In May of 2015, my now-husband Tim and I had a tough decision to make. Do we continue our dream of through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with me limping due to an injured knee, or do we do the unthinkable and abandon years of planning to accept defeat 300 miles in? After two days of painful limping, already having taken at least a week off to rest and heal, we headed to a dirt service road in the forest north of Big Bear Lake, California, to hitchhike back to town. In a strange coincidence, the man who gladly helped us into his Jeep had hiked the entire trail in 1986, the year I was born.
Even though our hike had abruptly come to an end, this was only the beginning of two years of travel Tim and I had planned, so we weren’t just going home after this large setback. In fact, we no longer had a home to go back to. Our belongings sat in a storage unit in Hayward, California, while our pets and 2010 Ford Transit Connect van were being taken care of by family and friends in San Diego.
A few days prior to leaving the Pacific Crest Trail, we discussed ideas of what we would do in the event we would have to leave the trail early due to my knee. Traveling somewhere that felt opposite of where we currently were, and somewhere neither of us had been, sounded like the best idea we could come up with. This also had to be a place we could drive to and from within one month. We decided on the Florida Keys. “If I hurt my knee, we’ll drive to the Keys,” became my mantra.
Our white Ford Transit van, named Adventure Pod, had a barebones DIY camper interior Tim had built. He removed the back seats and installed a wooden folding bed frame with a memory foam mattress topper. Under it were storage compartments with containers for cooking supplies and places to stash our backpacks. By the time we were ready to hit the road it was August, and our van did not have any way to cool the interior without the engine being on, except for a small battery-powered tent fan that we found in a thrift store. Since we were supposed to still be on the Pacific Crest Trail, we took advantage of the time our pets were scheduled to be at sitters and used the last of the money we had saved for the trail toward this road trip instead.
Tim and I spent some time discussing cities we wanted to visit, friends we could stay with, and the best routes to take us where we wanted to go. We decided on taking our time exploring cities, visiting friends, and enjoying nature on our way out to the Keys, but then zooming home as quickly as possible on our way back, stopping only to eat and rest. We had a basic itinerary of cities to stop in and an idea of how long we would spend in each, but aside from that our plans were up in the air. Most of the drive would consist of crossing the entire southern United States in the summer.
Our journey started with a weekend of camping at a music festival on the Lost Coast in Northern California. Punk bands played by generator as we drank beer in the sun and elk that seemed to be twice the height of our van grazed nearby. From there we spent one night in a shady motel in Eureka before making our way southeast to stay with a friend in Auburn, California. Our friend treated us to a big breakfast, sunny barbeques with friends, and then swimming in a river almost immediately after a body had been removed. There was already no shortage of odd occurrences on our road trip, and more were sure to come.
We drove the beautiful Donner Pass from Auburn to Reno, where we couldn’t turn down free beer and nickel slots. The casinos didn’t disappoint. We sipped our beer while watching elderly couples dance to a cover band playing uncensored Snoop Dogg songs, before walking back to the van on a dark residential street that looked safe enough to spend the night on.
An acquaintance said we could park Adventure Pod outside of their house in Salt Lake City, so we decided it would be our next stop. We arrived at midnight to a raging party. Hip hop bumped out of the open door as people walked in and out with drinks in hand. We peeked our heads through the door looking for our friend and were quickly invited to have a drink together on the front porch as the party started to wind down. After a decent night’s sleep in the van out on the street, we hit downtown Salt Lake City the next morning ready to explore. Little did we realize that everything would be closed on a Sunday. We spent one more night in town going out to karaoke with our friend and their roommates, then ventured on to the next destination. Austin, Texas, was the goal.
From Broadway to a gas station parking lot
To make our way toward Texas we decided Denver, Colorado, would make a great place to stop. Neither Tim nor I had been to Denver before, and although we heard tales of amazing food and irresistible hikes, we figured our limited time and money meant stopping into a bar or two before continuing on. We knew no one in Denver, and weren’t sure which neighborhoods were worth exploring. After wandering parts of the city on foot, we found an arcade bar to spend the evening in before sleeping once more on a dark neighborhood street. The next day we decided to walk downtown one last time before taking off, and somehow ended up winning discounted tickets to The Book of Mormon Broadway show at the Center for the Performing Arts.
As other ticket holders were home putting on their suits and gowns, Tim and I shuffled through the van for clean jeans and unstained shirts. I used Adventure Pod’s rearview mirror to apply a bit of makeup and brush my hair before we went inside to take our seats. At this point in our trip, our version of luxury was finding a Starbucks bathroom for morning teeth brushing. Never did we expect to find ourselves seated between velvet ropes watching a Broadway performance. We enjoyed our overpriced beer and fancy night out before retreating back to van life, sleeping in an empty gas station parking lot on the outskirts of town.
We hit the road first thing in the morning, making our way across Kansas and then down into Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa’s skyline came into view through Adventure Pod’s bug-splattered windshield just as the sun began to set. We would be staying with a friend in Tulsa, in the bedroom of her boyfriend’s children who were with their mom for the night. Before going to sleep, we stopped into the bar our friend worked at and had a drink to keep her company. As we sat at the bar, various patrons would accidentally leave their possessions behind, none of them coming back to claim them. By the end of the night there was a bike, passport, entire box of pizza, leftover food, and a bottle of lube abandoned at the bar.
Tim and I spent one more night in Tulsa, walking the neighborhoods and looking up unknown bugs. As nice as it felt to stretch our legs and sleep in a real bed, we were ready to get back to our long drives, blasting ‘80s tunes in Adventure Pod’s stiff seats.
