Rocky Road

rocky-road-ice-cream-2-525

I once was told that Rocky Road ice cream was created during the Great Depression, to give people something to smile about. Well, last week – on National Chocolate Ice Cream Day – we probably should’ve gotten Rocky Road instead of plain chocolate, because we needed something to smile about after an actual rocky road beat the hell out of our van.

We were staying in the town of Escalante, Utah, right on the northwestern boundary of Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. There are some well-known geological features nearby which I wanted to explore, or we never would’ve been in Escalante in the first place. Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-Boo Canyon are two popular slot canyons which you can explore on a 3-mile hike, squirming through tight squeezes and allegedly smiling in delight the whole way; Devil’s Garden is a grouping of hoodoos that you can actually run around and climb on; and Batty Pass Caves are another cool-sounding spot to check out right in the same area.

The catch is, the canyons are 26 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a BLM road inside the Monument; the caves are down a little ways on a spur road across from the canyons; and even the hoodoos are about halfway down the road (13 miles) to where the canyons are. Had I listened to the checker at the grocery store, who told us even he was shocked by how bad the road was, or read any one of the many websites warning visitors of how treacherous the road was, or put two and two together when I saw that multiple outfitters in Escalante ran twice-a-day shuttles to the canyons, I might have thought twice about driving out there in our van. I later learned that car rental companies don’t even allow you to take their cars on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. They’re smarter than we are.

I had told the boys that we could play hide-and-seek at Devil’s Garden, so they wanted to go there first. The road was almost all deeply rutted washboards, with a few potholes mixed in just for grins. Our van got jostled around like a can of Sherwin Williams on a Home Depot paint shaker. The silverware drawer is always the first to slide open. Then the drawer with the cooking utensils. We even got the little slide-out table to open. The “closet” door edged its way open as the drawers inside scooted toward the aisle. Even the stereo and other parts of the dash were threatening to pop their mountings. I gritted my teeth and held on until we got to Devil’s Garden.

“Now I understand why multiple outfitters in Escalante offer shuttle services,” I thought.

When we got there, a puddle soon formed under our city water hookup. The ballcock was nowhere to be seen and our fresh water tank was quickly draining onto the desert parking lot. The microwave/oven had slid backward into its housing. An upper cabinet popped open and (thankfully only) a book fell out onto the kids. The paper towel roll had unspooled from its holder beneath the overhead compartment and onto the floor. I was not happy.

After rock-hopping and some very hot hide-and-seek, we returned to the van for lunch, then decided we should head back to town rather than continue on that road to the canyons. On the drive back, the heater vent – already loose – came halfway off, risking shearing off the one remaining screw altogether. The wooden wall-mounted spice rack was disintegrating. We argued a bit about how best to drive so as to minimize further damage. Then we argued about how we should think and feel about this unfortunate turn of events. One thing we could agree on was that the chocolate ice cream needed to happen.

We stopped at a hardware store on the way to the house we had rented (to keep the kitties safe from heat while we explored during the 100-degree days) to get some supplies for repairs, then bought the ice cream, then went home.

All in all, eventually, we discovered we’d managed to:

  • Break the city water valve
  • Knock off the heater vent
  • Dislodge the microwave oven
  • Knock the shelf pins loose that held the drawers up in the closet, causing them to collapse
  • Break the spice rack

Over the course of the next few days, and after deciding to risk more destruction on similar roads, more and more things began to malfunction or get broken by our abuse:

  • The motorized step on the sliding door would deploy while we were driving, causing it to take a beating, cracking the plastic on the front corner and causing the motor to groan
  • I dragged our rear end onto a steep hillside to access a dispersed camping spot, shredding the wiring to our cargo carrier, and causing it to hang down and drag on the road
  • The kitchen faucet started spraying water – probably because the messed up, over-drained water tank pumped sediment up into the faucet
  • Under pressure, the bathroom faucet started leaking into the bottom of the closet – maybe for the same reason – onto the upholstered cushion below

Various patches have been made over the last few days, giving me more of sense that we’re held together by chewing gum and duct tape than that we’re actually repairing things in a fashion that would appeal to a buyer whenever we go to re-sell this thing. Some were true fixes, others were literal Gorilla-tape hacks.

