In late May of last year, right around our 2 year anniversary, Colin and I signed the bill of sale for a 1977 13-foot Trillium camper. Tilly, as we came to call her, popped up on the craigslist feed one evening on our couch in Winooski, Vermont, and less than 24 hours later, we were driving to New Hampshire to buy her before someone else beat us to it. She was everything we were looking for and more, and after searching for a home on wheels for several months, I was astonished at how quickly she became ours.
In this photo, I’m holding the title and registration, and the exhilaration of the adventure to come is written in my smile. The picture was taken by one of the previous owners, who explained what kind of hitch to get for our car, how to charge the battery, and not much else. I wonder if they could tell how clueless we were about owning a camper. What I think they did pick up on is that they were passing their treasure on to the right people. From the custom honeycomb mirrors to the quaint upholstery, I was clearly in love at first sight, and when we told them about the trip we were planning, their smiles were knowing and genuine. What you can’t see in the picture is the large decal on the camper’s side that reads “See All of America, The Beautiful”. I know that destiny, or the law of attraction, or whatever you believe in, brought her to us for that reason.
When we returned a couple weeks later to pick her up, we took our best guess at attaching the hitch, and I spent the drive home on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the sideview mirror, convinced that the camper would detach and kill some unwitting motorists behind us. Since that day, I’ve had a reluctant respect for Colin’s mechanical instinct, despite my frequent and offensive skepticism. The beautiful thing about Tilly, and all vintage campers, though, is their elegant simplicity. Lightweight and streamlined, with no water heater, no refrigerator, and no cable TV, she didn’t even have a bathroom to clean. For two kids with a Subaru wagon and a wanderlust the size of America, Tilly was the perfect first camper.
It’s hard to believe that 6 months ago, we had just brought Tilly home and were putting thumbtacks in a United States map and reserving a campsite on recreation.gov for the Grand Canyon. The trip we would embark on in August did not yet feel real. It wasn’t real when we were packing up our apartment and carrying boxes into our friend’s garage. It wasn’t real when Colin had his last day of work, and I had mine, or when we took Tilly on a maiden voyage to a remote northern Vermont lake to “test her out.” In fact, it didn’t feel real until our families and friends were in the rearview mirror, waving us off, blurred through our tears.
Even then, we told each other that we could always come home again, but I knew that wasn’t the purpose of the trip. Yes, we were beginning an epic cross country journey, but it wasn’t going to end back at home. We were leaving Vermont with the intention of relocating to the West Coast, and you don’t do something like that for just a year. We would be establishing a new home for ourselves, and just where, well, we didn’t know yet. It was exhilarating, and more than a little scary, to be driving away from everything we knew and loved into the great unknown.
What people kept saying to me when I told them about our plans, and what they say to me now when I tell the story, is always “Wow! That sounds like the trip of a lifetime.” And this has always rung a little funny in my ears. That was certainly what we intended the trip to be when we first dreamed it up in a dark, cold Vermont January that was proving to be one too many for me. The manifest-destiny vision was bolstered by our lack of inhibition: we were both working jobs we weren’t married to, we didn’t own property, have kids, or feel like we were too old to get away with such an endeavor. But somewhere in the planning process, my ambition and zeal for the freedom of the open road got taken down a notch by the nitty gritty realities of miles, dollars, days, and our beloved dog, Louie.
When we realized we couldn’t explore a city with a dog in tow any more than we could leave him in a camper or car in summer heat, what begun in our minds as a tour of America’s greatest cities and a string of reunions with long-lost friends became, on paper, a trail tying together a series of state and national parks and outdoor attractions. New Orleans, Austin, Denver, LA, San Francisco and Nashville would have to wait for another time. The route we eventually agreed on would take us more or less through the middle of the country, and then north along the Pacific coast.
While I was excited about many of the stops along the way, including three world-famous parks, I was upset about the fact that dogs were banned from all trails in these parks, and that we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere we couldn’t bring Louie (bars, restaurants, museums…). I wanted our route to take us to more beautiful places off the beaten path, but that would add days and tanks of gas, and we had a limited budget. I felt frustrated that we were having to compromise, and it was tempting to think that maybe if we had a little more money, or time, or a little less responsibility, it would be the trip of a lifetime I wanted it to be.
Now, it just felt like a random drive to some places that were probably overrated and overrun with tourists and where we wouldn’t know anybody. Colin, ever the realist and pragmatist, and I, a perpetual fantasizer and procrastinator, were butting heads and struggling to plan the trip together, and I was feeling scared that the whole thing would be a let-down. I was leaving my job and my world for this, and I desperately needed to feel like it was worth it.
But the trip was not a let-down. While parts of it were mundane and tedious, it surprised me each day, and along with the places I never wanted to return to, I found beauty and joy in the most unexpected corners of the country. We had our highs, like when we snuck Louie into the Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park at sunrise and had the whole trail, which lead us past the most spectacular arches in the park, to ourselves. We also had our lows, like when we broke down on a remote section of the Blue Ridge Parkway and had to fork over $600 and skip a rendezvous in Asheville with an old friend of mine.
