Solitude in the Elkhorn and Wallowa Mountains

Coming off two weeks working on my parents property right before the 2020 election drama, I craved time alone in nature. En route to home, I swung through the Wallowa and Elkhorn Mountain ranges for some true solitude. Below is a photo essay from my time there.

The summary:

  • No phone signal for days.
  • Two total other people encountered on the trail. My favorite was the ebullient Pastor Dave, who “moved to the area 17 years and 75 pounds ago, found hiking, and have been to all 76 lakes in the Wallowas!”
  • Lots of time on foot and pedaling in the mountains.

A big shout out to Chelsea for graciously supporting my extra time away. It made me appreciate her even more and brought to mind this Rainer Maria Rilke quote:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.

Photos from the Elkhorn and Wallowa Mountains!

A clearing storm on the Palouse en route to the Wallowas. It made me think of the potential in the election…
Taking in the Matterhorn view on Hurricane Creek Trail in the Wallowas. No wonder they call them The Little Alps! (Also, props to apps with 30 second camera timers…see how relaxed I look? Didn’t even have to sprint.)
The sign read “Bridge Out,” but clearly it was fine.
Firing larches and a perfect fall day on the S. Fork of the Imnaha.
Rather than destroying the van on a rough fire road, I opted to bike in. The snow/ice had other ideas. I’ll be back, Bonny Lake!
Strange bedfellows on this trip: my keyboard, a bronze sculpture by my dad that I picked up at a foundry, and a maple 4×4 that we’re going to grow mushrooms on! All less cuddly than Chelsea, but they don’t toss and turn at night…
‘Tis the season for magic larch colors! The air was adrift with floating golden needles.
Sunset on the stunning Elkhorn Crest Trail on Oregon’s highest singletrack trail! Looking west, you see this…
And looking east, you see the desert near Baker City.
van camping wallowas
The U.S. ain’t perfect by any stretch, but I sure love the huge swaths of public land for recreating and van camping with a view!
larch needles mtb
Fallen larch needles.
Dutch Flat mtb trail
Tired but alive at the top of Dutch Flat trail in the Elkhorns. This trail is incredible, a combo of views, gold larches, and grin-inducing rocks, speed and… anyway. #mountainbikedorkalert
piano keyboard van
Sing us a sooooong, in the piano van! (Thanks to my friend Eric for getting THAT ditty stuck in my head for a week.)
elkhorn crest mtb
Sunset on the sublime Elkhorn Crest trail. Deep in the zone in my happy place.

And that’s a wrap! Sing us a song la da deee da da… Ciao for now, folks.

Leading a route Hells Canyon rock climbing

A Rock Climbing Van Trip to Hells Canyon

Leading a route Hells Canyon rock climbing

Sometimes I visit a new destination carrying expectations. For rock climbing in Hells Canyon? Nope!

I van tripped there on a passable rumor from a guy (who knew a guy) claiming the existence of hundreds of bolted climbing routes. The interwebs proved less helpful: “There is no guidebook – hike up and climb stuff.”


SURELY there is a route somewhere around here. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)

Heading Into the Canyon

For the uninitiated, Hells Canyon forms the border between NE Oregon and Idaho. The Snake River separates the two states and cuts the deepest canyon in the states. Steep trails head uphill from the many pullouts along the road.

The road from Baker City heads east, cell signal weakening. Around Oxbow, a tiny town on the border, no signal is the name of the game. Put that phone on airplane mode and enjoy the serenity.

Pulling into the campground with my compadre Sean, right across from the routes!

Do campgrounds get any better than this? Right on the river, quiet, with a magic tree. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)

Miles back on the east side of the Snake River is the Alison Creek pullout. From the parking lot, a half dozen hulking limestone formations loom just a short (steep) hike away, most stacked with bolted sport routes.

Every climbing area has its own ethics. In Hells Canyon, the local route developers keep new projects under wraps and suppress any guidebook or online route guide development. Having climbed frequently at the zoo that is Smith Rock, I appreciate their perspective! Hey, they’re nice enough to bolt the routes, so I’m not going to complain.

Sean scoping out routes at the base of the Flatiron.

The canyon lies in national forest with prime free camping next to the river. We chose a perfect spot shaded by arching cottonwoods that framed views of the water and our climbing destination. Not gonna lie, the pull to hang in a camp chair and read a book was stronnng.

All Alone in Hells Canyon

Somehow, we rallied. Hiking in to climb on day one, we met a couple from my hometown (shout out to Moscow, ID!). They told us two things: 1) an irritated rattlesnake lay poised just upstream and 2) “The route on the left side of that wall is an 11c; the ones to the right are harder.” No dummy, I sent Sean ahead in his long pants and hung back yelling “HEY SNAKEY SNAKEY,” a variation of my ultra-effective bear repellent song (heyyy bear!).

Those vague tips were the only beta we received in three days. In fact, those were the only other people we saw the entire time. Hells Canyon is a remote, untrammeled area of the world, and I bet it stays that way. With few amenities, no guidebook, and GASP no possibility of posting Instagram Stories while there, it won’t turn it into a Yosemite Falls gridlock, don’t worry.

Heading down to the vans for a well-earned dinner!

Steep approaches Hells Canyon

Some steep, entertaining approaches to routes in the canyon.

This isn’t a climbing blog, so I won’t bore you with tales of glory and the excellent fun. (A small victory, I did onsight the aforementioned 5.11c.) Beyond the climbing, my favorite aspect of Hells Canyon was the remoteness and discovery aspect. Every route offered panoramic views of the canyon.

After two days of shredding our fingertips on sharp limestone, we opted for a rest day trail run. Sweaty uphill work brought us to a ridge traverse through wildflowers, a rollicking jaunt with sweeping views of the canyon. The route finding and downed trees stayed right in line with the rowdy spirit of the canyon.

We cleaned up with a dip in the brace-yourself cold river, then ate lunch sitting by the side of the river. (Mega burritos for the win). The serenity, lack of cell service, and excellent options for adventure made it hard to peel away so fast, but it was time to point the vans south to meet some buddies. Onward to the City of Rocks!

Cruising along a ridge traverse 3000′ above the river (after some hard work getting up there!) (Photo: Sean Jacklin)

Nomnomnom. Final lunch in the perfect campsite before hitting the road.

All the Logistics:

  • Hells Canyon is hot (as hell) in the summer. Spring and fall is the best time to go, with fall better because the wet limestone can seep water in the spring, especially on the steeper routes.
  • Pack plenty of water and food for your trip because the campsites are no-frills-just-an-outhouse style. Last stop for food is the town of Oxbow at the bridge crossing from Oregon into Idaho. Copperfield Campground is a big, well-appointed one (we opted for free, remote camping up-canyon).
  • There’s an RV water fill a few miles up canyon from Oxbow. (Lowest water pressure ever, but it’s free!)
  • There is zero cell service in the canyon. You’ll lose it before Oxbow. Enjoy the silence!
  • To find the climbing, use the Mountain Projects app and find Hells Canyon, then use the “get directions” feature. It’ll take you right to the trailhead. (Or just go to this Google pin.) Any of the pullouts from there bring you to fantastic river camping spots.
  • If you want amenities close to the climbing, Hells Canyon campground is about 5 miles south of Alison Creek and has water, electric hookups and freshly mowed grass to roll on.
  • For the 10-mile trail run up Alison Creek, here’s my route on Strava.

SO much undeveloped rock in the canyon. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)

The Climbing:

  • The rock is featured limestone and the routes we climbed were vertical to overhanging. Not a ton of steep caves, but routes are steep enough that you are working – this isn’t slab climbing.
  • Onsighting is tough because there aren’t any tick marks on the holds. Search and destroy!
  • The orange rock is loose/sketchy; the best rock is blue in color with pockets and water runnels.
  • Rumor has it there are multi-pitch climbs up the 400-600′ walls, but as newbies to the area, we didn’t attempt to find any.
  • There are reportedly hundreds of routes to climb. We did maybe a dozen of them. If you can find someone who has climbed there before, listen to them!
  • Since routes aren’t marked and there is no guidebook, you never know what you’re getting into. Bolts are close together and you can basically aid the routes, but I recommend feeling solid leading 5.11s outside if you’re making the long drive out here. At the very least, bring a bail biner with you.
  • The routes are long! Bring a 70m rope and lots of quickdraws; many of the routes are 17 draws. That said, the bolting is closely-spaced (WOOT) and you can skip a bolt or two or downclimb to grab one a draw on many of the routes if you are running low.
  • My favorite routes were on the crag high on the left drainage (30 min steep hike uphill from Alison Creek TH). Apparently it’s called the Flatiron. Otherwise, we just jumped on interesting-looking routes all over the canyon.

Hells Canyon rock climbing view

Til next time…

Downshifting from Van Life

I’ve aimed to write this post for over eight months. (All photos in this post are from that time frame too!) It’s for anyone dreaming of traveling long-term, and also for those living that dream wondering, “Will we do this forever?” *** As long-time readers know, Chelsea and I launched our van trip in fall 2013 for a four-month jaunt down the coast of California. “FOUR MONTHS IS SO LONG!” our friends opined. “Don’t forget Oliver,” said Chelsea’s parents as we dropped our fuzzy companion off for cat-sitting. Little did we (and my unsuspecting in-laws) know we’d live the van life for three years, not four months.

Backpacking with Chelsea’s parents in the Jefferson Wilderness last July.

The Magic of Full-Time Travel

The excitement of travel pulled like a large planet’s gravity. We easily fell into an orbit that took us to 18 countries by van, bike, and plane. I freed up time and mental space by hiring more people for my business, extracting myself from day-to-day client work. It was a scary leap with a real chance of disintegrating into a broken heap. (At least we had the van!) Things worked out.

Patrick rappelling off a route at Smith Rock.

So we traveled. It was relaxing, simple in many ways (open calendar, every day!), creatively inspiring, a sabbatical from many of the responsibilities of “adult” existence. I dove into photography and writing and built this blog. My random musings somehow attracted a million visitors and allowed us to meet many adventurous people who eschew the (typical) American Dream. Many readers are in our shoes, professionals tired of living someone else’s narrative of “success.” They’re flipping the bird at the 9-to-5 and proverbial picket fence and heading out to find open space where the wind sings through trees or roars over the desert landscape.

I met Rich and Esther at a trailhead in 2016. “Hey, I know your van!” Here’s Rich a year later zipping down Xanadu, a sweeeet trail with sweeter views near Leavenworth, WA.

We chewed up mountain bike trails, then 7,000 miles of roads while cycle touring the U.S. and Europe. New York and Santa Cruz each distracted us for a month, as did studying Spanish in Mexico, roadtripping Iceland, and volunteering at a farm sanctuary. Our travels also strongly focused on people. We spent quality time with our families and developed friendships all over the globe. I regularly stay in touch with buddies from our travels and see them around the states. By the way, dig these kinds of posts? Sign up for the free Traipsing About newsletter!

Making a snowman with my nephew, Sam. He then crushed me at a snowball fight.

 On the Road…Forever?

At one point, Chelsea asked me, “I wonder if we’ll always be nomads?” At the time, the answer felt like a resounding yes. And yet, like any frequent activity, the shiny luster faded from full-time travel. What started as a sort of sabbatical turned into a repetitive daily orbit of logistics. Traveling went from stimulating immersion in new places to shallow dips into too many places, voyeurism without involvement. Even a few multi-week stays and volunteering felt too short.

Paul dives into Waldo Lake on a chilly October day. Yes, that water is as cold as it looks.

We missed community and tired of constantly saying goodbye. We met adventurous and stoked people, but interactions were short-lived. Was it possible to create a traveling caravan of friends who rolled around together, we wondered…? Instead, we dug deep in a short time period with people, talking life, traveling, unconventional choices. Then travel inertia – gotta keep moving! – or common courtesy to not overstay our welcome would grab hold. We’d exchange hugs, talk about plans to meet in the future, and point our wheels toward the distant horizon.

Enjoying the views off NW chair with my buddy Robert on Mt. Bachelor. That’s Sparks Lake and South Sister in the distance.

The Travel Pull

When I questioned why I wanted to keep traveling, I unearthed four primary reasons: 1) Daily access to the outdoors 2) Momentum (we’re moving and therefore must keep moving) 3) Positive reinforcement feeding my ego (people saying “wow, I’ve always wanted to do that!” or “you’re living the dream!”) 4) That we COULD travel full-time, so we should (right?). Not if it no longer fed what we sought to do or how we wanted to grow. Of those four aspects, only daily outdoor access made sense anymore. Chelsea felt this earlier than I did and was ready to land in one place.

There’s a metaphor here about hanging onto something…

I’ve seen this shift in dozens of travelers. Friends with big social media followings or a popular blog often hit a point where another new place didn’t ring their bell anymore. Posting online starts to feel forced, a job rather than a joy. Their social media profiles blinked out, blog posts shifted to every few weeks, then quarterly, then gone. I was no exception.

A magic, strenuous day on Angel’s Staircase in the N. Cascades.

Figuring out where to park the van was the hard part. When we’d return to Portland for visits, I felt trapped by the big city. The combination of gray days and no quick access to nature dragged on me. I was depressed and irritable, frustrated with concrete and traffic. During our travels, we eyed mountain towns in the west as potential places to pop out landing gear and stick around for awhile. Santa Cruz, Boulder, San Luis Obispo, Bozeman. There was always a reason a place didn’t feel right. Enter Bend, Oregon, the seat of Lifestyle Awesomeness. We’d visited the surrounding area a fair amount, but never dug into the city. After traveling Iceland and Canada in 2016, we rolled the van into Bend to rent a friend’s place and see how things shook out.

Sunset at Old Mill on the Deschutes River in Bend.

How It Feels to Be In One Place

Over a year later, our new homebase is Bend! We sold our Portland home and bought a house in Bend in a quirky, connected neighborhood. People don’t randomly wind up in Bend. Most work hard and create the opportunity to live here. We’ve discovered new friends are available and prioritize investing in friendship and family, time outside, health, travel and giving back to the community. We’re loving the strong community of active, positive, engaged friends and the easily accessible outdoor magic.

Cookbook club! Get a bunch of friends together and cook amazing food from one vegan cookbook per month. It’s that easy!

