Maine: Down East #1

Down East #1

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Mid-summer in Maine and the campground is empty but for three other sites, although the tall fat fella in the white van with a hound dog drove out this morning. Perhaps he’s moving on? Another couple in the big sand colored tent drove by shortly after and it’s not even 8.30. Maybe I’m alone then? Is anyone else around? Time to explore, well, after the morning coffee on the rocks. Rocks on the coast, solid sit-upon boulders, smooth under bum, and slippery under paws (Harold’s).

I’ve been up for hours, the light wakes us around 5am, the lobster trawlers thunder by, deep and low in the water as I sit on those rocks with a plain coffee. The fog is so thick this morning that the boats are invisible even though voices talk back and forth over the rumble of engine and waves, tides and eddies.

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McClellan Park campground is a little known hideaway right on the ocean with ten sites for campers and tents. The road down is winding and narrow through dense woodland but easy on the vehicle, just tight, there’d be no room for anything bigger than a Sprinter. We pull off to let a sedan pass on the way up, and the couple tells me to claim number twelve.

“It’s open, a nice little bit of meadow, and just the other side of the trees is the shore.” She’s missing a tooth up front in that cheery smile of hers, and her husband says something unintelligable. They wave me off. My new neighbors.

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We camped in number twelve as directed with a hundred feet of mown grass, a ring of birch trees and the sound of the incoming tides on the rocks. The fire kept us warm although the wood Dennis, the caretaker, sold ended up being damp and green. That couple I’d mentioned though, they brought me some dry wood one morning.

“I was worried you’d be cold, that other stuff doesn’t put out much heat, does it? Here you go, your cat came by this morning. I saw him in the trees, shy isn’t he? Yes, I told Jerry we needed to bring you some wood, get you warm. It’s chilly today. They say it’ll rain tonight so cover up your stuff, won’t you?”

She’s in striped loose pajama pants, a pink checkered long sleeved shirt, and another purple layer over her shoulders, quite a colorful thick-set woman in her sixites. Her frizzled hair is held back by bright red plastic clips. Jerry wears work boots, pressed blue jeans, and a sweatshirt with Vietnam Veteran in bold white letters. His front teeth are missing, his tongue swallows his words, and his grin is like a ten-yer-old boys, all mischief and innocence. He’s about the same size too, wiry, compact, small as a pre-teen.

“You have to visit Jonesport, it’s pretty. My sister lives in Millbridge, that’s why we come here. We only live an hour away but love camping here each summer. Columbia Falls too, that’s a stop if you’re heading to Eastport. South of here, go see the ferris wheels on the beach. Jerry here was on stage for July 4th. He’s an Elvis impersonator.”

Millbridge is an odd little town in US 1, with very little by way of tourism, just a couple of stores, a diner and a mexican take-out, just what we want on the ocean, mexican food, right? I don’t find anywhere to get clam chowder, a sudden craving on these grey days. There’s a laundromat, library, bank, and a couple of churches, but no cafes or brew pubs that I can see. Bummer. I’ll not be staying here too long then. The supermarket undercharges me for the beer and I say nothing but feel guilty for a moment, and again as I write this. Oh well. I have worse regrets.

The shore is rough with a deep sudden drop from brown-stained rocks into swilling waves below. My brain imagines Harold slipping in and that fear that comes, knowing I’d jump in to save him. Probably kill us both. But I’d have to. It’s Harold. Fuck. “Get away from there!” I startle us both, he slips but not into the Atlantic.

We walk in the mornings, early, mid, late. We walk in the afternoons, every hour or so I jump up from book or laptop, “let’s go, guys.” All three pets bounce up, two dogs and a cat, and off through the trees we go, over the rocks, I sit on the grass to the east of this path and lean back. I can spend hours staring out over the ocean. This calm rejuvinates me, brings me back to myself, and reminds me of the Gower Coast in Wales. The grey skies with occassional bursts of sunshine. The salt on my skin. The damp air curling my hair. I wish there was a way to live on the coast like this, wake up each morning to stare out over the horizon and daydream in the cool breeze off the ocean. Can I? Make this a goal of mine? Why not? Or perhaps just drive along coastlines for the rest of my life? I could do that.

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My brain ticks over, the lists, the stressors, all that needs to be taken care of in the next few weeks. Instead of tackling any of this increasing number of projects and the relevant details, I make another cuppa. This is the week before I move in finally to a rental apartment in Montpelier, start work, and then college. This is problably the last break for a while. It’s time to explore then, isn’t it? So we do. We do. Gratefully.

Mosquitos follow my everywhere but the DEET works well, not that I’d want to live with it on me year in, year out. But who cares about a few weeks here and there? Toxic crap I know but it works. When I go pee though, that was a problem.

McClellan campground costs only ten dollars per site and another five for a generous bundle of (green) firewood. There’s a shower, potable water, trash cans, and a friendly host who lives near by. Yes, come here. Yes, stay a while. Millbridge is within reach of a bunch of interesting smaller villages, one’s you wouldn’t normally come across on you trip across US 1. The camping has been here since 1946, Dennis tells me, but the State only just realized it, so came a knocking over winter, demanding a licence fee, a few changes, and less sites. Dennis just took down a couple of numbers but left the picnic tables and still mows the grass in those numberless places.

