Category Archives: Van Life

In Praise of Visitor Centers

Standard

I like visitor centers, those places of tourist information paid for by states to let folks know all the fun things they can do while in the area. There’s a lot to like at these informational pit stops.

  • Clean restrooms Visitor centers want to make a good impression, so they tend to keep their restrooms impeccably clean. If you’re picky about restroom cleanliness, visitor centers may be where you want to stop.
  • Free beverages When I entered Louisiana from Mississippi on Interstate 20, the visitor center  I stopped at offered free coffee. It was even Community brand, a very popular Louisiana flavor. Years ago the visitor centers in Florida offered tiny paper cups of free orange juice. (Certain visitor centers in Florida apparently still offer free citrus juice to guests!) If nothing else, a visitor center is bound to have a water fountain where you can fill your water bottles.
  • Free state maps  If you’re entering a new state, a visitor center is a great place to pick up a free paper map to help you find your way around. When I looked at the free info at the visitor Center in Deming, NM, I saw paper maps New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas up for grabs.
  • Tourist brochures  Every visitor center I’ve ever been in has offered tons of brochures advertising attractions throughout the state. From pistachio farms in New Mexico to swamp tours in Louisiana, to ghost towns in Arizona, there’s a lot to do in every state. These brochures tell you where to go and what to see and sometimes include money-saving coupons!
  • State tourism guides  All states have a department of tourism and most publish a guidebook to tell visitors what’s special about their particular state. These guides typically divide the state into regions and give details about what to see and do in each region. The guidebooks may also tell about the state’s history, Native peoples, and special foods; they give a good overview of each state. Visitor centers typically have free copies of their state’s guide free for the taking.
  • Informative exhibits  If you want to learn more about the state you’re in, visitor centers often have exhibits explaining the state’s history, its Native people, the flora and fauna of the region, geologic features, and the area’s history.
  • A live person to talk with If the visitor center is staffed, don’t pass up your chance to ask questions of a local. At the visitor center in Deming, NM, a young woman and an elderly man answered all my questions about the town’s annual duck race. Most people working at a visitor center are going to be knowledgeable about the area and the entire state. Ask the worker for directions. Ask about road construction and free camping.  Ask what attractions in the state can’t be missed. Ask what food you should eat and the best places to find them. Ask about upcoming festivals and special events. Ask about the weather. If the people working at the visitor center don’t know the answers to your questions, they can find out for you.
  • A place to stretch your legs Even if you don’t need a paper map or information about tourist attractions, visitor centers are often nice places to get out of your rig for a while and walk around. If the sound of your own wheels is about to drive you crazy, get out of your vehicle at a visitor center and move around a bit outside.
  • Pet walking areas While you’re stretching  your legs, let Fido or Lassie move around too. Many visitor centers have special areas where you can walk your dog and allow it to relieve itself. (Many even offer poop bags to make it easy to clean up after your pet.) You’ll probably need to keep your pet on a leash, and you’ll definitely need to pick up any droppings.
  • Picnic areas  Many visitor centers have picnic tables or at least a bench where you can sit to have a snack or eat your lunch. Some sitting areas are even under shade structures so you can get out of the sun. If you can park your rig close enough to a table, you should be able to pull out your stove and kitchen supplies and cook a complete meal for yourself.
  • Dump stations  If you’re driving an RV with a black water tank, some visitor centers (especially if they are part of a larger rest area complex) may offer a dump station. You can find a state-by-state guide to dump stations at RVdumps.com.
  • Free water for your tanks  Some visitor centers offer free water to fill holding tanks if you have an RV or jugs if you’re living the vanlife. Pay attention to signs telling you if water is potable (safe to drink) or non-potable (not safe to drink).
  • Safe overnight parking  If a visitor center is within a rest area, you may be able to park for the night after you get your fill of tourist info. Overnight parking at rest areas varies by states, but many states do put the “rest” in “rest area” by allowing folks to park for several hours at a time. Once you grab your free state map and tourism guide, get some shut-eye before you get back on the road. If you get to a visitor center late at night and anyone asks you why you’re parking there, just say you want to get some information as soon as they open in the morning.

Now that you’ve considered all visitor centers have to offer, maybe you’ll stop in at the next one you see as you’re tooling down the road.

Caterwauling

Standard

It was our very first evening at Rockhound State Park near Deming, NM, using our brand new New Mexico State Parks annual camping passes. On our way to the shower house, I saw a cat sitting on a rock just outside the campground.

Silhouette of Cat Under Orange Sunset

Is that a cat? I asked, pointing, and The Man confirmed that it was.

It must belong to a camper, I said. My friend Coyote Sue travels with her cat who is allowed to leave the RV and explore the area, so I assumed the cat I saw was a traveling pet.

The Man said he thought the cat had once been a pet who had gotten away from its people and now lived wild in the park.

I didn’t give the cat much thought until we got back to our campsite and The Man suggested we put away the dishes, pots, and utensils we’d left out to dry after washing up after dinner. He said he didn’t want critters scampering over our clean dishware, and he mentioned the cat. I was still convinced the cat belonged to someone camping, so I didn’t think we needed to worry about it sullying our cooking gear. I did think we might need to be concerned about mice or raccoons, so I helped put things away.

We hung out in my van until the sun set, then The Man went off to his minivan to go to bed. He muttered something about the cat as he was getting into his rig, but I didn’t know what he was talking about until i went outside to brush my teeth. From out of the darkness, I heard not just a dainty meow, but loud feline moaning. The cat was close and it was loud. Its call sounded something like this: mmmmROWRrrrr! Of course, it didn’t make this sound once, but several times in succession.mmmmROWRrrrr! mmmmROWRrrrr! mmmmROWRrrrr!

I looked around on our campsite and out in the darkness saw two glowing green eyes. The situation freaked me out. This cat sound was creepy, and the creature was close. What if it were rabid? What if it decided to attack me? I took a step toward the eyes to find out if the cat would move, and it dashed deeper into the darkness. I felt better when the cat showed fear, but I wasn’t pleased when it continued to moan just out of my sight. I stood in the doorway of my van and brushed my teeth really quick. I was glad when my teeth were clean, and I could go inside the van and shut the door behind me.

In the morning we found no sign of the cat. There was no indication it had climbed up on our picnic table or tried to gain access to our cooler or any of our kitchen tubs. We didn’t see or hear the cat at all during the day, but shortly after dark we heard it again. mmmmROWRrrrr! mmmmROWRrrrr! mmmmROWRrrrr!

We thought it was checking our area for food scraps or begging for a handout. The Man thought other campers probably fed it. Between meeting our own needs and caring for Jerico the dog, we had just about all the responsibilities we could handle. Neither of us suggested we try to take in a stray cat.

The cat must have been discouraged by our lack of food offerings, or maybe it was opposed to the three dogs (and their people) that camped next door to us for nearly a week. In any case, it didn’t come around every night. We heard it a few nights during our two-week stay, but it was not a permanent fixture in our area.

The weather was awful on our last night at Rockhound State Park. The wind blew relentlessly all day, and by three o’clock in the afternoon (before we could even begin to prepare dinner), snow began to fall. Around 5pm, The Man braved the elements to cook four grilled cheese sandwiches on our Coleman stove that sat on the picnic table. I was grateful to have something rather than nothing in my belly, but it wasn’t the dinner I’d been hoping for. I wasn’t happy with the cold or the snow, and I was glad to settle down under my blankets when The Man said he was ready to go to his own bed.

Just like the narrator in “The Night Before Christmas,” I had settled down for “for a long winter’s nap” when something disturbed my slumber. I don’t know what time it was when The Man threw open my van’s side door, but i was in a deep sleep when it happened. His voice woke me right up when he asked loudly, Are you ok?

I sat up, was blinded by the light of his headlamp, and asked, What’s happening?

