People travel for different reasons—some to escape the grind; others to get lost in the culture and the sounds and smells; and some to find themselves. I travel to connect with people and the land, and to explore the inner workings of my human disposition.
A project that started in December 2014 began to gain traction globally, at a rate that Sam, Jonny and I were unable to predict or imagine. Vanlifediaries was initially a concept. Sam and I were fitting out vans into campers at an affordable price for fellow travellers. Travellers don’t have a lot of money and are usually happy just to blaze their own trail. If this involves hiring a campervan, funds can hemorrhage. Jonny, one of my long-time brothers, came to stay at our rental property in Collingwood. Like most old friends, the pleasantries dissolve rapidly and questions of direction and struggle bubble to the surface. Jonathan had some skills he wanted to bring to the table and over the next four hours, we created a team and project. After six months, our Instagram following spiked to 30,000. We orchestrated two Vanlife Gatherings, fitted out several vans and expanded our network of facilitators to five countries and four continents. This trip was about connecting with our American facilitator.
Before touching down in San Francisco, the wheels were in motion. Our plan was to drive south along the Californian coastline and make our way south along Big Sur, northwest to Sequoia National Park and finally to our destination in Colorado, where we were to meet up with one of our main contributors, Kathleen Morton.
A long time friend of ours, photographer and blogger, Zoe Lonergan, let us park on her couch for a couple of days while we waited to pick up our home on wheels and began planning our 12-day tour of the west coast and beyond.
Making decisions on your feet while travelling is kind of like running through a swarm of bees in a forest you have never been in. The focus you need to achieve to keep you from tripping up, panicking or slapping yourself in the face is of high demand. Ashleigh, my partner and I, love adventure and to be on our feet. We like to stop and smell the roses, and sometimes we like to flow with the stream. Either way, we enjoy the journey as it happens, and smile and live with our decisions. Obviously, we only had a couple of states in mind and knew we would only scratch the surface of what makes a place tick, and turn over a few stones where we could.
Zoe’s apartment bordered the Presidio in San Francisco, and we would wake to an array of sounds and smells, chirping birds and the soft breezes coming in off the bay. The best thing about friends who are locals is the experience they can offer. We got to experience our first Thanksgiving turkey dinner and ate some of Adam’s ridiculously delicious mouth-watering sandwiches at his sandwichbar. After a little sightseeing, it was time to saddle up and hit the frog and toad. I’d heard of some good stories from travellers who had rented vans through www.escapecampervas.com. Ashleigh and I live in our VW Transporter back in Australia, so it made sense to find something of similar size and function with kitchen and bed. What we ended up with was awesome.
The Manager, Brian, ran a tight ship and gave us the van run through on arrival at the Escape Campervan San Francisco office. Ash and I are keen cooks, so a kitchen setup is vitally important. The back barn doors opened into a versatile stainless steel kitchen with all the trimmings. Cooking with butane elements are great, compact, handy and safe. Being able to sit inside the van cabin at a table that folds into a bed was something we weren’t able to do in our van back in Oz. It was super comfy and an enjoyable change. Brian threw in extra blankets and snow chains. Heading into the Rockies’ cold weather was going to be a formidable task. Brian also handed us a map, and with a slap on the back, he sent us hurtling out of Frisco. Driving on the opposite side of the road takes approximately 12 days and 14 seconds to get used to. We achieved maybe two hours of typical tourist swerving, swearing and a little driving before the sun started to dive. We pulled up by the Pacific Ocean at Rio Del Mar (south of San Francisco) to cook some pasta and chase some zzz’s.
After some muesli and coffee to boot, we were keen to hit the road. The winding bitumen passed like a blur until we stumbled upon the Pacific Grove, where we stopped to rummage through thrift stores. I had packed my travel bag like a schoolboy going on summer camp: three t-shirts, two shorts, and one pair of jeans, hoody, sneakers and thong. Snow boots were going to be essential. Some might say I was unprepared for the winter; others ,might call me idiotic. Afterwards, we pestered some seagulls with our lunch leftovers. From there, we headed to Santa Cruz and the cliffs of Monterey as we crept on the fringes of Big Sur’s glory. Crossing Bixby Creek Bridge, we pulled up under some redwoods and fell asleep with the ocean’s yawn and breeze coming through the open doors.
