Van Life

A 75 year old sets off in his campervan to see ALL of the United States.

Wednesday July 14 2021

Off we go. I’m always a bit nervous when I go away. Out into the world. This time I’m planning to see all the states that I haven’t been to except Hawaii. I’m meeting my daughter, Claire, in Salt Lake City on the 23rd but apart from that I’m alone and don’t expect to be home for about six

I’m driving on I-75, a road I’ve often travelled. Driving. Now I’m past Atlanta and it’s time to find a place to spend the night. I’ve been thinking about sleeping in truck stops. I’ve seen Youtube videos and it seems safe and practical but when I stop for gas I see a sign for camping and so I gas up and head for the campground.

The office is closed but a sign says that security can check me in. Security didn’t stop me from entering. I go to the security post and a young white boy is preparing to eat dinner. I tell him that it is his job to check me in. He doesn’t know how and so he calls his supervisor. A charming black teenage girl arrives and instructs him. He clumsily registers me.

It is a lakeside site with electricity and water but when I unload the van I realize that I have forgotten my battery charger. The next morning, after a very good night’s sleep, I went to make coffee and realized I had forgotten my lighter.

I headed for the campground shop. On the way I met a young black maintenance worker and asked him if it was open. He was nervous. He reminded me of the black kids in Hilton Head in the seventies. He said it was open. It wasn’t. I waited a while and then a pretty, self-confident
white girl opened the door. I bought a lighter. The only bread they had was a hot dog bun. I ate cheese for breakfast.

Thursday July 15

I decided to buy a battery charger. The interstate service station didn’t have one but the clerk told me that in Jasper they had a Walmart and Walmart has everything. While I was looking for Walmart I saw a Harbor Freight. They had just what I was looking for for $27. At checkout it was $37 because it was an orange card item. Must be some kind of a club. Outsiders pay more. But I bought it. I still needed some groceries so I kept searching for Walmart. The Walmart in Jasper, Tennessee, seems like a joke. A Hollywood vision of stereotypical hillbilly culture. Not just the accents it was as though everyone was in uniform. Most of the men wore jeans, some with bibs, t-shirts and those funny squarish baseball caps. The women wore shorts with their t-shirts and went hatless.

Most of the adults were either obese or extremely thin. There were a lot of missing teeth but a genuine politeness. Most of the men, my age, greeted me with a smile and a “Good day.” Groups of all ages and sexes stood around chatting in the aisles. The children looked fine. It was as though zombies had captured a bunch of Irish kids and in time the kids would become zombies too.

A young woman with two children was paying for $298 worth of groceries with cash at the self-checkout. As she pushed bills into the machine her red-headed son looked at me and said to his mother, “Isn’t he a nice man. He’s a really nice man.” I told him he was a nice boy. When it came to my turn I was flummoxed. How do you scan bananas? I pressed the button for help. A little girl, in line behind me, showed me how to do it. I tried to pay but the register said that I had to wait until help arrived. I flagged down an employee who signed off and so I paid. I left without my bananas. Luckily I had kept my receipt because you are checked as you leave the store. The guard didn’t tell me that I had forgotten my bananas.

Friday July 16

Now that I had a battery charger I had to find a campground with electricity. My road atlas showed several national forests in Southern Illinois and so I headed there.

I stopped at a Forest Service information office and a nice woman told me about an ideal site but unfortunately it was to my east. The only campground west of me was on the Missouri border in a remote location . It was called Pine Hill and it was first come first served and it only had thirteen sites.

I arrived late in the afternoon. There was no supervision and you put your fee into an envelope and dropped it into a box. I didn’t feel comfortable. The campground was remote and I didn’t understand the culture of the region. I had visions of guns and meth. I decided to drive around and check out the other campers. Only one site was occupied and an intimidatingly large albino man gave me the thumbs up sign. I stopped to chat and he asked if I was hungry. He and his wife were sitting at a picnic table which was loaded with food. His dog barked at me. I said I wasn’t hungry. He was wearing yellow bib overalls. His skin was pink and his long hair was yellow. When I saw him close-up he looked like a baby but he was probably in his forties. His wife had dark hair and was dressed conservatively. She smiled and asked me where I was from. I said Florida but they noticed I had an accent. He told me that his sister had moved to Missouri and that her accent had changed but he would always talk hillbilly. For some reason the subject of the Covid vaccine came up. I must have introduced it. It was a mistake. My neighbor became very angry. He would never get vaccinated. That’s how they control you. You’ll have things growing out of your head and out of your ass. He started to curse. I made a lame joke that I would be happy if it made my hair grow back and went off to set up camp on the next site. He shouted that he would protect me. That’s what I had wanted but now I wondered did I need to be protected from him.

