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)

Lessons Learned – v.2.5

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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!

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!

And We Move On…

Apologies for the radio silence over the past week.  We’ve been enjoying time with family, running tons of errands, and reassessing our next steps.  The sale of our inoperable van was final as of this morning and our wagon is now topped with a Yakima car box.  While it’s sad to think that we will not be traveling as we had planned, we are moving forward.  I’ve already moved past it and am looking forward to the challenge of squeezing the three of us and all of our camping equipment and belongings (including a stroller, pack and play, and backpack carrier) into our wagon.

In between outings with the grandparents and spending time in the beautiful Colorado sunshine, we’ve been cleaning and organizing all of our equipment and culling our already limited belongings.  There is certainly a lesson in this about how little you actually need.  Rather than feeling stressful, it’s actually been freeing to winnow our belongings to the basic necessities (and a couple of extras here and there).  I plan to carry this lesson beyond our travels into our more settled life.

I leave you with a few words from the book I’m currently reading.

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Regrouping

After a wonderful week in northwest Arkansas with my parents, we made the long drive to Colorado yesterday.  We were on the road for just over twelve hours straight (Arkansas to Missouri to Kansas, Kansas, and more Kansas to Colorado), which is a record for our little guy.  He was fantastic, we really did win the kid lottery!  We are now safe and sound with Alan’s family and are in the process of cleaning, reorganizing, and regrouping.  We’ll likely be here off and on for the next several weeks (at least) to see family and friends, but we’ll also be hitting the road for several shorter camping trips to various corners of the state that we’d like to check out.  In the process, we’ll be figuring out how and where we’re going to travel going forward and put those preparations into action.  As some of you may know, we wound up having to skip over several states we wanted to visit due to our van troubles.  We’re not sure if we’ll be visiting the those places after we leave Colorado, or if we’re going to leave them for later in the trip.  I imagine that after a visit to the local library and several evenings spent poring over travel books and we’ll have a better sense of where we’re headed next.  In the mean time, we should be more accessible, and if you’re reading this from Colorado, we’d love to see you while we’re here!