He continued to ask if I was ok. I’m sure my eyes were huge with surprise and confusion.

Once I stopped asking him what was happening, I began to assure him I was ok. Why did he think something was wrong?

He said he’d heard me making strange noises. He said he though I was having a heart attack or otherwise dying.

I was dreaming, I told him as I woke up a little more and remembered. My dream wasn’t scary, so I don’t think I would have been screaming or making other noises of distress. I wondered what kind of noises I could have been making that were loud enough for him to hear but not loud enough to wake me up.

You were in your van and you heard me making noises while I was in my van? I asked him. He said yes, which seemed unlikely to me, but I didn’t want to argue. I only wanted to go back to sleep. I assured him I was fine, and he went back to his minivan, leaving me to snuggle under my blankets once again.

In the morning light, The Man admitted that maybe it wasn’t me he had heard in the night. Maybe it was the cat he’d heard.

It didn’t sound like the cat normally sounds, he explained. Maybe the cat was upset about the weather, The Man conjectured. Maybe the cat was vocally protesting the cold and the snow. I thought a protesting feline was a likely cause of noise loud enough to disturb The Man while he inside his van. I doubted he would be able to hear any noise less than screaming coming from my van when he was inside his.

We packed up our gear and loaded both vans that morning. By afternoon, we were at a new state park where no half-wild felines caterwauled in the night.

Image courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/animal-art-backlight-backlit-219958/.

10 Things to Do Before You Hit the Road

Standard

The day has come! You’re about to hit the road. Maybe you’re about to take a weekend road trip, or it’s the first day of the rest of your life as a nomad. Maybe you’ve been sitting on public land for two weeks and now it’s time to travel to your next boondocking spot. Whatever the reason that you’re about to start driving, here’s a list of 10 things you should do, check, and take care of before you get on the road.

Brown Spoke Car Wheel in Brown Sand during Daytime

#1 Pack supplies you may need if your rig breaks down. Road disasters happen. Be prepared with roadside flares, a flashlight, jumper cables, an appropriate jack, a can of tire sealant/aerosol tire inflator (made by Fix-a-Flat and Slime, among others), a portable air compressor, and any other emergency supplies you can imagine needing. I know what it’s like to have three flat tires between two vehicles and no emergency supplies while camping on remote BLM land. I’ve encountered people with a dead battery and no jumper cables. Do everything you can to prepare for anything that might go wrong.

#2 Check your spare tire. One of the problems during the aforementioned tire disaster was that we couldn’t get my spare tire off its mount. The bolt holding the tire to the mount was cross-threaded and wouldn’t budge. It was like having no spare at all! Check your spare periodically to make sure it’s in good condition and can be removed from your mount if necessary.

#3 Stock up on supplies. Especially if you’re going to a remote location,

First Aid Case on Brown Floor Surface

have enough food and water to last you until you to return to civilization. Get ice if you’re using a cooler for refrigeration. If you take medication, make sure you won’t run out before you get to a pharmacy. Take inventory of your first aid kit and replenish anything that’s missing so you can take care of any minor emergencies. Other items you may need may include sunscreen, toilet paper, paper towels, garbage bags, soap, toothpaste, batteries, insect repellent, propane or butane, and fire starter.

Price is another reason to stock up before you leave a heavily populated area. As I suggested in my post “How to Save Money While Visiting Tourist Attractions,” supplies are going to cost more in remote locations. Avoid paying gift shop and small-town prices if you can.

Idaho Map

#4 Consult your paper map and plan your route. As I wrote in my post “In Praise of Paper Maps,” don’t put all your trust in your GPS. Using GPS is fine, but look at your route on a paper map so you’ll know if the GPS is sending you off in the wrong direction. It’s also a good idea to have an appropriate map handy and the skills to use it in the event you lose signal or your GPS stops working in a remote location.

#5 Check the air pressure in your tires. Proper air pressure increases gas mileage and helps protect against flat tires. If the air pressure is low in your tires, use your portable air compressor (if you have one) to add air, or fill up low tires at your next gas station stop.

#6 Check your levels of oil, radiator fluid, brake fluid, and windshield washer fluid. If any fluids are low, top them off.

#7 Plug in your electronics before you pull out of your parking spot. If you have an invertor, plug in your phone and or tablet so you can charge while you drive.

#8 Top off your rig’s fuel tank. Before you leave civilization, make sure

Person Holding Gasoline Nozzle

your fuel tank is full, especially if you’re heading to a remote location where you might not be able to find fuel. When you come out of a remote location, fill your tank as soon as it’s feasible, especially if you’re heading to another remote location. My goal is to never let my fuel gauge slip below a quarter of a tank, which means I should never run out of gas. Running out of gas could lead to needing a tow and/or a destroyed fuel tank, two things I want to avoid.

Again, price is another reason to fuel up before you leave civilization or once you return. You will probably find better prices on fuel for your rig if you buy it in a place where several gas stations compete for business. If you can even find fuel in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to pay more for it.

#9 Clean your windshield while you’re at the gas station. Trying to see through a dusty, bug-splattered windshield is not just annoying; it could be dangerous too.

#10 Once your engine has warmed up, check the level of your transmission fluid. Park on a level surface before you check. Shift through all your gears before you pull out your dipstick, and leave your rig running while you do your check. If the level is low, top off with the fluid that’s right for your transmission.

These tips are just suggestions. Please remember that Blaize Sun is not responsible for your safety and well-being. Only YOU are responsible for your safety and well-being.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/brown-spoke-car-wheel-in-brown-sand-during-daytime-53161/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/asphalt-box-color-emergency-208459/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/map-navigation-guide-108942/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/car-refill-transportation-gas-9796/.

The AdVANtages of Living and Traveling in a Van

Standard

I wrote this post before The Man and I ended up with a travel trailer and a truck to tow it. If I were single, I’d still be in a van.

I’m a van gal. I bought my first van (with the not-very-nice fellow who is now my ex) almost a decade ago. We upgraded to a newer, better van several months later. We spent two whirlwind years traveling across the country visiting cities, public lands, and music festivals. When I finally left that guy behind, I was homeless for a few months until, with the help of friends, I was able to buy a Chevy G20 of my own and return to van life.

During my time as a vandweller, people have suggested I “upgrade,” especially after The Man and I got together. Yes, we would have more room in a school bus, a travel trailer we could pull behind a vehicle, or a small motorhome. However, what we’d have to sacrifice in exchange for a bit more room isn’t worth it to me. Today I’ll share what I see as the advantages of living and traveling in a van.

Winding mountain road
I was able to navigate this mountain road with my Chevy G20 van.

#1 I can navigate most any paved road (and lots of dirt roads too).  During the second year I worked in the mountains of California, the camp hosts down the road lived in a converted school bus. Halfway through the work season, a wildfire was near, and two of the three roads off the mountain were closed. The bus couple worried about how they would get their rig off the mountain if we were required to evacuate. The one open road was narrow and curvy, and they weren’t sure the bus would make it around the tight turns. I had no such concerns. I’d driven my van up and down all three of those mountain roads and knew it could make it down (and back up again when it was safe to do so) with no problems.

I’ve driven conversion vans from California to North Carolina, Kansas to Minnesota, Maine to Georgia (with lots of crisscrossing the middle of the Unite States), and I’ve never been on a paved road I thought I might not be able to navigate.  Sure there are dirt roads that have caused me concern. I’ve been on  dirt roads I had no business taking my van on, and I’ve been prepared to turn around if necessary. Anybody traveling in a rig without four wheel drive is going to run into the same trouble on some dirt roads, but my van can get around in places where bigger rigs can’t.