Thanks to prioritizing access to and preservation of public lands, Bend is an outdoor playground with miles of singletrack for mountain biking and running, skiing on Mt. Bachelor and world-class rock climbing at Smith Rock. If there’s a downside to the town, it’s minor growing pains as it goes from small to medium size. Sometimes there’s a 3 min wait at a roundabout! (NOOOO.) What makes Bend resonate for us isn’t solely the outdoor wonderland. For a mountain town, there’s a lot going on. Music, coffee shops, kombucha makers and breweries galore (not that I drink beer!), unlimited festivals in the summer, all the running and biking events you’d ever want, and a growing business hub are just a sampler. The open space we created for traveling shifted easily to other arenas. A natural organizer, Chelsea spearheaded things. She joined the board of a local vegan nonprofit, started a plant-powered running group and cookbook club, and filled our calendars with marches, fundraisers, and political events. In a year, we’re more involved in Bend than we ever were in Portland.

Plant-Powered Runners! This crew is awesome.

Rallying friends at our house for the Jan 2018 Women’s March in Bend.

On top of that, I’m finding myself more active in Bend. This is thanks to the strong outdoors scene and access to everything I love to do so close to our door. I spent 2017 in a mix of physical activity (perhaps too much!), joining events with Chelsea, and investing energy into my business. This year, I’m aiming for less work and more creative time and travel, plus weekly Plant-Powered Runners outings, big dinner parties, and community events. I’m surprised how easily time traveling is filled with other satisfying pursuits.

How can you not get outside with this 30 minutes away?

So What’s the Plan, Yo?

This city is a stellar fit for us and we’ve decided Bend is our home for the foreseeable future. We’re rooting, but we will still step off into sweet adventures. “Are you selling the van!?” people have asked. No. Freaking. Way. Too many climbing areas the van needs to visit! I also need it to scope out the trails around Crested Butte, c’mon! A trip to Wyoming and Idaho is already slated for May.

My shredder friend Jeremy launching off Trail #3 at Cline Butte with the Cascades in the background.

We’re kicking around an idea for another bike tour; the idea of long climbing trips to Greece, Spain, or Mexico makes me salivate. These travel boots aren’t even close to done walking! This is a shift to a lifestyle we talked about for the past few years. We’ll dig deep into community and still water the seeds of travel when we feel the itch. By spending months in Bend mixed with trips near and far, we’ll polish both sides of the travel and home coin.

A snowy Crater Lake during a week-long mountain biking van trip to Southern Oregon.

Van Life as a Mindset

The social media tag #vanlife represents freedom from a staid, boring existence. There’s a reason Millennials are flocking to it. We’re repeating the paths of anti-establishment parents back in the 1960s. This time around, though, people can work remotely, freelancing from Yosemite, writing software code from Moab, or editing science papers in a ski resort parking lot. Even if Chelsea and I aren’t traveling in a van full-time, #vanlife carries into the way we live. For me, it’s a mentality as much as a way of life, encompassing adventure, minimalism, and an open-minded, flexible approach to travel. It’s an examined, intentional approach.

About to examine the downhill on Fuji Mountain near Waldo Lake!

This is a new phase, and not the last. I expect continuing shifts filled with moments for play and exploring, time for growth and building, space to give back, and occasionally the chance to do it all. There’s no playbook for this version of the American Dream, just an evolving patchwork quilt called life. A stitch here and there adding new experiences, a rearranging of the patterns as needed. It’s about the adventure of living a balanced, exciting life of play, community and contribution. Full-time travel no longer lit us up, so it was time for a shift. We all need to weave together pleasure, purpose, and pride. Done correctly, it creates a strong rope to hoist away toward a happy, satisfied life. That’s our aim in this next stage. The ever-evolving book of our lives continues. The Bend chapter continues with rip-roaring satisfaction and fun. Instead of “going places to be moved,” as Pico Iyer describes travel, we’ve landed and sunk both feet in deep, toes gripping, arms wide. It feels great.

We’re still having fun!

*** Have you traveled long-term and felt the pull to land somewhere? I’d love to hear how you handled the shift from full-time travel to a rooted existence.

How to Travel Iceland in a Camper Van

Camper van Iceland night shot

There are many ways to explore Iceland. You can rent a car, bicycle tour, hitchhike, or take the public bus. My hands-down vote, however, is to travel Iceland in a camper van.

As part of a month-long trip in summer 2016, we spent 2.5 weeks exploring the perimeter of the island via van. We followed a counterclockwise loop, nipping off the Ring Road to check out quiet roads whenever possible.

Even in July, the crescendo of tourist season, our camper van created access to areas we otherwise would have skipped. As a way to streamline your travel experience, bask in the brilliant nature of Iceland, and still travel in relative comfort, it’s the way to go! (If you’re worried about finding bathrooms and showers, read on below.)

This post is aimed at helping anyone looking to rent a camper van in Iceland. Whether this is your first time traveling by van or you’re experienced like me and Chelsea, you’ll land ready to rumble.

Go Camper rental iceland

Benefits of Traveling Via Camper Van

We are not fans of planning an entire trip. It always leads to having to pass up fun opportunities. While it’s necessary to plan ahead to book a vehicle, a camper van creates an otherwise free-flowing schedule. The cheapest way to tour Iceland is to hitchhike and tent camp along the way, but we are no longer tough enough for such things.

Compared to renting a car and staying in hotel, you’ll save money by renting a van. On top of that, a van also allows you to carry lots of food so you can eat when you are hungry. Given that eating out usually costs at least $25/person, this can potentially save a boatload of money.

Beyond that, you’ll be able to linger in beautiful areas. The flexibility of not needing to stick to polite business hours for arriving at a hotel or a host’s home opens up hours of watching perfect sunsets or hiking late into the day.

Lunch time! Stop when the view is good and eat.

Lunch time! Stop when the view is good and eat.

How to Choose Your Van

We’re experienced van travelers and know what makes for a comfortable vehicle. Unfortunately, most camper options were booked because we decided to head out with little notice. (High season – July and August – requires planning ahead by at least a few months, it seems.)

After contacting six different companies, we rented a simple camper van from the friendly folks at Go Campers. (Kuku Campers and Happy Campers are other solid options, from what I saw.) Their prices were competitive and customer service was great. I also like that their vans also have a small, simple logo instead of a bright, flashy designs on the side.

Wildflowers firing away at a camp spot somewhere seeeecret.

Wildflowers firing away at a camp spot somewhere seeeecret.

From what I saw pricing various companies, a basic camper costs about $100/day in the low season. Add ~25% for high season. (For comparison, a rental car is somewhere around $60-$100/day in high season.) Mid-range campers start closer to $200 and feature amenities like a heater, sink, fridge, and live-in chef (if you ask nicely). We would have gone with a fancier camper, but they were all booked up.

If you aren’t comfortable driving a manual transmission, make sure to let your rental company know! From what I saw, many of campers are manuals, but there are also automatic options that cost a bit more.

Lastly, let’s talk insurance. All companies will try to sell it to you. If you don’t have coverage, be warned that there is gravel on ALL roads (paved or not) and you may come back with a few chips. When the pavement runs out, you’ll be warned with the sign Malbik Endar. (It translates as “Norse God of Potholes Attacked Here.”)

Open roads in the east fjords.

Open roads…

How to Not Smell Like a Dirty Dirtbagger (aka Staying Clean)

Let’s get this out of the way: Stop worrying about finding frequent showers or toilets (WC, as they say here). It is easy to find a shower and bathroom in almost every town. That said, there are no rest stops, but gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores all have easy-access bathrooms. Worse-case, in the more remote areas you may need to scurry off the road to find a nice sheltering rock…

One option for staying clean is to jump in a frozen fjord. PFFFFT. Go with one of the signature elements of Iceland: Geothermically-heated pools in almost any town, no matter the population. For ~$5, you get access to a shower and the soaking pools, not to mention the occasional sauna and gym facilities. Our favorites: overlooking the ocean at Hofsós in the north, a great fjord view in Patreksfjordur, and the seaside ones in Drangsnes.

I mentioned this in my previous post and will restate it: before jumping in the pool, you MUST take a real shower. (Don’t worry, showers aren’t co-ed, and some places even have private stalls.) Take off your swimsuit, scrub your dirty parts per the handy instructional diagrams, and then put your suit back on. Nudity in the pools is not a thing here, so don’t plan on airing your junk for all to see unless you want to be the seriously weird foreigner. (And probably get kicked out.)

A perfect black sand beach in southern Iceland.

Sorry, no pool pics. How about a black sand beach instead?

How Much Time Is Needed For My Trip and Where Should I Go?

If you’re cruising the 870 mile Ring Road, 10 days seems to be the accepted won’t-crush-your-spirit-and-go-home-exhausted trip duration. Clockwise or counterclockwise – who cares? Since it’s a circle, I vote for choosing where the weather is best and heading that way.

We tend to travel slower than many people. Our goal for this trip was less than 2-3 hours each day driving. In 2.5 weeks, we were able to visit almost every area of the island without feeling rushed.

If you want the quiet solitude and scenery of many of the pictures in this post, head to the eastern or western fjords. (The western were our favorites.) Lots of wild camping, fewer people (less than 20% of tourists in Iceland go to the west fjords), and stunning scenery. As soon as you get off the Ring Road, you’ll see less traffic and tour buses. Always a positive in my opinion!

A perfect beach camp spot in the north near Husavik.

A perfect beach camp spot in the north near Husavik.

Where to Sleep

There are well-signed campgrounds everywhere in Iceland, often right in town. Any map will show you where they are. Most feature cooking, shower, and laundry facilities, plus water refill opportunities. They cost about $10/person.

Until recently, the Swedish idea of Allmansrätten was the law of the land. (Camp anywhere for one night.) Since July 1, 2016, this is no longer legal in Iceland, and it’s probably a good thing with tourism BOOMING. If you want to camp on someone’s property, you need to find the landowner and ask them. I vote for just staying in campgrounds. (To be clear, we wild camped all but three nights and found out about the new law only upon returning our camper. Ooooops.)

Breath-mint hay bales in a freshly mowed field in the east fjords.

Don’t camp on private land without asking! We simply admired these newly-wrapped hay bales in a freshly mowed field in the east fjords.

Staying Connected

Iceland’s affordable internet and cellphone access beats the pants off Europe and North America. Since I work remotely while we travel, staying connected is a priority. It is SO easy here. Even if you are on vacation and checked out of work, it could come in handy to access directions, find things to do/see, check business hours and locations, research an interesting topic or just make a phone call.

There is fast, reliable cell coverage almost everywhere in Iceland. It’s also super cheap. Using my unlocked iPhone, I simply picked up a Nova SIM card at the duty-free store at the airport and added data to it. For $40, I got 50 GB of data (1/12 the cost of data in the U.S.).

Since you’ll likely have a number of items that require charging (headlamp, phone, camera, computer, etc), I recommend bringing some kind of rechargeable battery pack with multiple USB ports on it like this one. Then you can plug that into the inverter while you drive and charge multiple items.

Plugged into my hotspot checking on work at one of the best offices I could ask for.

Plugged into my hotspot checking on work at one of the best offices I could ask for. (Shot not staged – I wrote an offer for a new employee here!)

Pack Efficiently

It may be tempting to bring a ton of gear. “Hey, we’re car camping, and I use that inflatable couch sometimes…” Don’t do it!

In the smaller vans, depending on the design, you shuffle your gear from the rear sleeping compartment up to the front seats when you want to lay down. Pack everything in easy-to-access duffel bags or small suitcases. Thank me when you quickly find your hat before a hike instead of unpacking the entire contents of your van.

Speaking of hiking, check out the cliffs of Latrabjarg, the western-most point in Europe.

Speaking of hiking, check out the cliffs of Latrabjarg, the western-most point in Europe.

Must-Have Items

To help me sleep during always-light summer nights, a sleep mask rocked my world. Ear plugs are always helpful for camping, and a thermos for hot tea or coffee on-the-go is handy and a zero waste option.

Chelsea wished she had brought her old-school hot water bottle to keep her warm at night. Consider bringing something like this if you sleep cold and your camper van doesn’t have a heater.

Metal water bottles are great for avoiding buying bottled water, especially since you can fill up at any waterfall with delicious, cold snow-melt water. Most gas stations have fill areas too, or a restaurant will help you out. (We found Icelanders so nice and helpful.)

We always travel with a couple of reusable bags for groceries/changes of clothing/dirty laundry/etc and they were always in use. Lastly, we also travel with wet wipes, a handy hygiene improvement device. These are available at prices you’re used to for purchase at any grocery store in Iceland.

Fresh water everywhere!

Fresh water everywhere!

Bring Warm Clothing

Pack light, but keep in mind you’re at the Arctic Circle. Bring base layers, insulating layers, windbreaking layers, a puffy jacket, high-quality rain jacket, warm socks, lined hat with great ear coverage, gloves, waterproof shoes and so on. The wind in Iceland cuts hard and you are almost guaranteed to do some exploring in the rain. We’ve also had a fair number of beautiful sunny days, to be clear. A 20 degree F sleeping bag will likely work, though Chelsea has had a few cold nights despite sleeping in all her layers in our heaterless camper.

I want to emphasize that waterproof shoes are key. I brought running shoes as well, but my feet were often a bit damp if I wore them on a hike through mossy or grassy areas. Even if it’s not actually raining, the trails are likely mushy or lined with wet foilage.

Chelsea bundled up in a random giant chair by the side of the road.

Chelsea bundled up in a random giant chair by the side of the road.

Check Van Supplies Before Leaving

You may feel the urge to floor it out of town in a jetlagged haze the second you get your camper keys. Resist that urge and go through the van’s kitchen and camp equipment to make sure you have everything you’ll need.

Knife? Cutting board? Lids for the pots? Scrub brush for dishes? Water jug? Inverter to charge your gear? Camp chairs? Make sure you leave with everything you were expecting. We hit the road with a van that was missing a knife and ended up having to buy one along the way.

Also, know how to access your spare tire. (Every car manual shows you how.) We picked up a shard of gravel and wound up with a flat in the middle of nowhere. It was an easy change for me, but if you aren’t comfortable changing a tire, you might want to prep yourself in advance. Goodyear and Firestone have stores in the bigger cities and fixed our flat for about $20.

