I am a man who hates to plan. This is a quality that has had several repercussions in my life. The most predictable outcome is that I’m rarely prepared for anything. The other effect is that I tend to have pretty good flexibility in my schedule. As June rushed up to meet me in all of its summery and joyful unemployment, this lack of planning was quickly becoming a stressor.
In the time I had spent in California, I wasn’t able to save up nearly as much money as I was hoping. True, I had my housing and a majority of my food taken care of, but the salary was low and unexpected expenses were high. The van had a considerable number of stays with various mechanics, which don’t come cheap. A $660 parking ticket earlier in the year that still makes grind my teeth with frustration, and the recent new set of wheels and brakes weren’t free either.
So while I understand that I’m in a better financial place than many people in this world – I wasn’t exactly thriving. And I wouldn’t be able to spend the next several months job searching and traveling without dipping into reserves or seriously affecting my credit score, or both, knowing my penchant for surprise expenses.
In addition, I had a tragically serious crush on a girl. As I mentioned previously, a fine young lady named Jenn had recently taken my heart. Given my nomadic lifestyle, I had successfully avoided any sort of romantic entanglement thus far (no doubt this was helped along by the fact that I lived in a van and showered about as often as I did laundry). But alas, my obstinate skin was cast gleefully aside when this fantastic creature entered my life. And now, after so short a maturation, I was facing the loss of a relationship that had barely begun. Adding this to my monetary problems made me a miserable character.
And so, when Jenn casually mentioned that she’d be able to find me a restaurant job on Long Island, where she was going for the summer, my head nearly exploded. I played it cool for a day or two while I weighed the pros and cons of such a decision (pros: job, money, girl, possibly a place to live; cons: Long Island doesn’t have mountains), then said yes. Several times.
A number of people from camp had already decided to make a road trip back east once the season had come to an end. I had figured that I’d join them and go about halfway, stopping back home in Minnesota to bum around for the summer while I figured out my next job. With the promise of a job at the end of my trip and a beautiful travel partner, my spirits were soaring as I pulled the van out onto the Rim of the World Highway for the last time.
Our mountain home dwindled into the distance, and we headed south. There were a couple of good friends of mine from Madison that I had managed to avoid seeing for the last 6 months, so this was my last chance to redeem myself before leaving California. We made it to Irvine in time for a toddler birthday party attended by a solid dozen or more children under the age of 8. Naturally, I had a blast and ruined a shirt playing “tiger” with a delighted crowd of youngsters. I was far too exhausted to get back on the road that night, so we crashed with Paul and Kristy – the ones that I had ostensibly come to visit, although my time had been spent mostly getting grass stains on my knees and dodging toddler tackles.
Paul and Kristy’s son Paul (“small Paul” as opposed to his father, “tall Paul”) kept us into the mid-afternoon the next day. I am simply unable to leave a child, especially when he’s as delightful and hilarious as small Paul. Paul and Kristy, if you guys ever need babysitters, Jenn and I are available. You may have to pay for airfare, but we’re definitely willing to let you do that. For real!
Since our road trip homies had gone north instead of south, we were already behind schedule. Making a couple stops in Irvine to load up on supplies before we hopped on the highway put us even further behind. Instead of skipping the most beautiful part of our drive to catch up, we decided that we would meet up later in the trip and enjoy the coastal highway while we could.
We attempted to find a campsite on the beach, but this proved fruitless. When we finally found a “campground” that had openings, they denied our entry, since we didn’t have a fully integrated bathroom in our “RV.” I wanted to point out to the man behind the gate that there were two Porta-Potties at the entrance of the narrow strip of beach that they had the gall to call a campground, but that and the $45/night fee was the last straw for me. We drove off into the Los Padres National Forest until we found a secluded pull-out and set up camp. We had some twilight left, so we made food and set up the bug nets. Insects, which really had not bothered me since last summer, were abounding. The old nets still worked relatively well, but our interior lights had already attracted a veritable hoard of tiny creepy crawlies. Much of the evening was spent swatting and shrieking at surprise gnats and moths. The next morning, the ceiling of the van looked like a Jackson Pollock piece.
Rolling back down onto the highway the next day, we passed by the nations smallest post office. Amazing what treasures there are out there…
The day was warm, though the coastal breeze circulated our air as we circled the wheels. Our goal was Big Sur, the rugged oceanfront area that separates southern California from its neighbors to the north. We stopped often here, and for good reason. It’s stunning.
We stopped at the Ragged Point Inn, which marks the approximate entrance to Big Sur. We could have bought lunch, but being the budget minded people that we are, we instead brought tortillas, hummus, and spinach with us to the lawn on the tall coastal cliffs. It could have been a nice and clean lunch, but I decided to bring a mango (we got a great deal on mangos a couple of days ago), and got mango juice all over myself. There's no way to eat a mango cleanly, and especially when you don't have running water. I cleaned myself up in a bathroom, and we trundled happily along the twisting rocky highway.
As we wound around another jutting outcropping, we passed some people fashioning what looked to be a treehouse out of weathered driftwood. We looked at each other and shrugged. In the next moment, a sign whizzed by with the word “Treebones” on it. Jenn started in her seat, and I made an about face. The driveway for this place was a series of switchbacks that climbed the hillside that had been hugging our starboard side. Jenn had heard about the place previously, and we decided to check it out. It’s an amazing little resort with tiny yurts and cottages overlooking the ocean. We even snuck our way into a spot they call “The Nest,” a cozy, elephant-looking nook made of branches with a perfect view of the Pacific. It seemed to be the finished product of what we saw under roadside construction. We also happened upon the most heart-meltingly playful kitten romping among the undergrowth. We played with the little darling for over an hour, and may or may not have seriously discussed adopting it as a van cat. I still think that we should go back.
