Posts in Life

Coming Full Circle in Alberta

Returning to where we started our van journey in and around Calgary, Alberta.

Alberta is where the van magic started; our van is from here, we renovated it here (in the dead of winter I might add) and we started our 6-month long drive (and counting) from here. As cool as it was coming back into Canada through BC, entering Alberta was a pretty big milestone for us. We’ve done and seen A LOT of stuff since we’ve been away and it’s pretty great to know that we, and Clementine, have made it successfully without being dead broke or, just dead.

Generic Van Life - Alberta Crowsnest Pass
The Rockies never seem to get old. Even though they’re like really, really old.

You’d be hard pressed to find a boring or dull route into Alberta from BC since you’ve got some pretty special mountains to pass through. As mentioned in our last post, we took the Crowsnest Highway the whole way through BC until we reached the crazy gorgeous Crowsnest Pass in Alberta. Crystal clear lakes and snow capped mountains surround you as you drive and try to feverishly take it all in since in a matter of minutes, the landscape changes to the good ol’ prairies – yawn. Anyway, not far from the border is the town of Frank, which is a pretty interesting place to stop. Basically, hundreds of years ago, a crazy rockslide completely buried this little town and it was left as a field of rubble. They say there’s gold and all kinds of things under those rocks since the slide destroyed banks and other important buildings but I think the no-digging policy is pretty firm. Bummer.

Generic Van Life - Alberta Frank's Slide
Turtle Mountain: the culprit of the rockslide that buried a town in 1903

After catching up with some friends and family, we made the voyage to middle-of-nowhere-ville, Alberta for a music and van festival. Yes, I said van festival. It’s called Vantopia and is where people from Western Canada and elsewhere bring their crazy souped up vintage vans to hangout and party. I think we could easily say we were some of the only ones that actually live in our van because most of these other ones definitely stay in the garage for most of the year and only come out to be shown off. We’re talking full white polar bear interiors, custom wooden rims and even fully operational bars, all in 70s and 80s vans in the most pristine condition. It was a farmer’s field full of vanners and it was wicked. We set up our matching awnings with our friends’ van and made a giant van complex but were too busy getting wasted to take a photo of it – oops!

Generic Van Life - Alberta Vantopia
One of the only surviving photos (…and it sucks. Sorry.) of when we just arrived and barely anyone was there

We spent the next couple weeks hanging out with family, eating good food and catching up on some repairs and maintenance. We were so stoked to borrow a timing gun from a friend and fix our ongoing engine issue in minutes. We can now go up hills without having to go logging truck pace and all just in time for us to embark on the flattest part of our journey through the prairies– perfect timing! Ha. As great of a time as we had with the humans we hadn’t seen in months, the highlight of our time in Calgary was definitely meeting Justin’s brother’s new puppy, Banjo. This is totally unrelated to anything travel or van related but he’s just too damn cute not to acknowledge. He’s a little border collie and is an absolute wildman. But you can’t stay mad at him because he’s just SO CUTE!! (Photo evidence below)

Generic Van Life - Alberta Banjo
GAHH!!! Don’t you just want to squeeze him?!

Just as we were getting ready to leave Calgary, we noticed that our fridge had decided to stop cooling. We had propane, it was getting a steady flow of power and we always make sure to keep it level so this became a real headache. Long story short, we ended up being able to replace what was causing the problem with a $7 part from an electronics store and were back in business. This was really frustrating and stressful and delayed our departure by a few aggravating days but all in all, we got it sorted and were finally able to buy groceries again, yay! RV fridges are really expensive and finicky so I wrote a very detailed post about what happened to our fridge and how to troubleshoot if you’re experiencing issues with yours. All that and more here.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Upside Down Fridge
Repeatedly turning the fridge upside down was one of the many methods we messed with

With a cold fridge full of overpriced Canadian beer, we were ready to hit the road again and keep truckin’ east. We made a stop not far from the Saskatchewan border in Sunnynook, Alberta at a lovely free campground on a dam reservoir. It was all fine and dandy with the exception of the playground that’s so rusty that it makes horror movie-level sounds as children play on it. Swings that sound like creaky shrieks and children’s laughter just don’t go all that well together when you don’t want to have nightmares. Aside from that, we enjoyed our last peaceful night in Alberta before exploring some new ground (for me) in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Our next commitment is to be in Northern Ontario for the beginning of July so we have about two weeks to drive 19 hours, which is more than manageable and will give us plenty of time to get lost in all those canola fields. Oh yeah, we borrowed a camera from Justin’s mom so we’ll be stepping up our photo game on our blogs and camping directory. Be sure to follow along as we uncover new spots all the time!

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Peaceful prairie camping in Sunnynook, Alberta

Big City, Low Budget: Being Stealthy in Vancouver

We clocked in some major city miles in Vancouver before heading away from the coast and toward Hope, British Columbia. Check out some of our stealth camping tips so you and your van can live that big city dream!

Sailing into Horseshoe Bay on a warm May evening made for a pretty spectacular welcome back onto mainland BC. All of the smaller islands surrounding Vancouver Island and the luxurious shacks that sit atop them sparkled in the setting sun as our ferry docked about 15 minutes north of West Van. We didn’t want to deal with driving through the city after a long day cruising across the island so we headed north toward Squamish to hunker down for the night. Highway 99, or the Sea-to-Sky Highway, is kind of like a continuation of America’s Pacific Coast Highway that skims the rugged coastline all the way to Squamish before surrounding you in mountains as you head into Whistler. BC is full of scenic drives but this route in particular is pretty special.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Squamish
Stunning views just south of Squamish

We found a spot just off the highway with a glorious view of the islands (think Canada, not Galapagos) and the seemingly calm waters that separated us. Being so close to Vancouver, this was a fairly popular spot to camp with a small “village” of vanners forming as more people set up shop for the night. We’re not big fans of waking up early so luckily most of the folks had already set out for the day by the time we rolled out of bed and we had the views all to ourselves.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Squamish Hwy 99
Hard to believe we were only metres away from a busy highway

Over the next week, we got our fair dose of city life as we caught up with lots of friends and family in Vancouver. In fact, we experienced the ultimate Vancouver dream: living on a swanky street in Kitsilano lined with multi-million dollar houses while being steps from the beach and tons of bars and restaurants – oh and, for $0 in rent. City camping is not for everyone and definitely gets old pretty quick but it made for a great way to keep our expenses down while spending our days wandering around a big city. It can seem a little daunting at first to pick a spot where you’ll actually be able to sleep the night and not be woken up by relentless street noise or the fear of police knocking on your window in the middle of the night, so here are a few tips we’ve learned for successful stealth camping:

  • Arrive after the sun goes down and already be ready for bed. This way, you don’t need to exit the van to go to the bathroom or have lights on to see your toothbrush. We like to stay in a public parking lot, like a grocery store or city park, and do all of our bedtime duties there so we can keep pretty low-key once we arrive at our spot. With this method, we’ll head out in the AM so folks might not have even noticed we were there at all.
  • Otherwise, park the van in the day, put all the curtains down and leave. Leave for the whole day. People seem to be much less sketched out by a van in the daytime that seems to just be “forgotten” by nightfall. Nothing says CIA like a cargo van with a fake florist company’s logo rolling up at 7PM and not moving. In Key West, we parked near a hotel and left for the day to be tourists and didn’t return until after midnight – this made the van seem more like any other commuter vehicle than our house.
  • Don’t let anyone see you enter/exit the vehicle. In line with previous points, you either leave for the day and don’t return until people go to bed or you arrive when people are already in bed. Don’t make it seem like your van is your home base and that you’re quite obviously living out of your vehicle.
  • If possible, opt for a spot that’s not directly in front of a single-family home. We like to park in front of apartment buildings or be across the street from churches or businesses so it seems like it could be anyone’s vehicle. Are the folks in unit 2A having visitors? Who knows? Also, who cares? By the time anyone actually pursues it, you’ll be gone.
  • Finally the obvious ones: Don’t make excessive noise. Use minimal lights. Make sure people can’t see your stuff when you’re gone for the day but make sure that what people can see is clean and tidy. Essentially, fly under the radar the best you can. No need to draw any extra attention to your rig or become the eyesore of a neighbourhood with take-out containers and receipts filling the dash. Also, decreasing the likelihood of getting broken into is always the name of the game so don’t have anything worthwhile visible – we even make it a point to not leave spare change on the front console.

