THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

My oh my, we have been immersed in some spectacular nature and scenery since my last report. After departing my aunt and uncle’s place, for the third time, we made our way north along the coast to a town called Mendocino— a place my aunt and uncle continued to suggest that we visit.

After driving over and through rolling wine country, we came to the shifting coastline that persisted to get more rugged by the mile. Mendocino, a small coastal town that reminded us of home. Soft, green hills meeting sheer cliffs that clash with the ever-changing ocean. After spending so much time in the southern part of California, I had grown accustomed to the architecture out west. Spanish and clay styled homes, a different beach vibe than that of the east coast. Yet as we came into Mendocino, the style shifted and reflected a style much like Cape Cod: weatherboard houses turned grey with thick layers of salt, window shutters, and screened porches. Nostalgia overwhelmed me, this town was a hybrid of Gerringong and Cape Cod. My two favourite coastal locations.

Not to mention the small-town feel. While you could tell this was a place that thrived in summer and from tourism, the locals were out and about, offering smiles and kind hellos. In our first 15 minute stroll, we received a handful of warm welcomes, more than we’ve experienced in our whole time in the states. Not that there aren’t friendly people here, there are just SO many people, the kind ones often get buried in the dense population.

 

All along the coastal cliffs, were little trails through the tall grass, pressed right to the edge. Car parks scattered alongside and we easily set up camp for a few nights by the sea, no issues at all.

Every turn in the coastline offered a different view of various lumped rocks scattered next to the shore. Seal mums and their pups swam through inlets, playing and diving through clusters of seaweed, gathering their evening meal. It was a sight I’ll hold close forever.

 

From Mendocino, we pushed north. We made a pit stop at a campground that was totally worth the $15. We slept surrounded by strong, tall redwoods. We drove  through the redwood forest and it’s a scene I’ll never forget: the ambulance weaving through giant tree trunks stretching to the sky.

Then we made it out of California. Now, Cali is probably one of our favourite states, thanks to the varied landscape, but we’d spent a long time there, some of it re-tracing our steps, so it was time to get onto the next and see something different.

Oregon. We explored both the coast and inland, making strategic zig-zags. First stop was Crater Lake, another destination suggested by my aunt, a natural phenomenon that leaves you feeling like a speck of dust. We drove into the national park, climbing towards the sun as piles of snow began to appear at the side of the road. Though it was warm, we stood in the winter scenery in t-shirts. The lake, as the name describes, is an enormous crater filled with water, staring back at you like a spotless mirror. The sun shone high in the sky, beating down on the bright white snow and reflective water, leaving us squinty.

 

Crater Lake was a pit stop on our way to the town of Bend, a funky country town growing in population (as we were told by a couple from Oregon whom we met in northern Cali). After wandering around and spending a night there, we cut back to the coast. I was shocked to find out that people don’t really swim at the beaches this far north, apart from a few brave souls and surfers. To me, living by the sea is being in the sea. I could not be so close to something so entrancing and not be tempted to dive in. Although, the sea up north does seem dark and moody, and supposedly cold, so I understand peoples’ hesitations.

We spent the night in a sleepy, coastal town called Yachats. Lots of funky little shops, beautiful houses overlooking the ocean, boats in the harbour. Then to a town called Newport, a big fishing port where we couldn’t help ourselves but dine out and indulge in some fresh fish. When it lingers in the salt air all around you, there’s no giving in. We had drinks at a bar overlooking the bay, where seals sunbathed on docks and barked for attention.

 

From the coast, we cut back inland and visited Salem, the state capital, and then on into Portland, somewhere we’d both been itching to visit. Cities can be tough in terms of parking, but we got lucky and stayed just outside the Arts district. Plenty of residential streets with lots of cars, we were protected and comfortable. Spring was in full swing, the air rich with pollen (I cannot believe Abel’s hay fever didn’t flare), the otherwise green backdrop splattered with rich pinks, purples and yellows. Everyone talks about noticing a change as you drive from one state to the next, particularly out west, and coming into Oregon that is what I noticed most: all the shades of green. Deep greens, pale greens, all blending together from the grass, to small bushes and taller trees. You become encapsulated in nature, regardless of being in a city. It also reminded me  of “home” (Connecticut), being around the same latitude, the climate was very similar, as were the style of houses— nostalgia smacked me in the face once again.

On our first night out having dinner and drinks, a guy nearby overheard our Aussie accents and told us there was a popular Australian cafe on the street we were on, called Proud Mary’s. We knew it must have decent coffee so we went the next morning for breakfast and this place was not only huge, but it was packed. Much like the popular cafes at home, they were efficient and organised. We of course had a good chat with one of the owners, as him and Abel both greeted each other with a, “Hey, mate”. The menu boasted smashed avo, pavlova, and meat pies. The coffee was exceptional. We felt very at home that morning.

We did spend one day in the actual centre of the city. There were two large markets right next to each other. One, for pet owners. Literally, hundreds of dogs— pure heaven. The other markets were your typical makers and food markets. After perusing the streets, we got lunch from a Lebanese food truck and sat in the park looking over the water.

