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Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 10

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 10

Goodbye Colorado

We woke in a Walmart parking lot, which was beginning to become another familiar place on the trip. Quickly, we jumped out of bed to make breakfast in the empty spot next to us and brush our teeth inside. Conrad changed the oil while I got the bus ready for takeoff again.

The bus found herself back on i-70 heading further west toward Utah. The scenery seemed to change every mile we pushed on. The warm browns and forest greens of the Rockies blended into the bright red rocks in the desert. We were now entering the land of deep canyons and dry tumbleweed.

“Hmm it looks like we just landed on Mars”

“Maybe we should be calling this a rocket ship instead”

Eventually it got too hot to drive any further, so we headed to Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction to stop for the night. The road to the park winded up a red mountain and through tunnels until we reached the top of a canyon. A quick hike around the rim showed us the town on the horizon and massive red boulders below us. After the bus cooled off for a few hours, we picked out a private spot in the campgrounds and got ready for lunch. I was grateful for the icy cold shower I took in the shade of a desert pine (I think it had been a week since my last one).

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After dinner, we wandered around the park to find a good place to watch the sunset. Hues of orange and red danced on the rocks as she fell further and further in the sky. It was our last night in Colorado and I reflected on all the unexpected turns in the road we had so far. The times we were broken down on the side of the road. The times I wanted to turn around, but Conrad pushed me further on the trail. Even the times when I didn’t get to shower for a week and has an ever-present layer of dirt on my feet. Colorado had been good to us, but it was time to keep driving west.

The next morning we woke at sunrise and quickly said goodbye to the first leg of our journey before the sun threatened the long drive ahead of us. Back down the mountain we went towards i-70.

“Welcome to Utah!” we both screamed as the bus chugged across the border into a new state.

We veered left on a scenic byway towards Moab, UT for our next stop at Arches National Park. Every turn offered stunning new canyons and mesas that were glowing in the morning light. We squealed with delight as we entered the Wild Wild West. The road followed the Colorado River as it offered the only oasis in the desert. It was like we found ourselves on a new planet.

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 4

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 4

We made it! After two long weeks on the road, the weight on our shoulders lifted as the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign came in to view.

“Quick pull over!” I screamed as Conrad veered sideways off the road.

IMG_2705I expected the Colorado border to welcome us with mountains and high snowy peaks. I was surprised to see much of the same scenery I had seen in Kansas: lots of corn. We were both so excited to finally be in Colorado, in spite of all the people who said the bus wouldn’t make it. The eastern half of Colorado offered rolling hills and yellow fields of hay that were ready for harvest.

The first night was spent at a State Recreation Area in the middle of nowhere. We followed a dirt road to a lone picnic table that overlooked a dried up riverbed. The temperature quickly dropped as dark clouds rolled in above us. It looked like we would have another stormy night in the plains. Before the rains came, we got to know our camp neighbor, Dave. He was recently retired and traveling the American West on his motorcycle in search of a place to settle down. We all stayed up while Dave entertained us with stories of aliens and astrology. He was another kind stranger that taught me something new. Eventually, the rains forced us inside for the night, and we curled up underneath all the blankets we brought along. Just as I was drifting towards sleep, I heard a crinkling noise coming from the cabinet.

“What is that?”

“Maybe it’s a mouse”

Conrad creeped out of bed with a flashlight to try to catch our culprit. When the cabinet opened, a little brown mouse was staring back up at him! Then he scurried away back into the hole he came from, probably bringing some of my granola along with him. As we tried to sleep again, we toyed with the idea of keeping our little mouse as a companion for the rest of the trip.

“We can name him Sirius.”

Sadly, we would have to wait a little longer until our friend came out again. And then the rain hushed us into sleep.

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My eyes fluttered open the next morning as I shivered in the morning chill. I felt so peaceful as I lay there listening to the rain above me and thinking about how grateful I was to be in that moment. Our camp started to stir as we all tried to wake up our fingers and toes. That morning felt like winter (at least Florida winter), as rain drizzled on our heads. FullSizeRenderDave offered to treat us to breakfast, so we piled in the bus and drove a few miles out to the only restaurant in town. We ate at a retro diner with really yummy pancakes. Afterwards, we dropped Dave back off at camp and parted ways as we headed towards Colorado Springs.

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 3

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 3

Kansas: the Gateway to Colorado

Did anyone else know that Kansas is 400 miles long? It felt like a year as we drove through the Sunflower State. I’m still not sure why it wasn’t named the Corn State. We tried to get through Kansas as fast as we could, because that meant Colorado was even closer. We plowed through corn across I-70. Our three days on the road went without a hitch, and we were even able to drive during most of the daytime before the sun kicked us off the road.

