On the Road to Shangri-La

And off we are, once again, with the open road before us and no home awaiting our return.  We drove west from Denver, heading over the Independence Pass to check out Aspen.  The drive over the pass and to Aspen was gorgeous and looked to be a hiker’s paradise.  If we were planning to stay in the area for the night (we weren’t), we definitely would have checked out a couple of the trails in the area.

The View from Independence Pass

The View from Independence Pass

Instead, we headed to downtown Aspen to find a spot to picnic and check out the town.  Alan predicted I wouldn’t think much of Aspen.  He was right.  So on we drove to Carbondale, a town we visited briefly a few weeks earlier.  As we got out of our car, we heard the not-so-distant sounds of a funk band.  Following the music through some backyards and alleyways, we found our way to a park with a large playground for Van.  He played and played and clearly got over his temporary fear of slides while we listened to the funk band warm up for the evening’s concert.  After Van was thoroughly played out, we walked out of the park between a heated croquet game and about fifty or sixty folks doing yoga.  It turns out you don’t need to cut through backyards and alleyways to get to the park, so we took a much more direct way to the main street and did a little wandering before getting back in our car.

Our original plan was to camp for a night just south of Carbondale, but given Van’s mood (it was good), and where we wanted to get the next day, we decided to make today a long driving day and just drive all the way to Curecanti.  We arrived just before the sun was setting, set up a quick camp, and feasted on a smorgasborg of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, crackers, and raisins.  Living the high life, I know!  The campground left some things to be desired for tenters, but it was practically deserted and overlooked the Blue Mesa Reservoir, so we couldn’t complain.

After our first of three nights in Curecanti, we hit the road to check out Crested Butte.  How do I describe this area in a blog post?  Shangri-La comes closest, but it’s hard to describe in words or in pictures – you kind of just have to go there.  The day after we were in Crested Butte we met a family who had been there the same day as us.  As we were sharing our stories of the hikes that we each took, our new friend told us that if she had seen a unicorn, she wouldn’t have been surprised.  This, my friends, is the perfect description of Crested Butte.  Crested Butte: the native habitat for the elusive unicorn.

The Hills Just South of Crested Butte

The Hills Just South of Crested Butte

On the Road to Crested Butte

On the Road to Crested Butte

We started our day in Crested Butte hiking along a river, through wildflower meadows, and up a hill to aspen groves.  Every few steps I proclaimed this to be the most beautiful hike I had ever taken.  And then it would proceed to get more beautiful.  This is the Colorado of postcards and magazine advertisements.  I wanted the hike to go on forever.  But, as all things naturally come to a conclusion, so did our hike.  But not before we waded into the river to a gravel bar in the middle to play and eat lunch.  It was a perfect morning.

We spent the afternoon poking around town and checking out the library, both to entertain Van and to read up on how to change the light that went out on our car just hours after leaving Denver.  The town did not disappoint.  The people were friendly, the architecture was perfect for the location, and the sun was shining.  Now I just need to find someone who has a vacation home in the area and needs a caretaker.

The Bottling Process: Traveling with a Toddler (part 1)

Over the past several months, several of you have asked me for more details about the logistics of our travels.  This is the second post in an ongoing series about how we travel.  If there’s something you want to know more about, feel free to leave me a comment and perhaps it will be a topic for a future Bottling Process post.

When I read about other folks traveling around the country like us, most of them don’t have children.  Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of families on the road (just check out www.familiesontheroad.com for a taste), but it seems the vast majority are traveling either before having children or after their children are grown and have flown the coop.  And sometimes I get jealous when I read about all of the exciting things these childless travelers are getting to experience.  Traveling with a child, a toddler no less, changes things.  But for all of the things that we’re missing out on, we gain so much by experiencing this journey with a two-year old child full of wonder and silliness (even with his unending poo and periodic tantrums).  Here are a few things that have made living on the road with a toddler a little easier and a lot more fun:

