It’s mid-summer, which makes it the perfect time for another installment of Lessons Learned. I’ve been thinking that this would be a great habit for me to keep up long after I stop traveling. It will motivate me to keep living the type of life that allows me to fill pages of a book with interesting, funny, and sometimes hard-earned lessons and give me time to reflect as I navigate my way through life. I certainly have no shortage of entries as we continue our travels living in 80 square feet of tent each night.
- The earth beneath our feet is made up of many colors and shades, not just brown. I knew this, but it didn’t register completely until we began traveling in Utah. Utah must have soil that spans every color in the spectrum. I’ve seen brown, red, orange, pink, white, blue, green, you name it! Even with all the colors of the rainbow, deep, rich brown is still my favorite.
- I am not as dependent on a water spigot as I had thought. Early on in our travels, we moved along from a campground after one night because it didn’t have any water. We both felt that access to water from a spigot (even if there were no flush toilets or showers) was indispensable when traveling with a toddler. Almost every other place we camped, through Nashville, had running water and hot showers. Since camping in Nashville (oh so long ago), we have not camped in a single place that has had free showers. Most have had no showers and often no running water except for a spigot to fill water bottles. The few that did have showers have had pay showers. We’ve learned to make do quite well by showering (when we feel like it) with our dromedary bag. It takes some creativity, but it actually works really well. So well, that we successfully camped for three nights in Canyonlands National Park at a campground with no water at all. The nearest potable water was a mere ten miles away, but the power for that well actually went out one day, so potable water turned out to be a fifty mile drive away from our site. And we did just fine. In fact, that was one of the very best places we’ve camped on this trip. As long as we make sure to keep all of our water fully stocked when we think we may run into a dry spell, we have absolutely no need to camp with running water.
- I acclimate to the heat much more quickly when I live outdoors. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m not a hot weather gal. This, despite the fact that I’ve lived in the DC area for the past eight years. We just got through with a long day in the sun filled with several hikes and limited shade, and I felt great. And it was 102 degrees! Granted, humidity in Utah is just not the concern it was back home, but 102 is 102. I realize that since I’m not living and working in climate controlled locations, I’m able to adapt much more easily to the weather around me, making my days (and nights) outdoors that much more pleasant.
- The only conversation starter better than a toddler is a toddler in a Yankees cap. I must admit that neither Alan nor I are big into baseball. The cap was a gift to Van from his Gran, who happens to be the Yankees’ number one fan. I understand that people might dispute this, but I’m willing to take on that dispute with anyone. As for the hat, Van gets comments on it wherever we go, and quite a few passionate ones. There are Yankees fans and Red Sox fans EVERYWHERE!
- I’m happier outside. This isn’t anything new, but it’s never felt more true.
- Van is even more flexible than we thought. We knew that for this adventure to be fun, Van needed to be flexible. He was already a flexible kid, not too bent out of shape if his nap was a few hours later than usual or even if he had no “usual” nap time as long as he took a nap. But we had no idea that he’d take so well to living on the road and the irregularity that naturally ensues. A nap at 11:30 one day and 5 the next? No problem. Packing up a campsite every few days for a brand new one? No problem. In fact, if we’re not heading out on a hike or a road trip every day or so, we have a little taskmaster on our hands who begs for the next road trip and hike. And at the end of each, we often get a round of applause and hear our backseat driver/hiker say “good hike” or “good road trip” not too long before requesting more. This kid cracks me up!
- Busyness does not equal stress. For most of my life, I was under the impression that when you’re busy, there’s a certain amount of stress that naturally hangs on for the ride. After the last few months on the road, I now realize that while busyness is sometimes (or maybe even often) accompanied by stress, it is not an automatic passenger. When we describe to folks that we’re traveling for an indeterminate amount of time, I think that there is the misperception that we’re living a life of leisure with nothing to keep us busy. While I can’t argue that we are living a certain type of person’s dream life and there is a fair amount of leisure involved, it is also an incredibly busy life. We’re constantly thinking about where we’re going to sleep that night, where we’re going to buy food, how we’re going to get water, do laundry, get the oil changed, take a shower, get reception to check voicemail and email, calm down a boy who’s had too much sun and too little sleep, and the list goes on and on. There are many things that become much more complicated when you don’t have a home – especially when you have a two-year old along for the ride. This is all a long way of saying that I’m busy, not the busiest I’ve ever been (I did work in biglaw), but busy nonetheless. And it’s not stressful! It’s a beautiful thing to realize since I thrive on being busy – but now I know that the stress is entirely optional. Of course, the key is being busy with things you’re in control of, that you enjoy, and that you have enough passion for that you don’t burn out or get bored.
