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 BIG SOUTHWEST

We made it through the dirty South and out into the wild West, thinking we’d escaped Winter’s treacherous bite. Not quite.

Western Louisiana and into Texas were both pleasant, temperature wise. I wore a dress without a jacket to the Fleetwood Mac concert, for goodness sake. How naive we were.

First of all, Texas is huge and after Houston and Austin, there wasn’t much we cared to see. I was surprised at the landscape, though. I had envisioned wide, flat and brown. Not the occasional rolling hill, scattered deep-green shrubbery and thousands of wind turbines. A rather pretty, but lengthy to journey through and out of.

In Houston, we really just had dinner— tex mex with 6 or 7 cocktails—got serenaded by Stevie and Neil Fin, and left.

We would have stayed longer in Austin, but the sleeping options weren’t plentiful. We found a parking lot in the city park that others had checked-in at on our app. At around 9:30pm a security officer knocked on the door to let us know we had to kick it by 10pm. We headed back to the Planet Fitness we’d visited earlier and spent the night in the parking lot. As we were stirring the following morning, we got another knock on the door. The security woman said, “Sorry, I can’t have people sleeping here.” Like OK, but we sort of already have…

Austin was pretty and funky, as I’d come to expect from what so many people have told me in the past few years: “Austin is really cool”. Even though we just spent the day roaming before heading off. Lots of trendy bars and restaurants— it’s insane how many cities across this country are coming into their own (I mean, lots of them have been nice places for a while, but you can tell there’s plenty that are really on the brink of their stardom). Bustling with youngsters and new, thriving businesses that please the masses.

Our budget has gotten a little tighter over the past month or so and we’re trying our absolute best to be careful and only spend when necessary. Usually we do an enormous grocery haul so we can cook most meals. If we want to eat out, we must choose wisely.  So every time we’re in a quirky city, jam-packed with trendy bars that feature unique cocktails and tasty tapas plates, we’re tempted beyond belief. Unless there’s something specific and touristy to do in that city— entertainment wise, museums or walking trails— what else can you do but walk around and enjoy different beverages depending on the time?

First stop: large, double-shot oat milk latte and a large double-shot regular latte (not really that strong, Abel reckons his tasted like warm milk), at around 10:30am.

Next stop: Two schooners of cider. 12:00pm on the dot.

Lastly: Two burgers and fries. One a double with bacon, sweet potato fries. The other with hot peppers and regular fries. 1:00pm

From Austin we headed to a small, privately-owned campground. Basically an elder couple had an enormous property with a few ponds, sparkling and picturesque, and they sectioned off some campsites— electrical and water hook-ups for RVs on one side, primitive on the other. The bathhouse was a tin shed. The toilets and showers were separated with thin pieces of plywood, shower curtains for doors. On their front porch, hung a crooked sign: “GOD MADE. JESUS SAVED. TEXAS RAISED.” I couldn’t stop saying it the whole time, in my exceptional southern drawl.

Then we hustled out of Texas.

I can’t remember if we stopped anywhere before Santa Fe, New Mexico, but if we did, it mustn’t have been very memorable.

Arriving in Santa Fe was like leaving one country and entering another— I suppose with the size of Texas, it may as well have been. It was the architecture that struck me, sienna coloured Spanish-style clay homes, painted alongside the shifting landscape. All of a sudden, the desert we’d been weaving through in North-Western Texas gained a new richness— the sand turned to burnt cinnamon, the shrubbery grew a few inches and deepened its emerald hue, and icy mountains rose on the horizon. It was certainly colder while at the campground— scattered snow flurries—but we had climbed around 7,000 ft since then, so the temperature dropped significantly.

Santa Fe became our home for the next week, for a few various reasons.

1. We found ideal, free camping. Just twenty minutes outside the town, up in the hills, looking out at the mountains. Quiet as anything, with a fire ring and bathrooms.

2. There was a Planet Fitness in town.

3. It was unlike anywhere we’d been so far. I finally felt like I was out in the West, somewhere I’ve never properly seen or known, but always dreamed of. The buildings made this place too interesting to rush through– there was no shift in style. All clay, all beautiful.

 

On Valentine’s day we treated ourselves to a day out. We explored through downtown, window-shopped at the Native American art stores and sat at a rooftop brewery for a few hours. Here I had one of the best vegetarian pizzas ever, made on a blue corn base, loaded with roasted veggies and goats cheese. I have dreams about it.