It started to rain. My neighbors took off in their van. I hadn’t thought about rain when I set off on my adventure and so I had no alternative but to sit in my van and listen to the radio.

When the rain stopped I walked around the campground. There were some cars on the other sites but no tents. I thought that it might be a lover’s lane for locals or more frighteningly a drug den.

I went back to my van. My neighbors returned. The man started drinking. He started to curse and shout and then I heard him say he needed to lie down. It was quiet. I opened a bottle of wine and listened to”All Music Considered” on NPR. It wasn’t a bad way to spend Friday night.

When I woke up my neighbors were gone and so were the other cars. I felt relief. I was alive. I ate breakfast and then drove through a heavy mist towards the interstate.

Saturday  July 17

I was still looking for a campground with electricity and I had plenty of time to get to Salt Lake City and so I thought I may as well slow down and see something on my journey. Mammoth Cave National Park was close by and it had a campground with electricity.

This was my first real national park campground. I checked out my neighbors. Two middle-aged men sharing a tent to my left, a couple with two daughters across from me and a couple with a very badly behaved toddler to my right. The two men were joined by a third later on. The father of the family across from me was trying to see that his family enjoyed their vacation by organizing games. The teenage daughter wasn’t so enthused and threw the ball very hard to her
father which made it difficult for him to catch. This seemed to anger him. The younger daughter wasn’t paying any attention and the mother looked anguished. The child to my right screamed.

In the morning I toured the cave. It was interesting. The temperature at the surface was in the nineties. In the cave it was 54.
The cave was formed naturally but it was also shaped by slave labor and was mined for saltpeter, an ingredient of gunpowder. I’ve always associated slavery with plantations but apparently slaves were used for industrial production also.

Sunday July 18

It’s a beautiful summer day. Mid eighties, blue sky, a few white clouds and not much humidity. I’m in a National Forest park on a reservoir. It’s clean, safe and midwestern wholesome. My 115 electric service wasn’t working and so two young rangers came by to fix it. They were like a
couple of Opies. I recognized them from my time in Minnesota. Farm boys. Kind of shy but very warm. Incredulously grateful that an outsider would visit them. They think they are so normal that they must be boring. My arrival was awesome. Not something that happens every day. Josh shook my hand twice and marveled that I was going to see all the states and I wasn’t even born in America. And I had chosen their campground. Different. Awesome and a little dangerous.

Most of the campers are in huge RVs and because of the lake they also have boats. They are mostly overweight and shout at their children and grandchildren.

My neighbors were a couple and their two grandchildren and their two dogs.

The children were boisterous yet respectful. The man was silent. The woman told the kids what to do and when the man had a task she would explain to him how her father had done it. It seems strange to me that someone almost my age lives the same way as her parents. But she does and that’s the way it should be. She told the dogs that they were bad dogs but Butterscotch is deaf and so it probably didn’t bother her. She told me that she thought mid-westerners were friendlier than east coast people and she almost shuddered when she said east coast. When I left she wished me a safe journey and her husband smiled.

I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t screwed up my GPS location again. I have to remember to look up my roadmap atlas. I had no idea that I was north of Kansas City. I knew that I was west of it and looked for a campground west of me. I ended up going east before going south and west again. 187 miles which I will have to retrace in some way. I was almost in Nebraska which is one of the states on my list. Tomorrow I’ll go to Nebraska and try to pick up the Morman trail.

Tuesday July 20

I’m taking the day off today. I feel as though I’m on vacation. I’m in a nice safe campground with electricity and water and it’s by a lake. I’m getting phone connection but no T-Mobile connection on my tablet. Luckily there is a marina with free wi-fi about a mile away. I’m a little embarrassed to go back though because I pressed a button on their coffee machine and hot water spurted everywhere.

The website tells you where you can camp on federal land. You can also make reservations. That’s where I found this site. It was first come first served. The site gives directions but if you don’t know the area it’s difficult and it doesn’t give GPS coordinates.

My GPS doesn’t list these sites so I set my GPS for the nearest town and then follow the app directions. I overshot by 8 miles and it was getting late. I found a campground but there was no electricity. A blonde woman in her fifties was pitching a tent. I asked her about paying and she seemed defensive and startled. I realized that she had mistaken me for a ranger. I was wearing a khaki shirt and olive trousers. Months ago I was planning a trip to the Peruvian Amazon and I started equipping myself. I bought a safari jacket and a variety of military style shirts and
trousers. I even bought a pith helmet. I wasn’t wearing the pith helmet. I explained that I was asking how I should pay. She gave me a pay envelope and told me where to deposit it explaining that she often camped and had a supply. She seemed a little crazy. She said that she
was from Illinois and that she was traveling alone.

I filled out the envelope and put $7 into it. I have a national park golden age pass. It allows me free entry to the parks and also gives me a 50% discount on campsites.

The blonde woman showered, changed and drove off. There were other tents around but no people. Every so often an old van or car would drive by and then pick a site. I had a feeling most of them were homeless. A Mexican couple set up a huge tent next to my site. The woman wore a stars and stripes romper suit. They had a pickup and a boat and, as I discovered in the morning, a generator.

My T-Mobile was a full 5G. I started to watch Netflix but I lost interest. I went to bed. The blonde woman still hadn’t returned. I slept well until I woke up and then couldn’t get back to sleep but soon it was light. There was a beautiful sunrise and the air was cool and fresh. The blonde
woman’s car was back and there was also a van on her site.

Wednesday July 21

In Kansas there’s a city dedicated to “The Wizard of Oz.”

An old Nebraska farmer asked me if I was going to the rodeo. It’s the big one this weekend. It’s Frontier Days. In Utah they call it Pioneer Days and it’s kind of religious because of the Mormons.

Thursday July 22

Yesterday my aim was to get to Laramie and I did. I didn’t want to get too far away from I-80 and so I checked the prices were much more outrageous than last week when I stayed in a Motel 8. They asked for $98 but settled for $70. A couple of years ago you could get a
motel in the middle of nowhere for less than $40. My GPS said there was a KOA close by and my neighbors said good things about KOA so I went there. It was crowded and the sites were small. It was surrounded by motels and was as urban as a place can be in Laramie.

I think the other campers see me as an eccentric. They are quite proud of their rigs which, to them, are more of a hobby than a tool. A couple of lesbian ladies were walking by. They stopped and said to me “That’s a very small camper.” I said it suited me. They sniffed and walked on.

When you leave Laramie you are in the West. The prairie turns into rolling range which is greener than in the south. The elevation is 7,000 feet but I didn’t feel that I had climbed any mountains. I was in striking distance of Salt Lake City so I decided to explore and found a campground about 20 miles south of I-80. The views along the way were fantastic and the campground had been built to take full advantage. My site had a little lean-to and I could look out onto mesas and a turquoise gulch.

I saw quite a lot of scat and it was quite large. I’d seen some rabbits about and I knew it didn’t belong to them.

There was a couple in a camper van. It was a long bodied pickup truck with a top and a queen- size mattress. I spoke to the woman. She had lived in China for six years and didn’t like communists. Her husband had developed a translation app. They had tried to do it again in
Thailand but had given up and bought 24 acres in Texas.

There was a kerfuffle. A woman from Oregon was effing and blinding because her reserved spot was occupied. Chuck, the ranger, had told her and her husband to camp next to me, which was definitely the best spot, but she was having none of it. I thought she was upset because I was too close but she said that wasn’t the problem. Chuck gave her two spots together and she was happier. I was glad to see her move.

I sat and watched the sunset. A million dollar view for $11. I can’t believe I haven’t been doing this all my life.

Friday July 23

I picked Claire up at the new Salt Lake City airport which is so new that my GPS was confused. Claire claims that the airport is better than Tampa’s but that’s hard to believe. We were staying in an Airbnb close to a park which turned out to be a great location.

Claire was doing research for a TV pilot she is writing and so she had done a lot of reading and made an excellent tour guide.

I had expected SLC to be like Clearwater. I was equating Mormons to Scientologists but that is not the case. I think Mormons are more like Quakers. I think all religions are a bit weird and of course the Joseph Smith business is bizarre but no more than the Jewish founding myth. The big problem for Mormans is that because it all happened so recently it is easily checked.

The citizens of SLC are about 50% Morman but the other 50% are entwined. They may be children of Mormans who have renounced their parent’s faith or they have Morman friends.

This weekend is “Pioneer Weekend” which is a kind of July 4 for Mormans. Non Mormans call it “Pie and Beer” weekend.
Mormans don’t drink, and according to everyone we asked they really don’t, and so they have the time and energy to be very industrious. They are also taught to be entrepreneurs from early childhood. We went to a child entrepreneur market. There was a lot of lemonade for sale and considerable help from parents but I think the kids were learning. There is a lot of high tech industry there.

The city is laid out in a grid system. The roads are wide, the traffic is light and there is ample free parking everywhere. There is some homelessness and drug dealing which surprised me.

We went to Temple Square, the rodeo, trendy restaurants, a very busy coffee shop in Sugartown and ate lunch in posh Halliday.

Monday 26 July

I dropped Claire off at the airport and headed for a campground about 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. The landscape changed completely. Instead of scrubby desert I drove through Alpen pine covered mountains. When I arrived at Strawberry Bay the weather was cooler. The campsites with electricity were all reserved but a lady, who was patrolling in a golf cart, said she could fit me in.

I was having to adjust to camping again and I missed Claire. I looked at my atlas and tried to plan my trip. One night electric one night not. I have a reservation in Yellowstone on the 7th of August and so I’m just biding time until then.

I’ve found a lot of the cables that were lost and I’m getting 5G data again so it isn’t all bad.

Tuesday July 27

I drove 434 miles today. I’m on top of a mountain in Idaho and all the campgrounds are full. I’ve parked in a clearing in the forest. I can hear gunshots and barking. I think it’s legal to camp here but I won’t be spreading out or cooking. Tomorrow and the next day I have reservations. I’m starting to get bored with this project. I see wonderful scenery but it’s just driving and scenery.

Tomorrow I’ll be close to Yellowstone so maybe I’ll do something. I want to see bison. I want to see Mount Rushmore and of course I want to tick off my states. Only Montana, the Dakotas and Iowa to go.

Wednesday July 28

Just as I was getting tired of the project my spirits were raised by the most magnificent scenery. Idaho 75 follows the Salmon River. I had to stop every few miles to take pictures.

I have a reservation for a site with electricity in the Grand Tetons. In French that means large breasts but I think Grand without an e is male so it must mean large man breasts. This is definitely a tourist area. There was a traffic jam for miles before Jackson. Jackson was packed.
It’s quite upscale and so is the campground. Most of the tags are from the east and the west coast and there are a lot of foreigners. It reminds me of Big Sur or the English Lake District.

Just before I reached the camp I saw this fellow.

Thursday July 29

It’s raining in Grand Teton. I need to buy a tent. I was just about to cook dinner but now it looks more like a sandwich. There is a restaurant nearby but I’ve prepared the van for night and tomorrow I’m staying in a lodge so that may be a better place to eat out.

I’m listening to NPR again. This time they’re playing cowboy music. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Jr. Tonight I feel that I’m kind of a cowboy. I’m alone but not lonely. Living for the sunrise and the sunset. Enjoying the past and looking to the future.

The DJ is an OB/GYN and he’s encouraging his listeners to make babies.

