In Part 1 of my West Coast road trip series I covered the circumstances that left me with the sudden freedom to be a nomad for a while and how it led to me deciding to take a month long camping roadtrip with my four little girls, our dog, our cat, my bestie, her little girl, and their dog. Whew. I can’t talk myself out of writing about trip prep so that I can get into the fun stuff like… the actual trip. It might be that I am procrastinating because I worry that I won’t be able to do it justice when it comes time to summarize one of the craziest, best experiences of my life so I’m getting hung up on irrelevant details BUT in my defense I do get a lot of questions and comments about the stuff I’m about to talk about.
For me, the four things I needed to plan for when becoming a nomad for an indefinite amount of time were 1. Where I’d go 2. Stuff I’d need 3. How to help kids not be miserable jerkfaces 4. What to do with the things I’d leave behind.
Turns out this is going to take two separate blog posts because I. can. not. shut. up. so here’s topics 1 and 2. I also added some junk about food and money. Whatever this is my blog I don’t have to stick to the script.
1. The Route
Like I said in part 1, the route came mostly from deciding I’d try to see the north rim of The Grand Canyon and the Pacific Ocean, and if things went well I’d just keep heading to the next cool destination. From the beginning, my “ideal but almost certainly unrealistic ultimate scenario” looked pretty close to this route pictured here. Spoiler alert: this is the exact route we took in the end. The gaping hole where we obviously missed Lake Tahoe and Yosemite was engulfed in flames at the time. Most stops were within a maximum 6 hours of each other, and on long travel days we tried to make sure we stayed somewhere for at least two days. There were a few 10+ hour days.
We almost never knew where we’d be more than two nights in the future. We usually booked camp sites or hotels when we were a few hours away. I always had a next location in mind but I always wanted to keep open the option of staying an extra night if we really loved a place. We often would sit and research routes to our next chosen location and sometimes picked a longer route because it was more scenic or was more likely to have ice cream. Sometimes we stumbled across cool things we didn’t know about, and took chances on exiting towards something that sounded interesting. This method of planning worked out really, really well for us. I never had to worry about losing a reservation, and yes sometimes it was hard to find a campsite on short notice, but it always worked out. It often felt like amazing places, experiences, people, and restaurants were presenting themselves to us because we were open to them. We were truly meandering and it was only stressful sometimes because I did worry that if we took too much time, we’d hit a wall and burn out or blow all our money before we got anywhere super cool. As time went on though, I began to feel like “this has been amazing and if it’s over today, it will have all been worth it.” In hindsight it’s easy to romanticize the whole thing. I hope going forward I’m able to bring to mind the really hard times and everything that sucked about it so I can present a balanced memoir of the trip. A common theme of conversation between Brooke and myself was “highs and lows” because they seemed to come consistently and in quick succession. So many times we looked at each other and said “Hey. We’re doing this. We are making it happen!”
2. The Stuff
I also covered gear a little in part 1. I did spend a lot of time researching camping gear but only because that’s fun for me. I could spend 4 hours in REI no problem. In the end my approach to gear was the same as my approach to the route. “Figure it out as we go.” I knew that if we needed to stop at the Walmarts on the way, it was always an option. Since we camped a few nights with the gear I bought, I felt pretty confident that we had most of what we needed. I bought a tent, camp stove, ice chest, 40 degree sleeping bags (pro tip: the temp rating on sleeping bags is the temperature at which you can survive in that bag, not the temperature at which you will be comfortable. Another pro tip: it’s hella cold in Canada) plus self inflating sleep mats, lanterns, water jugs, a camp potty, storage bins etc.
After I purchased all of this, my brother offered me his popup camper. I knew it was in bad shape so after I made the decision to fix it up and bring it, I bought a car top cargo bag to keep all of my tent camping supplies in case “Bill” the camper bit the dust halfway through the trip (spoiler alert: he did.) I didn’t want to bother with electric and water hookups because I’d hoped to do a lot of “boondocking,” so the camper functioned as glorified tent. We were still doing very primitive “dry camping,” with the pop-up being used only for sleeping, hanging out, and storing clothes. You can read all about day one of camper renovation HERE and I may make another post about the rest of it in the future, or perhaps I can beg Brooke to be a guest blogger and do it for me.
A note about safety. My dad and particularly my brothers insisted repeatedly that I take one (or more) of their guns but much to their dismay, I declined. You can’t take guns into National Parks. You also can’t take guns into Canada. And while I never in a million years actually thought we’d make it to Canada, I decided it wasn’t worth it for a lot of reasons (one being that I’m not skilled enough for it to be of enough value to outweigh the risks of having it around.) I did however have a large dog, two cans of bear spray, a big knife, and a large bright beam tactical flashlight (knife and flashlight courtesy of my oldest brother.) I tried to avoid saying whether or not we were packing heat while the trip was going on because A. If I said yes I’d be admitting to breaking the law and B. If I said no I’d be showing all my cards. As women traveling with little girls and without a man, I know that it’s best to be mysterious and keep creeps assuming that you’re capable of slashing their throats AND blowing their brains out. Also, handguns don’t work on grizzly bears, so they really offer a false sense of security anyway. Also, I ain’t scared, yo.
