Through my windshield I could see my destination, or at least where I assumed it was, miles away on the far-off tips of the Rocky Mountains. It was late May, and my head was racing faster than my wheels.

My mood? A confusing mix of sad, excited and scared. I had already cried for the first 100 miles of the trip, and I didn’t want to for the next hundred. I had no choice but to turn up the Lana Del Rey on my iPod and turn my thoughts to the road.

Fast forward to my arrival in Estes Park, Colorado, 2 hours later. I’d hit a pocket of heavy rain on the way from Loveland and since I’d never even driven mountain roads in the sunshine, I wasn’t in the best mood.

“What’s happenin’ Veronica?”

That mellow voice belonged to my life partner, Jordan. His lanky arms outstretched, as always, he was totally chill. Without fail, his embrace always calmed me right down.

Getting To Know My New Home

We got in my car and drove to the van, parked on the outskirts of the Safeway lot. In my mind I was nervously going over where I’d stashed all of the items I wanted to move into the campervan; “Red suitcase in the trunk, blue laundry sack behind the case, shower bag under the blankets and pillows, don’t forget the camera under the seat…”

The van looked better than I remembered. More spacious and comfortable. In no time our happy home was re-packed and we were headed off to find a meal.

“The Green Machine”, as we affectionately referred to it, was an older Dodge that Jordan had purchased two years prior. He was comfortable with it mechanically and had spent enough time in it to know its quirks, limitations and advantages.

I was very fortunate to not have to go through the complex process of choosing a make and model, test driving candidates to buy, getting it all ready to roll… But I do look forward to getting into all that for a future machine.

Here’s a must-read article that covers the everything you need to know about buying a van and other details to prepare for an epic American road trip.

 

Why Van Life?

Coming to the decision to travel by van was not easy. I was fresh out of college and unsure what to do next. There’s so much pressure to get a job and settle in somewhere right after graduation. I didn’t feel drawn to any of that.

After being in school for so many years, I just wanted a break to be free, even if just for a little while. Free from the stress of deadlines, and having somewhere to be every day. I wasn’t interested in the corporate world, and I needed time to figure out what I wanted to do next with my life.

The idea of freedom was so powerful at the time that van life just called my name. Something about the wide open road, your biggest worries being where to park and sleep; the simplicity of this lifestyle kept pulling me towards it.

Jordan had done a few long van trips, and he was anxious to get back to it.

Still I was unsure and felt the need to be cautious. Thanks to work commitments and seasonal issues (snow levels…) I had about three months to get acquainted with the idea.

I took that time to get acquainted with the best online resources for van travel. Articles like this were crucial to my mental and physical preparation (#5, How to show patience and kindness, especially spoke to me).

The Challenges Of Packing The Van

Half the fun of van travel is walking the fine line between self sufficiency and minimalism.

In some ways, the deep dive into minimalism was the most challenging aspect of this adventure. Like most Americans, I’d lived all my life with 18 pairs of shoes, 27 forks, 12 water glasses…

Prior to moving in, I could imagine the switch to minimalism, but no amount of reading would prepare me for the realities.

But I adjusted quickly, and my new tasks became fun and even exhilarating. For example, planning an entire kitchen to fit in a space the size of an apple box.

Other skills I picked up, like planning and organizing food for the coming week, would become part of my life whether traveling or at home.

Taking In The Town

Driving into Estes Park for the first time, I stared in awe at the tourists crowding the restaurants and gift shops.

It only took a few blocks of this for my already tired mind to become exhausted by the throngs of summer tourism. Finally we reached the end of main street and Jordan parked our large green van.

“What’s the plan?” I said with a forced smile, a bit of tension in my voice.

“This is the library parking lot, but we’re heading across the street to the Cantina.”

“Cantina?”, I thought to myself. That sounded like drinks. My specialty. I waited to be surprised. My patience was rewarded with margaritas. I was ready for a distraction, and I knew Jordan was too.

“I propose a toast. To us!” exclaimed Jordan. I raised the sweet strawberry house specialty with his, and we drank.

I toasted the second round “To our new adventure together!” A bit forced, but I was gradually coming around. I was determined to get this show on the road.

Buffer Time

One thing I love about Jordan is his ability to feel when I’m a bit off-center. He senses when it’s time to lower the stress a bit.

“Let’s take a little travel break and check out the local museum.”

It was about 2 pm, still early, and our camp site destination was not far from town.

What I most remember about the Estes Park Museum, aside from the early settler artefacts and the pride of the local volunteers who run it, was getting a feel for the energy of the area.

