Posts in Travel

The Rest Area Tour of Saskatchewan

Took the north route through Kindersley and Saskatoon before spending the day in Canada’s Dead Sea in Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan.

We’ve finally gotten to the part of the map where every Canadian has flashbacks to elementary school learning about Saskatchewan, its endless wheat fields and…that’s about it. The prairies get a bad wrap in the scheme of cross-country road trips and are often the zones people devote to full day drives in a hurry to get to Alberta or Ontario because they’re summarized in one word: boring. Well, we were on a mission to give Saskatchewan and Manitoba a fighting chance at stealing our hearts by giving ourselves two weeks to drive across them. To put that into perspective, it only takes about 11 hours to get from the edge of Alberta to the edge of Ontario so we were really going to be taking our time.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Window View
These endless skies surely weren’t boring

Coming from our last campsite in Sunnynook, Alberta (necessary side note: this is very close to Hanna, AB – proud home of everyone’s favourite band, Nickelback), we immediately felt the difference after crossing the provincial line when the road turned into a pothole-ridden nightmare. In any case, we were ready to do some trail blazing in hopes of uncovering a sweet camping spot on some of Saskatchewan’s plentiful Crown Land. As we’ve mentioned before, when it comes to free camping spots, Canada as a whole is way under discovered in comparison to the plethora that is BLM land and National Forests listed in the States. With our government land maps in tow, we set out to find somewhere to camp for the night where we could watch the big sky light up with stars in the evening. After making a pit stop in Kindersley, we headed north to a small lake surrounded by federally owned land that seemed promising. Unfortunately, the only way to access it would be to drive through a farm field filled with waist-high canola crops. Bummer. Our next possibility brought us to a muddy lot that had been inhabited by a sea of pump jacks, which was certainly not what we had in mind. As much as we were still hopeful that there was a hidden gem of a spot somewhere in the area, there was an angry storm brewing in the distance so we swallowed our pride, headed back to the main road and made our way to a rest stop near a town called Harris.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Colourful Sky
HUGE skies just outside of Harris, SK

Now, a rest area is not really what we had foreseen for our cool campsite discovery but when we arrived, we realized that rest areas in Saskatchewan are not like rest areas anywhere else. In the US, they’re generally paved parking lots with vending machines and air conditioned bathroom buildings while in Canada, they’re often small roadside turnouts with an outhouse or two. In Sask, they’re pretty much campgrounds. Huge grassy areas with outhouses, fire pits and picnic tables and even clearings within the trees for little private campsites. At this point, we were asking ourselves why we didn’t just come here sooner. We even found a few small prickly pear cactuses in the bush that made us question if we were really in the prairies or had somehow been transported to a secret realm in Arizona. We had a super peaceful night’s sleep and even got to admire that big, colourful sky that we knew was waiting for us.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Prickly Pear
Say what? Who woulda thunk there’d be cactuses in the prairies

The next morning, we hopped on the highway and hit the big city, Saskatoon (using the term “big city” rather lightly). Justin had driven around Saskatchewan many times but being my first time, we opted to go through Saskatoon instead of the capital city of Regina because quite simply, it’s nicer. We settled into a café in the Riversdale neighbourhood to get some work done before taking a stroll around and seeing what the city is all about. This neighbourhood is definitely in the eye of its gentrification and has opened up to a bunch of cool shops and restaurants on its short stretch of street. Scattered amongst older, grittier buildings and storefronts, it’s close to the Central Business District and the Saskatchewan River. We grabbed a bite at Picaro, because everyone knows Saskatoon is known for its tacos… Jokes aside, they were actually really tasty and the space felt like it could belong in a much bigger city.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Saskatoon Ave C
♥ how cute, Saskatoon ♥

With our bellies full, we ventured over to the Broadway area across the river, which to our dismay, seems to close down around 5PM. Definitely a drag but it seemed like another cool spot to check out if we pass through again. Overall, Saskatoon is far from a bustling city but surely has some interesting pockets to explore amid their adorable street signs decorated with bright red hearts. Based on our experience at the rest area the previous night, we opted to check out the next rest area along the Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway instead of finding a stealthy spot in the city. About half an hour east of town near Elstow, we arrived at another grassy field that was again, more of a campground than a rest area. Score!

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Can’t complain about calling this home for the night!

