Date Archives March 2018

Music and Mountains

Greeted by The Smokies, we ventured from the wilderness of the Ocoee River to the honky tonk of Nashville and ended up at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.

Tennessee marked our 15th state on this trip so far. We eventually want to do them all but being Canadians, we’re only allowed to stay in the US for six months out of every year. We could probably spend six months in Arizona alone so we don’t want to rush through discovering each state for all it has to offer. For example, the only places that really ever came to mind when thinking of Tennessee were Nashville and Memphis. But the amount of stunning mountains and rivers on the eastern side gave us a new impression of the music-famous state.

Generic Van Life - Tennessee Ocoee River
Rainy days along the Ocoee River

Not without stopping for some authentically Tennessean BBQ first, we took the rocky winding road down to Tumbling Creek where we got to enjoy being back in (almost) completely secluded nature. No cell service, a sky full of stars and the sounds of a soothing creek made for a peaceful evening where we were able to sit by the fire long after the sun clocked out for the day – which wasn’t until 8PM I might add. Going off of our bible, freecampsites.net, this particular place had a lot of questionable reviews about rowdy locals who apparently like to cause a ruckus here. I generally take most negative reviews lightly because people complaining about slight road noise or not having restrooms doesn’t really bother us but this place seemed to have a thread going about redneck stereotypes and wild parties. It was a Friday night so we were admittedly a little bit excited for the characters that might roll through but no one seemed to join us all evening. It wasn’t until after midnight when everything was pitch black that a few stray trucks drove past but didn’t seem to stick around. The wee hours of the night and early AM brought some heavy rain so we decided to head out before the roads got washed out and veer toward the Cherokee National Forest.

Generic Van Life - Tennessee Camping
When there’s music, campfires and beer, a good time is to be had

Luckily the rain meant that the roads were pretty empty and we had the gorgeous views all to ourselves. Looking uncannily like BC, the Ocoee River and views of the Smoky Mountains looked extra eerie and mysterious with the damp haze hovering over the usual blue-tinged fog that gives the mountain range its name. There were trickling waterfalls around every corner and various kinds of rocky formations that made the area feel so alive. Signs for white water rafting and paddling made this area seem like it’d be a hot spot in the warmer months but was just as unusual and desolate as ever on the rainy March morning. This was not at all what we had imagined Tennessee would look like and were so stoked to be proven otherwise. We dreaded getting back on the interstate after the scenic drive through the mountains but we had a destination in mind and that was Chattanooga.

Generic Van Life - Tennessee Smoky Mountains
We can see where the Smokies earned their name from

We had one main draw coming to Chattanooga and that was to see the Ruby Falls. We had a busy day on our roster coming from the Smokies and eventually spending the night in Nashville but photos of this place seemed like it’d be worth the stop. And I’m sure it usually is but once we got to the top of Lookout Mountain, we were informed that a water pipe had burst about 20 minutes before we arrived so they had to evacuate and were going to be closed for at least 2-3 hours. Well, shit. Guess we’ll just have to keep admiring the Falls from Google Images until the next time we pass through Tennessee. On the bright side, at least we saved ourselves the $20 admission fee?

Generic Van Life - Tennessee Lookout Mountain
The view from Lookout Mountain. The outside of the building was about all of Ruby Falls we got to see – exciting! …

Driving through the mountains is undeniably a little intense with tight turns and steep hills but the drive into Nashville was a whole other level of madness. Granted it was a Saturday, the highway was slammed with aggressively impatient drivers and their love for not using their signals. This made us question why we bother with cities at all but we couldn’t go to Tennessee without making the stop. First things first, we popped into Third Man Records and relished in the analog-heavy media and entertainment that Jack White has revolved his label around. You can watch monkeys play cymbals or even record yourself saying something dumb and have it pressed onto a vinyl. Cool spot to empty your bank account at and you might even catch a gig there if you’re willing to fork out a good bit of cash in some variation of a repeated three-digit price ($111).

