Pueblo, Colorado

April 26-28, 2024.

Photo album

I hadn’t originally planned to spend so much time in Colorado, but several events converged that required us to be within spitting distance of Denver. But it’s expensive to stay there and there are hardly any camping options nearby. Plus, the weather started looking really bad in the area. I looked at the forecast, then opened my Boondocker’s Welcome map to see if anything looked good.

The storms seemed less severe in southern Colorado and there was a host available in Pueblo. I scored a spot there for two nights then desperately began researching what Pueblo, Colorado is all about. It turns out that the city regards their chili peppers as superior to Hatch chiles. That was something to test in real life. Then, I found a bunch of volunteer events for the Great American Clean Up and registered us for trash pickup duty. The weekend was coming together!

We checked in with our hosts, who were very friendly and eager to get us oriented to Pueblo. I was just happy with a quiet, free place to park just on the outskirts of a town.

Thunderstruck

Thunder and lightning reigned all night and into the morning. I emailed the volunteer coordinator to see what would happen to our event. She replied that they had rescheduled the cleanup for the next day, but the afterparty was still happening, so come on by!

We killed some time that morning with a visit to the El Pueblo History Museum. There, we learned about the town’s location being on an old borderland with the same clashes and history of places like southern Arizona. It was/is a place where indigenous Mexicans, immigrants from Europe and people moving west from the relatively new United States all found themselves living in the same place. Violence and oppression rooted in concepts like manifest destiny and colonialism characterized the climate of this region. Being completely unfamiliar with this area, I entered this museum not at all expecting to learn about border conflict. So I was glad we had the time to check it out and fill in more gaps in my historical knowledge.

With another hour or so until party time, we decided to take a stroll on the downtown riverwalk. There we enjoyed interpretive signs about the river system as well as stunning bronze sculptures. I could have sat and looked at the woman with a star quilt sculpture for the whole day without getting bored. Perhaps another day.

The connector

At last we arrived at Walter’s Brewery, another famous institution I’d never heard of, for our not-so-hard-earned pizza and beer. There we met the volunteer coordinator, Susan, who we quickly learned is one of Pueblo’s main connectors. She knows everyone and is involved in everything. As we sat and chatted over pizza, we became fast friends and she adopted us for the rest of the day. Susan drove us to see some of the huge murals painted on the levee that runs through town. She got us into a part of the Pueblo Film Festival (for free) so we could see a few Pueblo chili-focused films. Then, we all went out to dinner at the Cactus Flower so we could try Pueblo’s famous dish, the SLOPPER (it has its own Wikipedia entry)!

What is a slopper? It’s a cheeseburger, smothered in green chili (which usually contains pork) topped with chopped onions, lettuce and tomato. It’s served on top of the bun, open-faced. There are many variations from restaurant to restaurant, but this seems to cover most of the important points. I was really anticipating this after watching the movie about sloppers and it totally lived up to my expectations! The chili on top was to die for, I could have eaten that straight out of a bowl for a week without getting sick of it. The combination of the whole meal worked incredibly well. And I had lots of leftovers to stretch out my slopper into a second meal!

With full bellies, we returned to our van and thanked Susan for an exceptionally full and fun day.

Bike tour

The next morning, we decided we wanted to spend more time along the river looking at the murals. And what better way to explore a long, flat, paved path than by bike! We parked at Runyon Lake, the location for our trash pickup later that day, and saddled up. Under blue skies, we started pedaling towards the levee. The sun felt wonderfully warm as we rode along the bike path. We stopped several times to read the signs, examine the beautiful art and enjoy this lovely day. After a couple of miles, we turned back, circled the edge of the lake and returned to the van. All in all, we got a nice six-mile bike ride in with plenty of time for lunch and a nap before volunteering began.

Trash pick up

We helped Susan unload supplies from her truck. Then, armed with trash grabbers, trash bags and plastic buckets we started walking the perimeter of the lake. It didn’t take much work to find garbage because it was everywhere. I couldn’t believe how many people were sitting at the lake’s edge, fishing and hanging out with their families, completely ignoring the trash they were surrounded by (and in many cases, contributing to). There were cups, plastic wrappers, beer cans, fishing line, straws, toys, water bottles, you name it. The trash mostly accumulated along the lake’s edge but there was plenty up on land as well. The whole time we spent filling our trash bags, I thought, what if every family spent 10 minutes on trash pickup each time they came here? The place would be spotless!

I left feeling a bit discouraged and hopeless but I was glad to have made some positive impact. I tried to refocus my energy: on all the volunteers who showed up, on Susan, who easily wrangled in new volunteers from people just passing by, from the park staff person who was so eager and happy to support our work.

One more stop

We said goodbye to the clean up crew, gave Susan a big hug and hit the road. On the way back to Denver, we stopped at Fountain Creek Regional Park. At the pizza party the day before, we’d learned all about Fountain Creek from a guy who just wrote a book about it. So, I wanted to see it in person. This park was absolutely beautiful with trails, mountain views and lots of water. Many folks were out and about enjoying the sports fields, picnic areas and walking routes. I picked a trail and started walking. Eventually my exploration led me to the Cattail Marsh Wildlife Area, which was off limits to dogs, bikes and horses. This meant it was mostly devoid of people too, perfect.

As the sun sank lower into the sky, I slowly walked from interpretive sign to interpretive sign. A few straggling photographers also wandered the wildlife area. We leapfrogged each other a few times, then one woman stopped me to ask: have you ever seen an owl’s nest before?

No, I replied, and she pointed up. I expected to see a big pile of sticks, but what I saw were two huge floofy owlets!!! I could barely contain my excitement. We shared a few minutes together, watching the owls in awe. I asked her so many questions. Apparently she hikes the area somewhat regularly and learned of the nest from another visitor. I do miss having a “regular” park to go hiking, since you really get to know a place that way. I’m a perpetual out-of-towner now. But that has its benefits too, as everything is new and interesting. We parted ways and I finished the trail. Then I quickly texted Aaron to see if he wanted to visit the owls, too. Of course he did and we hiked back together juts before sunset.