“There, done.” He grins, his eyes wrinkle in mischief, “And they left. Not so bad after all. It might help that the Chief of Police runs this place and threatened the guy, but what do I care? Oh, if this fog eases up, tonight we’re meant to be able to see the Northern Lights!”

The fog only thickened though so I went to bed by nine, curled up in the camper with Harold on the front seat, Rosie in her crate (door open) and Stevie the cat at my feet, looking out the sliding window, gazing upon squirrels. We sleep deeply.

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Such utter calm and peace here, looking out over the Altlantic, I’m dreaming of a retreat, a time in a cabin on the waterfront, a deck, some shade, a place to swim, to walk the dogs, and days of peace to read, write, and create more. Yes. I’ll get right on it. Right after I finish my three years of the MFA.

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Next though, it’s Down East/ Up North. Time to find the eastern most town on the United State’s coastline. There’s a brewery there.

Time Out In Marfa, Texas

Published January 2017 with http://www.fempotential.com/marfa-texas/

Here is a copy of the text for you.

January was a good time to take a road trip, the holidays are over and nothing’s going on. Although, I’ll be honest, having been land-locked in Madrid NM for four months with only a couple of weekends away, town was feeling claustrophobic. It was driving me crazy. Winter so far in New Mexico has been pretty gentle with little snow and mild temperatures, nothing to challenge or keep me engaged. My home was finally finished enough to stay warm and comfortable, and with that in mind, I rented it for a week onAirbnb, packed the camper van, and took off south. I needed a break. I needed a plan of action. What next? How can I make a living as a travel writer? Or as a traveling writer? What’s the big deal about Marfa? Why go there?

Marfa, TX is a small town of 2,000 in far western Texas near the Davis Mountains. Big Bend National Park is 135 miles due south.  Would I head that far south? Who knew.

The night before I left town, it snowed. A good few inches covered the roads and Ortiz Mountains and in a 2wd van, the worries got to me and I didn’t sleep so well. Should I take the interstate instead of a country highway? Which would be safer? Highway 285 was shorter but would there be enough traffic to be safe? Ah, to hell with it, I needed an adventure. Highway 285 from Santa Fe was mostly clear but for some slush and a few snow banks, the traffic was light, and my pets cranky. Rosie, a lab mix, couldn’t settle down. She’d sit in the passenger seat, bounce down, push Harold off the bed in the back. Repeat. For nine hours. Stevie, the cat, hid under the bed, sulking. Poor Harold, a big baby of an Akita mix, shrugged at Rosie’s pacing energy. I drank cold coffee and kept on driving. I needed a time-out. Just like Rosie.

So, yes, why did I head to Marfa? Probably because the forecast was for it to be warm enough for tee shirts in the afternoons, plus some good friends of mine love the place. Suzie is an artist and she’d told me some of the history of Marfa. In the 1970’s, a famous New York artist, Donald Judd moved out to Marfa and created an outdoor sculpture garden of his works in concrete. The Chinati Foundation has become one of the major draws to the town, with celebrities, artists of all mediums, and tourists who all flock to the compound on the edge of town. There is also her favorite place, the Hotel Paisano, where James Dean last acted in a movie before his death. Marfa is now known for its history, the Hotel Paisano, the art galleries, the Public Radio station, and even the Marfa Music Festival in March. It has a lot to live up to.

We arrived late that weekend night and set up camp at Tumble In RV campground on the eastern side of town. I’d picked it deliberately for the proximity to town, its claim to having a walkable path into the downtown district (it didn’t), and a space for tents and campers not just RVs. Late at night, a sub-freezing night, after nine hours driving through snow half of that time, I was depleted and yes, as cranky as my critters. Tumble In was not as I’d hoped. The tent camping area is a bare patch of cut tumbleweeds with strips of gravel to show where to park. No shelter, no picnic tables, no grills or firepits. It was basically a parking lot. I hated it. So did the dogs and Little Stevie, my cat. Too many burrs, no shade, nowhere to walk as we were fenced in by barbwire and three-foot tall weeds. The shower in the morning made up for it. That and a cup of coffee.  Then once refreshed and in a better mood, I looked for a camp host but no, there wasn’t one, just a self-check in booth within a vintage travel trailer. Walking the pups around the RV park, I noticed the overflow area to the rear of the land, closer to the railway but away from the highway and parking lot. With no one to tell me otherwise, I set up camp back there and with Stevie locked in the camper, the dogs and I walked along the path to town. We had to scramble quite a bit so don’t expect a clear pathway to follow, we crossed an arroyo and down a sandy bank to get to a paved street.

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It was a Sunday morning, the church bells were ringing, and having drunk a good cup of coffee at the van, my mood improved with the sunshine and clear skies. The railway was surprisingly busy with three trains shipping containers and vehicles eastward all morning, yet I was still able to let the dogs run free along the track for a while. Until the rabbits tempted them onto the highway to the south of us and my tensions grew again. Damn it. I came here to relax, right? Putting them on leashes is never an easy accomplishment –  they’re country dogs and I’m lazy. Oh well. You do what you have to.