Generic Van Life - Tennessee Third Man
Storefront for Third Man

From the industrial outskirts of SoBro where Third Man was, we crept our way into downtown, which was a huge mistake. How could we have forgotten that it was ye olde St. Paddy’s Day?! It was around 3PM and the streets were backed up with pedaling beer wagons while the stationary bars were literally spilling out people. We love to drink beer but not when it’s green and you’re squeezed in a place like a sardine drinking it. Luckily for us, Nashville’s got plenty of bars that aren’t downtown. We stayed the night in East Nash, just on the other side of the bridge at the TA Travel Centre. There were a few RVs and tour buses there but we were shocked that more people weren’t taking advantage of a free spot to park that’s a mere 15 minute stumble from downtown. With a staggering amount of chicken bones filling the sidewalks, we booted around to a few different bars in East Nashville and enjoyed the company of other folks that were also in search of non-green beer. All in all, we had a good time in Nashville but definitely left a pin in it to check out again on a non-holiday weekend. When we left the next day, there was already live music in full swing by morning and there seemed to be lots of cool spots to check out another time.

Generic Van Life - Tennessee Crying Wolf
We enjoyed this spot in East Nashville. Check it out and grab a $2 PBR if you’re around

Next stop: Memphis. Nashville’s famous for its country music scene but how could we come to Tennessee and not stop in the home of the blues and of course, Elvis?! One thing that Memphis also has going on is “The Pyramid”. All we knew is that we were allowed to park there for the night but man, was it so much more than that. Right on the Arkansas River just minutes from downtown is a giant mirrored pyramid that is a Bass Pro Shop + restaurant + hotel. This is America at its finest. Innocently wanting to just use the washroom, I entered the building and was amazed that it actually had a river running through it that was stocked with fish and docked boats. Taxidermied forest animals and game were on large displays covered in fake trees and bushes while children took their turn at target practice at the hunting simulation. I’ve been to a Bass Pro Shop in Canada before and it was crazy but this was like Disneyland for hillbilly adults. For hilarity alone, this place is definitely worth the stop and if you’re into that kind of stuff, it’s a playground.

Generic Van Life - Tennessee BPS
And somehow this is a store

More heavy rain and warnings of a tornado left us cruising down Beale Street by car but still solidified that Memphis is a pretty rad spot. And to make it more rad, we were about to tour Elvis’ mansion at Graceland. Unlike modest Hemingway’s in Key West, Graceland is a full-on compound with a well-oiled operation of stores, restaurants and shuttle services ready to take you on the full Elvis experience. We opted for the bare bones mansion tour simply because prices are borderline extortionate. With John Stamos as our guide (lol), we were decked out with iPads and brought over to the house (across the street from the entrance) by shuttle bus. Pouring into the mansion, folks are enchanted by the tackiest and most 70s décor possible. Fabric-covered walls, shag carpet and an excessive use of velvet made this place feel very Elvis. My only advice would be to visit later in the afternoon because even though it was a Monday, the mid-morning was so jammed that you barely even got to hear John Stamos’ sweet voice explain about Elvis’ affinity for fur-covered furniture and mirrored ceilings before someone was prodding you onto the next room.

Generic Van Life - Tennessee Elvis Jungle Room
Elvis’ “Jungle Room”. Yikes.

After touring all but the upstairs of the house, you can go outside and check out the descendants of his horses and visit his meditation garden where he, his parents and his grandmother are buried. Apparently Elvis and his mother were originally buried in a regular cemetery but his father, Vernon, had their bodies moved to Graceland after someone tried to steal his corpse. If you wanna pay some more cash, you can tour his airplanes, see his automobiles and stand a few feet away from his jumpsuits but that was the end of Graceland for us.

Generic Van Life - Tennessee Elvis Grave
Good luck stealing that body now

Tennessee was full of surprises and that’s our favourite part about travelling – learning new things and seeing things from different perspectives. We’re onto the Midwest next and are eagerly hoping that it too will be full of surprises and won’t be as boring of a drive as we expect!

We won’t take away all the splendour of gaudy Graceland for you, but here’s a few more snaps to tie you over until you visit 😉

Peaches on Peaches

Taking in our last days on the East Coast before heading back west. Georgia and the Carolinas sure did treat us good!