What a magical visit to this previously unknown-to-me part of Colorado. I truly enjoy these spontaneous and serendipitous explorations of new places. America is vast and diverse and there is so much to learn here. And in general, people are quite eager to share their love of their home.

Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area

April 22-24, 2024.

Photo album

I dropped Aaron off at the Denver Airport early in the morning. While he attended a work trip for a few days, I gallivanted off to Nebraska. My first stop: Panorama Point, the highpoint of Nebraska. This was not a hike; I drove on back highways and long gravel roads for a awhile to an entry to a private bison ranch. I dropped my $3 entrance fee in the box and finished the drive to the parking area.

Since leaving Oregon nearly a year ago, I’ve visited the summits of three state highpoints: Black Mesa (OK), Taum Sauk (MO) and Mt. Sunflower (KS). While I was way out in the middle of the country, I figured I may as well grab Nebraska’s highpoint. I might not be in spitting distance anytime soon. Now I’ve got nine peaks out of 50, which is not much to write home about, but I’m much closer to completing the list than I was last year!

Flora and fauna

By the time I arrived at the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, I was so sick of driving. I booked a campsite for the next two nights and settled in. My spot had a couple of trees perfect for setting up a hammock, so that’s the first thing I did. Looking up from my relaxing perch, I noticed quite a bit of bird activity. I spent the afternoon switching between reading, napping and birdwatching. I noticed a pair of mountain bluebirds gathering up nesting material and bringing it to their hole in a snag near my hammock trees. Then I observed as a pair of finches flew in and out of their nesting site in a jumble of mistletoe right over my head. And on the ground, several chipping sparrows bobbed their cute little red heads up and down searching for snacks.

I had spent so much time on the go lately that I didn’t even know how much I was craving this down time. My body melted into the hammock in a way that was so soothing and natural. Tomorrow, I thought, I’d gather myself up to explore.

The next morning, I set off on a nature walk. Well, after coffee in the hammock, of course. Along the way, I met many birds: mountain chickadees, pine siskins, red breasted nuthatches and even a turkey. I searched relentlessly for cactus flowers. While I never found a single one, I did make a wonderful discovery: SAND LILIES! I was very excited to see them, since they are one of my favorite Central Oregon wildflowers. I love how I get to visit the Oregon natives even while out of the state.

Much to my surprise, I was also delighted to see dandelions because of what else was attracted to them: bees and butterflies. I spent quite a bit of time crouched down in a squat watching them gather pollen and nectar.

Having no agenda

The best part of my day was not having to move the van. I really embraced having so much downtime with nowhere to be, no reason to be productive and no one to answer to. Aaron is an extremely easy person to live with, but things just feel different when I’m totally on my own. I found out today that he bumped his flight back out one day so he could visit with a friend in the Portland area. Great, I thought, I just got another day to enjoy having no agenda. The Wildcat Hills, kind of a bleh place that’s managed primarily for hunters, ended up being a decent spot to see wildlife and flowers while mostly relaxing under shade trees (did I mention it was HOT).

It’s important in life in general, but also while doing long-term travel, to have some days as nothing days. As a recovering Type-A planner, this is a lesson that I’ll likely need to learn a few more times before it truly sticks. But, it’s becoming easier the longer we spend on the road to go with the flow and not try to jam-pack every day with activities and/or driving. A relaxing hammock day is just as valuable, and necessary, as a double-digit hike day or long drive to some epic destination.

Ozark Trail to Taum Sauk Mt

April 11, 2024.

20 mi. | 2850′ ele. gain | 10 hr.

Scour TH > Ozark Tr > Taum Sauk Mt > Hwy 21 TH

On the way to Taum Sauk Mountain

Photo album

When I realized we’d be in the general vicinity of the Missouri state highpoint, I dove into the research. Sadly, I found that you can drive to within a quarter mile of it. But…I learned that it is located off the Ozark Trail, which has multiple access points. I chose to get there via a long and scenic stretch of the trail with Aaron acting as my shuttle driver. I began my journey from the Scour trailhead located in Johnson’s Shut Ins State Park. I waved goodbye and set off into the forest.

It took me a while to settle into a rhythm, since I kept stopping to ogle unusual wildflowers that I was not used to seeing, like the bright red petals of the fire pink and some alien-looking trillium flowers. The forest was still waking up from its winter slumber, so much of my surroundings were damp leaves, barren deciduous trees and slimy rock. The area had gotten an incredible amount of water lately, so everything was overflowing. I was glad I decided to start the hike in my Bedrock sandals.

In the first five miles, I slipped and fell twice. That doesn’t count the innumerable times I wobbled, slid or otherwise lost my footing but did not smack the ground. The trail in these conditions were pretty treacherous despite having the right footwear and hiking poles. This seemingly chill Missouri trail was going to make me work for it.

There are no big peaks here, but the Ozark trail makes you feel like you’re in a rugged mountain range. The trail goes up, down, up, down, ad infinitum. And the surface of the trail never felt flat. Between the slippery leaves, rock boulders, gravel, roots and other obstacles, I had to watch every single step. Meanwhile, the birds were singing, the sun rays filtered through the barren trees and my smile grew and grew.

Many miles passed before I reached my first landmark: Devil’s Tollgate. Then, Mina Sauk Falls. This section of the trail was very beautiful and very, very wet. The trail felt like a stream and the stream felt like a river. I had to do a few wet crossings and I was again glad to have worn my sandals today.

Reaching the highpoint

Just before reaching the summit of Taum Sauk Mountain (a misnomer imo) I heard “peeppeeppeep” get louder and louder and louder. The sound became deafening. It was the loudest cacophony of spring peepers I’d ever heard! I ventured off trail a little bit to the pond in which they presumably had set up shop. But I never saw a single one of them. Frogs have such incredible camouflage; I often hear them and rarely see them.

