The Problem with Jumping in the Deep End

Living on the road has been more of an adjustment than I expected.

Since I set my sights on vanlife over a year ago, I have spent a lot of time dreaming about what it would be like. I was going to drift where the wind took me, I was going to read books for fun, and paint, and study subjects that I just didn’t have time for in school. I was going to hike, learn yoga, and actually practice dance and tae kwon do regularly with the intenton of getting better at them. I was going to write blog posts and articles and short stories and novels. I was going to take and edit beautiful photographs, go to museums, learn how to cook well and actually enjoy it.

Hopefully, you can see the problem there. I spent so much time thinking about everything I wanted to do that I never actually thought about the logistics of doing it.

My “Alaska or bust!” decision, while definitely in the spirit of what I want to do by living this way, really just piled a bunch of problems on top of my high expectations.

The van isn’t finished. I’m not entirely sure how long it will take to finish it. But it would be really nice if it could be finished before winter. So I need to be thinking about when I’m going to arrive back home, which limits my time for this summer trip.

The sheer distance plays into this, as well. I’m currently 3,142 miles from home. That alone is at least 55 hours of non-stop driving. Let alone any side-trips or sightseeing I do along the way. This trip has already skewed my idea of a long drive: when I found out Seward was only 2 hours and 30 minutes from Anchorage, I was thrilled.

On the way up to Alaska, I scheduled two weeks to get from Nevada to Fairbanks. Between driving, some minor sightseeing, cooking, and sleeping, there wasn’t a moment unaccounted for until we took a few days off in Chilliwack, British Columbia. If we’d just been driving from place to place, what I had planned was totally reasonable. But we were visiting National Parks, Portland, Seattle, and the Pacific Ocean. One day, we visited a state park, a national park, and did some sightseeing in a city along with nearly six hours of driving.

Not my best idea.

Even after arriving in Fairbanks (and suddenly being beyond the scope of my travel plans) the fact that there’s only 24 hours in a day caused problems. I picked up a job, which kept me busy several hours a day. And since I don’t have a sink or a bathroom in the van, washing dishes and showering takes a lot longer. With only minimal storage space and no doors or locks to keep things on the shelves, all my things are buried in boxes. It’s an expedition just trying to find everything I need to make dinner, let alone cook it, eat, and clean up. I’ve gotten better at it, as long as I keep it simple, but one meal can actually take hours, from deciding to make something to putting the last dish away.

The time constraints have probably been the worst of it. Since I know I’m working with limited time, just deciding how to spend a few free minutes feels overwhelming. I need to plan out the rest of the trip, so I have some sort of schedule to work with and make sure I get home by a reasonable date. I need to work on plans for the rest of the build so I’ll be able to jump right back in when I get home. I need to finish another blog post. And you saw the list of things I wanted to do. Knowing that most of my day will be spent figuring out where to find water, cooking or washing dishes, hunting down a shower, hunting down a laundromat, or doing other things that have to get done just as part of living, and knowing how little time is available to me to begin with, kind of makes me panic every time I sit down to do something productive.

The time issue is definitely my biggest problem. I think some of these things will get easier with time, though: I’ll learn where to reliably find water, and cooking will get quicker as I get better at it. Once I have a sink, washing dishes will be easier. Once I’m on the road for good, I’ll hopefully be able to plan shorter distances of travel over longer periods of time.

Travelling in the van with no sink and no practical storage is irritating logistically, because of the time issues I explained and because I’m constantly reorganizing, have to keep the fridge drawer blocked, and have to rely heavily on baby wipes and Lysol wipes. But I can’t tell you how desperately I want to get a proper bed in there. The back pain just seems to keep getting worse (I’ve had issues with back pain over the years, but this is really bad), and I don’t think the driver’s seat is helping. There’s something about the shape of it that just doesn’t seem… natural. I’ve been fantasizing about replacing it with the driver’s seat from my old Ford Ranger, which I used to just melt into like it was a part of me.

Most mornings, I wake up aching from my lower back to the base of my skull, and even though I try to stretch it out several times a day, it doesn’t make much difference.