  • The city water valve was capped altogether
  • The heater vent was bolted (not screwed) back on
  • The microwave was reseated
  • The closet shelf pins were put back (later coming undone again, now being replaced with L-brackets as a permanent fix)
  • The spice rack was glued back together
  • The motorized step had to be disabled altogether by disconnecting the wiring assembly under the step and taping off both ends
  • The wiring to our cargo carrier was replaced and re-mounted
  • The kitchen faucet was disassembled and put back together without the inner parts of the diffuser to muck things up
  • The bathroom faucet… we couldn’t do anything about this one, but realized that we need to neither use high-pressure city water nor fill our fresh tank all the way

Oh, also, one of our two stove burners is running way lower than the other, so low you can hardly boil water on it.

So…yeah. All these creature comforts are not without their weaknesses, and our use case for this van may simply be too abusive for them. To put it bluntly, we’re beating the shit out of this rig. We had some stressful conversations wherein we both bemoaned the fact that this vehicle doesn’t seem to suit our lifestyle. We’re rock climbers. We bought a camper van so we can drive to and camp at climbing spots. Many climbing spots are located down absolutely craptastic roads. When driving to the crag makes you anxious that you’re destroying your investment, and results in time-sucking repairs, is the van really enhancing our lives? Would we have been better off just sleeping on the floor of the minivan, cooking on a camp stove, drinking water from a jug, and peeing in the bushes? Sometimes simpler is better.

But me – I cannot accept that. It is in my nature to have faith that there is a solution to any problem. Maybe a simpler, more rugged class-B motorhome will work for us. Maybe a custom van conversion would be better. We started chatting about our wish-list of features. There are plenty of features and systems on this rig that we don’t need, and others we don’t have that we wish we did. Eliminate some unnecessary potential sources of malfunction, and add some new technology that supports our adventurous travel. All of that in another post…

For now, enjoy some pics of our damages and a few repairs we hacked together.

And here’s a pic of one of our cute road kitties to alleviate any anxiety this post may have caused you. You’re welcome. Now go eat some ice cream.

IMG_4669

Away We Go!

After two full days of packing up the house for storage and loading the van, we finally got out of San Francisco at 5:40pm. 

Our first stop was Glenn’s mom’s place, where his van will spend the summer. (Thankfully, our subtenant is letting me leave my car in the driveway at home!) After 86 miles, we got to Woodland around 8:15, and we’re welcomed with tiki torches in the garden, and chili rellenos and cold beer. Heaven!

We also got to check out Lisa and Tom’s giant new RV, with slide-outs, mood lighting and all. The boys were impressed, but when I asked if we should get one like this, they said, “No it’s way too big!” Good, because look at the cockpit controls on this thing!

I managed to get the boys to write in their journals, as recommended by their teachers to minimize the “summer slide.” We also got to start another book from our Roald Dahl collection, Danny the Champion of the World. They didn’t get to bed until 10:30! We all slept in Glenn’s childhood bedroom, which he informed us was plastered in posters of bands and skateboarders when he was a teenager.

After sleeping in a bit, we got our act together and went to the park nearby to get a little play time before we drove all day. We went there with Glenn’s mom Lisa and her dog Jazzy.

After a quick stop at Target we got on our way, heading south toward Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, ready to finally say hello to adventure!

The Van Gets All Spiffed Up

There were so many things I wanted to do to improve the van before this trip. I shared this list with you in my previous post, Summer Climbing Tour 2017:

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.

I’m happy to report that we’ve accomplished all of these things, and more!

New Flooring

I referred to the original floor as “grandma linoleum” (no offense to grandmas). When I’d been shopping for vans, I loved the interior finishes of the new RoadTreks, which paired the same cherry cabinets that I have with a gray plank laminate flooring. That was it – I wanted those floors!

I ended up choosing something even darker: TrafficMASTER Allure 6 in. x 36 in. Iron Wood Luxury Vinyl Plank Flooring. We had already decided to remove the barrier that separates the under-couch/bed area and the main cabin, so that the cats could access their litter box and bed. In contemplating the flooring, we decided we should also remove the carpeting from the whole rear of the van, running the laminate planks all the way back. This will allow us to clean more easily, with more sweeping and less vacuuming.