We spent the week working while eating good food, hanging out at the beach and catching up with old friends. We even dabbled in “vegan chicken wings, AKA cauliflower wings, that were way tastier than we would have ever imagined – and that says a lot coming from two devoted carnivores. Being such an expensive city to live in, we were pretty lucky to bring our accommodations with us and have nice enough weather to walk EVERYWHERE. That is one thing that I love about cities, an hour walk to meet up with your friend turns into an adventure in itself with all the interesting things to see and colourful folks to people watch (in the least creepy way possible). Of course the main downside about being in the city is that you can’t help but spend money – how can you turn down a fresh bowl of delicious ramen when all you have in the van is Mr. Noodles?! That being said, we’ll just focus on the money we saved in accommodation and transportation and not the money we spent on food…

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Sunset Burrard Bridge
How purdy! The Vancouver sun (the actual one, not the newspaper) setting over the mountains from Burrard Bridge

The time finally came where we were sick of the city and desperately wanted to be back in the woods. We left the sky-high Vancouver gas prices behind and drove past Chilliwack to Hope, BC where we found ourselves a spot on the Skagit River. Given the season, the rivers were quite high as the snow from the mountains was in prime melting time but this had to be the fastest moving river I’ve ever seen. It looked like someone put this river on fast-forward and just left it. Anyway, it felt good to be back in nature until we took a look around the campsite and it was covered in trash. California was bad for litterbugs but this was downright disgusting – the previous campers had attempted to burn all their unneeded camping gear so the fire pit had an ashy camping chair in it while wrappers and beer boxes were scattered throughout. The kicker though, was that they left two chicken cutlets on a cooking grill on the fire pit. You don’t need to be all that “bear aware” to know that that’s not a good idea – ever. So we cleaned it all up and finished their botched burning job to leave the spot as a campsite instead of a pigsty.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Skagit River Trash
This campsite was once a gnarly site
Generic Van Life - Vancouver Skagit River
Then became a great riverside spot!

Coastal BC has been amazing so we’re stoked to head into the mountains and start exploring the interior. Summer is upon us and Canada is full of what we call Crown Land (similar to BLM lands in the States) so we’re gearing up for a few months of amazing free camping. Follow along on our new Camping Directory where we’ll continuously share all the hidden gems we uncover. Shoot us a message or leave a comment with any must-see spots anywhere from BC to Newfoundland – we’re doing it all!

Take a Break from Pumping Gas in Oregon

Living that sales tax-free life through Coos Bay, Cannon Beach and Portland, Oregon.

A very fitting entrance into Oregon, the day we arrived was POURING. We knew it was a rainy place so we sort of just accepted that that’s what life is like there but were pleasantly surprised (for the sake of Oregonians) to hear that was a storm. And a storm like that always does a great job at enlightening you as to where you may have a few leaks….yay…! With a caulking gun in tow, we spent the night at Bastendorff Beach, just west of Coos Bay, and noted how similar, yet different Oregon’s coast is to California’s. With more trees, less cliffs and way more rain, it makes for a much moodier take on Big Sur’s flower-coated shoreline.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Bastendorff Beach
Once the rain stopped, turns out Bastendorff is a pretty nice beach

As any roadtrip goes, the time to buy gas always creeps up quickly. After having filled up in 20 different states at this point, we approached the fill-up by parking, turning the engine off, getting out of the car and preparing to pre-pay. This time, however, no one else appeared to be getting out of their car but instead, stared at us like we were doing something very strange. When we tried to go over to the attendant to give him some cash, he too looked at us like we were doing something very strange. Turns out full-serve gas stations are alive and kicking in Oregon and are pretty much the only type of gas station there is! As it turns out, Oregon and New Jersey are the only two states where pumping your own gas is a foreign concept. Earlier this year, Oregon made some new regulations where in counties with less than 40 000 people, folks can pump their own gas after 6PM (among a few other guidelines), which was met with hostile reactions. “It should only be a trained and certified employee handling these dangerous gas pumps!” “ You expect me to go outside in the rain and cold and risk my life pumping my own gas?!” “How am I supposed to pump my own gas when I don’t know how??” Ok Oregonians, put on your big boy pants and join the rest of the world – you know it’s not that scary when grandmas do it daily without a flinch. What was comedy for us was pertinent information for others when the gas station had diagrams on how not to insert the pump upside down. All joking aside, it clearly creates more minimum wage jobs and kinda makes you feel like a VIP when your gas gets pumped for you. We were even able to get cigarettes delivered to the van without having to go outside or even stand up!

Generic Van Life - Oregon Heceta Beach
Mossy trees by The Devil’s Elbow Park

From Coos Bay, we continued up the coast toward Heceta Beach where we slept a night in the thick of the rainforest, surrounded by huge ferns and miles of lush vegetation. Close to the Devil’s Elbow State Park, this was one of those roads that had no clear destination or reason to exist at all, but made for an excellent sleeping spot that felt like the rest of the world was far, far away. We even found a little painted rock left by a previous camper with a hashtag on it to connect with others exploring the Pacific Northwest. It’s always fun to continue writing the stories that others have started in remote locations.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Painted Rock
Look at this cute little guy!

Out of the forest and back on the water’s edge, we headed to Cook’s Chasm to see Thor’s Well. We didn’t know that the Spouting Horn was there as well so it was a really cool and unexpected surprise to witness this geyser-like spoof of mist shoot up into the sky as the boisterous waves came crashing into the shore. Funnily enough, it took us some searching to actually find Thor’s Well because it’s secondary to the main attraction of the Spouting Horn. If you’ve never heard of the Well, it’s a round pocket in the rocky shore that appears to suck the water from the ocean into its depths. In reality, it’s not all that deep and it certainly isn’t draining the ocean, but it sure looks cool! It’s best to witness on a stormy day but can be really dangerous to get near with all the sneaker waves that Oregon’s coast sees. As the signs point out, never turn your back to the ocean!