Judd’s minimalist aesthetic really has taken a hold of town; it was a quirky mix of old adobe structures, with rusted iron window frames and clean lines of new concrete. I liked the juxtaposition of old and new but how was it for the long-term residents to see their homes and town be so gentrified? The streets were empty though, that sleepy Sunday feeling perhaps? No, the rest of the week there, it was rare to see anyone walking around. There were few options for hanging out or talking to locals. There were few options for distractions from other people at all. I was alone with my thoughts as usual.

Walking down Austin Street, I came across a laundromat with a handful of folks sitting outside sipping coffees. Frama café didn’t exactly advertise itself but word of mouth and being the only café to be found, it stayed busy enough I guess. I got to chat a little to the others sitting outside, one fella brought Harold and Rosie a bowl of water, and we talked art, travels, and Texas. Most of them were new to town with a newcomer’s energy for the place. I still hoped to find a local who’d grown up in Marfa but never did. The latte was great though but a bagel or something to eat would have helped. Ice cream was the only option, and although it was tempting I didn’t get any. Another time perhaps? Nope, I stuck to coffee there for the next few days. It became our routine to walk to town mid-morning, exploring the four corners of town, and finishing up at Frama. Where was the breakfast place? I lived off the odds and ends in the cooler at the van instead. Oh well. My expectations were nicely lowered after a few days and I began to enjoy town for what it offered. Even the Tumble In campground grew on me for being bare bones, with hot water, little interaction and no one watching over my critters running free.

With a full moon, the Marfa Lights were not to be seen. Have you heard of them? First noticed in the 1880s by a cowboy, there is still no solid explanation for these colored lights that dance in the dark nights outside on Highway 90. My timing once again was against me; it was too bright for me to see anything. Next time? I’d better do some research before I head on another trip as this one to Marfa was the most disorganized possible. My timing sucked constantly. The best part for me in Marfa was that we walked everywhere for a week. The rest of my days I filled my notebook with web addresses and contact info for freelance writers. Researching different tangential ideas kept me busy and the sketch book let me switch off the word-brain in the evenings. As there were few businesses open at the start of the week, and little to see with high-end stores offering treats for the wealthy, but still I got to relax. I enjoyed wandering the wide empty western streets. Trucks slowed down for the pups and I, waved at us, and carried on slowly out of town. Wherever I wandered, I’d see the Presidio Courthouse. It’s an incredibly beautiful old three-story building that fills the town plaza with all roads bringing you back to the spires. It dates back to 1886 and I walked inside one afternoon, curious to see if I could climb the tower to look out the windows facing each direction. It was closed for cleaning but still worth climbing the wooden stairs that opened onto lawyer’s offices on each level based around a central rotunda. I was alone and the peace of the extensive views impressed me deeply, a sense of history and wonder.

 

Hotel Paisano was just around the corner and it quickly became my afternoon choice. The Trost building dates to 1929, and opened only just before the Great Depression. It became a place for ranchers and tourists to stay as they crossed Texas. In 1955 Warner Bros came to town to film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Jett’s Bar is named after Dean’s character and the walls are covered with old photographs from that era. I sat at the bar one day, eating a salad from their limited menu, and chatted to Herb who was visiting. He came from Las Cruces, NM, and was a pilot for a wealthy family who’d come to Marfa for hunting but he didn’t specify what or where.  With a beer in hand, I then sat outside and that’s where I recommend fully. The building is Spanish style with a main courtyard with a fountain and tables in sun and shade. Perfect. I sat and read and listened into the conversations around me. I came back two other afternoons. Now that made me feel like I was truly on holiday. Finally.

The small-town logistics could be challenging for some city folk but since I live in Madrid, NM with a population of 350, this wasn’t a big impact on me. There were limited options for eating out, I didn’t find a decent grocery store, nor ATMs but then again, I’d come with a wallet of cash and a cooler of food in the camper van. I have a feeling my timing really was off, and that in spring and summer, town wakes back up. I’m okay with that though. I like low-key artsy towns. With no traffic lights, Marfa lulled me into a slower pace of life. It worked its magic on me. Afternoons, I’d sit outside the van in the sun and draw out quirky characters or I’d brainstorm on how to keep traveling and writing for a living. I came up with some ideas but it’s hard to make it freelance. I figured out that it’s worth me faking it until I make it. That’s the best I can do for myself.

The Chinati Foundation finally drew me in on the last day in the area. I put down my notebook and we drove over there early one morning. I’d not been too keen to be honest, as a field of concrete sculptures didn’t appeal. It was free so why not, right? I’m glad I went though. With the critters set up in the camper parked in the shade of a huge Cottonwood, I wandered into the main building and asked for the self-guided tour of the gardens. The young woman behind the counter waved me over to the path and asked me not to climb the structures. Nothing more than that, no stories, no information, just “Stay off”.

Okay, okay, so walking down past the other buildings, I strode down the slight hill to the open land with a stripe of fifteen groups of concrete slabs. From north to south, there are Judd’s famous works in concrete, a very minimalistic contemporary feel that reminds me of inner cities in the seventies. Unprepared for the magical energy, I stood and stared at the first group. Three structures made of upright walls of concrete with another identically sized slab across the top. An open-ended room in a sense. Walking to the next group, it occurred to me that I was alone on this kilometer-long pathway. In the field nearby, a small herd of Pronghorn antelope watched me nervously.

