Ian and I have been to three different states in the southwest thus far. We have seen the Gulf of Mexico, the sandy desert of Big Bend National Park, the dirty streets and gentrified Austin and Phoenix, and a lot of long stretches of highway thru the mountainous desert region. It is beautiful. Even the scarce, dilapidated towns that sit along the hillsides have a historic ash that can be felt as we drive by in the Sprinter. That is just it, everywhere and everything has a story.
I wish we could tell each one. I squirm as we leave a town with a historical marker that has gone unread. Each hike, each drive, each national park or monument there are voices and stories I want to hear. For me, yes, it is wanderlust, but it is more about the stories, the creations, the communities, the culture, the tears, the pain, and the hard work of the incredible humans within these beautiful sites that make it all so worth it.
Thirty days of traveling in a van, boon-docking in cities, using public restrooms, and touring sites does not make Ian and I veterans but we have learned a few things on this adventure so far.
- Say Hello and Be Kind
Austin was the first big city we came to and we had no idea what we were doing. The first thing we did was seek out the nature aspect of the bustling city. Relaxing in a hammock is what vanlife is all about, right? Yes, but when we finally got comfortable, found some decent WiFi and set up an agenda, we also found much more than that.
We made it to the Hope Gallery, one of Austin’s main tourist attractions, its art, and it’s FREE! As we pull up the steep hill to try and find parking we noticed the layers of the Hope Gallery were more offbeat and extravagant than we could have hoped. The unusual and colorful concrete slabs nested within the hillside reached about four stories high. Everyone from Austin’s most recognized artists to tourists left their mark at this site. The dirt and dead plants were covered with splotches of spray paint but the covered earth felt like part of the entire art piece. At the top of the hillside stood a castle that overlooked the city and installation below. As we watched tourists climb the hill we noticed a man out in the hot sun hacking down weeds with a machete. We took a few pictures of the art and then headed up the hill towards the castle. On the way past the man doing landscaping, I commented on how tough the work must be in the heat and he replied, “Well, its part of the job when you own the place.” We soon realized we were meeting the man behind the castle and the art. He told us the story of how he bought the place after the housing market crashed in 2008. The art project was a fundraiser for a local agency that was going to last a week but instead lasted 8 years! He recommended a bar for live music and was on his way in his tricked out $80,000 Jeep. Our lesson was always take the time to talk to people, you never know who you will meet.
- Ask Questions!
When we decide to go to Big Bend National Park, internet research only confused us! The internet said many things, Backcountry camping was $10 for 14 nights, $14 for 14 nights, and/or every road was inaccessible with a rig like ours. So, after the 3-hour drive through nothingness we arrived at the visitor’s center. The park ranger fresh from summer vacation, was all ears answering our questions and learning the ropes to her first day back on the job. Of course, she had all the answers. She told us the actual price which was $12, how long we could stay (14 days), and what roads were accessible. All of our worries melted away and we planned a 5-day Backcountry permit that was unique to our needs and perfect for the scenery provided by the 15th largest national park in the country.
Big Bend National Park has a lot to offer, the Rio Grande, Chisos Mountains, hot springs, and a border crossing into Mexico. Thanks to our helpful park ranger, we were able to do everything we wanted to do.
On the third day in Big Bend NP, Ian and I decided to cross the border into Boquillas, Mexico a small village along the Rio Grande. We were excited to go back into Mexico as we had just been to the Yucatan a week earlier. Soon we had crossed the river where we had a choice to take a burro, a truck, or walk to the village of Boquillas. For economical reasons, Ian and I decided to walk but the ferry driver insisted we take a tour guide. Our tour guides name was Phillipe and although my Spanish was as elementary as a Dr. Seuss book, we talked the entire time we were in the village. We went to the restaurant his daughter worked and said hello, viewed the looming Sierra del Carmen mountain range, and made jokes about all the chihuahua dogs in Chihuahua. Ian and I apologized for Trump and then Phillipe took us to a store that had Trump’s face and a wall painted on bull’s head with a red X through it, we laughed more.
- It is a CHOICE to live in a van.
Yes, it takes a lot of hard work and preparation to build a van and take it on the road. I know, we are trendy and cool but we are not the only ones and it is not trendy for everyone. Many more people who live in their vehicles are doing so because they have to. Many boon-docking safe parking lots are not just rows of RVs and our favorite Westfalias but people who have to sleep in their cars or camp under bridges or behind Wal-Marts. They get up the next day, go to work, pick up their kids, and/or regular things people do everyday. We have seen those same ordinary people parked back in the parking lot with us the next night.
Vanlife is fun, beautiful, exciting, and romantic, also, really normal at times but we are still very privileged to be able to make this choice to travel and live this way. That is okay but I have to make this known that no, not everyone can “just do it.”
This life really makes us question, what type of life do we want to live? There are many options and all are valid and must be respected. Traveling isn’t just about the romance but about the in-depth closeness we feel to other humans who have lived lives so different than us. We have so much more to learn.