 

 

Portland sits right next to the Washington border so it wasn’t long before we were in a new state. In terms of the shifting landscape, the surrounding shades of green just became deeper and more saturated. That first night we lucked out and found a campground closed for the season, fee wise, but otherwise open to use for free. Completely empty, a beautiful clearing in the forest,  a running stream nearby and a water pump— not for drinking, but perfect for dishes.

The evening was slightly dampened however, when we decided to venture out of the van and make some s’mores. Before that, we’d been inside, watching Mad Men, and although I’d left the two side doors ajar to permit some fresh air, I had locked up the rest of the van. We stepped outside, preparing our dessert, and I lightly closed the side doors— enough to lock them (dumb, dumb, dumb). There was no getting back in. Originally, we had three sets of car keys. We’d placed one of them loose in the outside tray that held the three spare batteries. It was nowhere to be found. Either misplaced when we got new batteries, or fallen along a highway somewhere. The other two keys were trapped inside, along with pretty much everything bar a few drying dishes.

The windows have screws on the corners, so we tried to take them off, but the seal held them on tight. Abel used a fork to try and shimmy underneath the seal and cut it, but then the window shattered. We got back inside, which was a great plus, but the next day we had to focus on finding somewhere that could replace the window. Definitely not what we needed budget wise, but now she’s brand-spanking with a fresh layer of tint. And I’m now extra cautious when it comes to closing the doors behind me. You lose but you learn.

 

 

On our way towards Seattle we stopped in to Olympia, just south, the state’s capital. When we thought of Washington, we pictured rich rainforest everywhere. Here we really felt satisfied. It was cloudy and misty, much like a giant greenhouse. We spent a few nights here and drove around, basically just oggling the houses and the lucky inhabitants who live in this lush, seaside area. Before leaving we did a 4-5km trail through a rainforest that sat alongside the coast. Every now and then we’d push through the dense greenery and came to an opening where the sea stretched out before you. It was like two different worlds colliding.

 

Then we went to Seattle. Somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a very, very long time. Our first day in the city, Abel and I did the tourist thing and went up the iconic Space Needle. For some reason I get these weird moments of bravery and forget all about my crippling fear of heights and then we enter the elevator, with windows, and the sensation shoots up my legs and I remember. I did pretty well though. Even in the area with a glass floor that slowly rotates. I stood on it and tried not to look down. Since Abel’s birthday was approaching and we weren’t entirely sure if we would be anywhere special, we treated ourselves to lunch and a drink overlooking the streets of Seattle that led to the harbour.

 

It was also extra special because my long-time, dear friend, Hannah (who now lives in Alaska with her wife Nora) was in town, visiting with friends and going to see Camp Cope, an Aussie band. Hannah, Nora and their twin friends Noah and Eli were super hospitable. They let us park for the night in their apartment complex, let us use their bathroom and shower and otherwise chill with the group. It was so lovely to catch up, I think I’ve only seen Hannah once in the past 12+ months or so and I hadn’t met Nora yet, so it was really special to finally see how happy and loved up they are. We went along with them to Camp Cope, a band made up of three girls who are very political in their lyrics— perfect timing given the bullshit that is happening in Alabama, and other states, and all across the country and the rest of the world. I won’t rant about that now.

The next afternoon, after a slow morning, we were finally all fresh and ready to venture into the city and do some exploring. Abel and I were going to drive in so we could do a few things after, and the rest of the crowd was grabbing an Uber. As we watched their ride drive out of the complex, we tried to start the car to no avail. No noise but a sheer grind. We had a feeling it was the starter, so unfortunately we didn’t really get a chance to see much of Seattle. The ambulance was a little under the weather and needed a doctor. Not too much of an issue, a simple fix really and nothing to do with the engine, however this was not kind to our budget, once again. Dad came to the rescue, used his points to book us a room at the Hilton— the sheer bittersweetness of car issues. We treated ourselves to room service and had the best sleep we’ve had in a long time. Not that we don’t have good sleeps in the ambulance, but it’s nice to have a bit of space sometimes.

From this incident we knew we needed to push our journey along if we wanted to see everything on our list within the means of our budget. From Seattle we moved back East across the state.

Once again, I was in awe of the changing landscape. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me go on about it, but Washington, like California, was all kinds of beautiful. The lush greenery of the north-western coast trickled out slowly and became big, brown desert. A change you can see, the way you can feel the shifting wind. The hills were green and consuming, then they were rough, coffee-coloured rock— sharp and sudden. The mountains were cliffs, steep and dark to look at. Then they were gone. And it was like we were driving through Texas once again.

We drove a few hours and came to a town called Leavenworth, with an old school Bavarian village. Literally, everything was in that ancient font— every single storefront, including McDonald’s and Starbucks. Not one place interrupted the theme. It felt like we were inside of a fairytale, or The Sound of Music, for the snowy mountains stood tall in the distance, swarms of green pines at their base. We spent a night here.