We TOTALLY mistimed ski season.

Don’t forget your ski gear. We TOTALLY mistimed ski season…

Food Food Food!

Iceland may toe the Arctic Circle, but people here don’t just eat dried fish. Grocery stores are well-stocked and easy to find, at least in the big cities. Even in far-flung corners and tiny stores, we were pleasantly surprised to find some organic and vegan options.

Netto was our favorite store, but their discount brand Bonus is another good option for staples. Fruit and vegetables (many organic) are abundant, including grapes, blueberries and mangoes.

Stocking up in the tiny town of Seydisfjordur.

Stocking up in the tiny town of Seydisfjordur.

To read labels, Google Translate is fantastic. (Download the offline version before you arrive.) Since we don’t eat any animal products, we use it to translate ingredient lists. That said, we found that many labels were in English, not to mention there often was a great selection of nondairy milks and cheeses and vegan meats. (Even soy yogurt in some places.) As a bonus, a vegan lifestyle mitigated how ineffective our cooler was since plants don’t spoil very quickly.

Lastly, if you’re buying alcohol for your trip, grab it at the airport when you arrive to avoid paying the luxury tax. We don’t drink much at all (except for kombucha!), but did snag a couple bottles of liquor for friends in Reykyavik.

You'll never find a grocery store at the top of a pass... But can you spot the van?

Fill the van with food so you can hang out in places like this! Can you spot the van?

Dealing with Basics: Laundry, Ice

Laundry is offered for about $10 (wash/dry) at most campgrounds. The frequently overcast skies made it tough to dry things, so dryers were nice! Since 100% of Iceland’s power comes from renewable energy, you can feel good about supporting the local economy.

Note: Many dryers in Iceland use a water reservoir drawer at the top of the dryer instead of a plumbing drain. If you don’t empty this when you start the cycle, your clothes will NEVER dry.

Totally random, but finding ice for our cooler was surprisingly difficult at times. Big cities have bagged ice, but in smaller areas you’ll need to ask at gas stations or restaurants for them to bag some ice. Apparently people don’t travel with coolers? The grocery store Bonus consistently had it, but isn’t everywhere.

No, of COURSE this photo isn't staged. We always meditate in a sea of lupin...

We simply meditate in a sea of lupin instead of doing laundry. It’s advanced, I know.


Get After It!

Whaaaat else? Nothing at all! Rent that van, plan your trip, and have a kickass time.

If a van is in your budget and you want to maximize your flexibility for your trip to Iceland, I can’t recommend it enough. If anyone has questions, please fire away in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you out. Rented a camper van recently and have feedback? Help future travelers out by posting a comment.

*Thanks to Go Campers for partnering with us on our van rental! We appreciate it, and can’t wait to get back to Iceland for another adventure.*

I hope you're ready for sunset locations like this!

I hope you’re ready for sunset locations like this!

Smitten with Iceland

Lovely Seljalandsfoss drops 180 feet. Wildflowers are firing this time of year!

Interested in visiting Iceland? Check out my guide for traveling here in a camper van!


It would be wrong if I didn’t immediately say WOW, Iceland is beautiful! The varied terrain, stunning waterfalls, glaciers, and sweeping vistas are stomping my expectations. If there was a I Heart Iceland shirt, I’d wear it.

A week into our trip, I’m struck by how everything here reminds me of somewhere else…almost. Instead, trying to reconcile the landscapes with past experiences – “this beach is like Big Sur mixed with New Zealand!” is proving impossible. I’m failing because Iceland is so singular, a unique island planted a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.

I’m writing this at 10:30pm and the sun won’t set for an hour. It takes forever to drop six inches on the horizon – golden hour wears out my camera batteries. The sky stays so light that we don’t even need a headlamp at night. Sadly, this means the Northern Lights don’t appear, but that just gives us an excuse to come back.

The tide rolling in at midnight...

The tide rolling in at midnight.

What Are We Up To?

In a big counter-clockwise loop, we’re exploring Iceland for a month via camper van. We’re on and off the Ring Road that encircles the island, nipping off on gravel roads to explore quiet corners whenever possible. Lots of wild camping in the van, plus miles of hiking, tons of photography, soaking in hot pools, and laying in soft, thick moss beds looking at the fjords dominate our days.

Once we’re all done, I’ll write a highlights post. This one aims to capture some interesting aspects of the country, the things that pop out at us.

Rollin' Thug Life Style in our sick Go Campers van.

Rollin’ Thug Life Style in our sick Go Campers van.

A Few Observations About Iceland

In a small town in the east fjords, we saw a guy in a leotard standing on the end of a long board over icy water. While his buddies hooted, he sawed away the part under his feet. Hack hack hack SPLASH into some seriously cold water. Welcome to an Icelandic bachelor party!

I haven’t seen a police car since leaving Reykyavik a week ago. Instead, there are speed cameras. Luckily, they announce their presence via a warning sign a few miles ahead of the actual camera. No surprises here, people. Even funnier, digital speed signs beam a smiley face at us when we’re under the limit and an angry red frown when I’m gunning our zippy little camper van.

Our friend Eli has hip flexibility to die for! Here he is showing off on top of a still-hot volcano on West Man Island.

Our friend Eli has flexibility in spades! Here he is showing off on top of a still-hot volcano on West Man Island.

When I’m in a foreign country, I’ll usually lead with a greeting in the local tongue. If I’m passable at the language, I’ll stick with that. Otherwise, I ask if they speak English. Don’t even bother in Iceland! Same as the Netherlands, everyone here has better grammar than me does.

A lovely feature in even the tiniest village is a geothermally-heated hot pool. Directions require showering naked and scrubbing all the dirty spots, with diagrams dictating what to wash. (Use your imagination.) Only THEN can you head to the pool – swimsuit on, please. Oddly enough, even though the pools are outside, I have yet to see any locals wearing sunglasses.

Be warned: the weather here is variable. You may notice many of my pictures feature gray skies? It’s mid-July, but temps still skim the low 40s at night, the rain is cold, and the wind blowing off glaciers ain’t exactly a palm breeze in Tonga. Bring your warmest and most waterproof gear. Chelsea brought every item of winter clothing she owns and has her Eskimo impression nailed.

Chelsea contemplates whether hiking across a glacial moraine at midnight is a good idea.

Chelsea contemplates whether hiking across a glacial moraine is a good idea.

Dodging the Crowds

Apparently tourism to Iceland has tripled in the last six years. I won’t lie – the southern part of the country felt crowded. Get to the outskirts, though, and things calm down. As always, hike a mile past any attraction and you’re practically alone.

Our first two nights were at busy campgrounds. Since escaping outside day-trip-from-Reykyavik range, things have mellowed out. We’ve parked our Go Campers rental van in secluded spots and enjoyed peaceful, lingering sunsets with views like a nature preserve or a carpet of flowers in a mountain valley.

Misty evening over a nature preserve in the eastern fjords of Iceland. We wild camped a few feet from here.

Misty evening over a nature preserve in the eastern fjords of Iceland. We wild camped a few feet from here.

For a quiet corner, head to the eastern fjords, home to a scant 11,000 people (and ~2.6 million sheep, I’d guess). Here, it’s clear tourism is still an ungainly, friendly teenager. Compared to a surly campground owner in the south, the campsites in the too-cute fjord town of Seydisfjourd didn’t even have an attendant on site between 12-8. It even featured honor-system laundry. I only hope tourists are respectful and don’t wreck the trusting spirit.

My friend Eli, whom I met 10 years ago couchsurfing in Spain, is guiding in Iceland this summer and joined us for the first few days of our journey on his weekend. Along with a little language instruction (the town of Hofn is pronounced HUP), he also shared that Iceland is experiencing some growing pains while dealing with the onslaught of tourism.

Can you spot Chelsea crushing (as usual) on a bike? In the background is the lovely fjord town of Seydisfjour.

Can you spot Chelsea crushing (as usual) on a bike? In the background is the lovely fjord town of Seydisfjour. Definitely visit this town if you’re in the east!

As a small sliver of that, we searched for ice in Seydisfjour and the only place to get it was to have a grocery bag filled at the gas station. With so many camper vans rolling around, this is a missed opportunity for a local business. I’d wager next time we come through town, ice will be for sale.

That said, don’t worry about having cash on you. Every single merchant accepts credit cards, finding good food is simple, and travel logistics are easy. If you can travel in the U.S., you can travel in Iceland.

Chelsea takes in a beach view on the SE coast of Iceland.

Chelsea takes in a beach view on the SE coast of Iceland.

Iceland Won’t Empty Your Bank Account

Everyone will tell you Iceland is expensive. In a few areas, they’re right: car rentals, lodging, and restaurants carry a premium here. Otherwise, we’ve found prices to be quite reasonable, especially considering that mangoes and everything else come from SO FAR AWAY.

Don’t eat out unless you’re cool with $25+ entrees. (Iceland servers are paid well, so there’s no expectation of a tip.) We love the flexibility of renting a camper van, but it also makes sense since it combines lodging and transportation, not to mention takes away the need to book ahead.

Iceland, a land of contrasts... This view looks from West Man island, a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The black lava is 2 square kilometers that were added during an eruption a few years ago. New real estate!

Iceland, a land of contrasts… This view is from West Man island, a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The black lava is 2 square kilometers added during an eruption a few years ago. New real estate!

When I compared prices for nice outdoor gear, items cost the same as Patagonia or Mountain Hardwear in the U.S. A bike rental in the fjords was $12/hr, a campground is ~$10/person, organic bananas are $1.50/lb, a cup of coffee costs $4, and groceries are shockingly similar to the U.S. There are also extensive affordable vegan options available (score!), which I’ll discuss in a comprehensive post later.

Iceland also wins big with their cheap, fast, get-coverage-anywhere data plans. For 1/12th the cost of data in the US, I got a Nova SIM card at the airport that I popped into my unlocked iPhone. Are we Americans getting scammed or what?! Apparently cell phone companies back home are staffed by crooks from Enron and Lehman Brothers.

This little beauty was just hanging off to the side of the road. No signs, just anoooother waterfall *yawn* in Iceland.

This little beauty was just hanging off to the side of the road. Just another waterfall *yawn* in Iceland.

Come See For Yourself

If you follow me on Instagram, you may think I’m a paid shill for this country. Here’s a paraphrased recent photo caption: “THIS PLACE IS AWESOME. Yesterday, we woke up wild camped by a beach on the Arctic Ocean. Next was a whale watching tour, where blue and humpback whales surfaced around us. After an hour drive, we found bubbling volcanic activity and this scenic hike. We finished off soaking in a giant hot springs for a couple hours, calling it a day when it closed at midnight.”

Hiking on a volcano. Tourists do the dumbest things...

Hiking on a volcano. Tourists do the dumbest things…

Nope, Iceland isn’t paying me to be here. (Unfortunately!) I’m simply another fan after experiencing what this kickass country has to offer. Perhaps I use the word AWESOME in all-caps too much, but hey, I’m a child of the 80s.

Plus, sometimes tubular just doesn’t fit. All I know is I’m in love with this place. With almost three weeks to go, the fun is just getting started.

Oh, this move? Just a little dance that Chelsea and Eli choreographed to celebrate Iceland.

Oh, this move? Just a little dance that Chelsea and Eli choreographed to celebrate Iceland.

Favorite Upgrades to Our Sprinter Camper Van Buildout

Making new friends and meeting a bunch of blog readers at Sprinterfest in June 2016.

Hanging with folks at Sprinterfest in June 2016. It was awesome to meet a bunch of blog readers in person!

As we’ve traveled in our Sprinter van the last few years, we’ve made a list of upgrades to make. This post details recent favorites that I’ve finally had the wherewithal to complete since we landed in Portland in late April.

I considered my initial van buildout effort in 2013 a prototype design. Our goal was to use the van for a few months to nail down specifics, be it water usage or storage for my chia pet collection. After many months on the road, we loved some things – I’d sell a kidney to keep the sliding bike drawers – and other things needed improvement.

Without further ado, here are recent upgrades/additions I’d highly recommend incorporating into your camper van buildout. Happy van building, y’all.

The Upgrades

Sink and water system

The sink cranking out running water!

The sink cranking out running water!

Favorite item first! We finally leapfrogged pre-Mesopotamian civilization and officially have running water. It only took us a few years to pull the trigger…

Why didn’t we do a sink right away? Our rationale was two-fold: 1) Before investing in a water system, we wanted to see how much water we used and 2) The idea of drinking from a plastic water tank made my cancer radar ping like crazy.

For 2.5 years, we simply used four 1-gallon glass jugs as our water source. It worked fairly well, but capacity was obviously limited and doing dishes wasn’t very fun. (Ok, it sucked!)

In a burst of vanspiration, I bought all the components for a water system from the folks at Van Specialties. Then I took 17 trips to the hardware store and *presto* running water!

Water tank installed. The top line is a 3/8″ vent line through the floor; the top fill nozzle plug is a 1″ plumber test valve that expands when the wing nut is twisted. The bottom drain has a hose attachment when needed.

There are lots of full posts out there about how to install a water system, but here are the basics. If you don’t have a local camper van store, I’ve linked to the same items online.

  • Dometic folding-lid sink
  • 25 gallon freshwater tank mounted over the rear wheel well using metal plumbing strapping. Many people use jugs under the sink, but this takes up valuable storage space inside the main living area. I simply drilled three holes (fill, drain, and line to pump) and used 1/2″ fittings. Super easy!
    Note: I chose to fill the tank by opening the rear doors rather than cutting another hole in the van. It’s easy to fill with a 25′ expandable hose like this, and the fill hole is sealed with a 1.125″ “plumber test valve.”
  • 3 GPM Shurflo pump wired to 12V power with a $7.50 switch in between. A smaller pump would work fine as well!
  • Gray water is currently routed to 2.5 gallon holding jug that we empty each night. After 2 months traveling with it, there’s no stink and it’s easy to empty anywhere. Do the polite thing and don’t drain your water onto the ground through a hole in the floor.
  • Drinking water from the original 1-gallon glass jugs (just say no to buying bottled water!)