With all that city life the previous day, we switched gears and set out for the beach. The beach is certainly not the first thing I think of when it comes to a day in Saskatchewan but with Little Manitou Lake in the distance, it turned out to be a really cool surprise. The lake is considered to be Canada’s Dead Sea, as it’s 3 times saltier than the ocean and half the salinity of the actual Dead Sea. Basically what that means is that it’s extra gross when you get water in your mouth BUT it’s super easy to float. Turns out that there’s a whole little beach town around this lake that’s got a burger joint, beach bar and a bunch of lakeside cabins. It’s far from soft white sand but it was a great place to spend a 25°C/77°F day and the best part about it was that the bathroom building had hot showers so we left cleaner than we came. Any vanlifer knows that you take full advantage of these opportunities because they’re often few and far between.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Manitou Beach
Manitou Beach was an awesome surprise – definitely worth the stop if you’re passing through

Continuing on our rest area tour of Saskatchewan, we found another spot near Lanigan that continued to perpetuate our finding that rest areas are where it’s at when travelling through the province. Unfortunately, I seemed to develop a not so nice case of hay fever and the amount of grass we’d been around was not agreeing with my newfound allergies. We decided to stay at this spot for a couple days and following WebMd’s orders, I stayed inside and got up close and personal with allergy pills and eye drops – fun!

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Again, how is this a rest area?!

For our last day in S-K, we were really looking forward to spending the day at Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park on what Maclean’s Magazine calls one of Canada’s best beaches (feel like I need a citation there but the article is no longer up on their website) but mother nature changed our plans by pissing rain so we headed into Yorkton and had a boring work day courtesy of A&W wifi instead. All in all, we had a nice time in Saskatchewan even though it didn’t end up being the Magellan-like experience we had ambitiously anticipated. On our venture back west, we’ll take the Highway 1 across and spend some time exploring the underground tunnels in Moose Jaw as we cruise along with endless trains filled with potash.

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
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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!

Surfing our Way Up-Island

Camping in Vancouver Island’s rainforests outside of Port Alberni before catching some good food AND waves around Ucluelet and Tofino, British Columbia.

Anyone who has been before knows that Vancouver Island has got it goin’ on. We’re hoping we can one day venture out to what’s truly considered “up-island” (Campbell River, Port Hardy, etc.), but for this leg of our journey, we were en route to the furthest west we’d be going in Canada.

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Cathedral Grove is a must-see stop on the drive to Port Alberni

After scouring around the BC Sites and Trails website, we found a few really awesome free campsites within an hour of Port Alberni. Bear in mind that even though they’re a full hour’s drive, they’re less than 30km (18 miles) away – AKA some rough dirt road driving. What has now come to be one of my favourite camping spots to date, the first place we checked out was Arden Creek. A surprisingly well maintained logging road brought us to a small opening within the trees where the very discreet road in made its way down to the water. There are four designated campsites, each with different scenery ranging from a rocky beach to a crystal clear river hidden by mossy trees. This place was downright magical.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Arden Creek
What a campsite! Arden Creek was wicked

We decided to stay there a few days while relaxing in the trees and watching the tide of the Alberni Inlet roll in and out like it was going out of style. Once we were ready to start trailblazing again, we headed to Nahmint Lake, another gem of a BC Recreation Area hidden among old growth hemlock trees. As beautiful as it was, the drive to reach it gave Clementine a run for her money. Potholes are one thing but this road had some majorly steep grades that were quite a challenge when you’re a 34 year old bitty that weighs well over 5000 pounds. Just when the engine got a break from hill climbing, the brakes got their share of stress on a not-far-from-vertical descent down the mountain that made us look forward to climbing it on the way out (not). On one rock, someone actually spray-painted “KEEP ‘ER PINNED” as a reminder to keep that gas going…thanks helpful Canadian vandals! Anyway, the spot was super nice and definitely delivered on being remote. With all the vegetation and wildlife around, there was so much life enveloping the van into its flourishing mossy grasp. If you’re looking to get your jungle fix without leaving BC, it’s well worth the steep rocky drive in.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Nahmint Lake
Our campsite at Nahmint Lake

Ultra scenic highway 4 led us through the mountains, by the wayside of picturesque Kennedy Lake and finally, back out to the ocean. The rain came down hard that day and created a misty haze in the trees that looked pretty cool and doubled as a free carwash that was much needed after the alternating cycle of mud and dust that was the Nahmint Lake drive. As the clouds cleared, we arrived in the small fishing town of Ucluelet where we ate some tasty fresh cod at a food truck called Jiggers and passed by a bunch of other vans on the same pilgrimage.

