Camping friends

It’s been a long time since my last post! Lots to catch up on, but we’ve had much happier adventures since we left our strange night in Boney Falls, MI. Our next stop was much closer to civilization – we traveled south from the Upper Peninsula into the Manistee-Huron National Forest, then to the National Lakeshore nearby where we could hike to the beach. Our campsite was about a 5 minute drive from the trailhead, and the hike was a mile and a half to get to the dunes.

We spent three beautiful days on the beach – on the second day, two guys stumbled out of the dunes to ask us if we live in our van, and if we wanted to hang out for the day. We were super ready to socialize so we all pulled up chairs and became instant friends. We exchanged numbers in case they wanted to come back to our campsite (definitely didn’t make it), but didn’t expect to run into them again.

We headed out the next day without a set plan, and ended up about an hour away in a town called Manistee. Just as we were figuring out where to stay that night, our new friends texted us the coordinates of another campsite close by and we decided to head into the woods to meet them.

We camped with them for two nights, and on the second night we all went into “town” to play pool at a bar nearby (town consisted of this bar and a gas station).

You know how in movies when strangers walk into a bar, the music abruptly cuts off and everyone in the place turns to stare? I’d never seen that in real life until we walked in and found a spot by the pool tables. One family actually asked their server to move away from us to a quieter table. I guess Dan’s beard, my tie-dye shirt, and our two new friends from Chicago were a little too wild for such a tiny town. Needless to say, we had fun anyways – one thing I’m learning on this trip is to worry less about what other people think, and to do my own thing.

We had a great few days in the woods with new friends – these three had me dying laughing all weekend, and I have a feeling we’ll all meet again on the road some day.

Thanks for reading!

What’s it like cooking in a van?

“What’s your food situation?”, is probably one of the most common questions I get when I connect with people from home. Long story short, it’s pretty awesome.

The longer story is that it turns out we can make almost anything we would eat at home while we’re camping. When we first hit the road, we took the camping thing to heart and mostly ate burgers and hot dogs, but now we’re actually eating really well.

We decided to get a two-burner camping stove, which seems to be the best option for our set up. We don’t really need more than this, and having two burners allows us to cook everything we need for a meal at one time. Ours runs on propane, which is easy to get at most stores (we’ve been using the mini Coleman tanks, but are considering getting a bigger tank to be more cost-effective).

Something else that’s been useful is one of our prizes that we won in the Midwest Vanlife Gathering raffle. It’s called a Grub Stick, and it lets you toast sandwiches, bagels, etc. over the campfire (it also has a marshmallow attachment). I can see this being a great option for backpacking trips if we want to have a hot meal while hiking.

Our van currently doesn’t have a vent fan, so all of our cooking has to be done outside for now (because safety) which has been great so far, and not really an obstacle. A few campsites we’ve been to have had picnic tables, but for the ones that don’t, we have a folding table we set up to put the stove on. When we’re at a campsite we usually have our easy-up set up, so even if it’s raining we can still make food. This also means we get a great view while cooking! We’ve only been in a few situations where inside cooking would have been the best option, and in that case it’s been cereal for breakfast. If there’s anything I miss, it’s definitely a dishwasher, but otherwise we’ve got a great set up! Thanks for reading 🙂

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Better safe than sorry

It feels like it’s been a while since our last post, and a lot has happened! Since we left the Upper Peninsula, we’ve traveled south down along Lake Michigan. We have stopped in a few places and have just landed at a spot in the Manistee National Forest along the Manistee River.

Along the way, one of our more eventful stops was a campsite we didn’t even call home for one night. A little outside of the Hiawatha National Forest we found a place called Boney Falls that had free camping and we stopped to set up. As we were getting our campsite set up and making dinner, we noticed that a few cars drove into the campgrounds, but nobody stayed. We were the only ones camping there, so this felt odd. As we cooked dinner both of us could hear the faint sound of an engine trying to start in the distance (I should also mention that we lost cell phone service about 30 minutes away from the campsite). Meanwhile, Nala refused to get out of the van. We took a few short walks to gather firewood, but then she hopped right back in and stared intently at us, making us feel uneasy. As the sun began to go down, the feeling of uneasiness became more intense and I could tell that the dog was feeling more uncomfortable. We could still hear the engine sputtering in the distance, and the darker it got, the more I began to feel that it sounded much more like a chainsaw than anything else, especially since we had just walked past a sign riddled with bullet holes.

Even though we were trying to stay busy, we caught each other’s eye and each knew immediately it was time to go. Trusting Nala’s instincts (and our own), we put away all of our things as fast as we could and hauled out of there while we still had a few minutes of daylight left. The first five minutes of our drive away from Boney Falls was dead silent as we tried to shake off the feeling that something sinister might have been about to happen to us. The farther away we got, the lighter I began to feel, and we tried to laugh off what had just happened.

Now, I have no idea if we were just being paranoid, but I have absolutely no regrets about leaving that place – always trust your gut! Better safe than sorry 👍🏼

Stay tuned – we’ve had much happier adventures since then! Thanks for reading 🙂

“The Knock”

It seems to me from looking around the community that every vanlifer has had the experience of “the knock”, and now, we are no exception.

We spent a beautiful night in a free campsite near Hovey Lake in the Hiawatha National Forest, where we hiked with the pup and sat around our campfire.