The first night in Kansas was spent at a campsite in a small city park in Saint Mary’s. This sweet little farming community seemed to be stuck in the 1950s. I think we were somewhat of a novelty as the bus chugged through the park, interrupting baseball and swimming practices. When we finally got settled in, we took the opportunity to cook outside on the picnic tables and made a delicious fajita lunch. The rest of our day was spent walking around the park and relaxing in the shade. The next morning, I woke bright and early to the sounds of people checking out the car and peering through the windows down below. We felt like outsiders here, and decided to pack up our stuff quickly to continue west. The bus trudged down back roads for most of the day, which was fine because we didn’t get passed by trucks every twenty seconds.

IMG_2687Our final night in Kansas was at the beautiful Cedar Bluff State Park. We found a nice secluded spot under the trees that overlooked the reservoir. It was getting hot, so we hung out in our bathing suits all day as we cooked a feast. I think this was the best meal of our whole trip, though Conrad may disagree. We passed the time by playing cards and goofing around. This campsite also had free showers! I was more excited about the shower than I was that we would land in Colorado the next day. We were clean and happy campers as we snuggled in to bed that night.

“You think we’re finally going to get a good nights sleep?”

“Yeah, I hope so”.

Wrong.

I woke a few hours later with the feeling that the bus was about to topple over on her side. Thunder and lightening shook the ground around us as wind and water whipped the canvas near our heads. I was scared. But there was no time for fear as we scurried down below and closed the pop top. Then, we noticed that the trees above us had dropped hundreds of tiny bugs in through an invisible hole in the roof. Time to move. So we ran outside to take the shade down and I directed Conrad into a safer spot that was clear of trees, and hopefully bugs. Then it was time to crawl back inside and rearrange the car so we could sleep on the bed below. Then it was time to put dry clothes on.

“Are we going to be okay in here?”

“I hope so”.

Then it was time for sleep.

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 2

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 2

IMG_9765Day 3 We woke to the pitter patter of rain on the canvas and birds chirping in the trees around us. I rolled over and smiled, realizing that we had spent our first true night on the trip. It was still chilly and I slipped out of bed and began to think about how grateful I am  to be in in this moment. Mammoth Cave National Park was the first stop on our way westward.

Cave Exploration

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Entrance into the caves

A trip to the visitors center taught us about the 400+ miles of caves that lay underneath our feet. Not even close to being completely discovered, these underground caverns are federally protected and monitored closely (although we met some locals who claim it’s easy to sneak in). We were excited to climb underground and see how big the caves really were. As we twisted through the paths and followed our tour guide, I thought about how we would ever find our way out if all the light bulbs suddenly went out. We found ourselves standing in “rooms” that were a few acres big, all hundreds of feet underground. On the tours, we learned about the history of the caves and all the different expeditions that were taken here over the past century. Although the caves predate that, there hasn’t been too much evidence about other people living inside the massive system.

The Waiting Game

Although we had a lot of fun exploring Mammoth Caves, we were both itching to continue west towards Colorado. We happened to be stuck in a campsite with no way to get the car started again, and nowhere to get her fixed since our side-of-the-road fix was only temporary. We spent a day or two hanging around our campsite. I pretended I could play more than one tune on my ukulele while Conrad played cards. The next day, we trudged along a trail that had an overlook of the Green River (I fell into a 3 foot mud pit). One  morning was lucky when the bus started without trouble. Luckily, my friend’s uncle was nice enough to open his home to us. When the evening air was finally cool, we headed north for Louisville, KY.

We were lucky enough to stay with a wonderful family who fed us (even vegan meatballs for me) while everyone got to know each other. Although our stay with these strangers was short, we felt at home for a night. We were on the road again by morning to get some advice from a local VW mechanic. He thought our electrical tape method was working quite well and gave his blessing to continue west towards Colorado. Our time in Kentucky showed me that Southern hospitality is real, because everyone we met showed us kindness and grace.

The Great Plains

IMG_2640We spent the rest of that day covering lots of ground (and corn) as we passed through Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. I was amazed that our country can actually grow that much corn! We cruised through these states with no plans of stopping soon. The bus had other ideas, because we ended up pulling off at the last exit in Indiana, which offered a gas station from the 1950s. We ended up doing another surprise oil change as we waited for the sun to go down and the heat to break. Once we finally hit the road again, it seemed like we were chasing the sun as she was setting in front of us.

As we neared St. Louis around midnight, we had planned to stop at a nearby state park for the night. We took our exit and followed the GPS down a dark dirt road in the middle of farm land.

“This doesn’t seem right.. I told you to use Google Maps instead”

“Let’s just keep going”

Well, Conrad was right. The GPS had said we arrived, just as we approached a sign that claimed the road was closed. Our hearts sank as we realized we had to find somewhere to get some sleep, and this back road had a creepy vibe.