That afternoon we went to an interactive art gallery called Meow Wolf that my cousin had told me about. This was an experience unlike any other. I don’t even know what I expected, but this exceeded any expectations. We were told at the ticket desk that we could touch any of the art, encouraged to, and there was no specific order you had to journey through. The only way to describe it is a bunch of different “worlds” all connected through doorways and crawl spaces. Some were basic– like the house. I crawled through a hole and came out of a fireplace into a living room. I exited this particular “world” via the refrigerator. Some worlds weren’t as simple– giant dinosaur skeletons that’s bones played sweet tunes when whacked with another bone. It was like a huge, acid-induced, adult playground.

 

From Santa Fe we headed across into Arizona, but things were looking grim and frigid. Nights with a temperature of -19 C. Having our short-lived experience with warmer weather, I had gone off the cold altogether and wanted nothing to do with it. Coming through, we decided we wouldn’t stay too long and would head further South-West instead, on into California.

Since there’s so much time to kill before Coachella at the end of April, we’re planning on doing a loop and hitting up the Grand Canyon properly when the snow melts a bit more. Let’s hope.

We still got smothered in a fat, white blanket. I can’t quite remember where this particular campground was, it could’ve been back in New Mexico, but I left the ambulance for the shower house and when I’d finished my cleaning and pampering, I walked outside to a transformed campground: red, rocky and dusty turned to thick, frosty, snow.

We drove down through Sedona. A steep, winding road between large, maroon rock-mountains, scattered naked pines and snow. Log cabins down on a river bed. More snow. One of the most beautiful scenes we have witnessed so far.

After spending two nights in a nearby town with a Planet Fitness (always a selling point) we continued West. We journeyed to Joshua Tree National Park via Lake Havasu, a stunning summer vacation spot, littered with other RVs.

On this little leg of travel, we happened to come across a town up in the mountains called Jerome. This was the sweetest, quirkiest little place and Abel and I both reckon we could live there. It felt like something out of The Grand Budapest Hotel, mainly because there was an abandoned-looking hotel sitting on the edge of a mountain, surrounded by cliff and snow. We stopped to take photos, grab a coffee for the road and a few slices of home-made fudge.

(All in Jerome)

(All on our drive through Joshua Tree National Park)

We don’t know how to take photos…

We stayed in LA for three our four nights, near Venice Beach and Santa Monica. We walked the beach and the pier, witnessed sights we’d seen in hundreds of films, and drove through Beverly Hills and Bel Air, gaping at the mansions. Being in Hollywood makes you think of everything that is Hollywood. We drive past Rodeo Drive and I couldn’t help but say “Rodeo Drive, baby” like Kit from Pretty Woman.

The only tourist type thing we did was the Runyon Canyon trail that looks over the whole city, the Hollywood sign watching you climb and sweat from far behind in the next cluster of hills. Since we’re going to be spending a bit of time roaming around California before our weekend at Coachella, we figured we’ll be back to see anything we missed.

We spent a night in Miami and then in Santa Barbara, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. It reeked with the character I had always envisioned and here we allowed ourselves a cocktail and bites session. That’s the main thing that gets me when we’re saving money and somewhere oozing with local atmosphere. I just want a drink and a nibble. Happy hour is the key here, especially when it’s midweek. This allowed us several fancy drinks and tasty plates at a reasonable expense.

 

Since being on this side of the country, I am in constant awe of the changing, varied landscape. Desert, mountains, water— in all different forms. Rivers turn to lakes, snowy mountains shift to enormous hills that seem to be made up of thousands of little rocks. Cacti becomes striped eucalypts and we are hit with a sudden wave of longing for the Australian landscape.

Luckily we came across something similar to home after our stint camping on the outskirts of Joshua Tree.

Highway 1 goes up the California coastline, through Big Sur and into Monterey Bay— yes, the town from the Big Little Lies TV series. We witnessed the most wildlife on this stretch since our time in Florida.

When we woke up in Morrow, the first town we stopped in, we were parked right against the docks and could hear seals barking (do seals bark?) as we stretched in our beds, ready to begin the day. Although they were nowhere in sight, Abel pointed in the distance and we had our second otter sighting. This time, a sea otter. Fluffy as hell, floating calmly on his back up stream, waiting to be carried out for a fishy meal.

Along highway 1 we saw piles of elephant seals lounging on the sand, nudging each other in what seemed like affection. The males sat on the outskirts of groups of females, protecting them. One pretty much told another one to fuck off, and off he went, sucked under the next crashing wave.

Monterey Bay was a cool little harbour-side town, and here we saw maybe four to five more otters, floating 50 metres off the jetty, swirling around each other and holding hands, as otters often do. It was a sight to behold.

All along Highway 1 and through Big Sur. It was super foggy this whole drive.

