I’m sitting in the van, feet propped on the trash can, while Lucy naps beside me. She’s assumed her winter sleeping position: a tight ball resembling a plump butter bean. The high today is 41 degrees, and I’m certain the inside of the van isn’t much warmer right now. From where I sit, I count five pairs of shoes strewn across the floor, four of which are boots and warm slippers that’ve been scrummaged out of a storage box under the bed. I like to think that we’ll create a spot for them to sit neatly, but I know better. The other is a lone pair of Birkenstock sandals left out as a last homage to a warm summer and fall. I like to think that I’ll wear them again this year sans socks, but again, I know better.
Somehow or other the Universe has spun us back to our pre-van home of Asheville, North Carolina, where we’ve been, off and on, since the beginning of October. We initially came for a month-long job, left for a week, and have returned yet again for a mountain town Thanksgiving with family. Spending time here this fall wasn’t our plan, but if we’ve learned anything from this adventure it’s the importance of going with the flow. I’m amazed by the opportunities that arise when we open our minds and hearts and allow ourselves to recognize them.
Where we are would mean nothing without the story of where we’ve been. Alas, an update is due.
August was filled with family and fire. We made our way back to Bend, Oregon at the beginning of the month to spend a week with my (Liz) family. My parents traveled from the coast of North Carolina to join us, and my brother and sister-in-law visited from Chicago. Over a year had passed since the six of us spent time together, so Rachel and I were thrilled to meet everyone in Oregon. Our week was full of fly fishing, volcano exploration, walks around town, visits to Bend’s many breweries, and even a tubing adventure in the frigid Deschutes River. There was also plenty of time for front porch sitting and chatting, a favorite activity for us all. In my opinion, nothing tops time with family and getting to spend a week with mine in Bend is a highlight of our journey.
After we all parted ways, Rachel and I pointed the van north and began our exploration of Washington. Growing up in the east, I didn’t fully comprehend the severity of forest fires in the west; that is, until this summer. By mid-August, millions of forested acres were burning across the American Northwest and British Columbia. Though we tried to stay at least 100 miles away from any active fires, dense smoke blanketed all of the areas we were hoping to explore.
Despite air quality warnings, we moved forward with plans to visit Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks. The thick smoke in the Mt. Rainier area caused noticeable physical distress for us while hiking– burning eyes, runny noses, and lots of coughing. We journeyed west toward the coast and dipped our feet in the Pacific Ocean, then enjoyed a gorgeous hike in Olympic National Park. The lower areas of the park were covered in smoke, but we were able to hike up above the clouds where the air was much clearer. It felt amazing to take a deep breath again! What we saw of both Rainier and Olympic was beautiful. We’re excited to visit again in the future, but we’ll make sure we aren’t there during fire season.
From Olympic National Park we made a significant shift in travel and began moving in a new direction: east. After eight months of driving primarily west, traveling toward the rising sun was surprisingly emotional for us both. We were moving in the direction of home. While our journey had no official end in sight, the turn still felt bittersweet. After a short stay in Spokane, we made our way to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to bike some trails we’d heard good things about. As in Spokane, our ride was marred by thick smoke. Disappointed, we accepted the fact that fire would end our time in the Pacific Northwest.
Next on our list was Missoula, Montana, a town I’ve been excited to visit for many years. We arrived on a Saturday night to the undeniable sound of banjo twang drifting over from a festival downtown. A little research informed us that the Infamous Stringdusters were playing a free concert, so we parked the van and walked over for a beer and bluegrass. A perfect Montana welcome, indeed.
We spent several days exploring Missoula and enjoying miles and miles of fantastic singletrack. The air was clear and weather beautiful, which made for many hours of biking followed by après adventure brewery exploration. In terms of Montana cities, Missoula topped our list (with Bozeman and Helena not far behind).
From Missoula we traveled to north to West Glacier. I spent a summer working at a rafting company there in 2006 and haven’t returned since. It was wonderful to be back! Not much seems to have changed in town, and to my delight the West Glacier Bar was still serving inexpensive, cold beer. We parked at the Visitor Center for the night, something that we probably wouldn’t have gotten away with on Labor Day weekend pretty much any other year. Unfortunately, Glacier National Park was also burning, and the west side of the park was mostly closed because of the fire. Very few people were milling around the village of West Glacier, a heartbreaking reality for businesses that rely on a busy tourist season.
After a brief visit to Lake McDonald inside Glacier NP, we made the beautiful drive to the east entrance of the park. Glacier is even more spectacular than I remembered. The Northern Rockies are incredibly unique: rugged with wide bases and steep summits carved by slow-moving glaciers and fast-moving water. We hiked up to and over Siyeh Pass, which stands out in my memory as a favorite hike of our journey. I truly wish that we could’ve spent weeks exploring Glacier’s backcountry, but poor air quality pushed us out again.
Quick visits to Helena and Bozeman behind us, we continued east. I was sad to watch the Rockies fade in the rearview mirror, feeling as I had back in February as we drove away from the Appalachian Mountains. The landscape before us was desolate and unforgiving, named by the Lakota people “mako sica”, or “land bad”. Despite the apparent lack of flourishing life, we found the Badlands exceptionally unique and beautiful.