I also can’t figure out where to recycle my propane canisters, so they’re just piling up around the van: not a good thing when space is already so limited.

The fridge latch broke, so it’s swinging around again, unless I wedge it shut, which makes moving around the van more complicated and accessing the fridge during the day a total pain.

The hunt for WiFi is near-constant, and I always seem to find some an hour before the place closes and shuts it off. The same goes for AC power to charge my laptop.

Etcetera, etcetera, you get the point: there have been problems. And (I think I’ve mentioned this before) a big part of why I wanted to do this in the first place was because I’ve had a lot of trouble with depression and anxiety. I’ll be honest: so far, it’s been a near-constant fight to keep myself on track, and I haven’t always been successful. The time crunch, and getting so far behind on blog posts, left me feeling like I was already failing. And that only made it harder to write. Which only made me feel more anxious.

I’m not writing this post to complain. I realized that this — everything being a total mess — is part of the whole experience.

I’m not failing at it, I’m doing it.

Including the whole learning part where I realize that my little fantasies are very different from the reality. Sure, the van is a mess, I haven’t done half the things I thought I was going to do, and I’m probably 15 posts behind schedule, but on the other hand… this is a dream come true.

I’m sitting in the Seward Public Library right now. It’s small, smaller than perhaps any library I’ve ever been to. But it’s peaceful, and it overlooks the ocean. There’s a few fires in the area, so the world outside is shrouded in smoke. But the mountains are shadowy guardians in the middle distance, dipping smoothly into the sea. The buildings in town are colorful and clapboard and calm, featuring artisan coffee shops and quirky antique stores and native gift shops. It’s a lovely place, 3,142 miles from home, and I’ve got an excellent view of it.

I worked at the state fair, helped judge the baked goods entries, and made a whole collection of friends (despite my worries about how difficult it would be to make friends on the road). I made friends with two women who run a bao food truck; with a DJ and music artist from Stockton, California who came to Fairbanks and never left; with a red-head from Reno, Nevada who has been living the van life a lot longer than I have; with a U.S. airman who’s willing to debate Harry Potter fanfiction with me. I danced in the dwindling daylight at midnight along the streets of early 1900s Fairbanks. I’ve dipped in the natural hotsprings of Nisga’a and stood before the immense canvases of some of Alaska’s most renowned artists. I’ve seen the tallest mountain in North America and I’ve collected stories and images all along the way, adding to my arsenal for the works I’ve yet to write.

I’ve learned a lot, not just about van life, but about Alaska, Canada, the Athabaskan people, the tundra, the animals that live here and the communities that swell each summer and forge through each winter. And I’ve continued to learn about myself.

The things that are problems right now are fixable. They’re things that I can learn to do better, things I can eventually get caught up on, things I can plan more effectively for, things I can add in as I finish building the van. I’m excited to solve those problems.

And I’m excited to finally write about my journey so far.

So to close this out, here’s Crater Lake National Park:

Starting Mileage: 2492

Every time I’m in Ashland, Oregon, I go to Puck’s Doughnuts. Since we didn’t end up getting doughnuts the day before, Zach and I decided to get them for breakfast on our way out of town on July 14th.

But it turns out Puck’s Doughnuts closed since the last time I was in Ashland.

We averted disaster by going up the road to a different Puck’s doughnuts in a town called Talent. It was a quick stop, and we hopped right back on the road, but definitely worth it. The doughnuts were just as good as I remembered, even if it was technically a different shop.

Casey State Rec Site

Casey State Rec Site

We followed the Rogue River into the mountains, and stopped at Casey State Recreation Site for a few pictures. The river is swift and clear, and we enjoyed a few minutes cooling our feet in it before getting back on the road.

The next stop we made was at Rogue River Gorge near the town of Prospect.

Rogue River Gorge

Rogue River Gorge

If you’re driving this way, definitely stop at the short hiking trail along the gorge. I wouldn’t say it’s worth a trip to Oregon in and of itself, but it’s easily worth an hour or two of your time. It’s beautiful, impressive, and informative, a great place to stretch your legs or have lunch.

