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Traveling American in a VW Van – pt 11

Traveling American in a VW Van – pt 11

Moab, UT

The air was cooling in the desert as the sun had set when we found a nice spot for the night on the side of Highway 128. We parked the bus next to the Colorado River and decided it was probably time for another shower. The desert is really hot, after all. We waded in to the rushing waters and felt the icy chill as water splashed over our heads. We got about as clean as you can get in a river and headed back to the bus for sleep. Headlights of passing cars shined into the windshield as we thought about how we possibly made it here.

“Can you believe we are here in Utah, halfway across the country?”

“Not one bit”

And then we slept.

Arches National Park

The sun was rising as we made our way through town and up to the entrance of Arches National Park. Boasting a thousand Arches, we were excited to see the structures that defy gravity. The bus climbed onto the mesas that we slept below last night. It was another race against time as the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, threatening our ability to drive. The scenic drive through the park let us stop at Thor’s Hammer and the Windows Section as we skipped through the orange sand beneath our feet. Double Arch was so big that people used to walk across it. Millions of years of erosion at work lead to these stunning and temporary arches. Next up was the famous Delicate Arch, as seen on the Utah license plate. A quick hike lead us to the less crowded viewing area across a valley.

“Those people look like little ants over there”

“We probably look like ants to them, too”

It was still early morning when we chugged up to the end of the road. Devil’s Garden  was a 9-mile loop around a concentrated section of arches in the park. A gallon of water each and a pocket map and we were on our way. Careful to stay on the trail, we wound our way through this desert garden. A close look at the soil beside the trail, and we could see the micro life growing. It looks like black and crunchy dirt, but its actually decades of work of fungi to provide life to desert plants. One step on these little guys could ruin years of progress as the biological crust provides nutrients for native plants.


We trudged through sand and rocks as we viewed 8 beautiful arches along the way. Partition Arch was my favorite. I climbed right in the window and looked out to the park below me. The stunning view left me only wanting more. More arches, more peaks, more hikes. We continued on, following a young family on the same hike. At one point, I looked at my hands to see that my fingers had swollen to twice their size. My rings were about pop off my fingers, so I resorted to holding my hands above my head the rest of our hike.


It was still early afternoon when we finished our hike and climbed back into the bus. We quickly headed down to the visitors center parking lot to wait out the heat. We managed to find the only shady spot in the parking lot and took our time wandering around the wonderfully air conditioned museum. We learned about the history of the arches, and then went back to do it again a few more times as the temperature was about 105 that day. Safe to say we melted in the bus.

Later in the evening, it seemed that another traveler in a classic Mustang was waiting out the heat too. We struck up conversation with Chuck and his two young sons. He seemed to be drawn to the road for the same reasons – freedom from responsibility & reality of normal life. They had also been traveling around the National Parks, but in a smaller ride. They gave us some tips for scenic roads towards Canyonlands National Park and we bid them farewell as they drove off into the red dust.

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).


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 9

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 9

Leaving the Rockies

Or so we thought. We woke at what was now a familiar view on the side of State Rd 7.

“Time to head out of town?”

Wrong. We knew instantly that we should have gone back to the shop in Loveland rather than turning around days before. Good thing I have AAA. They towed us to a local school parking lot that was within the 7 mile limit and offered us a push to get her kick-started. Nothing. We were left at the bottom of the school parking lot until the tow shop reopened tomorrow. Guess this is a good time to wander around. We walked to a nearby gas station to use their outdoor plugs and find some ice for our ever-soggy cooler. Later, we cooked some all-too familiar pasta while we listened to the rodeo announcer a few blocks away.

The next morning, we woke with frustrations and worries about what to do next. A few hours on hold later, we managed to get a tow to take us back to the shop in Loveland. I smooshed in the middle seat next to our driver as the bus was raised onto the back of the tow bed. It was a sad day on our journey, but it meant we were one step closer to figuring out what was wrong with our home on wheels. On the bright side, we twisted through Roosevelt National Forest for the third time and listened to the stories of Scotty and his life in Estes Park, CO.

We pulled up to the shop and were welcomed by Pat and Matt, the nicest mechanics on the planet. Pat even let us take his VW to the grocery store for lunch while he worked on our bus. About 30 minutes later we were coasting back on i-70 heading further west. The temperature was dropping quickly and so was our oil pressure. It seemed like we were chasing the sun as we climbed higher and higher over the 14,000 ft peaks as dusk was looming overhead.

“Do you think we’re going to make it over the mountains?”

“I sure hope so”

We passed signs that claimed the speed limit was 70, although the tick on our speedometer would not move past 35. My palms were sweaty from the anxiety as the night grew darker and our cell reception wavered. I am still surprised that the bus was able to make it over the Rockies. Soon enough the mountains rounded and rolled into the flat plains of western Colorado. Okay time to sleep.

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 7

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 7

Rocky Mountain Bound:

Yay! We are finally on our way to Rocky Mountain National Park! First, we had to make a pit stop at the mechanic in a nearby town called Loveland. We pulled up and parked in between several other VW buses. The shop owners were on a lunch break so we decided to cook up some quesadillas in the parking lot. Finally, the long awaited day had come where we could get the hex-bar fixed (that broke back in Tennessee). We had the replacement part with us and it was fixed in a few hours. We had the chance to chat with the friendliest mechanics we’ve ever encountered and got some great recommendations on things to do while in the park.