I’ll end with this: put in a sink and running water. Just do it. Stop pretending you like doing dishes squatting over a bin and join the all the fancy people with their high-tech running water.

Hot Water Propane Shower

eccotherm propane shower

Upping the hygiene game with hot showers!

As an additional upgrade, I added an Eccotemp L5 propane shower to the back door of the van. For ~$100, the inconceivable luxury of a hot shower entered our lives. (Hot showers rule! We should have hot showers at home!)

I didn’t want a hooked-up shower all of the time though. Enter quick-connect fittings. Using an array of them from Amazon, I created a system that takes 30 seconds to set up, but doesn’t leave the back of the van a mess the rest of the time.

If you already have the Eccotemp shower, a propane tank with regulator hose, and a water hose, below are all the quick connect fittings you’ll need. Enjoy those hot showers!

By the way, dig these kinds of posts? Sign up for the free 2x/month Traipsing About newsletter for van talk, outdoor adventures, and life hacks.

Cell Phone Signal Booster

The weBoost and internal/external antenna. It's about 8" square.

The weBoost and internal/external antenna. It’s about 6″x8″.

Some people are lucky enough to completely disconnect from the world while they travel. Our double-edged sword is that while we can travel long-term, I’m still working at least a little bit most days.

It sucks to watch a fading cell signal right when I need it most, and that’s where the weBoost comes into play. It’s not for everyone, but if you are working remotely and don’t want to be tethered to wifi at a coffee shop, this is what you need. I got the Drive 4G-X, but there are other models as well. They work for all cell phone networks and will also boost wifi hotsports if you use one of those. (I’ve switched to only using data from my cell phone for simplicity.)

This handy device allows us to camp in remote places where 1 bar of Edge trickles in from somewhere over a ridge. The weBoost will turn that into a few bars of 3G, enough to send emails without praying to the internet gods that your communiques are being delivered. (Ok, you caught me – I only need this so I can post fake yoga poses at sunset on Instagram.)

The install was incredibly easy and didn’t even require drilling any holes. Just a magnetic antenna on the roof and a quick wire splice to wire to 12V power. Cancer-fearing person that I am, I put our booster on a switch so that I only turn it on when I need to check in on work.

One caveat regarding its performance is that it doesn’t create cell signals out of thin air. If you’re in the bottom of some canyon where all signals are dead, you’re done.

Storage shelf above the front seats

Headliner half shelf in final installed position.

Headliner half shelf in final installed position.

If you have the high roof Sprinter like us, you’re wasting a shit ton of space. RB Components, which fabricates many high-quality aftermarket Sprinter parts, has a solution. Sure, I could build my own with hours of effort, but the need to manufacture brackets, pull out the headliner, and deal with a weird shape sounded terrible. So I bought one.

Update: These days, I would use the wayyyy cheaper kit that my buddy Sean created. For a little legwork on your part, it’ll save you hundreds of dollars on an otherwise very expensive shelf.

The shelf is awesome! Others agree. Last weekend we went to Sprinterfest, a big gathering of Sprinter owners near Portland, and the shelf was the biggest hit in our van. Do yourself a favor and buy one. We’re planning to store camera equipment, physical therapy gear (foam rollers, etc), and at least three watermelons up there.

If you want to drop some coin, RB Components has two options: a full shelf that mounts at visor level and a “half shelf” that mounts six inches higher. I opted to keep some head room and go with the half shelf.

If there’s a downside, it’s that the shelf is exactly forehead height if you’re 5’10”. Chelsea forced me to install pipe insulation on the edge to avoid knocking myself out. My forehead thanks her already.

Bike repair stand attached to van

Close up of the bike repair stand install.

Close up of the bike repair stand install.

How many times have I worked on my bike with it leaned against a rock, tree, or dog? Too many to count.

Well, NO MORE! I bought this Park Tool bike stand and installed it on the right rear door near the hinge. The door can still swing 270 degrees and also clear our awning when it’s out, but I don’t have to open all the rear doors to work on a bike.

To mount the stand, I drilled a couple holes and installed two 3/8″ rivet nuts. Whammo, I’m officially a mobile bike repair business!

Bike repair stand and side table showing their utility after a MTB ride.

If you travel in a van and ride bikes a lot, I insist that you immediately do this too. If not, men with straitjackets will descend upon you very, very soon. You’ve been warned.

For the record, I stole this brilliant idea (among others) fair and square from my friends Jon and Pamela, the Roaming Robos.

Drop-down table from side cabinet

Table dropped down. The cut-out is for the stove.

Table dropped down. The cut-out is for stove access.

In an attempt to not stink up the van like a rolling chuckwagon, we mostly cook outside using our portable camp stove. Sometimes this is on picnic tables, but often we are in the middle of nowhere without a table.

Our initial cook table was a pull-out shelf with the camp stove on it. This worked well but was a bit small to hold anything except the stove. With upgrades in full swing, I decided to build a drop-down side table, as inspired by my buddy Michael.

The table is 24” x 28” and is supported by a piano hinge attached to the cabinet. A magnet holds the table vertically and two small chains support the outside edge when in use. Some aluminum trim and it looks pro! Or at least usable.

Table in vertical position with magnet holding it in place.

Table in vertical position with magnet holding it in place.

Detail of the table in horizontal position.

Detail of the table in horizontal position.

A less powerful blender

This may sound random, but we also replaced our travel blender. The trusty Vitamix now stays home and we roll with a Ninja blender. Why?

Our Vitamix pulls 1,650W. With our 12V/210 A/H battery system, anything <80% charge while trying to use the blender would make the 2000W inverter error out. I decided a lower wattage appliance made more sense. At 1000W, the Ninja is perfect and is already facilitating iced smoothies after long rides in the summer heat. Update: after upgrading to lithium batteries, we’re good to GO.

Fantastic Vent upgrade

When we first bought our van, we wanted the rain sensor and variable speed vent fan. Too bad I ordered the wrong one… The rain sensor isn’t such a big deal, but only having 3 speed settings – tempest, tornado, and hurricane – created some serious drafts even on the lowest setting.

Luckily, there’s an upgrade kit that replaces the old kit. Pop out a few screws on the original, disconnect some wires, swap wires around until the sparking stops, and *presto* you’ve got a new fan. This is a 30 minute project that I’m glad I did.

The one thing that threw me (not mentioned in the instructions) is that it’s necessary to sync the fan and remote control. Here’s the instructions on that.

Pffft, who wants to see a picture of a vent fan? Here's a waterfall in Oregon instead.

Pffft, who wants to see a picture of a vent fan? Here’s a waterfall in Oregon instead.

Isotherm fridge efficiency enhancer

This cool upgrade improves the efficiency of our Isotherm fridge, our van’s biggest power draw. The claim is that it’s 30-50% more efficient; I’ll update this later when I have hard data. (Why, I’d like to know, doesn’t Isotherm just install this as a standard item in their fridges?)

At first glance, this project was slightly intimidating. Turns out it’s simply drilling one hole through your fridge and rewiring a few things. Two things the 44 page instruction manual didn’t mention: 1) If you have an original thermostat with a light, it’s easier to simply reuse the housing and install the new guts in that to keep the light. 2) The thermostat in our fridge was connected to a temperature sensor in the freezer compartment. I didn’t know what to do with this and wound up just snipping the tube. It gave off a hiss, but nobody died.

Watch this Youtube video that some kind soul created if you’d like step by step instructions. I didn’t bother watching/reading anything and it worked out ok!

All-Terrain Tires

4×4 Sprinters are badass. I’d argue that most people don’t need one, however. Who wants to rally their home over stuff better traversed by a Jeep Wrangler?

Our 2013 van is the 2WD option and we’ve driven 30,000 miles on the smooth stock tires. From gnarly access roads in Gooseberry Mesa in Utah to steep fire roads, we’ve covered a ton of ground with no issues.

Still, there are times when some extra traction would help. When our tires started looking frayed, I researched options. Wildcountry, Toyo, BF Goodrich, and others were all on the table.

In the end, I went for the ones that practically every Sprinter owner uses – the BFG 245/75/16 T/A KO2s. After all, no need to get creative when Sprinter Van Diaries and others can drive gnarly South American roads on their BFGs.

After rumbling about for a couple months on them, I can attest that these tires are 1) grippier 2) give a better, softer ride and 3) are slightly noisier. Mileage after two tanks of fuel has us between 19-20 mpg, within 5% of our previous mileage. Worth it for increased badassity and peace of mind.

Note: I also used black Plasti-Dip to “murder out” (see how hip to the jive I am with lingo?) the rims and front/rear Mercedes logo. This was purely aesthetic and I LOVE IT. Don’t listen to the internet claims that it takes 5+ cans to do this . You’ll need two and you’ll have enough to spray the neighbor’s mailbox and kid to boot.

Admit it – the rig looks way more badass like this! (Camped in the Bob Marshall in NW Montana.)

Warmer interior lights and gear garage light

Our interior LED lights from West Marine work great. I dig having them individually switched and they look clean. The downside is that their color temperature is cold – around 3,500-4,000 Kelvin.

A nice, warm light is around 2,700K, which is a much friendlier tone (and also what Chelsea wants). Since my aim is always to keep my awesome wife happy, I searched…and searched…and couldn’t find exactly what I wanted.

Enter LED filters used for photography! I found this $7 sheet of photo paper from B&H Photo, cut out a few circles to insert between the LED bulb and the clear light cover, and we are now bathed in a warm yellow-orange glow in our cozy space. Huge improvement!

Trailer hitch for rear-mount bike rack

Our bikes all fit inside the van, but sometimes I’m traveling or doing a day ride with buddies whose bikes are different sizes. (Or I want to haul 6 bikes!) I typically don’t leave the bike rack on the back, but this easy install hitch is cheap and requires zero drilling. I installed it in less than 15 minutes with a minimum amount of cursing. Recruit a friend to help!

LED light bar for gear garage

I also added this 12V LED lightbar on a switch to the rear storage garage. It was hard to find what I wanted with a switch, but this bar from is awesome.

The light bar doing its job. All four bikes loaded up the night before heading out!

The light bar doing its job. All four bikes loaded up last night before heading out!

Increased/improved storage for gear garage

Our gear garage holds our four bikes, but it also contains a ton of stuff for backpacking, climbing, and around camp (hammock, chairs, slackline). To make things super easy to access and maximize the storage space, I added a number of cabinets and structures.

-U-shaped platform over the right rear wheel well to support two camp chairs. It’s 8”x12.5”x36” and I screwed two L-brackets to the top to hold the chairs in place. Wasted space, used!
-For cooking, these days we use a sweet little microwave and an Instantpot! Lithium batteries rule.
-Cabinet over the center sliding drawer behind the bike handle bars (see above shot).
-Another cabinet behind the center, slide-out storage array. This is easily accessed from inside the van and is where we’ll store our backpacking, bike touring, and climbing gear, plus another big area for miscellaneous items.

You don't fit into the storage garage of a Sprinter without staying limber. Here we are hanging with our buddies Nikki and Jakob from Sprinter Van Diaries.

Ah, cheesy pictures rock. Here we are hanging with our buddies Nikki and Jakob from Sprinter Van Diaries on their way through town.

Remote switch for inverter

Our inverter is tucked at the back of a cabinet. With some recent additions, accessing it was a bit tougher, so I bought this remote switch. Cut a 2” hole, plug in a telephone jack wire between the two, and you’re done. $20 well spent!


Can’t believe how much I love this thing! No longer can I pull the lazy card after a ride – “ohhh, I can’t be bothered to pull out the stove and heat up burrito ingredients.” My days of cold meals are over!

For the install, I simply added an outlet in a storage cubby below our bed. Then I slid a 0.5 CF Whirlpool microwave in and WHAMMO, life was simpler.

Odds and Ends

  • Sliding carriage bolts to hold rear sliding drawers in place. Under acceleration uphill, they’d sometimes break free from the ball catches I used in the past. No more!
  • Two 12V USB chargers by the bed for charging phones and other devices without running the inverter
  • Magnets to hold countertop storage boxes in place


That’s a wrap! I’ll update this post with other mods as I do them, but I have no plans for any more at this time. Just lots of traveling in the van and mountain biking my legs off!

What favorite van upgrades would you add to this list?

Don't worry, I don't spend ALL my time working on the van. Here's a shot of my buddy Nate during a mountain biking trip we took to Central Oregon. 100 miles of riding in 3 days made for some tired legs!

Don’t worry, I don’t spend ALL my time working on the van. Here’s a shot of my buddy Nate enjoying a view of the Cascades during a bike trip to McKenzie River.

Living the Van Life Adventure at Home

Mountain biking Syncline WA Scott Rokis photography

Enjoying a perfect day in the Columbia Gorge at Syncline Trail. (Photo:

**This post first appeared here on MindBodyGreen**

It started as a four-month trip to get out of the rainy Portland winter. Just a camper van jaunt down the coast from Portland to San Diego, Chelsea and I declared. We had no idea we’d end up traveling for 2.5 years.

During this adventure-filled time, we mountain biked all over the western U.S., parked the van and bicycle toured unsupported 7,000 miles through 14 countries, lived in New York City for a month, volunteered for a month at a farm animal sanctuary and studied Spanish in Mexico. Yet all those things followed a simple decision to leave on a journey and break out of the usual.

Beyond that, 30 months away created the mental space for other major life adjustments. We morphed my business to allow unlimited travel as digital nomads, shifted to a plant-based diet, met countless amazing people, and completely changed our perspective on life.

Hard to avoid being a dork and doing tree pose in a tree FARM!

When you find a tree farm, you have to find a matching yoga pose.

We’re not the only ones jumping into van travel. If Instagram hashtags are any indicator of the temperature of #vanlife is right now, it’s a flaming rocket. Whether it’s a return to the 60s Vanagon culture or a completely new way to live, people young and old are jumping into the freedom and openness of traveling in a van.

Tens of thousands of people are nomadic in a van or RV in the U.S. It’s not all retirees in giant motor homes either. Some travel on the cheap and live on savings; others take their work mobile like I did, or find jobs along the way to fund their travel. Vans are the ultimate freedom mobiles.

Getting ready to ride a favorite trail (JEM) outside Zion National Park.