 

From there we continued East and once again came into a new state: Idaho. A place I’ve never had a desire to go, but I guess was kind of oblivious to it’s geographical location: right between Washington and Montana and Wyoming, all places I knew to be beautiful, so why not Idaho? We stayed in a tourist village, Coeur d’Alene, and it was lovely. A large, glass lake and lots of quirky shops and art galleries. It was Abel’s birthday while we were here, which made it even better because we allowed ourselves to eat and drink all day long, and basically just do whatever we wanted without the haunting thoughts of our bank balance.

That was all we did in Idaho, since we were located in the “pan handle” of the state. If you don’t know, Idaho has a skinny section up top and a wider area down below— the thinner area known as the pan handle. Then we came into Montana.

Montana I knew was going to be epic and enormous, and you could see it instantly. The hills and mountains began to swell, exploding in their mass. Tall and soft bristled— either with large quantities of trees, or velvety grass. Rivers and creeks everywhere. The view just didn’t stop. There was always a mountain or five, always a curved, rushing river wrapping around a log cabin. It was vast, stunning, and quiet. We camped our first night at a free campground right by a beautiful river, everywhere clad with signs stating we were in bear country. Grizzly country more specifically. After speaking with some of the neighbours who camped here often, they assured us it was very unheard of to see a bear in these parts— but it is Spring, and hibernation is over, so never say never.

 

We spent another two nights in Montana as we headed South towards Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming. A night at another free campground on the water. Then in a town called Missoula, where we restocked on our groceries. Then to Gardiner, a town that flanks the northwest entrance into Yellowstone. Lots of people around here, gearing to enter or just leaving the park. We spent a night here, parked at the Library near the local high school as large elk slept on the hockey field nearby.

All at the second free campground just north of Missoula, Montana

 

Yellowstone might just have taken the cake in terms of the most impressive and beautiful place on our whole trip. Maybe. But also most likely. We’ve never seen anything like it. I knew to expect animals and thermal pools, but I didn’t realise that Yellowstone is basically a giant thermal area, due to erupt as it hasn’t for many years. I’m not so good with geology type stuff so I won’t try and sound smart or educated in that area. We took two days to see it all, and we saw it all. Every thermal pool, a baby black bear, wolves, bison and more bison, goats, a few grizzlies. We spent the night in a campground located halfway around the loop, a nice way to break it up, and I was certain we would see a bear here. No such luck, and I suppose that’s a good thing considering there were so many campers in tents. No thank you.

 

From Yellowstone we continued south through Wyoming, stopping to gym/shower, sleep, refuel etc. But basically, we drove straight to Denver, where my cousin Elise lives. We only got to see each other briefly over Christmas, and it was pretty chaotic, so it’s been real nice to see her and not have to rush our visit. Her and her housemate/friend Paxton have welcomed us into their cute little apartment. They’ve taken us to some really good food places so far, with more to come, and we repay them by cooking dinner.

We’ll stay in Denver for a couple more weeks, then we’re planning on flying back to SF, our first continental US location, to visit with my mom and dad who will be housesitting for my aunt. From here, our journey will finish and we will make our way down under.

The ambulance has sold. I’ll talk about that on my next post when I get a bit emotional and talk more about the bittersweetness of a journey coming to a close.

Til next time.

A

CALI AND ARIZONA LOOPIN’

I haven’t been writing about our recent whereabouts, but only because we’ve just done an enormous loop over territory that we’ve already seen…. Pretty much. There’s been some new locations. I’ll tell you about those ones.

After our vacation-stay at my aunt and uncle’s outside of San Francisco, we headed straight for Yosemite. The mighty national park that lingered with expectation. Expectation that was met in ways I didn’t know possible. I had this envision that when we’d be going through major national parks, there would be endless walking and it would take a week to experience the whole nature it encapsulated— not quite. These bad boys are, while preserved, structured for the lazy tourist. Rightly so, they’re generally rather large and not everyone is partial to long hikes through the wilderness. I thought I would be, I enjoy a bush-trek, but the day we came to Yosemite was fresh, misty and grey. When you journey through these massive parks, you drive along winding roads, pull over at different view points to breathe the scenery into your soul, snap a few photos and move along. We looked around for free wilderness camping and some spots showed up on the app, but they happened to be further up the mountain, buried deep in the trees, under layers of impacted snow. After we’d seen what we wanted to see, accepted the fact we wouldn’t be able to sleep amongst it, we drove out and into the nearest town with a Planet Fitness— always promising us a warm shower.

(All taken at mighty Yosemite)

 

Of course, the snow is what drove me away, mostly. My relationship with the cold is everchanging— I love the idea of it: snuggled in my jammies, a hot beverage nestled in my palms, snow falling on my windowsill and wrapping itself around the trees. Experiencing it in a van with no heat and no insulation is not my idea of a winter wonderland. Being up in the mountains, meant frigid temperatures and lots of snow. Once again, I thought we had escaped it all.

After our stint back in civilisation, we made our way back East through the Sequoia National Park and the surrounding parks and forests. Snow mountains again and the world’s largest trees, one in sheer mass and the other in width. That was something we had both been itching to experience— trees so wide and tall they force you to question your minuscule existence. Nature overpowering humanity.