And we were off! We chugged up the backgrounds climbing higher and higher as we neared Rocky Mountain National Park. Twisting and turning around corners that offered vistas even more beautiful than the ones before it.

“Can you believe we’re really here?”

“Not one bit.”

The bus was running pretty hot, and I don’t blame her. Those mountains were steep and she needed a break. So we pulled over at a stop that gave us our first peak at the glaciers ahead of us. We played with the chipmunks and waited a while until she would start back up again, although it felt like ages. Minutes later we were passing by the “Entering Rocky Mountain National Park” sign to welcome us to the first big destination. After getting some advice and maps from a ranger at the visitor center, we headed back through the quaint town of Estes Park to find the trail head in a seldom visited corner of the park.

We began to climb the 7 miles to the top of Estes Cone (which looks like a nipple looming above us). I closed my eyes as I took in the warm afternoon breeze that rippled through the aspens and the smell of fresh pine needles around us. Most of my hike was spent huffing and puffing up the steep mountain trail while trying to keep Conrad in my view ahead of me. The higher we climbed, the more our view of Longs Peak opened up in front us.

“You want to climb that one when we finish this trail?”

(Climbers must have repelling gear and a bivy permit, which we did not)

The final stretch was a tough one, and the trail could only be spotted by finding the rock cairns to guide the way. A fun rock scramble on our hands and knees welcomed us to the very top of Estes Cone and the views were worth the work. Every place i set my eyes on amazed me. Gusts of wind rippled through my body as I stared at the snowy peaks of the Rockies that were surrounding me. We enjoyed a snack and tried to hide our food from the sneaky alpine squirrels. We stayed as long as we could before heading back down the mountain as light was leaving us.


“I guess we should find somewhere to sleep, right?”

So we headed back down the mountain to find a desolate country road in the park.

“There it is! I found our spot!”

We parked on the side of State Road 7 with a nice mountain view in front of us. Time to pop the top and get cooking.


The next morning I woke to Conrad nudging me and trying to get some words out. Eventually I heard “It’s sunrise” and I shot out of bed so fast that I knocked my head on roof. (Probably the 40th time on the trip). It was too cold to leave the comforts of the bus so I shot some pictures of the pink morning light shining into our bed. Then I fell back into the comforts of sleep.


Hours later we woke and got ready to do another hike on the east side of the park. The bus had other plans. We tried and tried and tried to get her started, but it seemed she liked the view so much, she didn’t want us to leave. A few hours later, my AAA membership came in handy and we revved to a start.

“She sounds pretty angry today.”

“I guess it’s back to the shop for us.”

So we cruised through the park and through Roosevelt National Forest  towards our friends at the shop in Loveland. Our day was spent gawking at the towering white cliffs above us as the road followed a bellowing river. We made it near Loveland when it was time to stop for gas. She had been running fine the whole day so we decided to turn back around and head to the west side of Rocky Mountain. Silly us.


Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 6

Traveling America in a VW Van – pt 6

Boulder, CO

Two weeks later and we had finally made it to Boulder! We had some friends to visit and some mountains to explore. We also had a bus to fix but it was Fourth of July weekend so it seemed we had to stay put for a few days. That’s okay, we had plenty to do. We wandered around downtown Pearl St and into all the galleries we could lay our eyes on. Everything we saw was inspired by the mountains that started a few blocks down the road. We met a few very interesting people (probably due to the fact that the Grateful Dead was playing two shows that weekend) who were interested in the bus. Our friends recommended that we eat at the Boulder Tea House, which was hand painted in Tajikistan and gifted to the city. Amazing patterns covered the walls and ceilings in little specks of color. The food and tea was so yummy that we went back twice. Eventually we made it back to our friend’s home to enjoy a comfy and warm bed.

4th of July:

We got to celebrate our 4th climbing on some giant red rocks! Our hike began in downtown Boulder, following the stream all the way to the base of the mountains.

“Hey those look like some cool rocks, wanna climb to the top?”



So we trudged our way up to the top of these magnificent red fins. It was difficult to find a navigable route to the top, especially with a clunky backpack on.

“I’m scared.”

“That’s okay. Keep climbing.”

Eventually I made it to the top, following behind in Conrad’s footsteps. We made a little nook in the rocks and enjoyed the views that surrounded us. In front, we saw all of Boulder and little specks of Denver in the distance. Behind us, we saw the beginning of the Rockies. Happy Independence Day, America. You’re pretty spectacular.


We met some more nice people playing in the rocks who were locals and come here to climb on the weekends. It must be nice to have this kind of adventure so readily available. We read some books and ate some nuts as we watched the light fade around us. It would have been a great place to stay for fireworks, but we worried about the bus because the only thing protecting her was a garbage bag in the window.

The next two days were relaxing as we met up with another friend and drove up to Flagstaff Mountain to watch the sun set. I watched the orange light dance on the mountain peaks before finally slipping behind them for the night. We got some much needed rest before heading out to the mechanic and Rocky Mountain. Our time in Boulder showed us many interesting and kind people, although eclectic may be a better word.

“That’s it”, I decided. “I’m moving to Boulder.”

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.


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”.


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

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.