What I Learned From Life On The Road (Part 1)
Livin’ on the road, my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean. Now you wear your skin like iron, and your breath’s as hard as kerosene.” — Pancho and Lefty, Townes Van Zandt
When we set off in June, we didn’t really know what to expect… the stories, the landscapes, the people… the many, varied obstacles.
10,000 miles in, here we are; unscathed… relatively speaking, a little dustier, skinnier. Perhaps wiser, happier? Hindsight will be the judge.
The following are the first 10k miles in pictures and short stories, and what I’ve learned so far from life on the road…
We left Texas in early June, 2016 with great anticipation for the adventure before us. Besides our family and friends, the only thing left in the Lone Star State was a 75 square foot storage unit half full of our stuff. What I learned somewhere along the way in the first 10,000 is that 75 square feet is way too much.
Lesson 1. The less stuff you have, the less stuff begins to mean to you.
Our new Australian Shepherd pup, Islay (named after our favorite, peaty whisky soaked island in Scotland) was along for the ride. Living in our 200 square foot trailer with us and Colonel Bubba the cat. She is growing and learning and playing with every new mile.
She has slowly become the perfect dog for which we could’ve ever asked… you’ll see later.
2. Finding the right dog for you is nearly just as good as finding the right person.
We finally hit the mountains in record (slow) time. I’m not used to pulling a 6,000 lb. trailer and having to go 60mph. But we made it to Great Sand Dunes National Park regardless. Our first National Park of the 2-3 year 59 Park tour! We’ve been to GSDNP many times, so it felt like an old familiar friend welcoming us to this new way of life.
3. Old familiar friends are always a welcomed sight for the weary traveler.
Our first new Park, and 2nd overall was Mesa Verde. And so far, it has been the biggest shocker. We expected nothing from this relatively small National Park, and it really surprised us with its beauty and mystery.
4. No amount of familiarity can ever take the place of a new experience.
We didn’t have long to stay though. It was on to National Parks 3 and 4, Canyonlands and Arches in Utah.
These two Parks are pretty spectacular, and basically right across the highway from each other. Pretty awe-inspiring and convenient.
5. Inspiration rarely knows convenience. But when it does…. oh boy, hold on.
We started to get our “hiking legs” under us on this portion of the trip. I’m really glad we did too, because by the end of the summer we would’ve logged more than 300 trail miles from Texas all the way to Montana’s border with Canada.
The heat of canyon country sped the whole process along. 3-4 mile days quickly became 8-12 mile days as we worked our way up to the cooler mountain temps. All the while, we were dropping unnecessary pounds.
6. Hiking every day is the best way to stay in the best shape of your life. No pricey gym membership needed.
When we finally arrived at our “home away from home”, the Wind River Range welcomed us with open arms. Pinedale is the town in which I lived in 2005, and the place got in my blood. I’ve visited at least once or twice every year since I moved back to Texas, some years making the 20+ hour drive 4 times.
It would now be our home base for the Summer and Fall. I had workshops slated to happen in the surrounding areas, and we both really wanted to get out deep into the Winds, so it was the perfect “base camp”.
Soda Lake was our first “off the grid” experience. If you’re unfamiliar with what that means, it’s basically just car camping, but with four walls, a bed, a toilet, a refrigerator, and a limited supply of running water. Not too shabby really.
Ellen and I have been primitive camping all of our lives, so this was an absolute luxury.
And to look out our window and see a scene that I frequently had to travel very long distances to see… well, that proved to be priceless.
7. A spectacular view each morning has an uncanny ability to lift the spirits.
Hanging around Soda the first week was a great reintroduction to the mountain life. Every morning I would get up before dawn to watch the sun rise over the Winds. Every evening, we would enjoy our “dinner with a view”, play a game of dominoes or cards outside, and then I would go chase the sun’s last rays. Life slowed down to the basics.
During the day, our hikes grew longer and more challenging, taking us deeper into the Winds.
We headed out to one of our favorite places in the world, the Upper Green River Valley. The area is unique as it is the confluence of two ranges within the Rockies, the Gros Ventre and the Winds. grizzlies, wolves, elk, moose, eagles, antelope, and so much more call this dramatic landscape home. And we did too.
We had the time to explore new trails and scenery.