#2 My van is (comparatively) easy to park. Granted, I’m not great at parallel parking (confession: I can’t really parallel park at all), but most bigger rigs wouldn’t even fit in a parallel parking spot. My van only takes up one space in any parking lot or residential street. Unless I’m in a busy downtown area where I need to squeeze into the only parallel parking space on the street, I don’t have a difficult time finding a place to leave my van.

Sometimes parking garages do pose a problem for my rig. More than once I’ve been at the entrance of a parking garage before I realized my van was too tall. While that’s a drawback to having a high top, I know anywhere I don’t fit can’t accommodate a school bus, motor home, or even a tall truck camper. My van can (and has) fit into some parking garages, but rigs taller than mine probably won’t have much parking garage luck.

The low-hanging branches in this campground worried some folks in big rigs.

#3 Not only does my van offer enough clearance to allow me to park in at least some parking garages, it affords me decent clearance in general. During my time as a camp host and parking lot attendant, I saw several drivers of motorhomes freak out about branches overhanging the road through the parking lot or above a campsite. One driver of an RV insisted on backing out of the one-way loop through the parking lot rather than continue through when he realized overhead branches were going to scrape the top of his rig. I suppose buses and tall motorhomes don’t utilize too many fast food drive-thrus. In my van, I don’t often have to worry about being too tall.

#4 Not only is my van (comparatively) easy to park, it’s also (comparatively) easy to back up. I didn’t get a lot of instruction on backing when I learned to drive late in life, but especially in the last few years, I’ve had quite a lot of practice. My van didn’t have a review mirror when I bought it, and the two back windows are blacked out, so I use my blind spot mirrors on the sides a LOT. (The Man opens the driver’s door and sticks his head out and looks behind him to aid his backing abilities when he’s driving my van.) I backed into a tree last summer, but other than that little incident, I’m doing fine (knock wood).

Once another vandweller and I were looking at a van that was longer than mine. I fretted that I would never be able to back up something so big. The other vandweller assured me that once I got a feel for the dimensions of any rig, backing up wouldn’t be a problem for me. He’s probably right, but I’d be terrified backing up a big rig while I was trying to learn its dimensions. Could I learn to back up a rig bigger than my van? I know I could, but I like knowing I can do a decent job backing up the van I already have.

Of course, if I pulled a travel trailer behind my van, backing up would pose a whole new set of problems. Could I learn  to back up a rig I was pulling behind my van? Again, I know that I could, but I don’t really want to. I don’t feel the need to complicate my life with complex backing.

#5 If I need to stealth park, my van blends in. Let’s face it, a school bus is not going to blend in on a residential street, even if it’s still sporting the customary school bus orange. If it’s been repainted some cool new color, it’s really going to stand out wherever it’s parked. A small motorhome may fit in a little better, but most people who live in in a house or apartment don’t park their recreational vehicles on the street. An RV parked on the street may call a little too much attention to itself.

I don’t stealth park on residential streets a lot. If I have to be in civilization, I’d rather spend the night blacktop boondocking in the parking lot of a truck stop or a Wal-Mart. However, if the only place I can find to spend the night is a residential street, my van can slip in and look enough like a regular passenger vehicle so that no one suspect I’m sleeping in there.

All the campsites in this campground where covered with snow when The Man and I camped here in May 2017.

#6 Not only can I stealth park in the city in my rig, but I can fit in most any campsite with a parking spur. Yes, I have been to campgrounds with only walk-up tent sites. (I’m looking at you Big Tesuque!)  We were at that campground in the off-season when the entire campground was covered in snow, so we simply slept in the van in the parking lot. However, the majority of campgrounds I’ve been to have offered plenty of room to park my van on the campsites.

While I was a camp host, I saw many people with big rigs have a difficult time getting into the two smallest campgrounds on the mountain. People in big RVs often struggled to find a campsite large enough to accommodate their rigs. I’d rather travel in a small rig that allows me to take nearly any campsite available.

My van’s gas mileage is better than the gas mileage of a school bus.

#7 The Man would tell you my G20’s gas mileage stinks compared to what he gets in his minivan. He is right about that comparison, but my mileage is great compared to what rigs bigger than mine get. The Scientific America article “Teenager’s Invention Saves Fuel for School Buses” says that school “buses…only get 4 to 6 mpg.” I’m guessing a motorhome (depending on its size) gets the same sort of gas mileage or maybe a little better. That makes my 12 to 15 miles per gallon look pretty good. Of course, pulling a travel trailer would reduce my gas mileage even further.

Diesel costs more than gasoline.

At the time I’m writing this post (February 2019), diesel costs more than gasoline. Because my van runs on gasoline, I spend less on fuel than I would if I drove a bus with a diesel engine or a diesel truck I might need to haul a big fifth wheel. Also, I found out when I worked in the mountains, diesel is sometimes not available in remote locations, even when gasoline is.

#8 I’ve had some tire troubles in the past, but at least I only have four to deal with and not six. Not only do full size schoolies and some larger motorhomes have two extra tires to deal with, getting the best, strongest tires capable of handling the additional weight of bigger rigs costs a pretty penny. After reading a few articles about the cost of tires for school buses and Class A motorhomes, it seems a single tire suitable for one of these rigs can run anywhere from $100 (plus a charge for mounting) to $430, with one article estimating an upper range price of $600. Ouch!

Although I do have expensive, strong Michelin tires on my van, they’re in the under $200 (each) price range, and I’m glad to save the money two more would cost.

#9 Because my van is a regular passenger vehicle with a gasoline engine, I don’t have to find a special mechanic to work on it when I have problems. Just about any trained and competent mechanic can repair most any problem. As a bonus, The Man is able to do some of the repairs and maintenance my van has needed. He’s replaced my all of my brake pads and put in a new radiator when the old one sprung a leak.

I know folks with small motorhomes who’ve had trouble finding a mechanic with a shop big enough to accommodate their rigs. All of the vans I’ve owned, including the two with high tops, have fit in every shop they’ve been brought to.

#10 I don’t have to dump grey or black water tanks. Yes, it would be convenient to wash dishes or my hands in my van. Yes, it would be convenient to have a rig with a flush toilet. I’m sure I could learn how to dump grey and black water tanks, and with practice, dumping would become just another routine. However, at this point in my vanlife, I’m happy to be without the burden of staying aware of the levels in grey and black water tanks, finding dump stations, (possibly) paying to dump, then going through the smelly process. I’m content to wash my hands and the dishes outside and find a toilet whenever I have elimination needs. (Of course, I have a system in place for when I’m boondocking.) The lack of black and grey water tanks makes my life a little simpler.

I’m not trying to tell you what rig you should live in. I’m only telling you why I do what I do. By all means, make your own decisions based on what works best for you.

I Needed to Change My Life (an Interview with Ellen)

Standard
Hands arranging fluffy mateiral next to a green bar of soap.
Felting wool shower scrubbies at the first RTArt Camp at the 2018 RTR.

I met Ellen at the very first RTArt Camp in 2018. She camped nearby and attended many of the workshops held during the two weeks of the RTR. She was pleasant to talk to, and I enjoyed her easy laugh. Some of the best times I spent that week were sitting around campfires with Ellen, learning about her life and experiences.

At the 2019 RTArt Camp, I had the pleasure of spending time with Ellen again. She allowed me to interview her and told me why she decided to live on the road full time, how she choose her rig, and what she likes most about the way she lives.

Rubber Tramp Artist (RTA): I am here today with Ellen, and I’ll be asking her some questions about her life on the road.

So am I correct that you are a full-time solo traveler?

Ellen: Yes, that is correct.

RTA: How long have you been doing that?

Ellen: Since June 2017, so a year and a half.

RTA: What’s your rig?

Ellen: A Ford Transit Connect.

RTA: That’s pretty small.

Ellen: It’s teeny tiny. It’s basically like a minivan, but a little bit taller.

RTA: What would you say are your three biggest challenges of living in such a small rig?

