop in Yosemite
  • 1 family reunion
  • (hopefully) some volunteer conservation work
  • 1 week at Burning Man – my first time ever

You can check out our itinerary here, although with the freedom of the van, we will surely deviate from these plans many times. But hopefully we’ll get to climb climb climb!!

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Side note: You should seriously checkout Furkot – it’s the most robust road trip planner I’ve ever imagined! I plugged in our destinations, dates, and durations of stays, and it plotted this route for us. I still need to scrutinize it, to make sure there aren’t any awesome side roads we’d miss with this route, but it sure helps in planning! It will even help you find lodging and activities nearby. Oh, and it will sync with TripIt. I haven’t even scratched the surface on what it can do. Amazing.

The kids will be along about half the time (and no, they’re not coming to Burning Man). I have to share them with their dad, so they’ll be spending a couple of weeks with us at a time. We haven’t made flight arrangements yet, but the plan depends on a combination of:

  • Their dad will fly to where we are and explore the area with them, then return them to us and fly home
  • Their dad will fly to where we are to pick them up/drop them off
  • I will fly to SF to pick them up/drop them off
  • Maybe their dad will even rent a van of his own and do some traveling around

Thankfully, he’s being super supportive of this whole plan, and expressed a interest in exploring these places with the boys this summer even before I told him about our BIG idea.

The kids are excited about going to so many places, camping, and climbing so much. They’re not excited to drive a whole lot. We’re trying to break up the driving as much as possible, keeping it to a couple of hours at a time, but sometimes you just have to go a long way in one day! And hopefully while they’re with us we can stay camped and climb in one area for a few days in a row. I think moving every day would wear us all down, not just the kids.

I’m planning on making some improvements to the van before we go. I want to replace the flooring, get a new stereo (the one in there now doesn’t have bluetooth audio, and I’m basically dependent on that technology to function as a driver), have the original decals removed, and get a custom skin put on the lower panel of the outside (here’s an example of what I’m talking about, but we’d have a different pattern). I also need to track down the perfect hitch-mounted cargo box. We’ve been discussing these plans for some time, and now it’s only 50 days away. FIFTY DAYS?! WHAT?! Guys, I gotta go.

HELP!

One more quick thing – HELP ME! If you have suggestions for any of the following, please comment!

  • Places we should see
  • Places we should climb
  • Secret dispersed camping spots
  • Kid-friendly activities/attractions
  • Apple Play car stereos
  • Hitch-mounted cargo boxes (so far I’m into this one by Rola)
  • Road trip essential tips/tricks/gadgets

Related post: The Van


*For the climbers out there, here are the climbing areas we plan to visit:

If you have any favorite crags or routes in these areas, let us know! Bonus points for kid-friendly stuff.

And yes, I know it will be too hot to do much (if anything) in some of these areas, but we’re going to do our best to get in some early morning or late evening climbs at least.

Blue-Green Hawaii – Part 1, the Snorkel Cruise

One dollar off all blue drinks! And sea-sickness for free!

Day 1 of our family vacation on the Big Island, I treated everyone to a trip out with Body Glove Cruises, on their 4.5 hour Snorkel & Dolphin Adventure. Let me start by saying that this was one of the best snorkel cruises I’ve ever done. The boat was ship-shape, the crew was incredibly attentive,  and the owner of the company was on board and all about making sure we had a great time. We got to cruise past scores of Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins, along the Kona coast, and down to some place called Red Hill, which I can’t find on any map, but I think is part of the Kona Coast Fishery Management Area.

It’s a beautiful ride, and I love getting out on the water whenever I travel, so this seemed like a no-brainer. Plus, this boat is equipped with a 20-foot waterslide and a 15-foot diving platform, “more noodles than Olive Garden,” tubes, a huge raft for floating, view boards, snorkel gear, and scuba gear (for extra). Included are free reef-safe sunscreen, breakfast, lunch, and soft drinks, and there is a full cash bar if you want something to really get you into vacation mode starting at 8:30 AM.