Installation was interesting… We had to remove the metal thresholds, some to be replaced later, some to be rendered obsolete with the new 1-floor-to-rule-them-all design. We obviously had to remove the existing flooring. We also had to remove the entire motorized couch/bed to be able to install the cut-to-fit planks underneath.

IMG_3785.JPG

So that happened

Glenn completed the installation in two afternoons. He was a champion! And I do think the finished product is fantastic. We’ve gotten lots of compliments so far!

New Stereo

In my last post, I explained how high-tech the van just got, with the new stereo I craved, plus a cell-signal booster, and a mobile hotspot. Such a huge upgrade!

Decal Removal

I loathed the decals on my van. In fact, I told the dealer that I wanted them removed before I took delivery. My biggest complaint about them is that they shirked this commitment. Whatever, I drove off in the thing anyway. But I yearned for the sleek look of the latest Class-Bs, and the time had come to do something about it. I love you, Roadtrek, but I don’t need more than the iconic three windows, the emblem on the hood, and the embossed headrests. All the rest had to go.

IMG_3739

Clean and discreet

Custom Wrap

My obsession with bees is another story for another time, but I really wanted to put a custom vinyl wrap on the lower panel of my van, similar to the style done by Outside Van. I love how they get this sweet tonal effect, with the van’s paint color as the background. I really wanted a honeycomb gradient pattern, going from a lighter gray to much darker gray, or black.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a shop that could print on clear vinyl – they told me that material was used for windows, and wouldn’t hold up to the beating this lower panel would take being so close to the ground. And since automotive paint colors don’t correspond to Pantone colors, there was no way to color match the background of my design.

Eventually, I recruited a friend – magical Morgaine Breimayer – to do a riff on a panel of Metamorphasis II, by M.C. Escher. The end result was super cool.Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 11.36.35 AM

Installation was done by A52 Signs & Graphics. Nothing is ever quite how you imagined it – especially with my warped imagination when it comes to colors – but I think it worked out pretty darn well! Now my van reflects my obsession with bees. Maybe this will even cement a name for the van. The Hive? Queen Bee? Honey Pot? Okay, maybe not that last one.

IMG_3846

And more!

Drawers. I need drawers. The van came with this ridiculous (sorry, RT) “closet.” Who hangs things when they’re traveling in a camper van? They could have at least included pre-drilled holes, shelves, and shelf pins, which could be removed if someone *wanted* to hang things. I don’t get it. For me, even shelves aren’t enough. Plenty of folks out there have added shelves to their closets, but then they pack their things in packing cubes. Call me spoiled, but I can’t imagine living out of packing cubes for 3 months. I. Need. Drawers.

Glenn got on the shelf thing pretty willingly. But he resisted the drawers for a bit. Fair enough – he’s made so many of my van dreams come true as it is. But praise be to Buddha, he finished them! I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome! Now let’s see how much I can actually fit in there…

Cargo Box

This was a huge one. With two adults, two kids, two cats, and climbing gear, there’s simply not enough room in the van. We had two options: buy a bigger van, or buy a cargo carrier. With no usable space on the roof, we had to go with a hitch-mounted box. Since we have those glorious double doors on the back, I figured a swing-away mount would be the way to go, so we can still open the doors. I could only find two products out there: the StowAway2 Max Cargo Carrier, and the ROLA Adventure System. We went with the ROLA because it allows you to remove the box itself and just have a cargo tray.

Detailing

IMG_3859.JPG

After 9 months of ownership and nary a good scrub down, the van needed some attention. We’re heading to Burning Man at the end of our trip, so I already pre-arranged a thorough post-Burning-Man detail, and decided to hire the same folks to do a pre-trip detail as well. M&M Mobile Car Wash & Detail did a thorough job – in my own driveway – and now I feel ready to load in our things and live in here for the next 14 weeks.

It’s time to start packing. After some civil debate, one of us (ahem) expressed a “spiritual desire to not leave on Saturday,” so we’ve pushed our departure date to Sunday, May 28. So today we’re packing the van, and packing up our house for the sub-tenants. We’re in the home stretch!