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The Spouting Horn at Cook’s Chasm

Continuing north, we stopped in cheese land – or Tillamook as it’s actually called, and lived the absolute dream: camping on a cheese farm. Blue Heron French Cheese Co. is a haven of fine meats, cheeses and all the accouterments needed for a delicious picnic. The cherry on top is that they also have a little wine bar inside where you can do a tasting of 5 wines for 5 bucks! Oregon’s becoming the new kid on the block in the wine scene so it was great to try some local blends and even take a bottle back to the van. Not sure if the owners are RVers or are just really kind, but the grassy knoll of the parking lot is open to overnighters with a simple registration inside. It is, of course, a farm so there are lots of friendly goats and silly donkeys around while colourful peacocks and not-so-quiet roosters sing you all kinds of songs to wake up to. Oddly enough, the roosters on the farm still weren’t as loud and vocal as the roosters that roam the streets in Key West – can’t miss that wakeup call. I highly highly recommend it as an overnight stop and a cool place to visit on any Oregon trip.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Tillamook
Cheese farm living
Generic Van Life - Oregon Sheep
Our neighbour for the night

After saying farewell to our short-lived life on the farm, we stopped in a couple of cool coastal towns, like Manzanita, before making our way to Cannon Beach. I’ve heard lots about Cannon Beach and it was definitely lovely but a little too windy that day to even hear each other speak. The houses that line the coast up here are gorgeous and generally a lot more humble than those of California’s coast, while still boasting panoramic views of the ocean and all that magnificent greenery that Oregon’s so known for.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Cannon Beach
Windy days at Cannon Beach

Like California, we stayed pretty coastal in Oregon and will save the interior for another (read: warmer) time. We got lots of rave recommendations from friends about Crater Lake and camping along the Umpqua River but after checking the conditions and reading that the road into the Lake was closed due to ice from a blizzard, we reluctantly passed on visiting. It is our mission to avoid winter, after all. Luckily, spring had sprung in Portland and sunny skies with cherry blossom-lined streets were in high supply. Portland is also a very van-friendly city with plenty of free street parking in residential and commercial neighbourhoods where you’re bound to see at least one other crusty van parked at every turn. I think it’s a mix between having a very open-minded and unbothered community, along with a massively underfunded police department. In any case, the city has also allowed tenting and sleeping on the streets so you’ll see plenty of tent cities along the highway and other underpasses. Surely far from an ideal living situation but we even saw one group of people that had solar panels at their city campsite, which is actually kind of impressive. Anyway, we spent most of our time around the Hawthorne and Division areas of Southeast Portland, where there were plenty of interesting shops, bars and restaurants that made us feel like we were back in Toronto. It’s got the same mature neighbourhood feel but the houses aren’t as astronomically expensive so people can actually afford to maintain them and keep them looking nice instead of cramming in 12 students and letting the property fend for itself.

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Boats at Cathedral Park in Portland

Portlandia is one of my favourite shows so it was pretty cool to spend some time in the self-described “weird” city. Weird probably wouldn’t be my first word to describe it, but friendly might be; we were parked on a residential street for a little while while waiting for an oil change appointment when a guy yelled down to us from his balcony and asked if we needed to use the restroom or anything. How generous! It’s evident that unlike some other stuffier cities, Portland is pretty laid back and certainly accepting of alternative lifestyles, like van dwelling. When we finally got our oil change, we got to talking to the guy at the shop who gave us some recommendations for cool places to check out nearby that we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to visit. Multnomah Falls, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens (Washington) are definitely on our list for next time! We spent the rest of our evening at Cathedral Park and admired one of Portland’s many bridges getting lit up as the sun went down. Oh and of course, all the while drinking Stumptown Coffee.

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St. John’s Bridge in Cathedral Park

Just one more state to go until we’re back in the motherland and it almost feels like we’re already in BC with the mountainous, tree-covered scenery and with a city by the name of Vancouver. Washington, here we come!

California Chronicles: Central California

Spent a windy night north of San Luis Obispo before making the glorious pilgrimage down the coast to Big Sur, CA. Oh, and got kicked out of two camping spots twice in one night…cheers, Central California.

Sure, San Luis Obispo is more so part of Southern California but heading that way marked the end of the desert and the beginning of the lush, grassy mountains that would continue up the rest of the glorious California coast. We got word of a spot amongst the mountains that was supposed to be beautiful, but a little on the windy side. After our Drumheller experience, we laughed off 40 mph gusts since we managed a night of nonstop 100 km/h winds on the edge of a canyon just fine. By “fine” I mean we were terrified but ultimately, didn’t die or do any damage to the van – score! Anyway, we headed up the winding dirt road and spoke to a couple people who had stayed where we were the night before and were on a mission to find a spot higher up the mountain in hopes of a less windy night. We’re not afraid of a bit of wind! Let’s stay! The view was spectacular, after all.

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Sunshine and grassy mountains in San Luis Obispo

We spent the evening hanging out with a fellow Canadian traveller when the wind started to pick up. By the time we went to bed, the gusts were gaining momentum so we just parked on a different angle and settled in. Fast forward a few hours and it sounded like every bolt holding the roof on was hanging on for dear life. We were rocking like a canoe and not in a peaceful lullaby kind of way. No big deal – we’ll just move the van a bit further in to be shielded by the nearby mountain. The amount of wind blowing into the front of the van kept choking it out so it was a challenge in itself just to get it started but eventually, we found sweet salvation and went back to bed. Ok, now fast forward another couple hours and the wind changed direction drastically so we had to move again. This time, we saw 3 or 4 other campers trying to find a new spot as well – it was 4:30 AM so I don’t think they were just trying to get a head start on their day. We ended up having to drive down the same skinny dirt road that was sketchy enough in the daytime and ultimately parked at a trailhead beneath a “no overnight camping” sign. We managed to get a couple hours of sleep before the area became a construction site with bulldozers and other noisy machinery out to re-grade the road – restful night!

Generic Van Life - Central California San Luis Obispo View
Take the wind out of the equation and this is a beauty spot!

The next leg of our journey was what I had been waiting the whole trip for: driving down California’s Highway 1 to Big Sur. Normally, we could have started in San Luis Obispo and gone all the way to Monterrey but a portion of the highway was closed due to a mudslide so we had to take the 101 to Monterrey before going as far south as the highway would allow. The road was closed at Gorda so despite not being the most efficient route, it was pretty great to drive the coastal highway south and north to see it from both angles. Sometimes seeing those stunning views from the rearview mirror just doesn’t cut it.

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Gorgeous coastal views weren’t in short supply

If you’ve done this drive before then I don’t need to remind you of how beautiful it is but if you haven’t, this is my not-so-subtle nudge to start planning a way to do it. From the roaring coastline to the sandy beaches and everything in between, the entire drive is absolutely breathtaking and evoked an emotional response within me. Everything is rich with life and smells fresh and vibrant to a point where you can just stand in one spot and be overwhelmed with peace and joy. Just like Southern California however, the views are clouded by trash, which is so sad to see.

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If you could virtually smell these flowers, you’d be loving it

We then disappeared into the forest and made our way to the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Miller is one of my favourite writers and along with some other beatniks, was the reason I knew Big Sur would be so special. The “library” is self-described as the place “where nothing happens” and delivers on being a peaceful retreat surrounded by obscure garden art and towering redwoods – and books, of course. If you like playful cats and having a cup of coffee in the forest, then it’s worth stopping in.

Generic Van Life - Central California Henry Miller Library
Lots of garden art at Henry Miller’s

On the entire drive down to Gorda, we were keeping our eyes peeled for forest roads that we could potentially camp on since this part of the coast borders Los Padres National Forest. You’re pretty much SOL anywhere north of Big Sur, but there are a few forest roads close to Gorda that are relatively unmarked and make for some great dispersed camping. We pulled onto Los Burros road, where we passed plenty of other campers doing the same thing. This road eventually leads to Naciemento-Fergusson Road where we read that you’re no longer allowed to camp on, BUT has some other dirt roads off of it that seem to be fair game. I spoke to the dude giving info at the Gorda highway closure and he said that he believes you’re allowed to camp on Naciemento going southbound, just not northbound but he wasn’t entirely sure. The forest roads are worth exploring if you’re up for it! Being able to wake up in the quiet, grassy mountains to a view of the ocean is just the best.

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Los Burros Road camping

We spent the next day exploring some of the parks and soaking in all that fresh salty air. The McWay Falls in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is pretty much what I think of when I imagine what paradise is supposed to be like. Unfortunately you can’t access the beach from there so we headed to Pfeiffer Beach where we walked in the purple jade-filled sand and watched the ocean crash onto the rocky shore. Certainly not a sunbathe-in-the-sand-with-an-umbrella kind of beach, but an amazing place nonetheless. Keep an eye out for the only unmarked paved road without a gate in between the post office and the state park to access its hidden entrance.