Now, I’ve never been on a snorkel cruise that allowed you to drink BEFORE snorkeling. Usually they give – or sell – you the drinks AFTER you get out of the water for the day. But not so on Body Glove’s Kanoa II. I’m not sure if you can buy drinks the very minute you board, but I’m guessing the answer is yes. Yours truly did not partake, I swear. I had a sensible plate of goodies from the breakfast buffet, and a cup of coffee. We cast off and started our cruise, and all was well.

Cue the dolphins! These spinner dolphins are beyond charming. All dolphins are great, but these guys go beyond swimming apace with your boat and doing the usual breach, jump, or flip. They go full triple-axel – IN THEIR SLEEP. Apparently, they’re nocturnal, and are only in this close to shore because they’re resting, which means half their brain is asleep for 20 minutes while the other half is still controlling all their normal functions, including play. Then they switch sides, and back and forth, until they’ve gotten all the sleep they need.

I didn’t have any luck capturing their spins on video, but there are some solid videos on YouTube of this. (Let’s pause for a minute and acknowledge the achievements of all the folks who’ve posted thrilling videos of dolphins leaping and spinning. Where would we be without your videos and the music you carefully selected to showcase these majestic and playful creatures?) But it was fun trying to catch pictures and videos of them, and oohing and aahing and checking to see if my kids saw what I saw. They loved it.

Soon it was time to pick up speed and head to the snorkel spot. This was around the time I started to turn green. Looking at the horizon and taking deep breaths didn’t seem to help much. I’m not sure if it was a particularly big swell that day, but it sure felt like it to me. I bought some Sea-bands from the barman (ha!) and hoped that when I got in the water I’d start to feel better.

Well… upon arrival, we got a very thorough safety presentation, and were let loose into the ocean. The kids rushed to get noodles and hop onto the “relaxation stations.” I went with them, while Gram and Glenn headed off to do some real snorkeling. So there we were, clinging to noodles, splashing around in goggles and flippers, grabbing onto tubes and floating mats all strung up behind the boat, me turning greener by the minute.

Declan decided he wanted to try the “view board” – a boogie board with a porthole in it so you can see below the surface. I swam over to the boat to ask one of the crew to pass me one, but he wanted to give it to Declan directly. Crew guy slid the board into the water just as Declan was arriving near the boat, and – zoop! – it slid and smacked right into his mouth! Poor kid had a split lip, but it barely fazed him. He climbed aboard and started happily paddling around.

A few more minutes of bobbing up and down in the swell was enough for me. Rather than chum the waters, I figured I should get back on board and have some ginger chews and ginger ale. The kids reluctantly agreed to get out of the water with me. It wasn’t long before Glenn and Gram returned and could take the kids back out to play. But for me, that was it. The rest of the cruise was spent trying not to puke. Oh joy.

Pity party time: I didn’t even get to go on the water slide or use a snorkel! Not once! And I didn’t get to drink a single Mai Tai! Waaaaaaah!

Okay, that was fun. Hey, at least the kids and Glenn got to slide.

They also used the stand up paddle board (SUP) both for Glenn to patrol while the kids slid and slid and slid, and also to go exploring closer in toward the reef, since the kids don’t have a huge swimming range.

For one last touch of color, on the way back to the pier, the bar announced a drink special: $1 off all blue drinks! They’d even just turn something blue for you that isn’t normally blue. Apparently they had some excess blue curaçao or food coloring to use up. (Fun fact about blue drinks I just learned. There’s a natural ingredient called butterfly pea flower that can color beverages blue. I had it in a special-for-Holi cocktail at my friend’s Indian restaurant in San Francisco. So beautiful!)

On the trip home, I just wanted to sit and snuggle my kiddos. Rowan fell asleep leaning against me, then Declan, and then I dozed a little.

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I know I look like I’m posing, but I was actually sleeping like this

The sea-sickness subsided. The trade-off was some sunburn, but nobody gets off scott-free in these stories, okay?! I’m happy to report that I never did throw up.

Related: Blue-Green Hawaii – Part 2, the Helicopter Tour

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.