Anyone who’s taken the I-95 into Georgia has seen them: row after row of huge billboards that won’t let you forget exit 58 in Townsend, GA. And anyone who has seen these signs knows that that is the exit for none other than, Peach World. Falling almost too easily into their trap, we had to stop and see what all the hype was about. I mean, peach wine? Peach salsa? Peach cider? Yes please! Gotta say that we were quite surprised by how small and unassuming the place was but once they started hitting us with free samples, we had both feet in the door. With peaches not being in season, we stuck mostly to pralines but were determined to try the peach wine. If you like syrupy sweet wine that has the strangest aftertaste of oregano, then this is for you. I found it to be pretty much undrinkable unless mixed with soda water or something else to dilute it but Justin couldn’t get enough. He also loves Vienna sausages so make of that what you will. On the other hand, the praline pecan honey butter has got to be one of the best things to come out of Georgia. It sure is sweet but in the most heavenly way possible. Seriously, this stuff is dangerously good. And as far as dangerously good goes, we also had to make a stop at a Krystal after beginning our love affair with White Castle in Vegas. Seemingly the exact same mini square burgers, we’re still confused that they’re not actually just the same company. That being said, there was something about the Krystal burgers that took them one step further into the weird processed “why did I just eat 12 of these” world that they live in and for that, I have to pass the throne onto Krystal. Feel free to argue otherwise, I’m always up for a debate about important things in the world like burgers.

Generic Van Life - Georgia Peach Wine
Verdict: Questionable

After all this new food excitement, we headed into Savannah and were so bummed to see that the visitor’s centre no longer allows overnight parking. Some fellow vanners had just stayed there not long before us and recommended it but it seems that the change happened in response to people taking advantage of the great parking opportunity and treating it like it was their backyard. We’ve stayed at plenty of Walmarts where we’re continuously stunned by how at-home people in big RVs make themselves with their generators running, slides out and even having outdoor TVs or radios going. Just because the visitor centre was charging 10 or 15 bucks to allow the parking does not mean you’re entitled to treat it like an RV Park or even worse, leave trash around or damage the pavement with jacks and hitches. I’m going to save this rant for another post with some simple steps on how not to be a complete asshole when staying in a parking lot (especially when it’s FREE) and ruin it for the rest of us travellers that are just looking for an overnight stop. On that note, we were still able to park for a couple hours in the afternoon and explore Savannah but definitely not as much as we would have liked. It is such a pretty city! It just feels so quaint and cozy with Victorian-style houses shaded by mature trees wrapped in vines and colourful flowers.

Generic Van Life - Georgia Savannah II
Savannah was just the prettiest

It seemed like every street had something lovely to see, whether it be intricate architecture, cool shops or lush greenery like that of Forsyth Park. There was a wedding going on by the fountain and every angle looked like it was out of a storybook. This was our first real look at a city in the south (we only got to see the gulf coast of Mississippi and Alabama, which had a much different vibe) and it was certainly chock full of the dreamy secret garden-esque homes that people lust over on House Hunters. Whether that’s a realistic representation in 2018 or not, it sure made for some real purdy scenery. To our dismay, we had to leave the parking lot by 6 so didn’t get a chance to go for a drink somewhere or enjoy the open container laws but it’s at the top of our list to revisit another time. Savannah had many similarities to New Orleans with the European influence on architecture and liquor merriment but didn’t feel at all trashy like the NOLA overkill did. Sigh, onto the nearest Walmart to have a snooze.

Generic Van Life - Georgia Savannah Street
Streets of Historic Savannah are allowed to be filled with booze in Dixie cups!

The next morning, we made a brief stop in Hardeeville, SC to take Clemmie’s picture with the pink and grey elephants at Papa Joe’s Fireworks (assuming this is owned by John’s lesser known brother). No clue what the significance is but they’re definitely different. When we have longer drives, we use this website to see some “quirkier” tourist attractions that break up our drive and make it a little more interesting.

Generic Van Life - Georgia SC Elephants
They call them Thelma and Louise

Our next mission was to see what Charleston was all about but being a Sunday, parking spots seemed to be a mythical concept. When we’re in cities, we generally just drive around to see what’s up so we were satisfied taking in more of that southern charm from the van windows. Looking quite similar to Savannah, Charleston echoed the fairytale look with the historic homes and low hanging trees that lined the streets as people lined up to have their photo taken in front of a row of pastel coloured houses. We took our cue to move away from downtown and headed across James Island to Folly Beach. It was a moderately warm day so it was busy but nowhere near as jammed as Charleston and made for a nice little rest stop on the beach before heading north.