Ellen: Biggest challenges are…not having a full kitchen, would probably be #1.

RTA: So you cook outside?

Ellen: Yeah. I cook outside. I can cook inside if I need to, but I don’t usually.

I don’t really have space for people to hang out, to have people over in any type of way.

And…I don’t know if I could think of another thing. I like having a tiny rig.

RTA: OK. Well tell me about that then. Tell me about the three best

Selective Focus Photography of Gasoline Nozzle

things about having the tiny rig.

Ellen: I get really good gas mileage. That was kind of on top of my list.

 I can park anywhere. It’s super stealthy, and I can park in any neighborhood or be in a city parallel parking. Any of that is really easy.

 It just keeps my life really simple. I don’t collect stuff. I avoid the free pile.

RTA: [Boisterous laughter]

Ellen: [joins in with her own laughter]

RTA: Would you say that you were a minimalist or you had minimalist leanings before you moved into your rig and went on the road?

Shallow Focus Photography of Assorted-color Clothes Hanged on Clothes Rack

Ellen: No. I don’t think so. I’ve always loved thrifting and collecting things and having projects. Maybe that’s something that’s hard about having a small rig is that I can’t set up a project and leave it sitting there. Everything always has to be put away in the right exact spot.

I think I’m not super attached to material things in general, but I don’t know if I would call myself a minimalist.

RTA: Is your primary way of dealing with living in the small space that everything has its place and always goes back?

Ellen: Yeah. Exactly. Everything that’s in there has a very specific place where it goes. Usually after a while things start to be a little bit out of place, so then [I] have to kind of unpack everything and repack the whole thing.

RTA: How often do you think you do that?

Ellen: It totally depends on what I’m doing and where I am. Maybe once a month, once every other month, sometimes, depending on the season and what I’m doing. I guess I do it on a mini level every day! 

RTA: Right!

Ellen: [Laughter]

RTA: When you were thinking about wanting to go on the road, did you already have this vehicle, or were you shopping around for vehicles? If you were shopping around, what made you decide on this rig and not something bigger?

Ellen: I shopped around for a long time as I was planning on moving into a vehicle. I looked online at a million different kinds of vehicles. Factors for me [were] gas mileage and stealthiness…the same things I said I love about it and affordability for me and reliability. My balance that I was really trying to find was something that was in my budget that I could afford that was going to be reliable. [Reliability] felt like a safety thing for me, especially starting out as a solo female…if I could, avoiding situations where I was going to be broken down or need help.

RTA: What were some of the other vehicles that you considered seriously?

Ellen: I was looking at bigger vans. I’m definitely drawn more aesthetically to like the cool, older [vans]. That was really where my heart wanted to go.

 RTA: So what year is your current rig?

Ellen: 2011…parts are super easy to get for it anywhere if I need something. It’s very reliable, but it’s kind of boring. [Laughter] It’s just a white box. It doesn’t necessarily fit my personality…

RTA: But in 20 years, it will be the hippie van of its day!

Ellen: [more laughter] That’s true. Alright. Let’s look at it that way.

RTA: What was your impetus for getting on the road? Is it something you wanted to do for a long, long time?

Ellen: It’s not really that farfetched for me. I’ve driven around the country

Brown Wooden Destination Arrow Guide

many times and traveled around the world many times. I guess as I grew older and got into my 30s, my life started getting really routine and kind of boring. I had a career and was doing all the stuff, adulting stuff. Then I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 32, and after going through that…it was just very clear to me that I needed to change my life and get rid of stress from my life–probably the #1 thing–and just to be happy. It’s really underrated! [Laughter] I just knew that this was a way that I could do it, that I could afford to not have a 9 to 5 and that I could also spend a lot of quality time with people I care about. That also felt really important to me after coming through cancer treatment. It was really clear how I needed to give more importance, more time in my life for the people I care about.

RTA: How did your family react when you told them you were going to hit the road full time?

Ellen: Oh, my family’s used to it. [Laughter]  It’s not that farfetched.

A lot of people were like “WHAT?” I think people didn’t really quite realize maybe how serious I was about it. I think people thought I was going on vacation. I think mostly people felt like I sort of deserved a break. I’d been through a lot. I’d been very sick, very sick and sort of stuck in one place for a while. I think people were happy, my family, my community and friends…It made sense to everybody.

RTA: Do they now see that at least for the moment this is the choice you’ve made long-term?

Ellen: Yeah, now I think they get it.

RTA: They see you’re serious about this; it’s not just vacation.

Ellen: Yes. Exactly.

RTA: Let’s talk about challenges and joys again. What do you think are your three biggest challenges to being a young woman solo on the road?

Ellen: I don’t know that it’s necessarily just on the road, but safety in general. It’s not really a challenge, but it’s certainly a factor. Having to think about where I am and what kind of situation I’m putting myself in and never knowing from day to day where I’m going, if I’m going places I’ve never been, I don’t know what it’s going to be like or how I’m going to feel there. So there’s a little bit of constant factoring all this stuff in.

RTA: But not anything that would be necessarily unusual if you were living in an apartment in the city? I mean, you’re in a new place…

Ellen: You mean with safety. You still have to think about that no matter where you are?

RTA: Do you agree or disagree with that?

Ellen: I do agree with that. It’s just maybe a little more noticeable, a little more prevalent

I should probably follow that up, I think…I’ve NEVER had any issues with anybody. Maybe that’s part of it too…deprogramming myself to not feel like that. Probably something I should look at.

Challenges of being a young woman on the road? I don’t know. I can’t think of anything.

RTA: What about your three biggest joys of being a young woman on the road?

Ellen: Life is really awesome! [Laughter]

White Blooming Flower Under the Tree during Daytime

I think just being outside, connecting with the land and putting myself in a position where I am really outside all the time has been really wonderful for me.

The community, the community that I’ve found here is really wonderful. I’m a person who has never really felt at home anywhere, and this community of people for me feels like home.

RTA: Do you mean the RTR community or the Art Camp community or just the nomadic community?

Ellen: It just keeps expanding for me. I think it started with coming to the RTR and getting involved with Art Camp. I’m also part of Mindfulness Camp. I have different groups around…I guess it would be the RTR crowd. It’s expanded through my whole year. My whole life [has] really sort of formed around the communities that I’ve made here.

RTA: You said being outdoors, the communities. Is there something else you want to mention?

Ellen: Also, just to expand on that a little bit—the community—I’ve always been a really shy, introverted person. Not maybe introverted, but shy, and I have just made so many connections out here. That has really enriched my life greatly. I know some people talk about people coming out on the road and isolating, but I have just had the opposite experience. I’ve made more friends in the past couple years than I have in the rest of my entire adult life. Maybe that’s because I’m amongst people I connect with, and maybe it’s just me growing. Maybe it’s this lifestyle.

Another thing that I really love…of course, just traveling, seeing new things, and getting to know this land. I try and get involved in as much as I can, so that’s really afforded me the time to go to retreats and go to different workshops and go to places I’ve always wanted to go. So I think that’s a really healing thing for me to be able to have the time, to give that time to myself to really do some deep healing work.

RTA: What is your favorite new place that you saw in 2018?

Ellen: I traveled all through British Columbia which was really wonderful, going almost all the way up to Alaska. They call it Northern BC, but it’s actually central BC, there’s just nothing actually north of it. [much laughter] They just call the central part ‘north.’ Seeing that area was really special—absolutely beautiful and the rivers there are something to see.

The first photo in this post was taken by me. Other images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/selective-focus-photography-of-gasoline-nozzle-1537172/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/shallow-focus-photography-of-assorted-color-clothes-hanged-on-clothes-rack-1078958/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/sign-arrow-direction-travel-52526/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/wood-light-vacation-picnic-60006/.