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Slowly as I wandered around these works, a peace settled on me, reminiscent of living at a Buddhist retreat in the UK years ago. A calmness came from the simplicity of how Judd played with one size of solid cleanly poured concrete slabs, putting them together in different figurations. There was nothing to explain why it appealed to me so much but an hour later, I walked out of Chinati with a relaxed smile and feeling expansive. Yep, I’d go back. First though, it was time to head north to Madrid, NM, to set up my home for another vacation rental. Yes, Marfa. I get it now. And I had a plan.

Travel can help people in so many ways. One woman took a time out type of trip to Marfa, Texas, and was inspired with a plan for her future as a travel writer.

Year End Lists

It’s the end of the year, a time for us to look back at what we did or didn’t do. Those lists and resolutions from last winter haunt us. I’m a wanderer who settled for the last eight years to build a home for myself, a home-base that is. My goals had included writing and traveling again. Goals met. I’m going to list mine in the hope that it’ll inspire you to look at your year behind and the one ahead. It helps me to see things written down by making my ideas more tangible somehow, more solid.

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Articles published in MAQ, Classic Land Rover Magazine, LRO Magazine, the Examiner, and on a couple of online small forums. Not bad, but I want to publish more, focus more on sending out and finding outlets for my storytelling.  I sent out two more travel articles this week. It’s a start. One step at a time, day by day, I aim to keep going.

Books published include two travelogues Bring a Chainsaw and Van Life.  There are also three photo books, photo essays if you like, taken from our travels around the States. Van Life and Dirt Roads And Dogs, the last one calledLittle Stevie’s Travels is in review. Oh, and one of my novels won Best LGBT Fiction in the 2016 NM/AZ Book Awards.

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It doesn’t feel like it, but we drove around a lot this last year. Here’s a list of the States we got to visit while looking for campgrounds, lakes, books and breweries. Passing through some of them a few times, we took backroads, found rivers to paddle in, and set up camp for three months over summer. Some of these places are one’s I kept returning to while based in New Mexico such as the Jemez Mountains in NM, Pagosa Springs in CO and down through Tijeras, NM on the way to other places!

  • Colorado
  • Arizona
  • Wyoming
  • Montana
  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Idaho
  • New Mexico

Now though, it’s time for me to look ahead even as I write up my notes from the last year. If you  have any specific questions for me, let me know. I can give routes, campgrounds, and local information for many wonderful off-beat rural towns.

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The next post will be a few of my top ten picks. Top Ten Destinations. Top Ten Campgrounds. If you have any suggestions, again, let me know. Take care and Happy New Year!

 

Want a free book?

Click on the link for a chance to win a free copy of VAN LIFE. Only via the app though so pull out your android and click away.
https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/54f123647530401f

 

Van Life: Exploring the Northwest with two dogs, a cat and a van

It’s true. A new book of my travel stories just came out. It’s a work in progress so forgive the mistakes, I’m working on it! This travelogue follows our adventures in the Northwest, the details about the small places we found along the way, the people we met, and the critter’s advice when I was having a hard time. Lighthearted and engaging.

Thanks!

Writer’s Life: a morning on the road

Pagosa Springs, my home away from home, thank you for being there when needed.

Mary suggested I post my home on Airbnb since the bus was already bringing in an income. Why not? she said. Okay, so I did just that. I added the homestead, and forgot about it. My smartphone beeped at me. A notification from Airbnb. I accepted without even really reading the information. The next morning, another beep confirmed the booking of my home. My home. Oh shit, I have to clean.

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Two days later, the floors were swept, bedding changed, fridge and oven scrubbed, and new towels laid out. The critters followed me nervously, unsure as to what all this meant. On opening the van and throwing in the cooler and extra blankets, Harold, the Collie/ Akita mix claimed the bed. Rosie, the Lab/ Akita mix took the front seat, passenger as she knows better than to try driving. Little Stevie, a fluffy white cat, popped up onto the top shelf, purring away in time to the engine.

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Pagosa Springs then, you saw this coming, didn’t you? Yes, an easy drive for three hours to town, stopping only one on the way for the emptying of bladders big and small. With a sandwich in hand, I nervously watched the cat follow the dogs into the trees. Trust. You have to trust him, I muttered and then stalked them all.

October in Pagosa is cold. Much colder than I’d thought, not that I’d really thought about it, I’d just loaded us up and left the home in pretty good condition. At Williams Creek Reservoir, the parking area had few vehicles, picnics and fishing rods at hand.

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“The campgrounds closed on the 26th. Three days ago,” says the Texan couple in their thick winter jackets. “You can’t camp here.” She stared at me and the critters who roamed and peed freely.

“Okay.”

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The sunrise that next morning over the lake was incredible. Just us. I bundled up and made coffee outside. Little Stevie was in heaven with trees, grass, and water, and no others to scare the bugger, he wandered around, meowed when he lost sight of me, and ran back under the van when I called, anyone hungry?