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Rocky shores at Pfeiffer Beach

After leaving Big Sur, we found a little street close to a beach in Moss Landing where we’d heard is a good place for an overnight but ultimately ended up getting kicked out by the police. Fun! We sought out an RV-friendly Walmart and hunkered down for the night in the comfort of being surrounded by 5 or 6 other big rigs (you generally know it’s a safe bet when there’s a 40ft RV with a tow trailer parker already). Around 12:30 AM, we got a knock on the window by Walmart security who then asked us to leave before the tow trucks arrive. Double fun! In the several months that we’d been on the road by this point, we’d never gotten kicked out of any spots (other than by the wind) until it happened twice in one night. This is a reality of van life and sometimes you’ve just gotta roll with the punches and keep moving. Lots of people are under the impression that all Walmarts are cool with overnight camping, but with all the inconsiderate litterbug RVers and increased insurance costs, many Walmarts are transitioning over to no longer allowing it. As with all spots, try and do your research first and note that it’s always courteous to ask permission if you opt for a Walmart. Out of desperation, we ended up at a Flying J in Salinas that is plastered in 2-hour parking signs. Luckily by going in and asking, they gave us special permission to stay the night.

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The sunset over San Luis Obispo to remind us of prettier times

Central California really brought its A-game when it came to views but also gave us a run for our money when it came to boondocking. Taking the good with the bad is all part of it and makes for a funny story. After all, you can’t be that surprised that people don’t want you staying on their property for free all the time – if anything, it makes you appreciate all those really awesome successful spots even more!

Breaking Bad and Breaking Down

Taking The Mother Road to Albuquerque to indulge in some Breaking Bad fandom before climbing around El Morro National Monument and standin’ on a corner in Winslow, AZ.

Running alongside many stretches of the I-40, Route 66 has become a deserted road that can still take you across the country – if you’re willing to go 55 mph and drive in a single lane the whole time. Taking it on smaller stretches makes for a much more interesting and historic drive and also feels pretty cool following in the footsteps (or tire tracks) of so many folks in the past that had driven on it to get from LA to Chicago. The 66 took us through Tucumcari for a look at a really rad mural commemorating the road and a chrome statue commissioned in 1997 that kind of reminded me of The Bean in Chicago. We try to at least get gas in some of these towns because despite having an attempted artistic revival, they’re mostly abandoned and very run down with the decline of Route 66 tourism. One strip of the eastbound road in Tijeras is called “The Musical Highway” with a rumble strip within the lane that when driven on at 45 mph, sounds like America the Beautiful is playing. Definitely worth the u-turn if you’re en route to Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

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Mural in Tucumcari featuring some badass 66 motifs

Continuing along, we headed toward Albuquerque while I frantically googled which Breaking Bad spots along our route were actually worth stopping for. As I mentioned last time we were in New Mexico, the owners of Walt and Skyler’s house have put up a fence and seem to spend their days sitting in front of the garage warding off and yelling at tourists. Understandable? Sure. Comical? Very. I guess when that many pizzas have been thrown on your roof, you gotta do what you gotta do. Why they don’t just move is beyond me but we decided it probably wasn’t worth the stop. Los Pollos Hermanos, as most people will point out, is actually just a fast food chain called Twisters that still has the mural inside but just didn’t feel the same. In any case, my two priorities were getting some blue meth candy at The Candy Lady in Old Town and seeing Walter White’s headstone in the random strip mall that it dwells in. The Candy Lady’s “crystal meth” is the actual blue candy that they used on the show in the first two seasons made by the local Albuquerque candy shop. Stopping in just for “meth,” I ended up leaving with some delicious red chili chocolate and a vanity plate for the front of the van since New Mexico has the coolest license plates.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque License Plate
Those colours!

The drive through Albuquerque from the eastern side of town was definitely not the nicest but the Old Town had similar charm to La Mesilla of Las Cruces before opening up to the more countryside looking neighbourhoods of the north. Finding Walter White’s headstone gave some strange directions but eventually made sense after reading that it was originally in a cemetery but the relatives of the actual dead people found it offensive so had it moved to the plaza where most of the funding came from. Once you find its discreet location, you see that it’s a legitimate headstone. If you didn’t know better, you’d think someone was actually buried beneath the walkway of this random strip mall. Justin never watched the show so I paid my respects and we headed on.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Walter White Headstone
R.I.P.

Usually camping within a National Park or Monument is for a fee and requires a reservation but thanks to some friends we made in Mexico, we learned that at El Morro, it’s free! In fact, in 2013, they made entrance to the campground and the monument itself completely free to encourage people to visit, I’d assume. We arrived in the evening and camped the night before exploring the actual park the next day. We opted for the 3km hike to the summit and back down to see the relics of the pueblos that archaeologists uncovered in more recent years. Passing through Inscription Rock, there are etchings and carvings left by all the people that passed through here in the 16 and 1800s. This was a hotspot for nomads wanting to reach California or the Colorado River because there is an oasis of clean drinking water that flows year round in the middle of the desert. Some of the inscriptions were absolutely insane – as design nerds, we couldn’t believe how precise and elegant much of the signatures were considering they had to be chipped away with rocks or other tools. Over the years, people essentially wrote “[insert Spanish conqueror’s name] was here” all along this rock until the Parks service decided to close it off in 1905 to preserve the historic inscriptions and petroglyphs and prevent modern day trolls from leaving their mark.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro Inscription
These people clearly didn’t mess around when it came to penmanship

Reaching the top made for some stunning panoramic views of the area and the canyon within it. One of the coolest parts was seeing the pueblo where the Zuni people lived in over 800 different rooms atop El Morro in the interest of protecting their resources. Archaeologists have uncovered about 30 different rooms but decided to leave the rest uncovered in order to not subject the materials to further weathering. To think that thousands of people used to live in these tiny stone rooms was pretty crazy but also very impressive considering what kind of tools and materials they had to work with. After parting ways with El Morro, we drove through the town of Zuni where the modern generations of the people that once lived there now reside.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro View
View from the summit overlooking the canyon at El Morro
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro Pueblo
Zuni Pueblos – those bedrooms are van sized!

And just like that, we were back in Arizona. Arizona’s been one of our favourite states so we were stoked to be back. The fist order of business was stopping in Winslow so Justin could fulfill his Standin’ on the Corner dream. He was clearly not the only one on this pilgrimage as there’s a statue, mural and a bunch of Eagles-themed shops and merch all around. There were many other people there to have their picture taken and relish in all the musical glory. Luckily, there is a park just south of Winslow that you can camp at with a view of a river and the surrounding farmland. Unluckily, it got uncomfortably cold at night so we kept on truckin’ in search of the warmer temperatures that Southern Arizona has gifted us with before.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Winslow
No caption required…

Driving through the Coconino National Forest is so glorious and diverse with the severe elevation changes that make it go from desert to boreal forest real fast. With the mountain driving, Clementine started making that pinging sound again and didn’t seem to be too happy with all the steep grades. We knew the octane booster was just a temporary solution and we’d need to revisit the situation again soon but knowing something was up was definitely stressing us out. We needed somewhere to crash for the night so we headed toward New River and set up shop at a super cool BLM surrounded by wild burros and Saguaro cactuses.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Cactuses
This view never gets old

After working the day away, we closed in on Phoenix and got ourselves some overdue showers and stocked back up on groceries. We settled at a Walmart just outside of the city in Buckeye and got down to business troubleshooting what could be wrong with the van. My only idea was that the EGR valve needed to be replaced, which would be pretty straightforward and would set us back a mere 25 bucks. Long story short, we popped into an O’Reilly and had a chat with the admirably knowledgeable and friendly staff to conclude that the EGR was fine we were at the beginning of having some carburetor problems. The manager/our new best friend said he was confident that we could rebuild it ourselves since it’s meticulous but not overly difficult. Within the hour, we had a carburetor rebuild kit on order and were shitting our pants a little. We slept at the store and spent the next day carefully labeling and cleaning every piece while photographing our every move. All in all, it had its challenges but it really wasn’t all that scary. My obsessive-compulsive tendencies majorly came in handy in staying organized and keeping foolproof notes of the disassembly in order to zoom through the rebuild.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Dirty Carburetor
What was once a dirty scary carb…
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Cleaning Carburetor
…got all deconstructed and scrubbed…
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Clean Carburetor
…and is now a clean happy carb!