 

Since then we headed up towards San Francisco, picked my mum up from the airport and have spent the past week with her, visiting at my aunt Lauren’s place. It’s funny coming back here, five months on from when we first arrived, with our ambulance and whole different understanding of our trip. As Abel said, “I was just a newbie last time we were here, I knew nothing about what the country was going to be like.” 21 states later, now he’s more seasoned in the landscape than most Americans.

Now, we are on vacation from vacation from our vacation. Being back at my aunt and uncle’s place felt like a little vacation from our otherwise large vacation. Since my mum has left, Abel and I have driven up to the Napa Valley for two nights before we had back to Lafayette where we’ll house/dog/cat sit for my aunt while her and the family go skiing in Lake Tahoe. So we’re on a triple-removed holiday from our main one, if you get me.

And it’s damn nice. Today we went one a long trail through the hills surrounding our campground and it honestly felt like we had stepped either back in time, or into The Hobbit. Winding trails through rolling green hills, splattered with redwoods, eagles, and creeks running this way and that.

And here’s the “glory hole” (actually called that) that Abel drove out of the way for on our way back– worth it. Although I was expecting a natural phenomenon, not a dam hahaha. You could honestly stare at it for hours.

 

This state really is spectacular and I’m itching to see more of it. Good thing we’ve got lots of time here. I think Coachella might creep up before we know it, though.

‘Til next time. As always.

 

A

CATCHING UP ON THE JOURNEY

I figured I should catch you guys up, so to speak, on the chronology of our trip. I’ll skip over what you know.

After Thanksgiving, we made our way up through North Carolina into Virginia, where we spent a few nights at a campground in a state park. That was a really nice few days– it felt like we had time to relax and not rush. There wasn’t anything particular we wanted to see in Virginia Beach and the weather was pretty crappy. I remember that night was probably the first really cold night we’d spent in the van. I reckon it got down to maybe 1 degree C (the coldest we’ve done was -8 C in Salem). We made a fire and sat pressed up against it, layered in our new hats, gloves and scarves. I wrote, drank tea, and we made our first dinner over an open fire (our new favourite thing to do). I ran (!!!!!) two days in a row (this is a seriously big deal for me– I have despised running for most of my life, and now, I almost kind of like it. Who am I?), but yeah, we pretty much chillaxed there, and that was great.

We drove over the Delmarva Peninsula to go through Maryland on our way to Washington DC. The bridges over here tend to be really big, very high and for people who know me well, heights are not my friend. For some funny reason, I always seem to be driving whenever we have to go over one of these monsters. I know, I know, they’re, for the most part, totally safe. But, I’d almost rather be a passenger while travelling across a huge bridge. I feel as though I’m too in control. Like, if I wasn’t paying attention, or being too careful, or something happened and my arms spasmed and went crazy and we just steered a little to the right, and then BOOM we’re flying off the bridge and into the water. I know that sounds a little paranoid and crazy, but my Aunt Melissa actually feels very similar about this– so I am definitely not alone.

On this leg of the journey we had to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It’s 23 miles long (37 km). There are two structures, one for each direction and they both have double lanes. There’s no shoulder though, hardly any space either side of the lanes between your moving vehicle and the tiny little fence. There were about 2x 1 mile long tunnels that broke up the journey. I was in a sweat most of the time.

We made it across in one piece and headed for Crisfield, MD… I don’t know how to describe it. I’ll just say, often when we have made the decision to drive a few hours in the direction we plan to head, it’s difficult deciding where we should go. There’s times where the destination is obvious, well-known cities or highly-populated areas. Other times, though, we just have to wing it and we tend to choose somewhere on the coast (if that’s an option based on our current location) and generally about 2-3 hours from where we currently are. Crisfield, MD. We drove secluded highways to get out to this town. Winding roads with beautiful, emerald yards planked along the sides. I expected something really stunning, and naturally, we got that. I mean to say, it was spectacular in its natural debut, but not much the township itself. We drove through the flat, desolate main street and, as we often do in the more interesting towns, Abel and I shared a glance that said it all. Crowned the “crab capital of the world”, Crisfield sat right on the edge of the water– flat, sprawling, endless, reflective, breath-taking.

But we struggled to find a place that we felt safe in. We drove around trying to find an area to park near the water, and after getting bogged and having to shove rocks on either side of the tires, we came to a small parking lot situated at a tiny little beach. There were toilets, a tap– neither in operation “CLOSED FOR THE WINTER”. A playground on the sand, picnic tables. Very nice. A few suss looking dudes drove down, sat in their running cars for 15 minutes, left… came back again half an hour later. Amongst other visitors. Abel was uneasy. Once it got well and truly dark, there were no more visitors. But you know how it is, once someone is nervous about something and you can feel it, then you start feeling it to. We made it through the night and woke up to one of our best views yet, and then we got the hell outta that place.