Change is Inevitable

Standard

I feel as if my life has been in a constant state of upheaval since The Man and I (and Jerico the dog) left for Quartzsite on January 10th. It seems as if the early part of 2019 was all about chaos for me.

Between early January and mid-February 2019, we decided to buy land, sold the fifth wheel, purged and packed our belongings, bought the land, moved to a new state, and discovered we couldn’t live the way we wanted on our new property. The woman we bought the land from gave us our money back, and we signed the deed over to her.  We were then able to buy a piece of property in Northern New Mexico.

Since we’d left Arizona, The Man and I (and Jerico the dog) had been living out of our vans. After five days on the property that didn’t work out for us, when we realized we’d have to leave, The Man and I each bought a New Mexico State Parks annual camping pass and started bouncing between state parks. While the annual camping pass is a great deal and the state parks in New Mexico are quite nice, we were getting frustrated by our vanlife. I hated trying to cook outside in the dust and wind (oh! the wind!), and The Man couldn’t sit in his rig in a way that was comfortable while making jewelry. Jerico was not one bit happy with the lack of ball-playing in his life. We were all stuck in irritating limbo until it was warm enough for us to start living on our land in Northern New Mexico.

While we waited for winter to turn to spring, I got word that situations arising from my father’s death had been resolved. In a few weeks, I found myself in possession of a truck and travel trailer. Vanlife was over, and now The Man and I (and Jerico the dog) had a tiny home on wheels.

At first I was hesitant to give up vanlife. After all, it’s what I’d known for nearly a decade. I liked the simplicity of getting to the bed without having to leave my rig. I liked being able to stealth park most anywhere and the ease of backing up. Besides, living in my van had become part of my identity. Who would I be without my Chevy G20?

In time, I realized I’m still me, van or no van. Whether I live in a van or a travel trailer or a stationery fifth wheel, I’m still the Rubber Tramp Artist. I’m still living a life simpler than those most Americans live. I’ll still have adventures to share with my readers. I’m still exploring life and creating art.

Yes, there will be challenges associated with this new rig. The Man is currently driving the truck pulling the trailer, but the time will come when I have to learn to haul it and even (gulp!) back it up. What I’ve gained is a newer, more reliable vehicle with 4 wheel drive to get us through the muddy roads crisscrossing the rural area where we will be living. What I’ve gained is a home where the Man and I can both stand up and move around. What I’ve gained is an oven, a refrigerator, and a freezer that makes ice. I’ve decided I’m glad to gain these amenities in exchange for giving up the vanlife hashtag.

While we do plan to stay stationery for longer portions of each year, we’ll still spend time on the road. Our current plan is to get jobs working at a pumpkin patch in the fall and a Christmas tree lot during the holiday season. These are jobs couple with RVs are hired for since they can sell products during the day and provide onsite security at night. If we can earn a large portion of our yearly money in the winter, perhaps we can actually have some fun in the summertime.

So I’ll still have stories from the road to share, as well as everything we learn from our adventures in a travel trailer. As long as I work with the public, there are sure to be stories of nervy, funny, strange, and interesting customers. I don’t foresee any shortage of topics for blog posts.

Of course, I wouldn’t be living in such comfort now if my father hadn’t died. Yes, I feel ambivalent. I’m not glad my dad died, but I am glad to have this beautiful new home. My dad and I had a complicated relationship, so it seems fitting to have complicated feelings about the new way of life his death has led me to. What I do know is that my dad would want me to be happy. He often told me to enjoy life while I was young and healthy. I think he’d be glad I can stand up in my home and make ice cubes in my freezer while I dance in the kitchen as I cook.

What You Can Learn from My Land-Buying Mistakes

Standard

If you keep up with my blog, you know that recently my partner and I bought some land in Southern New Mexico. We didn’t do our homework until it was too late. After we bought the land, we realized we weren’t allowed to live in the land in a van, RV, school bus, or any other temporary dwelling. Today I’ll share what I learned from the experience so you won’t make the same mistakes I did.

In several vandwelling/nomad groups I’m in on Facebook, people often bring up the idea of buying a small piece of inexpensive land in a rural location and using this as a home base. It seems they think, as my partner and I did, that property owners can pretty much do whatever they want on their own land. This is not always the case! Before you buy any land to use as a place to park your van or RV, do your research.

If you’re looking at ads for land online, read the whole thing very carefully and be sure to scrutinize the fine print. When my partner’s sister looked at online ads for land in the county where we were, she found several that were aimed at snowbirds who wanted a place to park an RV for the winter. Near the bottom ad, she found information on the limits placed on parking an RV within the county. If you only want to park your van or RV on a piece of property for 245 days a year (or whatever the actual limit is), great! However, if you want to leave an RV on the land year round while you go off exploring in a smaller rig, you need to know about these sorts of time limits.

The same sister told us that years ago, she and her partner were considering purchasing land in a remote area of Wyoming or Montana. There was lots of land available, but upon close scrutiny, she found the parcels had to either be left empty or a house had to be built there within a specified time period. If you have no plans to build a house, be sure you’re not buying land where building a conventional dwelling it the only way you’ll be allowed to live on your property.

Don’t automatically trust what the person you’re buying land from tells you can be done on the property. While I don’t think the woman we bought land from way trying to mislead us, I’m not so sure about the guy who sold the land to her.  She said she asked him if she was allowed to camp on the property and he told her doing so would be no problem. While she only camped on the land a week or two at a time once or twice a year, keeping her within the limits of the of the county ordinance that says an RV can be on undeveloped property for 30 days out of a year, she was breaking the subdivision covenant which says a temporary dwelling on the property can only be utilized while a house is being built. Maybe the guy who sold her the land wasn’t exactly lying. Maybe he’d been misinformed or assumed. In any case, don’t assume what you are told about a piece of property is true. 

Talk to a realtor if possible. I suspect realtors are held to higher ethical standards because they are professionals. I also suspect realtors are better informed than your average Joe trying to sell off some property. On the other hand, realtors are people too. Some of are unethical. Some are lazy. Some are misinformed. So while I might use a realtor as a source of information, I would use that information as a starting point for my own research. I wouldn’t unquestioningly believe everything that came out of a realtor’s mouth.

Speaking of realtor’s, a former realtor gave me some after-the-fact advice in a Facebook group. She said,


you definitely always want to check restrictions both on the deed and county/city. Also make sure you have legal access to the property. And don’t just go by looks. It may look like there’s a nice access road only to find out that’s not actual[ly] yours legally to use. And as mentioned above make sure there’s no zoning restrictions that would prevent what you want to do.

Doing an internet search on the particular area or subdivision you are interested in can alert you to any controversy surrounding the use of the land. What are landowners complaining about? Do their complaints relate to what you want to do with the land you purchase? Complaints don’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t buy land, but learning about controversy may allow you to go into a deal with your eyes wide open.

Talk to county officials (or folks who work their offices) who can tell you about ordinances, subdivision covenants, and land use restrictions. If you don’t know who to talk to, try the county recorder’s office, the county clerk, the county assessor’s office, or the office of county planning and development. If you call the wrong office, the person you talk to can point you in the right direction.

When you talk to the appropriate county worker or official, explain what you want to do on your land. Be clear and honest. I know sometimes we vandwellers and nomads have to be vague about how we live our lives because bureaucracy is not set up to accommodate people like us. However, I can assure you that it’s NO FUN to buy a piece of land and find out later that you can’t do with it what you intended to. I believe it’s better to find out before you plunk down your money that you’re not allowed to do what you have in mind with the property you are about to buy.

You may have better luck finding a place to accommodate you if you primarily want to own a piece of land to use as your permanent address, but not to live on for several months out of the year. Maybe your plan is to visit the land once or twice a year and live out of your van there for a week or two while you relax or do repairs and maintenance on your rig. This plan may go over better in a rural area than would a scheme to park on old RV or school bus there for long periods of time. I suspect the reason the woman we bought the land from got away with camping there over the course of several years was because she didn’t go there often and when she did, she didn’t stay long.

