Travel, PhotoBailey Tann

dipping our toes into vanlife: California

Travel, PhotoBailey Tann
dipping our toes into vanlife: California

Weeks leading up to my June 6 launch date to Phoenix, my van was in and out of different shops. She got a new transmission, tires, all new belts, brakes, and even a revival of her old AC. She was wiped from top to bottom, swept out dozens of times, carpet and upholstery washed and dried. I drove her around, waiting to break down. When she didn’t, I knew she was ready to hit the road. Her name is Lucy. She is a 1984 GMC diesel. Yes 35 years old. And YES, a diesel.

I had eighteen hours to drive to Phoenix in two days, one night in New Mexico. Though I had tried to learn as much about this old beast that I could, I still left completely unsure what the next two weeks were going to look like. And in order to enjoy them, I had to completely surrender to any possibility. Would I make it to Phoenix? Would we have to use Celeste’s car to continue? Would I break down in the middle of Kansas only to get towed back and completely regroup? I wasn’t thrilled about the worst-case-scenarios, but knowing this was fully a taste of what my life would be like living in this van, I started to feel okay without control.

The second thing Lucy taught me on that first day— stop and smell the roses. We were moving, but Lucy likes to take her time. Sweet spot- sixty mph. Look out the window, let others pass you. And forty-five mph is top speed for climbing. Wave to the new cars that fly by effortlessly. Flip-off the cars that don’t take into consideration how long an old diesel takes to finally get up to sixty mph as they slow in front of you and effortlessly accelerate when they please. Seriously, I just put on my cruise control. Hang back with the big rigs and trucks pulling campers. Our new posse.

When I made it to my campground in New Mexico, I had more hope for the trip. I underestimated this van- she has miles and miles to go. And her cabin AC— so so cool. I climbed into bed and slept in luxury, feeling so strange inside a van rather than a sleeping bag and tent. Lux-ur-y.

After making it to Phoenix and surviving the 18 hours alone without an aux input (woes), we ran our errands and prepped the van. Lights in the closets, broom, trashcan, velcro for cabinets, curtains secured, jumper cables check. The next morning we hit the road and made it to the Alabama Hills in California, overlooking Mount Whitney. Still not knowing exactly how the propane worked, or even the water, we spent the evening at camp reading manuals and trying to figure it out. When the manuals were still over our head, I asked a neighboring camper for a little help. His name was Randy, and to my surprise, he had had a very similar model campervan many years ago. He was happy to help us, pointing out the propane tank and the handle to turn it on and off. He schooled us on fresh water v city water hook ups, taught us how to drain our water tank and fill it up. He explained what our battery would power while we boondocked and how to light the stove. By the end of it all he was covered in dirt and grease, but still so happy to help. We thanked him and wished him and his wife well on their fishing trip, so grateful to have met people that taught us everything we would need to know for two weeks. We made tuna mac-n-cheese and played Lizzo loud in our van, experiencing a new kind of camping. Glamping. The next day we made it to Lake Tahoe.

We found a dry campground for $14 for the evening. The increase in elevation made perfect weather for jackets and wine by the fire. We had planned to head out for a short hike, but were quite literally stopped in our tracks. Event #1: As we back out of our campsite, our footboard on the passenger side made it right over a giant rock that lined the road around the campground. It sounded awful, worst-case-scenario we had just completely totalled the van and every exposed part underneath. Upon further inspection, I was so relieved to find the body of the van completely untouched. Instead, the foot board took all of the damage, and the giant rock we had backed over made it impossible to move forward or backwards without extreme damage to the van. I guess we aren’t going hiking. Another act of human kindness on day two, people from all over the campground came by and assessed the damage. A couple of the park rangers came to help but we were at a loss of what to do. We could not move forward, backward, or move the rock at all. A group passed by, stopped briefly and suggested we try to dig a hole under the rock so it would fall into it and we could pull away. One of the rangers began digging the hole and we set idly by feeling kind of useless. The rock was HUGE, and therefore needed a huge hole and lots of effort. Another good samaritan came by and immediately began helping. He grabbed a branch to wedge behind the rock. As the ranger dug and our new friend used the branch to help, we finally watched the rock slowly fall into the hole. Forty-five minutes after getting stuck on the rock, we pulled off and directly back into a campsite, thanking everyone over and over and feeling so grateful, yet again, for all of the wonderful people in the world.

The next morning, (without my camera :*( ) we hiked eleven miles around the southwest Tahoe shore. We returned to Emerald Bay, where we first met Tahoe years ago and kayaked its shores. Still just as beautiful (and just as busy) we ate our packets of tuna on the beach while watching the blue waters lap onto the shore. Debating and ultimately deciding to move on, we made it back to the van and drove halfway to the Redwoods, where we stayed somewhere around Yuba City.

The journey to/through the redwoods was touristy and mountainous. We passed lots of little towns and shops, but none better than Confusion Hill. The giant totem pole caught my eye, but we stayed for the gift shop. I’m still very unsure what goes on behind that building— some sort of train ride to defy all odds. I was just there to enjoy kitschy gifts and decor.

There are many different parks boasting the best views of the Redwoods in the area. While I was planning the trip I was overwhelmed by the options of parks to stay, places to see. I settled on Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Though the campground was full, we winded down the long gravel road to the shore anyway, determined to do a hike in Fern canyon. We found that Lucy was able to make it through small creeks and down steep slopes on low gear. The drive itself was beautiful, a narrow winding road surrounded by redwoods like a green tunnel in a lush forest. We finally made it to the trailhead and wandered into the canyon. The trail itself— unmarked and not clear at all. Maps were no help. But strolling through the canyon was enough, and honestly pretty eerie. A family out of our site was hiking ahead of us and talking (or shouting?). Their echoes were not human, and the hairs on my neck began to stand up. I pictured big cats, hunting us on the land above. Surrounded by walls of ferns and winding deeper into the canyon, we finally spotted the family and relaxed.

Eager to get to Portland, we decided to make it to Crescent City, CA that evening. We stopped on the coast to watch the sunset (and do yoga poses for cool pics) and further into the city to admire the cotton-candy skies, before boondocking in a Casino parking lot that evening, enjoying once more the luxury of glamping and the security of walls and a roof.

Photographer on the road