  • Giving him a job at the campsite.  We inadvertently stumbled into the best tactic for giving us the time to set up the campsite while Van is not underfoot and also not getting into trouble. At one of our earliest camping spots on this trip, we asked Van to collect sticks and put them in the fire ring. Little did we know that he’d be such a committed gatherer that he’d amass a serious amount of wood for our fire. And he keeps doing it – every single night we camp – without being asked. He’s busy, we can set up the tent and make dinner, and we can have a nice fire after dinner. It’s a win, win, win!
  • Membership to a science or children’s museum.  When my mother was asking for birthday gift suggestions for Van, knowing that we’d be traveling and not wanting to get him something large or unnecessary for our travels, I suggested that she get him (and us) a membership to a children’s or science museum.  Many science and children’s museums provide reciprocity at other museums around the country, allowing members to get in for half price or even for free.  Since we are not going to be in one place this year, there was not an obvious museum at which we should become members.  I did some research and found a museum (The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton, Ohio) that not only provided reciprocity for one of these types of museums, it provided reciprocity at over 300 science and technology museums, almost 200 children’s museums, and almost 200 zoos and aquariums.  Amazing!  We’ve had the opportunity to visit the Explorium in Lexington, Kentucky, the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the Children’s Museum of Denver, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  And we have a long list of museums we’re excited to check out in the months to come.  In addition to giving us the opportunity to visit a number of museums of interest to us at a reduced cost or for free, visiting these types of museums is great for rainy days, hot and humid days, or days when Van desperately needs some kid time after too many activities that are more exciting to his mommy and daddy.
Water Fun at the Explorium in Lexington, Kentucky

Water Fun at the Explorium in Lexington, Kentucky

  • Libraries.  I am a huge fan of libraries – I worked at a library all through high school, we’ve planned this journey largely from library books, and we regularly frequented our local library before we began traveling.  But, as great as libraries are for local residents, they are just as great (if not better) for traveling families.  Van LOVES books, but we can’t bring too many with us given our lack of space.  Solution? Regular trips to the library!  But, not only do many libraries have a great selection of children’s books, more and more libraries also have a play area stocked with different toys – puppets, blocks, magnets, coloring pages and crayons, kitchens, play theaters, you name it!  And while Van’s busy playing and reading, we can check our email and our update the blog thanks to free wi-fi in many (but not all) libraries.  And you can’t take the clean bathrooms and running water for granted, either.
  • Making our own meals.  I imagine most folks traveling the country on a long-term basis make most of their own meals for cost and comfort reasons, but there are additional benefits when it comes to traveling with kids.  Kids can only sit still for so long and so often.  By making most of our meals on the road, in addition to minimizing cost, we minimize the time Van is stuck in a high chair at a restaurant and save those times for local places we’re itching to try (like hot chicken in Nashville or bbq in Memphis).  We’ve yet to eat out for breakfast and we rarely eat out for dinner.  That tends to happen when it’s been a long day, it’s getting late, and we’re famished, usually with no groceries to our name.  While we also make the vast majority of lunches (picnics across America should be our trip’s tagline), lunch is our meal of choice to go out.  When we’re not eating out for lunch (which is most of the time) we also get to see a different side of a place, since we typically eat our picnic lunch in a town square or other downtown green space when we’re not out on a trail.  Since he spends a bit more time in the car, this additional outdoor time is always welcome and lunch almost always concludes with time to explore. Plus, if you haven’t noticed, kids’ menus pretty much stink.  Seriously stink.  It’s a rare day when we order off of it.  He’s still got a small enough tummy that he can usually just share with us, or we’ll order him a small plate of something similar to what we’re eating.  I refuse to order him chicken strips and fries every single time we take him to a restaurant.  Once in a while, fine.  But why is every single kids’ menu the exact same, no matter where you go?  But I digress…  Even though we’re on a long-term trip, I’ve found that making most of our own meals is a great money and time saver on shorter trips, as well.  However, ignore this advice if you travel to Charleston, South Carolina, in which case you should eat out at least four times a day, every day, and mail me your leftovers.
Our trusty camp stove, the source of most of our yummy dinners

Our trusty camp stove, the source of most of our yummy dinners

No, this is not what I mean by picnic, cheerios do not make a meal (said no child, ever)

No, this is not what I mean by picnic, cheerios do not make a meal (said no child, ever)

The Bottling Process: Route Planning

Over the past several months, several of you have asked me for more details about the logistics of our travels.  This is the first post in an ongoing series about how we travel.  If there’s something you want to know more about, feel free to leave me a comment and perhaps it will be a topic for a future Bottling Process post. 

