Climbing & Creatures – a Photographic Look at Red River Gorge in Kentucky

Marking our official return to the southeast after eight months of exploring the crags of the west, our three weeks spent at Red River Gorge in Kentucky easily surpassed any expectations I had. Niko and I have climbed there before, but we’ve never found ourselves so fully immersed in the community, culture, and climbing found at this humid gorge. I was ready for the incredible overhanging climbs littered with jugs and sandstone features, but I wasn’t quite prepared to find myself growing to love a family of climbers who call Miguel’s Pizza shop (and dirtbag campground) home.

Leaving here was a bit harder than I expected, and saying goodbye to all the pups and people was a bit heartbreaking. The folks we connected with at The Red are so full of love and instantly welcomed us into the community. Niko already has plans to come back in November – so we won’t be missing Red River Gorge for too long.

Because words can’t really describe the past three weeks spent climbing and living at Red River Gorge, I’ll let the photos do the talking. (Spoiler alert: In true Katie fashion, I picked up a lot of creatures, and naturally took their portraits.) Enjoy:

Projecting the classic climb Hippocrite (5.12a) at The Zoo in Red River Gorge.Taking a fall on the classic climb Hippocrite (5.12a) at The Zoo in Red River Gorge.View from the top of Pistol Ridge in Indian Creek at Red River Gorge.Rocks.Steven Jeffery on Scar Tissue (5.12a) at The Zoo in Red River Gorge.King Rat Snake at Red River Gorge.Camp life and pumpkin spice lattes at Red River Gorge.One of my favorite routes of all time, Plate Tectonics in Muir Valley at Red River Gorge.This little toad was a stowaway in our rope bag at Muir Valley in Red River Gorge.Niko's project at the Mother Lode crag in Red River Gorge, Stained.
Yeah, something tells me it won’t be too long before we make our return to Red River Gorge.

Home, Sweet Home: A Return to the Southeast at Red River Gorge

Home, Sweet Home: A Return to the Southeast at Red River GorgeRight now, I’m sitting outside to write, and the air in my lungs is so thick I could drink it. Everything smells like wet grass, and the scenery surrounding my picnic table consists of rolling hills carpeted with trees, old wooden crates stacked with empty Ale-8 bottles, and folks milling about while saying things like “thank you ma’am,” and “pleased to meet ya.” For dinner, we’re cooking black eyed peas and collard greens – and all of this can only mean one thing:

I’m back home – in the southeast.

We drove 20+ hours from Colorado to get to Kentucky, and every moment since our arrival at Red River Gorge has been a whirlwind of me thinking “man, I am so happy to be back in the south.” Climbers here always say hello at the crag (unheard of in Colorado, yeah, I’m calling you out on that), people speak with slow drawls at the grocery store, and I can finally ask for corn nuggets at a restaurant without getting funny looks.  To say I am content would be an understatement – I am elated, overjoyed, impossibly satisfied with where I am at this very moment.

The Red River Gorge is a particularly special place for climbers. We were torn between here and Tennessee as our official “return to the south” destinations, but I’m glad we chose Kentucky. This picnic table I’m writing from is situated under a pavilion at Miguel’s – a legendary pizza and camping spot where climbers from around the world gather. In the parking lot, there are cars from Oregon, California, Tennessee, New York, Washington, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Florida.

When I haven’t been inhaling fat slices of Miguel’s pizza or chasing pups around the campground, I’ve been reintroducing myself to the stone that sparked my love for climbing: southern sandstone. Oh how I missed these exquisitely exposed chunks of pristinely composed sediment, all spritely colored and begging to be gripped. Even when I’m on the verge of tears trying to will my body to move up to the next bolt, my love for this sandstone is unwavering. Southern sandstone is just the best damn rock in the world.

Niko crushing Scar Tissue (5.12a) at The Zoo in Red River Gorge, Kentucky.We’ve spent the past few days revisiting familiar crags and climbing new lines with old friends. My first climb of the trip was at the wall in Muir Valley where I first climbed at Red River Gorge a few years ago – it truly felt like a homecoming. The last time I was attached to a rope on that wall, I was trembling, shaking, hysterically crying on my first big-girl lead climb (I still flashed the route, which almost makes the scene even more shameful). This time, I pulled on the holds with confidence, I clipped the bolts with ease, and not a single tear was shed. It felt good.

As usual, Niko has been crushing and his psyche is sky-high as he climbs old projects and explores new lines. It was great to watch him work Scar Tissue (5.12a) and relive the memories of our last trip out here in May 2012.

Niko and I have been saying the same thing for the past seven months since we left the southeast, and now that we’re back after touring the country, it rings as loudly as ever: We belong in the southeast, and there is nowhere else we’d rather be. 

The Big Yellow Van has a Plan: We’re Heading to Kentucky Today!

After a month in Colorado’s tri-city area, Niko and I are elated to depart from the mountains of the west in favor of our most beloved part of the country: the southeast. But honestly, we had no solid plans about where exactly in the southeast we were heading – which occurred to us last night while we were trying to figure out a driving plan for the next few days. Oops!

But now we have a plan: We’re heading to Red River Gorge in Kentucky!Climbing one of my favorite routes at Red River Gorge, Plate Tectonics (5.10a).

We’ve got about 20 hours of driving ahead of us, but by Friday evening we’ll be in one of the most beautiful gorges I have ever seen, stuffing our faces with pizza from Miguel’s, climbing aesthetic sandstone lines all day, trying not to pee on copperheads, and drinking a LOT of Ale-8. I can’t wait to get back to the southeast, and The Red is a perfect spot to begin our homecoming tour.

Also on the agenda: our first Cracker Barrel stop since we left the southeast seven months ago. We’ve been hoarding gift cards waiting for the right moment to feast on chicken ‘n dumplins and savory breakfast platters – and the time is now! What better way to celebrate our return to the southeast than with a comfort meal, rocking chairs, and good ‘ole southern hospitality?

I cannot wait to get back to the southeast. These next few months are going to be full of climbing on sandstone (my favorite!), stuffing my face with corn nuggets, reuniting with old friends, and soaking up all the southern scenery. I hear it’s still blazing hot down there, but fall is on the way – and there is no better place to watch the leaves change than in the rolling hills of the south!

So, what does this mean for the blog? Well, Red River Gorge is a notorious pit of bad cell service and spotty wi-fi, so I might not have any updates until Monday. Keep an eye on my Instagram and Twitter for more frequent updates whenever I get into a decent service zone. Cheers!

My Not-So-Secret Secrets to a Healthy and Energized Adventurous Lifestyle

Not-so-secret Secrets to a Healthy and Energized Adventurous LifestyleA year on the road has taught me valuable lessons about the web of relationships connecting food, energy, my body, and the outdoors. When you spend as much time adventuring outdoors as I do, you really start to pay attention to your body’s needs – from hydration and staying energized to refueling after playing outside.

We don’t live by any diets or nutrition fads; our lifestyle revolves around making the healthy choices because it makes us feel good, and enjoying treats in moderation when we want. We believe in supporting local farmers, cooking most of our own meals, and focusing on energizing food that will help us in our pursuit towards living active lives.

One of my favorite experiences during my yearlong road trip has been visiting farmers markets from the desert in Joshua Tree to the breezy streets of Squamish in Canada. Whenever Niko and I have access to a farmers market, we stock up on locally grown produce like sweet corn, green beans, massive heads of cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and everything in between. Filling our fridge and fruit bowl with fresh, whole food makes it easy to make healthy decisions for meals and snacking.

It’s all about what you offer yourself: If my shelves are full of Cheez-Its and pudding cups, I’m totally going to fill my belly with that – but if my options are apples, granola bars, and carrot sticks, I can’t go wrong when choosing snacks!

While Niko and I try to put as many whole foods in our diet as possible, our on-the-go lifestyle simply makes it impossible to do everything yourself. When we add “processed” products into our groceries list, we prefer to know we’re eating food that lives up to our standards of healthy eating.

One of the easiest ways to feel good about my grocery choices is to simply make sure to read the label. There are a few key things to look for and avoid when trying to weed out unhealthy packaged food:

  • Read the ingredients list. If you can’t pronounce it, or recognize what it is, consider that a major red flag.
  • Lots of mystery chemical food colorings? No thanks. Some of the worst offenders include red #40, yellow #5, and blue #2.
  • Evaluate the two S’s: Sodium and Sugar.
    • You know I’m all about moderation, and refuse to live my life by restricting my diet to number counts, but even I can’t deny that foods wit excessive amounts of sodium and/or sugar shouldn’t be everyday staples.
  • If you’re on a budget like I am, and considering going for the “cheaper brand,” compare ingredients lists with pricier options. Sometimes, the junk they put in the less expensive brand just isn’t worth a 60¢ savings.

So what do we seek in packaged foods? We’re all about products that have a short ingredients list – which indicates it’s all food and no filler. Because ingredients are ordered by prominence, try to choose packaged food where ingredients like syrup and sugar are lower on the list than the good stuff.  Example: Nature Valley’s Roasted Nut Crunch granola bars.

Nature Valley Roasted Nut Crunch granola bars.Here’s the ingredients list: “Almonds, Roasted Peanuts, Sunflower Seeds, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Salt, Cashew Flour, Sesame Seed.” [Read more…]

The Ugly Truth About Long-Term Travel – The Grass Really is Always Greener on the Other Side

When people find out that I’ve been living in a big yellow van, traveling the country to climb for seven months with my handsome boyfriend, they always have the same reaction: “Wow, your life is perfect. I wish I could do that so bad, *insert grumbling comment about how much it sucks to have a job and a house*

My response? “The grass is ALWAYS greener on the other side, trust me.”

Niko sits proudly atop our new yellow home.Don’t get me wrong: I’m living the dream.

I get to wake up (most days) surrounded by thickets of trees, powdery red dirt, hauntingly steep canyons, commanding collections of the country’s finest boulders, and more fresh air than my lungs can possibly ingest. Those days, when I’m climbing all afternoon, cooking hot meals at camp, and snuggling up in my sleeping bag in the confines of my van are absolutely the best.

But life on the road isn’t all carefree camping and successful sends – even though that’s what most folks see and would like to believe. Most folks don’t think about the moments of long-term travel when your van won’t start in the middle of nowhere; those moments where most of your loved ones are cozied up in an air-conditioned house, and you’re sweating in your sleep at a crowded interstate truck stop.

How about the times when you realize you don’t have enough money left to do anything other than put gas in your tank and cheap food in your belly? Or when it’s raining for three days straight, but you have nowhere to go but sit in your van? Or worse, when you get sick? Have you ever been sick in a van? It ain’t pretty. Picture all the misery of food poisoning, all the fluids being spilled from all ends of your body, and you’re just curled up in a hot van. (It happened to me in Vegas, it sucked. A lot.)

Every single moment of my adventure across America has blessed me with life lessons and unforgettable experiences that will continue to shape me for the rest of my life, but I just have to set the record straight: this is NOT some sort of romantic journey full of sunshine and forest fantasy. This is still real life, and sometimes, it sucks.

Sometimes, you just want things like a house where you can spend the whole day loafing on a couch, a kitchen to bake cupcakes in, a shower whenever you crave one, and a desk to get some damn work done with a steady internet connection. Some days I find myself longing for the comforts of a steady lifestyle, a paycheck, and a properly sized closet (My boot collection takes up about half of my van storage, it’s out of control).

But then again, after a few weeks of house-sitting and staying at friends’ houses in Colorado – I’m itching to get away from all the concrete, away from the succubus of the internet, and away from this damn couch I can’t will myself to get off of. I’m sick of sitting inside all day, I long for hours of endless driving through farm land, and I am so over the stagnant routine of just being ‘around’.

And you know why? Because the grass is ALWAYS greener…

So keep adventuring, keep enjoying life as you have it, and for heaven’s sake, don’t complain to dirtbags about how horrible your air-conditioned, financially-secure life is. Adventure is always out there, so make it your own. And if you really want to “live the dream” like me, quit your job already! Just remember what I warned you about when you’re broke, dirty, and longing for a couch.

/endrant

Van Life Update | Happy 7 Month Van-aversary (and hello, autumn)!

Today marks another milestone: it’s our seven month van-aversary – and it’s September, double whammy. I can’t believe we’ve been on the road for this long, or that summer is finally on its way out. We’ve spent the last three weeks in the Denver area, but we’ll be back on the road soon, and cannot wait!

After the rather unfortunate blown-tire and snapped brake line situation a few weeks ago, Niko and I hit the rock bottom of our trip. We were very much out of funds, and our adventurous spirits had taken a bit of a hit. There were a few “well, I guess we’re going home” moments, but things quickly turned around.

Tals and I taking a stroll around Lake Standley in Colorado.Niko has been working in Boulder delivering organic mattresses (yes, seriously, people will pay a lot of money for an organic bed), while I’ve picked up a few freelance writing gigs to help us balance out all the van repairs and prepare for life back on the road. This was all perfectly timed with a week of housesitting for my dear friend Heather while she was out packrafting in Alaska. Every morning, Niko heads off to work, and I spend my day writing and exploring a nearby lake with Heather’s adorable pup, Tals.

It’s been relaxing to slow down in Colorado for a few weeks, but as Niko’s last week of work winds down, I have started to constantly daydream about the rest of our trip – and you all have been asking a lot of questions.

So where are we headed next? What are final five months of our yearlong adventure going to look like?

The southeastern United States.Well, it’s all still a bit up in the air. What we do know is this: We’re leaving Colorado by the 10th, and then we’re headed in one definitive general direction: the southeast – aka, home.

The major destinations thus far include Red River Gorge in Kentucky, visiting our potential new home in Carrboro, North Carolina, and making the rounds at our favorite climbing spots in Tennessee and Georgia. We’ll also be revisiting the home state: Florida. I want to spend the holidays with my family in Miami, and we can’t wait to return to Tallahassee to relive the glory days at Tally Rock Gym.

As the adventure winds down, these next few months are going to start moving a bit more slowly, and we’ll begin to slowly transition from life on the road to “normal” life. I’ve heard so much from fellow long-term travelers about the struggles of ending your trip and settling down, so I want to make sure we take our time and do it right. The first half of our trip was all about seeing new places, meeting new people, climbing new routes, and discovering what we want from life. Now, the trip is a return to the familiar: back to the southeast where we’ll tackle unfinished projects, reunite with friends and family, and stuff our face with good ‘ole southern comfort food.

I’m excited to bring you all along for the ride as always! Cheers to another five months of adventure, exploration, and discovery. I’ve got a lot of great content coming up on the blog, including a comprehensive climbing shoe guide and a few posts about moving towards a healthy outdoor lifestyle. 

Van Life Update | an encounter with rock bottom & a busted brake line

Many of you already know that on Monday evening, Niko had a brush with danger when one of our van tires ripped apart while he was driving back to Denver from Boulder. The tread on the tire tore off, wrapped itself around our rear axel, and snapped a brake line. Fortunately, Niko was able to keep control of the van and I met him on the side of I-25 to call AAA for help.The van.

Unfortunately, we’ve already used up all our AAA free services this year with our van shenanigans in Washington. We got towed back into town, dropped the van off at a service shop, and hung out heads low while we walked back to our friend’s house with thepainful realization that the repair bill for the van was probably going to signal the end of our yearlong trip.

It wasn’t looking good.

The adventure van, out of commission (again).

We’re here in Denver to work for a few weeks to replenish the adventure fund, which is admittedly running dangerously low. Our tire popped because we needed to replace all of them, but we had been struggling to figure out how to afford it – and now, we had no choice but to buy new tires for our safety (a blessing in disguise, we really needed new tires). When the mechanic called to give me the final bill on all the repairs our van needed, my heart sank – this was it, we were going to have to retreat home and abandon our goal of a yearlong trip living in our beloved van.

Niko made the trek back to Boulder for another long day of delivering organic mattresses, and I sulked around for the morning, contemplating how to break the news to all of you that we had failed you. Folks, that really sucked.

My buddy insisted on taking me out for lunch and a beer, so I walked down to the neighborhood burger joint and attempted to lift my spirits. And then it happened. I got three back-to-back emails with fantastic writing opportunities, with brands I love, serendipitously providing me with the money we needed to carry on. I teared up when I read them, then broke into a ridiculous smile and held up my beer, interrupting my friends’ conversation to toast them both.

In one instant, everything turned around.

The yearlong mission to travel and climb across the country lives on. We still need to reevaluate our itinerary given our downsized budget, but hell, we don’t have to go back to Florida! We’ll be in Colorado for another two weeks, house-sitting and working – but we are already itching to get back on the road and wake up in the woods.

Always have faith in your adventures,
following your dreams will always steer you in the right direction.

Happy six month van-aversary to us!

Our van, our home for an entire year of adventure.On February 1, 2013, I set out in my newly acquired big, yellow Sprinter van in pursuit of spending an entire year traveling around the country while climbing with my co-pilot in adventure (and life) Niko. Looking back through the scribbled pages of my daily planner, it’s hard to believe it’s already been six months since we first hit the road. Whoa.

Here are some fun facts about our journey thus far:

  • We’ve visited 9 National Parks, from the wandering through prickly cactus forest at Saguaro National Park in Arizona to backpacking in a rainforest at Olympic National Park in Washington.
  • I have taken 31 showers in 180 days.
  • More than 80 days have been spent climbing. (not enough, if you ask us!)
  • Our van has traveled to 15 states, and up to Canada – I’ve been to an additional 4 states via air travel.
  • Niko and I still like waking up next to each other every morning.

A lot has changed over the course of half a year, including our car battery and a new EGR valve. We’ve learned so many lessons about living on the road. I learned how to embrace the idea of being wholly disconnected from social media (seriously, that was tough), Niko learned how to trad climb – and climbed to his first big peak in Yosemite, I chopped off all my hair in the name of adventure, and we’ve grown to love a new family of climbers whom we’ve journeyed with from Joe’s Valley to Squamish.

For me, this has been an incredible journey of personal growth and that whole “finding yourself” thing. I have never adored climbing so much, and started training for the Triple Crown Bouldering Series event at Hound Ears in October. I’ve also become endlessly inspired by my experiences – my mind is constantly bursting with story ideas, future book titles, entrepreneurial concepts, and big plans for the future. I’ll admit, I’ve had a few moments where I’ve wanted to stop moving so I could start focusing on all my ambitions, but I’m learning how to balance the thrill of adventure and career goals.

And to think, we’re only halfway through. Or is it halfway over? Either way, we still have what feels like an eternity of travel ahead of us, and we are especially excited for the next leg of the trip. We traveled as far west as roads would take us, crossed the border up into Canada, and are now finally headed back east. We’re in Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer show, we’ll head to Denver to see my sister for a week, then it’s up and around the northern midwest before finally making our return to our beloved southeastern crags.

We owe so much gratitude to everyone who has helped, supported, befriended, and loved us along the way. Some folks, like Vikki and Spenser from The RV Project, the Joe’s Valley family, our Squamish crew, and everyone who invited us into their homes across the country deserve an extra heap of love – our trip would not have been possible without you (and we’d never have been convinced to go to Squamish). Moreover, I can’t believe that I have a family who is so supportive and proud of a gal who decided that living in a van for a year was a great idea, and it always puts a smile on my face when friends tell me they’re inspired by my adventures. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I keep trying to think of a way to properly express my thanks to everyone who has supported us during the trip, keep coming up empty handed – there is no tangible thing that can compare to what the adventure community has given us. I’ll tell you this, the “acknowledgements” page in my first book is going to be very, very long.

Cheers to another six months of adventure! 

Backpacking the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park

Here’s a little secret: I am not a backpacker. I have little to no experience backpacking, and my only overnight hiking trip was the Columbia Sportswear sponsored Omniten trip to Havasu Falls where all my water, food, and camping supplies was hiked in for me, cooked for me, and hiked back out for me.

I believe the term for backpackers like me is “total noob.”

The start of the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park.Niko has had his sights set on the Olympic Peninsula since the beginning of our trip, and his goal was to do a 3-day hiking trip from the forest to the coast. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any trails that accomplished that, but we got a great consolation prize with the Hoh River Trail. The trail leads up to Mt. Olympus, while winding through meadows, lush rainforest terrain, riverside beaches, and everything in between.

We were joined for the hike by our buddy Mcgoo, who had been traveling with us for a few weeks starting in San Francisco. Our little crew of three was absolutely scrambling to prepare, unsure of what we would be facing, and planned to camp with two people sleeping in a one-man tent, and another up in a hammock. Folks, this should be an indication to you that things are about to get interesting.

The trek began on a rainy morning, but only after we got stuck with a dead car battery on the side of the road we were boondocked on – the first shenanigan of many. We finally arrived at the trail head, filled up our hydration packs, and set off down the paved portion of the Hoh River Trail.

By the time the pavement turned into muddy mush, I was already exhausted. I have a perpetual issue with packs: my body is simply too tiny to ever properly hold a pack. The straps don’t get tight enough, so I spent the entire hike carrying the weight of my pack on my shoulders. A mile in, and I was ready for a break.A much needed rest area along the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park.

We splashed along the soaked path past a small waterfall, over countless wooden bridges, and beyond the point where most tourists make it. As the day drew on, I quickly realized that there was no way I’d be able to carry myself up the 4,000 foot elevation gain and relentless switchbacks planned for the second day’s hiking. This was going to get ugly.

I carried on (did I have any other choice?) up 10 miles of deep mud pits that led us through some of the most incredible forest scenery I’ve ever witnessed. We paused to pet banana slugs, argued about appropriate times to take breaks, refreshed our hot skin with splashes of river water, and clapped our way through the thickets in hopes of scaring off any lurking bears. It was one of the most arduous experiences, but every sluggish step was worth it.Mcgoo and I on the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park.Misty hiking along the Hoh River Trail.

Our final resting spot was Lewis Meadows, where we set up camp for the evening after meeting a Canadian couple who was planning to summit Mt. Olympus the next day. Soaked from the rain, caked with mud, and aching from swollen feet, we gladly ate an uncooked dinner and promptly passed out. But the day wasn’t over.

Our camp set up at Lewis Meadows on the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park.At some point long after the sun had set, I awoke to Niko rustling from his hammock. Smooshed next to Mcgoo in our too-tiny tent, I peered up from my sleeping bag to see Niko poking his head into the tent.

“I’m really scared, guys. I farted in my hammock, and realized that I basically smell like a giant sausage hanging from the trees. What if I wake up to a bear nudging me from under the hammock? I’m coming in the tent.”

I laughed, because this idea of fright was so foreign to me. I was too sore to worry about getting mauled by a bear, but apparently I was alone in that sentiment. Mcgoo quickly chimed in:

“Dude, I have been trembling in my sleeping bag for hours. I’ve literally been praying for that we just make it to the morning.” – A pretty strong statement from a devout atheist.

At this point, my laughter became uncontrollable. Maybe it was the exhaustion, but I’ve never giggled harder. I couldn’t stop laughing as Niko crammed himself into the tent and the boys squashed me between their terror-filled bodies. Two grown men feared for their lives while my damsel self felt no distress. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

The next morning, I “awoke” after an evening of little rest. With no sleeping pad, and forced into a tiny space with two large men, my body lay sideways the entire night, perched on a tender hip and half-asleep shoulder. I was miserable.

I could hardly contain my excitement when the group agreed that a combination of really wet socks and hiking boots plus a strong desire not to spend another cramped night in bear country meant we’d ought to ditch our plan to continue onwards and just head back to the trailhead. Frankly, I wouldn’t have made it much farther. Hiking with a full pack is immensely more difficult than I was prepared for.Niko and I trucking over a log bridge on the way out from our Hoh River Trail hike.

Despite being sore beyond description, the hike back out was far more enjoyable and manageable than the path into Lewis Meadows. About halfway through, we decided to split up and finish the hike solo. Niko ended up getting back to the van an entire hour before me, and Mcgoo held up the rear arriving back at the trailhead about 40 minutes after I did. Traveling at our own pace was a fantastic decision that allowed us to each focus on our own journey rather than focusing on speeding up or slowing down to maintain the pack.

Hiking by my lonesome allowed me to do something I hadn’t on the way in: slow down and look around. I’m always the slowest hiker on a trail, so I spend most of my time trying to catch up. Forging the path alone let me pause for moments like meeting a bushy fox as he sauntered over logs, getting startled by a herd of elk just off the trail, and washing my face with icy spring water. It was peaceful, invigorating, and reflective.One of many beautiful views enjoyed along the Hoh River Trail in the Olympic National Park.

In the end, we traveled about 21 miles over the course less than 30 hours. A laughable journey for many ambitious backpackers, but for me it was a triumph: I had survived my first overnight backcountry adventure with Niko – and I was ready for another. I definitely have a lot to learn about backpacking, but I’m excited to continue the journey.

5 lessons learned from 5 months of traveling across America

Whoa, it’s July already – when did this happen? Sitting in a coffee shop overlooking the water in Seattle, Washington, it’s hard to believe that just a few months ago I was living in Tallahassee, Florida about to begin the crazy journey of living in my big yellow van for all of 2013 while traveling across America.

Best fortune cookie ever: "Your life is like a kaleidoscope."Yesterday marked the 5-month milestone of my van-dwelling adventure with Niko, and in that time I’ve learned an incredible amount of wisdom about life on the road, the condition of the American spirit, and the unbridled glory of the great outdoors. I could (and eventally will) fill an entire book with every bit of knowledge I’ve gained during this journey, but today, in honor of the five-month mark, I’ll share five of the most impactful things I’ve learned during the Simply Adventure trip thus far:

1. People are always inclined towards kindness.
Something that has really stuck with me during my travels is the fact that from ranger stations in national parks to crowded truck stop parking lots along the interstate, everyone we’ve encountered on this trip has been a good person. There was just a single instance in which we happened upon someone “bad,” but that individual was clearly on drugs – so I’ll call it a mulligan.

Folks just genuinely want to spread kindness. We’ve been welcomed into acquaintances homes, dinner parties have been thrown in our honor, lumberjacks have stopped on forest service roads to give the van a jumpstart, and the climbing community has been a constant source of new friendships, shared campfire meals, and invitations for adventure. If you approach people with a kind spirit, that kindness will nearly always be returned.

2. Small towns beat big cities, any day.
Almost every single day, Niko and I reaffirm something we’ve realized during our travels across the country: we belong back in the southeast, and we belong in a small town.

During stints of exploration that keep us in rural areas, we constantly find ourselves falling in love with little farm communities, shy mountain towns, and the hospitable charm that blankets them. The vibes are calm, air is breathable, there’s no traffic, and you can nearly always pick up fresh food from a local farmer. My kind of living.

Then we inevitably hit a big city, and are instantly overwhelmed. It’s like hitting an enormous wall: everything and everyone is so urgent, impatient, and anxious. It’s infectious too; I find myself constantly feeling rushed and uneasy when I’m in a big city. Where’s the enjoyment in life? And more importantly, where are all the cows and farms? I may have been raised in bustling Miami, but I am definitely a converted small town kinda gal.

3. Make-up is overrated, but feeling feminine is not.
Since the first day of our trip, my make-up bag has sat lonely in a drawer, only unleashed once in a blue moon (like when I flew to NYC for a wedding). I brought it along with the intention of continuing to wear make-up in an attempt to hold onto any shred of ladylikeness I could muster while living like a dirtbag – but I quickly realized I don’t need it. A sun-kissed complexion is easily the best “make-up” I’ve ever worn. Plus, going cosmetics-free has really helped keep my skin clear. I hardly have to wash my face anymore!

That said, maintaining my femininity has been a continual process that I’ve realized is essential to my personal wellbeing while living on the road. After a rut of sweatpants and unkempt hair, I found that while looks aren’t everything, it’s important to feel good about yourself. So I chopped my unmanageable hair into a cute crop, had my mother send me some skirts and sundresses from home, and started making an effort to make sure I felt pretty every day – even if I’m just sitting in a small town doing laundry. Focus on what makes you feel beautiful, even if you haven’t showered in a week.

4. You should always, always have a real map handy.
Yes, GPS technology is great – and yes, I use it on a daily basis to steer me towards that cheap taco joint recommended on Yelp – but when you’re spending quality time in the no-service zone, you can’t rely on your iPhone to get you where you need to go. Having a paper map is essential for the true road-tripper.

In addition to helping me find the nearest national forest area to camp in when Google Maps can’t get connected, my wrinkled old atlas is my favorite way to keep track of my journey. Every time we venture to a new place, I highlight our route – it’s inspiring to watch the map fill up with yellowed lines zigzagging across the country.

5. Travel is the ultimate method of testing a relationship.
If you’re dating someone, and are curious about whether it’s the “real deal,” you ought to do some extended traveling with that person. Sure, you’re compatible when it comes to picking movies for date-night, but how will your relationship fare when it’s 2:00 in the morning and you have no place to sleep? What about when your vehicle won’t start in the middle of the woods, and the nearest cell service went caput at least 10 miles back down the road?

Niko and I are far from perfect, and have plenty of learning still to do, but living together in a van for five months has solidified our relationship through rigorous tests, shared victories, and learning to simultaneous experience the adventure as individuals and as a couple. It’s a process, but I’ve never been so confident in a relationship. If we can handle this trip, we can handle anything.Niko and I (and our tape gloves) while climbing at Indian Creek in Utah.

It’s incredible to reflect upon my adventure thus far; to see how many miles I’ve traveled, the places I’ve seen, the food I’ve feasted on, and the people who helped shape it all. A series of unfortunate van repairs may have put the longevity of the Simply Adventure trip in jeopardy, but we continue onwards in our pursuit of living our ultimate dream of exploring the entire country. We’ve traveled from Florida to California, throughout the Midwest, and now up the Pacific Coast in search of meaningful encounters with the outdoors – and America has delivered. I look forward to whatever this beautiful continent has to throw our way as we drive deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountains, prairies, swamps, and seasides.

Thank you all for reading the stories, supporting the adventure, keeping my spirits high when I’m feeling low, and offering advice that has helped us along our path. Without you, I wouldn’t be doing this. This isn’t just my journey, it’s an experience to be shared – and I am forever indebted to those who have hopped aboard to join me for the ride.