Friday July 30

I’m driving through Yellowstone to Cooke City and I have a map. This is the highlight. The traffic isn’t so bad but there are teriffic jams whenever an animal is sighted. The first bison encounter is exciting and everyone stops to take pictures but as soon as you go on you realize that there are herds of them and soon they become a nuisance. They cross the road. They dawdle and they are quite intimidating. You feel that if you startle them they might charge at you and they could do considerable damage. There is also a lot of hot spring activity and all the way there is this epic western landscape of mountains, lakes and waterfalls.

Saturday July 31

I thought I had it all figured out. Last night I stayed in an overpriced lodge and ate dinner in an overpriced “Bistro.” The waitress said that the owners were French but she didn’t say which part they were from. I paid $20 for a hamburger steak, frozen vegetables and frozen fries. In general the people here are fantastic. They beam warmth. They are happy and confident. Especially the young women. One at the Colton campground check-in and today a wonderful woman at the gas station where I bought coffee.

My idea was to stay in the same general vicinity until my Yellowstone reservation. So I had booked two nights in Custer National Forest, two in Taghree National Forest and one night back at Colton in the Grand Teton National Park. On my road atlas they seem close but you have to
factor in the mountains. What seems to be a 2 hour drive is really a 5 hour drive and then we’re talking about wilderness and my GPS doesn’t handle wilderness very well. But the mountains are superb and there is snow on them still. As I drove a herd of cattle came onto the road driven
by two real cowboys and a dog. That made it all worthwhile.

I cancelled my Yellowstone reservation as I’ve already seen a lot of it and I’ll be criss-crossing in the next few days and so on Thursday I’ll be heading to the Dakotas.

Sunday August 1

I felt lonely last night. I’m surrounded by a large family reunion. They’re taking up three sites and their license plates are from different states. I sat and watched them. The temperature is perfect. If it wasn’t for the drought I would have built a campfire. There aren’t any mosquitos probably because we are so high up. The clouds seem to be clearing. Maybe tonight I will see the stars. I haven’t seen real stars since I was in Peter’s chalet in 1996.

Staying in one place for two nights is great. I’ve been able to catch up on my Instagram although I can’t post because this is the wilderness and there is no phone service. I’ve walked a few trails but mostly I’ve been sitting in this beautiful place smelling the pines and listening to the

It’s a bit scary on the trails. There are black bears and grizzlies around and I was too cheap to buy bear spray at REI. You can rent it here but I’ll take my chances.

Tuesday August 3

The trouble with camping is that there is very little nightlife. I had images of making new friends around the campfire but that’s not happening. Some of the campers are groups of families with
children and they’re not looking for new friends. The others seem to hunker down in their RVs. They cook and eat inside and probably watch TV. Actually there aren’t any campfires because of the drought. In the south people lit fires even though it was muggy and hot.

I’vd seen a few saloons and casinos along the road but the campgrounds are too far away and I don’t want to drink and drive. It’s a pity I’d like to hang out.

Yesterday morning I bought groceries in a small town. The kids working in the store were tall and skinny and they really talked cowboy. They seem like such charming people but in the very small town of Greycliff I saw a Trump flag flying below the US flag.

It rained in the evening and so I had to build a little tarp shanty to cook and eat my steak. It worked out well.

Wednesday August 4

When I arrived at the campground the ranger asked if I was with the bikers. I said no but all the sites around me had been reserved by a group of bikers. I imagined Hell’s Angels and I thought it might be fun.

When I got to my site an attractive woman in spandex shorts asked if I would trade sites with her. She was part of a group of cyclists who were riding from Canada to Mexico.

I started to plan my route and realized that I had booked my next site for Friday and not for Thursday as I had meant to. It’s difficult to keep track of dates. Later I invited the lady cyclist for a glass of wine. She had her site for two days and she offered it to me. In exchange I’m making cocktails for her group tomorrow.

I also met a young couple who had been touring and camping for six weeks and a Mexican man, Daniel, who lived in LA and told me that where he lived you had to carry a gun.

Thursday August 5

I’m not sure if the cocktail party was a success but I enjoyed myself. Most of the group are in their sixties. Some don’t drink. Some don’t drink liquor. CJ, the group leader, didn’t come. They say she’s not a people person but I talked to her today. She’s an ex-lawyer who became a yoga instructor and who now leads bicycle groups. There was a young guy in his thirties who went to take a shower and didn’t come back and a Dutch man and an Irish man who didn’t drink.

