Week 10 – The Home Stretch

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetMuch like the noiseless incursion that brought gradual but devastating deflation to our back right tyre last Wednesday, the arrival of Week 10 was both unwanted and unexpected. Unexpected – though admittedly a foreseeable successor to Week 9 – because by the time of Week 10, 60 days of vanlife had begun to take their tole on our faculties; and unwanted because it’s commencement meant the beginning of the end of our trip.

As I write this specific sentence, we lie prone in our respective and custom-made dents in the van’s formidable mattress for the last time; tomorrow, vanlife as we know it will be extinguished by the firing squad of time and the terms of our rental agreement. For the first time this post will be one constructed from beyond the grave, as I stretch backwards to clutch at whichever ephemeralities of the road have stuck with me most tenaciously.

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Without further ado: after San Francisco came Oakland and immersion via Telegraph Avenue in quiet, summertime Berkeley, where new life was breathed into memories of school history textbooks and imaginings of ’60s America. This was a wonderful and enriching experience overshadowed by a pre-emptive pang of regret for the necessary brevity of our visit.

‘Necessary’ because, as of that afternoon, we had more destinations than days before we needed to return the van to its biological parents in Grayland, WA. For the sake of pith, I will now list a selection of our most agreeable stops along the remainder of our route through the Pacific Northwest.

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetProcessed with VSCO with a6 presetHot on the heels of the Bay Area was Redwoods National Park, where moody sea-stack beaches line woodlands home to the tallest trees in the world. Then, from California to Oregon and another NP, Crater Lake – no ordinary ‘lake’, but 4.6 trillion gallons of cerulean rainwater pooled in the post-implosion grave of the 3,400 metre volcano, Mt Mazama.

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Once in Oregon, we strove to recreate Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me as closely as was possible without any kind of climactic cadaver discovery. In this we were almost successful: swimming in rivers, exploring caves, and other fanciful activities abounded. Curiously, we did come across a dead person but in this instance the police had beaten us to it.

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Further north in the charming town of Bend, we satiated a Twin Peaks-related desire (unperturbed by its being set in Washington), with coffee and cherry pie at Jake’s Diner, ‘home of the largest portions in central Oregon’ (no mean feat). Next came Portland and creative re-vitalisation; first at the Portland Art Museum, where we whistled through an enchanting body of 19th-century etchings on show in ‘The Etchings of Whistler and his Circle’; and second at Powell’s Books, where there appear to be more books than non-books, i.e. space not taken up by books.

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Processed with VSCO with a6 presetOregon was completed by a wet hike to Lower Oneonta Falls, and our ascension to and passage across the divine heights of the Bridge of the Gods. Now in Washington, we whiled away our final days in the van by snaking through the southern half of the state: backpacking at Mt St Helens, coasting over to Long Beach, and a hike to Leadbetter Point. On this, our final night (at time of writing), we travelled to Cape Disappointment for a last supper that was anything but.

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And though the next morning had in store a laborious but gratifying van-gutting, it was then that our trip was really finished, relinquished to a digital afterlife and the tunnelled vaults of memory. What remains must unsatisfactorily be described as a newfound appreciation for the great outdoors, a desire to reconcile the ways in which modern living, as Rob MacFarlane writes, ‘has accelerated us out of sync with the natural world’ – something I hope to take with me in my years AV (Anno Van).

It was purportedly Geoffrey Chaucer, in his epic poem, Troilus and Criseyde, who coined the now-ubiquitous proverb, ‘all good things must come to an end’. Although he made no mention of excellent things, it is clear from where I sit now that the same applies.

Farewell dear readers. It has been an unalloyed pleasure.


Week 9 – Back to coast life, back to reality(?)

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When, in 5th century BC, Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote that the only constant in life is change, he must have been thinking of van life. For it is the unpredictability and immediacy of this trip that defines it – part of the thrill but also of the hassle, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Plans might stretch with daylight into dusk, but they are made and broken again with equal haste as opportunities or obstacles lay themselves before our wheels.