Getting ready to ride a favorite trail (JEM) outside Zion National Park.

There’s just one problem: many people can’t or don’t want to live in a van full-time. (“I’d choke my husband in such a small space,” we’ve heard a few times.) Constraints like family and work also preclude traveling long-term. Is there a way to embrace the van life mentality and bring the adventure into an otherwise “normal” existence at home?

It’s all about the mindset. While I think many people can (and do) thrive on a long van trip, we can also rack up brilliant experiences while rooted in one place. It just takes looking at things through a different lens. Van Life Goggles, if you will.

Embracing the Van Life Mentality

Downsize your space and stuff to minimize daily maintenance. Camper vans are small, and so is the time to keep one tidy. Take that mindset into your home! Check out The Minimalists blog for tips. Smart design of small spaces (the tiny home movement) is packed full of inspiration – Pinterest is a great resource.

Say yes to invitations to new experiences. Most days exploring in a camper van featured somewhere, something, or someone new. If someone invites you somewhere, go! Design life on your home turf around daily exploring, whether it’s a new class, day hike, or event you’d usually never attend. It’s easy to get stuck in the grind of the same commute, same restaurants, and routine – break it up.

New experiences make me happy!

New experiences make me happy. (Photo:

Say no to the busy trap. Immerse yourself in things you enjoy as much as possible and deliberately cut out the rest. The freedom of not being heavily scheduled opened my eyes to leaving open space for free time. In return, my creativity blossomed as I started writing, playing music, and studying photography.

Get outside every day. Our van delivered us to nature’s gateway on a daily basis, something that’s possible at home as well. Even if it’s just a short walk through a city park, seek nature every day. Your body will thrive and your energy levels will soar.

Connect with other travelers on social media. During bike tours, we stayed with dozens of strangers through Warmshowers (a cycle touring site). Our blog and Instagram have generated many invites from complete strangers to meet for a bike ride or a meal, not to mention offers of guest bedrooms. Bring the energy home by reaching out to other travelers or offering space.

New friends from our blog and Instagram!

New friends in the past month from our blog and Instagram.

Design your downsized, streamlined life for frequent short trips. Once your systems are in place, it’s easy to be packed and heading for the hills in an hour. It’s like putting your running shoes by your bedroom door: if you remove the little blockades, you’ll find it easier to make it happen. Keep camping gear organized in containers and ready to go so you can seek an adventure in no time.

Never stop dreaming! Three years ago, the idea of building out a DIY camper van, renting out our house and hitting the road for four months was intimidating. Now that we downsized to less stuff and our systems are efficient, it’s easy to consider new trips and ponder fresh adventures.

Even at home, looking at life through Van Life Goggles keeps me open to serendipity and flexible. I’m still seeking fun people and activities – in a month back in Portland, I’ve already done four trips to new locations close to home and met up with multiple travelers coming through town. It keeps things fresh while we scheme the next big adventure…which isn’t far off.

Thinking of the future...

Forget Logging, Let’s Pedal – Oakridge, A Mountain Biking Paradise

Heckletooth Mountain descent

I recently spent four days mountain biking in the outdoor playground of Oakridge, Oregon. All I can say is: Visit. This. Place.

Riders out there, bring your mountain bike. If you or your family are into other sports, there’s fun to be had in a kayak, with a bird spotting scope, and by lacing up hiking shoes. It’s time to play outside.

Oakridge is a small town on the west side of the Cascade Mountains. Founded as a rough and tumble logging town with more taverns than churches, it wasn’t always a place that attracted adrenaline-loving yuppies like me.

Old habits meet new activities on a connector fire road.

Old habits meet new activities on a connector fire road.

These days, it’s different. You’re as likely to see a cycling jersey as a plaid work shirt.

With a vision many rural communities in the west can learn from, Oakridge is leveraging its natural assets via tourism. It now hosts big events like Mountain Bike Oregon, races like Trans-Cascadia, or great fun for groups of friends coming in to ride. It’s not a one-stop solution, but the town is definitely attracting cash to revitalize the local economy.

The climb to Heckletooth Mountain might just pop an artery, but what a place for lunch.

The climb to Heckletooth Mountain might just pop an artery, but what a place for lunch.

Access is a key component – Oakridge lies at the center of five major trailheads with enticing ridges rising in all directions. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) just labeled it a Gold-Level mountain biking destination, just one of six in the country. The town is the hub in a spoke system radiating outward with hundreds of miles of trails.

These trails saunter along alpine ridges speckled with wildflowers, slip through old-growth forest and wind along green, moss-lined green river trails. Pedal from a cheap rental in town or camp at the dozens of great National Forest Service campgrounds; either way, life is good. Five friends and I rode until we dropped and barely dinged the shiny surface of this pedaling paradise.

Gabe enjoying wildflowers (and fast downhill, of course) on Alpine Trails.

Gabe enjoying wildflowers (and fast downhill) on Alpine Trail.

The badass trails are the major draw. What also impressed me is the vision and creativity the people of Oakridge are employing to make it a destination, not just a place Oregonians ride. They aren’t just order takers like a cotton candy vendor at a busy fair. It’s a place where you can tell they appreciate having you around.

Take the Mercantile, for instance. This cool bike shop rents and sells fancy downhill bikes, but also stocks plaid workshirts. There’s a huge trail map on the wall and the employees happily pointed out which trails were clear of snow and which had tons of downed trees.

You know there's some fun about to happen when the rigs are loaded and lined up like this!

You know there’s some fun about to happen when the rigs are loaded and lined up like this!

Then there’s the We Speak pins that people around town wear, touting their local-only knowledge. “I Speak Camping,” says Heather’s pin, and another guy knows wildflowers. Instead of grouchy order takers, the town seems to exude hey, we’re glad you’re here!

Oakridge isn’t a secret. We met multiple parties from out of town, including one down from British Columbia (a destination itself). Still, with so many trails dedicated to non-motorized vehicles, there’s lots of room to play!

If you’re planning a summer or fall mountain biking trip, put Oakridge on your list. Forget the crowds in Moab and the lifts of Whistler and head to this Oregon gem. I’m definitely going back soon.

Climbing a fire road to a trailhead with views over the trees.

Greg takes a moment to enjoy the views over Larison Creek.

Resources for your trip

For general info, check out this solid Travel Oregon video  or visit

Trails to Ride

In our four days in town, we explored five different trail systems. The only thing more tired than my legs was my jaw from all the grinning!

Based on my experience and beta from friends who know the area well, I can recommend the following trails for anyone heading to Oakridge. Ride Oregon Ride has good info too.

Updated fall 2017: After additional time in Oakridge, I added other favorite rides. The town only continues to grow the riding in the area, so it’s even better now!

Alpine – the famous (for good reason) shredfest. Get ready for alpine wildflowers with views of the valley followed by fast single track snaking through forest.

Evan topping out on a big climb to the stellar views on Alpine Trail.

Evan topping out on a big climb to the stellar views on Alpine Trail.

ATCA (Alpine-Tire Mountain-Cloverpatch-Alpine) – even shuttling this, you’ll pedal 5,000′ of elevation in less than 30 miles. IT’S WORTH IT! The huge trees on Tire and fine, fine descending on Tire will make that climb out of Cloverpatch totally worth it.

Larison Rock – fast fast fasssst rip right into Oakridge. Watch out on the marble-slick corners on this one – it’s easy to overcook those and launch off your bike.

Little Bunchgrass into Heckletooth Mountain – you’ll weave through huge trees high on a ridge, test your skills on some steep rocky sections, and then climb (and climb some more) to the top of Heckletooth. The descent is a steep, furious ripper on switchbacks that’ll test your skills. Enough said – this is my favorite ride of the trip. (I might have said that after every ride…)

Dead Mountain – great views of the valley plus machine-built jumping and radness up top into a fast single track. Easy to pedal right back into town too, which is always nice.

Jason from takes in the valley view from Dead Mountain.

Eula or Hardesty – accessed via the same fire road, these two are SO good. Eula is so-steep-there’s-no-stopping in places and you’ll drop 3k’ in a few grin-inducing miles. Hardesty is a favorite of mine and is zippy, twisty fun through cut logs and over roots. Don’t miss it!

Lawler – an Oakridge classic that was rebuilt recently. Classic Oakridge singletrack up top followed by the new part down low – machine-built, ripping fun.

Middle Fork Willamette River – this one has echoes of the McKenzie River Trail, a famous destination in Oregon for biking. I’d ride the West Fork any day for the remoteness and lack of hikers gaping at the oncoming bikes. Beautiful riding.

Jim splashes through a creek on the Middle Fork trail.

Jim splashes through a creek on the Middle Fork trail.

Larison Creek – a 10 mile fire road climb followed by some of the most beautiful, mossy, technical creekside riding I’ve done.

Gabe zips through the emerald palace of Larison Creek.

Gabe zips through the emerald palace of Larison Creek.

Salmon Creek Falls Trail – accessed right from town, it’s a smooth beginner trail on the north side, classic technical river trail on the south. The climb out of the south will test any rider’s fitness!

Gabe on Salmon Creek Trail.

Gabe on Salmon Creek Trail.

Places to Check Out

  1. The Willamette Valley Mercantile – bike shop and all-around knowledge center for anything you need.
  2. Local 180 Brew Pub – a top nanobrewery and watering hole for mountain bikers. Live music and friendly staff.
  3. Oregon Adventures – don’t feel like pedaling to the top or need a local guide? We didn’t need their services, but multiple friends have recommended this company for those looking to shuttle Oakridge or not get lost in the wilderness arguing with your map about which direction is west. They arrange a 17k in a Day shuttle with close to 20,000’ of descending on the best trails in Oakridge.

Local Mountain Biking Events and Races

  1. Mountain Bike Oregon – this event put Oakridge on the map. Join hundreds of mountain bikers for food, riding, and tales of valor after three days shredding the best trails in Oakridge.
  2. Trans-Cascadia – friends of mine created this enduro race series. Test your mettle against some amazing riders.

Ricky wisely chooses to walk, not ride, mossy logs on Larison Creek

Ricky wisely chooses to walk, not ride, mossy logs on Larison Creek.

A Springtime Portland Pit Stop

Portland spring blossoms

We’ve spent the last two weeks visiting Portland. Spring is in the air, a battle of cherry blossoms, occasional sunshine, and frequent rain showers.

The mountain biking and running trails here are a bit mucky with mud, but the hills are a vibrant green and the waterfalls are firing. Best of all, I’m hitting the trails with buddies that I haven’t seen for a year.

Hiking in the Columbia River Gorge.

Martin hiking through mossy trees on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge.

Ryan beneath the roaring Upper Horsetail Falls.

Ryan beneath the roaring Upper Horsetail Falls.

This Portland visit reminds me there’s nothing like old friends and a deep-rooted community. We’ve house-hopped from friend to friend, dropping briefly into daily routines, and also randomly run into people we know almost every day. While traveling is wonderful, there’s magic in the simple moments with people we’ve known for years.

It’s been a multi-faceted visit. Lots of physical activity (as usual), plus hauling a friend’s new water heater and reading books in goofy voices to toddlers. Green tea swims in my veins thanks to frequent coffee shop catch-ups, and we’ve also gobbled food at our favorite restaurants, listened to a friend perform Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, and downed more vegan chocolate truffles than is probably healthy.

Our van doesn't just haul bikes - here it is carrying a new water heater and two boxed cabinets for my buddy Eric.

Our van doesn’t just haul bikes – here it is carrying a new water heater and two boxed cabinets for my buddy Eric.

In short, it’s like “normal” life. This is a novelty because at some point in the past 2.5 years, traveling stopped being a novelty and morphed into simply life. Home shifted into wherever we were. Then a strange thing happened: the newness of a constantly footloose lifestyle stopped feeling revitalizing.

This clarity surfaced last year in NYC after we pedaled 2,500 miles through 13 countries during our European bike tour. Chelsea was ready for a break at home; I found myself preferring reading a book than seeing a Broadway show. We wanted to dig into projects, stop the logistics of daily travel, and revel in routine.

Paul leads the way on a glorious day of mountain biking at Syncline in the Columbia Gorge.

Paul leads the way into the steep stuff on a glorious day of mountain biking at Syncline in the Columbia Gorge.

Despite feeling road worn, we headed to San Diego for a Chelsea’s brother’s steampunk wedding, road tripped up Highway 1 in California, and then landed in Santa Cruz over the new year to recharge. Our time at Farm Sanctuary served up a fulfilling February, which is right when our tenants let us know they’d found a house to buy. Perfect timing to land at home! We’ll be back in our king-size bed by May for a few months.

When we paused in Portland in early spring of 2015, I wasn’t ready to be stationary. The red rocks of Utah wailed a siren song and cycle touring in Europe trumped stationary summer plans. (Can trump be a positive word anymore?)

Sitting down for a (super serious) podcast interview with Michael Knouse from the Startup Sessions.

Sitting down for a (super serious) podcast interview with Michael from the Startup Sessions.

This time, both Chelsea and I are ready for a base from which to launch adventures for a few months. Stopping when we want – rather than of necessity – is a fantastic option. I’m grateful to have the choice to switch at will between on the road and parked, and we’re going to take advantage of it.

Plans for Portland abound, mostly revolving around connecting with our community, exploring the shifting landscape of this rapidly growing city, and focusing on deepening various skills (e.g. guitar). We’re also excited to jump back into hosting mode. Chelsea is planning many ladies-only nights where I’ll be banished from the house. Apparently she’s spent enough time with me!

I hadn't climbed for 2 years (!) before Martin (climbing here) coaxed me into a bouldering session.

I hadn’t climbed for 2 years (!) before Martin (climbing here) coaxed me into a bouldering session. Now I’m back at it.

We’re not done traveling. Far from it. We’re resting, refilling the energy stores. I’m already mapping out an overseas adventure trip for mid-summer; shorter jaunts around the Pacific Northwest beckon in the meantime. It’s a temporary shift from full-time wandering to exploring our back yard with the van. And of course sinking my mountain bike tires into grippy Oregon loam after two summers away bike touring.

My personal challenge is to not view our time in Portland as the rainy time and travel as the bright sunny days. Variety is key, and pauses heighten my appreciation of travel. I’m committed to staying stoked about the fun the city (and Pacific NW) has to offer. It’s an opportunity to stay creative without travel as my muse.