I reached the paved trail leading to the plaque and summit register. I signed in, sat on the bench and ate a snack. It was 4:30 pm. I knew I still had about seven miles to go in order to meet Aaron at our pre-determined pickup location. Before setting out on this hike, I planned three possible hike lengths based on how I felt and how much I was enjoying the trail. I settled on the longest of the three because I was having such an amazing time! But as the sun started casting longer shadows and my poor feet began barking, I questioned my sanity for making that decision. Could I do it? Well, yeah, but should I?

What I’ve learned on this van trip is this: take the opportunities you have. So, I decided to stick with the plan and go for the long day. The weather was good, I had enough daylight, I had a supportive ride waiting for me who would change plans without question if I sent the signal. I reminded myself, “I can do hard things.”

And off I went. I continued watching my steps very carefully, as the trail tread was still very uneven and very wet. I passed a few people who were cheerfully coming up the trail with overnight packs on their backs, raising the number of humans I’d seen all day to ten. I walked by cool rocks and plants without stopping, because I was on a mission now. To make it out before dark.

Are we there yet?

With each step, my feet got crankier and crankier. Honestly, I was glad they had performed so well in sandals all day after not doing any long hikes in quite awhile. But eventually my long-ago broken left foot told me that enough it enough.

Within a mile from the trailhead, I stopped and put on my trail shoes that had been waiting their turn patiently on my backpack. This made an enormous difference and I picked up my pace as I finished the hike back to the van. Luckily, this part of the trail was not completely underwater, so I was able to keep my feet dry for the rest of the hike. When I reached the parking lot, I checked my mapping app: I had traveled 19.9 miles. I threw my pack on the ground and raced around the perimeter of the lot until the app clocked 20 miles!

I hope to come back to this area to hike more of the Ozark Trail and to see it later in the season when more flowers are blooming. I absolutely loved the landscapes, the rocks, creeks, flowers and solitude. When we planned our big road trip, Missouri was NOT on my mind. But now it is, and we’ll have to be sure to plan a return visit.

By that point, I was totally wiped out and ready for dinner. Aaron had scouted a nearby hotel restaurant that we could get to before closing. What a gem (both Aaron and the restaurant). I finished my long day with a burger and beer, then we rolled into a free campsite for the night.

Total solar eclipse 2024

April 8, 2024.

viewing the total solar eclipse
Not sunset.

Photo album

Since we foolishly missed the total solar eclipse that came within a few miles of our house in 2017, we began planning to catch the next one. This year’s eclipse crossed many US states, giving us an array of options to choose from. Aaron wanted to find a meet-in-the-middle type spot so we could camp out with his sister and nieces. They’d be coming from North Carolina. He did some weather and geographic research and landed on northern Arkansas.

Planning

From that point, it was up to me and his sister to find a place to camp. Of course, even several months in advance, it was nearly impossible to find a site that wasn’t totally booked and/or charging an outrageous rate. It’s unbelievable what some people will pay to camp. Not I! I checked all the apps, zoomed in and out on the map a bunch of times and ultimately found a private ranch listed on Hipcamp (never used it? Here’s $10) that had room for two camper vans. And it was only $25/night, which is less than what most state and national parks charge! I frantically texted with the owner of the site and then with Aaron’s sister so we could secure our spots. With that big hurdle out of the way, I just had to figure out how to get there.

If you’ve followed the rest of the road trip to this point, you’ll recall that from Oregon we crossed down into California and Nevada, meandered around the southwest and then made a beeline across the midwest. I gave us about two weeks to get from Albuquerque to our campsite on the border of Missouri and Arkansas. That way we had time to enjoy the ride.

Sheep everywhere

We arrived at the ranch, where large, enclosed plots held many sheep. It was lambing season, so there were tons of new babies about. Several more were born while we were there! The owner of the ranch, who ripped around in his four-wheeler wearing a shirt that said “Sheep daddy,” excitedly let us know when the new babies were being born. We delighted in watching the animals is various states of learning how to walk. Then, we stood dumfounded as we saw lambs who were just wobbling to their feet in the morning burst across the fields in a full run by the afternoon.

BABIES!

There were just a few errands to do in town before the main event. After breakfast, we drove in to the local grocery store for last minute supplies. Back at the ranch, we arranged our chairs, poured lemonade and got our eclipse glasses out. We were in position an hour before totality, when the moon was scheduled to begin passing in front of the sun.

Eclipse time

I remembered this part from the two partial eclipses we’d seen in the past. Every few minutes, we put on our glasses and look up. The sun slowly disappeared more and more each time. Within minutes of totality, the air got noticeably cooler and the light got…weird. It’s hard to explain. People describe a “360 degree sunset” but to me it didn’t feel like that at all. The sky doesn’t go to total darkness and the light is not like a normal sunset. I’m no photographer, so I didn’t attempt to capture these fleeting moments with any seriousness. I preferred to experience it and hold on to the memories that way. Truly, an eclipse is something you must experience in person. The pictures are cool but they don’t really paint an accurate picture of what it’s like to be there.

Staring at the sun.

That being said, when totality arrived I didn’t bother taking pictures. I knew we only had a precious 4 minutes to stare at the sun. It was a really surreal moment. I remember the quiet, the chill in the air, the not-quite-right sense of lighting. We all looked to the sky, noting the red blotches on the edge of the sun that turned out to be solar prominences, not solar flares like we’d assumed. It’s been well established that astronomy is my least favorite science so I’m not surprised that I didn’t know that!

Taken at 1:56 pm

In a flash (literally), the sun reappeared from behind the moon’s dark cloak. We rushed to get our glasses back on. In minutes, the light and temperature got back to normal and it was just an ordinary hot, summery afternoon. Later that day we made some crafts, played games and hung out. It was the first time we’d all gotten together in years, so we wanted to spend every minute enjoying the opportunity.