While we were getting down and dirty into the mechanical grease, we upgraded a few other parts and prepared ourselves for the carb tuning process. I personally find this the most challenging part because it can be so finicky but it’s all part of getting Clementine driving back to the way she should be. Doing this all ourselves kept our costs down immensely (the carb rebuild kit was $43 while a new carburetor is $400+) so we treated ourselves to a mini projector! We had contemplated getting a small TV to not have to hold a hot laptop while watching a bedtime movie but it just seemed like it’d be awkward and bulky in our small space. We ended up finding this teeny-weeny pico projector at Walmart for 100 bucks and grabbed a pull-down blind from Lowe’s for a whopping $7 and just like that, had a sweet little theatre setup! This is a pretty no frills projector but we didn’t need all that built-in Smart TV stuff since we’re rarely on wifi. It suits our needs way better than a TV would and we can even take it outside to project movies onto the side of the van. For any vanners looking to upgrade their screen situation, we 100% recommend a pico projector (no, we don’t have shares in the company…).

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Projector
The van is now a theatre!

It’s finally California time and we’re stoked for this milestone of our journey. We will now have officially hit the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (and can’t forget about that Third Coast) and are on our voyage back to the Great White North. We’ve only scratched the surface on all the places we could explore in America but we’re totally on board to spend next winter out of the cold again. For now, we’re stocking up on gas, propane and pretty much everything else in Quartzsite before enduring the Canada-like prices that California is so known for.

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

Keys and Glades

Highway 1 took us from Fort Lauderdale to the southernmost point in the United States. We had a blast in Key West before boating through gator land in the Florida Everglades.

After the rocket launch madness, we were stoked to head toward a BLM-style camping spot like those in the west, which are hard to come by in Florida. Over here, there are Water Management Areas where camping is permitted in designated areas by making a free reservation. That being said, they can get booked up quick – especially with February being the peak of high season in Florida. We arrived at DuPuis WMA after nightfall expecting a quiet forested area but soon realized it was basically an RV Park without hookups. I’m sure it’s not always like that but it was comical how jampacked it was. Granted it was a Friday and this place boasts amenities like bathrooms, hot showers and garbage disposal (a euphemism for dumpsters), which are all rare to find on free public land. This particular area is considered an equestrian campground but accommodates non-equestrian campers with RVs as well. As someone from the city, it was pretty cool to wake up to horses walking by the van despite them having to trot through a maze of RVs. When navigating which WMA you can camp at based on your camping equipment, the lady I spoke with on the phone clarified that a small camper like ours can fit at any of the sites, except backcountry. Larger RVs are generally best suited for the equestrian grounds and tents are good to go anywhere. Depending on the time of year, I’d suggest preemptively making some reservations along the way and cancelling them ahead of time (be nice) if need be – easier than scrambling last minute and toying with the idea of pitching a tent in a Walmart parking lot (don’t do this).

Generic Van Life - Key West DuPuis
This is the DuPuis WMA after some people had cleared out in the morning. Still lots of folks but plenty of green space to go around

Fort Lauderdale awaited us with friends, an air conditioned apartment and even colder beer. We spent the weekend catching up with an old friend of Justin’s and enjoying the luxury of having a flushing toilet at our disposal. With our streak of abnormally low temperatures hitting every town on our path, Fort Lauderdale shook things up and hit some seasonal highs. After months of acquiring extra blankets and making sure our propane is topped up to run the furnace, we had to go out and buy a fan. Boohoo, I know, but keep in mind we have a Canadian van aka great furnace but no a/c. Needless to say, we received no sympathy from people back home as they scrape ice off their cars and moustaches. Anyway, we set up for the work week at a county park called Easterlin Park in the Oakland Park neighbourhood (how many times can I say park in one sentence?). This was a really cool spot that even our Florida native friends didn’t know existed. It’s a lovely green space in the middle of an urban area that felt secluded and lush – well, until the blaring train went by. It’s part of a group of 5 parks scattered across Broward County that all offer different types of camping (and wifi!) with nice facilities. We just so happened to be there when the Parkland shooting happened and received alerts on our phones when the shooter was still at large. We were about 25 minutes away, so that was a little scary. Not gonna get into it, but here’s to sincerely hoping that no such emergency alert has to be issued again.

Generic Van Life - Key West Easterlin Park
Easterlin Park made for some jungle-like camping minutes from Fort Lauderdale

With the drive down the Keys on our agenda the next morning, we took the 1 all the way through Miami to Homestead. Of course this wasn’t until after making an important stop at Le Tub in Hollywood Beach to eat burgers bigger than our heads. I’ve heard Miami traffic is crazy and we can now attest that that is certainly true. At least there were trippy lightshows of dancing people on the sides of buildings to keep the drive interesting. We eventually parked up in Homestead and stayed the night in a Home Depot parking lot about 40 min north of Key Largo.

Generic Van Life - Key West Le Tub Welcome
Bathtub shop? Nope, burger joint. And we’re talking 16 oz patties

The much-anticipated drive down the Keys was well worth the excitement. Gorgeous views from every angle made it hard to not daydream about spending the day boating to a far out sand dune to have lunch like many of these boaters seemed to be doing. Even with the beautiful turquoise waters glistening in the sun, it was evident that hurricane Irma made a lasting impression on several of the Keys, especially Islamorada and Marathon. Piles of debris lined the highway and left behind not-so-distant memories of beautiful beach homes and pristine beaches. In fact, we drove past to see that even the KOA was closed for reconstruction. It’s clear that, similar to Texas, some areas have more money than others to clean up and rebuild, leaving virtually no trace of disaster. That being said, we drove out of the Keys on a Saturday and saw groups of people scattered around working together to clean up. As unfortunate as these things may be, the community coming together to help each other is always a good aspect of the outcome.

Generic Van Life - Key West Drive
Even our broken mirror looked gorgeous in the Keys!

Reaching Key West, we were on a mission to find a private parking lot that we could pay to park in for the night, as per advice from other vanners. Camping in Key West is known to be next to impossible unless you’re cool spending over $100+ a night and booking a campsite months in advance. After passing by several parking lots with blatantly posted signs stating “No RVs, trailers or campers” or simply, “overnight parking prohibited”, we went to a hotel to ask to park in their parking lot. The guy at the front desk said they don’t allow that but there’s no need anyway because in Old Town, you can freely park on the street. In his words, as long as you’re not in front of someone’s house, on the yellow lines or parked “backwards” (backed in) then you’ll be fine. He assured me that there’d be no trouble and that he had my back if the police had anything to say about it. Of course I left out the minor detail that we’d be sleeping in the van, but at least I made a new friend. We parked not far from the hotel in an area with a bunch of other cars, away from any main streets. We closed all the curtains, put our sun shade in the windshield and walked into all the tourist action to load ourselves with beverages.

Generic Van Life - Key West Roosters
Street parking meant we had some rowdy neighbours. They were roosters.

