Hit the Road

Whenever Lynyrd Skynyrd's drifter song comes on the car radio, I scream along: "They call me the breeze; I keep blowin' down the road." My son, Nate, if he's in the passenger seat, howls, partly because I thought for years (until he set me straight) that the lyrics were, "They call me the freak."

Freak or not, I was always meant to be blowin' down the road.

When I was in high school in Hawaii, I drew my dream on the back of a postcard: the floor plan of a renovated bus, beds here, sink there, shower in the back.

At 17, my idea of freedom, of escape, was to drive away, wind in my hair, pointing toward the unknown. Decades later, the dream is the same.

For two weeks this summer, I'll live it.

My husband, Tom, and I and Nate, who will have just turned 20, are driving from Salt Lake City to a family reunion in Illinois and back — two weeks and 2,800 miles — in a converted van.

This is not the old, DIY, welded-in-your-garage school bus I envisioned at 17. Although I would be okay with that, too. This is a $100,000-plus four-star luxury Canadian beauty called a Roadtrek.

Packed into its 21 mesmerizing feet are four captain's seats that can swivel around a table, two of which convert into a single bed for Nate, a motorized couch that slides into a king-size bed, a refrigerator, stovetop, and microwave, an awning on the side to shade me as I sip my morning cup of coffee, and, not to be forgotten, a toilet and shower.

When I tell people about my summer escape plan and that I'd someday like to live full time in a van, driving around the country, most, including my mother, think I'm bat-shit crazy. "Too small." "No place for your 'stuff.'" "Trailer parks? No way." "Don't you have to dump your own shit?"

All good questions. All of which, I've pondered for hours.

First, the van may be small, but the yard, a national park, say, is huge. Stuff, who wants it? All I need is my laptop, camera, digital books, ukulele, and knitting. Trailer parks? We're skipping them — boondocking, they call it; camping off the grid. And, yes, you do have to deal with your own shit, but isn't that poetic, somehow.

My husband and I are a good pair. I rush forward hell-bent, believing only in success, blinders on, oblivious to the possibility of danger, while he keeps his feet planted, holding the lifeline, locating the nearest emergency exit. It took a while for him to warm to the idea of a mini-motorhome.

One thing that tipped the scale was an epic car trip a few summers ago. Nate and I took off on June 1, heading through New Mexico, sliding down the dunes in White Sands National Monument, watching the bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns, seeing LBJ's ranch in Stonewall, Texas. We picked up Tom and my mother at an airport in Houston and continued on through Cajun Country to New Orleans and the Pearl River swamps, up the Natchez Trace to Nashville, through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the battlefields of Gettysburg to Baltimore, where Tom and my mother flew home. Nate and I headed back through the Midwest, Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois, Mark Twain's in Hannibal, Missouri, Fourth of July fireworks in my father's driveway in Kansas. We rolled back into our Arizona driveway on July 31. Epic.

On that trip, we stayed in B&Bs, and we're still paying for it. But I am not to be denied the road. So how to feed my travel lust? A van. Down by the river.

On the way to the family reunion, we'll sleep, bathe, cook, eat, visit, play cards, and bond in a rented Roadtrek.

We'll roll through Wyoming, where we'll see Fort Bridger State Park, a supply stop along the Oregon Trail, slide the door open to gaze out at the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area near Rock Springs, and step down into the Frontier Days in Cheyenne. In Nebraska, we'll see the Arthur Bowring Sand Hills Ranch State Park and Lewis and Clark Wayside, on the banks of the Missouri River where the pair spent their longest expedition encampment. In Iowa, we'll blast "American Pie" from the speakers as we stop and see the Surf Ballroom near Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly played his last concert, and the at the crash site where he died. In Illinois, we'll stop at Ulysses S. Grant's home in Galena.

It's a trip that will satisfy my 17-year-old wandering soul, let my freak flag fly, and keep me blowin' down the road.


Mindset. Shed yourself of the bags and baubles and crap that you drag around in your daily life and on vacations. Read Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, The Packing Book: Secrets of the Carry-On Traveler by Judith Gilford, How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life by Robert and Edward Skidelsky. Sell all your stuff and practice living out of a brown bag. You'll need the money to rent or buy the Roadtrek, anyway.

Vehicle. Most people hearing about my dream think I'm talking about the big behemoth RVs that blow you off the highway, guzzle gas, and require a power plant to plug into at night. I have read and visited and researched and pondered, and decided on a Roadtrek, a sleek and tidy 21-foot self-contained gem that has an on-board generator, sometimes solar panels, can park in a regular parking spot (so you can "sneak sleep" if necessary) and gets great gas mileage. You can see them at www.roadtrek.com. Unfortunately, they're not easy to find to purchase, and even more difficult to rent. After much digging, I found Sande Cagen at rvsanfrancisco.com. Book early because they sell out. And brace yourself: it's expensive, just under $3,000 a week. But I tell myself I'll save a lot by making my own tacos for lunch.

Anticipate. Sit up every night in bed, the covers strewn with maps, books like 1,000 Places To See Before You Die, Road Trip USA, and Roadside America, and your laptop, where you can calculate mileages and note your route. Don't skimp on time here. Three or four hours a night for months and months is about right.

Study. Read On the Road, Jack Kerouac's 1940s road trip across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady; Travels With Charley: In Search of America, a 1960 road trip by John Steinbeck with his French standard poodle, Charley; On the Road, Charles Kuralt's reports from a motorhome about Americans on the back roads; Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, who, after a divorce, decided to drive a van around the country, sticking to the forgotten roads drawn in blue in the Rand McNally road atlas; The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey by Douglas Brinkley, a professor who takes his students around the United States meeting authors and visiting historic sites; and Anthem: An American Road Story by Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn, who travel around America interviewing more than 200 visionaries and cultural icons.

Community. Follow www.roadtreking.com, where Mike Wendland connects Roadtrek enthusiasts and offers advice and tips. Read Camp Skunk's blog about his Roadtrek travels with Fiona the Fearless Kitty at roadtreking.com/home/campskunk/. Google boondocking and read up; there are more options than parking in Walmart parking lots. Research dump stations and macerators and learn to deal with your own shit, literally and figuratively. You'll be a better person for it.

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Judy Nichols