The bottom line is, know what you’re getting into before you lay your money down. We were lucky; when we realized we couldn’t do what we wanted with the land, the seller returned our money, and we transferred the land back to her. Most people who find out they can’t do what they want on their land will not be able to report this sort of happy ending.

Changes in My Life (and What You Can Learn from My Land-Buying Mistakes)

Standard
Blue sky and wispy grey clouds over sandy land dotted with scrubby bushes.
This is the land The Man and I bought in Southern New Mexico.

The last time I posted an update on my life, it was about how The Man and I were buying land in Southern New Mexico. Well, that was fun while it lasted.

We found the land on a Saturday afternoon in the beginning in February. In reality, The Man did all the work. He used printouts of maps of the area provided online by the county as well as the Google Earth app to find our approximate spot. We knew our lot was the fifth one from the corner, and we knew each lot was just over 100 feet wide, so we used a long tape measure to figure out just where our driveway should go.

The wind was blowing, as we’d been warned it would. This was no little breeze but a strong New Mexico wind. With the wind came dust, and we were out in it with nothing but our vans for protection.

We had a big cabin-style tent we’d used for two summers when we worked in the mountains of California. The Man started setting it up, but before he could stake it down, the wind caught it and blew it around. The Man said the tent was not going to work. We agreed we needed a place for storage as well as somewhere to get out of the wind and dust in order to cook. We drove the 15 miles to Wal-Mart determined to buy a tent.

There was quite a bit of choice on the tent aisle at Wal-Mart. We immediately eliminated anything too small to use as both a storage shed and a kitchen. We also eliminated anything that did not allow The Man to stand upright inside. Next, we eliminated any cabin-style tents because The Man did not think that design would survive the wind.

A large dome tent set against blue sky and grey clouds.
Biosphere 3 before The Man reinforced it by tying the poles together where they crossed and using the rope as extra guy lines.

The tent we bought had no rain fly. Instead, tent material zips down over mesh panels. Essentially there are windows in the ceiling that can be unzipped and opened for ventilation or zipped closed to keep out the elements. At first The Man was worried about the lack of rainfly, but later realized it was a good design for windy conditions. If there had been a rainfly, wind would have gotten up under it, creating stress on the whole structure.

The tent is big and similar to a geodesic dome. I named it Biosphere 3.

The tent has ten poles to give strength to the structure. The poles cross at points around the tent, increasing stability. The poles are color coded and have to be added in a specific order. It is a base camp tent, something to be set up then left alone for a week or two. In other words, it is a real pain in the ass to pitch this tent!

The tent came with regular metal stakes. The Man said those stakes weren’t going to hold against the New Mexico wind. We’d bought earth auger type stakes when we bought the tent, but we found those stakes didn’t work in the sandy soil where we were. (They weren’t worth a damn, The Man says.) We had a few large tent spikes Auntie M had given us before we left Arizona, so we used all we had to hold down the tent. The Man thought the tent needed even more stability, so we drove back to Wal-Mart to get more tent spikes and rope.

The Man ended up tying rope around each point where poles crossed. He then used that rope as a guy line which he staked using a tent spike. These extra guy lines gave added stability to the tent.

On Monday we went to the county building to transfer the land into our names and pay the taxes on it. The Man asked one of the county workers about any restrictions on the land. She directed us to a website where she said we could find subdivision covenants for the subdivision where our land was located.

Yep, our land was in a subdivision even though in reality we were in the middle of the desert with no neighbors and no amenities. The last three roads we took to our place were unpaved. There were no electric lines anywhere near us. We had no running water, no well. We had no mailbox, and I was confident there was no home delivery of mail. Our nearest neighbor was no closer than a quarter mile away, and we were pretty sure no one was actually living in that house. To say we were living in a subdivision was comical, except it was true.

Our plan was never to build a house. The Man and I thought building a house would be too much work. We really only wanted to be on the land six or seven months out of the year, in the winter. We wanted to buy an inexpensive travel trailer or fifth wheel or even an old school bus and leave it on our property while we were off earning money in the summer. We planned to stay in whatever dwelling we had during the mild New Mexico winters.

On Wednesday I went to the library to work on my blog while The Man went to the lapidary shop to cut stones. When he came to pick me up around noon, he said we should look at our subdivision covenants. We found the PDF file with the covenants for our subdivision, but that’s where the searching began.

The county worker had warned us that the covenants for the different blocks of the subdivision were not in any particular order. It looked like money had been spent to scan the pages and get them online, but no one had been paid to organize the pages beforehand. We had to wade through over 160 pages of documents before we found the covenants for our area.

The covenants were very specific. House could be no smaller than 600 square feet. Houses could be no more than one story. Garages could only hold two cars. No signs could be placed in the front yard except for “for sale” signs of specific dimensions. So many rules! Near the bottom of the page of the covenants pertaining to our land, we found the rule that would change our lives.

No temporary dwellings (“no trailers, no tents, no shacks,” the document specified) and no “privies” were allowed on the land, except during the construction of a house. Any house under construction had to be completed within six months. We were not allowed to do what we wanted to do on our land.

When we explained the situation to friends and family, several said, But if there’s nobody out there, can’t you get away with it? Who’s going to complain?

The problem was, we didn’t know who might complain or when. We did not want to pull a camper or a bus out there and then have to move it a month or six months or a year later. We did not want to live our lives wondering if today would be the day the sheriff showed up to kick us off our land. We were looking for stability, not uncertainty.

(Before we left town, The Man met a fellow who’d parked an RV on his own piece of property. After living there for three years, someone from the county showed up and told him he was in violation. He couldn’t get the trailer off the land within the allotted time, so he ended up spending eight nights in jail. When he got out of jail, he had to scrap the RV because he couldn’t afford to park it anywhere else.)

We were devastated. We felt as if our new life had been ripped away from us. Even if we wanted to build a house, there was no way we could afford to complete a 600 square foot dwelling within six months. We’d need permits and materials. We’d have to dig a well. We’d have to put in a septic system. We’d have to pay to have electrical lines run out to land.

What are we going to do? we asked each other.

The Man insisted we had to call the woman we’d bought the land from and let her know the situation in hopes of getting our money back. My Southern upbringing had me cringing at the idea, but The Man insisted. You call her, I told him, so he did.

As soon as The Man explained the situation, she offered to return our money. I have your money right here, she said. I haven’t spent any of it yet.

Getting the money back was a relief, but we still didn’t know where we were going to live.

The Man’s sister suggested we find a piece of property that wasn’t part of a subdivision. Maybe we could do what we wanted to do on a piece of unrestricted land.

The sister (who is a wizard at finding things online), quickly found ads for land for sale in our area. She gave The Man a phone number to call. He ended up having a long conversation with a realtor who shared some very interesting information.The county has a human population of 24,078 and over 90,000 subdivision lots. Most of those lots (90%, I would guess)  are empty. The Chihuahuan Desert is not for everyone, the realtor said when The Man asked why so few people are living on the land they own in these subdivisions.

The realtor then told The Man that an ordinance that applies to all property in the county limits the time an RV can park on undeveloped land to 30 days out of a year. If land is developed with electricity and septic, an RV can park on it less than 300 days a year. (The number of days was around 250, but I don’t remember the particulars.) When The Man asked why the county would not let people live in an RV on their own land year round, the realtor said county officials think such living arrangements would be bad for the economy.

At that point, we gave up on the whole county. We decided to each buy a New Mexico State Parks annual camping pass and stay in state parks in the southern part of the state until it was warm enough to go to Northern New Mexico where local government believes letting people live simply on their own land is good for the economy.