Generic Van Life - Georgia Folly Beach
Folly Beach was a nice, quieter spot just outside of Charleston

We’re big fans of the multitude of options for camping in National Forests, BLMs and WMAs in the United States. Being from Ontario (Southern Ontario specifically), although we have plenty of Crown Land, the resources and databases offered to the public are quite confusing and make it difficult to navigate exactly where you can and cannot camp. To that point, most of the more known spots that I or friends have visited are meant for portaging and are certainly not accessible in a camper. The amount of fully developed campgrounds that we’ve stayed at in the US that are completely free or require a simple free permit is mind-boggling. If you’re an American reading this, get out there and explore some of these public use spots while they’re still around! We’ve had better free campsites here than some of those that we’ve paid for at home. One of these spots being right by the Francis Marion National Forest in the Santee Coastal Reserve. It was so nice to be back in secluded wilderness after being packed in like sardines in Florida’s WMAs. No cell service and a sky lit up by stars and fireflies always makes for an amazing night’s sleep.

Generic Van Life - Georgia SC Santee
Taken at the Santee Coastal Reserve (in 2018 despite looking like 1982)

Continuing up the coast, we spent the abnormally cold work week at Myrtle Beach State Park and rejoiced that we no longer have to pay for campgrounds to use electricity to work. Our solar is up and running and we couldn’t be more excited! We were happy to have shore power this particular week because it was very overcast and cold and with the endless storms hitting the northeast, we decided to rethink our drive through North Carolina and just skim the bottom before heading to Tennessee. We made a stop in the Nantahala National Forest and admired how beautiful it was to be back in the mountains. Clemmie’s gotta get used to mountain driving again before we get back to BC and Alberta because everything east of New Mexico has been pretty flat for the past while. We’re on a mission now to get west as swiftly as possible to give ourselves enough time to explore America’s Pacific Coast before our tourist visas run out. As always, seeing all the things we can see along the way. Any suggestions?

Generic Van Life - Georgia Myrtle Beach
The beach at Myrtle Beach State Park

Levelling Up in Florida

While taking a mini vacation from driving in Largo, Florida, we invested in some serious upgrades for Clementine: a new starter and a full solar system. We also hit up Siesta Key and drank from the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. Will confirm the effectiveness in 10 years time.

Our mission now was to reach Largo, just a short drive from St. Petersburg, to recharge a bit at Justin’s parents’ snowbird condo. One thing we’ve learned along the way is that we seem to get along quite well with retired people – they’re finally doing what they want to do after years of slaving away at work and we’re also doing what we want to do, just without being retired. Now that we had reached the Gulf side of Florida, we had some time to kill one afternoon and decided to see what Siesta Key was all about. A word to the wise, don’t bother going at mid-day and expect to find a parking spot. In true Florida February fashion, the place was PACKED. I still have to keep reminding myself that this is high season here – actually, the congested roads and closed off parking lots do a pretty good job at it. We’ve got snowbirds, vacationing families and partying spring breakers all being sucked in by the Florida sunshine’s magnetism. Us included, of course.

Generic Van Life - Florida Siesta Key
I want a boat!!

Anyway, after observing “America’s #1 Beach” from the windows of the van, we stopped alongside a drawbridge to make some lunch and enjoy the seaside views. In this case, that meant big yachts and even bigger mansions. This side of town was a little calmer and was lined with happy families spending the afternoon collecting cast nets full of fish. There’s a park area on either side of the bridge and I’ve heard of people boondocking on the western side in Nora Patterson Park – a good spot to keep in mind if you’re ever in the Sarasota area. When we were ready to go, surprise surprise, the van wouldn’t start. We did our tried and true “wait it out” method and she still wasn’t turning over, even a half hour later. As always, we met lots of friendly people while waiting who helped distract us and offered tips for places to check out all over the country. There definitely is a silver lining to our constant starting struggles since whenever we’re in a parking lot with the hood up, some wonderful humans come by to try and help or just chat. We’ve been blown away by the responsiveness and hospitality of some of the folks we’ve met and for that, will be forever grateful. In this case, we were exceptionally grateful when Clementine finally fired up about an hour later.