Aftermath

Early the next morning, Aaron’s sister and kiddos had to start the long drive back home. We said our goodbyes, then moved the van to Mammoth Spring State Park. While Aaron got back to work, I took a slow stroll around the water, where I found a ton of birds, a muskrat and the coolest water snakes. I saw the first one as it was swimming across the water’s surface, making a series of beautiful S curves with its long body. Later, along the lakeshore, I saw tiny heads bobbing above the water. I followed the heads below the water, where I saw vertical snake bodies receding into the depths (video)! These were the first water snakes I think I’d ever seen, and I delighted in watching them as they waited patiently for prey. Or, perhaps they were just breathing in the pleasant morning air.

Muskrat at Mammoth Spring

All in all, I think a total solar eclipse should be on everyone’s bucket list. I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to plan to see another one, only because my bucket list is already SO long :). But I couldn’t be happier with how this trip turned out. We got to see the phenomenon, with beautiful weather, on a quiet farm with people we love. We didn’t have to deal with high prices, bad traffic, stressful air travel, nasty weather or any of the other obstacles that plague lots of eclipse-chasers. I’m happy to put this experience in my back pocket and carry on exploring the world and finding new things to learn about.

Hiking the Wichita Mountains

March 28-30, 2024.

Photo album

Tucked away in the southwestern part of Oklahoma, past flat lands and wind farms and ranches, lies the beautiful Wichita Mountains. Its granite outcrops, rolling prairies and winding waterways make it a perfect haven for wildlife, notably elk, bison, deer and Texas longhorn. Within the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, visitors will easily spot “The Big Four” from the car. We were delighted to see so much wildlife among a spectacular backdrop in this part of the country.

But I had to get out of the van and explore.

Little Baldy

Our visit began at the ranger station, where I got some hiking recommendations. We also enjoyed the many exhibits on native flora and fauna. I was getting really excited to see more of this area, having knowing almost nothing about it before we arrived. We checked into our reserved campsite at Doris Campground, then wandered off for a hike just before sunset. I saw people standing on top of a bald summit just outside camp, so we walked in that general direction.

We tried our best to stay on trail, but there was such a web of braided use paths that it didn’t really matter which way we went. I followed the best wildflowers and Aaron played ground is lava by hopping from rock to rock. My attention flittered from cactus to rock to water to sky to flowers and back again. With everything being so unfamiliar, each item felt like a new discovery. We eventually made our way to the rocky top, where we looked over the lake and watched turkey vultures soaring below us.

From there we took a small detour to a beautiful old dam, then followed the water’s edge back to the campground road. On our way, we stopped upon hearing a crashing through the forest. A longhorn was battling its way through the underbrush, its horns getting caught on all the vegetation. I bet he won’t take that shortcut again!

Charon’s Garden to Elk Mountain

I wanted to see as much diversity in the park as I could while Aaron was at work. Not to be deterred by the poor advice I got at the visitor center, I decided to carry out my south-to-north traverse, starting from the Treasure Lake Parking area. As I took my first steps out of the van, I felt like I had been transported to Joshua Tree National Park. Granite boulders lay in lumpy piles all around me. Bird song filled the air. Cactus grew determinedly in every crack and crevice.

Again, I tried my best to stay on trail. But the proliferation of user trails leading in every which direction made that a futile effort. This place could use some trail funding! I used my map to help me stay roughly on route, stopping to visit the (unsurprisingly disappointing) Post Oak Falls on my way through the boulder jumble. Based on the volunteer’s description yesterday, I thought I’d be doing a lot of scrambling through this section, but there was almost none. My guess is that he got way more confused by the user paths and ended up way off trail. My navigation skills kept me on the tamer sections of the trail, boo hoo. Perhaps I should have done more exploring.

I counted at least 20 species of birds (that I could identify) on my way to the Elk Mountain trailhead. I knew I was close when I began seeing other hikers. Once there, I detoured toward the broad peak. Here as well, the trail followed a tangle of sinuous paths. I picked the least crowded ones that led me toward my destination. The trail actually doesn’t go toward the summit. Once I reached the vicinity of the top, I rambled around the long slabs and boulders making up this massive rock feature. The wind blew so hard that I put all my layers on to stay warm. It whipped up tiny whitecaps in the pools of water left by snowmelt or recent rains. The place was an absolute playground; if not for the relentless wind, I could have wandered around there all day.

After eating my lunch, I bailed back downhill to a place that had a view of the mountain suitable for painting. Then, I finished the hike and waited for Aaron to pick me up.

The Narrows

We had one more hike to do. I like to find short, big-bang-for-the-buck walks to do after work so Aaron can enjoy the places we visit during the week, too. We drove to the Boulder picnic area and followed the Narrows trail past Boulder Cabin. We rock-hopped across the creek, climbed up a steep hill on the other side and topped out at a gorgeous viewpoint above a horseshoe bend in the river. Northern rough-winged swallows soared and dove for bugs swarming above the creek. Rock climbers calling “on belay!” echoed through the canyon. The sun sat low in the sky, calling the day to a close. But our visit wasn’t over yet.

Mt Scott

The refuge is unique in that it offers just as much sightseeing by vehicle as it does by foot. Our last drive brought us to the top of Mt. Scott, where we got panoramic views over the surrounding area. It was full of visitors taking selfies, enjoying time with their families and scrambling up the little rockpile to the official summit. We walked the perimeter of the parking area watching for any new birds or wildflowers. It seemed a great spot to wrap up our visit here.

While staying in developed campgrounds and driving to popular lookouts is not typically my jam, I happily made an exception for the Wichita Mountains. It’s a remarkable place with stunning beauty, interesting geological formations, a plethora of wildlife and a spectrum of colorful flowers. I highly recommend putting this place on your bucket list!

One year in a camper van: a review

April 30, 2024.

On April 28, Aaron and I celebrated our one year vanniversary! We left our home in Bend, Oregon on that day in 2023 to set off on a two-plus year road trip. In the past year, we’ve seen and done so many things that are impossible to summarize in a short blog post, but I’ve chosen to reflect on a few elements of our travel that I find interesting to talk about. And so, our year in review…

Camping | Travel planning | Community | Education | Surprises |Top ten list

road trip
Van in the wild.