Our Taskmaster, Hard at Play
Given that we’ve been on the road (more or less) for about two and a half months, I figured it was time for another installment of Lessons Learned. As we’ve made our way through the demise of our not-so-trusty traveling companion and regrouped to travel in a more slimmed-down fashion, here are some of my recent thoughts.
- The types of dining or fast food establishments in a town (if any) can be a pretty good barometer for the economic health of the area. A Chipotle? The area must be pretty well-to-do. The nicest (or only) fast food is a Hardees or a Subway? It’s either a really small town, or at least several rungs below the Chipotle towns in economic status.
- Things don’t go according to plan. This is such an important lesson that I’ve been learning most of my life. Embracing it allows me to let go and move on much more quickly.
- Flexibility and patience are key to minimizing stress. This is one of THE most important lessons I’ve learned in the past five years. While this isn’t something new to me, I’ve intentionally focused on practicing flexibility and patience in the presence of adversity, small and large, during this trip. This has made a remarkable difference in my stress level.
- The only way to get over irrational fears is to face them head on. When I was a child, I had a fear of dogs. Thankfully, I’ve gotten over that, but I’ve moved on to bigger and badder fears – airplanes and bears. Kinda stinks for someone who likes to travel. Having the van to sleep in on nights and in places that I was a bit more scared of bears served as a warm and cozy security blanket. As we traveled, I found myself thinking about bears less and less as we were out and about on trails, cooking dinner, and sleeping at night. It’s much easier to think about bears constantly during weekend outings than it is to think about it day in and day out when I’m living in the great outdoors on a semi-permanent basis. Now that I don’t have the van as a back-up sleeping destination, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that if we want to travel, I need to sleep in bear country. And it’s been going remarkably well, helped in large part by several months of facing it every day with a back-up plan. Will I have the same reaction in grizzly country? No, I know I won’t. But that’s a much smaller part of our journey. I am so relieved to be making progress towards putting bears (or at least black bears) in the same category as woof-woofers, using Van terminology.
- I belong amongst trees and mountains. And no, I’m not snobby like some Coloradans I know (wink, wink) – the Rockies are not the only topological bumps I’d call mountains.
- Lavender Kombucha (my favorite drink of the past few months) is a great conversation starter from Kentucky to Arkansas to Colorado. It’s a bit pricey compared to our usual drink of water from public spigots, so I don’t splurge often. But, I don’t think that I’ve made the splurge on this trip without an interesting and fun conversation to go along with the drink.
- As much as we like to joke about it, my father really is the most interesting man in the world. He’s been to so many of the places we’re exploring and always has an interesting story about his time there. I’ve heard fun and crazy stories about my father my whole life – each one of which would be the most interesting thing to happen to someone else – and yet these are all new stories. I think I ought to write a book.
- Even with three people living full-time in a car, we still have plenty of room to bring wants. The continuous downsizing of our possessions has been a great lesson in need vs. want. We’re still taking plenty of wants with us – needs for three people do not fill up an entire car.
- The best destinations usually cost the least, if anything at all. We are not traveling to see all the major tourist destinations. We’re traveling to get to know pockets of this country in a way we cannot without going there and engaging with the land and its people. Yes, we’ll be hitting some of the major National Parks with our annual pass, but other than the $80 we spend annually on this pass, most of the places we’re visiting don’t cost anything. There have been some notable exceptions (The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill and the Museum of Appalachia being two destinations very worth their admission fees), but we are generally very hesitant to spend money to have an experience on this trip. Because of the thought we’ve put into paying for “attractions”, the few places we’ve paid to visit have been fantastic experiences. If we were on vacation somewhere for a week, I’d probably be more free with my wallet. But, given that we’re traveling for so long, it helps us in numerous ways to keep that wallet closed more than we open it. Besides the saving money part, it also encourages us to see some lesser visited places that may be free or to explore towns and the natural environs of the citizens instead of the touristy parts of towns. There is a lot of fun to be had at libraries and laundromats, town squares and supermarkets. Writing that last sentence made my realize that this trip has basically been a tour of town square picnic lunches!
One month in, I find myself reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned on the road during thus far. Here are a few of my recent thoughts.
- Living on the road gets easier. There is a big difference between going on a several day or a week-long camping trip and living on the road. I’m not sure I completely appreciated the difference until we began this journey. Minor inconveniences that during a week vacation would be easy to brush aside become much more bothersome when you realize that you are going to have to adapt to this inconvenience for the foreseeable future. The flip side is that once you’re on the road for a while, you begin to adapt and adjust to your new normal pretty quickly (similar to the principle of hedonic adaptation). Each day it gets a little easier and any fears I have related to this journey lessen.