So the drinkers were myself, Patty, Bernadette a field hockey player who was very proud of her impressive muscles and Mark a gay ex-military psychologist. Everyone loved the Sunderland Sunrise. I saved one for CJ but when she didn’t come back Patty and I drank it.

Friday Aug 6

It was raining when I woke up. My cyclist friends had decamped. I packed up and had a shower and coffee in the village. I drove through Teton and Yellowstone parks. It was grey and misty. The sky, the mounrains, the lake. I had the heat turned on. I had a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia. It felt good. I passed a moose. I think it was a moose. It didn’t have any horns. It looked like a donkey. Maybe it was a donkey. I think I saw a moose last week but it was too far off to be sure. I have a picture. When I get home I’ll zoom in and see what I saw.
In Cody, Buffalo Bill’s old town, I got an oil change at Walmart. It gave me a chance to compare it to Jasper Tennessee. The layout was exactly the same and they were selling the same things. The customers were a mixture of RV tourists, poor people in cowboy hats and Amish. I saw one group of Amish loading a Sprinter van with groceries and there wasn’t a horse and cart to be seen.

Saturday August 7

The sun was shining when I got up this morning but I could still see my breath. I missed a couple of great photo-ops on my way down the mountain. An Amish man and four women, probably his wife and daughters, were at a scenic viewing point. The women had long blue
dresses and little hats. They were spaced about four feet apart staring at the vast vista like pioneers looking at their future. A little further down there was an open air gun flea-market. I suppose guns are as natural as breathing in their culture. They’ve been around since they
chased the indians out. They’re good for hunting and for when you get dissed in the saloon.

Sunday August 8

I stayed in a motel in Bowman ND last night. When I arrived it was deserted. There were no cars outside the rooms but on the office window there was a phone number. I called and a wonderful woman, Gina, answered and then opened the door. We chatted and got on so well that she upgraded me to the newer building. She has never been to Mt. Rushmore even though it’s only 135 miles away. She’s heard there are rooms behind the eyes. It may be true. I think I saw it in a Hitchcock movie. The room had a full kitchen, wi-fi and for the first time I could plug my cameras into the TV and look at my pictures.

I decided to swing by Sturgis on my way to Mount Rushmore. In Sturgis they have the motorbike hall of fame or museum or something and at this time of year people from all over the world descend on it. It’s also famous as a covid hotspot. I saw packs of bikers. Outside Sturgis there were pop-up campgrounds and Harley had a huge event going on. I stopped to take pictures.

Sturgis was so crowded that I couldn’t park. It was wall to wall bikers in biker clothes and their parked bikes lined the streets while they bought biker stuff and drank beer.

Mount Rushmore was a bit underwhelming. It is iconic. When you first see it you think, “Ah, yes. There it is.” But it’s smaller than I expected and once you park there isn’t much else to do except take pictures of the presidents. I met one extended family fron Orange County, California, they looked rough but were the nicest people you could meet. They’d come for the bike festival but one of the women said that seeing the sculpture took her breath away. One of the men was missing a leg, probably from war. It amazes me that the people who have so little yet give so much are so patriotic.

Monday August 9

I feel that my trip is over yet I still have to go 2,000 miles to get home and I still have Iowa to tick off. I also have doubts about Oklahoma so I’ll nick it on the way.

It’s as hot as hell.

Tuesday August 10

I stayed at a KOA again. This time in the tent section. It’s cheaper and it’s all I need. There were other solo travelers in the tent section although none of them were chatty. KOA is great. It has a shop, good showers, a pool and it’s right next to the interstate. Tonight I’m in a very pleasant lakeside campground in Oklahoma. All the states are checked but I still have 1,500 miles to go.

The GPS is sending me through New Orleans. Maybe I should give it another chance. I freaked out the last time I was there.

Wednesday August 11

Driving, driving,driving. Motels and fast food. It’s too hot to camp. My GPS seems to have changed its mind about New Orleans and is sending me through Atlanta. Almost home.

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