The next day, we got an early start and headed to a beach on Lake Superior in Marquette, MI. We’ve been relying pretty heavily on camping apps, such as iOverlander and Campendium, which give you information on campsites all over the country. We saw that this beach was a perfect place to stay, with the “unguarded” portion of the beach being dog-friendly, picnic tables, and restrooms on site. I’m a beach person at heart, so I had an amazing day curling up with a book (thanks dad for the recommendation!), and playing with Nala in the sand. We cooked burgers and hot dogs around the picnic tables and called it a night shortly after.

Promptly at 7:30am, we were startled and woken up by a “BOOM BOOM BOOM” on the window of the van. This was our first “knock”. In a daze, I stepped out of the van to speak to a police officer, who kindly informed me that we could not, in fact, camp in this area. It seemed to me he was relieved that we simply didn’t know any better and wouldn’t cause trouble, and thankfully, he congratulated us on our honeymoon and told us to find somewhere else to stay the next night. Even though he told us it would be a beautiful beach day, we packed up pretty quickly and headed to our next spot, feeling like we overstayed our welcome. Moral of the story, do your own research when you find a spot that you’re not sure of! I’m positive this won’t be our last knock, but hopefully we can avoid it by being prepared in the future! Thanks for reading 🙂

Our first Walmart parking lot

If you read my first post, you might have laughed that Dan has been set on the experience of spending the night in a Walmart parking lot, but here we are! Since leaving Shawnee National Forest, we’ve been heading north, aiming for the Great Lakes and chasing the 70 degree weather. Our first stop was circumstantial – I forgot something at home (of course) and we needed to find a spot where we could get mail delivered – thanks mom! It turns out that you can actually get packages delivered to almost any post office as “general delivery”, but we didn’t find that out until afterwards, so we began calling around to campsites that were on the way to our next destination. We got the kindest and most promising answer from a woman at Papa Murphy’s Tavern and Campground in Utica, IL. Yes, tavern-campground combo. Who knew that was a thing? Anyways, she was confused by our request and wanted to be sure we weren’t sending drugs through the mail, but was kind enough to let us get our mail sent to her house, and to bring it to us at our campsite on her day off. She also let Nala sit at the bar, so she’s a gem all around.

We camped at the tavern (lol) for two days waiting for the mail – the first day was a rainy lazy day, but yesterday we got up early and hit Starved Rock State park, one of the State parks in the area. It was a beautiful and super muddy hike, Nala’s favorite. If we let her, I’m pretty sure she would have stopped to smear mud on herself anytime we slowed down.

As we pulled back up to the campsite, so did our friendly bartender with the mail a day early, which meant we could say our goodbyes and hit the road North.

Our destination was about 700 miles away – when we were 2 hours out in Escanaba, MI, we stopped for supplies since our current camping stove was on its last leg. At this point it was already 8:30pm and the clouds were starting to light up with a huge storm that was on its way. It was an easy decision to not set up camp in the dark during a thunderstorm, so we stayed put. Luckily, you can park for free overnight in most Walmart parking lots (many camping stores let you do this as well), so we waited out the rain in our van for the night. It’s a good thing too, otherwise we would have missed a beautiful stop today! Sometimes things don’t always work out the way you expect, but sometimes that’s a good thing. Thanks for reading!

Why did we choose vanlife?

When we first started telling people that we were planning to take off in a van, the most common reactions were, “you’re doing what?”, “what do you mean you’ll be living in a van?”, and “how is that going to work?”. We’re still working a lot of that last piece out, but I can definitely pick out a few experiences that led to our decision.

The idea for a road trip first came up as we were planning our wedding last year. We briefly threw around the idea of having a small wedding and using what was left of the budget to take a trip, but that was quickly shot down by everyone we know who loves a good party and wanted to be part of our day.

Since then, we had put the idea of hitting the road on the back burner. Both of us had great jobs, we had a new house, and life was good.

For my birthday in December, Dan got me a trip to Vermont in March, which we decided to turn into a mini road trip. We went snowboarding for two days, then drove up to Canada through Montreal, over to Niagara Falls, and down into Buffalo for our flight home. At this point, we had recently found out that our lease was ending, so we had some choices to make and some things to talk about. I was loving the trip, and Vanlife had been a whisper in the back of my mind since we drove out of Baltimore. As we sat at a bar in Buffalo waiting to head to the airport to go home, I said, “do you think we can do this for real?”. We loved the road trip and had an amazing time, why not figure out a way to make this permanent? While we sat there, we promised each other that even through the tough questions and difficult conversations we knew we would face, we would stick to the plan and get ready to hit the road.

Personally, I have always wanted this freedom. And for the two of us, it seemed like everything was falling into place to make this happen. Since our lease was ending, we needed a new place to live; I absolutely loved my job, but have different career goals, and we don’t have kids yet (despite Dan’s intense baby fever). If there was any time that made sense, it was now.

As we begin this journey, I truly am grateful for this privilege and freedom, and for me, this is what it’s all about. We don’t have a set destination, and I think that’s really beautiful. We can create our own destination as we go. I think that this experience will open our eyes to how other people live within our own country, and will allow us to tap into a community of people who have decided that grabbing opportunity is worth more than watching life pass by. There is so much more out there than we know, and much more outside of our comfort zone that we can access if we reach for it. We are creating our own home on the road with each other (and with our pup), and this is only the beginning! Cheers to a brand new life and a brand new journey. Thanks for checking us out!

Our First Weekend on the Road

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!