Camping

We’ve been tent campers our whole lives. Being thrust into the world of van camping took us a bit by surprise. We camp in almost a completely different way due to the convenience of our rig. No more campfires, no more set up and break down time, no more long winter nights with nothing to do.

To be honest, I thought I’d miss campfires more than I do. Now, I find them more of a nuisance than anything. When we are forced to camp in an actual campground where people are having fires, it’s hard to breathe and everything gets saturated in smelly camp smoke. Since we have a comfortable place to hang out in the van, complete with plenty of things to do, we almost never feel the need to make a fire. Besides, with all the restrictions and high fire danger in most of the places we travel, it’s relatively unethical to even consider having a campfire.

Since we have good lighting and (when we need it) ample ways to stay warm in the van, we can spend time reading, writing, playing games, making art, watching movies, etc. And since every day is a camp day, it feels less alluring and special to do things we only do at camp, like build a fire. Plus, we filled our van storage area with everything we own, so there’s no room to throw firewood in the back. On rare occasions, when the conditions are right and firewood is scattered near our camp, we’ll bust out a campfire.

Travel planning

Some of the apps and websites I use for trip planning. Some.

As much as I love planning camping adventures, it has become a bit of a beast to have to be in constant planning road. I feel like it’s a part-time job to calculate drive times, find legal places to park overnight, scout open skies for Starlink on Aaron’s work days, as well as locate public facilities like bathrooms, trash dumps and water fills. Some counties and states have been much easier to plan than others. Cities can be an absolute nightmare with overnight parking bans, especially for tall vehicles like ours. I’ve learned to use a variety of apps and services to locate places we can legally park overnight (I’m not interested in stretching the rules and ruining the ability for others to park in the future).

I was reluctant to sign up for any paid services, but I decided to try the combo of Harvest Hosts and Boondocker’s Welcome for a year to see how I liked them. After barely 6 months of our annual membership, we’ve stayed at 14 different locations on the apps, some for multiple nights. We’ve met some great people, visited local farms, breweries and restaurants we otherwise wouldn’t have known about and enjoyed beautiful, convenient places to stay.

It sounds like an ad, but for the way we travel, these apps have been essential. As we moved away from the vast public lands in the west, we’ve needed to be more creative in finding places to stay and the folks who offer up parking on both sites have really helped! I especially enjoy the boondocking sites in cities, so we have a place to park where Aaron can work all day and I’m walking distance from shops, museums, trailheads and other services. I expect we’ll rely heavily on these services on the East Coast.

The other app that I use on a daily basis is iOverlander. This provides an interactive map overlaid with crowdsourced data about places to camp. Options include private and public paid campgrounds, dispersed campsites and safe, legal places to park in cities. Since the data is crowdsourced, it’s not always accurate and I cross-reference anything I find with Google maps satellite data, public lands data and internet searches. I find it just as useful to confirm places I want to stay and places I do NOT want to stay, based on the type and volume of public comments left for given locations. So far, I have found a ton of great camp spots by using this app!

Community

We both feared that full-time travel would isolate us. But we’ve both noticed that since leaving home, we’ve felt more connected to community than ever. As with anything in life, you get back what you put in. And since we worried about losing connections as we wandered off into the unknown, we made a good effort in making sure we not only kept the friendships and loose connections we had, but actively created new ones on the go.

As much as people complain about social media, I’ve learned that you can make it your friend or foe. I aggressively unfollow any account that offers me no benefit or is a constant stream of hate, judgement or just shows the worst of people. Instead, I actively look for people who share things that I’m interested in: hiking, art, wildflowers, travel, nature. I also have no problem reaching out to strangers on the internet when we share things in common, or if I’ll be traveling to their neck of the woods soon. Most decent human beings are happy to share advice or knowledge if you show them some interest and respect. I’ve even made some real life friends from first meeting people online.

Our Capoeira community has also been a bottomless well of joy, support, strength, personal growth and culture. We’ve made stops to train in Eugene, Oakland, Berkeley, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Denver, St. Louis, Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, Juarez (Mexico), the list goes on and on. In each new place, we forge connections with fellow Capoeiristas, both people we’ve met before and people we haven’t. Sometimes we just go to class and nothing more. Other times we share meals or other social activities. And sometimes they offer up a driveway or recommendation for a place to stay. Although I feel the effects of not being able to train in a group on a regular basis, they always welcome us with no judgement and are happy to meet us wherever we are (physically, mentally, musically!) I appreciate having this art as a foundational part of our trip.

Sweaty post-Capoeira photo from Albuquerque

In addition, we’ve still regularly attended our book club (now over Zoom!). We sign up for service projects every few months. I send a monthly newsletter as well as personal cards, postcards, letters and art. I’ve joined an online art class/community where I can geek out about painting with other watercolor artists of every skill level and background. And we occasionally get to meet up with our friends who come to us! We’ve been so grateful to share our travel with our friends. Also, the breadth of our journey has led us to visit friends and family who we haven’t seen in 5, 10, even 20 years. It’s been so fun to reconnect with folks all over the country. Maybe, you’re next?

Education

I have always had a love of learning and a vast curiosity about the world. This trip has blown the doors wide open, providing countless opportunities to learn and be challenged about what I think I know. We’ve made many stops at historic and cultural sites. Botanical gardens and zoos. Workshops and lectures. Guided tours and hikes. We’ve learned from ordinary people just going about their normal business in places we’ve only read about and developed deep unconscious biases about.

Every act of service is an educational opportunity. By joining volunteer projects, we’ve met great people, learned new skills and developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for an area. We’ve done some trail work and joined trash clean-up parties. We’ve also done many trash pick ups on our own.

I think travel can be a great teacher, but only if your mind is open to learning. I’ve met plenty of travelers who seem to have missed the memo and are outright rude or woefully uninformed about the places they’ve been. I try very hard to see the good in all people, but I’m often surprised at the massive gaps in knowledge among people who should know better. For me, travel has taught me to be more humble and to question what I know with honest curiosity. The people who speak confidently about how they’ve got the world all figured out—those are the ones you need to watch out for.