Washington DC was really great to go back to. I’ve only been once and was aged 8 or 9, so was keen to check out some of the museums with my newfound wisdom that comes from the gradual ageing process (just being older and appreciating things more). After taking some time to figure out the whole van-city situation, we ended up spending one night in a Lowe’s carpark and the next three at a campground just outside the city. It was getting rather cold when we were there so the wandering and exploring was kept to a minimum. We got to see and do what we wanted though. The National Museum of Natural History, The Holocaust Museum, we walked alongside the Washington Monument, Reflection Pool and The Lincoln Memorial. The basics. Christmas markets were also in full swing at this point (our real first taste of that) which was exciting, and we ate some really amazing Cuban food there.

 

Post-D.C. was really lovely, I made a call to my Mum’s good friend, and our long-time family friends, Val and Mike. They lived in Fairfield while I was growing up and my family spent a lot of time with them and their three boys. West Chester, Pennsylvania is where they live now and Abel and I were welcomed into their home for a night. We were totally spoilt, taken into town to watch the enormous, festive Christmas Parade and we ate dinner at a restaurant that overlooked all of the activity. The township was beautiful, lots of brick buildings dressed in white lights. It’s always nice when you end up in a sweet place, somewhere you probably never would’ve gone to had it not been for some friends.

From there we went to the Amish Market and Philadelphia, where the incident from my last post occurred. So I’ll move right along.

We stopped in briefly for two nights back in Fairfield at my aunt and uncle’s place. Always nice to feel “at home” and be able to relax. We’d left some suitcases there before heading to Florida, so we collected our things, cleaned out and reorganised the ambulance. My aunt and uncle have a beach house out at Cape Cod (we used to go out there twice every summer, my Nan and Grandad had a place there too) and were kind enough to let us stay there. We stopped in Newport, RI for a night to break up the drive and it was a really quaint, little, upmarket beach town– but in winter.

The beach house became our little refuge for the next five days. I don’t think I’ve ever played so many games, condensed into such a small period of time, in my whole life. Kirstie, you would’ve been proud. We tackled one of the puzzles, a decadent fish scene titled “the underwater mardi gras”. You know how when you’re doing a big jigsaw with lots of pieces and you can never seem to find the piece you’re looking for, so naturally you are convinced it’s been lost? I thought I was going crazy. Abel was losing his mind. For a few hours in the afternoon on our fourth day, we sat intent on finishing this damn puzzle. And we did. With 27 missing pieces. Our minds weren’t lost, just those fucking pieces.

It was kind of hilarious to see Cape Cod in the dead of winter. For those who don’t know, this place is a little arm off of Massachusetts– you have the bay side and the ocean side, not too far from each other. It’s a summer haven, where most North-easterners escape to during the humid, sticky months of June-August. Majority of the restaurants along the main road that connects all the little towns have been there since I was a small child. You pull in, see “The Lobster Shanty” with it’s row boat, buoys and nets on the roof and know that you’re kind of in a little time capsule, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Unfortunately, much of the cape closes down for the winter season, each restaurant bearing signs “THANKS FOR ANOTHER GREAT SEASON! SEE YOU IN APRIL!”.

Apart from a Sunday trip out to Provincetown (the funkiest little place ever and again, very, very different in winter than summer) we pretty much reclused (yes, I just used recluse as a verb) indoors. Scrabble, Rummikub, and our new game Jaipur (we bought this in P-town from a game shop called “Puzzle Me This”, a store that’s been around nearly as long as I have) were being played on rotate.

Eventually we moved on. Boston next– we only stayed one night here. It was cold and parking wasn’t plentiful. We found an open lot with paid parking but for the one night and most of the next day, it was $60. We’d explored and seen what we wanted, so we made our way to Salem. Which you’ve already read lots about.

 

From Salem we went to Burlington, Vermont. My cousin Zach went to university here and we’d been told it was a very cute little town. We weren’t lied to, it was lively and filled with young students, and more Christmas lights.

Next stop: Montreal, Canada!!! My dear friend Sarah is living there with her boyfriend, Antoine and it’s just crazy how close it was to where we were, yet a totally different country. It seemed silly not to pay them a visit. Of course, we thought entry into Canada would be a piece of cake! Aren’t all Canadians soft and squishy and just always nice? Kind of forgot about the fact that Quebec is French-Canadian territory and uh, Frenchies can be funny about things. The officer at border security totally grilled us. From the minute we pulled up to his window, he was shaking his head at us and instantly frustrated with our presence. He asked question after question about things we were bringing in (normal, totally normal). He asked if we had any firewood, I glanced at Abel and he nodded, “Yeah, we have a few pieces”. The officer shook his head more. Sighed a couple of times, rubbed his beard and forehead all in one big movement.