But for now, the rain just stopped and the sun is peeking through the gray morass. Time to slip on the running shoes and head out for a jaunt up Mt. Tabor. See you in PDX!

A vanagon dreaming of its next trip... (Shot by me at Farm Sanctuary.)

A vanagon (and me) dreaming of future trips… (Shot by me for Farm Sanctuary.)

The Power of a Father-Son Road Trip

Father son trip

This article was initially published here on The Good Men Project.

Beneath a crescent moon in western Montana, I park the camper van among thick pines. My dad, who loves to sleep under the stars, lays out his bedroll. Bears (or mice – they sound the same in the dark) tromp through the woods.

“Can I have a metal bowl?” he asks. I hand one over, plus a spoon to bang on it. Bear Repellent Kit, check. Safety first! Our road trip is underway.

Growing up, we spent many holidays finishing home remodeling projects. When I wasn’t wiring our house or digging the foundation, I traveled on weekends for baseball or played video games. I mastered double plays and Warcraft II, but trips with my dad fell by the wayside.

These days, a few testosterone-fueled shouting fights from my teenage years linger as cautionary memories. Leery or not of how the trip will go, my dad and I are making it happen.

We kick things off by cycling the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park through a silent palace of views. Fading tamarack pines paint the mountains a dusky yellow in the perfect fall weather. The solitary few people in the campgrounds are the ones who love the quiet of shoulder season travel, so we fit right in.

A few miles from the top of Logan Pass in Glacier on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

A few miles from the top of Logan Pass in Glacier on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Next is a hike on the park’s east side as clouds squat on the peaks, the only sounds our footsteps and trickling water. My dad’s knee, wrecked years ago thanks to ladder fall and increasingly hampering his movement, limits our distance. How many more times can he walk deep into the woods? Moved by that thought, he gets teary-eyed as we amble along. I do too as I write this.

We hike and I think of how mountain peaks are unreachable when we’re babies. Our parents first help us walk; later, they cheer as we wobble off on a bike down the driveway. Soon we can hike anything, heading off to forge new, independent lives. Then one by one, peaks and trails we scampered up become insurmountable until we lean on a cane or our own child to get up the walkway. These thoughts push me to embrace adventure in my life, something I’ve continually aimed for the last two years.

We stop at a cafe I fondly remember from a bike tour. Cowboy boots stuffed with light bulbs illuminate the interior; worn-out guns are screwed to the walls. Our waitress Jamie is frank and funny, a sparky woman with a tough story of escaping a bad marriage. She candidly shares and we listen. My dad leaves a 50% tip, saying, “I have a soft spot for people like that.” I was planning the same.

Taking in a view above a Montana valley.

Taking in a view above a Montana valley.

We scarf cinnamon graham crackers and talk about art, travel, stories from his past. Miles roll under our tires as tales crack loose from his mind. Forever grammar snobs, we pick apart historical signs and their poor grammar. (It’s lose, not loose, dammit.) We laugh about a “wildlife view” sign juxtaposed with a pumping oil rig.

I steer the van, but he holds the reins for our route and activities. We visit Charley Russell’s museum to see my dad’s favorite western art. At the Archie Bray ceramics foundation, we talk to resident artists. One woman left a successful teaching position to create art for two years. “Academic politics suck,” she says. My dad did the same when he left Chico State in the 80s to raise a family in Idaho and focus on his art.

I handle all the trip logistics, chopping veggies for lunch salads and picking up the tab for dinner, gas and campsites. It feels good to break his routine and spawn an adventure. How many times has he done these things for me? I ponder while making him a sandwich as we park overlooking a river.

On the east side of the Front Range of the Rockies.

On the east side of the Front Range of the Rockies.

Sometimes I fixate on the little things he does that drive me nuts, but now all I feel is a refreshing sense of calm. What matters is the opportunity to be here, spending time together. There’s no clock or itinerary dictating our travels and we are amiable and cheerful as we reconnect.

At the euphemistically-named Wildfowl Management Area, my dad chats with a taciturn old duck hunter limping his way back from the marsh. They talk guns and swap stories, then stand there a second before the hunter drawls “yeaaappp” to wrap up the conversation as only a seasoned outdoorsman can do.

My dad can shoot the breeze with grouchy ranchers, and he is also one of the most creative people I know. Conversations influence his art and he can work with any medium. He’s created ceramic and bronze monsters, a menagerie of ugly poodle tchotchkes, a broken taillight slideshow exhibition, colorful drawings on Sheetrock, and politically satirical face masks. He made Four More Years – a leering, trollish mask – when George W. Bush was re-elected.

We walked up to Old Faithful in Yellowstone and it immediately put on a show!

We walked up to Old Faithful in Yellowstone and it immediately put on a show!

He downplays his success as an artist, but when I pry, he recounts teaching positions and a scroll of workshops, fellowships and grants. And that’s in northern Idaho, hardly a bastion of funding for the arts.

I tell him I think artists are too hard on themselves. Amanda Palmer’s quote comes to mind: “You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.” He did that with an ice sculpture that was on Good Morning America; the DNA helix in our front yard still turns heads.

His childhood was tough, whereas mine was full of love and present parents. “I’m sorry you grew up poor,” he tells me, and I respond with the truth: It taught me the value of hard work and helps me, a textbook Millennial, appreciate how wonderful my life is. I’m lucky to never had to “eat bitter,” as the Chinese say of experiencing hard times.

A silent Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

A silent Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

We comfortably spend time together in conversation and also in silence, me fiddling with my phone while he scribbles in an ever-present journal. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at a picnic table in an old mining town, I ponder how time together can create rifts, but also channel healing powers through its currents. I’m grateful we didn’t put off this trip any longer.

“How would you like to spend your time?” I ask. He thinks a moment. “Reading, writing, making art, spending time in nature, and listening to people’s stories.” The circle is complete. After years of denying myself the joys of creativity, these days I spend my days immersed in those very pursuits. Like father, like son.

Tires spin and stories roll as the van ticks off miles of pines and plains toward the trip’s end. I make dinner as a full moon rises over our sparking fire. My dad finishes a story and pauses, then sums it all up with a long “yeeeeeappppp.”

He grins and I can’t stop laughing. Later, as frost nips the valley and the coyotes shriek at the moon, his earth-cratering snoring stumbles, then creaks to a halt. I know he’s lying there, loving every minute of this. I am too.


Want to see more of this journey? Check out the full video or read about the amazing old mining town of Bannack. More pictures below too.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

A big horn sheep spotted during a day in SW Montana.

A big horn sheep spotted during a day in SW Montana.

Yellowstone has the coolest colors.

Yellowstone has the coolest colors.

Closing out a day by the fire in Bannack State Park.

Closing out a day by the fire in Bannack State Park.

2015: A Year in Review

Sunset in Morro Bay, California

On Christmas Day, Chelsea and I talked about 2015 during a walk along the sea cliffs of Santa Cruz. Instead of throwing out new adventures and aspirations, we studied the rear view mirror.

We are currently landed in Santa Cruz enjoying the sunshine and excellent local trails. This stillness affords reflection on what we’ve done, seen, and experienced this past year. (To see what we’re up to anytime, check out a new page I added, inspired by Derek Siver’s movement.)

Sitting down to write after a few weeks off, I broke things down into four categories:

  1. Fabulous Moments
  2. What Went Well
  3. Things to Improve
  4. What I’m Excited About

This is also a chance to share some of my favorite photos from 2015. Let’s begin with the fun!

Fabulous Moments

Exploring Half Moon Caye in Belize

We kicked off 2015 by snorkeling and kayaking in Belize with Chelsea’s family. With warm blue water, incredible birds, and a friendly group of other travelers, (luxury) camping on this tiny island was an unforgettable trip.

Sunrise on Half Moon Caye

Mountain biking and building community in Utah

I can’t get enough of this red rock playground. I certainly mountain biked my legs off, yet my April trip through Utah was also about community.

I met up with half a dozen friends from Oregon, California, and Colorado, crossed paths with various blog readers, and built a friendship with the Keys to Freeze crew. There is nothing like spending time in nature with great people!

Porcupine Rim above Moab

Porcupine Rim in Moab

Cycle touring Europe

A highlight of 2015! If you are into cycle touring and haven’t experienced the car-free bike networks throughout western Europe, I can’t recommend it enough.

Loving the views on the north side of the Slovenian Alps.

Loving the views on the north side of the Slovenian Alps.

Over 3.5 months, we biked 2,500 miles through 13 countries, taking plenty of time to relax and explore along the way. Experiences like volunteering to help refugees in Salzburg, pedaling with buddies in Croatia, and exploring the deep history of the continent only whet my appetite for Europe.

We finished pedaling in Prague, a special place for me and Chelsea since we met there nine years ago for our first date. It was a treat to return to the romantic Czech Republic and walk down the cobbled, uneven streets of memory lane.

A gondola glides through the canals of Venice.

A gondola glides through the canals of Venice.

Road tripping with my dad

I’ve wanted to take my dad on a trip for years. As fall colors faded and October wrapped up, we finally did it, rolling out in the Sprinter van to explore Montana for a couple weeks.

We cycled in Glacier and watched geysers in Yellowstone, then explored old mining towns. It was a powerfully bonding trip.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Things That Went Well

A stronger relationship with Chelsea

People ask us how we tolerate so much time together. (“I’d go nuts being around my husband all the time.”) While we have some tips, the summary is that long-term travel brings us closer together because it requires mutual support.

If there’s an issue on a bike tour, we’re the only two there to get through it – together. We can’t just sweep arguments away to be dealt with another day. Handling it immediately removes the potential for a tiny fight to fester and become gangrenous. Two years traveling together has bonded us more than ever.

Living a vegan lifestyle was easy

Shifting to 100% plant-based in 2013 felt like a big change. These days, it’s both easy to navigate and authentic to who we are.

We’ve traveled through 16 countries, eating amazing food and encountering great support along the way, all while living true to our values. As an added bonus, the selection of vegan options for yogurt, meat, cheese, milk and beyond continues to expand. (You have to try Miyoko’s off-the-hook vegan cheeses.)

If you’d like to try a month-long vegan adventure in the new year, Veganuary is a great free resource and community.

Lobbying with the Humane Society of the US in Salem, Oregon.

Lobbying with the Humane Society of the U.S. in Salem, Oregon.

Lots of reading

Immersing myself in a book remains one of my favorite pastimes, and I’m happy to say I read more in 2015 than in any other year. Picking up a book is like taking a class with an expert for free (via the library) or for the bargain rate of a $10 ebook.

Business more streamlined than ever

This year marked the first in nearly a decade where I didn’t work directly with clients. While less profitable overall, managing my business instead of client expectations is both less stressful and frees my time to pursue other passions.

I’m still involved on a daily basis, but my mental energy isn’t drained at the end of the day. It was scary letting go of the day-to-day interactions with clients, but remains one of my best decisions. To those of you deliberating over hiring someone, I say do it.

Pausing for a moment in Bryce Canyon

My friend Reese pauses for a moment in Bryce Canyon

Things to Improve

Less pressure on myself to constantly explore

The flexibility and openness of our lives sometimes creates a compulsion in me to string adventures together the way we did in 2014. While I’m (usually) aware of this, I still find it hard to be content just being instead of constantly doing. In February and March, I struggled to feel centered in Portland and mostly dreamed of leaving again.

Constant motion makes for an interesting life, but eventually it decreases my appreciation for an activity or location. This is not a good thing. While the list of places I want to explore is long, I don’t have to visit them all in the next two years!

The other downside of constant motion is that routines are tougher to uphold. Practicing the guitar or finding space for yoga is tougher (my tight hip flexors will attest to that). Focused time for deep work doesn’t just materialize; it must be a priority. Pausing in one place provides the platform for all of that.

This coming year, I want to embrace pauses as creative periods and time to reconnect with friends and the routine of a grounded life. Hopefully we can then launch into new experiences with vigor and energy.

Columbia River Gorge in the fog

Relaxing with a view of the Columbia River Gorge at sunset.

Writing more

I’ve consistently written here, and in 2016 I’m also aiming to write two articles per month for outside publication. This means I need to write more, a challenge I’m excited to take.

What I’m Excited About

More videos and interviews with people we meet

Until recently, I never seriously considered pursuing video. It seemed outside my sphere – photography and writing were enough. After creating a few videos, however, I’m hooked.

My primary desire is to tell better stories. Video is a perfect way to do that, and I’m looking forward to making more of them in 2016 and sharing them with you.

Our buddy Stevie from and her friend.

A perfect day in Yosemite at Vernal Falls with our friend Stevie from

More music and art

No, not just Macklemore at full blast in the van. (Been awhile since we did that.) Guitar! I’m a few weeks into online lessons to finally crack through the intermediate-level swamp I’ve been mired in for ten years.

Chelsea is digging into watercolor pencils and is far too good already. I may give it a whirl, but I sure as hell am not sharing the result here. I respect you more than that.


Here’s to looking back and congratulating ourselves on a year well-lived. For 2016, Neil Gaiman says it well:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.

To everyone out there, thanks for sharing this journey with us, both on the road and on the web. I hope 2016 is full of adventure, growth, and creativity.

Happy New Year!

Grinning it up in Death Valley.

Road Trippin’ With My Pa (Video)

To share the latest happenings, in the future I’ll occasionally start blog posts with italic notes like this. This week’s announcement is an interview we did with Bicycling Magazine. Check it out!

Father Son Road Trip

For years, my dad and I talked about doing a road trip. We made it happen this October, carving out 10 days to drive the Sprinter van through the mountains and plains of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

The journey was a mix of goofing around (as you’ll see), long talks about art, and exploring beautiful places by bike and on foot. The video is one of my favorites so far. Enjoy!

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Lake McDonald on the west side of Glacier National Park.

Hiking on the Continental Divide on the east side of Glacier National Park.

Hiking on the Continental Divide on the east side of Glacier National Park.

Our route, clockwise starting and finishing in Moscow, Idaho.

Our route, clockwise starting and finishing in Moscow, Idaho. A solid 1,800 miles through some stunning landscapes.