Our other constant is the road. Kerouac called it ‘holy’ and was on to something; omnipotent, all-seeing, all-knowing, the extent to which we rely on the road’s soothing presence ought not be underestimated. So one can imagine the repercussions when these two forces of road and change collide, melding and metamorphosing to produce the much-feared, unforeseen road closure.

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This is exactly what happened when we left Yosemite National Park: 4000 tonnes of rock had the previous afternoon tumbled and slid and spread rudely across the mouth of one of the Park’s main arteries, severing it for at least a week. Fortunately, as now-practiced vanlifers, we could turn gracefully into the detour like an albatross changing course, ready to embrace our now northerly passage to San Francisco.

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Our new route was to take us through La Grange at sundown, following the highway 120 through miles and miles of gold. It was memorable and beautiful, like gliding through a scene from Courage the Cowardly Dog or Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, but all the more splendid for its being unexpected. Out here, vestiges of the frontier – cattle farms encircling small houses perched atop low hills – mingle with an overwhelming impression of how thoroughly this massive land is divided up and accounted for.

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Music Center, University of California, Santa Cruz

When we eventually reached the coast it was in Santa Cruz that we dropped anchor, keen as we were to sample the funfair by the beach and wish ourselves students at UCSC. But for all this we could spare only one night, for our hearts were already in San Francisco.

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By the time our bodies and minds had caught up it was 100 degrees and fogless in the City by the Bay, and the fantastic four were ready to paint the town whatever colour we fancied. In so doing, many of the must-dos were done: first was the Golden Gate Bridge, which the van leapt over like a fawn, restored to the naivety of a bygone youth by sea air and the city’s promise.

Next, an excessively early start and breakfast in a blurry-eyed queue of hopefuls rewarded us with tickets on the first ferry to Alcatraz, where, like a couple of ‘fresh fish’*, we scampered around imitating skate missions from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Aside from these sunny moments, an eerie and sad atmosphere hangs over the island, epitomised by the Park’s exhibition of Leigh Wiener’s photographs taken on the prison’s final day of operation, 21st March 1963.

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The last hoorah of our city break came with a visit to Dolores Park in Mission District. Here, good times abounded as people waved off their inhibitions in the late-afternoon sun; drug dealers advertised their wares with the carefree aplomb of ballpark vendors; and couples canoodled as if the world were due to end that evening. This was an apt crescendo, and drove home a building realisation that San Francisco is surely the figurehead upon the prow of the good ship USA, if not of the globe; progressive, open, technologically advanced, (counter)culturally rich – what more could one want?

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Image credit: Finbar Charleson


Except that, with median rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $3,460 and an average monthly living cost of $3,632, San Francisco’s amorous, welcoming air feels ironic at worst, unattainably paradisal at best. This paradox loomed over the festivities at Dolores Park, along with the ever-burning question of ‘how on earth can these people afford to be here rn?’

And so it was that our time in SF ceased to be; come back next week for info and anecdotes about Oregon and our return to Washington!

Until then!

#vanlife #underthetarp

*’Fresh fish’: a nickname given to inmates newly arrived at Alcatraz.

Week 8 – Sierra Nevada

There comes a time in every person’s life when lying face down on the beach ceases to be a productive way to spend large, hazily-defined portions of the day. For us, such a time came just as Week 8 lurched jauntily into view.

So it was that we found ourselves at Pismo Beach pivoting eastward, with sat nav tuned to the brand spanking new, inland coordinates of Sequoia National Park.

Our route was to take us through the agricultural heart of Southern California, crossing untold acres of farmland that string together small cities populated by people dreaming of LA. Here, the road seems to materialise before the van, out of the mirror blue sky and sun-licked grass, still grappling with the heat for some purchase on the horizon. Near a place called Cholame, we accidentally stopped for a roadside breath of fresh air at the intersection where James Dean drew his last.