A must-see on our short trip was the Hemingway Home; a gorgeously preserved home filled with polydactyl cats, what’s more to love? Go on the tour and hear the facts and stories for yourself but I’ll just tell ya that this house is lovely and complete with every creative’s dream, a private studio. Walking around the property was surreal, especially for me as my 17 year old self got a quote from The Old Man and the Sea as my first tattoo (yes, I thought I was cool). After spending some quality time with the kitties, we had some delicious food at Santiago’s Bodega before eventually ending up at the tastefully divey Whistle Bar on Duval. A second-floor bar with a wrap around patio was a perfect choice for observing a night in Key West in full swing. Bonus, the third floor of this place is a clothing optional bar called Garden of Eden if that strikes your fancy ;). We stumbled back to the van and discreetly climbed in for the night. Stealth camping is always a gamble so be cautious to not let residents see you and of course, be as quiet and unobtrusive as you can be. From what I’ve read, sleeping in your vehicle is harshly punishable there and the police like to throw out the jail card. With looming paranoia and incredibly vocal roosters going all night long, it wasn’t the most peaceful sleep but a free stay in Key West nonetheless!

Generic Van Life - Key West Hemingway Pool
Hemingway’s backyard with the first (and most expensive) pool in Key West

The drive out was somehow even more beautiful and we made sure to stop on a couple other keys to take it all in. The only thing that would have made our stay better would have been seeing a key deer but we can’t have it all can we. We had our mid-day breakfast on Coco Plum Beach, near Marathon Key, before heading to the Everglades for an airboat tour that we scored a wicked deal on (thanks Groupon). We went to Coopertown, a town with a posted population of a whopping 8 people, for the “original” airboat tour. If you do click this link to go to their website, please enjoy as much as I did that their official video is a clip from Bridget’s Sexiest Beaches, a travel show by Playboy Playmates. Unfortunately there weren’t any Playmates present when we went but we did see 3 gators! This was so satisfying since our eyes were peeled whenever we were by a swamp in Louisiana, to no avail. Riding the gator high after the tour, I spotted at least 10 more gators hanging out along the banks and swimming in the swamps on our drive west out of the Glades along Big Cypress Preserve. Wildlife was the name of the game with several signs warning of panther crossings but like the key deer, they remained a mystery.

Generic Van Life - Key West Gator
Gator patrol

Click away for some more photos from lovely southeastern Florida:

Been to the Everglades? Done some stealthy boondocking in the Keys? We wanna hear about it!

Greetings from Austin

West Texas was all cotton and roadkill but we discovered a home away from home in Austin, TX.

There are few big cities that we are actually excited to pass through among our drives through weird small towns and Austin was definitely one of them. Coming from the Roswell, NM area, we broke up our drive a little bit by staying one night in a town called San Angelo. A major thing we noticed after crossing the state line was how much better kept these small towns looked compared to those of New Mexico. It’s quite unfortunate really that there can be such a visible wealth gap between two neighbouring states in towns just miles apart. That being said, we entered Texas through a small town called Plains, where the first thing we saw was a dead chocolate lab in the middle of the road. It was awful and had obviously happened quite recently judging by the folks on the side of the road. Little did we know, this would set the tone for the rest of our drive that day. Setting an all-time record for both of us (probably combined), we counted 38 dead deer on our 90 mile drive along highway 87 from Big Spring to San Angelo. That’s nuts! And that doesn’t include the multitude of smaller animals we lost count of. It’s clear that some of them were fresher than others, so the city/county/state/whoever must not collect them like they do back home and in (I assume) other states. When I googled briefly to see how that all works, all I could find were threads about if it’s ok to harvest the animal if you hit it…but that’s a different story.

Generic Van Life - Austin Foster Park
Tom Green makes good parks

Aside from the plethora of dead animals strewn on either side of the road, the rest of the landscape was pretty much cotton field after cotton field. Most people don’t really consider how much cotton we consume but seeing the giant bales lined up by the dozen was pretty eye opening. Clothing is one thing but then there’s cotton balls, cotton swabs, tampons! It’s crazy to see the raw materials in such high volume when we’re so used to focusing on obtaining the end product. Anyway, if textiles are as interesting to you as they are to me, here’s some further reading about the current cotton industry and how insane in the membrane our consumption habits are. On that note, our camping spot for the night was in a nice little park in Tom Green County (lol) called Foster Park. It was picturesque with big pecan trees, a pond and lots of very talkative residents – ducks. Two of them were especially outgoing and walked right up to us and quacked away as if politely asking for food. They looked like a cross between a duck and a turkey, which we later learned were called Muscovy ducks. In the morning, we opened the curtains and they were camped outside our window waiting for us to wake up so they could politely ask us for food again. I say “politely” because they didn’t blatantly attack us but they definitely walked away with quite a bit of sass when we politely denied them.

Generic Van Life - Austin Muscovy Ducks
These Muscovy ducks were keen for anything we could give them – here they are trying to bum a smoke

We were lucky enough to score a spot at Pecan Grove RV Park in the Barton Springs area of Austin. When looking for a park to stay at for the work week, we realized that this is THE spot to stay at cause it’s smack in the middle of everything. It’s Airstream central and apparently has a 2+ year waiting list for permanent residence, which leaves very few overnight spots. The park itself is nothing to write home about but it’s walking distance to tons of bars, restaurants and parks and is coveted by travellers and locals alike (don’t even think about trying to get a spot during ACL) so we were stoked to be able to stay there. The week was mostly comprised of eating and drinking as hard as we were working, but that’s our kind of party.

Generic Van Life - Austin Pecan Grove
Pecan Grove RV Park is nestled amongst tons of bars and restaurants. The patio of that restaurant with the string lights is basically on-site

In addition to being spoiled with our location, I have a friend in Austin that showered us in delicious food and drink (not literally – we’re not that gangster) and made sure that we checked out all the different neighbourhoods to get a feel for all that makes Austin the bustling place that it is. We had a good time checking out the endless food trucks and eating our bodyweight in melty brisket and cornbread. Justin even paid homage to our friends from Foster Park by having Muscovy duck for dinner one night. We had never heard of these things and then they pop up on a menu the next day – serendipitous some (non-vegetarians) might say!

Generic Van Life - Austin BBQ
Didn’t have a spare 6 hours to wait in line at Franklin’s so we had some BBQ at Terry Black’s which was delish

As our luck would have it, the week we were in Austin was the coldest they’ve had all season and even shut the city down one day. As Canadians, it felt like a nice fall day to have a high of 1°C (34°F) in January but for Texans, this meant cancelled school, closed businesses and no driving. As comical as it was, we had to remind ourselves that this barely ever happens there so it can actually be a big safety concern since Austinites already seem to suck at driving, even in good weather. Before the freezing rain storm hit, it was a decently warm day that we spent walking along the river to the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue. Amid all the cute dogs, there were so many people running, rollerblading and biking. We sat on a park bench, tired and hungover, as people of all ages continuously zoomed past us and made us feel pretty lazy. It was exhausting to watch how active these people were. Wasn’t enough to make us do anything else but indulge in more food and drink that night though.

Generic Van Life - Austin Stevie Ray
Gonna assume the statue isn’t true to life size (but hoping that it is)

Before leaving town, we loaded up on Topo Chicos and spent a night in Round Rock, just north of Austin, crashing in our friend’s driveway. This is a cool little town that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise checked out but we’re glad we did. Despite being just 20 minutes away from downtown Austin, Round Rock is doing its own thing and doesn’t fall into the typical neighbouring city-suburb category. Even on a weeknight, the town was alive and had lots of shops and restaurants in old timey buildings with lots of character – contrary to the very young feel that Austin has.