LGBTQIA+ history in San Francisco

Surprises

Speaking of bias, let’s talk about the Midwest. This was the most recent time I felt like I spoke too confidently about something I didn’t know much about. I knew all the stereotypes, which I’ll spare you here. But when we actually visited the Midwest (my first time, even), I found that I really enjoyed myself. We found gorgeous outdoor landscapes, delicious food, incredible art, engaging museums and lovely people. I don’t know why I had such an innate revulsion about the idea about visiting this large, diverse swath of land in the middle of the country. That was extremely short-sighted. Now, I don’t know if I could *live* anywhere with no mountains, but I’d go back and visit in a heartbeat.

Now let’s talk sunsets. Since we’re basically outdoors every day, we’ve seen hundreds of epic sunset. There’s no way you can watch a sunset and not have faith in the world. Each one so different, so perfect, so awe-inspiring. I’ve seen plenty of sunsets before, but something hits different when you see one almost every day. I just appreciate them so much more now than I ever have.

You have no idea how long it took me to choose just one sunset pic to share.

And finally, it’s become easier for me to experience awe on a daily basis. Literally everything is exciting because it’s brand new. I was getting pretty good at this even back in Bend, but I am certain that I find multiple things that break my mind open every single day. Whether it’s a flower or bird I’ve never seen before, a new sound, a curious natural phenomenon, a unique piece of architecture or a novel way to present a familiar food. I am constantly gob smacked by everyday things. I remind myself that every place I visit is someone’s home. Someone knows every nook and cranny, has identified every flower, tree and fungus, has seen that bird a million times. But not me. And as I face new experiences on a daily basis, it is very easy for me to find joy in ordinary things.

Surprised that I haven’t talked about our van build? You can find van stuff ad nauseum online if that’s what you’re into. I have no interest in monetizing our lifestyle or promoting brands. I would just love to break even on paying for web hosting (#goals). So if you want to talk van details, you can find that elsewhere. We spent a lot of time and money investing in something that would make this trip easy, and it’s basically all panned out. I’m sure we’ll have breakdowns and other issues down the road, but things have mostly gone to plan so far. People travel in vans for dirt cheap and in luxurious style. People have been traveling nomadically for as long as there have been people, and this is just one of the latest iterations. We’re grateful to have this opportunity and see no end in sight yet!

Top ten list

  1. There
  2. Is
  3. No
  4. Way
  5. To
  6. Compile
  7. A
  8. Top
  9. Ten
  10. List

By this time, you should have expected this. I can’t stand a top ten list. I can’t tell you my favorite place, favorite hike, favorite flower, favorite restaurant. And even if I could, they wouldn’t necessarily be *your* favorite. Each day I have new favorite experiences, and they’re not necessarily repeatable. The weather, my mindset, interactions with other people, how my body feels, what I’m thinking about, all of these variables impact my experience at any given time and place. So, I encourage you to quickly scroll past any website that offers a top ten list. Instead, go make memories wherever and whenever you can. Every place is special, if you arrive with an open mind.

There are no best places, best products, best people, best anything. But there is so much to learn and a vast amount of space to explore in this short lifetime. However you are able, I hope you can get out and enjoy what this state, country and world has to offer.

Got questions? Please ask away in the comments or send me a message! I’m always happy to talk hiking, van travel and anything remotely related to this post.

Waking up with 30,000 sandhill cranes in Southern Arizona

Romero Canyon

March 18, 2024.

13.7 mi | 2930′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.

Photo album

In search of wildflowers and a good, long hike, I strapped on my backpack and ventured up into Romero Canyon. My hike began from our campground in Catalina State Park, which was no more than a gravel parking lot stuffed to the gills with monster RV’s, trailers, vans and multi-room tents. It was an absolute nightmare. I couldn’t wait to disappear up a trail. Ringtail campground: do not recommend.

I walked up a multi-use path to the main trailhead, where I immediately took off my shoes to cross the creek. On the other side, my heart and soul were soothed with big views and colorful wildflowers. The cacophony of voices swiftly dissipated as I gained more distance from the creek. This was a popular place, and for good reason! Lots of folks were out enjoying the beautiful morning.

The trail climbed up and over some rocky business before dropping down into the canyon. I made frequent stops to photograph and identify flowers. To an Arizona native, these flowers were likely nothing to stop for. But, since it was mostly all new to me, each bloom was a miracle of nature.

Upon reaching Romero Pools, I soaked in the views, crossed the creek and kept exploring. Each step was more and more beautiful. The trail weaved back and forth across the water, but rocks in the creek let me hop across with dry feet. As I continued up and up, the vegetation changed from saguaro to alligator juniper, poppies to paintbrush. It’s so fun to read the elevation of the landscape in the plants that grow there.

The forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms, and I noticed the clouds building all morning. As the canyon ahead of me became more sinister gray than fluffy white, I decided to turn back. Shortly after, I felt a few raindrops. A couple of hikers still heading up canyon brushed past me, clearly unconcerned about the change in weather. I did not want to get stuck in this canyon in a thunderstorm, so I kept barreling downhill.

As I got closer and closer to the parking lot, I saw more and more people, not a single one reading those clouds the same way I did. Maybe the locals knew their weather patterns better than me. No matter, I stuck with my gut decision and headed out. I got two lovely rewards as a result: a coati butt sighting and open tuber anemones. The anemones had been closed earlier in the day, but they must have gotten enough sunshine to spread their petals wide by the time I returned.

The foreboding skies never evolved into a thunderstorm, so maybe I could have kept going. I’m still happy with the decision I made because I would have just been stressed out and not enjoying my time had I continued further up canyon. Plus, if the storm had materialized, I would have been screwed. Always strive to hike another day!

Trail work at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

March 7-11, 2024.