How can I just up and go like this? I blame my parents for taking us everywhere in the old Rover and Volvos. I blame my friend Shaun  for reminding me of the restlessness inside me. Casey sat me down at the computer one day and we played online, her showing me how to make an income from writing, editing, talking about what I do and love. It’s like Netflix, people are willing to pay to be entertained and inspired. And yes, I blame Mary for putting my home on Airbnb.

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It’s been a year of making changes, of understanding how to bring in the money to pay for a lifestyle I crave. My books, yes, I have five books out and they sell slowly but surely. Four novels, two of which have won Best Fiction in the NM/ AZ Book Awards, another was a finalist. The travel essays came out this year and took me up and across the NW, selling them as I drove around.
Editing, proof-reading, helping new writers publish online, writing press releases, writing blogs like this, reviewing books, and working on another book of my own. I stay busy.

I admit though, that I get nervous at times. Nothing lined up, just winging it as they say, but I’m more alive now than I have been for the last four years at the job in town. I’m officially self-employed these days. I love it. Mostly.

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After lounging around, making breakfast next to the lake, I wait until Stevie is tired and has gone back to bed inside Van Dreamy. I close the door and whistle for the pups. Time for a hike around the lake. It’s a blustery day, cool, and the trees are turning, leaves fluttering onto the path. I skip though the woods and cross the dam. Yes, it’s October. Winter is coming. I can’t wait.

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The dogs watch me eat. Begging? Us, no, never, oh look at that squirrel! They look away.

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Stevie wanders around, watching the fish flash by in the river.

We walk in the morning frost. I warm up by a campfire and cook again. I settle down for another nap. Life is good. Fear slips in, a moment here, a thought that questions my sanity, and then a golden leaf falls onto the laptop and the spell is broken. The spell is remade. I’m happy.

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In town, I soak at the free hot springs under the bridge. Since August, someone’s built up the rocks, making a twelve foot pond, and my muscles relax into the heat. I chat to a few other van dwellers but happily leave them to it so to walk the dogs around town before hitting the grocery store. The cottonwood leaves are like the colors of pears, mangos, and apples.

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This week away from home is the first since leaving Trader Joes. The first time in four years that I can be spontaneous, hit the road, and know I’m still working in a sense. Back at camp in the mornings, I pull out the table, the laptop, write up notes for Betsy about her children’s book. I check the photographs. I research nonfiction essays, reading from other’s recommendations of past and present authors. I make notes for myself. Then it’s time for another mug of coffee, a walk down the river, another log on the fire, and a braod grin. I’m a writer. This is my life now. Camping, driving, writing. I can do it after all…

Why did it take me so long though? Fear. Laziness. A resigned focus on home and job. It wore me down. This though, the quiet nights either at home or in the van, the reading, the writing, and sending out proposals and ideas, this life wakes me up. The writer’s life is one for me.

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Pagosa Springs, once again, had been a welcome home for the week, but then it was time to head back and see what the renters had done to my place. The money paid for this trip but I worried about the consequences. Rightly so as it happens: I wish I’d known to lock up my papers, my cupboards, but naively I left them to it. Another lesson learned. I’ll tell you later, when I talk about the fears, we can mix and match stories for once…

Anacortes, WA and beyond

Dirt pile. Tall and wide. Thick forests. Cranky cat. Tired driver. Dogs restless. I pull over and let everyone out. We’re hidden behind this huge dirt pile, nose of van poking out, me squatting like Rosie. Finally a moment to stretch our legs after a long and wonderful day. But long. I’d been driving for too long.

We’d left Anacortes earlier that day, not a great place for Stevie, but the marina was good for me. Watching all the sailboats on the water, hearing the chatter from the sails flapping, the chance to do laundry, walk the dogs on a beach, sit at an outdoor bar, yes it was worth $20 a night.

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Taking the ferry across from Couperville to Port Townsend on the July 4th weekend, we were lucky to get tickets on their busiest weekend. Not being sure how the critters would fare on the ferry, I’d stopped earlier on an empty beach for us all to wander round until they chose to get back inside. Perfect. On the ferry, because of the size of the van, I got to park up front, facing out on that grey morning. I tied Stevie down, gave everyone a treat, closed up the windows and left them too it as I explored. Love ferries.

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On the Olympic peninsula my day went downhill. The noise in the van was back, sometimes. The critters were tired of being inside. And I had no idea where we’d camp. That’s what it often boils down to. If I don’t have a plan, I’m stressed, needing a focus point. Which brings me back to that gravel pile on the side of a small road heading west from Clallam Bay across to Ozette, it was the last chance at a campground, all the others had been fully booked and the forest roads were neither obvious nor easy for a van like mine.

A volvo pulled up. Fuck. Really? I wave frantically at the car, asking it to slow down, give me time to grab the cat who is standing in the open. Stevie in hand, I walk back to the van, muttering evil thoughts to myself. Why here? Why not park somewhere else?

“Harold!” A voice calls out behind me. Stevie tucked in the van, I turn to see Dawn climb out of the Volvo, another woman with her. My brain can’t compute. Huh.

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“Dawn? Is this Annie? Dawn? How the hell?”

Dawn’s laughing, Harold is barking, Rosie is running around like a dervish, and Annie says “hello Sleam, I’ve heard about you! Dawn recognised Harold and the van. You’re not camping here are you?”