Generic Van Life - Austin Round Rock
Just so we’re on the same page, that is indeed a skeleton riding a bear with antlers. Bar decor at its finest

Our next stop was the “third coast”, as the Texans like to call it, to get out of the city and into some free beach camping (music to my ears). The weather forecast wasn’t promising but still beat the 20+ cm of snow Toronto was getting. It just so happened to be torrential rain the day we left, which is everyone’s favourite beach conditions, right?! To make our rainy drive more bearable, we stopped in to try Whataburger for the first time after seeing so many of them in Texas (this is worth clicking). Some context behind why this is noteworthy: we had been raving about how much we loved In-N-Out when we got challenged by friends saying that Whataburger is way better. My verdict still has to go to In-N-Out cause Whataburger was just too big and too mustardy (weird complaints to have, I know) but once we throw Shake Shack into the mix, it’s anyone’s game. Let’s get into the hard-hitting stuff now, which American burger chain has your vote?

Generic Van Life - Austin Whataburger
What a burger indeed

It’s all Gypsum and Aliens in New Mexico

Spent a week uncovering UFO sightings, White Sands and Bottomless Lakes around southern New Mexico.

I’m going to start off by resisting making any “New Mexico/Old Mexico” jokes since that’s all we heard when we told people we were no longer in Mexico, but in New Mexico. I’m sure the residents are tired of hearing them but more importantly, Wikipedia is telling me that New Mexico was actually named over 200 years before modern-day Mexico was established…who woulda thunk it!? Anyway, we were on the I-10 for the beginning of this drive before veering off to head toward Silver City. It was crazy to see how many abandoned shops, motels and gas stations there were. It had an eerie feeling similar to those towns along Route 66, where the surviving businesses are relying on highway traffic just to stay afloat. Speaking of highway traffic, we saw so many warnings for dust storms and what to do if you’re caught in one that we know they’re not messing around. Luckily we didn’t encounter anything but they seem pretty crazy dangerous. We’ve got the 5 steps on lock if we ever do though.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Sign
Gotta love being welcomed by dancing chili peppers

Our first night in New Mexico was spent camping in the Gila National Forest, just south of Silver City. The spot was right by the trailhead to the Continental Divide (that we definitely did not hike) so all you active folks can add that to your bucket list. With a cold morning breaking the 6600 ft. elevation, we got back on the road and drove into Silver City. Now, it was Monday at this point, which normally seems like a business as usual kinda day, but not for this town. Chock full of artist studios and showrooms, this quirky little place appeared to be more of a weekend hotspot. Most signs in the windows showed shops being open Saturday and Sunday and then usually another random weekday. It was a drag that we couldn’t visit many places but it was still a cool place to walk around and peek in the windows. At one point, there was even a priest, a biker and a cowboy chatting in front of an herb store – there has to be a joke in there somewhere… Despite the sleepy demeanor, Silver City has lots of colourful buildings and street art that bring the town to life. Billy the Kid seemed to be a popular motif, as New Mexico was his stomping ground. If we ever pass through again, we’ll make sure it’s on a weekend to catch all the action.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Silver City
Lots of really cool buildings in Silver City. Most just admirable from the street since everything was closed!

From there, we headed east to Las Cruces. Before settling in for the work week, we explored the old Mesilla area a little bit. It had a really cool atmosphere filled with pueblo-style houses and skinny streets that didn’t make you feel like you were in America. The old timey feel was quickly lost when we ventured back into modern America’s love for box stores and supercenters. Can’t deny that stepping into a Walmart and being able to find pretty much anything you’ve ever known to exist is convenient, but I’d still take the character and history of Mesilla over the rest of Las Cruces any day.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Mesilla
Stopped at this cute little spot in Mesilla for a beer…or two

We stepped up our game and stayed at a boujie RV Park for the work week as some sort of a treat I guess? This place had a hot tub that could easily fit 20+ people and they even collected your trash at the curb (the staff, not the hot tub…that would be quite an invention though), but unfortunately what comes with fancy amenities are the fancy-ass people that own million dollar RVs. As bad of a wrap as RV Parks get from most van people, we’ve had such a wicked time meeting people in them and sharing stories. We see it for its sense of community but driving an ‘84 into a jungle of brand spanking new rigs created some sort of a separation. Maybe we were just taking it too personally but people wouldn’t even wave back when we walked or drove by. Granted there were a few times where I didn’t have my contacts in but I’m not so blind that I wouldn’t see an arm even slightly move up. That’s all I’m askin for!! Just a little gesture to acknowledge I exist instead of these elitist travellers just blankly staring. We, of course, didn’t let that ruin our time and just carried on being our dirtbag selves ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but full disclosure: the staff was lovely, it was just the crowd that sucked. We also got our first rainfall since being in Calgary, which was really refreshing and smelled oh so good.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Las Cruces RV
You get a cheaper rate if you park along the highway, sold! Keep those fancy people away!

Anxious to go back into non-judgmental nature (not bitter at all), we drove into the Organ Mountains to camp at Aguirre Springs the following night. This place was sick! You take this skinny little winding road into the mountains and pretty much at any given point, you can’t see where your next turn is going to lead. Even when we initially entered the park area, we had no idea where we’d be camping since it just appeared to be heavily forested with jagged mountains popping out of the top. There was something magical about this place that made it feel like a Disney movie; the sun glimmered on all the plants while tiny birds chirped away and butterflies perched on rocks. It was a magical drive that we were happy to make again when we realized we had driven the whole loop and were closing in on the exit, haha. We don’t usually pay for camping on non-work days but this beautiful park was only $3.50 since we have an annual parks pass (best investment btw) and was nicer than a lot of campgrounds we’ve paid $30+ for in Canada. With it being an actual campground comes a couple rules like having to arrive before the gate closes and…yea, that was pretty much it. It’s also all designated sites, not the usual dispersed camping, but each one had a covered picnic table gazebo thing, multiple fire rings, a cooking grill and there were bathrooms nearby. I sound like I work for the park but this was just such an awesome spot that if you’re ever in the area, you should check it out. It’s definitely not great for bigger rigs since the gravel parking pad section of the sites are pretty small but there are lots of cool spots for smaller campers and tents. Being so high up also made for a real big night sky and a view of the town of White Sands, which just looked like a small illuminated square from up there.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Aguirre Springs
How neat is this little set-up? Plenty of space for multiple campfires, dining and parking. Take all your friends down to New Mexico and do it up!

We were stoked to make some breakfast the next morning and head to the White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo. This place doubles as a missile range and has got all kinds of neighbouring military “stuff” that seemed like complete juxtaposition to this tranquil and picturesque place. As the name would imply, the sand is snow white and is that way because of its gypsum content. So why not make a ton of drywall? No! These sandy dunes are protected and are open for tourists to drive amongst and climb. We were a little unsure about how driving would be after the Quartzsite Quicksand Incident, but a friend told us that 4wd wasn’t necessary since there’s a hard, sand packed road that goes through the park and you’re not even allowed to drive on the sand dunes anyway. You can pretty much pull over anywhere and climb up a soft, sandy dune to get an awesome vantage point of the rolling hills that look uncannily like snow banks. Like snow, the sand was almost blindingly white from the sun’s glow (albedo effect whaddup) and people were even sliding down it on crazy carpets and toboggans. Basically this was all the fun of snow but minus the cold and wetness, beauty! This place was extremely cool and absolutely worth all of the sand that we shook off of our clothes for days after.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico White Sands
Just a lone speck in endless white sand

