Little did I know when I acquired this yellow bandana in 1991 that it would be with me longer than the Pontiac I had purchased just one year earlier; a car that I assumed—for the better part of three decades—would be with me always. But way back then, I would never have guessed that my taste in travel would evolve to its current state, and now the LeMans is on the market, waiting for its new owner. Still, there’s no reason that this bandana—which has been peppered with road dust across hundreds of thousands of miles of North American travel—can’t continue to ride along as I explore new corners of the continent in my next vehicle.
I got an excellent taste of the road ahead during last month’s western excursion. In a borrowed 4WD GMC Envoy, I set out to do something I had never before attempted: complete a long road trip without spending a single cent on lodging. And I pulled it off quite easily. Motel charges have always been far and away the biggest chunk of any journey’s total cost. But this year, I traveled for 15 days and covered more than 4000 miles, all for less than $900 worth of gas and groceries—the trip’s only expenses.
In recent years, each motel stay seemed to be more unpleasant than the one before. And frankly, those experiences are the primary driving force behind my desire to purchase a vehicle that’s big enough to be a home away from home. This trip in the Envoy was a great way to test out the transition from conventional lodging to vehicle camping. With the rear seats folded flat, and the simple addition of an air mattress and sleeping bag, I had exactly enough room the stretch out at full length; not an inch to spare on either end. Even so, I was perfectly comfortable and slept surprisingly well each night—a much more satisfying sleep than I’m used to from nights in motels or tents. If I can be that cozy in an SUV for two weeks, a nice roomy van with a real mattress is going to feel like a luxury suite. Here’s hoping that I’ll never have to spend another night in a motel while I’m on the road.
So lodging charges are now relegated to the “good riddance” file, joining the fees that one has to pay at developed campsites. Whenever possible, I’ve avoided pay-to-stay campgrounds; the few I’ve experienced in years past were just as noisy and irksome as motels. You know from reading this blog that my preferred way of enjoying the wilds of North America is through dispersed camping on federal public land—national forests, national grasslands and BLM lands—and I’ve been making the most of these tranquil no-cost campsites for quite some time. But with each season, I’m learning that there are more and more free camping opportunities out there, particularly at the state level, such as in wildlife areas managed by the state DNR (big thanks go out to Jeff at the Iowa DNR for all of the helpful information he shared with me last month). With so many dispersed camping options available, I have a great chance of camping fee-free for the rest of my traveling days.
A key contributor to the deep sleep I experienced on this journey was the isolation of my chosen campsites. And that’s been another big incentive to get out of the LeMans and into a rugged van—being able to make my way to sites that are located deeper in the wilderness, using roads, tracks and trails that are inaccessible to the Pontiac and its low ground clearance. During several of last month’s stops, I had an entire road and all of its potential campsites to myself, because I had ventured down a track so narrow, uneven, rocky or deeply rutted that RVs and vehicles pulling trailers dared not follow.
My recent sleeping bag upgrade was a success, living up to its rating; I was perfectly warm each night, even at 9,000 feet up in the mountains of southern Wyoming, with overnight temps in the low 20s (°F). Even though I’ll be atop a proper mattress in the van, I intend to stick with the superior warmth of the sleeping bag, rather than messing with sheets and blankets.
I’m glad that my tent-camping days are behind me now. And while there’s much to be said for sleeping in comfort at my age, there’s just as much to say about driving in comfort. This was my first long journey in more than 30 years that didn’t see me riding on the back-breaking bench seat of the Pontiac. Driving in that comfortable, modern seat last month did a great deal to reduce fatigue. Heated seats, lumbar support, cruise control…all are going on the “must have” list for my van purchase.
While my van will indeed be outfitted for driving and sleeping comfort, it’s definitely not going to be a showcase of craftsmanship. Many campervan owners are embellishing their vehicles with decorative wood trim and furnishings. I’ll have none of that; no cabinets, no drawers, no countertops, no closets, no fold-out seating or tables…likely, no wood whatsoever. Nor will my van be rigged with indoor plumbing (I’ll shower and brush my teeth outside, as I did last month) or kitchen equipment (I previously addressed the lack of any need for cooking while camping in this blog post). Other than my bed and a 12-volt refrigerated chest for my food, the remaining space will be used to stow my gear—below window level, that is; I want all of the glass in my van to remain unobstructed so I can enjoy the view in every direction. Overall, I’m aiming for an interior that is utilitarian, modest and durable.
In case you’re wondering, I am not looking to hop aboard the “van life” movement. That term primarily applies to full timers who live and travel in their vans all year long. My current formula of taking a trip and then returning home will remain in place; I enjoy the balance of a road life and a home life. But having my own campervan will change a few things about the way I travel. For instance, with the elimination of lodging costs, I’ll be able to journey more frequently than just once or twice per year. And with the superior sheltering effects of a van, a large chunk of the calendar (i.e., winter) now becomes part of “travel season.” Finally, while I was never that excited about touring the eastern half of the country in the Pontiac, my camping experiences last month in the high country of Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest have given me a new appreciation for quiet campsites on the piney tops of hills and mountains. Shorter trips closer to home are now on the menu, and I won’t always have to cart myself two time zones away to revel in some natural peace and quiet. I can choose from a wide range of destinations to suit my mood and my available time, whether it’s just one or two nights at a national forest in my home state, or a six-week epic adventure through Newfoundland & Labrador.
I will not be participating in the rendezvous scene or in other social gatherings that are popular with many van lifers and those in the RV crowd. I’ll continue to steer clear of developed campgrounds, metropolitan areas, festivals, national parks and other places where people congregate. I’ll also be relinquishing the highways and roads and campsites to the traveling public during the summer months and on major holidays. I’ve never been keen on summer travel anyway and I don’t see that ever changing. My goal remains to journey as a solo wilderness explorer, giving myself as much personal space as I can find.
By the way, last month’s “anonymous driver” experience was a new one for me. In my 32 years of convertible travel, the LeMans was a green light for total strangers to approach me and start a friendly conversation. I always treasured those encounters, but it turns out that I also liked being invisible on this recent road trip. No one gave me a second glance; I was just another guy in just another SUV. Sweet.
The Pontiac has always been a useful and eye-catching prop for adding a sense of scale to landscape photos. As for the van I end up purchasing, I expect it to be nondescript and utterly forgettable. And while it may appear now and again in my campsite pictures, it’s a safe bet that future photos and blog posts will focus less on the vehicle and more on the scenery…and my enjoyment of the silence and the solitude.
On the subject of silence, let’s go back a few weeks to my previous blog post, where I wrote about the joy of listening to great music while riding in the Pontiac. Here’s a fun fact about last month’s road trip: I did not use the Envoy’s stereo at all during the entire 4000-mile ride; not a single song heard the whole way; nothing but the sound of the tires on the road. Didn’t plan for it to happen like that, but…
Maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear my favorite music in a vehicle that afforded no view of the big prairie sky overhead. I suppose this long winter break will give me enough time to reset my brain’s music center, and I’ll be ready to wade into my playlist during next year’s first excursion. In any case, boredom never intruded during those 15 days of silence. I’ve never been afraid to be alone with my thoughts, and that time was put to good use—processing everything that I was learning about this new approach to travel, and mapping out my priorities for the road ahead. I now feel that the journeys yet to come are going to be even more rewarding than my initial expectations.
And the cherry that capped this trip was the confirmation that selling the Pontiac was the right thing to do. While I had reservations earlier this year about losing my old friend, the success of October’s journey has certainly made it much easier to let go.