From these sunny plains, the mountains of Sequoia seemed impossibly far-removed – this in part because, by the time we reached the National Park, we were in the clouds. So too were we enveloped by armies of the trees from which the park takes its name. Sequoias, among the largest trees in the world and only found on the western slopes of the Sierras, stand here stoic like buildings. To hike among them was to feed the imagination with scenes from a bygone era of American wilderness, one in which Spring flowers illuminated the woodland, and our sunburnt legs flashed like beacons in the cold mist.

Next, after a day spent lunching in King’s Canyon NP – one of the deepest canyons in these United States – it was on to the holy grail of Californian National Parks, Yosemite, for more mountainous mischief and hilly hijinks to sate our wolfish wants.

Little justice can here be done to the thrill which accompanied our first glimpse into Yosemite Valley – a vista whose beauty has been immortalised in eternal glory by artists and photographers like the great Ansel Adams. But suffice it to say that we felt an immediate and keen desire to prepare breakfast right there and then.

This decision proved beneficial in a number of ways – not least that it enabled us to loiter furtively at a place through which countless people come and go every minute, many locked in a vicious and unending battle for that ever-unassuming ticket to freedom: the parking space. For if there was one thing separating Yosemite from the other National Parks we’ve visited, it was the crowds. 5 million people journeyed to the Park in 2016, a new record up from the 4 million average of previous years (and a theme of Californian tourism if you caught last week’s post).

Though our trip fell outside of peak season, the sheer number of other visitors belied the Park’s year-round popularity. And though it is tempting to complain about the overcrowding, to long for the days when fewer people knew of or could access such wonders, it goes without saying that we too were part of the problem.

But even if these large numbers strain the Park’s services or muddy our experiences, must it not be a good thing that more of us than ever before are determined to soak up the outdoors?

It seems to me that whether we like it or not, jostling for parking spaces and sharing trails is to play a big part in the unfolding story of America’s National Parks, even of our basic interactions with the wilderness at large.

Next week, it’s back to the coast for more salty air and pavement pounding in the streets of San Francisco.

Stay tuned!

#vanlife #underthetarp

Week 7 – City Living

Week 7 ushered in a grandiose new chapter of life on the road. With our departure from Joshua Tree NP had come the last of our desert days, and its heavy heat was now little more than a fond memory as we hit the cool fog of the coast.

This because, miraculously, our arrival in Southern California coincided precisely with the start of a period known locally as ‘June gloom’. Van life bestows tough skins but, though nominally undeterred by the drizzle and overcast skies, it was with heavy hearts that ‘working on tans’ was crossed off our comprehensive to-do list.

More importantly, the change in climate corresponded with a dramatic shift in the group dynamics of the van. After 6 and a half weeks as a twosome, Fin and I were to be joined for a short time by Leo and Chris, two new roadmen fresh into LAX. A bit like in Friends when Ross marries an English woman, Leo and Chris’s addition provided a welcome break from the Ross and Rachel saga, but only because you know they’ll be together again eventually.

Romance aside, with new cast members came a new storyline, and it was one of housed-based dwelling that prevailed during week 7. As demanded by the coastal cities and our desire for some stability, the new and improved foursome went off-road, so to speak, and lodged with a number of all-too-generous extended family connections.

This new spin on van life enabled us to see the southern coastline as if we really belonged, to collectively imagine our life there as a progressive and happy Californian family. At once fully-blown tourists and semi-integrated revellers, we were able seamlessly to blend in at most major landmarks, and yet to form a more varied perspective of coastal urbanites through glimpses of the lives we’d so rudely interrupted.

It was in LA that our Californian city experience reached its climax. With just under 4 million inhabitants, this labyrinthine network of highways is the second most populous city in the US. Its manifold attractions draw a rising number of tourists each year; as many as 47.3 million visitors made the journey in 2016.