The land as we left it, after The Man had cleared an area for the tent and our vans.

On Wednesday I’ll share with you what I learned from this land-buying fiasco so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.

I took the first two photos in this post. The Man took the last one.

In Praise of Paper Maps

Standard
Person Holding Pen Leaning on Map Near Cup

According to the National Day Calendar website, April 5 is National Read a Road Map Day. To prepare us for this holiday, today I’ll share with you my ideas about why GPS isn’t enough, make suggestions about what maps to use depending on where you’re going, and give you tips on where to find help if you need to brush up on your map reading skills.

When did everyone become dependent on GPS and a computerized voice telling us when to turn left?

My dad was a salesman during the early years of my life. When he went out looking for clients, he used paper maps to find them. When I was very young, we moved to a major metro area. My dad had not a single paper map, but an entire large, thick book that showed each neighborhood, each street, each back alley. The book was laid out with some mysterious logic I still fail to understand which involved flipping to a whole new page in mid trip. How did my father possibly read that map while driving? I can only assume he studied the map and planned his trip before getting into the driver’s seat and stopped in a parking lot to consult the map any time he had to confirm his route or start over and figure out new directions.

In 1998 I found myself at a music festival with a need to get back to my home base sooner than planned. I didn’t have a car and didn’t drive. I was facing a multi-day Greyhound bus adventure, but a friend of a friend of a friend pointed me in the direction of a woman who was headed to the same city as I was. She had an open passenger seat and room in the back of her pickup for my gear. After she accepted me as her passenger, I found she also had a TripTik Travel Planner from AAA. Does anyone remember these customized booklets that AAA members could request from the local office? AAA members could get request directions to a specific destination and the local office would provide turn-by-turn instructions. I spent a lot of time holding that booklet from AAA, as I was immediately promoted from passenger to navigator.

(True confession: I still managed to send us off in the wrong direction, despite the turn-by-turn instructions in my hand. In my defense, we were in the outskirts of Chicago, and the proliferation of road signs had me befuddled. Luckily the driver quickly saw the error of my ways and got us back on track ASAP.)

I can’t remember exactly when I learned about MapQuest. Perhaps it was in the very early years of the 2000s when I got my first laptop. Maybe it was before that, and I’d use my computer at work or go to the public library to get my directions via the World Wide Web. I do remember finding directions online and either printing them or writing each step out by hand. MapQuest let me down multiple times (including on so many occasions on a single trip to Missouri that I grew convinced that no employee of MapQuest had ever driven one mile in the Show Me State), until I swore to never use that website again. Now I’m a Google Maps gal.

The first time I heard a talking GPS navigator was 2009. The parents of the

White Android Smartphone Inside Vehicle

guy who was then my boyfriend flew into the major city where we lived and rented a car because the guy and I didn’t have one. The car’s talking navigation system seemed to be more trouble to me than it was worth. We asked it to take us to tacos; instead it took us in circles as we tried to find a taco stand that apparently didn’t exist. I feared we would be directed to drive off a cliff or through a river.

Until I met The Man, I never let the navigation lady in Google Maps talk to me. I’d get directions from Google Maps, then write them out on a piece of paper I’d clip somewhere on my dash so I could refer to the instructions as I drove. I soon agreed with The Man that listening to the Google lady is easier than writing everything out, but it sure is a wrench in my system when she decides to send me on a wild goose chase. (I call them “wild Google chases.”) Why does the GPS lady get confused? Doesn’t her job require her to be omniscient?

And yet, I often wonder how our society got around before Google Maps or other GPS technology. When I think hard, I remember as a teenager having to ask friends how to get to their houses before my mother drove me over. Invitations to birthday parties often included small hand-drawn maps. Vacationers used road maps and those AAA TripTik booklets (if they were so fortunate as to be AAA members–my family never was). When folks got lost, they’d stop at a gas station and ask the worker for help.

Yes, I do appreciate GPS technology. I use it often. I’ve made friends with the Google Maps lady who guides me from inside my phone. (I call her Megan.) But for goodness sake, no matter how convenient GPS technology is, don’t forget your paper maps and don’t forget how to use them.

There are a few types of paper maps that you may need during your travels. Be sure to get the right map for the job!

(I’m going to assume you’re traveling in the U.S.A. since that’s where I’m writing from. I’ve you’re traveling in a country other than the U.S.A., I‘d love for you to leave a comment describing how your use of maps is different from the suggestions I’m giving here.)

Map of the World Book Laid Open on Brown Wooden Surface

For your day-to-day driving on the interstate and highways, use a decent road atlas. Rand McNally makes a good one. You can buy these bound sets of maps at bookstores or even Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart also sells a Rand McNally road atlas that shows the location of every Wal-Mart store in the U.S. This atlas would be a great investment for anyone who plans to spend a significant number of nights in Wal-Mart parking lots.SimplyRVing made a YouTube video all about this Wal-Mart atlas and how it can help you on the road.

If you’re planning your travels ahead of time, you can order an atlas online or through a local, independent bookstore. (Believe me, an independent bookstore will appreciate your business!) An atlas will show you the main roads to get you from town to town. The maps often show rest stops and campgrounds, as well as state and federal public land. Many of them also show basic maps of major cities and the most popular National Parks. If you purchase an atlas that covers all of North America, you’ll get maps of Canada and Mexico too.

If you’re only traveling in one state or region and you don’t have the space

Two People In Vehicle Looking At The Map

(or money) for an atlas, you can probably get by with one or more state maps. You can sometimes find state maps in bookstores or Wal-Mart stores, and you can certainly buy them online. However, state maps are typically available for free at visitor centers or by mail if you contact the state’s tourism office ahead of time. I was recently in the visitor center in Deming, NM where there were free maps available for New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas.

(If you want to request free paper maps and other tourist information, the USATourist.com website offers a page with links to all the tourism offices in the USA.)

Sometimes a stand-alone state map will be more detailed than a state map in an atlas. It may show you county roads and tourists attractions. A state map may also include basic maps of major cities within the state.

If you want to explore a state thoroughly, especially if you want to boondock for free on public land, you may want to invest in an atlas or atlas and gazetteer for the state you are exploring.  These bound maps of individual states break the entire state into blocks, then enlarges each block to show not just county roads but also forest service roads, old mines, campgrounds, public land, historic sites, hunting zones, and more. Having a state atlas or atlas and gazetteer combo is a good plan if you want to find free camping areas that are off the beaten path. The two most popular brands are DeLorme and Benchmark.

Photo of Gray Concrete Road in the Middle of Jungle during Daylight

If you’re going to spend some time in a National Forest or BLM area (especially a popular one), you may be able to get a map from the local ranger station. These maps will show Forest Service roads, natural attractions and landmarks, and campgrounds. These maps will also save you from buying a gazetteer if you don’t really need it because you’ll be boondocking primarily in one part of the state. (The map of the National Forest I worked in for four seasons cost $20, but the ranger station may have free handouts that will get you where you want to go. Don’t be afraid to ask for freebies.)

On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time in an urban area, you may want to get a good map of the city where you are based. Gas stations or Wal-Mart stores may have city maps, or you can order them before you hit town, if you’re the type to plan ahead. If you get to a city and need a free map of the area, try the local chamber of commerce. You don’t have to say you live in your van (if doing so makes you uncomfortable) when you explain you’re new to the area and need some help finding your way around. You could also go to the public library and print out some maps of the city that show the parts of town you plan to frequent.

Once you have your map, don’t just stick it in the pocket behind your seat and forget about it. Get that baby out and study it! Trust me, the best time to pull out your map is not when you are already lost.