Photo album

When dreaming up this big 2-year road trip, I wanted to make service projects, specifically trail work, an essential part of our travels. What I didn’t realize way back then was the difficulty of lining up our route with trail projects, especially since we rarely knew where we’d be a week out from the present day. So when I saw an opportunity to register way in advance for a project in Southern Arizona during March, I jumped at it. I knew we’d be roughly in that area anyway and the weekend dates meant Aaron could participate, too.

Prologue: Arrivaca Creek

Aaron had to work the day of check-in, so we parked at a trailhead near the campsite and I took a hike that had been on my mind since December. While exploring the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge back then, we did a couple of short hikes we saw on the map. What wasn’t on the map: a trail extension to the top of a highpoint called El Cerro.

The forecast called for rain, so I got an early start. I hiked quickly to the junction I had seen before and continued up towards the mysterious highpoint. It was more green than it was a few months ago, but not nearly as lush as I hoped it would be. I saw a few purply onion flowers and some four-petaled yellow thingies and plenty of cactus. At least the sky was mostly blue.

A flash of fluffy white streaked across my field of vision: white-tailed deer. So white, so fluffy. I followed the trail as it took the most windy and non-intuitive route to the summit. It maintained its elevation for quite a while, leading me to a gorgeous tunnel of blooming ocotillo. If you’ve never seen ocotillo before, picture this: wiry limbs fanning up from a single point in the ground, as thick around as your thumb and taller than you, covered in spirals of small leaves and sharp thorns. At the top of each limb, a burst of orange-yellow flowers. As I walked underneath the scraggly stems, I admired the brightly colored blossoms over my head.

Just before the summit, the easy trail suddenly angled straight up and in a few minutes I was at the top. I plopped my stuff at the handmade bench and took in the view. Right before my eyes, the sky changed from a clear, cerulean blue to an ominous mass of gray storm clouds. I could tell they were moving quickly and straight in my direction.

I scarfed down my snack and headed down the hill. Was that thunder? I moved more quickly. And then: ping! ping! ping! Hail. At first, it wasn’t too bad. I had a light wind-shell on that repelled most of it. Then PINGPINGPING it started coming down more intensely. I giggled and walked as fast as I could without rolling an ankle or doing something stupid. By the time I got back to the van, I looked and felt like a drowned rat, but I felt good for getting out and closing that mystery chapter.

Meeting the team

After work, we rolled into the group camp. Almost everyone else was already there. The event was hosted by a truck-top camper company, so everyone was their with their special truck-top rigs except for us. We slinked to the back of the campground in our van, then joined them for dinner and an orientation.

I was surprised at just how large the group was. There must have been 25 or so people there. Most folks were retired or nearly so. Most were part-time travelers. And most, like us, were couples. They were from all over the country. We chatted with as many people as we could to get a sense of who we’d work with over the next couple of days.

Trail work

Our project took us to the trails just outside the visitor center, where we’d be doing erosion control. Water management, in the desert? You wouldn’t think that would be a big issue. But, as I just learned, when water falls in the desert, it falls hard and fast. And when it hits the dry soil, it funnels into the path of least resistance. In this case, it flowed down the trail.

Thus, our plan included strategically building rock structures that slowed down the flow of water on the trail. That, in turn, prevents the trail from being dug out by water during a heavy rain. A trail expert showed us where the problem areas were and taught us how to stack and align rocks to make the water move in a way that would preserve the trail surface. Armed with buckets, wheelbarrows, shovels and of course, big piles of rocks, we broke into teams and got to work.

The work was intense and the 70 year olds who signed up for some light trail brushing and trash cleanup got way more than they bargained for. But everyone gravitated towards the jobs they could do and took rest when they needed it. With so many hands on deck, we made quick work both days and ended ahead of schedule. I enjoyed learning new trail building skills and working on small teams with other people. It was more challenging than I thought it would be, especially the part where I had to line up certain size shapes and sizes of rocks like a puzzle; that broke my brain a little!

Final notes

Everyone on the project was friendly and had lots of great travel stories. That’s one huge benefit of signing up for a large project like this in advance. The coordinator even lined up two nights of catered dinners, which were delicious and free! Working hard never tasted so good. I got to use our lunch break on both days to do some painting, which was fun and also garnered some attention from other participants. I love sharing art in the field with curious onlookers and aspiring artists!

I wish I could find more opportunities to chip in as we travel. Alas, I will do my best to keep my eyes open. Perhaps when we are in Alaska with much more free time I can plan our route around interesting projects. If and when we return to a stationary lifestyle, I will immediately get on the local trail volunteer list and start giving back on a regular basis. Oh the irony of having so much time but not being able to put it to use as a nomad!

Skunked in the Organ Mountains

February 29, 2024.

9.7 mi. | 2650′ ele. gain | 6 hrs.

Photo album

In the spirit of Hike366, I knew I couldn’t miss hiking on leap day. It only comes around every four years, and even though I’d already done a hike on February 29 for my project, I was excited to get another one.

I scoured the map and reached out to a friend in the area to get some ideas for what I could do, without any technical gear and starting from a campsite. I settled on Nordspitz, which is a local name for one of the many blobs on the main ridgeline in the Organ Mountains. I’d been in the area once before and remember drooling over all the spires, faces and canyons in this impressive range. I packed for a full day.

When I left the parking lot, the mountains were so socked in with clouds I couldn’t see any terrain features in front of me. I hoped that the weather would clear in a few hours, so I put my head down and headed up the trail. The desert vegetation, glistening in the recent moisture, formed a beautiful backdrop for my hike. Cows grazed between the towering sotol and yucca.

Once I reached the saddle near Baylor Peak, it was quite windy and still very much still cloaked with clouds. I added my wind layer, scouted the start of my route and left the trail, walking uphill. Moving slowly, I picked my way through the cactus, thorny shrubs and loose rock. I paused at a large and beautiful colony of hedgehog cactus growing straight out of a bouldery face. There were so many different types of cactus, present in such large numbers, that the inclement weather didn’t even bother me. I was in cactus heaven.