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Lake Ozette, a little used national park campground, rustic, bathrooms but nothing else, pack-it-in and pack-it-out. I follow the volvo as we drive through the campground once. It’s full. There is nowhere else. Damn. I’m tired and hungry but no longer worried. My closest friend is here, Dawn! She lives in Seattle, we’d met in Madison twenty plus years ago, and she’d even joined me just a week ago camping near Arlington. I’d not expected to see her again for a few years…

“IS that a campsite?” Annie asks as we walk around, stretching our legs. “It is! Quick, claim it, stay here, I’ll go get the car.”

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Dawn and I hang out in the small clearing, and catch up on the last week’s adventures, laughing at the chances of running into each other here, in the middle of nowhere. Annie pulls up, opens up the Volvo, and the dogs find her cooler.

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La Push, and Mora National Park campground is the next day’s goal. Independence Day, and we are lucky to find a secluded site in the trees, with a sense of privacy unexpected in a place with over 90 sites. Stevie gets to run around too, always the hope. The ravens hated him though, would dive at him, crow at him, harrass him, until he froze in the trees and I’d fetch him back to the motel van. Poor bugger. The eagles hovered over the beaches. Washington coast was not a kitty friendly place, just so you know.

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The next couple of days were perfect. Dawn, Annie, and I made great meals, campfires, sat and chatted until tired, and then since Dawn knew the area, we went to her favourite beaches and walked in the rainy afternoons. Yep, I liked it. Rialto Beach is worth visiting. Even on a busy weekend like July 4th, we had the space to run and hang out and not feel the pressure of containing my pups too much.

Dawn and Annie left me there, duty called back in the city. For me, the sea called. The dogs and I walked as often as we could, and in the mornings it was quiet enough to let Stevie wander on the sand with us.
And that my friends is all I experienced of the Olympic Peninsula. Oh, apart from all the signs for that bigotted presidential candidate that made my stomach turn and the van keep driving. Southwards…

What’s in your van?

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The table I moved last Thursday, the bed is now oriented widthways, and the computer sits next to the front seat. A fold-away table now lives under the bed by the back door. Is your van like this? Are you constantly changing it? I shouldn’t be surprised. My home is the same, a constant shuffling and reordering of belongings to suit my current needs. The van though, for some reason, I didn’t expect to change it around as much as I am.
If I didn’t have three animals in there with me, it’d be easy, that’s what I tell myself. However, there is a large plastci container of dry dog kibble, one for cat kibble, a stack of wet cat food cans, a litter box and scooper, foldable cat carrier, hard sided cat carrier, a bag of dog treats, two harnesses, three leashes, and a couple of ten foot ropes. A leash for Stevie the cat hangs by the side door. Oh, and then we have a small 18 by 18 by 24 inch set of plastic drawers full of kitchen supplies. Under the bed, more stuff of course, boots and the such.

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Whenever I see another living out of their camper van, I have to ask for a tour although Van Lifers are a weird bunch. Their eyes are a little too bright, the smiles too friendly. Too bloody happy if you ask me. Then I wonder at myself. Do I come across as holier than thou, now? Are my blue eyes clearer than usual? Is my hair a little wilder and clothes scruffier? Yes, the answer is yes.

Soaking in the hot springs in Pagosa Colorado yesterday, a young man, early twenties is my guess, came in, smiling and happy to be there on that sunny Saturday. We started chatting. Mark is taller than me at 6 foot, skinny and tanned in his cut-off denim shorts. He tells me of his brown van, didn’t tell my what kind, and I thought it was women who only notice color not engine size? Anyway, Mark had bought the brown van in New Jersey a couple of months ago and has been slowly wandering westward. A happy fella but he started to avoid my eyes, slow down the questions, that is until a couple in their sixties joined us. They’re in a Sprinter (white) that’s fully decked out with wood paneling and working kitchen units. Mark relaxed and chatted up a storm. Am I that strange middle-aged woman now? Yes, the answer is yes. Sadly, yes.

My van, a nameless or rather constantly renamed van, is simple inside. I think of all that I could do, given my carpentry skills, plumbing, and electric etc., but I like it as it is. I’d make a desk as bloody writers need a desk. I’ll get to it sometime this winter perhaps? Motel Vera/ Danelle the Vanelle/ Reggie the Regency Dodger, came home with me in May, only a week before taking off for Arizona and beyond. I had little time to modify. The backbench seats were folded down, a sleeping bag and a few blankets thrown on top, and all the stuff of camping life, pet life, went under the bed. I’d kept the captains chair behind the driver for one of the dogs, Rosie. Harold likes the bed in back.