On Labor Day weekend, we got shut out of a campsite we had reserved and paid for months in advance at the last minute, and had to skip Point Reyes. But that night we wound up “boondocking”, which is what RVers call camping by the side of the road, and found ourselves on the slope of Mount Tam, with a gorgeous Pacific sunset right out our door, and a 5 minute drive to the beach in the morning. In Colorado, we messed up our itinerary and concluded that we needed to drive right past Boulder and another planned visit with a friend to stay on our schedule, only to realize we were wrong once we were already more than 200 miles away. But the next day, we had a great first recreational marijuana dispensary experience, saw a double rainbow, and ate a char-grilled buffalo steak under it.
Our first campsite in California was infested with wasps and raccoons, had a campfire ban in effect, and had no running water due to the drought, but when we left to seek a more hospitable place, we found an amazing dog beach in Santa Barbara that was the perfect place to hang out for the day. We couldn’t camp anywhere in Big Sur because of the forest fires raging there in August, but we did camp on the Oregon coast in a place called Otter Rock where a pod off whales just offshore caught us by surprise while we watched the sun set. We had some great camp meals, like french toast with nectarines under the Watchman in Zion National Park, or the scallops and fettuccine we made on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, which made our camper smell like fish for a week.
There are so many more stories like this, but I think you get the point — the good comes with the bad, and the enduring impression was not bad, but wonderful. The wonder I experienced at so many moments along the way was real, magnetic, and larger than life–larger than the trip, what it was and what it wasn’t. I think that’s what people mean when they say “the trip of a lifetime”.
There was a particularly dark moment that first day in California. We had just finished a long string of spectacular campsites, having left the Grand Canyon the day before, and arrived in the Golden State starry-eyed and enthusiastic. What we found at the campground was less than stellar, and something about reaching the Pacific Ocean symbolized that we were now as far away from our family as we would ever be on the trip.
We still had a month to go before we would start work on the farm where we had been promised jobs in Northern California, and we had little officially planned in the way of epic camping destinations for much of the California section of the trip, or the Northwest. I think we both started doubting the whole goal of the trip at that moment. And while we told ourselves we still had Seattle and Portland to visit, the two cities we were hoping to like enough to relocate to, those visits came and went and neither place felt like somewhere we could call home. Yes, we had good friends in both and they’d be fun places to live, but were they right for us and our goals and interests? Would we be happier back on the East coast after all? These were questions to which we would never have answers, and as the pace of the trip slowed and we prepared to park, they haunted us.
We bought ourselves some time to digest the trip while working on the marijuana farm for the months of October and November. I never felt further from home than the first few times we woke up there. Here I was, largely cut off from the world, surrounded by people from all over the world who were living in the moment and couldn’t say where they’d be heading when they left. It was a blessing meeting them all and sharing their space, but nothing about that place could have been farther from grounding and comforting for me. I have always loved adventure and travel, so this confused me even more and made me question my priorities.
At this point, it had been almost 2 months since we left home and living in the camper was starting to wear on me. It had been exhilarating waking up each day of our trip and not knowing where we’d be that night or what the day would hold. Now our momentum had slowed, and I wanted to settle in. I had time and space to think about what I wanted and needed in my life. I was craving security, the comforts of a proper living space, the ability to plan, and a purpose that energized and inspired me. I was ready to put a pin in the map and call it home.
By the time we left the farm on December 1st, the pin had been pushed into Eugene, Oregon. I think we both surprised ourselves a bit. We had never been to Eugene and didn’t know anyone there. But what we both realized, I think, is that nowhere but New England could ever feel like home to us. Having our families close by meant more to me than I thought it would, and committing to city life in San Francisco, Portland or Seattle, where our friends were living, just didn’t feel right on us either.
I realized I needed something to ground me, or I would be incredibly homesick. I was also feeling like I wanted to change directions professionally to concentrate on my passions: writing and photography. I wanted to take them to the next level and get advanced training. I started looking into grad schools, and UO had the perfect program. Oregon had been our favorite state on the trip, and Colin had his own career aspirations in the cannabis industry and was eager to pursue his passion.
So when the season ended, we sent it. We drove north, parked at a RV resort next to I5 and after three depressing and difficult weeks, found an apartment. I’m sitting in it now and it’s mostly empty. The rest of the story is yet to be written, as I have yet to be accepted to school or start a new job. But I have my two best friends, the support of my family and those I love, and a world of opportunities. And when I tell people what brought me here, they could not be more warm or welcoming. This may turn out OK, I tell myself.
This trip has been a massive learning experience for me. I have no regrets about the way it happened or what the outcome was. I know if we had never left, I would be constantly living in my FOMO and feeling dissatisfied with what we had in Vermont. Colin would never have had the professional opportunities that he is getting, and I probably never would have made the decision to go back to school. I have nothing but gratitude for the opportunities it gave me to grow as a person and an American, experience a world outside of the Northeast and explore what gives my life meaning. I wish everyone could do something like what Colin and I did this year.
Maybe it will be the trip of our lifetimes. I would be OK with that. But I know we will take other trips with Tilly. She took a beating on this trip–we put 10,000 miles and 4 months on her, after all. But she’s still going strong, and there’s so much more of America, the Beautiful that remains to be seen.