“Why do you have firewood?” Why does anyone have firewood? Usually to burn. In a fire of some sort.

“How many pieces do you have?” I looked at Abel and he shrugged, “Ten?”

The head shaking continued, layered with beard-stroking, brow-furrowing and a couple more sighs for good measure.

“Now,” he began, “I could let you into the country with the firewood. And do you know what you’d have to do with it?” I stared. “You would need to dispose of the wood in a metal container.” Ok then.

“Can we burn it?” I asked. Sigh. Head-shake.

“You know what, no. No, I can’t do it. Ten pieces is just too much. How would I know that you would dispose of it properly? You’re gonna have to go back to US soil, do what you will with the wood and come back. I’ll give you a form to pick up around the corner and you’ll need to re-enter the United States.”

We did as we were told. Upon re-entry to the US, I of course had to explain what had just transpired.

“We’re just coming back because we were denied entry into Canada,” I told him. He looked us up and down, “Why were you denied entry?” I told him about the firewood, he asked us some more questions and we left. We headed for the woods, ditched the beautiful chopped wood my uncle had given us and headed back for Canada.

He asked us what we did with the wood and I told him. “So if I look back there, I won’t find so much as a twig?” Jesus Christ. “I hope not”, “Go on in then”.

Three nights were spent at Sarah and Antoine’s apartment in Montreal. I hadn’t seen Sarah since November of 2017, just before she embarked on her journey to live and work in Canada. Seeing her again was something I anticipated and yearned for– we text nearly every day. Meeting her boyfriend Antione for the first time was really lovely and I’ve never seen her so happy.

The temperature was low and there were scattered flurries passing through Montreal, so we pretty much stayed in doors, drank and ate lots and watched movies. We were more than happy to do this; it was nice to be in the company of others, in a cozy space. We did get out to Mont Royal, an incredible natural beauty in the middle of the city, overlooking it all. Being outside the US for a little stint was special too– different sites, different shops and a different language. A bit of a treat for us.

 

From there we pretty much hustled back to Fairfield, CT for Christmas, via New York, a quick sleep in Wilmington, Vermont and down on through Massachusetts.

The Christmas period was a bit of a whirlwind, as it is for everyone, each and every year, all around the world. I guess that’s why it’s so magical– lots of energy and Christmas spirit pulsating from every corner of the globe (or whatever holiday people are celebrating at that time to bring their families close). Getting back to the Finzi’s was exciting because I hadn’t seen my cousins Elise or Nathalie yet, nor had Abel met them. My Mum and Dad were also coming to town over the next few days and while I’d seen Dad a few months back, I hadn’t seen my Mum since April, along with my brother Marcus and his girlfriend Nicole, so the weekend was filled with all kinds of reunions.

Another important one being on the 23rd, Abel and I drove into the city to pick up his cousin Kelsey from the airport. She’d had a pretty hectic long flight, with three different legs on her journey, but we were all buzzed to be with each other, knowing we were going to be having a real winter Christmas in a few days time. We spent that day in the city, window shopping and braving the crowds to experience Rockefeller’s Christmas tree. My dear friend Tenaya was housesitting an apartment in Brooklyn, so we were able to park our car near her place for the day. We met back up with her later that evening for a drink in Times Square and hot meal at the markets in Union Square before heading back out to Connecticut.

 

The lead up to the big day consisted of shopping, visiting family and friends, drinking, cooking and eating– in no specific order.

 

Christmas came and went, same as it does every year. Kelsey’s flight left NYC on the 28th to take her home to Australia, so we had one last hurrah in the city before she departed. Tenaya let us bring our mattress from the van up to her apartment. We had a lovely evening out, drinking cocktails at a rooftop bar that overlooked all of Manhattan. If anyone read or heard about the electrical explosion that happened in Queens and made the sky turn blue… yep, we witnessed that from the rooftop bar. I mean it when I say the whole sky went bright blue, turned purple, grey, black, back to blue. Each wall of this bar was made of glass, it was quite the spectacle.

 

 

The next morning Tenaya took us to the best little coffee and breaky spot in Williamsburg, which we pretty much discovered to be an Aussie café. A jar of Vegemite was spotted on a shelf behind the coffee machine, the barista spoke with an Aussie accent and not to mention the coffee and smashed avo was well and truly, soaring above average.

A quick drop off for Kels at the airport, as Abel and I headed due South, into Asbury Park, NJ. Apparently where Bruce Springsteen got his big name, but apart from a meal out, we just spent the night and headed West.