The Van Gets All High-Tech

Buying a used Class-B motorhome was a way for me to get the freedom, comfort, and convenience of a van conversion in no time flat. I got a 2011 RoadTrek for about what it would’ve cost me to get a brand new Sprinter and DIY it, or to buy a used Sprinter and have it professionally up-fitted. Buying the used van let me skip ahead a few months to the fun part – traveling! The big drawback was that the technology in my van was a bit outdated. A 5-year old vehicle can have downright ancient tech these days!

The Stereo

Check out the old stereo my van came with.

IMG_3603

The Eclipse

I don’t know what else to call it but “The Eclipse.” It was the worst. I mean, there’s a reason Eclipse went out of business. This thing played the radio (after we replaced the antenna), it had station presets, it played CDs (remember those?), and it worked with my back-up camera. But for many many reasons it was awful. The worst was that it had no Bluetooth audio. It had a Bluetooth phone setup, but the audio quality was so poor that it just stressed me out to use it. And the only way you could play music from your phone was through the old 20-pin iPod jack in the glove box. I bought an adapter for that (20-pin to Lightning), which worked, but the whole thing would cut out if you went over a bump in the road. So…we busted out a giant binder full of CDs from my first #vanlife experience, in 2002. The situation was dire.

Well, problem solved! I bought a gorgeous new piece of technology and junked that old thing. Check it out!

After a less-than-enjoyable process of shopping for a head unit, I finally settled on the Pioneer AVH4200-NEX. Danny, from OE Plus, came out to do the mobile installation for me. I definitely recommend working with a mobile installer for an RV or conversion van. It’s great to have someone come to you! Just make sure they’ve worked on your type of vehicle before. Danny inspired a lot of confidence as he told me he’d worked on Sprinters before, was familiar with this head unit, and that he thought it would be a good choice for my needs. He also told me which wiring harness, antenna adapter, and installation kit I needed, which was a huge help!

In choosing a stereo unit, what I wanted most of all was something with Apple CarPlay built-in. I mistakenly thought it would mirror my iPhone entirely, which sounded like dream come true. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite do all that. It is pretty great though! The integration with the phone, messaging, Spotify, Audible, and even MLB At Bat, is pretty fabulous.

My biggest complaint about Apple CarPlay is that – unsurprisingly – it won’t mirror Google Maps. I definitely prefer Google Maps to Apple Maps, but I can make do. On my first few drives so far, I’ve tried both – using Apple Maps on the screen, and using Google Maps on my phone just like always – using my air vent phone mount. I’m a bit ambivalent, so we’ll see how that fight shakes out.

CarPlay will take some getting used to. It’s just a different way of interacting with both the stereo (new to me anyway) and the phone (so so so familiar, so this is the hard part). Touch something on the stereo and it shows up on the phone. Touch something on the phone and it shows up on the stereo. So far it kinda hurts my brain, but it should start to feel more intuitive, right?

This unit overall is such a huge improvement from what I had! The HD radio is so much better, the screen is crisp and much larger than on the Eclipse, which means that even my backup camera looks better. Also, the new microphone for the Bluetooth phone set-up solved a huge problem for me, as the previous one was so terrible that I never used it.

One final gripe: I just want a volume knob! Call me old fashioned, but one thing I love about my stock radio in my Subaru is that it has a knob that you can turn to control the volume or push to turn the unit on/off. Hardly any of these new after-market head units have a knob. They have volume +/- buttons, and a “mute” button. Volume +/- buttons are sleek, but don’t offer the same speed and satisfaction of adjusting the volume with a knob. They’re more of a distraction, and they still take up real estate in their own way. Furthermore, a “mute” button is not the same thing as on/off. If I push mute, my music or audiobook keeps playing, and the screen stays lit. The only way to stop what I’m listening to is to tap the pause icon on the touch screen, which requires more finesse than just poking an actual button. And even then, the screen stays lit up. My perfect unit would have all these great new features, and that one classic old feature – the knob.

The Cell Signal Booster

Since we’re going to be out in the mountains, woods, and other wild areas that probably won’t have cell service, I’ve been thinking for a while that we should try a cell signal booster.  When I finally went to order one, I discovered that weBoost was about to release a brand-new booster specifically for RVs, the weBoost Drive 4G-X. I pre-ordered it on Amazon and got it the following week. The same awesome mobile stereo install guy, Danny, came by to install it.