It worked as it was for three months. Now though, I’ve changed it up again. The extra chair is out. The folded cat crate (three foot by three foot) is set up permanently with the door rolled up for access. The small cat carrier is inside with a litter box within, and the cooler to the side. I wanted to use the floor space and still have a place to settle Stevie for those days at the mechanic or in cities. I’ll pull out the cooler, put in his blanket and zip down the door and he’s safe and contained for a while.
On the top of this soft crate is a metal tabletop from a workstation at home. Laid across, it becomes a place to set up the Coleman stove for making coffee inside on a rainy day. The kitchen drawers are to the right and I can pull out the cooler as a bench while cooking. It works. Colorado this week has been sunny all day long until four or five then the rains come down hard. We hunker down inside and enjoy the sound on the roof. Rosie likes to cuddle next to me, so she and I are in the back, Stevie is on his shelf above my head, and Harold claims the driver’s seat. All is good. I wonder how others would set up a small van like this for one human and three owners? I wander in and out of thrift stores looking for a small cabinet or desk to modify but not seen the one I want. It’s in my head, I picture it but drawing is not a skill of mine so I wait and see.
What will I do next week? Where will we be? The deep frost yesterday morning was an intense reminder that winter is coming fast. October, camping in October is doable in the van but still it’s daunting. Back to my cabin in New Mexico until the next visitor rents my place through Airbnb, and then south perhaps? The Gila National Forest? Or Alabama? I’ve not been to Alabama yet and that’s as good a reason as any in my book.

Modifying the van for the pets.

It was a random conversation, a chance meeting and a joke that led me to buying this van four days before I was heading out to Arizona. A 2003 Dodge Conversion B1500 van is now part of my ever-growing stash of vehicles, one for each occasion! I know, I know, but I don’t have kids so why not, eh?

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I drove the van home and opened up all the doors, side and back, then let my dogs and cat out of the house. All three ran over, jumped inside and sniffed around. I folded down the backbench seat into a short bed, threw over a thick blanket, grabbed a cold beer, and sat down. Rosie claimed the front driver’s seat. Harold lay on the bed with me, his tail thumping as he sighed, looking out the window. And Stevie, well, Stevie purred and explored under the bed, around the other four seats, and then the shelf above the bed. I could hear his happy loud wanderings and then the little cat found a spot on the bed next to Harold and I. I sipped my beer as the critters all fell asleep that first afternoon. Naptime.

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A week later and I’m back after Phase One of my summer’s adventures. I’d left Stevie at home with the neighbors checking in on him and had taken the two dogs to Overland Expo West, a huge gathering of some ten thousand travelers, those who love extended vehicle dependent explorations of new places. I’d camped in Coconino NF near by and driven in each day, parking in the corner with windows open. The dogs happily walked with me as I checked out vendors, participating as a panelist on some roundtable discussions, and presenting a class on traveling with dogs in the backcountry. Yep, it was a good trip. We even got to see the Grand Canyon on the way home, of course I broke down within 50 miles of the park, but that’s what happened five years ago too so it came as no surprise.

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We’re home now, and I’m modifying the van for all three pets. Living in a van with pets, yes, that’s the goal for summer. There’s really not much online so I thought I’d write about how I’m doing it incase it helps someone else with ideas. We’ll all do it our own way, but this is mine.

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I started off by taking out one of the seats behind the front passenger but I did leave the one behind the driver’s seat. Some friends think I should remove it for more storage. I did consider that but here I am, sitting at a table in that very place. A comfortable leather seat, a folding lightweight table, and a window with a ledge for my cooling coffee, yep, this is perfect.

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The week in Coconino Forest was a week without writing; it was disconcerting. I worried that I’d not find a comfortable creative place within the van in the coming months. Outside was so incredibly windy that I wasn’t inspired to sit at the table next to the fire pit and write. Two days ago though, I looked around my property and found a small shelf, about 18” x 24” as well as some chains. I rigged up a hanging table, one that could be set up and taken down easily. It was heavy though, awkward. I liked how it looked but that was all. I still didn’t sit down at the table with the laptop and write. I took photographs instead. Not a good sign.

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Now though, I’m happy.

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Yesterday morning I had a sweet surprise from REI. I’d recently got a credit card from them for emergencies on the travels. After using it just once, as thanks, they send out a $100 gift card for their stores. Oh sweet…I drove to Santa Fe to meet Alexis for a late lunch, stopping by REI on my way. I found a very lightweight-folding table for $40. I got it. I’m using it. This is perfect, the right height, the right depth, and easily stashed out of the way when we’re driving. Yep, it’s a winner already. And here I am writing again.

Another consideration for me has been Stevie, the cat. No, he’s not gone anywhere yet. I’m building up his comfort in the van. I leave the doors open as much as possible. I set his bowl of dry food on the wide dashboard. There is a bowl of water for dogs and cat on the floor near the side door. I’ll want to get one that has a non-spill lip at some point, but for now, a regular water bowl is what we have. We hang out in here. I drink my coffee in here even my home is only a few hundred feet away. I read, nap, and even sleep in here with all three critters of mine.

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I have a small carrier for Stevie, a soft one with a strap. I mostly got it for emergencies; if I had to walk away from the van, say at a mechanics or something. I wanted to know that I could bring him with me as needed. For now though, it’s where I’ve stashed his litter box, in the carrier with the front and top doors open, and hidden behind this jump seat. It’s out of the way but accessible for a cat but not Rosie’s tongue.

There is also a large soft canvas crate, meant for medium sized dogs, but a perfect home for Stevie as needed. Again, when it arrived by FedEx yesterday, I set it up, threw in one of our blankets and put it on the bed in the back of the van. Rosie and Harold sniffed it. Stevie stepped inside and claimed it as his, purring all the while. The plan is that whenever I stop for gas or shopping along the way before arriving at a campground, I’ll pop the boy inside, zip him up, and not worry about him skipping out when the doors are open. Hopefully.