And not without reason, for LA’s appeal is palpable. One of every six of its residents works in a creative industry, and an inclusive, insouciant air percolates the city. Its layout – 80-odd neighbourhoods sprawled across the Los Angeles basin – offers boundless opportunities for exploration, and a heterogeneity that is neatly reflected in the design of public institutions like LACMA and the Getty Center.

For all this, Angelenos live in a bubble – inevitable, perhaps, when your home town is the seat of the world’s entertainment industry. But it is not just a culturo-economic bubble that so impresses itself upon these Guildfordian holidaymakers; the smog, hanging low over the city like a monstrous bird, is a nagging reminder of LA’s near-toxic air and insufficient systems of public transportation. As is so often the case with our most pressing societal issues, however, the smog is most easily ignored when you’re right in the middle of it.

Next week, inland travel towards Fresno and the Sierras should provide fruitful means of Californian comparison.

Until then!

#vanlife #underthetarp

Week 6 – Pio-nearing California

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The bittersweet smack of week 6 will linger long in the memory. It was a hot one – like seven inches from the midday sun – and Finbar and I were now suffused with summer’s sweet languor. But so too did week 6 bring the realisation that half the trip was already behind us.

Wallowing in this trying emotional state, we sought fervently to grasp with both hands our God-given opportunity for westward expansion, just like the original pioneers. Week 6, we knew, would bear witness to our passage into the Golden State of California – something we’d long been looking forward to.

But this not before a brief stop at Lake Powell, Arizona. We’d journeyed here in search of respite from the heat, and found it in the shape of an internet-famous swimming hole. Hot-footing it down the metal pier to the lake, watched over by blue sky and burning orb, I couldn’t help but consider the absurdity of my being there. Here was a landscape that dispelled human habitation with every breath, but had been made habitable for the express purpose of sating thrill seekers’ lavish desires.

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Processed with VSCO with a6 presetThe lake is daily dissected by jet skis, party boats, and buxom yachts – all of which require the surrounding land to be carved up and concreted over for purposes of access and maintenance. While golf buggies carry punters to the marina from their trucks, a steady stream of fumes from a nearby power plant paints a vivid picture of what’s at stake.

My cynical desert discomfort reached new heights upon arrival in Phoenix. Here, humans’ determination to exist in 21st century comfort seemed entirely at odds with nature’s wishes. In the suburbs, Romanesque villas quench sprawling lawns with water from a Colorado River in unending drought. While in the city, black tarmac and brick are heated by a desert sun to make pedestrian travel nothing less than a sweaty affair.

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The question of why people have striven to inhabit these difficult corners of the world was in part answered by our subsequent visit to Joshua Tree National Park, where abandoned 19th-century gold mills litter the landscape. Here, crude structures and rusted machinery attest to the lives these men and women eked out in search of untold riches.

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Processed with VSCO with g3 presetIt is their madness – a kind of self-serving, dogged perseverance – that has determined much of contemporary American culture. And it is in cities like Phoenix that these age-old ideals of westward expansion and a people’s ‘manifest destiny’ live on, bolstering a status quo that feels utterly unsustainable.

So there you have it. How my pitiful concerns play out in the sun and sand of California will be the subject of next week’s instalment.

Until then!

#vanlife #underthetarp

Week 5 – National Park Week

When posterity undergoes the enviable task of analysing and categorising this trip for reasons of historical import, week 5 will surely be recognised as National Park Week. Less gory than Shark Week but equally rousing, the past seven days or so have been a melee of visitor centres, soiled maps, and blood-thirsty sightseers.

Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park was first, and with it a taste of what was to come. Giant fragments of the earth’s crust suspended in skyward climb; innumerable miles of dusty trails patterning desert plains. Only here, walls of rock throw their shade over lush orchards, and ancient petroglyphs combine with odd relics of Mormon occupation to tell a poignant tale of the landscape’s history.