- Fewer things = Less stress. When you’re living with so few items and in such a small space, there are fewer extraneous things to deal with, clean, put away, maintain, etc. This also means that there are fewer issues that can crop up. Of course when issues do crop up, there are often fewer ways to resolve them. Even with this constraint and with the constraints of not having a permanent home or any sort of regular indoor location in which to relax, unwind, or even bathe, I’m finding that I can pinpoint, understand, and address problems easier and more quickly than when I lived with a house full of items.
- Traveling with a two-year old means you don’t get to see everything you want. Two year olds nap, they get cranky on long tours, they’re not interested in all of the same things as you and will certainly let you know it, they need more sleep, and they like to eat – often. Our pre-kid traveling itinerary contained many more things in a day than we’re able to do or see with Van. That being said, although we don’t get to see everything we want, what we do get to see we see through the eyes of a child. And, we get to see those things with the most important little guy in our world. That makes all the missed visits worth it. This leads me to…
- Naps trump everything. What, Van fell asleep in his car seat just minutes before we got to our destination? Oh well, it looks like we’ll be missing that last tour of the day. Enough said.
- It’s remarkably easy to get mail on the road. We had heard of general delivery, but never actually used it. Once we know that we’ll be in a certain area for a few days, I can call the local post office to confirm that they’ll receive general delivery. One post office in each town will receive and hold mail addressed to you as long as it is sent to the post office via general delivery. Then, once it has arrived, you go to the post office, show identification, and pick up your mail. Simple as that! By my second visit to the Dillard, Georgia post office, they knew my name as I stepped through the door and even gave me my mail after the post office had closed because they didn’t want to make me make another trip down the mountain. What service!
- Any ill feelings I may have ever harbored toward McDonalds have all but disappeared. Although we haven’t actually eaten anything at a McDonalds on this trip, we’ve made plenty of stops to their parking lot. Because we’re using an inexpensive cell phone plan, we’ve turned off the data. In order to check email or, more importantly while traveling, the weather without being charged an arm and a leg, we need to find a free wi-fi spot. Starbucks and McDonalds provide free wi-fi, but there are many more of the latter than the former, especially where we’ve been traveling. As long as we can find a McDonalds, we can check email and make sure we’re not in for any torrential downpours. And it’s probably only a matter of time before we break down and order one of their burgers or shakes. Alan jokes that Van is not going to realize that McDonalds even serves food – he’ll just think of it as a place to pick up some free internet for a few minutes.
- When you have the option, stay at a state or federal campground. They’re cheaper, they provide many of the same amenities, they’re cheaper, there are more tenters, they’re cheaper. And did I mention that they’re cheaper? It is amazing the difference in price we’ve seen for private and public campgrounds separated by only a few miles. It’s true that many of the private campgrounds have pools and playgrounds and game pavilions, but many of the nice public campgrounds also have playgrounds and pools (or even better, lakes) and nice, hot showers. While not all public campgrounds have hot showers or even running water, with a little bit of investigating, you can save a lot of money by staying at the nicer public campgrounds. The one drawback that we’ve seen so far is that private campgrounds are not affected by the sequester or state budget cutbacks. Public campgrounds are, which is why we had fewer camping options earlier in our trip. That being said, most of the private campgrounds in those areas were also closed as we were apparently visiting too early in the season.
- Eggs in a cooler present several issues. First, if you buy them in cardboard, the cardboard is quickly rendered useless by the melting ice. Second, if they find their way towards the bottom of the cooler and become encased in ice, they will freeze and no amount of thawing will turn your egg back to what you once had. No matter, it’s still edible, but you may not be able to make that nice sunny side up egg you had planned.
- Kids don’t need many store-bought toys. Yes, I knew this already, as I’m sure almost all parents do. But it wasn’t until this trip that I truly got it. We packed away boxes of Van’s toys into storage and chose only a handful of small toys that could fit in one box for our trip. Van has played with a few things from that box over the last month, but the vast majority of the toys we brought have remained untouched. Instead, he obsesses over rocks, leaves, and sticks (especially sticks). He also loves climbing steps, over big logs, across bridges, and up and down hills. Our evenings are spent to the tune of “more sticks, more sticks, more big logs, more big logs” on repeat while Van scours the campsite for sticks and logs to make a fire. He has plenty of toys at his disposal, just not the ones we packed for him.