The water rushes so quickly through the narrow gorge, that you feel like you might be swept away by it even though you’re standing a hundred feet above.

The gorge isn’t far from Crater Lake, so we decided to press on, hoping to get as much time to explore as possible. When entering the park, the first thing we noticed was the line of corvettes winding their way up the road just ahead of us.

“Some sort of corvette club?” we guessed, following them into the visitor’s center parking lot. We counted ten, some parked in creative ways, as we went inside. I got my passport stamp, picked up a few postcards, and got in line.

The woman in front of me told the cashier, loudly enough that I didn’t feel too concerned about eavesdropping, that she was with a club of corvette owners, and they’d gotten together with several other corvette clubs in the area for a day at Crater Lake. “There are fifty or so behind us. We got ahead of them,” she laughed.

“Did you say fifty?” I butted in. I couldn’t help it. Crater Lake is not a big park, and there’s essentially just one road, which goes around the lake. Fifty corvettes buzzing around, meaning somewhere between 50 and 100 people all flooding the park at the same time, was not exactlywhat I was hoping to hear.

“I think so,” she said, and finished up her purchase.

I hurried through my own transaction, grabbed Zach, and we got in the van and drove off as quickly as we could, eager to stay in front of the crowd.

The drive is gorgeous, but from the visitor’s center it takes a while to get to the lake. So, our first glimpse of Crater Lake was on the first little half-mile hike we did, Sun Notch Trail.

We were walking slowly along, I taking pictures of the wildflowers that cropped up here and there, Zach pointing out some volcanic formations in the distance. Then, suddenly, a flash of blue slipped between the trees. Blue like a snowcone, blue like a blueberry scratch-and-sniff marker, blue like the Blue Man Group, blue like Dory from Finding Nemo.

Completely un-edited photo of Crater Lake.

Completely un-edited photo of Crater Lake.

Blue as in blue.

I grew up next to Lake Tahoe. We take pride in how blue our lake is. And Crater Lake is the sort of blue that makes Lake Tahoe look pale.

Personally, I still think Tahoe is the nicer lake to actually hang out at, as there’s really only one place to access the water at Crater Lake, and that’s a tourboat launch, but if you want to understand the meaning of the word “blue,” you have to go to Crater Lake.

I don’t mean to harp on “blue” so much, but that’s really the most mind-blowing thing about the park. It’s beautiful, and the drive around the rim is relaxing and pristine, but just standing there and taking in that rich, indigo blue of the water was the highlight of the entire day.

Zach made me crack up with his impression of a flamboyant, accented fashion photographer while taking this picture. And yes, the lake really looks like that (though I’ll admit to a bit of editing to deal with the shadows in the foreground, which might have made the sky look bluer than it  actually looked IRL).

Zach made me crack up with his impression of a flamboyant, accented fashion photographer while taking this picture. And yes, the lake really looks like that (though I’ll admit to a bit of editing to deal with the shadows in the foreground, which might have made the sky look bluer than it actually looked IRL).


We made our way around, stopping frequently (Zach really wanted to do one of the hikes with a lookout tower at the top, but they were all closed due to snow (even though it had nothing on Lassen)).

Since the snow kept us from doing any of the longer hikes, we actually finished up at Crater Lake pretty early (and passed a few of the corvettes on our way out of the park). The goal was to camp as close to Portland as possible, because I love Portland and wanted to spend as much of the day there as possible before we went on to Dave and Nancy’s (I’ve mentioned them in some earlier posts) house on the coast.

We continued up towards Bend, where we decided to stop at a grocery store before continuing on to a campground marked on my atlas about an hour past Bend on the way to Portland.

And as we pulled up to the grocery store, we saw it:

The Last Blockbuster.

We didn’t believe it, at first. So we checked the Internet, that all-knowing body of truth, for verification.

It was real. The last Blockbuster in the World is located in Bend, Oregon, across the street from a grocery store I where I was fruitlessly trying to use the WiFi to work on a blog post.