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Rainy days on Highway 4

Continuing on the tail end of highway 4, we headed into Pacific Rim National Park where we camped at Green Point for a few days. I’m proud to say that this was our first time paying for a campsite in months and on this part of the island, it’s well worth it because boondocking is next to impossible. With our newly acquired 2018 Discovery Pass in tow, we got to explore Long Beach and sleep under the familiar jungley trees from Nahmint Lake. The only downside was that the trees created almost complete shade so it was consistently chilly and not great for solar, but luckily every campsite had an electrical hookup to keep that fridge cold.

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Nahmint Lake is surrounded by huge hemlock trees among tons of other plants. Keepin’ it green!
Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Long Beach
Tidal pools disguising themselves as tempting hot tubs

Unlike many other coastal beaches, Long Beach is nice and sandy and has tons of really cool tidal pools that look like mini tropical oases. This also makes it a great place to surf since the waves in this area are pretty reliable. As it turned out, the weekend we were there happened to be the Rip Curl Pro surfing competition so Tofino was bustling. We went into town to grab some Tofino Brewing beers and some tasty cured meats and cheeses at Picnic Charcuterie before making our way to Cox Bay to scope out the competition. When we got to the beach, we were greeted by a thick fog that made it hard to see what was going on 20 metres away but were pretty confident that not many people were out surfing. We ate, drank and were merry with all the other people on the beach before heading back to the campsite for the night.

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Thick fog swallowed up all of Cox Bay

Tofino is a pretty tourist driven town with gorgeous scenery in all directions that felt more like Australia than Canada. It’s an easy place to spend money but also a great spot to just walk around and take in the views. The next day, we rented some surfboards and wetsuits and spent the afternoon at Chesterman Beach surfing (or at least attempting to). Turns out the fog was too thick for the judges to see anything the day before so all the events were being jam-packed into one marathon of a competition on this final day of the weekend. Chesterman was much better suited for beginners so we happily got endlessly knocked over there. I mostly belly rode the whole time, which was super fun, but Justin managed to successfully stand up and surf the waves. Truthfully, the hardest part for me was carrying the damn longboard because it was double the size of me and super awkward. In any case, we had a great time in the water and were completely exhausted by the end of it.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Tofino Surfing
Tubular, bruh!

With one night left on the island, we managed to find a free spot near the local landfill (glamorous) that had a road as pothole-ridden as those in Mexico. To illustrate just how bumpy it was, we had an avocado in the banana hammock that got rocked back and forth so vigorously that it made guacamole on the ceiling – yum! We had a much-needed sleep before heading back to Nanaimo to catch the ferry to Horseshoe Bay where we’d begin our journey to the mainland and start heading east. Summer’s on its way and we’re stoked to be back in Canada!

Vancouver, not BC, Washington, not DC

Our last days in the US of A spent around the Olympic National Park in Hoodsport and Port Angeles, Washington.

We were just about at the top of Canada’s pants (also known as America) and what better place to spend our final days in Washington than in the forest overlooking Mount Washington itself? After talking to a German couple in Tillamook, we learned about the Coho Ferry that runs from Port Angeles, WA to Victoria, BC and decided to avoid the Seattle traffic and sail right into Vancouver Island. Sticking to western Washington State, we found an amazing spot in the Olympic National Forest with a view of Lake Cushman and the snow capped mountains. We could have stayed here forever, soaking in all the amazing views and reliable AT&T service.

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One of our favourite spots so far, atop a mountain in the Olympic National Forest overlooking Mt. Washington

Once we finally parted ways with that wicked spot in the National Forest, we visited the National Park only to find out that it was still largely buried in snow. 118” of snow, to be exact. I was really looking forward to hiking to the natural Olympic Hot Springs, but unfortunately, the road leading to the trailhead was so severely damaged by a storm a couple years ago that it’s closed indefinitely so they would be quite a trek to reach by foot. It’s always worth checking the road conditions before you go to avoid disappointment. Speaking of road conditions, we seemed to arrive just at the right time when the road up to Hurricane Ridge was fully plowed and open to drive on. It’ll only get you as far as the Visitor Centre but the drive is pretty spectacular. At 5242’ (1598m) elevation, this is where they measured the 118” of snow. Luckily, from the Visitor Centre, you have a clear view of Mount Olympus and its surrounding mountains that make for a pretty epic snowy scene. It’s hard to believe that within 20 minutes, your drive goes from rainforest to forests blanketed in snow. It’s a super cool place to check out that looks good in any season. The National Park also has webcams set up at the Visitor Centre so you can get a sneak peak of what the conditions are like before making the drive.