 

 

We nearly spent the night in this campground, at 8,000 ft altitude, surrounded by piles of snow, paying $18 for nothing but a pit toilet. Not my cup of tea. I think it’s only worth our while to pay money for a campground if it has a shower (and we’re not close to a Planet Fitness) and running water, otherwise, what the fuck are you paying for? Maybe I sound stingy but I wasn’t paying a fee to sit huddled up in my van all night, freezing my ass off.

We drove down the mountain, a steep road with hairpin turns and came to a lake’s edge, a campground nestled in the green hills around the pool of water. The temperature rose significantly, the sun came out from behind the mountain peaks, the shrubbery wore shades of yellow and violet. This place sits in the top five best campgrounds we’ve stayed at so far.

 

Las Vegas was our next destination, with a pit stop in Death Valley, the world’s hottest place. We stayed at a bleak campground in the middle of the desert— literally a large parking lot with RVs and campers, a general store, gas station and saloon nearby. Other than that: flat, dry land reaching towards rocky mountains in the distance.

 

“Did we even go to Las Vegas?” Abel and I ask each other this often. We lasted one night. At first, we weren’t even sure if we’d make it out the first night— we were tired, driving does that to a person. Then it hit late afternoon and as per usual, we were craving a beverage. People told us downtown Las Vegas was better than the main strip and this worked well for us, since our “accomodation” was an ambulance parked at Walmart. I’ve always been under the impression that in order to experience the version of Las Vegas we all see in the movies, you need to stay at one of the big hotels in that area. Though, we were quite happy to hit up downtown— more low key, in some ways.

After indulging in an early dinner and a couple of cocktails (coral pink with floating flowers, just stunning), we went straight for one bar and didn’t leave. Their happy hour was going until 10pm when the real party gets started. Gladly, we sipped on cheap drinks as the place began to crowd with people. As it often does for us, things got a little hazy from here. On the rooftop, all lounge areas had been sectioned off for private bookings. The one across from us held three young men and a whole lot of empty space. I asked if we could sit down until their friends arrived (Abel was not pleased with my forthrightness), they told us their friends, who were a couple, had broken up that evening and wouldn’t be coming out— so we could sit down. I want to say we made good friends with these boys, but we never exchanged details and I cannot remember their names for the life of me. But they were a good time, they shouted us drinks and we laughed for hours until one of the boys got kicked out, forcing one of them to run to his rescue, and Abel was chained to the toilet, not feeling his best. I called for an uber and escorted Abel safely to the ambulance.

 

Waking up, sweaty and stuffy, in a Walmart parking lot is not ideal. No hangover wants that. As soon as we could, we fed our hollow bellies and seeked out nature, somewhere we could laze around with the doors open wide. Lake Meade, in a state park about 30 minutes from Vegas. We waved the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign goodbye, not stopping for a photo because there were just hoards of tourists nudging each other out of the way for the perfect Insta and rest was required.

I can’t remember exactly but we spent about 2-3 nights at this free site, overlooking the water, only 15 minutes from a Planet Fitness.

 

After a pit stop at the Hoover Dam (because why not) we headed for the mother of all sites: The Grand Canyon. I feel like, even as we drove towards this beauty, we didn’t really expect to see and experience it so soon. Like, we arrived, and I kind of thought well, we won’t see it until tomorrow but then we did. There she was. How do you even describe something like that? Abel said he looked at it and thought to himself: “Who am I?” Here he was, looking at arguably the world’s greatest wonder, and so many people had stood in that exact spot, witnessing the same site and felt just as small and insignificant as he did.

To me, it was so big that it looked small. It expanded and touched every corner that I could see, which is enormous in itself, but then to think how far it goes beyond that. You can’t help but shake your head in sheer amazement and get all existential.

 

 

We camped nearby, then drove through the entire park, witnessing the canyon at every angle possible and spent one more night before heading down to Flagstaff.

Flagstaff was somewhere we drove through last time, but snow was hitting and we chose to journey out of the mountains and down a few thousand feet. This time, however, we stayed for a couple nights. My good friend Lex who I met while she was studying abroad at UOW lives their with her boyfriend Cam. Lex and I had poetry together, truly laughable, and I’ll never forget the first day of class when I sat next to her, in her sunflower-yellow t-shirt, and she asked me my name, in her thick US accent, and we instantly had a topic to bond over. From then we hung out numerous times, me taking her all around the south coast, and now it was her turn to host me back in the mother country.

Flagstaff is funky and crunchy, as lots of university towns tend to be. Plenty of places to eat, drink and shop— dangerous territory for two reckless souls on a budget.

After Flagstaff we came back down through Sedona, we never actually stopped last time, just drove through and made a mental note to see it properly when we returned. The road between Flagstaff and Sedona is incredible, more tight turns hugging alongside red rock cliffs, little pines pinned to every escarpment.

 

Sedona and Jerome were the two places in Arizona we knew we wanted to see again. Just funky little towns nestled into beautiful scenery (I need to remember to take photos of actual townships, I never do). We spent one night in Sedona, and the following day walking around Jerome. There was a little boutique winery overlooking the open mountains that we did some tastings at before moving into the national forest to sleep for a few nights.