There were a few rocky bumps along the ridge I had to decide whether to go left, right or over the top. I stuck to the ridge as best as I could, but there was one huge rock feature I could not get around. I stopped abruptly at the base of a large, wet slab that disappeared into the misty beyond. To either side of me, steep gullies dropped down into cactus- studded lowlands. I took a few tentative steps on to the slippery rock and decided I would go no further unless the weather cleared. The wind blowing ferociously, tugging at my precious heat, forced me to find shelter as I waited out the weather and made some plans.

I looked at the sky and saw dark, dense clouds that were nowhere close to blowing off. I had to admit defeat.

Cold, annoyed, frustrated and with wet feet, I began descending the ridge. It did not take long to get disoriented in this terrain in these conditions. Generally, ridgewalks are quite straightforward because you follow the highest points to your destination. But this ridge had enough obstacles and side arms that I found myself walking entirely in the wrong direction. I triple checked my mapping app, used my compass to confirm that I was indeed facing *toward* the mountain I was trying to descend, then found a place to get off my feet for several minutes. I needed a snack, some water and rest since I had been nearly in constant motion all day.

But I was in no good place to stop. And, I really wanted to start moving in the correct direction before sitting down. I fumbled back up to a spot I could turn around, then checked my direction of travel on my phone. Yes, that looked much better. I plopped down, put on every layer in my pack, pulled out a foil packet containing yesterday’s pizza and rested until my brain returned to normal.

When I continued moving, I forced myself to go slowly and look at my phone often. The visibility was so bad, I had almost no context clues to keep me oriented. I prefer using landmarks to help stay on route, but that wasn’t possible today. Once I got down low enough, I could see the trail and I let myself relax a little. But, it still took some effort to figure out how to get there without getting stabbed by a lechugilla or becoming entangled in a bush.

Back at the saddle, I took another rest break. At least the return hike was brainless from here. The weather remained cool and windy, although eventually I emerged from beneath the clouds. Just as the van came into view, I turned back and finally got to see the peaks that were hiding all day. They were gorgeous, yet menacing. Even from this angle I thought, “that looks like an intimidating route.” I felt completely justified in bailing. I’d never attempt it without knowing the route ahead of time and/or having excellent visibility. Dry rock would be a must, also.

I know that turning back is not a failure, but I recognize that it is still really difficult to make that call, even after decades of doing this. I like telling these stories as a reminder that things don’t always go as planned and that’s okay. Knowing when to alter the plan or abandon the plan are important skills for any hiker. I still had a really great hike and I am now armed with more ground-truthed information for next time!

Black Mesa

February 23, 2024.

9.2 mi. | 775′ ele.gain | 4:15 hr.

Photo album

We took a very specific detour on our loop around New Mexico to hit the highpoint of Oklahoma. I’m not a serious highpointer; in nearly twenty years of hiking, I’ve gotten six state highpoints. Those are: Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Mt. Washington (New Hampshire), Mt. Hood (Oregon), Humphrey’s Peak (Arizona), Guadalupe Peak (Texas), and now Black Mesa (Oklahoma). On this cross-country road trip, I thought it would be fun to find the highpoints in the midwest and in states that don’t have the same kinds of dramatic scenery that characterize the west.

As soon as I stepped onto the trail, I was smitten. Just like the places I visited in northern New Mexico, the landscape here brought me right back to Central Oregon. Rolling, grassy meadows. Volcanic buttes. Occasional junipers. Aah, it felt like home. The trail was very well built, with pergolas placed every half mile or so for people to get out of the sun. I was glad to be here in February, because summers must be brutally hot. Clearly, many people hike this trail because it’s a state highpoint. I usually don’t go out of my way to do popular hikes, but this felt like a silly one to pass up. I’m so glad I did.

There were little lomatiums that were so close to flowering, as well as some cute hedgehog cactus near the summit. I bet if I’d just waited another month, the landscape would have been even more spectacular. But as I’ve learned on this road trip, you just have to grab opportunities as they come. The trail gently followed the subtle ups and downs in the lowlands to the base of the mesa, then it rocketed straight up the side. Once above the cliffs and gullies, the trail flattened out again for the last mile or so. The tall obelisk marking the summit was visible for quite a ways away. I pushed through the wind, marker in sight, for many minutes until I was suddenly right on top of it.

My favorite part about reaching the top was seeing snow-capped peaks, clearly much higher, in the background. I assume these were just over the border in Colorado and New Mexico. I’d never felt so NOT on a highpoint while on a highpoint before. I took a left at the marker to walk to the edge of the mesa. There, on the edge of a basalt outcrop, I sat down to paint. I felt like I was on top of Sutton Mountain, one of my favorite places to wander back in Oregon.

I nearly had the whole place to myself. On the way up, I saw no one. Within a couple miles of the parking lot, I ran into two groups of two. I had a nice chat with one pair as they began their hike who asked if I was the one who signed in from Oregon. Yes, I said, and while they reported hailing from South Dakota, they had spent some time in Chemult, Oregon, of all places. It’s a small world.

Which highpoint is next? I’ll be traveling to Arkansas for the eclipse, so maybe there? Missouri? Then of course there are the really flat states like Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa that are parking lots in the middle of fields! The actual challenge of reaching the top doesn’t matter too much to me anymore, because I’ve learned that the journey is almost always better than the goal itself. I’ve had so many meaningful experiences and discoveries on a way to a thing. A list just helps me narrow down all the things I want to do, and a list often takes me to places I wouldn’t have chosen to visit otherwise. Without the list, I wouldn’t have known how incredible this corner of Oklahoma is.

One quick detour of note: on our drive back to New Mexico, we pulled off at a roadside attraction pinned on Google. It had no signage, but the Internet said that it’s a replica of a Brontosaurus femur. Was it worth the stop? I’m not sure. But, if it had truly been something spectacular, I would have hated to think, “should we have taken that 10 minute detour?”