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No shortage of snow at Hurricane Ridge

We spent our last days in the cute little town of Port Angeles where we stocked up on all of our American goods before heading toward the border. Just a short drive from the city, we spent some time at the Ediz Hook Bird Refuge and relaxed on the rocky beach with a view of Vancouver Island from one angle and Mount Baker from the other. The harbor of Port Angeles also looked pretty magical in the twinkle of lights from docked and visiting boats – a pretty great little seaside town that made for an awesome farewell to our time in the states.

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The pretty view of Port Angeles from Ediz Hook

The time has finally come to venture back to Canada and start a new leg of our journey. Five months absolutely flew by and although we got to see a ton of cool stuff, there’s still so much more to discover. With a limit on our time in America, we tried to make the most of every day we had and really hope that you Americans are doing the same – politics and beliefs aside, America is a beautiful place that is so diverse and accessible to people willing to uncover it. We’ll have another dip down in the Midwest on our way back to Toronto where we’ll be sure to savour every dollar spent on that sweet, sweet, cheap gas that we’ve reluctantly bid adieu to.

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.

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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!

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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!

Generic Van Life - Oregon Spouting Horn
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
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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.

Generic Van Life - Oregon Portland Bridge
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: NorCal

Slept beside the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco before driving through the towering Redwoods of Northern California.

We were officially out of the endless summer that California is so known for and on our way north. With a free day and a full tank of very expensive gas, we took a cruise around San Jose and Silicon Valley. Wanting to check out the new Apple Park, we may or may not have tried to drive into the trippy loop through the employees only entrance before getting stopped by security. I don’t think many Apple employees come to work in an ’84 Dodge van so our tour was pretty limited to a drive around the loop where Priuses and Segways ran wild. We did a lap around the other tech offices in the area before it started to pour and we headed for San Francisco.

Generic Van Life - Northern California Golden Gate Night
Arrived to a nicely lit up view of the bridge and city

Not the most ideal evening to sit in the park and pretend you’re on Full House, so we just drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and found our spot for the night at the rest area on the Marin side. Staying at rest areas is usually a last resort for us, but this one has the most spectacular view of the city and bridge (and Alcatraz!). There’s also a Northern California recreation area on this side that offers sites for tenters with a free reservation. We woke up to busloads of tourists coming to snap their photos and a sunny view of that bridge we’ve all heard so much about. We ended up chatting with a bunch of other vehicle dwellers before heading on to Petaluma where we got to tour a sticker factory! Travelling through the country has allowed us to link up with lots of friends and people we’ve worked with that we never thought we’d get to see, which is really rad.

Generic Van Life - Northern California Golden Gate Day
Aaaaand woke up to a lovely sunny view of the bridge and city
Generic Van Life - Northern California Stickers
STICKERS!!! So many awesome stickers at Mrs. Grossman’s in Petaluma, CA

Taking in all of the delicious grapey smells of Sonoma County, we spent a couple days camping among peaceful forests and waterfalls before venturing into the grandfather of all trees, the Redwoods. We saw a sign along the 101 highway mentioning a “drive-thru tree”. Intrigued, we followed the signs and ended up in Leggett where, for 5 bucks, you can drive through a massive 2400 year old tree – if you’ve got a compact enough car. Sadly, Clementine is a full-figured girl so we walked through instead but it was still really crazy and really cool. You can see all the marks along the sides of the little tunnel where people have realized they’re too big to fit and continued to scrape on through. The tree itself is called Chandelier Tree and is older than Jesus! Think about it!

Generic Van Life - Northern California Chandelier Tree
That’s one big tree!

Being amongst these huge sequoias in the Redwood Forests is incredibly humbling and serene. To think that these giants have been around through so much, from the medieval days to the World Wars, makes all your minute problems seem pretty insignificant. It’s a similar feeling that I get in the mountains where you realize that things that might seem so important right now are really just another ring on the tree or a rock on the mountain. If these trees could talk, I’m sure they’d have plenty of wise words to say.