Tubing and tacos
Tubing and tacos in Austin, Texas, was next on the itinerary for a full five days. We had friends in town with an air-conditioned guest room. Tubing and tacos were had, as well as pizza and porch hangs. A week of Texas summertime left us content, refreshed, well-fed, and tan. We left for Louisiana, taking an unexpected last-minute stop in Houston to say hello to an old friend of mine who was staying there. After one hello turned into a few hours of talking, we decided to stay for drinks and spend the night. The street was probably safe enough to sleep on, but it was unbearably hot and I was not looking forward to walking outside, let alone trying to sleep in a warm van with back windows that didn’t open. We brought our sleeping bags inside and curled up on the floor with the dogs, for just one more night with that sweet air conditioning.
New Orleans was definitely at the top of my list for new sights to see. The history, architecture, music, and food were so far from what I had grown up around in San Diego, I was beyond excited to experience all that I could. We parked on a random street and stepped outside to lightning crackling close overhead, somehow scary and exciting at the same time. We spent a few days in town. The first night we stayed with a friend, one night we slept in the van on the street, and two nights were spent in a shady motel outside of downtown. We experienced bright pink sunsets over sidewalk musicians, dive bars, markets, cemeteries, and local food. I could have stayed in New Orleans forever, but multiple days of partying was wearing us out, and it was time to book it straight to Florida to get to the Keys.
We slept in the van in a gas station parking lot in the Florida panhandle surrounded by truckers, falling asleep to podcasts before waking to grab gas station coffee and heading back to the highway. We stopped in Gainesville for boiled peanuts, vegan Jamaican food, and to trek through alligator swamps before driving to Miami in the morning.
Miami was busy with tourists bar hopping in the summer heat beside palm trees and neon lights. We parked Adventure Pod on a city street for the night, hoping to avoid a ticket or tow. It was hot in the van and we pulled closed our makeshift curtains to block out the nightlife. Mosquitos got in from time to time and were relentless. The next day we swam in the warm, clear waters of Miami Beach as a storm blew over and lightning started striking the ocean far out into the distance. We walked back to the van in the rain, as the lifeguards cleared the beach.
After dark we parked Adventure Pod in a neighborhood of mansions, not knowing if we would get kicked out if one of the homeowners spotted us on their street. We fell asleep in the heat and humidity with the constant sound of raindrops tapping on the roof of the van. Well after midnight I woke to the feeling of water dripping on my forehead. I ignored it as best I could, trying my best to get some sleep, which was already difficult. I assumed condensation was dripping down from the roof. I felt my forehead start to burn, so I wiped the liquid off and smelled my hand, immediately springing up to a sitting position with eyes wide open in shock. It was not condensation dripping, but battery acid from our dangling tent fan cranked on high. I didn’t know what to be more upset about: the fact that I may have come close to going blind, or that the fan was broken.
Reaching the Keys
We started our drive toward Key West as the clouds departed and the sun appeared. Blue water, Key deer, and iguanas greeted us as we rolled into our destination. We had absolutely no plans for the week we set aside to explore the Keys, and had little money to spend. We researched tourist attractions like the southernmost point in the continental United States, explored hidden beaches, and spent what we could on cheap local food. We drenched ourselves in DEET to go to sleep, hoping for relief from mosquitos. After sleeping on a dark neighborhood street in the van, we opened our eyes in the morning light to see we were parked up against a small cemetery between houses. We stepped outside to brush our teeth in the sunshine, avoiding the dead chickens scattered across the sidewalk lining the cemetery.
A hurricane was on the forecast for the Florida Keys, and because of this the tourists were fleeing. There was a 50 percent chance of it hitting land. Tim and I made the decision to stay, but to move from Key West closer to mainland Florida. At the base of the iconic Seven Mile Bridge was a beautiful campground against the crystal-clear beach water, so we went to see if there was any last-minute availability for us to stay. The ranger greeted us, seemingly unconcerned about the hurricane. We were informed that normally the campground was booked solid, but because of the hurricane warning everyone had canceled or taken off. We had our pick of almost any spot in the campground and chose the shadiest site we could find.
It was hot and humid, so submerging ourselves in the cool water until sundown was just what we needed. There were a few light showers, but mostly we had clear skies, and the hurricane ended up passing by without ever touching land or approaching the Keys. Our last morning in the Florida Keys was spent drinking coffee outside of the gift shop with temperatures already reaching 108 degrees.
We gave ourselves one last day in Florida to see the Everglades before taking Interstate 10 all the way back to California. Although we had made it across the country, we had one week to do it all over again back home, this time only stopping when necessary, plus giving ourselves a quick swim break in Texas.
We outran storms as we drove west, with each passing time zone bringing cooler weather and fewer bugs. I thought back on our month-long trip, and how we would often see so many passing tourists enjoying lavish air-conditioned hotels with a view, relaxing in hot tubs and spas, enjoying expensive cocktails and gourmet meals beachside or by the pool, and it was hard not to envy their vacation versus mine. I had to remind myself that this road trip was more than a normal vacation. We didn’t just fly somewhere to enjoy resort amenities, no matter how nice that would have been. We adventured across the country starting by foot and ending by van. Instead of returning with trinkets and souvenirs, we had over two months’ worth of sunburns, sweat, scars, and bug bites to remind us of everywhere we had been.
There is a difference between a memorable vacation and a life-changing adventure, and although one may be more comfortable, a rough and spontaneous adventure will have you chasing that feeling for the rest of your life.