Summer Guide: Judy Nichols Left Everything Behind to Travel America by RV

Tom and Judy Nichols and Pippi before setting out.
Tom and Judy Nichols and Pippi before setting out.

In the 2015 edition of our Summer Guide, we've featured people who are living their dream: creative couple Josh and Sarah Rhodes; baseball player Josh Chesler; popular YA novelist Amy K. Nichols; obsessive bread baker Mandy Bublitz; and Jesse Teer of folk-pop group The Senators. Up today: Judy Nichols, who recently hit the road.

For decades, I have had a dream, a Merry Pranksters kind of dream: a psychedelic school bus, wheels whining on the asphalt, my Birkenstock-clad feet on the dashboard, wind whipping my long hair, my guitar in the back, headed toward a serendipitous happening.

I grew up in Hawaii, at the tail end of the hippie era, drawing floor plans for a converted school bus, longing for interstate highways, driving my '59 Volkswagen on the longest road I could find until the tires crunched over drifts of white sand by the breaking waves.

Just like the waves, the years rolled on. I got older. I moved to the mainland, finished college, got a job as a newspaper reporter, got married, got a little older, bought a house, had a beautiful baby boy, and got a little older. I lost the Birkenstocks and cut my hair. My guitar dried up in the Arizona heat and the neck started to separate from the body.

I fed my travel bug in different ways. As newlyweds, my husband, Tom, and I took our backpacks to Europe for a month. As a reporter, I traveled from Arizona to north of the Arctic Circle seeking interesting stories. I took my son, Nate, on months-long road trips across the United States.

Always in the back of my mind was the youthful dream of the hippie-esque vagabond life.

I passed the 50-year mark.

I started to worry about the dream.

The Epic Van parked at the City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico.
The Epic Van parked at the City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico.

Would we get sick? Tom survived a throat-cancer scare that made mortality very real. Would we have enough money? How much was enough? If we kept working to have more money, would we get too ancient to hike? Would my neck start to separate from my body, like the old guitar?

Then the light-bulb moment: Sell the house. It was our biggest expense, with the mortgage, pool repairs, and summer air-conditioning bills. We'd use one bedroom at my mother's house.

The next morning, I dug into the bathroom cabinets and started throwing away decades of accumulated clutter.

Just months later, we'd quit our jobs, sold the house, dumped most of our belongings, stored family antiques and photos, and were driving back from an RV dealer in Las Vegas with our new fancy-ass camper that I call The Epic Van.

Technically, it's a Class B recreational vehicle, or RV. But, to me, RV evokes images of people in their dotage, parked cheek-to-jowl in RV "resorts," playing bingo. Tom and I, in our ever-youthful 50s, are waaay too young for that scene. Our deal is more exploration than reflection. More cosmic, more epic. Less Wagon Wheel Resort.

The Epic Van, made by Roadtrek, cost about as much as a small house. It's a self-contained wonder, complete with kitchen, bathroom and shower, king-size bed, retractable awning, and solar panels.

We can stop anywhere we want. No need for electric, water, or sewer hookups.

The Epic Van driving through a tiny waterfall in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains.
The Epic Van driving through a tiny waterfall in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains.

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We borrowed our travel plan from a guy named Campskunk on the Roadtrek Facebook page: Seek 72-degree days, find free camping spots, and go slow. We're aiming for a leisurely 200 miles a week.

In January, we left the driveway to cruise the West, hiking, exploring, writing, and taking photos, living off about $60,000 a year in savings.

No more commuting, meetings, deadlines, or yardwork. Just a Rand McNally map and a tank of diesel. Well, a little more than that — bikes, books, hiking gear, knitting, laptops, cameras, my flute, and our 16-year-old cat, Pippi — stuffed into the 21 feet of The Epic Van.

We stayed mostly warm in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, cruising north on the High Plains in spring. We plan a cool summer in the Northern Rockies, and fall on the Pacific Coast, returning to Arizona for the holidays with family.

It's a life of minimalism and perpetual slow motion.

We've stayed on federal lands, in state parks, and in Walmart parking lots. We've hiked more than 100 miles, read more books in a month than in the past year, and seen dozens of historic sites, museums, and oddities. We cook one pot/one frying pan meals, crack our happy-hour beers in camp chairs, and, if we like our spot, stay longer.

We've waded through a rain-swollen creek in Arizona's Sabino Canyon, seen sponge fossils in a now-exposed Permian reef in the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, and held pieces of Alibates flint from sites where the prehistoric Clovis people quarried it for spearheads to kill mammoths. We've seen hundreds of migrating cranes in the Whitewater Draw in Arizona, a horned lizard on the trail in Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, and been driven into a herd of bison at the Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area near Garden City, Kansas.

The author on Devil’s Hall Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
The author on Devil’s Hall Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

We're dreamers, but we're not the only ones. At gas stations, laundromats, and grocery stores, people ask to see The Epic Van, fascinated by its design, enthralled by its promise of freedom. They confess to having the same dream, trying to figure out how to swing it financially or convince a doubting spouse.

Sometimes it's a solitary life, just the two of us for several days at a time. Sometimes, we bond with other campers, like a couple from Idaho whom we shared wine and snacks with at Arizona's Cochise Stronghold and plan to see again at a harmonica festival in their hometown of Yellow Pine this summer. Or a group we met at Palo Duro, including a commuting jeweler, a 20-something boy on his way to San Francisco to be a street musician, and a group of Aussies on a break from their ski-bum jobs in Canada.

Each morning, I lift my window shade to remind myself where our wheels stopped.

I'm wearing Merrill hiking boots instead of Birkenstocks. I sold the guitar in the yard sale, but brought a ukulele, which fits better. My hair is now gray, but I've let it grow long again.

As it blows in the wind, my feet on the dashboard, I feel like a teenage hippie.

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