“Walmart it is.”

Well that was another adventure as we tried to navigate around the  city. The GPS took us in circles because all the highways crossed over each other. At about 1 am we finally found the Walmart, which allows overnight RV parking. As luck would have it, it happened to be undergoing construction in the parking lot. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep that night.

We were exhausted and cranky as we tried to settle in for the night, but I looked forward to the next day when we would cross into Kansas – one state closer to Colorado.

 

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 1

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 1

Recently, my boyfriend, Conrad, and I decided to spend all of our money on a huge trip across the country. He drives a 1976 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, which serves as a vehicle and a home. We have taken short trips in the past to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and local wonders in Florida, but this was our first big adventure away from home and the comforts of the beach. We had a dream to drive through the country to our other coastline in California, stopping at National Parks along the way. It was a big dream, and we were able to make most of it happen. Countless hours were spent mapping out the route we would take and agreeing on the destinations we would stop at along the way.

“Should we stop at Mammoth Caves, or take I-10 across?”

“Do you think the bus is actually going to make it all the way out there?”

June 22 was the day we finally hit the open road. I couldn’t have foreseen all the adventures we would have and the nice people we would meet along the way. Six weeks later, we rolled back into the same driveway. Here will be an overview of how we managed to live in a tiny space, handled breaking down on the side of the road, found gas stations with no cell signal, and still had the trip of a lifetime.

Leaving our home in South Florida

The Beginning of a Journey:

Packing up the van with sunscreen, hiking poles, and lots of pasta made me finally realize that I was about to drive across the country, away from all family and friends, to experience what I have been dreaming of for years: life on the open road (if only for a few weeks). Our parents hugged us goodbye and made us promise to text/call 239 times per day. Excitement and giggles flooded the car as we pulled out of the driveway to start a journey towards the American West. 12 hours of driving later, we landed at my cousin’s home in Atlanta, GA. It took us so long because the bus has a top speed of roughly 65 mph, which is typically fine for highways, unless you hate getting passed by semi trucks. So we snuggled into a real bed for what we thought would be the last time in a few weeks.

Day 2 is really where the adventure started. We cruised through Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. We had just gotten to elevation that was higher than sea level in the mountains of western Tennessee, when the gas pedal stopped working in the middle of the highway. We darted for the shoulder and pulled over (I know it’s not safe, skip this part Mom). Conrad wiggled out of the passenger door and grabbed the toolbox from the back. Smoke billowed out of the engine compartment because we let her work too hard up unfamiliar inclines. After a few minutes of digging around, we found the problem: a broken hex bar (I’ll pretend I knew what that meant). There was nothing we could do except fashion this piece of metal with electrical tape and pray that it stays attached to the engine. It was a nervous ride the rest of the day through the mountains, and we ended up on the side of the road another 4 times.

“Finally, we made it!”, I screamed as we pulled off the exit for Mammoth Cave National Park.

“Wait, we have to get gas first.”

Little did I know that we would be stuck at the gas station for another three hours. At first, we figured she was just hot, but then we noticed that she had burned up a lot of oil along the way. So Conrad threw some in there and we tried to head out to our campsite. Well, we made it about 4 feet across the street before she stalled and stuttered to a halt with no hopes of starting back up. Over the course of an hour or two, at least twenty people came by to see if we needed any help and comment on our sweet ride. I was shocked that so many people went out of their way to offer help (this never happens in Florida). A few guys even helped me push the van to try to kick start her, but sadly, it failed. There was no shortage on Southern hospitality here in Park City, KY.

The light was leaving us, and we had no way to get to our campsite. We were also really hungry, which never helps anything. Just as I was giving up hope and trying to convince Conrad to just stay the night here, another local couple stopped by to offer us help. I think our luck finally turned here, because Tim was a mechanic and owned his own VW bus, so he knew how to help us out. After talking for a few minutes while he had his head in the engine compartment, the bus roared to a start. We thanked our saviors, raced to the bus, and headed up the road to follow the signs toward Mammoth Cave National Park. Driving through the bright green forest, we got to see baby turkeys and deer as the park animals ventured out into the cool evening. Thankfully, we pulled into a campsite just before the sky opened up and started to pour.

“Hey look we can take showers now!”

We popped the top, unloaded the stove and all of our food to start dinner. I can still recall that we made lentils and veggies for dinner because it may be the most appreciated meal I have ever eaten. We took turns cooking and showering outside in the rain before finally heading to sleep. We were happy to finally lay our heads down and rest after the long few days we had at the start of the trip. So far, we traveled almost 1,000 miles in two days.

“Do you know how we’re going to start the car in the morning?”

“Nope, no idea.”

And then we slept.