Islay was becoming quite the mountain dog, learning to cross dangerously swift rivers and creeks, negotiating boulders, swimming in high, clear mountain lakes with her crazy parents.
8. Nothing can prepare you for both the terror and delight of the breath takingly cold experience of submerging yourself in a mountain lake.
I spent my mornings scouring the area for wildlife. And I had some luck.
From the Green River Lakes trailhead, we found many of our favorite hikes. And our favorite trail snack.
9. When in season, cherries pack the best punch of flavor and immediate energy on the trail.
We learned quickly how long our water (fresh, grey, and black) tanks and batteries could last… 4-5 days. There’s also no cell reception for 40 miles at our spot in the Upper Green. So it was time to “plug in” and reconnect with the world. We had reached our limits.
We found a little no-frills RV park near Pinedale that was part of a network we could join. For $150 a year, we joined the club, named this as our “home park” and could now stay for free, as much as we like, for the rest of the year. No electric, water, sewer bills… just free “on the grid” camping any time we needed it. All the other hundreds of RV parks across the US and Canada in this network are just $10-15 per night for us too. Best $150 we’ve spent so far.
So we plugged in and found new roads and trails to explore in the southern reaches of the Winds.
Since we could now stay plugged in for free, we knew it was a good time to do an extended backpacking trip into the Winds. 4 nights, 5 days of carrying everything needed on your back, sleeping underneath a blanket of stars, and being a part of the landscape.
So we left Gertie (the trailer) plugged in at our new “home park”, put a ton of cat food out for Colonel Bubba, and hit the trail, just in time to celebrate Independence Day. Fitting, I thought.
10. There is no better (or often more painful) way to see and experience the beauty and majesty of wilderness than on foot.
We hit Elkhart Park early and headed straight in for Seneca Lake, smack dab in the middle of the Winds. I’ve been wanting to do this trip for a decade… the infamous Titcomb Basin.
It was a moderate 8-9 miles in to Seneca the first day. Islay did amazingly well. This was her first backpacking trip, and though she’s too young to carry anything yet, she ran at least 2-3 miles for every one we did. She got to be off-leash the whole time, and she never strayed too far or got into too much trouble, and she got to sleep with us in the tent. Now this was a pretty big deal considering she’s slept in her crate every night of her life up to that point.
We made it to Seneca and set up camp. It was a beautiful spot.
But we did realize one important thing from that first day of hiking… our backpacks and shoes were way out-dated. It was going to be a painful trip.
11. The right gear is essential to a comfortable mountain backpacking experience.
I’ve known this truth deep down all my life, but I’d never done multiple extended trips so close together to really understand how important the right gear can be. We’ve also just never had the extra cash to throw at the problem. There’s always something else more pressing or important, and I don’t know if you’ve been in an REI lately, but outdoor gear is expensive!
No amount of pain at this point though was going to stop us or dampen our spirits.
12. Pain is mostly mental.
The Titcomb Basin has been called one of the most beautiful and striking places in the world. I couldn’t disagree at all. We did’t get the best weather for photography, but it was spectacular none-the-less.
Our bond grew incredibly deep on this adventure with Islay. She would wake early with me and “assist” me as I shot sunrise. During the day, she would explore right beside us.
It was perhaps here, in the Titcomb Basin, that Islay Blue became a real part of our family.
I’ve never been “that dog person”. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved dogs, but I never treated them like a member of the family. Well… here I am… one of “them”. Islay has become an indispensable part of our family. And all it took was a few thousand miles sitting on the center console of the truck, her quirky personality, hilarious morning antics, a few near-death experiences, and a wilderness excursion for the ages.
Ask Ellen, I’ve become a total softy when it comes to that dog. She freaking gets away with murder when she’s with me.
13. Dog people have it all figured out. :)
… to be continued…
Ellen and I have hit the road full-time! We are on a mission to inspire and educate everyone on the importance of getting outside. Check out my workshops and my prints, made #ontheroad in my mobile print studio. The revenue will help propel us further and further on this great adventure. Enrich yourself and others… and feel great about it too as you’re helping to ensure our wild lands are cherished and to keep the wild spirit of the American Dream alive. Our goal is to visit all 59 National Parks in 2-4 years. LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE
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