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Looking like a van for ants on Howland Hill Road

There are a variety of enormously treed forests amongst the Redwood National and State Parks that all have different hikes and scenic drives to offer, but our favourite was the Jedediah Smith State Park near Hiouchi. Take the Howland Hill Road scenic route and feel so small in the jungle of trees. I probably have more photos on my camera roll of this drive than any other because it would not cease to keep blowing my mind. I’ve said it a hundred times now but these trees are just so damn big!!

Generic Van Life - Northern California Redwoods
When these monsters fall, there’s no chance you’re moving ’em so instead, you get to drive through them!

As expensive as the gas is and as saturated as the van scene may be, California is undoubtedly a magical place and I completely understand why so many people live there (fun fact: the population of California is greater than the entire population of Canada). It’s got such a diverse landscape and really does have something for everyone. Because we only had two weeks to explore it with the clocks on our visas ticking, we decided to stick to the coast and leave the interior for next time. We cannot wait to venture back and explore Death Valley, the Sierras and everything in between.

Generic Van Life - Northern California Hiouchi
Foggy skies over vibrant mountain water in Hiouchi, CA

 

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.

Generic Van Life - Central California Drive
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.

Generic Van Life - Central California Big Sur
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.

Generic Van Life - Central California Los Burros
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.

Generic Van Life - Central California Pfeiffer Beach
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!

California Chronicles: SoCal

Soaking in our last doses of the hot sun and sandy desert of Southern California in and around Joshua Tree National Park and Los Angeles, CA.

California was a bit of a milestone for us. Reaching the Pacific Coast meant that we had officially driven from ocean to ocean in the United States and discovered so many new places and landscapes that we thought we’d never see. For many aspiring vanlifers and Instagram voyeurs alike, Southern California seems like the mecca of travelling around in your pastel coloured VW bus hopping from beach to beach to surf and live the #vanlife dream. Now I’m not saying that that’s not true but there are a few main factors that need to be kept in mind when it comes to travelling through Cali:

  • It’s expensive as hell. We had heard gas is at least 50 cents a gallon more than other states but be prepared for a full dollar more. We paid $2.50/g in Quartzsite before crossing the state line where gas was $3.79/g in Blythe. We were used to gas prices between $2.20 – $2.50 on average so this was certainly sticker shock. Aside from gas, Justin was paying about $4 more for cigarettes and our grocery bill was at least 20 bucks higher every time.
  • You can’t park on most beaches. There are plenty of beaches that you can spend the day at while your van is parked in the parking lot (that you probably had to pay to park in), but expecting to make a trip of camping along coastal beaches ain’t happening.
  • California works like Canada. If you like lots of rules, regulations and taxes, move to California. If you like lots of rules, regulations, taxes and being cold, move to Canada.

All negativity aside, California is absolutely beautiful and it’s quite obvious why so many people want to live there. Truthfully, I didn’t want to like it because it’s so saturated and expensive but when you’ve got everything from arid desert to lush mountain tops and a roaring coastline, there’s no denying it’s a pretty magical place.

Generic Van Life - Southern California JT
We’re not the stealthiest in the city but less those orange stripes, I think we could hide pretty well in the desert

Our first stop was conveniently just outside of the town of Mecca, in Box Canyon. It was Easter Sunday so I figure that’s why the area was very full with huge groups of families BBQing and playing lawn games – or in this case, sand games, I suppose. Some people even appeared to have rented portapotties and brought trailers stocked with ATVs. Naturally, we trekked on a little further into the canyon where there weren’t many people. We found a great spot as secluded as you can really be in the open desert, with rocky cliffs and a view of the Salton Sea. With the way the rocks were shaped, it felt a bit like being on the moon. At least that’s how I remember the moon looking last time I was there…

Generic Van Life - Southern California Mecca
Boondocking on the moon. Or Box Canyon. One or the other.

Joshua Tree was next on our list and with so many different places to explore within the park, we spent the whole day checking it all out. Little tidbit about the name – the trees in that area look like the byproduct of a cactus and palm tree love affair and are called “Joshua Trees” because the Mormons thought they looked like the biblical figure, Joshua. Bit of a stretch I’d say, but to each their own. Anyway, there are plenty of these guys around, along with rocky boulders and cottonwood trees. We hiked around Hidden Valley for a while, climbing up rocks and took in the panoramic views that make the park so popular.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Hidden Valley
Find the human!
View from a boulder climb in Hidden Valley
Generic Van Life - Southern California Joshua Trees
FYI – these are Joshua Trees

