Oct 222011

Ok, so after four months on the road I’ve been asked to cut the sh*t and disclose the things people really want to know.  The truth is life on the road is not always glamorous.  There are good days and bad.  There are lots of adjustments, inconveniences and tricky situations.  So, for your enjoyment, here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions. 


This question tops the list.  Almost everyone wants to know, strangers and friends alike, where on earth do you go to the bathroom?  Well, the answer really depends on where we are.  As on any good road trip, you learn the tricks of the trade, such as which establishments have the cleanest bathrooms and which will allow you to use the facilities as a non-patron without a dirty look.  As for cleanliness, visitor centers are usually your best bet.  From there, cafes, restaurants, and rest stops.  Gas stations, as expected, are the dirtiest but also the most reliable.  When we park for the night it is almost always in a rural and/or wild area and so the great outdoors serves our needs.  Same goes for backpacking.  For the most part, it is really not an issue.  But there are times when this can get a bit tricky, particularly for me (Zach has it a little easier) and particularly in urban areas.  The worst example I can think of was in San Francisco.  We simply parked on a busy street and slept in our van.  I had a serious moment of panic one night when I realized, after our friends had gone to bed and most restaurants/businesses were closed, that I had to go to the bathroom.   Let’s just say sometimes life forces you to get creative.


What you assume is true – we’ve had to adjust to life with fewer showers.  When we first started the trip, this was not so easy for me to accept.  But to be honest, you get used to it and your body adjusts.  I’ve found I can go about five days without a shower.  More than that is pushing it.  As for Zach, I usually have to remind him that it’s time (just kidding…)  Anyway, here’s how it works:  We try to plan our showers around when we will see friends and use their accommodations.  When that’s not possible, we have a camping solar shower – it’s basically a black plastic bag that you fill with water then leave in the sun for a few hours to get warm.  This has worked great when a real shower is not in the cards, but we rarely have the foresight or luxury of leaving it out to warm up, so suffice to say that we’ve gotten used to taking cold, and therefore very quick, showers.  Every once in a while, as a treat or when there are no other options, we will pay for a hot shower at a campground or similar place.  We’ve only had to do this a handful of times, which suits us because some places really try to take advantage (one recent place tried to charge us $7/shower.  Sorry, we’ll pass).  It’s possible to get creative with the shower situation as well.  Outside Seattle we stopped at a YMCA figuring it was a long shot.  Surprisingly, they did not hesitate to let us use the showers for free.  Another option is to sneak into a hotel/motel with a pool and check out the locker room situation.  We haven’t tried this one yet but are happy to have it in our back pocket for a time of need.


This one really varies.  When we are backpacking or seeing family/friends, we’ll stay in a particular area for the better part of a week.  Otherwise, we’re usually on the move.  In the beginning we covered a lot more distance, going through a full tank of gas almost every day for the first couple weeks.  After reaching the West we have slowed down considerably.  We take turns driving, but for whatever reason Zach does about 65-70% of the driving.  The Astro gets 15 mpg and takes about 22 gallons.  Not good, but it could be much worse.


By far, the hardest adjustment for me has been the forced change in our diet.  Before the trip, Zach and I lived with a bunch of annoyingly good cooks and it has spoiled us for life.  Large family meals were a big part of our life and, as a household, we were connected to several Worcester urban gardens and small farms, belonged to the local food coop and a bulk buying club.  Most of the food we ate was fresh, local and organic.  Now, we’re lucky if we get a few meals each week with vegetables.   This is partly logistics.  We have a very small fridge and cannot handle a lot of spoilable food at any given time.  We are also doing a lot of backpacking, which requires the most calorie-dense foods you can find, for weight and convenience (ex: peanut butter, Clif bars, Mac and cheese, rice and beans).  But the sad reality of the industrial food system in the U.S. is that healthy food is just far more expensive.  There is something wrong with the system when you can buy a Jr. Whopper for 99 cents but a head of organic lettuce costs $2.  While we’re not eating Jr. Whoppers (or any fast food, for that matter), subsisting mostly on cheap, processed foods has saved us a ton of money.  We are hoping this part of our routine will change quite a bit once we have access to the mercados south of the border.   Here is a sample of what we eat on a daily basis:

Breakfast: cereal or quick oats with some brown sugar, occasionally coffee

Lunch: almost always a PB&J supplemented with an apple, crackers or trailmix.  Clif bars when backpacking

Dinner: spaghetti, rice and bean burritos, mac and cheese, soup.  Sometimes we get more creative but this always requires access to a market and a considerable amount of time to make dinner and do dishes.

Speaking of dishes, courtesy of Zach’s mom (thanks Stephanie!) we have a camping ‘kitchen sink’ that folds up really small when we’re not using it.  We simply unfold it, fill with hot water and soap and wash away.  It really makes the dish situation a whole lot easier.  It is, of course, nowhere near as convenient as having a real sink with a faucet and an unlimited amount of hot water on command (a luxury most Americans take for granted), but a trade we’ll take happily.


People are surprised to hear that our bed in the van is really quite comfortable.  We have lots of head and personal space and the mattress is a decent size.  If it’s hot, we can open the windows a bit and we have a small fan inside.  We have been extremely lucky with the weather, spending the hottest part of the summer in the cool and calm northwest.  There has only been one night when it was too hot to sleep in the van (Phoenix) though I expect that as we venture further south this number will increase.  The biggest annoyance relating to our sleeping situation is that we can have our bed or we can have our belongings but not both at any given time.  This means that when we are ready for bed at night we have to be sure we have everything that we need because once the bed is down, we can’t really access anything.  This also means that in the morning, when one of us wants to wake up, we both have to wake up.  In order to accomplish anything we have to literally put our bed away for the day.  No coffee or breakfast in bed for us.  This is really only a minor thing and it only took a few cold, sleepless nights for me to learn to grab my wool socks before putting the bed down.

One thing that is important in terms of a comfortable night’s sleep is finding a place that is level.  Otherwise, we are sliding around all night.  The worst was in San Francisco.  It is hard enough just to find a parking space in the city so we couldn’t exactly be picky when it came to the pitch of our street.  We slept at a 30 degree angle that night and, considering some of the streets in San Francisco, we think we got lucky.

As for where we sleep, we have managed to avoid paying for sleeping accommodations (camping or hotel/hostels) every single night so far, with the exception of backcountry permits.  In addition, we haven’t been hassled by police, or anyone for that matter, since our second night of the trip in upstate NY.  We have learned some great tips for successful pirate camping in the US, which Zach will write about in an upcoming post.


We usually spend our evenings reading, writing, or editing photos and every once in a while we’ll watch a movie (we have a external hard drive with over 100 movies and a computer monitor in the van so we can hook up the laptop).  Yea, I know, pretty boring.  Sometimes we’ll go out for some drinks but we’re much more likely to have our own happy hour at the van.  When family and friends visit that is a different story.

Any more questions?  Send ’em in!