Last summer I built out a campervan of my own. We were all stuck in the house because of the quarantine, so I decided to learn a new skill and to do something I’ve always wanted to do. About 5 months after purchasing my van and building it out, the lease on my house was up and it was time to hit the road. When I set out on this first trip, I had a destination in mind, just no plan of how or when I would reach it. The goal was to head west and to be at my sister’s house in Arizona in time for the holidays, but I had no idea where I would end up along the way. It was just my dog and me on the road, stopping wherever we saw fit.
My trip started in Austin, Texas, and after a quick search I made Prada Marfa my first stop. As I was on my way there I saw a sign for Big Bend National Park, so I quickly made the detour and headed that way. It ended up being about three hours south of the original destination, but I wasn’t on a time crunch so I didn’t mind.
I purchased a national park pass before I hit the road, which grants you free access to every national park in the county. I had never been to a national park before, so going to Big Bend was exciting, though I had no idea what to expect.
Entrance was easy. When arriving at the park, I showed my pass and was handed a map, and I was on my way. I made it to the park at about 4:30 p.m. and with daylight savings in full effect, the sun was almost ready to go down. I still wasn’t sure where I was going to sleep that night.
The first night on the road
As I drove further into the park, I saw signs that the campgrounds were full. The visitor center was closed, so I drove around to see as much as I could before it was too dark. I also filled my gas tank at the gas station in the park. Here, I was able to get my Big Bend patch and pin, something I plan to get at every park I visit.
I eventually made it to one of the campgrounds and, not surprisingly, it was very full—RVers, trucks, and other campers lined up in rows near the base of a beautiful mountain. This was my first night in a national park surrounded by other adventures on a similar journey to my own.
I ended up parking across from that same campground in the overflow parking. It had become very dark and the road leading to that area was very curvy, so I didn’t want to risk driving my big van back up the hill at night. My dog Ice and I took a nice walk once we got settled in the van and found a parking spot where we could catch the beautiful sunset. It was pretty cold and windy, but I tried to make the most of it.
Earlier in the day, I had stopped at a Walmart about 60 miles outside of the park to grab another sweater and some food. I’m thankful that I did because I definitely put it all to use that night. Back in the van after our walk, we ended the night having dinner and watching a movie.
I woke up the next morning with a surreal feeling of gratitude, like, “Did I really just do this? Did I officially make my dream a reality?” This vanlife thing had been a dream of mine for years and I finally did it.
I was up early enough to see the sunrise from the same spot where I had just watched the sunset the night before. The views were breathtaking, to say the least. It was still cold and very windy outside, but I slept perfectly fine and comfortably under my blanket. Once I took that first morning step, I really felt the cold hit me. But I heated up my van, made hot chocolate, and just enjoyed the views before making my way toward my next destination. I didn’t stay in the park long because I had a work meeting that morning and no service, but I will be back to truly experience its beauty. I enjoyed every minute of what I did get to experience and see.
That first night in the van confirmed that I made the right decision for me and that vanlife was what I really wanted to do. In the course of the next two weeks, I visited six more national parks (White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, and Saguaro). I was just enjoying the freedom to go where I wanted and really experience parts of this beautiful country I might not have otherwise been able to witness.
Challenges and rewards
My favorite part of this trip, other than the trip itself, has been doing it all on my own. Vanlife is something I’ve been wanting to do for years, and I’m so happy I finally decided to just go for it. I think the most difficult part was really accepting that this was real and that I was doing it. One of the biggest challenges of all this was that I started this in a pandemic. The COVID-19 part of the story hasn’t been too hard for me to adjust to because I built my van to be self-sufficient. When some states were under more strict COVID-19 restrictions, it made it more difficult to do things like finding a shower. But I have a make-shift shower in my van, so it wasn’t too bad. If nothing else, vanlife helps you learn how to just “make it work.”
If I had to redo this road trip I think I would take the time to “stop and smell the roses” more. I was so excited to just be free and see all these beautiful places that I don’t know if I took the time to really “experience” them. But the memories I’ve been able to get from them are still priceless nonetheless.
In this adventure, I have become more confident in myself and my abilities and I have made it to a point mentally where I feel like I can do anything that I set my mind to. This has allowed me to enjoy my journey fearlessly.
I’ve learned that our fears and doubts can be the biggest downfalls when it comes to accomplishing a lot of the things we want to do in life. So when you get the opportunity to do things that make you happy and that you enjoy, take full advantage of it while you still can. My next goal is to visit every national park in the U.S. this year, and I’m already on track to doing just that.