If you’re using GPS to get to your destination, compare the route the

Person Holding Map of Usa

computer gives you to your map. Does what the GPS tell you make sense? Some camp host friends punched “Sequoia National Park” into their GPS, and after following the instructions given, found themselves turning down what seemed to be a dry riverbed. Oops! Had they consulted a map before the trip, they would have seen there was no reason to leave the pavement to get where they were going.

I’ve had Google Maps send me on wild Google chases even in cities and towns. Once when on the interstate, driving through the metro Los Angeles area, the Google Maps lady routed The Man onto Sunset Boulevard. Why? Why? Why? Google Maps often sent me on strange, roundabout routes through Porterville, CA. In any case, using a paper map to get familiar with an area before a trip can help do away with this type of nonsense. Simply being familiar with street names and the lay of the land can help make recovery a little easier if the GPS starts spewing incorrect information.

If you’ve never learned to read a road map or your skills are rusty, no shame! You can find lots of map-reading help on the internet. The Beginner Driver’s Guide will give you an informative overview of what different components of a map mean and how to use them. wikiHow has a thorough two-part article on “How to Read a Map,” including how to understand a map’s layout and how to use a map to get where you’re going. If you’d rather watch a video, there are several on YouTube dedicated to teaching folks how to read maps.

However you go about sharpening your map-reading skills, do it before you get on the road. Trying to interpret an unfamiliar map while trying to drive and read street signs is no easy task and could be a recipe for disaster.

GPS is quite helpful in getting you where you’re going, but it shouldn’t be the only tool in your navigation toolbox. Make sure you have the correct paper map for the particular journey you’re on, and know how to use it so you can reach your destination with less worry and stress.

As always, Blaize Sun takes no responsibility for your safety and well-being. Only you are responsible for your safety and well-being. Do your research and decide for yourself your best course of action.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/activity-adventure-blur-business-297642/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/smartphone-car-technology-phone-33488/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/map-maps-american-book-32307/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-gray-concrete-road-in-the-middle-of-jungle-during-daylight-775199/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/blur-close-up-fingers-focus-590133/.

Elder

Standard

It’s not much of a story, really. The Man and I picked up an elderly Native man in Gallup, NM and gave him a ride downtown. It was a small kindness.

We’d left Flagstaff early, before the sun came up. We’d had coffee, but no breakfast. Somewhere after Winslow I announced I’d be pulling into the first Taco Bell we came to. The Man was agreeable. We both like the potato, egg, and cheese Fiesta Potato grilled breakfast burrito Taco Bell sells in the morning. It’s a lot of breakfast for a buck.

Close-up Photo of People Holding Usa FlagletsI think the Taco Bell was off the first eastbound I-40 exit to Gallup. I took the exit, and soon we saw the sign proclaiming the town “The Most Patriotic Small Town in America.”

What does that even mean? we wondered. Who decides such things?

After doing a little research, I found out the distinction was based on a contest sponsored by Rand McNally in 2013-2014. Ken Riege nominated Gallup in that category and did a lot of work to help the town win the honor. You can read the whole story of the contest on the I Am New Mexico website.

We saw the elderly hitchhiker just after we saw the sign. He was obviously Native, with short hair and clean clothes. I though about stopping to give him a ride, but we were only going to the Taco Bell, which wasn’t even half a mile past where he was standing. I hoped some other driver would stop for him and take him where he needed to go.

We had quite an experience at Taco Bell. None of the “open” signs were lit. Was the dining room open? Was the Black And White Photo Of Clocksdrive-thru open? Why was there only one car in the parking lot? Why was caution tape crossing each of the dining room windows? What time was it? Had we experienced a time change when we entered New Mexico? Wasn’t the time in New Mexico an hour ahead of the time in Arizona? It was past 7 am in Arizona and New Mexico, so the Taco Bell dining room should have been open.

Just go through the drive-thru, The Man suggested.

I wanted to order inside for several reasons. I wanted to use the restroom and add ice to my water bottle. I wanted to eat in peace, without Jerico the dog sad-eyeing my breakfast and silently begging for a bite. Also, since the window on the driver’s side of my van doesn’t go down, a trip through a drive-thru is a major hassle. I have to open my door and usually put the van in park and get most of the way out to pay for my purchase and receive my food. It’s a real pain in the neck. But I didn’t know what else to do because the dining room did not appear to be open.

Turns out, we had simply stopped at the slowest Taco Bell I’ve ever seen. There were no customers inside, making it look like the place wasn’t even opened. (The caution tape on the windows was actually part of the Halloween decorations.) No other customers were ahead of us in the drive-thru, and none pulled up behind us. I’m pretty sure the one car in the parking lot belonged to the one worker who took our order, prepared our food, bagged it, handed it to me, took my money, and made change. I guess while Gallup, NM is a hotbed of patriotism, it’s not a hotbed of Taco Bell action, at least not for Saturday morning breakfast.

Once we had our food, I drove around the front of the restaurant and parked on the side of the building. I pointed the nose of the van so the sun wouldn’t be in our faces, and we ended up looking toward the interstate. I could see the hitchhiker was still standing on the side of the road.

No one’s picked up that old man, I said.

We finished our breakfast, and I told The Man that we should go pick up the hitchhiker and drive him wherever he needed to go. We weren’t in any hurry, and The Man and I both think it’s important to help people when we can. The Man agreed that we should help the hitchhiker.

I said I was going into the Taco Bell to use the restroom and put ice in my water bottle. When I come back, we’ll go get that man, I said.

When I returned to the van, The Man was gone. At first I thought maybe he had gone into the Taco Bell to use the restroom too, but when I looked out the windshield, I saw him and the hitchhiker walking on the side of the road, heading towards me. The Man had gone to talk to the hitchhiker to make sure he seemed safe and to find out where he needed to go. By bringing the hitchhiker back to the van, he also saved me from having to make a U-turn and find a place to pull off the road where we could safely load the fellow into the van.

The Man ushered the hitchhiker into the front seat, and he and Jerico sat in the back. I asked the hitchhiker where he needed to go and he said, Just downtown.

I told him I wasn’t familiar with Gallup, and he pointed down the street that ran in front of the Taco Bell, in the direction away from the interstate. No problem, I told him, then proceeded to back the van over one of the parking lot barriers. The van was fine (it’s a beast, after all), and if the hitchhiker was worried about my driving abilities, he didn’t let on. I guess hitchhikers take what they can get.

Route 66 Printed on RoadAs I was driving, I realized we were on Historic U.S. Highway 66 (Route 66). According to the Legends of America website,

Known by several names throughout the years including the “Mother Road,” “Main Street of America,” and the “Will Rogers Highway,” Route 66 served travelers for more than 50 years, before totally succumbing to the “new and improved” interstate system.

Established in 1926, road signs began to be erected the following year, but, it would be several years before the 2,448 mile highway would be continuously paved from Chicago to Los Angeles.

I have a mild fascination with Route 66 and fantasize about driving at least the Arizona portion of it, so I was glad for the historic detour we were on.

It didn’t take us very long to get downtown. It was fun to see a part of Gallup I’d never seen before. (I’ve been through Gallup a few times, but never hung out there and hadn’t spent any time away from the I-40 corridor.) The downtown area looked cute, and I saw a sign for the Rex Museum, a place I’d like to visit. (The Rex Museum’s website says,

Once a brothel and later a grocery, the museum building houses exhibits detailing a wide swath of local history, exploring the culture of the area’s earliest inhabitants, mining and railroad activities through to present-day Gallup.)

The hitchhiker didn’t seem to want to talk much. I made some chitchat, and he gave brief answers to my questions, but I think we had some cultural differences regarding small talk. He did tell me where he wanted to get out, and I was able to pull into an empty parking space so he could safely climb from the van. He thanked us politely and we went our separate ways.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-photo-of-people-holding-usa-flaglets-1449057/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-photo-of-clocks-707676/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/drive-empty-highway-lane-210112/.