From there we pretty much hustled down the mountains and across back West into California. This time, we took the southern-most route, right along the border of Mexico and headed for San Diego. Once again, California blew us away. The landscape is so varied, and while we had seen some parts of the desert, we hadn’t seen the sandy desert. Unlike the dry, cracked ground with hobbles of rocks, the highway was flanked with soft sand dunes, billowing in streams across the road before me.

This particular stretch of driving had been a long one. Normally we don’t do much more than three hours at a time, but this drive all up was around six and half hours in one day. Long stints in a vehicle do something to a person, especially when the road is endlessly straight and you’re driving on cruise control (so basically doing nothing)— it takes all you can to stay focused and alert, which is an energy suck in itself.

San Diego was way nicer than I expected— not that I envisioned trash, I just had no previous expectations of the place. While we didn’t really venture into the CBD, we spent two or three nights around the Marina and explored some of the shops and dining in that area. Something about sail boats parked in the water makes me happy, they add a bit of character to the sea and you know that each one has an incredibly unique story attached to it. Boats see more than we do.

Since then it was more looping over old tracks to kill time before Coachella. We camped back outside Joshua Tree National Park in the week leading up to the festival. Then it was upon us.

Camping at the festival was funny for us, because that’s our every day lifestyle anyway. It was weird being surrounded by hundreds of other people camping, yet boasting a different type of set up. We had all the normal, every day tools we need, so our meals and lifestyle was a little more casual and advanced than theirs. Yet, most people brought things we didn’t really think to bring— festival necessities we had overlooked.

Driving into the festival was overwhelming and completely lax at the same time. Like all other vehicles entering the campground, we had to step out and let the workers have a look inside our car. First, they gave us the go-ahead. Then, I noticed two security guards running towards us, shaking their heads and telling us to hold on. “The boss saw the ambulance and radioed us over to check it out.” Fair enough, we have nearly 50 different compartments in that van, it’s worth getting suspicious over. But the security guards really didn’t do any digging. They opened the doors, saw hoards of canned goods, fruit, spices, food, toiletries, and clothes all crammed in the cupboards and realised, ok these people live in this thing and they looked no further. They gave us the thumbs up to move forward. Then an even bigger man came trudge-jogging towards the ambulance, “Hold on,” he said, “they want the big boss to take another look.” They never ended up coming closer, just a bit more talking on their walkie-talkies before deciding they couldn’t be bothered, and waved us through to camping.

The ambulance had quite a stage in the campground. The sites were sectioned off and organised into streets, clad with road signs and everything. We were parked on a corner, so Rambo stood out even more than usual. Constant dialogues in the background, “is than an ambulance?”, “Check out that old ambulance”, “That is so cool” and my personal favourite, “Is than an ambulance? A wambulance? A coach-ambulance?” Yes sirs and madams, she is an old ambulance, but now she is our home.

I guess I’ll give a brief low-down on Coachella because it’s one of those things that is publicised beyond belief and sometimes you want to hear from someone who went, who’s not an influencer. The set up was incredible. Aside from being super organised, there were just mountains of enormous art, making the entire grounds feel like an adult playground. When the sun went down, fluorescent lights shifted all around, painting the ground a deeper shade of green and the palm trees magenta and violet. It was a sight to behold. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a music festival surrounded by such natural beauty. Often Abel and I would stop in our tracks and look beyond the festival walls, at the mountains towering around us, with strings of dainty palms sticking up from the ground. Not to mention the full moon was in session, adding a whole other luminescent layer.

Besides the beautiful scenery and stunning acts (Tame Impala, Fisher, Maggie Rogers, Weezer), the vibe was very different to an Aussie festival. Maybe that’s just because this is Coachella aka influencer olympics and literally every second person was posing for the gram and not really present. We did make friends with our neighbours and some other guys in the festival, but most people weren’t that friendly and stuck to their own little groups. Fair enough, most people go to festivals with their friends, not to make friends. But I’ve found from all the festivals back home, that Aussies just want everyone else to have a bloody good time. Sure, there’s dickheads and loads of inconsiderate people back home too, but there’s something about a group of Australians coming together for a party. Everyone just lights each other on fire. Often the person you accidentally whack across the head while dancing becomes your best friend for the next few hours. We didn’t experience much of this at Coachella. Plus, like nearly no one was drinking alcohol. Which is fine, and I’m pretty sure there designated over 21 areas anyway and the rest of the festival is clean for those underage, but back home, every single person has at least one or two vodka red bulls in their hands and the drink lines are insane. Just different.

Since Coachella we have been recovering, back along the California coast, reliving Morro Bay, Big Sur and every bit of beauty it has to offer. As I finish this, we are back at my aunt Lauren’s and uncle Kurt’s (they are way too good to us) for a pit stop before we head north through the rest of California and on into Oregon then Washington.

This state has been quite the ride, beauty hidden in every corner, but we’re ready to get north and see what else this land has in store for us.