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We’ve been sleeping in the van together, all four of us. Rosie still prefers the driver’s seat. Harold likes to be on the bed near me, and Stevie purrs up and down, changing spots every few hours, but even on the first night he didn’t try to escape, just settled down, and purred the whole nightlong. He’s a happy boy. He’s coming with us. I even took us for a short ride. I didn’t zip him in his tent, I just started the engine. Stevie sat up. I drove off. Stevie climbed onto the shelf. That was that. I see us all camping and hiking together. I’m scared of losing him, my little cat, but I have that fear every day at home too since he comes and goes like the wild child that he is.

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The windows, doors, and building screens for the van are next. I’ll let you know how I do that project. I have some ideas and will pick up materials today.

What’s in your kitchen?

There is a big plastic box sitting outside next to my truck. I fiddle with it, adding and subtracting items as ideas come up. Last September, we drove to Morphy Lake State Park in New Mexico for one last weekend’s camping before winter. That trip I forgot fire-starters, a bottle opener,  and even a mug. What was I thinking?

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The book of camping gear lists sat on the desk at home. I know what I’m doing, I don’t need to check it. I’ve been camping since a toddler, helping Mum and Dad, going out on my own as a teenager, taking the trains across Europe as an 18 year old, living in a tent in Wales at twenty. Why would I need a list?

This time, I’m looking at my lists and the notes that follow each camping trip. Apparently I didn’t use the oil lamps, so I’ve crossed those off. The kitchen though, I’m adding to that.

Three months of camping and living out of the 4Runner is making me both excited and nervous. How will it be? What will I do with myself? I’m a practical person, always making something here at home, a new fence, a portal for the vines, a bench. What will I do with myself on the road?

 

Wake up, make a fire, make coffee. Feed dogs, wash self, go for a walk. Make breakfast. Yes, there we go. My goal this year is to enjoy cooking off a campfire. To take my time and create layers of meals that appeal to all the senses. But I’ll still keep it simple.

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In my kitchen box, one side is set for the cooking utensils and the other for the foods and ingredients. It’s easier this year, as when open, everything will have a place and be visible.

The kitchen, for me, needs to have the following items:

  • pan and lid
  • skillet
  • plate, bowl, mug, and a plastic ‘glass’
  • openers for bottles, wine, and canned foods
  • stove and spare gas
  • matches and lighters
  • basic utensils of spatula, sharp knife, fork, spoons
  • tea towel
  •  coffee filters and cone for one cup at a time
  • trash bags
  • biodegradable soaps
  • metal bowl for heating water and washing
  • metal grate for over the campfire
  • oven mitt
  • foil and ziplock bags, just a few
  • a lightweight cutting board is nice to tuck in there

Then I have to pack the food according to what kind of camping I’ll be doing. Where am I going? How far off the beaten track are we setting up home? How often do I want to drive into a town to look for a grocery store? Do I want back-up emergency supplies?
To the last question, yes. I like knowing i have extra coffee, some sweet treat, a quick soup, and something salty for those moments when I’ve eaten everything good for me…

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In the food supplies I’ll pack for a week of meals, both simple and more creative ones:

  • chile (canned vegetarian chile)
  • corn chips
  • soups (canned veggie and tomato soup being my favorites)
  • cooking oil
  • spices for me are usually curry, red chile, salt and pepper.
  • coffee and teas
  • crackers and snacks (shelf-stable)
  • cans of tuna/ sardines
  • cans of corn
  • mustard/ mayo sometimes
  • and my latest craving is cereal.  (I’m not sure why but these days I like a bowl of cereal before bed)
  • soy milk for the cereal then
  • pasta and pesto or a noodle bowl

The challenge for me is to get enough fresh food. Traveling is hard on me for that reason as a cooler is only helpful for a few days before the ice melts. At home, I eat salads every day and make my meals from scratch using fresh veggies and cheeses. I need to plan my meals so that once a week, I buy the fruits and salads to be eaten within  a few days knowing that by the end of the week it will be the pastas and canned meals. It’s all about timing it right. No waste, eat it all. Once a week buy the apples, bananas, greens, peppers, onions etc, the kind of fresh food that lasts.

One of the best camping meals I’ve had in all these years was in Colorado. We’d been driving up a narrow dirt road, high above the Rio Grande Reservoir at the head of the Rio Grande river. The road dipped down next to the water and I pulled off to the side and parked. The dogs ran free as I stretched my legs.

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Walking around the lake, I met a family fishing. We struck up an easy conversation, ending up with Mike handing me a freshly caught and gutted trout.

“Drive up the road another two miles and you’ll find a free primitive campground on your left. Get a campfire going and grill this for a about ten minutes, you’ll not regret it. You have foil? A skillet? Okay, use that. Enjoy your trip!”

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I set up camp, lit the fire and cooked my meal.

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With the last of the salad fixings and a glass of red wine, looking down the valley, I ate the best meal…

Perhaps then I need to learn how to fish for myself?