Once we were through Big Sur, we found a soft shoulder with a few vans parked along it. Calling it a night, we were blessedly free of the insect life abounding from the previous evening.
The next day we attempted to really cover some ground. Inadvertently aiding in this, I got turned around in San Francisco, and in one of my worst navigational moments since acquiring the van, I didn’t realize that we were no longer driving along the coast until we were a solid hour past the city, and miles away from the oyster shack that I had intended to be our lunch stop. To be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to the road. My co-pilot was napping, and my mind was wandering. The uncertainty that I’ve been trying to embrace decided to rear its ugly head, and with nothing to distract me, I spiraled into a dark place of worry and stress. Money was tight, and I was traveling across the country. What was I doing on vacation at a time like this? And dragging this perfectly good person along with me? What if I couldn’t find a job in New York? What if Jenn realized what a weirdo she had gotten herself mixed up with and I was stuck out East with nowhere to go? What if the van broke down for good and I had to start over?
By the time that Jenn roused and asked where the ocean had gone, I was a mess. Upon realizing my now obvious wrong turn, I attempted to find a cross-road that would bring us back west towards the sea. It ended up being an insane, pothole studded backwoods road with twists and turns that reminded me of rural Virginia. After swerving around a hole in the road and nearly colliding with oncoming traffic, I screeched to a halt at a pull-off. I needed a break, and the steadily building heat was compounding the fog and stress in my reeling head. Poor Jenn looked on in silent astonishment as I put the van in reverse, hoping to score a parking spot out of the oppressive sun. As my wheels turned in the roadside loam, the rear right tire entered a leaf-covered ditch, and my corner of the van left the ground and hung in the air. Jenn had the correct response, which was to laugh and shriek at the absurd circumstances. My reaction was to swear and panic. Thoughts of getting a tow truck out here flew through my overheated and overreacting mind until I found the right application of gas and steering that allowed the vehicle to inch forward and crash to rest on the soft forest dirt.
It was a low moment for me. I took out the keys, sat in the back of the van, and pouted. I grabbed a cold PBR from the fridge and held it against my forehead. Sure, I had probably had meltdowns like this in the past, but never in the company of someone else – much less someone with whom I was trying to build a healthy relationship. I was embarrassed, and I had no one to blame but myself. What was going on?
I sat in self-pity and confusion, with a half of a cheap beer in my hand. I got up to find a spot in the bushes to relieve myself. On my way back, I glanced across the road, and noticed a small movement under a low tree. Looking closer, I made out the delicate features of a fawn nestled in the undergrowth. With a fence about six feet behind it, and the road no further on the other side, the poor thing had precious little real estate to work with. A logging truck roared precariously by, kicking up dust and leaves that swirled around us little creatures and our makeshift homes. I smiled and poured out the rest of my beer.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
-Matthew 6:34 (NIV)
I sheepishly returned to the van and my poor bewildered partner. We talked and laughed at the silly situation we had found ourselves in. We watched the fawn hunkered across the road for a while, then decided to head back to the highway. We’d be foregoing the coastal highway in favor of the faster route north, Highway 101, with the eventual goal of hitting Portland, Oregon.
Without the coastal winds to cool us, the heat was brutal. The Los Angeles area was experiencing a triple digit heat wave, and the van was holding in the heat like a fish stick. Just south of Mt Shasta, I pulled off the road for a mandatory cool-off stop. Jenn, who was hoping to see the mountain before sunset, was disappointed, but there’s only so much sweat that can soak into my seat before I need to get out of it. We saw Finding Dory at an air-conditioned movie theater, indulging in my greatest weakness: piles and piles of popcorn. Emerging from the theater to the setting sun and cooler temps, we made solid progress to the Oregon border, finding a well maintained rest stop for the night.
In the morning, we scuttled across the road to an RV-infested campground to use their showers. After three days of sweaty travel, we wanted to smell acceptable for my friends in Portland. The showers were luxurious. Large and abounding with hot water, with nice tiled bathroom areas and shelves to set toiletries. Truly a stand out a world of mediocre shower houses.
In any case, we washed thoroughly, shaving and deodorizing ourselves before getting back on the road. Some of the better friends that I’ve made in this mortal coil of mine live in Portland, Alex and Caitlin, and they just happen to be married. Their wedding was magnificent - the kind of event that makes you dread planning your own, since there's no way that it could ever hold a candle to what they had. We met them downtown at a food truck pod, where we spent most of our time indecisively pacing the block, figuring out what to eat. I settled with bibimbap, from an Indonesian place, and was very satisfied. We topped off the lunch with ice cream from Salt & Straw, and I had a sourdough strawberry scoop – part of their fermentation series of flavors (I tried, but didn’t order some other flavors, some including olive oil and fish sauce). It’s easy to laugh at hipster artisan overthought ice cream, but you’ve gotta try it. It’s fantastic.
Jenn and I spent the afternoon getting lost in Powell’s, one of my favorite bookstores on the planet, and explored downtown Portland. We met up with Alex and Caitlin to watch the sun sink from the top of Rocky Butte. We spent the evening in an old school that had been converted to a bar, exploring the classrooms, reminiscing, and enjoying local libations.
The next morning, we left after being loaded up with cheese and food from our wonderful hosts. They pointed us in the direction of a good bakery in the area, and we took off. The bakery helped to start a theme that would continue through to the end of our roadtrip: bread and cheese. An early lunch of delicious warm red bread and the right combination of cheddar, gouda, and pesto farmer’s cheese set us from Portland with great reluctance.