Stopped in Lancaster, PA for an evening, then down into West Virginia where we spent the few days over the New Year at a campground. The actual site where we stayed was extremely primitive– only pit toilets, no showers, no running water. This was the longest we went without showering, I believe we made it five days strong. If a Planet Fitness had been close by, we would’ve made a journey out, but was a shower really worth a 1 hour 15 minute drive each way? We were fine.

This place was a whole lot of rocks, mountains and rivers– picturesque. Once again, Abel convinced me to step out of my comfort zone and climb up the side of an escarpment that yes, had somewhat of a trail, but a fairly steep and rocky one. There was certainly resistance from my end, but sure, I’m glad he persuaded me. The view always makes the height (somewhat) worthwhile.

 

 

While the site was on the low-equipped side, there was an office left open until late, with heat, bathrooms, running water, wi-fi and a smart TV. We were actually able to ring 2019 in a nice space, with some games, music, drinking and movies. Quiet, but a lot better than many other New Years I’ve had.

As we went to depart West Virginia, we started experiencing some car trouble– it wouldn’t start. There was no cellular service out there and although the office was officially closed for the 31st and 1st (yet left open for us) now that it was January 2nd, for some strange reason, everything was completely locked up. I couldn’t call AAA to have them come start our car. My poor mum, I gave her a call, said “Happy Birthday!” and then “Can you do me a favour?”. When the car had it’s batteries replaced while in Salem, the mechanic mentioned there was a missing tooth on the fly wheel that would need replacing sometime soon. We assumed that was the issue. After waiting in the cold for the mechanic to arrive, he came down to the site where the ambulance sat– terrified it was going to have to be towed up a wet, steep, narrow, gravel road.

He popped the hood, had a look, “turn the key,” he said, and on it went. An embarrassing relief to say the least.

Most mornings since then, we have struggled to start the car. Diesel tends to go sludgy in the cold, but we were still in the Northern half of the country and they use a special winter blend up there.

We stayed a night in Virginia and then headed to Knoxville, Tennessee where we spent a few more nights. I was pretty surprised at how cute Knoxville was, lots of variety in shops and food, the weather was warmer too so we could actually walk around and take in the feel of the city.

We made our way to Nashville via a pit stop at a campground for two nights. Nashville had an electric energy, that I can only describe kind of like New York City, except that it’s completely and utterly different. In no way is it similar– I just mean, in the way that a city’s ambiance can catch on so quickly.

This place was party central from the moment we arrived and it just didn’t stop. We parked over at the football stadium which is an easy walk across the foot bridge into down town. We ate and drank on a rooftop bar and on the streets below, open-roofed buses with drunk, screaming women trudged past, along with everyone on the streets, horse and buggy rides, bicycle pubs. Country music pouring out of every single doorway. Every shop on the main drag is either a bar with live music, or a boots shop. That’s about it. For two people who are certainly not country music fans, you cannot help but be when you’re in a place like Nashville.

 

On to Memphis. Where Abel made sure I played “Walking in Memphis” as we drove into the city. This place consisted of more car trouble– it was time to take it into a shop and get the flywheel fixed. We’d had enough of not being able to start her in the mornings. So we booked a room in a hotel near Elvis’ Graceland. Tacky as all hell, with three framed pictures of Elvis hanging above the bed (I mean, that’s absolutely fine with me, but still) and I kinda loved it. Until Abel and I convinced ourselves there were bug beds and we had to sleep in layers on top of the bed covers. We didn’t have any bites– most likely all in our heads.

 

Graceland was a dream. Elvis was such an influential figure, such a star, and his pad reflected what an icon he was. He put so much care into decorating and entertaining, everywhere you went, you felt his presence in there. Big deal for a big Elvis fan like me.

 

Since then we’ve been making our way to New Orleans and we just arrived… after another incident with the car. While the flywheel did need replacing, it wasn’t the source of the issue. The most recent mechanic wasn’t really to know, he didn’t specialise in diesel and we should’ve thought that one through. So she was in the shop the past two nights and we checked into another hotel, for two nights, in Jackson, Mississippi where there’s a whole lot of nothing. The glow plugs have been replaced and she’s running like a dream now.

Two days here in New Orleans and on Sunday we’re off to Cuba for nine whole days. Bring me that sunshine.

A.

PS. Here’s what our route looks like drawn out on the map

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

HOW WE CAME TO BUY AN AMBULANCE, THAT WE’RE GONNA LIVE IN

That’s right, we bought an ambulance.

It’s not a fully functioning one, as many have questioned, but the lights and sirens do in fact work. Although, we have yet to try them out, apparently they’re rather loud– and illegal. The inside has been gutted and set up as a camper. Before I tell you all about our funky new vehicle, I’ll back-track a little to our entire car-hunt in general.