’Til then.

A

THE BLESSED AMBULANCE & THE AUSSIE BENEFIT

We don’t blend in quite as well as I thought we might. Whether it’s because we’re Aussies or travelling around in an old ambulance, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

There’s times when no one bats an eye at the vehicle— perhaps they think it’s a functioning EMS. Driving through road works in NYC, a construction dude was holding his palm in the air, telling Abel to stay put. He did a little double-take and beckoned Abel to roll towards him, stuck  his head towards the driver’s open window, “An ambulance right?” Abel gave a slight nod, well it certainly looks that way, doesn’t it? “You can head on through,” he stepped aside to give way. Abel followed the rest of the traffic down the cone-edged road and we looked at each other wondering whether that man genuinely thought we could save anybody.

The thing with the ambulance is, you can spot her from a mile away. She’s tall, she’s got big, shiny lights, and red and white is one of those colour combinations that grabs your eye without hesitation. She just stands out. The previous owners definitely warned us that she would be a real conversation starter, and they tell no lies. Most of the time it’s when we’re parked somewhere surrounded by other road-travellers. They’re the type of people who are interested in this topic and take notice that it’s not just a random, old ambulance on the road, but a converted camper.

Aside from that, we pretty much assumed we’d gone unnoticed. For some time, parking on the side of streets caused no trouble. Often, we would google where the nice areas were in that town/city, and we’d park in quiet suburbia.

In Knoxville we had our first run in with the police. 6 pm, dinner had been consumed, pans had been cleaned. We were parked on a oneway street with  large houses planked alongside us— a university area. Most occupants were students.

A shining light came through the front dash, darted to the side windows, followed by a tap tap tap. “Police officer” didn’t register in my mind, more like “random weirdo”, so I paused. Tap tap tap. Pushing the door open, a police officer stood on the sidewalk and gave me a smile. Basically, he had a received a call about a “suspicious looking van”, and while he wasn’t too concerned, he was obligated to check it out. I explained we had been cooking dinner, which meant our door was cracked to avoid gassing ourselves and perhaps that explains why we appeared so suss. He said there was no problem with us parking here overnight, so long as we didn’t exceed the 24 hour limit. Being a oneway road, he suggested we move the car up a tad, to “tetris” with the other parked cars, in case a fire truck needed to pass through.

While it was a peaceful experience, I no longer felt comfortable parking on residential streets. Convinced we stood out and looked unholy.

Two cities over, we had our second police run-in. This time, it was the morning. We sipped on our coffee and discussed the day ahead. A maroon car slowed as it passed, turned around, pulled in behind us for all of 5 minutes before driving off. Abel was concerned, I thought it was strange but didn’t care too much. 15 minutes later, another car pulls in to park behind us. I glance in the side mirror and announce it’s a police car. “Really?” Abel asks me. Really, really. We watch as he exits his car, making his way towards the ambulance— in order to avoid a knock-knock situation, we hop on out, smile and say hello.

Again, “someone” (maroon car, for sure) had said there was a suspicious looking van with it’s door open. We gestured to the coffee and told him we’d be leaving soon. During our chat, another younger officer had walked over, made pleasantries and joined the conversation. After showing our driver’s licences, and having learned we were Aussies, this opened up a whole new window for chatter. Where exactly we were from, what we had been doing, our plans for travel and so on. I reckon we spoke to these dudes for about 20 minutes or so. He understood why we chose to park here— nice neighbourhood— but warned us to be careful on the rest of our travels, “Be safe. Look out for the people around you. Not every police officer is going to be as friendly.”

I’d told him I was a writer, blogging about our adventures, and a business owner. He bid us adieu, walked off and we began to pack things away. A moment later, he was at our door again, pen and paper in hand, “Say, what’s the name of your blog? I wanna check it out.” I wrote it down for him and we laughed as he left— did he really want to read our adventures or did he just want to double check our story? Officer Grigsby sat in his car for a little while behind us, having a peruse of my posts. Both officers asked if they would feature in the blog, and while this event took place a month or so back, I hope you’re reading this, Officer!

These few occasions make me question our luck. Perhaps all the officers and official people we have encountered are just pleasant, down-to-earth people. Or is it the ambulance that saves us? Perhaps our Aussie heritage? Because honestly, as soon as one is seen or the other is mentioned, all tension melts away.

After visiting Canada, and experiencing our rather strenuous entry, I was nervous to re-enter the US. I shouldn’t be, considering I’m a citizen and all, but I didn’t want Abel’s visa to be questioned the way it had been in Hawaii. For once,  Abel was calm as a cucumber and I fidgeted and tapped my fingers on the steering wheel (I mean, that is the norm for us, except for when going through border control— Abel usually takes on the nerves and I become super relaxed. What is there to be worried about?). As we approached the pull-up window, the security officer peered out, marvelling at the ambulance. He didn’t even ask us if we had any fruits or vegetables. We were loaded up with apples and bananas and all this man cared to ask about was the blessed ambulance.