We spent months and months and months planning before we ever packed up our van and left our former home.  Much of that planning was related to the logistics associated with quitting a job (yikes!), packing and storing all of our belongings, financing a trip of this magnitude, and transitioning to a nomadic lifestyle.  Though I’m trying to be more spontaneous, we did have to start thinking about route planning.  While we did not leave Maryland with a fully developed route, we did have a general sense of our route and a fairly detailed list of places we wanted to check out in the first few states we planned to visit.  While this was partly due to the fact that we just didn’t have the time to do more, we also wanted the trip to develop naturally – to spend a little more time in places we really loved and to spend less in places that didn’t call to us.  Since we are camping, our travels are very weather dependent.  By remaining flexible, we can reroute ourselves to meet better camping weather and circumvent places that might be better visited at a warmer or cooler time of year.  Given our van predicament (the fact that we no longer own one), lack of detailed plan was a good plan!  Without further ado, here is how we approach the planning process.

  • Long before we left, we spent hours and days looking at the map, talking about places we’d like to visit, and coming up with the regions we’d like to visit and the best times of year to visit them.  We made a loose route for ourselves through certain states and regions, estimating when we’d be there given our likely speed of travel.  Unfortunately, this did not allow us to visit all of the regions and states that we’re interested in visiting.  Given that we both like cold weather climates, there were a number of northern states we wanted to visit, but only so much warmish weather in which to do it.  Should we be up for living on the road again next summer, then we’ll have the chance to hit some of the additional places we’d like to visit (northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, to name a few).
  • Once we had a general sense of our route for the first six months, we divided it into two legs.  Pre-Colorado and Post-Colorado.  The pre-Colorado portion was also supposed to include Oklahoma and New Mexico, but those will be saved for a later day.  Once we had a list of our Pre-Colorado states, we went to our local library and checked out tons of travel books on those states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico).  We both pored through the books, tabbing the towns and sites that looked interesting.  We then went through and compiled lists for each state in a word document.  We divided each state into regions and listed the towns, parks, and sites that looked most interesting to us.  We also added recommendations from friends and any other recommendations we came cross.  Before we left Maryland, this was the extent of our planning.  The only travel books we took were the free AAA books, which are not really great travel  planners but helped us when we’d come across towns we knew nothing about, and Road Food, a great book given to us be even better friends.
  • Now that we are on the road, we have a mapping session just before we enter a new state.  We sit down with the list, our National Geographic atlas, a highlighter, post-it notes, and a pen.  We highlight every town and site that is listed on the map.  We then write down on post-its more detailed lists of information for the towns or cities with several places we’d like to visit.  Once we have a good picture of where everything is located, we start figuring out a general route through the state.  Not every highlighted place makes the cut, but we’re able to use the map to prioritize the areas that have a higher concentration of places we want to visit.
  • Once we have a sense of our route and the places we want to visit, we then look up addresses and directions, if necessary.  We do not travel with a GPS and we only use the data on my phone (our only phone) when we have access to wi-fi or in emergency situations, which is not all that often.  This means that we travel using old-fashioned maps with ample time to get lost and found again.  More on this in a future post.
  • Now that we’re in Colorado, we’re busy reading library books on the second leg of our journey.  My goal is to do most of the mapping that we used to do just before we entered a new state before we leave Colorado.  This should make our travels a little easier down the road.  This type of mapping is best done with an internet connection and a lot of time.  We don’t usually have both at the same time, so my goal is to take the opportunity to do this in the evenings while we’re staying with family.  We just finished mapping out the parts of Colorado that we haven’t yet visited on our recent day trips.  Now I suppose it’s time for me to move on to the other stack of library books I have in front of me for Montana, Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest!