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.

A Beginner’s Guide to Car-Camping

Earlier this week, I received an e-mail from a reader who had some questions about camping in a car. I’m not talking decked-out Sprinter van camping; I’m talking about the nitty gritty, sleeping in your sedan car-camping. For most of us van-dwellers and seasoned road-trippers, car-camping is how it all began.

A shot of the Jeep from my 2010 road trip adventure.My first big adventure was a nearly month-long journey in the summer of 2010 – traveling from Florida to Utah in a cramped two-door Jeep with three of my male climbing buddies. To call it an adventure would be an understatement. It was one of the dirtiest, haphazard, ill-planned journeys I have ever embarked on – and it also sparked a lifetime of road travel (and began the adventure-driven purpose of this blog).

Here are my top four car-camping tips learned from that trip:

  1. Less is more. Whether you’re traveling alone, or with friends, you’ll quickly discover that less is more. When packing for any road trip adventure, try to minimize from the get-go. After my first car-camping road trip, I came home and realized that I hadn’t worn half of the clothes I brought, or even touched most of the gear and food I packed. Downsize, downsize, downsize. Trust me, you’ll savor those extra few inches of space.
  2. Do some pre-trip planning. During this inaugural road trip, I basically just jumped in the car and let the boys take the lead – another mistake. We spent almost an entire month on the road, yet climbed for less than five days total. Why? Because we didn’t plan ahead. We traveled out to Arkansas to climb at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, but didn’t realize that the summertime renders this crag a nightmare of overgrown vegetation and intolerable swarms of insects. We were totally unprepared, and it took a big toll on our trip’s overall success.
  3. You can (usually) sleep in National Forests for free! The majority of our nights were spent sleeping in National Forests, which we learned are for the taking for overnight stays. For bonus karma points, explore the area around you when you wake up, and do some litter pick-up to show some appreciation for your free nights stay.
  4. Beware the wind in Kansas. Seriously, beware the wind. We had a giant canvas storage container strapped to the top of the Jeep, and during a stretch of particularly nasty gusts, the wind tore the canvas apart – and we lost nearly everything that was inside. I escaped the situation missing only my sleeping pad, but our buddy Jeff lost all of his clothes and camping gear. Major bummer. (You can read more about it in this post.)

The second road trip I embarked on was a five-week coast-to-coast excursion in the summer of 2011 with Niko – a post-graduation celebration spent exploring climbing areas, meeting new lifelong friends, and living out of my parent’s Honda Pilot (which they claim still has a faint residual odor of dirtbag, oops).

Niko sets up a makeshift kitchen atop a rock during our 2011 car-camping adventure.

Here’s what I learned during that life-changing trip:

  1. Wal-Marts are a lifesaver for late-night pit stops. If you haven’t already, check out my guide to car-camping at Wal-Mart. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Organization is key. Living out of a small space requires diligent organization to maintain your sanity. I am a huge fan of plastic tub containers, in varying sizes. I have two smaller containers for gear/random stuff, and one of those standard large ones where I keep all my cooking supplies/food. I prefer the clear containers so you can always see where things are inside without having to dig around.
  3. Crack a window. While sleeping in your car, you may feel slightly uneasy about the idea of leaving your window open – but trust me, you need some fresh air. Otherwise, you’ll fog up your interior and wake up in a pool of humid, sweaty misery. I’m paranoid, and always make sure my windows are closed enough that a wrist wouldn’t be able to fit inside.
  4. Crash pads make excellent beds. If you’re a climber, this should be a no-brainer. Crash pads aren’t just for bouldering – they make fantastic beds. My Stonelick pad fits perfectly into the hatchback of my old Scion tC, and it created the ultimate little nest. Otherwise, sleeping pads or other mats will add some comfort to sleeping in your car.
  5. Always keep extra plastic bags handy. Frequent trips to Wal-Marts during trips inevitably leaves you with a supply of seemingly useless plastic bags – but don’t toss those horrible pollutants into the trash just yet!  They make fantastic mini-trash bags, serve as makeshift gloves for scooping leftover mash potatoes out of your pot (and, you know, picking up poop and the like).

Perhaps my most powerful car-camping experience was the seven-week solo trip I took in autumn of 2011. I learned a lifetime’s worth of car-camping techniques and wisdom, and had nothing but positive interactions with fellow travelers and adventurers during my one-woman trek from Florida to North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado, and the south.

Here’s what I discovered during my 6,657 mile solo trip:

  1. Always keep your keys within reach while sleeping in your car. Let’s face it, sleeping in your car leaves you slightly exposed, and there’s no way around that. No matter where you are, or how safe you feel, it’s always a good idea to keep your keys within reach. Don’t ever leave them in the ignition, and it’s smart if you can keep them tucked somewhere out of sight from anyone who might be peeking in your windows.
  2. Similarly, when rearranging your gear to make room in your car for sleeping, always try to keep the driver’s area clear in case you need to make a quick getaway. Especially when traveling in a smaller car, you may find that you need to rearrange your supplies to make proper room for a sleeping area. My rule of thumb is to always keep the driver’s area clear in the event that I need to jump into action and drive away quickly.
  3. Hoarding napkins is always a good idea. This goes hand-in-hand with the plastic bag idea. Inevitable visits to fast food restaurants will leave you with a mound of un-used napkins, and tucking them into that cubby on the side of your door will arm you with an arsenal of clean-up supplies. Blowing your nose, cleaning up spills, wiping down cookware, you name it.
  4. Rest stops are not as scary as you think. This is one stigma that I quickly overcame while road tripping. Do not fear pulling off at an interstate rest stop to snag a few hours of sleep – everyone else there is doing the same thing as you. Major gas stations like Loves and Flying J’s also welcome weary travelers to spend the night in their parking lots, and I’ve never had a bad experience snoozing at any of those places. Be confident, be aware, and you’ll be a-okay.

One of the most joyous occasions of my life, finally seeing the mountains as I passed through the flatlands for one last time before settling in Denver.Additional advice includes concepts like spending one hour a week to clean out and re-organize your car, make sure all your registration and tags are always up to date, keep a real map handy for those times when your GPS fails you, and always follow your urges to pull off at random places along your adventure.

Once I depart on a yearlong adventure of living out of a car, I’m sure I’ll collect a novel’s worth of advice for car-camping, but until then, heed this advice and feel free to add your own tips and tricks in the comments section – and if you have any additional questions about car-camping, feel free to leave comments or shoot me an e-mail directly at katieboue (at) gmail (dot) com!

Two weeks to travel across the country! – A road trip planning Q&A

As much as I love to share the stories of my adventures, my best satisfaction comes from hearing about my reader’s own excursions into the outdoors. When reader Jordan Blair e-mailed me with a few questions to help him prepare for his upcoming road trip from Virginia to California, I thought answering his inquiries would make for a great post to help others plan their own trips.

Check out this road trip Q&A, and let me know if there’s anything I missed! Jordan is heading out in a few days, and is open to pretty much anything along the way – so leave him a few comments with your favorite destinations, eateries, and travel advice! He’s planning a stop in Salt Lake City, but other than that has a very open two-week agenda.

[Read more…]

A Guide to Car-Camping – in Walmart Parking Lots

As any experienced road tripper, climber, or long-term traveler can attest, one of the biggest issues with life on the road is finding a place to rest every night. Between tight budgets, uncertain routes, and evenings spent driving at ungodly hours, there is often a need to find a makeshift place to catch a few hours of sleep.

One of the tried and true traditions of my climbing trips and cross-country excursions is the practice of spending a night (or two) in a Walmart parking lot. I was extremely reluctant and nervous my first time, during which I hardly achieved a few moments of rest. However, after nothing but positive experiences, the sight of a glowing Walmart sign on the side of a highway has become a welcoming landmark.

While Walmart founder Sam Walton has allegedly been quoted in feeling strongly that all travelers should reverie his stores as a destination for safe rest and refuge, there has been a lot of debate surrounding the practice of overnight camping in the parking lots. While I have never been approached during my brief stays, I have heard plenty of stories of people being asked to leave, or told they couldn’t stay.

So, should you spend the night in a Walmart parking lot? I’d say sure, but first, educate yourself on the do’s and don’ts of overnighting at one of these fine American institutions (ha).

What You Should Do:

Depending on your attitude, calling ahead to inquire about a specific location’s overnight policies is the safest course of action. However, if you’ve pulled into a random store in the middle of the night, desperate for sleep – you will likely be fine. Always be discrete. While large campers and RVs are sitting ducks in the parking lot pond, sedans and smaller vehicles have the advantage of blending in fairly well.

A few crucial elements of discretion include parking away from store entrances where shoppers should have priority, keeping your ‘space’ clean, and leaving as early as possible in the morning. Additionally, you should make an effort to give patronage to the place that is giving you a safe place to sleep – buy something. If you just grab a protein shake and cheese stick in the morning, fine. Need to stock up on some camping supplies? Even better – you’ll make the entire car-camping community look good.

Just because Walmarts are generally a secure place to stop for the night doesn’t mean that every location stands equal when it comes to safety. Always be aware of the surrounding neighborhood – a sketchy area equates to a sketchy Walmart parking lot. Be smart. Always keep your keys within reach. I prefer to keep the driver’s seat open and easy accessible, in case there is a need to make a quick getaway.

What You Shouldn’t Do:

*Note: Niko wasn’t actually in a Walmart parking lot in this photo, no worries.

Basically, don’t be that guy. If you roll up to a Walmart at 11 PM, pop open the hatchback, and set up a few chairs around your parking spot while throwing back a few beers – don’t be surprised when you get the boot. Anyone traveling in a non-car rig is should never set-up camp in any conspicuous manner. If security or management approaches you, don’t be disrespectful. It is a privilege to have access to staying overnight, and travelers must remain understanding that some locations have had bad experiences with long-term or disruptive ‘campers.’

Don’t leave a mess. You should be practicing this in all aspects of your adventures, but littering free accommodations is especially offensive. Nothing leaves a bad taste in a manager’s mouth than rude overnighters.

Despite the usually relaxed overnight regulations at most locations, there are some stores that are actively against travelers shacking up in their parking lots. Check out this listing of Walmarts that do not allow overnight stays.

Niko says: “I’ve been crashing in Walmart parking lots ever since I was able to drive — it’s a “simple comfort” for dirtbags. On long nights, you know that just down the road there’s a parking lot where you can grab some munchies, clean up in the 24-hour bathrooms, and shut your eyes for a couple hours. I always crack a window in my car to get some fresh air, and like to stop in the store to grab breakfast before heading out – think of the cost of your milk and cereal as a camping fee.”

If you aren’t bothered by the unavoidable florescent lighting and likelihood of waking up in a sea of cars from Walmart’s morning floods of blue collar customers, pulling into one of their many parking lots provides a great venue for catching some rest before embarking on your next day of adventuring.

Have you ever spent the night in a Walmart parking lot?
Got good any experiences to share? Any bad experiences?
Sound off in the comments and contribute to the conversation!

 

Top 5 (mostly free) iPhone apps for on-the-go adventurers and climbers

As much as I enjoy disconnecting from reality while I’m out exploring the world, I must admit that my iPhone is the one travel accessory I wouldn’t dare leave home without – and my favorite apps help make my technological tool the ultimate source for information and connectivity while I’m out on the road.

Whether you’re an adventurer out on a road trip through the midwest, or a climber looking to explore a new crag in the southeast, these five (mostly free) apps will offer essential assistance during your escapades.

1. Weather Channel

From weekly forecasts and current conditions to weather advisories and interactive radar maps, the Weather Channel app is an absolute must, for everyone. Weekend warriors and perpetual nomads alike will benefit from keeping tabs on weather conditions, and I personally adore this app as a way to plan which days of the week will be best for outdoor adventures. The app allows you to store bookmark locations, and a glance at mine lists every climbing spot from Steele, Alabama to Yosemite National Park. It offers temptation forecasts of sunshine beckon you to camp a few extra days, and provides foresight when a storm is on the way.

During one particular climbing trip to Rocktown, I checked the next day’s forecast and saw that a torrential downpour and lightning storm was on the way. Since my small hatchback was hardly able to reach the mountain summit with good weather, I decided to head down the mountain before the storm, and slept in a nearby Walmart parking lot that night. I awoke to some truly wicked weather, and was grateful I had spared myself the agony of sliding down rain-slicked switchbacks.

This app is free!

2. Mountain Project

Here’s where the ‘mostly free’ part of this list comes into play. Mountain Project is the ultimate source for climbing information and community access, and after struggling with my disdain for purchasing iPhone apps, I finally caved and made the investment. A mere $4.99 annual subscription fee gives you access to an enormous database of climbing information. You download ‘crags’ (I have Boulder and Evergreen/Morrison currently installed on my device), which allows you to access route directions, beta tips, photos, and more – without needing wi-fi or any signal.

I tried to survive by just opening the MountainProject.com site on my phone’s internet browser, which quickly revealed itself as a waste when I trekked deep into the woods, lost reception, and lost my ability to access the site. Climbers, I highly recommend making the small investment – plus, the money goes to help a great organization.

Click here for more information about the Mountain Project app, which will soon be available on Android devices!

This app costs $4.99 per year.

3. Yelp

I used to be an Urbanspoon kind of gal, but after wasting too much road trip time scouring for places to eat, fumbling to update the maps to my current location, and driving miles out of the way to a restaurants that were no longer in business, I’ve switched my loyalty and now rely on Yelp for all my edible needs. This app makes finding new eateries extra fun with a ‘check-in’ feature, and you can instantly provide feedback for other users. Plus, this app doesn’t cater exclusively to the restaurant industry; you can find cheap hotels, gear shops, great local parks, and more.

I really enjoy the little map feature on Yelp profile pages that shows all my reviews across the nation. It’s a fun way to keep track of all the tasty places I’ve sampled during my cross-country trips. Check out my Yelp page at http://boue.yelp.com for a better taste of all the foodie fun to be had.

This app is free!

4. Cheap Gas

This is a recent discovery, that I wish I had made sooner. Dishing out the cheapest nearby gas stations, this budget-friendly app is key for any road trip. I remember hitting California and seeing $5.00+ per gallon at some stations, then traveling a bit further and hitting places that lingered around the high $3.00 range. Cheap Gas links up with GasBuddy.com to provide station information, and will help you save a buck by directing you to the most affordable places to refuel. A 30 cent price difference may not seem major on a gallon-to-gallon basis, but when you’re spending hundreds of dollars on long road trips, the change really adds up.

This app is free!

5. Free Wi-Fi

During my month-long solo trip in September, I decided not to take any time off from my job as a copywriter for LivingSocial – despite my camping, climbing, middle-of-no-where plans. I ultimately didn’t miss a single deadline, largely thanks to the Free Wi-Fi app. I sampled a few other internet-finding apps before settling on this one, which solely directs you to nearby establishments that provide wireless access for free. Dishing out extra funds to log online simply wasn’t in my budget, so this app made it easy for me to find free ways to get my deadlines tackled.

Word to the wise: not even the most sophisticated app can help you find Wi-Fi in the middle of Kansas. Address your internet needs before hitting those long stretches of nothingness – there is nothing more stressful than racing to a McDonald’s 90 miles away when you’ve only got 45 minutes to meet a deadline.

This app is free!

(Bonus) 6. Compass

Okay, so maybe this is really a Top 6, but the Compass app had to be included. Handy in a myriad of situations, this app was downloaded to my phone during my recent climbing excursions at Three Sisters Park in Evergreen, CO. The aforementioned Mountain Project app provided me with excellent directions to find boulders, but my internal compass is rubbish. This simple little app provides you with a sundial-type interface, which asks you to place your finger in the center, then rotate your phone until your finger lines up with the compass shadow – then voila, you know which way is north. Admittedly, this app doesn’t get used too often, but having it on my phone is imperative when I really need it.

This app is free!

So there you have it, a little peek into the iPhone apps that keep my adventures on track. Since most of them are free, there is really no excuse to find yourself caught without them. These apps will help steer you clear of lurking storms, keep your belly full of tasty eats, guide you towards your next great climb, provide you with access to the interwebs, and keep the directionally-challenged on track.