The mornings drive had us cross paths with a blogger of a different kind. Chai Americano travels the US with her trailer and travel companion, Mister B, while making coffee and taking photos along the way. Elizabeth offered us delicious coffee, which we never turn down. Then they parted. We etched further south past the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas and onto the palm-fronded Santa Barbara coast. Moe and his good friend, Renata, offered to let us park at their mechanic shop, and we awoke to the chatter of locals laughing and enjoying the Mexican flavors from the back of a food truck. We joined them for some friendly banter and drove on, hooking west and heading back up toward national parks. We love nature as much as the next squirrel and wanted to visit some of America’s best national parks.
Somewhere in Bakersfield, we took a turn and ended up 70 miles in the wrong direction — Kernville. Luckily for us, the small town was full of beautiful people who opened their homes and hearts. Zach, Amber and their good friend, Charlie, invited us to stay in their Motel, Maple's McCambridge Lodge. Rubbing our swollen morning eyes, we drew back the curtains to a breathtaking pink and purple hue sitting on the snowy mountain landscape. Zach gave us our first taste of a breakfast burrito, some coffee to burn and waved us onward. We started for the Trail of a Thousand Giants, but the trail had been cut off a week prior, making it impossible to clear the summit. We had already spent hours in the car the day before, so it made sense to slow down and enjoy the mountainous ranges we were in. We drove on up until we reached the crest and pulled the van over for a tomato, chili and aubergine pasta lunch. After parking the van, we walked around the back to begin cooking, and there, in front of a juvenile sequoia tree, was a pair of hunting boots staring at me. To my disbelief, they were the perfect fit on a perfectly lazy day. Sitting in the van cabin that afternoon, we sipped red wine and gazed out the window with a full tummy, and we couldn’t help but feel very fortunate.
Rumors of bears spread like that of kangaroos and foreign opinions. Until you experience them, your ideas are generally skewed. We were no different. As much as my bravado and lame jokes would try to deflect, I couldn’t help but constantly look over my shoulder or listen for the sniffling of a wet, nosey four-legged beast. Our first and only encounter with a bear was on a bend entering Three Rivers, where we almost collected one in the grill of the bonnet. Deciding on a beverage to settle the nerves, we pulled up at The Gateway Restaurant and Lodge. This divine stop on the gorgeous Kaweah River is at the southern entrance to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Here we met the publican, Glenn, who gave us the keys to Suite No.7 (Cameron Diaz’s suite). We shared stories and laughter into the night with a delightful man named Bob, and watched a satellite fly over. This put to bed our fears of bears.
Traveling in silence, we scaled southern Sierra Nevada. Encountering a giant sequoia is a somewhat reverent experience. Giant sequoias are more than 3,500 years old. You cannot help but be aware of the short amount of time we are given on this planet and how we affect our social community through to our environmental footprint. Feeling small yet empowered, is vital rooting to growing taller. As the great Paul Kelly sings, “From little things big things grow.” We saluted General Sherman, enjoyed Moro Rock as it canvased the scenery, ate lunch, fingered our navels and considered our existence.
On and on we drove toward the crux of this journey, which would lead us to snowy Colorado. Kathleen Morton first came to our attention in early 2015. Her website and Instagram has earned her admiration from afar. Well-crafted interviews, and her take on living small and striving for growing this community has impressed and challenged others on what we consider important. What she continues to achieve is valued by those who know her, and by those scrolling through their phones at lunchtime on the other side of the world. That, in itself, is remarkable.
We arrived in the afternoon with the sun setting on the beautiful small wooden cottage they had just acquired. Celebrating our indifference, Greg, Kathleen’s significant other, stoked the fire and shared his knowledge on permaculture. Blaize, their yellow lab, never took her eyes off the miso trout sizzling in the open fire, and we shared stories and laughed like old friends. We stayed for three days, making fine meals, hiking around Red Rocks, drinking wine and discussing future possibilities and forging new relationships.
Driving away to south Colorado, we had plenty to look back on and more then enough to digest until our next fill of travel. One of our observations that resonated with everyone we encountered was that relationships are all that matter on this planet: Relationships with others, our environment and ourselves.
By Jared Melrose Campbell (@youandiandthesky/@theeveningson)
Thanks to Escape Campervans for making the trip possible.