I’d like to believe the ambulance stands out more than our Aussie-ness, but it doesn’t take long. Every time someone walks pasts and looks in our direction, Abel nods and says something like, “Hey, mate,” or “How ya garn?” and we just don’t stand a chance. Even worse when it’s combined, How ya garn, mate? He may as well scream it from the rooftops. But, it has given us more smiles and muted “hello”s than not. Maybe it’s because we’re from a small town so we’re used to it, but majority of people over here don’t smile at you, don’t say hello or even acknowledge you– I assume because of the population difference. Then they hear that accent, and they either laugh with or at you, but a smile is all the same none the less.

Back when we were in San Francisco, my uncle Kurt had said, “Whenever you’re in trouble, just lay the accent on thick.” He knew what he was talking about. Turns out, everyone is fascinated by Aussies and Australia but, “Oh, the flight is just too long!” Mate. It’s a day of travel and then you’re in the great down under, land of the desert, home to the world’s best beaches— worth it.

Apart from the one man we encountered who didn’t seem to know where or what Australia was. He pulled into the field we (and other travellers) were staying at, slowed in front of us and yelled out to Abel, “You guys from Canada?” “Nah mate,” Abel replied, “Straya”. This old fella stared at Abel and asked again if we were from Canada. I sat back and listened as he continued to assume we were from Canada, five or six more times, while Abel tried to say “Australia” a little more clearly, before shouting “WE’RE FROM DOWN UNDA!” The man stopped asking then, but I don’t believe he understood a thing.

If the Australian heritage ever seems to fail us in a situation, when people basically assume we know nothing about this country, I can fall back and choose to be American, “Well, I’m actually from Connecticut so…” We’ve got ourselves a win-win situation over here. I only mention that fact after having spoken with someone for a little while. People still ask me where I’m from based on the accent and I’ll always say Australia first.

Regardless of the predicament or situation, we can count on the blessed ambulance or the benefit of being an Aussie.

THE THINGS I’VE LEARNT WHILE LIVING ON THE ROAD

Living life on the road teaches you so many different kinds of lessons. First off, I am just enormously grateful that I’ve allowed myself to have this opportunity (haha yeah, I am grateful for my own decisions I guess?). The daily pressures and what’s viewed as “acceptable” or “the norm” definitely differs from Australia to the USA. Back home in Aus, we are encouraged to get out and see the world and leave the adult stuff on the back burner for as long as possible. That’s not to say we’re not told we need to grow up, fend for ourselves and get a job– don’t get me wrong, those things are all voiced to us, we’re not merely encouraged to avoid adulthood responsibilities. But, we are told to experience things now, while we’re younger and have less of those adult “chores” looming above. It’s ok for us to take a year off from work, if we’ve saved hard and are pursuing something more enriching than sitting in a cubicle from 8-7, but only getting paid 9-5.

I’ve just noticed how many older people we meet who are blown away by what we’re doing, whereas I feel that back home, our type of trip is somewhat more common. People work, save, take time off and travel. Or they work and travel (I did/do both!). Because waking up somewhere different each day, experiencing new landscapes, new people, new food, it’s all just a bit more exciting than tying myself down right now. So instead of experiencing the pressure so many of my American friends felt as soon as they graduated from college, I felt reassured in my decision to take time off from life and live it in a different way for a little while. Yes, many people we meet are shocked, but they often seem jealous that either they didn’t do this or they didn’t allow their kids to, when really, it would have been the best option for so many people.

Aside from all that, there are more practical things I’ve learned from living out of van (or ambulance in our case)– the simple things you have to be prepared for.

  1. Running water is a serious necessity we take for granted every day. Second to just water. At the beginning of our journey, it wasn’t too much of a problem. We often parked at beach carparks that had showers and taps or at campgrounds. This made filling up our water bottles and washing our dishes rather easy. But then things got colder, many of these public showers and taps have been drained and switched off for the season– or they’re just not as accessible anymore.

Since we try to cook as much as possible to save money (generally breakfast and dinner and we’ll have an Arbonne protein shake for lunch which has been a HUGE money, time and health saver) this means dishes are often to follow. My advice is to try your best to find a running water source, it’s just easier and cleaner and more economical. In the negative temperatures (which we are most certainly in) it’s not always pleasant, because if running water is a simple luxury, you can bet your ass that hot running water is for the royals and elite.

So my hot tip if you don’t have access to running water and don’t want dirty dishes piling up in your limited space: paper towel and lysol wipes. Not entirely the best option for the environment, so limit this as much as you can. When you boil water for your hot morning beverage of choice (coffee, always coffee), boil some extra. Use this to give a simple, start clean to the more filthy pans ie. Abel’s bacon. Wipe over the rest of the pans/dishes with paper towel to be rid of gunk, lysol wipes come next to disinfect that shit, and then unfortunately you’ll have to use more paper towel to dry and remove any disinfectant. You can pretty much ensure that one piece will get all the drying done however. Like I said, not the most environmentally conscious way of doing things, but it will make your life a whole lot easier when running water is just not available to you.

In warmer temperatures we will be more likely to boil water and use a hot, soapy filled container to wash our dishes. Cause we’ll be more likely to get out the van then too.

