We called it an early night on Sunday night (I’ll get to that story in a moment), and have set up camp at a campsite in Shawnee National Forest. We officially hit the road on Thursday night, May 16th (happy birthday, dad!). We got off to a rocky start in a few different ways – we spent so much time planning this trip that when it was time to go, it seemed like we had done much more planning than doing. Our original goal was to hit the road on Wednesday the 15th, but between getting the van ready to go and packing up our house, we weren’t there yet.
If you know us, you know that both of us are pretty last minute people, so that also wasn’t to our benefit as we hurried to get everything done. Although our goal was to hit the road around 6pm Wednesday evening, we finally finished packing up and cleaning our house around 10:30. I headed to my parent’s house, and Dan drove to his dad’s, where we had been keeping the van for the past few days. The next day was hectic and filled with errands and tying up loose ends, while still packing and working on the van. When we finally pulled out of my parent’s driveway around 10pm on Thursday, the van was nowhere near ready, but we were determined to hit the road.
We made it about two hours before both of us were too tired to drive. For some reason Dan was set on sleeping in a Walmart parking lot (because you can do that for free), but we couldn’t make it that far and stopped at a rest stop in West Virginia outside of Morgantown for the night instead. We didn’t make it very far, but as I laid in our new bed in our new home and heard the rain on the roof above me, I felt free, and ready for whatever was next.
We were set on making it to the Midwest Vanlife Gathering in Southern Illinois and had about an 11.5 hour drive ahead of us when we woke up the next day. The drive was uneventful, minus the bug that smashed into Dan’s sunglasses as he was driving (good thing he had them on), and the dog throwing up in the back immediately after breakfast. We arrived at Camp Manitowa for the festival later in the evening and grabbed a spot underneath a lamppost so we could see what was going on inside the van.
If I could sum up the Midwest Vanlife Gathering in one word, it would be “reassuring”. It was such a cool experience to be surrounded by people who understand what we’re doing, and who want to share their knowledge about this lifestyle. That was the main reason I wanted us to start our Vanlife with this experience, so we could begin by feeling like part of a community, instead of “holy shit we just drove away from our whole lives, now what?”
We met some amazing people, got really great ideas, and also won some super cool stuff in the raffle! I got way too excited when our names were called, but hey, I don’t win stuff very often. We ended up with a coffee maker plus some campfire cooking tools – I also added these laundry bags to my wish list, which I will be buying ASAP.
Let me loop back around to our “early night” tonight. When we left the Vanlife Gathering, we decided we didn’t want to travel very far to our next destination, since the weekend had been filled with so much driving already. Camp Manitowa is close to Shawnee National Forest, so we decided to head out into the woods. Our first stop was Jackson Falls Campground, which it turns out is mostly just walk-up camping where we couldn’t take the van. After a VERY bumpy ride down a muddy dirt road, we discovered that we wouldn’t be able to park there, so stopped for a quick hike before hopping back in the van. On our drive back up that same bumpy road, we made it all the way to the top. Just as I was saying, “great job, Dan!”, we hit the last pot hole, and all of our kitchen things came raining down from our storage space, onto the dog (she’s fine) and onto the floor (huge mess). Not sure if we should laugh or cry, we pulled over to check the damage – everything that broke was at least contained in a box, but there was rice everywhere and we realized at that moment that we forgot to bring a broom. Since our next camping option was about 5 miles up the street we decided to keep going and deal with the mess once we parked.
Fast forward, we got organized, cleaned up the kitchen catastrophe, and set up for dinner. Feeling extremely accomplished and proud of ourselves, we both sat down to eat our first cooked meal outside the van, when we heard a rustling in the trees. Nala started to growl, and I saw eyes peer back at me in the reflection of my flashlight. In the exact moment I said “it’s only a raccoon”, howls erupted in the distance. Now, I know that there are no wolves in Illinois (right?) but we panicked, grabbed everything, and got inside as fast as we could. We were laughing about it a few minutes later, but decided that an early night was the move after a day full of mishaps. I guess tomorrow we’ll try to shake the Baltimore off of us and try again!