From there, we made our way to Keys View, which was our favourite spot. You can see the Salton Sea, Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, the San Andreas Fault and the highest peak in Southern California, the San Gorgonio Mountain. That was a lot of name-dropping but this was a seriously cool spot. Clouds were hanging below the mountain tops while a layer of fog rolled over the Sea.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Keys Lookout
Looking out over a big ol’ chunk of Southern California

By the time we reached Cottonwood Springs, the sun was setting and it painted the sky with all kinds of vibrant colours. From fiery reds and oranges on one side to pastel shades of pink, purple and blue on the other, everywhere you looked was a sight to see. Once the colourful light show came to a close, things got pitch black so I can’t really comment on those cottonwood trees but I’m sure they’re lovely. For your convenience, there is BLM land immediately outside of the south entrance that made for a great place to hangout and work for a few days. When it’s 30°C, the sun is keeping the battery at 100% and the cell signal is great, why would you want to work anywhere else? We also got a chance to try out using the projector on the side of the van – let’s just say there’s never been a better use for the iTunes Visualizer.

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The colourful sunset in Joshua Tree

Making our way out of the Coachella Valley area, we drove through the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains on a crazy twisty windy road to get to the gym. I used to take two buses to get to my gym in Toronto and now we’re driving through mountains – not bad! Continuing on this mountain voyage, we made our way into the San Bernardino National Forest to camp for the night and had the place to ourselves.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Winding Road
Just your run of the mill commuter road

Everyone’s heard LA traffic is crazy so we woke up annoyingly early to get into the city and enjoy as much of the day as we could before finding somewhere quieter to sleep. Like any good tourist, we made our first stop in Beachwood Canyon to see that oh-so-popular Hollywood sign. Beachwood Canyon is the “Hollywoodland” that the sign was originally put up by real estate agents to promote. Jump ahead 50+ years and we’ve got a bunch of tourists gawking and a bunch of angry neighbours who don’t want them to be there. We got a decent view but it just didn’t cut it so we disobeyed the “local traffic only” signs (that are there for the sole purpose of scaring you) and headed to Lake Hollywood Park. Ok, let’s just make it clear that this drive was the most hilarious and terrifying drive we’ve had thus far. As Justin pointed out, all the goat roads and switchbacks we’ve taken in the mountains were all preparation for the obstacle course that is driving through the Hollywood Hills. Picture this: the streets are barely wider than our van (and are meant for 2-way traffic), the roads are basically all switchbacks and we were going uphill the whole time on about a 12-15% grade – WHILE other cars are trying to come down and cars are closely behind us making the same voyage. We actually had a Tesla Model X behind us while we barrelled through polluting all over the place. Anyway, we finally reached the park and got the view we were looking for and drove out on the route that we probably should have taken in. Oops!

Generic Van Life - Southern California Hollywood
Checking out the sign from Hollywood Lake Park

We carried on through Hollywood and Beverly Hills and all those other buzzword places before eventually parking up in Santa Monica and just relaxing on the beach. Of course we barely scratched the surface on LA but I’ve gotta say, it’s pretty damn ugly. With the insane traffic and mindless drivers, we’d like to come back and explore without the van (don’t tell Clementine I said that). It’s a big city that would be much easier to scoot around and find a place to park in in a smaller vehicle. In terms of car camping, the city of Los Angeles has a map that shows you exactly which streets it’s legal to vehicle dwell in. That’s generally awesome to hear but finding one of these spots not already inhabited by a crusty RV is the challenge, along with trying to have a peaceful sleep while parked on Hollywood Blvd. We were ready to get as far out of the city as possible.

Generic Van Life - Southern California Santa Monica
Clementine, meet Santa Monica Beach

We committed to the 3 hour drive into the northern bit of Los Padres National Forest where we stayed a few days at Aliso Campground. It’s a free spot but has designated sites with fire rings and vault toilets. We rarely take a day to not work or drive so this was a much needed break, especially after battling the LA traffic that didn’t let up from Santa Monica to Santa Clarita. This was one of those drives that seemed to drag on forever but there was a solid 40 minute portion where we drove through wine vineyards and it smelled absolutely amazing.

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What a place to stop and have breakfast! Mountain views from the San Bernardino National Forest

California, you’re beautiful and you smell good but you come at a high maintenance price tag. If only your inhabitants would realize that and stop littering!! So many spots are covered in trash and it’s a huge bummer to see. We’re off to Central California next and hoping for more views and less garbage.

 

 

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.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Tucumcari
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
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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.