2. You will not always be waking up to a beautiful sight. I mean, yes, we try our best to find free overnight parking, or just non-limited parking somewhere pretty. For us, this usually means in front of a body of water or a nice park/reserve. But often, in the nice, more populated towns, parking near the water is expensive, limited, or purely residential. In the city, you can’t be fussy with parking because it’s best to find something as close as possible to the main attractions that will let you stay all day long.

When we were in Washington DC parking was a serious struggle. On our first day, we parked the car at a metre with a two-hour limit, and began walking a decent trek to the National Museum of Natural History. This took close to 20 minutes, which didn’t bother us, but we realised how limited our time at the museum was gonna be and that just wasn’t an option. We ended up walking back, moved the car and came back into the city via uber so we wouldn’t be restricted. We stayed at a campground just out of the city and figured we’d get an uber in each day– but this was $20 each way and the uber wouldn’t even be able to get out to the campground– we were positioned up a long, winding road well into the State park. We had to drive to a McDonald’s nearby and then request an uber. Bit of an effort, you see.

After that whole situation, when we were in Philadelphia, we managed to find street parking that was free from 6pm-8am. Score. This means your sleeping on the side of the road, however. Not a big deal, but be prepared for noisy traffic most of the evening and early morning. We’re lucky with the ambulance– the windows are seriously tinted, we have lots of curtains/shields we put up, and not a single person is aware that anyone is in there, let alone two living out of it.

Sleeping on the side of the road does limit you in a few ways though. Not just the lack of running water situation that I mentioned earlier, but also…

3. Lack of public restrooms. Same deal with the public running water, not a huge issue in the beginning of our trip when we were in warmer, coastal areas and beach showers/toilets are always open. But as you travel up north or into more densely populated areas you will notice how these become less frequent. Most shops and restaurants have hand-written signs, plastered in their front windows, “NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS”. So you make note of the Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and gas/petrol stations littered across the area. If possible, try and park near or at one so you have access to these somewhat clean bathrooms.

Aside from that, my advice to you: don’t be afraid to become one with nature. In more simple terms: don’t be afraid to pop a squat. Again, much easier in warmer weather, parked in secluded areas with natural scenery happening around you. It’s easy to squat in a hidden bush to do your business (I’m talking strictly number one’s here by the way. Kudos to anyone who is game enough to go beyond that, because I’m certainly not). But when the public restrooms and easy-squat locations aren’t at your disposal, here’s what I suggest (many of you will be opposed): pee. in. a. cup.

I can’t believe I’m writing so publicly about this and truly raving for it’s cause, but it’s the greatest thing I ever started doing. Again, not entirely environmentally economical as you have to use disposable cups. So the better option is to source some biodegradable ones, or better yet, invest in a she-wee. I’ve never even thought of that until now, but I’m seriously considering doing a little Amazon search. Why not? Life will be cleaner, easier, and you can bet your ass there are no secrets between Abel and I anymore. Oh well, we’ve been a pretty close couple from the get-go anyway.

4. You will not always be relaxing. I find myself searching for some R&R. I have not written or read nearly as many books as I would have liked so far on this journey. That’s ok, but you just have to be aware that it’s something you need to make time for. So often we are thinking about where we’ll be next, what our “plan of action” is for the day or the next few days. We’re waking up, trying to find a Planet Fitness to workout and shower at, and then we’re either driving or exploring. Daylight savings is well and truly over here, and honestly, the sky fades to purple around 4:30pm and creeps its way to complete darkness within the next half hour. Early dinners are usually part of our routine, but to be fair, we don’t really have much of a routine and I guess, that’s why we don’t always have lots of relaxing time. The times we have felt most relaxed is when we are spending a few nights at a campground. We can let our guard down there and time is our friend. When you’re sleeping in some of the not-so-beautiful places, ie. the side of the road or carpark, you kind of just want to get things done.

Although each day is ours and we are in control of how we choose to spend our time, I still feel like we run out of it often. But then there are the days that I read for hours on end– usually in a low key town, on a rainy or cloudy day.

I’m not saying I don’t love my life right now, I definitely do. I just want to emphasise that this kind of lifestyle can be tiring, taxing and you won’t always have the energy to do the things that relax you. It’s important that we set aside time for R&R, no matter what kind of life you’re leading at the time. Otherwise you’ll get frustrated, grumpy and end up snapping at your travel-buddy. It never feels good when you take your own shit out on someone else, so it’s imperative to know when that’s going to happen and to do something about it.

Like the other week when Abel had his life altering revelation, “I’ve realised I get really grumpy when I’m hungry.” I’m sorry, what? You only just realised this? I’ve known for the past 3.5 years.

It’s funny how we notice some things about ourselves and are oblivious to others.

 

Apart from all the amazing places we’ve been to, the exciting things we’ve done, the hiccups we’ve had, all in all, I have just learned so much in a really small period of time. Like, we’ve only been gone for 3 months. What am I going to learn in the next 8?! Bring it on.

 

I’ll be back sooner rather than later. I’d love to hear what YOU guys want to hear about.

A