In the early stages of planning I was obsessed with the idea of being able to bring a lot of fresh food with me so I could cook most of our meals. I love to cook, I’m good at it, and my kids prefer my cooking to eating out. Also, Brooke is the absolute BEST cook I know, and also loves to cook, and her kid also prefers her food. So, between us, we were going to want to cook a lot. However, being lovers of local food, we also knew we’d eat out a lot in order to get a more full experience of certain places (green chili posole in Santa Fe anyone?) Also, being realistic human beings with 5 kids and a lot of stress, we knew that convenience foods and Taco Bell would win out sometimes. I think letting go of control helped make us really succesful with this.
We aimed to cook a meal, with enough for at least one meal’s worth of leftovers (keep in mind there were 7 of us,) then to eat out for one meal, and then eat a meal that was basically just snack food. Often, that was packets of lemon pepper tuna fish with club crackers and a handful of freeze dried strawberries. We ended up cooking some BOMB meals on that little single burner camp stove and honestly, the mid size Yeti knockoff cooler was the perfect size. We went to the grocery store every five days or so, and we always had eggs, coffee, cream, butter, bacon, and fresh berries and we would buy about 3 meals worth of meat and fresh produce for whatever meals we had planned, which was about as long as the cooler full of ice could keep frozen meat at safe temps. Or maybe it wasn’t safe and we’re lucky to be alive. Whatever. I took a food safety course mind your business. I never felt like a slave to buying ice though, which I was worried about it in the beginning.
One of my absolute favorite things I bought for this trip was the Wonder Bag. This insulated bag kept our cast iron dutch oven at a safe simmer for something like 15 hours. We were able to make stews and chilis as if we had a crock pot, but using no energy/heat source besides the initial heating. Heat it to a simmer, put it in the bag, pull the strings, and go about your day. Also, when you purchase one the company sends one to a woman in need so that she can spend less time hunched over a fire, and less time sending her vulnerable children out to collect firewood. Often we would heat our leftovers up in the morning, put them in the bag, drive ten hours, and have a hot, ready meal as soon as we set up camp.
You may remember from my last post that my husband predicted I would spend way more on this trip than I planned. Which, I DID plan for, so I’m not sure you can say that’s entirely true, but yeah, it was expensive. Keep in mind, we sold our house so we were suddenly without our sizeable mortgage, and we made money on the house so we paid off our debt, plus Army pays us more when Daniel is deployed. I used these as excuses to pretend we had “extra money” and that I was just living on money we’d be living on anyway. Which is kind of true. I could either spend a lot of money a month on a house payment and bills…or I could spend a lot of money seeing the United States, “roadschooling” the children. In our case, travel ended up being more the more expensive option but Daniel and I are both in agreement that it was 100% worth it for us. I understand that’s not many people’s experience and I’m grateful I had this opportunity.
I’ve always had a guilt relationship with spending money. Daniel has always had a pretty healthy relationship with money. Part of my guilt stems from being a stay at home mom. Daniel brings home all of the money and I don’t like to spend it on myself. He, being a damn good human being, spent the first 9 years of our marriage trying to help me change that mindset. He’d say that I earn every penny of what he makes by running our household, educating the kids, finding ways to be frugal, etc. It took me a long time to believe he meant it and believe it for myself. We were legit super poor the first few years so there was no money to spend but even as he made more money I would not buy things or enjoy things for myself. So this was sort of an “ok. cool. I’m going to spend a lot of money. I’m going to spend a month’s mortgage worth on supplies and fixing up the camper.” Which I did. And it was a good investment. I’m never going to stop camping, and a lot of things I bought are ultra lite so I can use them for backpacking.
I also decided we weren’t going to change our generous grocery or eating out budget for the month, even though we were down one adult person with him overeas. And that I’d spend what I’d spend on rent or mortgage camping and staying in hotels. I will admit that I pretty seriously underestimated how much those things would cost. We did not stay on free government land quite as often as we wanted, and we ran into very expensive repairs. I’m not big on souvenirs, but there were times we wanted an item or a treat and quite often, I splurged where I normally would not. We camped on free land when it was convenient and safe, and saved money on cheap meals where we could, but at the end of the day it was a pretty wild splurge for one month. In the final part of the West Coast series I’ll talk about why I think it was all worth it.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about well-traveled kids and getting rid of all our belongings. Then…maybe…I’ll talk about the dang road trip.