One thing these big open areas with lots of military presence create is…mystery. That was cheesy but for real, what’s going on at all these top-secret places that often just show up as blank areas on a map? Something the government doesn’t want us to know about and one of those things is ALIENS! Being in New Mexico, it was just a given that we were gonna go to Roswell. We knew it was going to be a little silly but that’s just part of the fun. However, our first bizarre experience began on the drive. Now, I’m not talking supernatural-bizarre, but we had no idea that our route would take us through the mountains and back into snow! Going from white sand desert to snow-covered spruce trees in a matter of hours was pretty trippy. I suppose we just didn’t look much into it, but neither of us had any idea that New Mexico was home to any skiing destinations at all. I’m now learning that the Ski Apache is, in fact, the southernmost ski destination in North America. As we ascended into Ruidoso, it became clear that it was a booming tourist town amongst the Sierra Blanca. When we were leaving White Sands, we saw a mountain that looked snow-capped but we dismissed it as just being some sky-high gypsum. Turns out it was the Sierra Blanca Peak and it was indeed, icy cold snow.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Organ Mountains
Oops! Didn’t take a photo of the snow. Here’s a shot of the Organ Mountains instead

We were dreading having to bundle up to socialize with some aliens but thankfully, the elevation returned to normal New Mexican heights and the warmer temperatures that come with it. We were greeted with a bunch of car dealerships and billboards for Italian restaurants when entering Roswell, but soon caught of glimpse of what we were lookin’ for, the UFO Museum. We went in with corny expectations and it delivered. Very info heavy but had its fair share of alien replicas (or were they just taxidermied?!?) and stories of sightings from around the globe. For those unaware of why Roswell is significant in the alien world, here is the ultra abridged story: a UFO reportedly crashed just outside of Roswell in 1947 and the man who reported it was threatened by the military to change his claim and everyone involved was sworn to secrecy when the evidence was replaced by a weather balloon. The museum had allegedly original transcripts and signed affidavits, which were the most interesting part to us. Make of it what you wish, but it’s still a fun/spooky/hilarious place to check out.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Roswell
Re-creation or taxidermy?!?!?!

To get away from all that hustle and bustle of alien town, we camped the night at Bottomless Lakes State Park. Being a state park, there was a small fee ($10 for primitive camping and $14 if you want hookups) but it was worth it for how beautiful the grounds were. After talking to the camp host, we opted to get away from the Lea Lake area, where all of the RVs and hookups are (even wifi), and find a more secluded spot by Pasture Lake. There are designated camping areas with picnic tables, garbage cans and vault toilets. We were the only ones amongst the large rocky cliffs that made for some nice quiet camping. The only thing making noise were the animals (raccoons I’d assume) rummaging through the garbage can devouring the mess left behind by whoever had stayed at this spot before us. The garbage cans were uncovered and these people left a bunch of celery and whipped cream for whatever reason and it was all over our site by morning. We collected as much as we could but it makes me wonder what kind of a weird party these folks were having. In any case, I’m sure the raccoons are well fed around here if that’s the norm.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Bottomless Lakes
Got a nice little spot all to ourselves

The following day we were able to explore the grounds a little bit more and take in how cool these little lakes are. They call them “bottomless” because they’re so full of vegetation that they take on rich turquoisey-green hues and appear to be very deep. They’re all sinkholes that aren’t connected to any rivers or streams and formed as a result of limestone caves collapsing – similar to the cenotes found around Mexico (shout out to anyone who’s ever done the Yucatán excursion to Ik Kil lol). One lake in particular, Mirror Lake, reminded me a lot of Emerald Lake in Yoho, BC. This lake was exceptionally cool because it was composed of two connected sinkholes, one with fresh water, which had a bunch of game fish, and one with salt water, which couldn’t support these fishies. They’re about 40’ deep but look like they go on forever.

Generic Van Life - New Mexico Mirror Lake
Really hard to capture the colour of the water here but it was super rich and saturated, similar to lakes in BC and Alberta

All in all, New Mexico definitely surprised us in many ways. Their state slogan is “Land of Enchantment” so we’re ready to be enchanted again when we go through Albuquerque on our way back west and join in on the Breaking Bad tourism that has caused homeowners to build barricading fences around their houses (it was just one, but still).

 

Tucson is like Vancouver but Smaller…and with Palm Trees.

Back to familiar American cities in Tucson, AZ.

The border crossing in Lukeville makes way to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: a large park filled with towering saguaro cactuses (just a sidebar here for anyone [probably just me] questioning if I should be saying cacti instead of cactuses…there’s some debate over it but both are correct, as cacti is Latin and cactuses is English). A lot of the park is drivable if you’re taking the 85 up to Why, but of course, there is a separate paid area as well. Interesting fact about saguaro cactuses is that they’re actually protected by the State of Arizona – if you have one on your property, you are to call the Department of Agriculture to get a permit to remove it. We considered camping in the park because the thought of waking up in a cactus forest is pretty cool, but ultimately decided we’d keep on trekking. It felt like quite a treat to be back on well-maintained roads while paying just over $2 a gallon for gas (God bless America).

Generic Van Life - Tucson Cactuses
These saguaros have got a few inches on 6’4″ Justin

We found a cool spot just outside of Tucson called Snyder Hill. This is a BLM where you can camp for free for 14 days right outside of a developed area in Tucson Estates, convenient for grabbing gas or groceries. It sounds a lot fancier than it is but it’s clearly a very popular spot for people in the area as it was one of the fullest BLMs we’ve stayed at. Granted it was upward of 80°F (it was 28°C when we finished grocery shopping) and the start of the weekend, so who wouldn’t want to pop out for some free camping. Lots of trailers, vans and RVs parked across the desert park, gathering for bonfires and doggy play dates – it was almost like Quartzsite on a much smaller scale.

Generic Van Life - Tucson Snyder Hill
All about those bug nets. Flies travelled in gangs around here

After a much needed recharge, we headed into downtown Tucson the next day to check out the Arizonan city that was never really on our radar to visit. I gotta say, we were both pleasantly surprised with how much we liked it. It’s clean and full of mom & pop shops and restaurants that seem to be on the earlier stages of gentrification, AKA before it becomes lame expensive bullshit. It reminded us a lot of a smaller Vancouver that was less expensive and had palm trees. We had no trouble finding some good coffee shops to steal wifi and electricity from and we even went for brunch, which we never do. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of being in Toronto recently, people are NUTS about brunch. As someone who has worked in a weekend brunch spot, brunch is the bane of my existence. Partially because Toronto has become so expensive and pretentious and the brunch crowd is insanely particular about…everything. Anyway, we were expecting line ups of people that look way too clean and put together to be out and about on a Saturday morning (what did you do last night?! Even when I stay in on a Friday, I’m still a troll until noon on Saturday) but to our surprise, we had some awesome food in a nice low-key spot that didn’t charge $20+ for eggs benny. Score!

Generic Van Life - Tucson Downtown
Downtown Tucson

Tucson seemed like a city we could spend some time in, with lots of music venues, restaurants and colourful painted murals scattered around the downtown. There’s also a streetcar system that seemed way too cheap to be real compared to the $3.25 a ride we pay back home. Tucson had it goin’ on and we really enjoyed it. That being said, we can only spend so much time in the city before heading back into quiet, secluded parks for camping. That night, we drove into the Coronado National Forest and slept at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains. The road in was a slow crawl because it was so bumpy and uneven, but well worth the drive despite being swallowed by clouds of dust left behind by jacked up 4×4 pickup trucks barreling down it. The road seemed to be a common route for border patrol trucks to cruise on but we didn’t witness any juicy Live PD-style chases, which is probably for the best.

Generic Van Life - Tucson Dragoon Mountains
The Coronado Forest was a really cool spot!

From here, we began making our way toward New Mexico by taking the road that continues through the rest of the forest. Beautiful views but a little hairy for Clemmie. Think lots of twisting winding roads just scraping the edge of cliffs along some rocky switchbacks. She persevered but it made for a wild ride out!

Generic Van Life - Tucson Coronado Forest
Sketchy drives always lead to sweet views