The only place we could think to mount the external antenna was on the metal bracket that holds up the awning. This met the requirements of 1) being metal and 2) having the entire antenna sitting above any other objects.

img_3852

External antenna for weBoost

The instructions specify that you should drill a hole in the side of the RV, feed the cable through it, then cover the hole with a small flange to help keep water out, while also filling the hole with sealant. Danny shared my hesitation and anxiety about drilling a hole in the van. He suggested we might be able to drop the cable down through the rear door opening, and simply tuck it behind the weather-stripping. It worked! He ran it all the way down, then under the skid plate at the bottom. It was then tucked along the corner where the floor and wall meet, then run up into the A/V cabinet. Danny capped the hole where the cable enters the cabinet using the flange that was provided for the exterior hole we didn’t drill.


We mounted the booster itself inside the top of the A/V cabinet, above the DVD player. From there another cable reaches the anterior antenna, with lots of length to it, so we can place that antenna wherever we need to inside the van in order to get a good signal.

IMG_3849

Sorry for the lousy photo… The booster is on the top of the cabinet. That black antenna is the internal one.

The day after the installation, I tested the weBoost in San Francisco, in a place where the signal is already strong. I already had a maximum signal on Verizon, and when I ran the performance test with the booster on, there was no change. Glenn is on AT&T, and he only had three bars. When we turned on the booster his signal went up to the max! So I guess it works.

IMG_3736

Performance test results

I tested it again this past weekend out at Memorial County Park in Loma Mar, CA. This is a beautiful redwood forest campground with absolutely no cell service. When I fired up the weBoost, it went from No Service to one bar of 1X, but then that disappeared again, and that was that. I guess you still can’t just conjure up a signal out of thin air. I’ll keep you posted on boosting power as we get more chances to try it out.

The MiFi JetPack

Between two adults and two kids in the van, we will have potentially 2 laptops, 3 phones, 2 iPads, a Kindle, and an Apple TV. I got the unlimited plan from Verizon for my phone, but thought a dedicated mobile hot spot might be a good idea too. Coincidentally, Novatel was *just* releasing its latest Verizon-enabled Jetpack, the Jetpack MiFi 7730L. So I nabbed one of those and added it to my unlimited plan for another $20/month. Now our weBoost can beef up our reception and we can pump out a secure wifi signal to all of our devices.

What’s Next?

I do still have one issue. There is no Bluetooth audio in the rear of the van, running through the sweet little surround sound set-up back there. I love the sound these speakers offer compared to the automotive speakers in the front, but I hate having to plug my phone into a mini-jack (especially with my iPhone 7 requiring a Lightning adapter) and leave it in one spot to play music. I want my phone handy for taking photos, texting, playing games, whatever. So I need to find another solution. We did have Bluetooth transmitter that worked for about a week. We haven’t been able to get it to work since. So, maybe a new “home theater system” is in order.

Overall, I feel ready to hit the road without too much risk of technology withdrawal. At this point, if anything, we’ll face the opposite problem – too much technology temptation! Seriously, if you also consider the fact that we’ll be taking (and therefore editing) photos and video, and I’ll be blogging along the way, we might need to take some side backpacking trips just to get properly unplugged!

My Small Victory at Goat Rock State Beach

IMG_3084We got a late start, so we didn’t arrive at Goat Rock until around 2:00. God, what a glorious day. Clear blue skies, temps in the high 50s, and calm waters. The hills were that brightest green of grass in a drought-busting rainy season, and so much silt had flushed through the mouth of the Russian River that there was a field of brown murky water extending beyond all the offshore rocks and then some. At the edge where the dirty, brackish water mixed with the clear blue seawater, a white foamy line marked the junction.

The trail was a sloppy mess, with a few side paths trying to avoid the worst of the mud. But the flat area in front of Sunset Boulders was just a bog – no way around, no clean way through. You wanna climb, you’re gonna get muddy.

IMG_3085

Hi, every climber in western Sonoma County!