Abel and I had been browsing online, craigslist mainly, for used campervans, RVs, conversion vans etc. In the weeks leading up to our departure it seemed like we were constantly coming across good finds. Low prices, low miles, lots of potential. A whole variety of things would pop up and we’d think, that could be the one. Then of course, as is often the case, many hiccups and mishaps stopped these “good finds” from becoming “good buys”.

About a week before we left, I emailed a woman about a campervan she was selling. It seemed perfect: not too big, completely fitted out and self-contained, only $7k. Her reply said something like this:

Hey Annika, the van is still available. I am selling because my husband passed away recently and I don’t use it much anymore. I am actually away at the moment, and the van is located in Indiana. I would like to do the sale through ebay because they are more reliable and have never let me down. The process is quite simple. You just need to make a down payment of $2000 and I will have the van sent by courier to where you are (it will take 5 days-a week). You have 5 days to inspect the van and make sure you’re happy with it. If not, you may send it back and I will refund your deposit. If all looks good with you, you can complete your payment and the courier service will provide you with the title transfer details. Let me know if this interests you and I will create a private ebay link to send to you.

How good does that sound, right? I summoned Abel over, summarised the email and he said, yep, let’s do it. I definitely wanted some more details before providing this lady with a deposit, so I asked for the VIN and a bit more information on how the van itself runs. Other than that, we thought it was pretty much sorted. I showed lots of people photos and had my fingers crossed it would all work out. Guess crossing your fingers does fuck all, because this was nothing but a heavy-weighted scam. I can thank my mum and her friend Denise for making me think carefully before signing a deal with devil. Mum sent me a link to some articles about campervan scams on the internet. Apparently there’s a HUGE market for it. If it wasn’t such an awful thing to do to someone, it would almost be a really great way to make some quick cash… almost. The article listed some pretty basic warning signs:

  • The sale is usually linked to some kind of tragedy (this lady’s “dead” husband)
  • They often say they are out of town
  • They will provide a courier service
  • They would like a down payment
  • They would like to do the sale through ebay

This lady pretty much ticked every box with gusto. I was hoping she would prove me wrong, and after asking for the VIN (for the 4th or 5th time) and a phone number I could contact her on, she told me she had done everything I had asked for and she felt as if I was wasting her time. In actual fact, she was wasting her own by not answering my god-damned questions. I told her as much, that I knew she was a scammer, and where she could stick it.

Safe to say this got my hopes down a little. It helps that Abel is generally an optimist, “we’ll find something”.

About two days before we left, my friend Kate sent me a link to a post on Instagram. An Australian girl who had just travelled across the US with her boyfriend in a converted ambulance was now selling as their trip came to a close. Immediately after seeing the photos, I frantically waved my hands, said “oh my god”a handful of times, and asked my friend Elle if I could borrow her phone as mine was dead. I messaged Alissa (previous ambo owner) and told her I was extremely interested and would love to hear more.

The ambulance was up for sell with all the necessary gear included: Tables, gas cooker, loads of kitchen supplies, mozzie nets, yoga mats, fishing rod and tackle. So much good stuff. Alissa and I messaged over the course of the next week, talking part about the ambulance but also about their entire trip in general. It was so lovely being able to ask someone for advice on so many of my central concerns; talking with her really put my mind at ease about a lot of things. For example: how did they go travelling without a shower/how did they access one? She told something I would have never thought to do. They joined Planet Fitness, a gym franchise that has 1,500 locations across the USA. The full membership, with all the bells and whistles, is only $21.95 a month and lets you bring a guest for free every single time. That way, she told me, they were able to shower and stay fit while on the road. Goodness knows we’re gonna need to stay fit, we both like the bad foods.

I asked question after question and Alissa totally indulged me, she loved talking about this stuff, and wished she’d been able to ask someone these things when they first started off.

There was only a few things turning us off the ambulance in the beginning: 1. Alissa warned me it was most definitely not insulated. They had done a few stints in cold weather and made do with thermal blankets and a campfire before bed. At this point, our travel-route was going to endure some cold weather, so this was a little concerning for me. And 2. The van was located in Florida. Lucky for me, my parents live there, but then the question was, how do we get this van up to the North-East? So we kind of pushed the ambulance to the back burner. It was awesome, but not completely feasible.

We had a bite whilst in Hawaii, but the seller was a tad odd. I spoke with him on the phone and he didn’t give me a whole lot. Tons of short, closed off answers that made me question whether he really wanted to sell the thing. I told him my aunt would be more than happy to come look, since we wouldn’t be on the east coast for another week or two. He said I could give her his number but he finished off the call with, “Yeah ok, well we’ll see when you’re out here and if the van is still available”. Uhh, ok. Denise called the following day and he told her it sold that morning. I was soo grateful that he gave us the opportunity to check it out.