After days of driving and several pit-stop mountain bike rides in South Dakota and Minnesota, we arrived in southern Wisconsin for a long weekend with my brother and sister-in-law. Will and Laurin live in Chicago and spend much of their free time at a family home in Lake Geneva. Our time at the lake couldn’t have been nicer. The days were sunny and warm, and the lake was still a comfortable (well, comfortable-ish) swimming temperature. We lounged on the dock, worked in the garden, learned about the extensive history of their property, and enjoyed amazing food throughout the weekend. Getting to spend time with Will and Laurin was very meaningful, and a few days at Lake Geneva made it easy to fall in love with Wisconsin.
Our next destination was Marquette, a charming town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The temperatures dropped quickly as we drove north across Wisconsin’s rolling countryside. By the time we arrived in Marquette it was 40 degrees and raining. We were disappointed, as we thought the rain would derail our mountain biking plans. We visited a local bike shop to inquire about trails, and they assured us that everyone rides in the rain (a necessity in a place that boasts more cloudy/rainy days than Seattle). Despite the weather, we thoroughly enjoyed exploring miles and miles of fantastic singletrack. The forests are lush, and trails are well-built and FUN. If you have a chance to ride in Marquette, don’t pass it up.
Rachel is a Michigan native, but ours was her first visit to the Upper Peninsula (UP). The UP is unsurprisingly wild, comprised of 1700 miles of rugged coastline bordering moody Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan to the south. Wolves, moose, and black bears roam the dense forests, and it felt more likely that we’d run into an animal than another human. At times, the UP reminded me of Maine, with a little bit of Pacific Northwest mixed in. Yoopers (locals), however, are quick to explain that there is nothing quite like the UP, and I ultimately agree. Maybe it’s the vast, deep blue waters of Lake Superior, the towering Birch trees, or the cascading waterfalls that seem to appear around every bend in the trail. Whatever it is, the Upper Peninsula is sprinkled with wild magic and mysterious energy.
After crossing the Mackinac Bridge (the largest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere), we traveled south to Grand Rapids to spend a week visiting Rachel’s family. We had a blast hanging with Rachel’s parents, mountain biking with her brother (the biking in Grand Rapids is surprisingly awesome!) and cheering on her nephews and niece at their BMX races. We caught one of the last weeks of nice, summery weather, meaning we could spend most of our time outside. As always, spending time with family leaves us feeling rested and full of joy (and food and beer).
From Michigan, our plan was to head toward New England and spend the month of October exploring Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. But, as is the common theme of this journey, our plans changed when we were offered jobs as ropes course facilitators in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It felt like a great opportunity, so we packed up and headed south. The weeks that followed were filled with early mornings at work, late nights catching up with friends, and beautiful fall days in between. Our work felt meaningful and significant. Each day, school buses full of 5th, 6th, and 7thgraders arrived at Montreat College’s Team and Leadership Center, where we guided the students through low ropes course elements and helped them grow as a team. The job gave us the opportunity to share our excitement for the outdoors (afforded to us, in large part, by nearly a year on the road) with lots of middle school kids. Maybe the day on the ropes course will stick with them, maybe it won’t; but at the very least, we walked away knowing that a few young people care a little more about the outdoors and have a bit more empathy and trust for their friends and peers.
The month of November was a bit of a blur. Our continued time in the Asheville area was filled with mountain biking and hiking. We started to drive north to visit good friends in Rhode Island, but winter weather, among other things, spoiled our plans. We made it as far as Virginia, where we spent most of our time exploring Roanoke and the surrounding area. We quickly learned that Roanoke has a great mountain biking/outdoor scene; it’s a place we could potentially see ourselves living sometime in the future. We returned to Asheville for Thanksgiving with family, a tradition I’ve grown to love over the past few years.
After Thanksgiving, we traveled seven hours east to Beaufort, a small town on the southern coast of North Carolina. Thanks to a good idea and some great connections, we secured jobs making Crab Pot Christmas Trees in a tiny community nearby. Folks who aren’t from Eastern NC have probably never heard of a crab pot tree, so let me explain: picture a crap pot/cage (the wire box used to catch crabs underwater) cut into the shape of a Christmas tree and wrapped in lights. Ta-da! A beautiful, nautical decoration for houses, yards, and docks. I thought they were a North Carolina thing, but I quickly learned that millions (!) of people across the United States own crab pot Christmas trees. For eight-ish hours each day, we followed a pattern to attach lights to tree after tree after tree. The job involved constantly twisting thick wire, so we wore duct tape on our fingers to protect our skin. By the end of our tenure we could each make about four trees per hour, a number we felt pretty proud of. What a strange, wonderful job!
And now, all of a sudden, it’s the end of December. I’m not writing from my seat in the van anymore; this time I’m on the couch in my parents’ living room, dogs snoring beside me, per usual, and a warm fireplace ablaze in front of me. CBS Sunday Morning is on the TV in the background, and I’m half listening as they recap events of 2018. I’m looking back, too, on a year of travel, adventure, and growth. A year of dreams being realized and new ideas being hatched. A year of love and joy.
We will ring in 2019 beside the ocean, then point the van west again toward the red canyons and sprawling desert landscapes of the Southwest. As always, thank you for following along. We hope you’ll stay tuned for tales of adventures to come!