Cycling Going-to-the-Sun Road in the Fall (Video)

Going to the sun road cycling

One of the finest routes I’ve ever cycled is Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The winding, beautiful trip over Logan Pass starts by a rushing river and climbs (and climbs) for 11 miles as views of the valley below open like a magical picture book. During a recent road trip through western Montana, my dad and I were lucky to catch a nice fall day to pedal to the sun.

I rode through Glacier last year in July – one of our favorite days of our U.S. bike tour – and this time of year revealed another brilliant facet of the park. Fall colors were firing and, an added bonus, the road was closed for the season to vehicle traffic. During the summer, the park requires cyclists to be off the road by 11 a.m. This time around, we dawdled, pedaled in the middle of the road, and soaked in this gem of the Rockies.

A few miles from the top of Logan Pass.

A few miles from the top of Logan Pass.

Pictures can’t capture the experience. Instead, here’s a short video of our ride. Kudos to my dad for cranking up the steep grade for miles and miles!

More to come from our Montana adventures…

Going-to-the-Sun Road valley view fall colors

Two Years On the Road, a Podcast and Thanks

Sprinter lift off

Yesterday marked two years to the day since we fired up the Sprinter van and headed out on this trip. The picture above captures how excited we were.

The time, while highlighted by various adventures, has also freed me to invest in creativity through writing, photography and (lately) video. Another huge benefit is that traveling non-stop together and the mutual trust needed to survive (and enjoy!) long bike tours has greatly deepened my relationship with Chelsea. These past 24 months have been some of the most satisfying of my life as we’ve explored many places (<–map) via van and bike and reshaped the way we choose to live.

Fall colors in NW Montana as the tamarack turned yellow.

Fall colors in NW Montana as the tamarack turns yellow.

It seems fitting to share a podcast conversation Chelsea and I had with Paul at The Pursuit Zone. I bet many of you will enjoy listening to Chelsea’s side of the story instead of just mine! Her ideas for adventure frequently inspire our trips, and then I dial in logistics. I loved hearing her thoughts on the biggest challenges of our bike tours, plus what it’s really like to live in a van for months at a time.

Also, I’d like to say THANKS to my blog readers for all the positive feedback and support during the past two years. Who knew I’d make great friends through this site and enjoy writing so much? Sharing our adventures and meeting readers adds depth to our travels and contributes so much to the experience. I can’t imagine it any other way. A big high five to everyone out there, and please feel free to say howdy anytime if you’re so inclined!

Here’s the podcast. Below are a few of the questions Paul asks us, in case you’re wondering what to expect. Enjoy.

  • How did we meet?
  • What was the evolution to the start of our 2013 adventure?
  • How difficult was it to leave our old lives behind?
  • What is it like living out of a van for months at a time?
  • How did the idea for the 4,000 mile U.S. bike tour come about?
  • How difficult is it to follow a vegan diet while bicycle touring?
  • What were the biggest challenges and what did we most enjoy about our U.S. and European cycle tours?
  • What’s our advice for people that want to do a Europe cycle tour?
  • What are some tips for easing into a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle?
  • What do we hope people get from reading Traipsing About?
  • Are we still having fun? (Spoiler – yes!)

What comes next? We shall see!

What comes next? We shall see!

Searching for Gold and Ghosts in Bannack

Bannack view

It’s 1863. The Civil War rages, herds of (dwindling) bison still roam the plains, and Conestoga wagons are in style. Henry Ford won’t drive the first Model T off the line for another 45 years.

In the hills of southwest Montana near the Continental Divide, the mining town of Bannack is thriving after gold nuggets were discovered the prior summer. The rush fuels such intense growth that men all over the played-out Idaho territory ditch those claims and convene in Bannack to test their luck anew. Rather than building shelter in the summer, they mine non-stop until the reality of cold weather dusts their dirty beards with a hard frost and they hack together rough cabins.

The collapsing remains of cabins in "Bachelor's Row."

The collapsing remains of cabins in “Bachelor’s Row.”

Bannack is the kind of town where the sheriff, Henry Plummer, leads the local criminal group ironically called “The Innocents.” In just a year, they rob and kill 102 people before a local group of vigilantes uncover the conspiracy and hang the leaders. Even with the no-good sheriff gone, bullets still whiz about the mud streets. Luckily, many fatalities are avoided thanks to the poor aim of drunken shooters. Or perhaps it’s thanks to the strychnine in the whiskey, an additive used to “add a little tang.”

Prosperity eludes most of the miners. Most spend it on booze and other entertainment as fast as they can make it, their money funneling into the pockets of local merchants. Women comprise less than 5% of Bannack’s population, so the Hurdy Gurdy girls – named after the hand-cranked music device – do well charging up to a dollar per dance to whirl and spin with the attention-starved miners.

Over the next century, the town’s fortune ebbs and flows as new mining technologies are developed. Most of the gold seekers leave, the population of 3,000 dwindling fast, but others stick around and mine until the early 1940s. Only the federal decree to cease all non-essential mining during WWII sounds the death knell for Bannack, and the last resident leaves soon after. The one-room schoolhouse, built in 1874, finally shuts down in 1951. The town is donated to the state soon after and becomes a park in the 1970s.

Years of lessons are carved into a desk in the one-room school house.

Years of boredom are carved into a desk in the school house.


Over 150 years after the first gold was discovered in Bannack, my dad and I wandered through the ghost town during a road trip through Montana. Colder fall weather had recently teased yellow colors from the trees, and the hot campfire the night before warmed our backs. I tried to imagine living in this hard-edged frontier town, and decided I am not nearly tough enough.

Camp fire in Bannack State Park

The streets are no longer muddy, and the boardwalk in front of the remaining 60 buildings makes the place feel almost civilized. Most establishments are still accessible to the public, so we spent the better part of a day exploring the quiet homes with the aid of an informative pamphlet with grammar so bad one of the original miners may have written it.

Enough chit chat: this awesome experience is best highlighted by a photo essay! If you’re ever in the SW corner of Montana, make sure to pencil in a stop at Bannack State Park. You won’t be disappointed.

My dad hanging in a cabin.

My dad exploring a cabin.

Slash marks from an adze on an old cabin in Bannack.

Slash marks from an adze on an old cabin in Bannack.

Old mining equipment in Bannack State Park.

Old mining equipment in Bannack State Park.

The jail house with its spiffy sod roof. Henry Plummer, the corrupt sheriff, had it built, then ironically spent a couple nights in it before being hung for being a bandit.

The jail house with its spiffy sod roof. Henry Plummer, the corrupt sheriff, had it built, but never did much with it since he was hung so fast.

Worn edging on stairs in Bannack's Hotel Meade.

Worn edging on stairs in Bannack’s Hotel Meade.

A view across town.

A view across town.

An old wagon wheel.

An old wagon wheel.

An old dugout cabin.

An old dugout cabin.

Bits of linen flap on a door frame. The fabric was layered around the door to keep out drafts.

Bits of linen flap on a door frame. The fabric was layered around the door to keep out drafts.

Old iron mining carts and other equipment rust in place.

Old iron mining carts and other equipment rust in place.

An old cabin with Hotel Meade in the background.

An old cabin with Hotel Meade in the background.


Chinking in the cracks of a cabin.

Chinking in the cracks of a cabin.

The most important (and first) building in town: the assay house. This is where the gold was assessed for weight and quality. Compared to 80% purity for most gold, Bannack's was 99.5%, as good as it gets.

The most important (and first) building in town: the assay house. This is where the gold was assessed for weight and quality. Compared to 80% purity for most gold, Bannack’s was 99.5%, as good as it gets.

When linen tacked to your cabin wall serves as wallpaper, you know things are rustic.

When linen tacked to your cabin wall serves as wallpaper, you know things are rustic.

My dad sits in the old schoolhouse.

My dad sits in the old schoolhouse.

How many times has this house's screen door been wiggled open by prying fingers?

How many times has this house’s screen door been wiggled open by prying fingers? Many more shall pass through here…

Paying It Forward, Van Style (Video)

Road Angel Keys to Freeze

Kindness from strangers is a side to travel that frequently surprises and humbles me. From help with directions to an unexpected offer of a place to stay, I’ve received gracious treatment dozens of time. Having the opportunity to pass along the goodwill is just as much fun.

I missed the publication of this short video called Road Angel while we were biking in Europe, so I wanted to share it now. It’s a snippet with me in front of the camera instead of behind it (for a change). I love that a meetup at a Colorado bagel shop turned into a chance to give back, not to mention created some enduring friendships.

The back story: I met the Keys to Freeze crew this April in Durango during their 8,500 mile cycling trip from Key West, Florida to Deadhorse, Alaska. Over the next month, we crossed paths in Utah’s national parks, Yosemite, the coastal redwoods, and Portland. They pedaled as I road tripped in the van, our trips diverging for days or weeks at a time, then re-intersecting as we all explored the famous sites in the southwest and California.

Here’s to new friends and paying forward road trip karma!

New friends! Snow on the motel roof and flurries signal the start of Keys to Freeze heading from Dove Creek, CO to Moab, UT.

Hanging with Keys to Freeze on a sub-freezing morning near Moab.

A Vision for 2014

Happy New Year! Onward we go into a fresh twelve months of new horizons and challenges, fun adventures and who knows what.

After a crush of activity for a few months, we took it easy over the holidays. No better time to disappear and kick back for awhile than the end of the year. We spent over a week with family in Santa Cruz, and then Chelsea and I rang in January 1 with a group of friends – cooking dinner together, watching the sunset turn into a starry sky, and laughing our heads off.

Biking on the Ohlone Bluffs with Chelsea and family.

Biking on the Ohlone Bluffs with Chelsea and family.

For the last three years, we’ve created Vision Boards with our rad friends Jamie and Evan to kick off the new year. The general idea: gather a pile of magazines (we got ours from a doctor’s office and a few salons – with permission of course!) and put them in a giant stack in the middle of the table. Flip through them, scissors in hand, and snip out words, pictures and symbols that speak to you for how you’d like the next year to unfold. Occasionally sneak a random funny one to a friend’s pile such as “hot sex” or a picture of a goofy animal or person. Then compile it all into a collage, a vision of the coming year. (I always end up reading articles and only finding a few images, but hey, it’s a team effort.)

Here’s our vision board for 2014. This was all Chelsea – other than the Mercedes symbol from yours truly – and I love it. Looking at it makes me even more excited for the rest of this trip and beyond!


With the holidays behind us, now it’s back to work. I am stoked to have hired two fantastic people who start next week – it’s amazing what can be done remotely – and we are also on the road again. Big Sur and SoCal, here we come! It has been a fantastic three weeks (my how time flies!) in the Santa Cruz area exploring the ocean beaches and cliffs, grassland trails, redwood groves and open meadows on foot and by bike. More pictures and stories to come from our time here as I fire up the ignored keyboard and get back to writing.

Wishing you an adventurous and fulfilling 2014. May new horizons open up in all the directions you envision!

Cheers to 2014!

Cheers to 2014!

Dakota and Chelsea

Exploring the Bay Area

The last five days have been a whirlwind of visiting friends and exploring the Bay Area. A shift from the empty Northern California coast, and I was surprised by our reaction to the frenetic energy of the big city. I always am, but seem to forget! Portland doesn’t have that giant city feel that San Francisco, New York, and L.A. have, and I feel like a small-town Idaho kid wandering around gaping at horseless carriages!

Under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Under the Golden Gate Bridge.

One thing I noticed was that my focus to write was gone. Not sure why, but a few days in the city and the words just jumbled together. I have a few rough drafts sitting unfinished with threads leading everywhere, yet the ideas not quite coalescing into anything I feel good about publishing. Soon…

The famous Golden Gate Bridge, with San Francisco behind it.

The famous Golden Gate Bridge, with San Francisco behind it.

So for now, here’s a few snapshots from this week. Frenetic energy or not, it has been a fantastic time! Here are a few highlights:

  • Enroute from the coast, a trip to Wild Flour bakery near Bodega Bay. Best. Cinnamon. Rolls. EVER. We grab four giant rolls, plus some scones, to share with buddies in the Bay Area. Nom nom nom nom nom.

    Scones, cinnamon rolls and amazing bread. We got about four of everything. Gluten free we ain't!

    Scones, cinnamon rolls and amazing bread. We got about four of everything. Gluten free we ain’t!

  • Meeting Dave O, aka Graphite Dave, of fame. When we first got our van, an accessories company said, “Read his stuff. All of it.” So we did. This guy knows everything about vans and has written an amazing amount of helpful information. He’s our Sprinter Hero. And a super nice guy in person too. Oh, and his van is badass.

    Hanging with Graphite Dave, master of

    Hanging with Graphite Dave.

  • Feeling cooped up in Oakland. Best way to fix that: a run! Charging past graffiti in the park, up rip-your-lungs-out steep hills into a neighborhood where private security details eye me like I’m wearing an orange jumpsuit. Views of the Bay Area stretch out in the distance and I instantly feel better. I love running in cities that I visit – such a fun way to explore.

    A cheery graffiti face on a bridge pillar seen on a run in Oakland.

    A cheery graffiti face on a bridge pillar seen on a run in Oakland.

  • Seeing old friends! Staying with friends Megan and Chris in their rad new home and hearing all about their adventures. Catching up with my friend Brian and checking out his awesome company, Makani Power, which makes big flying kites that operate as wind turbines with a lease tethered to the ground. So cool seeing what brilliant engineers can come up with. Dinner with Ryan and Kelly with their cmon-can-babies-be-that-cute new daughter. So great to see y’all!

    Great seeing you Brian, Megan/Chris and Ryan/Kelly/Kennedy (in the too-cute pink sleep suit).

    Buddies in the Bay! Megan is wrapped up like a nun to stay warm. And apparently I only take pictures with my hands in my pockets. Or maybe it’s just cold!

  • Back on the road bike! Haven’t been riding much lately with the cold weather and twisty Highway 1 as the option, so it’s fun to get out. Head out from San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, dodging both tourists and glaring Lycra-clad locals, then heading up into the Marin headlands for a fantastic loop with a view of the bay and the city. It must be amazing to have that kind of riding straight from downtown SF!

    Mid-ride across the Golden Gate Bridge on the Marin Headlands loop.