It wan’t until the end of our NYC trip, as we headed out to CT, that we seriously began looking at more vans and trying to contact people. To be honest, most people gave vague responses, if any at all. Anyone who sounded eager to make a deal, was usually another scammer. I was feeling frustrated and unsure how we were going to move forward with this. Why did people continue to list their van or campers and then made no effort to try and sell them? Most options were oversized too; I could never seem to find the basic high-top camper you might see cruising along the coasts in Australia, parked at a beach carpark for a night or two before moving on to the next.

Denise didn’t have a lot of work on while we were visiting Fairfield and she graciously offered to take us to check out any vans that interested us. People were always telling us to head south to Florida and buy there. It’s warmer and swarming with oldies, so more vans would be floating around. During our first dinner at my Aunt and Uncle’s place, they shed some light on things I’d actively avoided thinking about. Gross administrative things like registration and insurance. Registering your car with your state of residency isn’t an enormous issue, but I’m not really a resident, so I’d have to use my parent’s Floridian address in order to do this. The lingering question was then, how would I get the plates in order to move the vehicle from A to B? We decided going to Florida was our best, and probably last, option. Dad would be able to help us sort out the details and we could take our time with it.

Once this decision was seriously in the works, Abel asked me if the ambulance was still available. Two weeks had nearly passed since my last contact with Alissa and I thought the odds were pretty slim. “Just check”. I couldn’t believe our luck when she replied to my message saying, “Actually, it is”.

Alissa and Lachie had been super busy whilst in West Palm Beach and didn’t have much time for any viewings with other potential buyers. I told her we would be flying down in the next week and if it was still available, we’d love to come and check it out. She pretty much pushed all her other appointments until after we had booked in to see the ambulance that coming Monday. When we’d been messaging previously, Alissa had told me we were at the top of their list. I think they liked knowing it would be going to a good home, to another Aussie couple doing the same thing. Rather than a 40-year-old man who only planned to use it to tailgate football games.

We did the three-hour drive to West Palm Beach and shortly after seeing the van, we were certain we wanted it. We made an offer, paid a deposit and picked it up the following day. Dad used some points he had to put us up at the Hilton Hotel that first night (score), and during check-in the concierge upgraded us to a suite (double score). The next day was leisurely, we laid at the beach for hours (the bonus of heading to Florida and altering our travel-route, more summer weather!) and went to an Aussie/Irish bar in town where we drank $3 margaritas and ate $2 tacos (pretty decent considering this place was anything but Mexican). The waitress told the owner Rod that we were Aussies and he wandered over, plonked himself down with his large, filled wine glass and chatted to us for a good half hour.

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We spent our first night in the van (and only, so far) that evening. She was a hot one, so now we’re kind of looking forward to some cooler evenings. While cooking breakfast that next morning in a beach carpark, we made a heap of older dude friends. They were all going for a morning surf and in awe of our ambulance. “Nice rig you got there,” this one guy said as he walked towards us, leaning his head for a peak inside. They wanted to talk vans and then even better, they wanted to talk Australia. Trust me, I told them, you’ll be getting better waves than this down under. Safe to say she’s gonna be a great spark for conversation, our ambulance.

Once we were back in Tampa at Dad’s place, we did a large Walmart haul to get any of the necessary gear they didn’t already give us. Not that we had to get much. We still spent a lot, but we saved a shit load too.

The ambulance also has three spare batteries that aren’t in use, but they’re practically brand new. We’ve bought an inverter so we can utilise them (we’ve been collecting all the parts over the past few days and Abel will be setting it up soon). We bought a mini-fridge for the front cab area, which will hook up to the spare batteries, and when the time comes, we’ll be able to buy and use a cheap electrical heater to fight off the frosty winter evenings.

It’s been so nice making the ambulance into a home. We’ve slowly been moving our things in, organising the cupboards and getting it all set-up and ready for the road. Our journey has been off to a slow start due to an issue with our “arriving” inverter from Amazon. It says it was delivered on Saturday, but it most certainly was not. Not the best of luck in that department, but I can’t be too ungrateful… because we bought a fricken ambulance! I don’t really know my opinions about the operation of the universe, they’re still forming and shaping, but I guess when Alissa said the ambulance was still available, I took that as a sign– it was meant for us. In some cosmic sort of way. I guess.

So here she is, meet our ride:

 

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(If anyone can think of a good name for her, please let me know. The previous owners named her Bambi, but I think we should shake things up little)

I’ll be back soon to talk about our first part of the road trip and van life.

A