Generic Van Life - Florida Sarasota
Here’s the little park area on Bay Island in Sarasota, minutes from Siesta Key

We spent the night at the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve and finally enjoyed some quiet, secluded “wild camping” in Florida. Similar to the DuPuis WMA we visited a couple weeks prior, you can make a free reservation on the Florida Water Management website and small campers like ours can use the equestrian designated campsites or any other non-backcountry primitive camping zones for up to 7 days. We stayed at the Ashley campground on Green Swamp’s West Tract mainly because it was one of the only ones not full or not closed for a hunt. Even though these WMAs are similar to BLMs, they require a lot more planning which makes me miss the west coast. In any case, this is a great spot with picnic tables, fire rings and even orange trees scattered around. Sadly all of the edible looking oranges were out of reach but I’m sure they’d be tasty if you had a ladder. And good enough balance that you wouldn’t fall off of it with the gazillion bugs flying around.

Generic Van Life - Florida Green Swamp WMA
Finally some wild camping in Florida! With only two other campers there, Green Swamp was quiet and secluded (and riddled with mosquitoes)

Arriving at the condo meant having air conditioning, wifi & TV and showering every day just because we could. As much as we love our little home on wheels, we can’t deny that the modern conveniences of a house are quite nice. We also realize that we’ve come to appreciate these little things a lot more – before, we thought it was just “normal” to have a flushing toilet and running water, pft what snobs! Because we’d be staying in one spot for two weeks, we were able to save on all of our expenses that weren’t food so we thought it would be a good time to take the plunge and invest in a solar system. We already had a deep cycle marine battery that our DC appliances ran off of (fridge, lights, etc.) that was just getting its charge from the alternator as we drove. The battery is old and has been drained many times (which is a no-no for AGM and other lead-acid batteries) so we really wanted to make sure it could keep a charge when we weren’t driving until we can afford to buy a new one. I’m going to make an in-depth post about our solar setup soon so stay tuned for that. We did a lot of research before committing to anything because it is a little pricey but according to our calculations, we’ll break even in 6 weeks since we won’t have to stay at RV Parks anymore for shore power while we’re working. That was our ultimate goal so we’re super pumped to start saving money and are eager to share some awesome products we found and hopefully make the solar installation a little less intimidating.

Generic Van Life - Florida Solar
Workin hard or hardly workin?

Our other order of business was finally getting our starting issue sorted out once and for all. We’ve had several people look at it and they all stand perplexed stating that there is nothing wrong. As we suspected, it would be a bit of (expensive) trial and error replacing things one at a time and hoping that we fixed it. We had already replaced the battery, the alternator and a few other potential culprits but it seemed to be happening more than ever. We found a great shop in Pinellas Park and decided to replace the starter. After removing the centre console covering the engine in the cab area, he also said we needed a tune-up ASAP. Turns out that our spark plugs were originals (from 1984…) and he was more shocked that we were ever able to get it started than he was by our original issue. It’s possible that the new spark plugs might have done the trick but we figured we might as well just do the starter too to hopefully prevent it from happening again. Little by little, Clemmie’s getting a lot of shiny new parts under her hood! We are so pleased with how quickly she fires up now and feel pretty confident that we can start to be normal people who can turn their car off multiple times a day. Before, we would strategically plan errands to avoid turning the van off in fear that it wouldn’t start – this upgrade should definitely help with our fuel costs.

Generic Van Life - Florida Engine
If it wasn’t so loud and unsafe, I think it would be pretty badass to leave the cover off

Relaxing and getting a chance to spend time with family was great BUT we were anxious to hit the road again. As lovely of a view as we had, having a cool new one every morning is unquestionably better. We boogied back northeast, boondocked a night in Orlando and decided to visit America’s oldest city, St. Augustine. Following Ponce de Léon’s quest, we were in search of the mythical – or not so mythical – Fountain of Youth. I think our journey was a little easier with all the road signs and all, but that’s neither here nor there. They’ve basically turned this zone where the longest continuously inhabited settlement is into an archaeological park centred around a stream of magnesium-heavy water that claims some Tuck Everlasting-like effects. Truthfully, it tasted the way my water bottle does when it’s been sitting too long but who am I to judge. Around the rest of the park, there are blacksmiths clankin’ away, presentations on weaponry & canons and peacocks showing off how beautiful they are. Not sure if it was period consistent but we also had a bite at the BBQ joint at the end of the park and it was way tastier than we would have expected.

Generic Van Life - Florida Fountain of Youth
Cheers to probably aging normally!

From there we cruised through Jacksonville Beach and are finally back to crossing state lines and checking out some new scenery. Next stop, Georgia!

Generic Van Life - Florida Hanna Park
On the rooooad again 🎶