Bryce Canyon NP followed, a place that seemed of another world entirely. Here, columns of layered rock or ‘hoodoos’ creep upwards from the Canyon floor like frozen strings of syrup. Bryce brought heat and blisters in equal measure, and after just a day we delivered ourselves like warm buns from a bakery 83 miles to Zion National Park.

Just like the Mormon pioneers who (re)named the land ‘Zion’, it wasn’t long before we realised we’d found paradise here.* Carved and nurtured by the Virgin River, Zion Canyon is an oasis of unimaginable splendour – one in which steamy hikes are ameliorated by cool river dips, and fantastical vistas reward even the least adventurous (us two).

The noisy last slurp of our National Park tour de force entailed crossing the Arizona border for a glimpse of the Grand Canyon at dusk. We opted for North Rim over South and were suitably humbled. Smaller crowds at this more remote viewing point made it seem like the Canyon was revealing something secret in the sunset, and blushing as it did so. When the shades of red and brown had become deep indigo with the fading of the light, we re-applied the pedal to the metal and hit the road.

It need hardly be mentioned that all the above would have been impossible without the use of our motor vehicle. As alluded to last week, this trip is not a green one. Our van gets few miles to the gallon, and its unquenchable thirst for fuel has us in gas stations looking at donuts almost every other day.

But, at the very least, one unexpected benefit of van life in this respect has been the ability to quantify and minimise our waste – this because its smell leaks from the open bin bag to fill the van every morning. And besides what’s derived from the fuel, there isn’t too much: we eat all that we cook, recycle our recyclables, and wash in natural water sources. If, as ravenous 21st century humans, our very existence is detrimental to our surroundings, knowing the extent of our footprint can provide some consolation.

And so it is with this meagre conclusion that week 5 must give way to week 6, where Arizonan adventures and Californian crusades lie in wait.

Stay tuned!

#vanlife #underthetarp

*The land on which sits Zion National Park was originally named Mukuntuweap or ‘straight canyon’ by the Southern Paiute tribes.

Week 4 – The Colorado Plateau

It’s week 4, and the van is eating miles like a famished whale. Each passing day, new and varied landscapes are thrust upwards from the curve of the earth as we wind our way down through the southwestern US.

Two days in Grand Teton NP satisfied our thirst for mountain air in measures never anticipated. Before entering the park we knew little more than what we’d gathered from our trusty Nat Geog guide, this being primarily that ‘The Teton Range demands immediate attention’. Safe to say our attention was all but used up entirely once we’d caught our first glimpse of these towering cathedrals of rock.

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Eventually we tore ourselves away from the Tetons like manky plasters, our internal conflicts silenced by a reptilian quest for warmth.

Now, the highwaymen are in Utah and have hit desert. Burnt out tyres litter the roadside like carcasses, abandoned to the intermittent silence in the endless pursuit of tarmac and visions of the West.

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But there is something amiss – the burnt out tyres are tokens of summers past, for it is not the sun’s rays that strike our windscreen but showers of snowflakes and callous hailstones.

Just when we thought we’d escaped the cold, its nibble is at our necks again and with a vengeance. Apparently a common enough, once-in-five-years phenomenon, mid-May snow in Utah has nevertheless reified for us nature’s forceful unpredictability, and made manifest our total subordination to it as people living in a van.

This is undoubtedly one of the most liberating as well as restricting aspects of our trip. Though we are one night slithering on our bellies along the highway like forsaken snakes, looking for a place to lay our heads because the snow has driven us out of camp, the next we are having van-side breakfast and basking in the morning heat, having rotated the vehicle to accommodate for the sun rise.

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Knowing that our lifestyle is determined by the weather has given purpose to this journey, and facilitated truer, more rewarding experiences along the way.

But, an obvious caveat: this is by no means a green trip – something that’s been niggling us both. More on this exciting development next week though, when under our belts we’ll have a selection of Utah’s most sought after National Parks.

Until then!

#vanlife #underthetarp