The laid-back, unrushed attitudes of the local people, the old west buildings, the focus on outdoor life, all helped me relax and get my head into the coming adventures.

A low-key respite from the highly focused goal of the travel destination can provide a much needed mental reset.

So my advice for any weary traveler is to get out of the vehicle whenever you have time (and maybe even when you don’t) to see some local sights. Even if you find tourist attractions like local museums or “the worlds largest ____” corny, the distraction will help clear the mind and make the next leg of your journey easier.

Here are a few I always look for when taking a break from the road

  • Museums – Always check for local museums!
  • Farmers markets – Local honey, farm fresh eggs, beef jerky… Plan your first meal in camp.
  • Bookstores – Donate what you’ve finished and pick up something new.
  • Coffee shops – Meet some locals and get caffeined up for the road.

Can This Be My New Backyard!?

After stopping for some supplies, Jordan began to drive us out of town the way I’d come in. Around the 10-minute mark, I began to fear that we were going all the way back down the mountain.

As if reading my mind, he turned the Green Machine onto an almost vertical dirt road. Luckily the road was graded, and the van handled it well.

After a few minutes of climbing, we popped over the hill and the scenery took me by surprise. The beauty all around left me speechless and cleared my mind of all the concerns of the day.

Pulling into a gravel parking lot, I noticed the abundance of evergreens surrounding us. I opened the door and the smell of ancient, aromatic pine filled my senses.

Entwined was the faint scent of juniper, and I spotted the notorious blue berries poking out like Christmas Tree lights. In that moment a stunning realization finally sunk in: my new backyard was a National Forest!

Jordan’s laugh at my state of awe brought me back to reality.

For the bulk of this summer journey, Jordan and I would stay in Distributed Camp Sites, also known as Wild Camping or Boondocking; free camp sites on National Forest land.

This is some of the most beautiful camping available in the US. I highly recommend it, not only for the cost savings of over $20-$60 per night at supported campgrounds, but for the gorgeous wild locations and the feeling of living off grid, fully self supported.

Resources for finding Government sanctioned free camp areas

The Bureau of Land Management page is a great place to get the latest info about any BLM spots.

The United States Department of Agriculture site is a must visit for info about dispersed camping anywhere in the National Forest outside of a designated campground.

Here’s the National Forest Service Maps site for all your location and topo needs.

Many states allow distributed camping in wild areas. Search online by state and county for more local resources. For example, this search turned up some state sanctioned resources.

Meeting My Community

A small group of people headed in our direction as soon as we parked. I surveyed them cautiously. One woman who had short, curly, unruly hair approached us first. A young girl of about 7 with a big smile flanked her. An older woman was lagging behind.

I glanced over at Jordan, who was already climbing out of the van to greet the group. 

I was still in a bit of a fragile mental state, and in the moment I wanted these people to leave us alone, so I tried to withhold my smiles and friendly words.

However, as the ladies started talking, I began to realize they really meant well. The curly-haired woman (Jane) was hearing impaired and was married to a fly fishing instructor.

Jane was the mother of the little girl, as well as a 14-year old named Katana. The older woman, Frankie, was a vet and retired nurse. She was also a recovering alcoholic, chain smoker and very sweet. She wanted us to call her grandma.

“Grandma”? That did it for me. I was hooked.

Later, when Jane’s husband came home, she made us all dinner. I couldn’t believe my fortune as I ate meat and potatoes over a campfire under the stars, surrounded by new friends.

Meeting new people on the road will likely happen at the most unexpected and random times. But it’s also important to take a proactive approach to being social. Especially since you won’t be around your usual group of friends and family.

Make an effort to make new friends. If you’re at a camp site, say hi to your neighbors, invite them to dinner or for a card game, maybe even throw a campsite party.

Even if you’re not very social at home, the van and RV community can be friendly, accepting, and open-minded. I’ve never experienced a community like it before.

In this article I talk more about the importance of socializing while on the road, and 9 other van life tips.

A Day Ends, A Journey Begins

I’d worked up quite an appetite during my long day of travel and changes, and I was surprised at how quickly I polished off my camp food. After an hour of fishing, hiking and travel stories, and a couple of very satisfying beers, I crawled up in the van beside Jordan for a long sleep.

In that moment, I felt like I was in a dream taking place in paradise. I now realize that it was no dream, that paradise had become reality and engulfed me.

During the last few moments of consciousness on the pullout bed, I wondered what adventures the rest of this journey would bring…


This was a guest post by Veronica Cavanaugh

When she’s not writing guest posts about van life, Veronica is camping, backpacking, or planning her next outdoor adventure. She also enjoys watching old movies and writing poetry. See more of her work at VanSage.com.