So I gave up, and we headed over.

Danica in front of The Last Blockbuster

Danica in front of The Last Blockbuster

It was like stepping back in time. I was ten years old again, staring wide-eyed up at the tall shelves, picking out a movie with my mom. Zach and I walked up and down every aisle, and inspected the articles posted in the back about the store becoming the last of its kind, and I bought a pair of sunglasses. Zach and I played 2-out-of-3 on the ancient foosball table, which allowed me to redeem myself from our shuffleboard contest in Ashland.

Feeling sufficiently refreshed (and possibly a year or two younger) we hit the road again and went on, setting up camp alongside a reservoir outside of Salem, on the edge of Willamette National Forest.

Today’s Mileage: about 308 miles

A few final comments…

Now I’ve got myself thinking about perspective, because I was working on this post back on August 9th and I wrote:

Seeing as this post is about July 14th, and it’s now August 9th, I think it’s pretty clear that I’m overwhelmingly far behind on blog posts.

“Overwhelmingly far behind” seems a lot more applicable now (posting about July 14th on August 23rd). So I guess that just goes to show: it can always be worse. There’s no sense fretting about a problem that can be fixed (of course, knowing that never seems to stop me from fretting).

And back when I was working on this on August 9th, I went off on this reflection about my struggles to actually write the posts:

I’m not sure how much detail I’m meant to be going into here, or whether me blathering about my emotions is more or less interesting than me trying to piece together what happened at Crater Lake three weeks ago. So I work on the post, and then dither a bit, and then decide I sound like one of those nature documentaries that put 7th graders to sleep in science class, and then delete things, and then type the same sentence over, and then stare at it for twenty minutes before shutting my laptop with exasperation.

So I’m trying the more emotional approach, I suppose. Because Crater Lake was fun. And I totally understand why those corvette club members wanted to go there together, because the drive around the lake should be on the bucket list of anyone who has ever gone for a drive just for fun. And like I said, it’s heart-breakingly blue.

But our time there wasn’t all that exciting. We only had a few hours to spend (five, at most, if we’d wanted them), the big hikes were all snowed in, and we didn’t end up doing to boat tour on the lake. The history is interesting (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I moderately am), and I’m glad I got my stamp, but there weren’t any actionable events worth mentioning in our time there.

The most exciting thing that happened the entire day was when we accidentally stumbled across the last Blockbuster, and spent half an hour inside, acting like children. At least, that was what felt the most exciting.

It’s strange to say, because the entire day was beautiful, and fun, and interesting, and I have nothing bad to say about it. But since I’m writing it after a few more weeks, and in the time since I have had a few adventures, and now that I’m starting to see some of the more difficult aspects of this experience, writing about it is difficult.

I suppose I’m eager to get caught up, but I’m spending too much time trying to actually do the catching up. I’m trying to meet an expectation, but I have no proof that the expectation I’ve imagined is what anyone is really expecting, and I don’t feel like I can meet it. So I’m putting things off.

Managing what I think others are expecting of me is something I’ve had to work on a lot, and I’ve come a long way, but I obviously still have some work to do. I’m going to stop promising to write more posts more often, and instead promise to keep writing, and do my best to keep improving.

A very wise friend of mine pointed out that, at the end of the day, this is just my blog. Which isn’t to say it can’t be important, or meaningful, or provide value to readers. But it isn’t some major publication with a specific mission statement. At the end of the day, I can just write about what interested me the most. If that happens to be a run down of the day’s adventures, stellar! If it’s a commentary on the kind of community in a destination, fantabulous! If I’m more interested in what I learned about sea lion habitats in the museum, sea-licious! If I’m feeling introspective… well, I guess you get something more like this post. And I think that’s good advice. (Thanks, Gordon!)

I hope to make up for my silence over the last month with some more posts this week, but I think we all know how that goes. I won’t promise anything, but it means a lot to me that you’re still reading. Hopefully one day, I’ll earn it.

Thanks for sticking with me,