    Mid-ride across the Golden Gate Bridge on the Marin Headlands loop.

  • After a night walk in the picturesque Mill Valley looking out at the valley sparkling below, listening to cars roaring by on a not-so-quiet road alllll niiiiight looong. Still figuring out this “where to sleep” thing. Van life isn’t always easy!
  • Exploring a different view of the Bay - through the pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge.

    Exploring a different view of the Bay – through the pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge.

  • Mountain biking! Hooooray. A coastal mountain bike shred looking out over the bay in China Camp State Park. Chelsea sees 19 turkeys along the way, and I scare about 16 bouncing deer. And drop my backpack down a 100 foot incline and do a little “hiking.”

    A coastal mountain bike ride at China Camp State Park in Marin County.

    A coastal mountain bike ride at China Camp State Park in Marin County.

It was a great city visit. That said, we’re on this trip for access to nature, so we decided to head south to get back to it! Writing this from Santa Cruz, with access to redwood-shaded singletrack for biking. We’ll be here for over two weeks! Seeing some great friends down here and then it’s our holiday location with Chelsea’s family.

Marin Headlands looking into San Francisco.

Marin Headlands looking into San Francisco.

I’m hoping for more room to write and relax, plus add a few adjustments to the van. I’ll be adding some LED lights, a muffler for the spaceship-loud heater, and another sliding drawer in the back. And perhaps learning to surf!

Cheers from Central California,


P.S. I added an Instagram feed to the right sidebar. Check it out, or follow along @traipsingabout. I’ll add quick snap shots in there between posts.

Three Weeks on the Road – A Recap

This trip, like most, is comprised of snippets of awesome, wide swaths of normal life logistics and work, periods of discomfort, and peaks of hilarity and loving life. I’ve found it hard to fit in writing, photography, working, adventuring, and spending more time with Chelsea – all priorities for this trip – and so the quick update posts have lagged.

There are certain images from the last few weeks of travel that stick with me, however, and here they are. No particular order, just a brain dump with some photos to help tell the story.

  • Sunset and morning walks on beaches watching seals and birds frolic in the surf. Given the late season, we are so lucky to have had almost entirely blue skies to explore the beaches and forests of Oregon and Northern California.

    Exploring the beach.

    Exploring the beach. (Cape Blanco State Park)

  • Listening to Chelsea giggle hysterically – one of the best sounds in the world – when I pick her up by the elbow and help her skip on the beach.
  • Searching for great food amid the greasy spoon cafes and $$$-on-Yelp seafood restaurants. We are so spoiled by amazing cuisine in Portland. Bandon had some amazing grub (The Loft and Edgewaters), Trinidad had some great vegan food (The Lighthouse Cafe), Ft. Bragg had a great vegan breakfast cafe (Cafe 1), and Mendocino’s Good Life Cafe & Bakery with the best pecan pie everrrrrr, and a lifesaver on a cold rainy day.
  • Running solo on the Avenue of Giants through the redwoods on silent trails with just the sound of my breath puffing in the cold air.

    This one's for Margi. Stretching: an imperative part of anyone's exercise routine.

    This one’s for Margi. Stretching: an imperative part of anyone’s exercise routine.

  • Chelsea making me stop the van to help herd a frog out of the way. Me: “He’ll move.” “No he won’t. DON’T drive!” (At least it was in a campground and not on a highway…geez she loves animals.)
  • Reading a good book by a crackling fire with the wind howling outside. Loving the iPad and ebooks for this trip.

    On the beach near Crescent City.

    On the beach near Crescent City.

  • Getting a knock on the van door while parked at a visitor center in the redwoods. Why hello, Park Ranger. “Sorry to wake you.” (Huh? It’s 11:30 am. Is my hair that bad?) “We got a report that you’ve been camped out here a couple days.” Me: “Oh, we actually move at night. This is the only place in this park where I get reception for my wifi hotspot since I’m working from the road.” Problem solved – she was super nice.
  • Late-night dinner of mashed potatoes in a waffle cone in Trinidad, a tiny little town north of Arcata. That’s a new one!
  • A morning paddle in a canoe on a light work day. Slicing quietly through the water watching geese and then hiking through sand dunes to the ocean.

    Chelsea, the intrepid explorer.

    Chelsea, the intrepid explorer. (Point Arenas)

  • Freezing our butts (and fingers and toes) off. Mostly outside, but it is definitely tougher to keep a van warm when it’s 26 at night, even with a heater and insulation. Hooray for heating pads and a lofty comforter. We’re gonna make it!

    Chelsea knows how to stay warm in an ice age.

    Chelsea knows how to stay warm in an ice age.

  • With all the driving, plus no longer working at a standing desk, I can already feel my hamstrings and hip flexors contracting me into a Gollum-esque pose.
  • To combat the above, a candlelit evening yoga in Arcata for a welcome retreat from the cold rain outside.
  • Working from some seriously random locations. In no particular order: a rest stop, the passenger seat of the van going down I-5 while Chelsea drives, a variety of restaurants and coffee shops, a laundromat, the western-most point in the U.S., next to a 10-foot-tall seagull made from found plastic beach trash, on a dock, from a streambed in the middle of the redwoods, from an estuary watching cascading ripples of shore birds… Technology is a wonderful and empowering thing in some ways.

    Morning frost at the beach.

    Morning frost at the beach. (MacKerricher State Park)

  • Waking up every morning in the cozy cocoon of our van, often taking a second to recenter my compass and figure out where we are!
  • Driving at night on twisty coastal highways, yellow dashed lines rolling off into the distance. Deer grazing on the sides of the road, mice skittering across.

    Night driving.

    Night driving somewhere in the redwoods.

  • Overnight parking anywhere and everywhere. Our van looks more like a surveillance vehicle than an RV and it is easy to sneak incognito into a neighborhood, drop the blackout curtains and kick back in our house on wheels. As Chelsea’s mom innocently asked the other day when we mentioned all the vagrants and panhandlers in Arcata, “So, you just park on the street with all the other vagrants.” Yes, yes we do Linda. You must be so proud.

    From the 1930s, a 11-foot-diameter hollowed out redwood made into a camper van. Our Sprinter has nothing on this.

    From the 1930s, a 11-foot-diameter windfall redwood donated and made into a camper van by a guy who used the rig to spread the preservation message. Our Sprinter has nothing on this.

  • Listening to nature outside the van: crashing waves, rain on the roof (infrequent so far!), wind in the trees, ravens croaking, squirrels duking it out. It feels very up close and personal in a van. Not quite the exposure of a tent, but certainly not the protective moat feeling of a house.

    Hiking in the redwoods.

    In the redwoods prehistoric jungle. (Tall Trees Grove, Prairie Creek State Park)

  • Similar to above, connection to nature: instant access outside our van to hiking, biking, and exploring. This was a big part of our reason to travel in a van, as it saves the trip to get TO nature. Trade-offs, of course, since we don’t have the amenities of the city, but so far a very good exchange.

    Hiking in Tall Trees grove.

    Hiking in Tall Trees grove.

  • Tossing a football on the beach with a young kid from Kansas. I always run a receiving pattern when I see somebody with a football to see if they’ll throw it to me. Often, they do, though sometimes all I get is a wide-eyed “what are you doing?” stare.
  • Finding surprisingly great co-ops down the coast. Lots of bulk food without packaging, which is always hard to find in small towns.

    No packaging party in Crescent City, CA.

    No-packaging party in Crescent City, CA.

  • Silence: Turns out there is nobody around on the NorCal coast in the winter. Most hikes we do are totally alone. Quick story about solitude. Budget reductions in place, the road is closed to Tall Trees Grove in the redwoods. We grab mountain bikes and head out for the seven miles. No big deal. STRAIGHT down the mountain…down down down. It’s bad when you are dreading the ride up before you even start back up. Halfway down, a big black bear runs across the road in front of me. I crank on the brakes so hard hydraulic fluid sprays in my eyes. Or was that adrenaline?
    The hike is totally amazing, with tiny mushrooms sprouting everywhere and 300+ foot redwoods towering over us with a bed of dewy ferns and moss. Not a person to be seen with our wide-eyed stares of gratitude to have this scene to ourselves. The much-feared bike ride isn’t so bad – slow and steady out before it is totally dark. For  me, a  bad day outside in nature is better than a great one inside working on a computer. 

    We'll get outta here even if we have to leapfrog our way.

    We’ll get outta here even if we have to leapfrog our way. (Founders Grove, Humboldt Redwoods)

  • Only a few days into our trip, finding serious inspiration in the project and staying around to work on the project and getting to know the founder. They invited us to use their awesome cabin in the woods for three nights, a marvelous retreat. Thanks Angela and Frank!

    Puffin made entirely of plastic trash.

    Puffin made entirely of plastic trash picked up on the beach by volunteers. (Bandon, OR)

  • Talking to a 23 year old engineer above the beach in Bandon. He’s parked with the rear hatch of his Subaru open, dreadlocked hair waving, playing an electric guitar to the ocean. He’s there in the morning, and later when we bike through, and still there when we drive up for the sunset. “Dude, made $44 bucks today playing up here!” He graduated in June, packed his car and drove to Oregon. Two engineering jobs, both quick – “I can’t settle down man, not yet” – and just doing his thing. Homeless, with a world full of options. Nathan, I wish you well on your journey, wherever that takes you.
  • Getting up before dark to write while Chelsea slumbers away. Screen glowing in the quiet van, tick tick tick. My pen pal friend Pam challenged me to write more – she did 1,000 words per day for awhile – so I’m trying!Learning how to write.

I’m finishing up this post, which I started a week ago in the redwoods, from our cozy van in the Bodega Bay Dunes Campground. Clear, cold night, Modest Mouse on the stereo. Got a great run in earlier and then we posted up overlooking a rocky beach and I took a nap while Chelsea read. Saturday afternoons rock! We are headed to the Bay Area later this week to see some friends from college, which I’m excited about.

Contemplative moments abound.

Contemplative moments abound. (Cape Blanco, southern Oregon)

Be well and stay warm out there, wherever you are.


Why We Traded Our Perfectly Nice House for a Van

People ask why we moved out of our home to hit the road in a van. A reverse American Dream in many ways, right? Stability traded in for the unknown, with all the headaches that traveling daily bring with it. And all the adventures, good or bad. Millennials, through and through!

The nuts and bolts of travel. Laundromats! Haven't been in one of these for ohhhh 15 years? They have wifi now! A great office. :)

The hidden nuts and bolts of travel. Haven’t been in a laundromat for ohhhh 15 years? They have wifi now!

I don’t have a clear answer to this. We are transitioning from holding down the fort, as Colin Wright writes about. After seven years of hard work in Portland, we’ve laid a strong foundation of people, place and work to stretch from, to push some boundaries and explore for awhile.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps life just got too easy? In our 1st-world-problems life, a nice home became merely another thing to maintain, a big time-suck of a residence only to have a place to sleep at night. I feel like I know only what I experience, so time for a new challenge and changing horizons. Plus, we host people constantly at home, and now we’re coming to visit!

Crescent Beach on the Coastal Trail in Northern CA.

Crescent Beach on the Coastal Trail in Northern CA.

The counterpoint: exploring the Beginner’s Mind. Chelsea introduced me to this long ago and describes it as approaching everything as if experiencing it for the first time. Why am I not content waking up in the same place every day and just being, not doing.

As my mother, a Buddhist, likes to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I’m different every day based on experience from the day prior, so my relationship with my surroundings and the people around me is fresh and new. I recognize this “moving on” could just be running from something, yet I don’t have a grasp as to what that is, if anything. Is it just who I am, or a deeper sense of dissatisfaction I can’t pin down?

This post doesn’t aim to address THAT Pandora’s Box – that’s going to take some additional writing and thinking to sort out! I identify with Rita Golden Gelman in that I don’t feel like I’m running away, but rather toward something greater – adventure and discovery. Personal growth, at the very least.

My Beginner's Mind coach, my lovely wife.

My lovely wife.

One truth about me: I’m bored if I’m not learning, exploring, tweaking my systems, or pushing new limits. It’s just who I am. I reset my equilibrium quickly at whatever level of success I attain, so my happiness is often temporary. A challenge becomes routine with boredom leaching in. Time to “get on the cushion” to meditate, as my parents might say.

Whatever the reason, I’m living in 72 square feet because I can’t imagine living in 1,800 square feet. Or doing the same bike rides or runs that I’ve done 150 times prior over the (occasionally rainy) Portland winter. We have no children, our fantastic in-laws graciously are watching our cat (thanks guys!), Chelsea is freed from work and able to be our Ambassador of Fun, and my business allows me to roam while working remotely.

Now is the time to explore for so many reasons, and I feel like we have no excuse NOT to go somewhere. And as a cherry on top, it isn’t even hurting my current or  future business prospects in the way shutting everything down and disappearing for a long period of time would be. Though hanging out at the beach below without a cell phone sounds pretty nice…

Sunset at Haystack Rock on the Oregon Coast.

Roaming’s reward.

One thing I feel the Holding Down the Fort article doesn’t discuss is that there are phases to it. His view comes across as black and white – either you are Barracks Stormer or a Fort Defender – whereas I see periods where you can push boundaries in business, yet live in the same place, and vice verse. Opportunity to explore spiritually while business and physical location are the same probably fits in there too, though I don’t feel qualified to comment on that!

Black versus white.

Black and white.

Whether they are boundaries of borders and new places, or ways of doing business through a new lens, I’m certainly inspired to push limits and create. If we were all revamping systems at the same time, the world would be UTTER FREAKING CHAOS. We need people in different phases of their lives and careers bouncing back and forth between Fort Defender and Barracks Stormer. Right now, I’m in the latter phase for awhile, and I suspect that pendulum will take the long slicing sweep back the other direction eventually. But for now, I’m enjoying working next to an amazing bird watching marsh outside of Arcata in Northern California on this sunny, windy day.

View from the office window bird watching outside of Arcata.

Office for the day.

Here’s to deep, happy satisfaction wherever you are right now. I’m aiming to enjoy this moment, which soon will be a lunch break hike around the marsh watching coots and Northern Harriers duke it out in their Fort!

Lunch time birding watching in Arcata.