This fine Sunday afternoon seemed to draw all of western Sonoma’s climbers to the crag. The place was pretty much at capacity, with nearly every anchor and landing area in use. We seldom do anything on weekends, when the rest of the world floods out to recreate, shop, travel, whatever. We have the privilege to be able to do these things during the week, so we might as well spare ourselves the crowds and spare the crowds our presence by staying in on the weekends. But we were in town on our way to a retreat, so it made sense to come check out this spot.

“Orange hat! Hey, orange hat!” A voice rang out from atop The Ram. The voice came from a very outgoing, helmet-wearing climber, who invited Glenn to use his rope to climb up for setting our anchors, thus sparing him soloing the 5.5 R/X that’s the easiest way to the top. He offered to give him a tour once he got up.

“Oh, I don’t mind soloing it, but if I use your rope it’ll make her feel better,” Glenn replied.

“That’s all that matters! If she’s happy, everyone’s happy!” Wise man.

At the top, Glenn asked him if he was a local steward. I missed the rest of their chatter, but there was a lot of it. Later on, when this gent and his group were packing up to leave, he seemed to narrate much of their preparations. He was there with lots of friends, and turns out he’s from Fort Ross, just up the road from Goat Rock. There were some other pairs of climbers there, and some small groups of boulderers. They all left within about 45 minutes of our arrival, and we had the whole place to ourselves until we were doffing our helmets and coiling our rope, when a group of five or six young puffy-clad dudes from Vallejo rolled up as the sun was getting low in the sky.

This is honestly the first time I’ve ever written about a climbing session. What is there to say? The spot is tough to beat on a good weather day. You’re super close to the beach, so you get plenty of spectacular coastal scenery, but high enough up on a grassy perch to feel safe from the sea, unlike climbing at an actual beach crag. The clump of boulders was once a popular spot for wooly mammoths to rub their backs, so you can see some polished surfaces on the overhanging parts of the boulders. There are safe belays, short, easy climbs (with soft grades compared to other spots in the Bay Area), and everything’s at least three stars. It’s a pretty perfect little playground for a half-day outing. There are a couple of 5.8s up crack systems that would make for great early trad leads. One word of caution: there was a fair bit of poison oak among the rocks between the boulders. I don’t think I’m allergic, but Glenn is, so we were both careful to avoid it, and washed the mud off our shoes when we got back to the van. Outdoor shower for the win!

This outing was a small victory for me. I need to climb at a few more crags like this with high-quality rock, highly-rated climbs, and short walls. Here’s the thing, friends: I get scared. It’s hard to call it a fear of heights, but it’s definitely a fear of falling. Or maybe it’s actually just a fear of failure. Whatever it is, it plagues me. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Why do I even do this? I don’t like this feeling! I just want to get down and go do crossword puzzles.” And then I have to remind myself, “You say this is your favorite thing in the world to do.” And I repeat it like a mantra. I have other self-talk, too. “You climb routes seven grades harder than this in the gym.” “Your legs are stronger than you think.” “So what if there’s no hand when you get there? He’ll catch you.”

IMG_3089

Victory!

On this day, I needed no mantras, no self-talk at all. I felt fine. Maybe it’s because the routes were all three stars. Routes that flow well just…flow better. The holds present themselves; the moves aren’t any easier, they’re just easier to find. That was fun. And if I’m going to be psyched to climb all summer, I need to know that it’s going to be fun. Fun first! Safety third! I don’t know what’s second, but it’s probably food related.* I may have only gotten in four short climbs, but it was just what I needed. Short climbs give you a sense of accomplishment, and if you can finish a tougher grade than you’re used to, who cares that it was only 30’ tall? For me, that’s enough of a confidence booster to matter. So Goat Rock, my hat’s off to you! Thanks for being just what I needed.

*For the record, safety is always first. Saying “safety third” is a great way to remind people that they suck if they’re not being safe. It’s also apparently a Burning Man meme, and I’m pretty sure it was printed on the tee-shirt worn by some miracle-he’s-lived-this-long climber in Valley Uprising or some Reel Rock film.

——

Routes I climbed (grades according to Bay Area Rock 7th Edition, not Mountain Project):

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!!

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 4.05.48 PM.png
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 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.

IMG_2201

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?

IMG_2195

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.

IMG_2957

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.

IMG_2205

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.

IMG_2233

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.

fullsizeoutput_2846

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.

fullsizeoutput_2847

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