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A Man And A Minivan, Part: I

A Man and a Mini-Van: 15,000 Miles, 6 Months And One Big Country

By Robert Walton

Robert Walton is an accomplished journalist and photographer who walked away from a stable nine-to-five job as a news editor to drive across the country and start the #TryingStuff lifestyle.  This is his story.

The rain began to fall just as I left Washington, D.C. But I was about to spend six months on the road, and knew bad weather would be unavoidable along the way. No sense delaying things for a little drizzle.

Last year I bought a Dodge Grand Caravan, a used government cargo van with no rear seating. Into the back, I built a platform for a bed, with storage underneath. I let the lease run out on my apartment, sold most of my stuff, and replaced the trappings of urban apartment-life with a tent, portable stove, and a hatchet.

The plan called for a slow trip across the country, living out of “Rosy” the van (because that damned Steinbeck took “Rocinante”). I would work my way south to New Orleans, west along the southern route, and camp up the California coast into Washington state. I was 37 years old and had never seen wide-open western spaces, the Grand Canyon, or climbed a mountain.  Hell, I hadn’t been camping in 15 years. What I had done is work—a lot—and the days had started to blur together.

Call it what you want—an early mid-life crisis or inherent American wanderlust—but I needed a change. I wanted to try something new. And if my plans could be delayed by a little rain, perhaps I wasn’t quite up to task.

The rain kept falling as I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and worked my way down through Virginia and Maryland. My first real destination was the Outer Banks, a thin chain of islands off North Carolina.

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That first night out, the van felt like a tiny submarine or cozy spaceship. Everything I needed–most of what I owned–was within arm’s reach. I fell asleep listening to the rain.

It was still raining when I woke up, and by the time I completed a slow trip down to the Outer Banks it had been going strong there for a week. Remnants of Tropical Storm Karen had combined with a low-pressure system in the Atlantic, and campsites were flooded along the East and Gulf Coast. To make matters worse, a stalemate over the federal government shutdown had closed national campsites across the country—and most sites in the Outer Banks. My plan to travel without planning was off to an inauspicious start. And I realized that I did not own waterproof boots.

Undeterred, I’d sloshed my way south to Ocracoke Island, a quaint little beach town full of cafes, restaurants, and bars. Tourism swells the island’s population in the high season, but this was October and I found shuttered businesses and waterlogged locals just trying to stay dry. I had memories of camping there as a kid, fishing from the beaches and grilling fresh seafood for dinner. But the only people who seemed to be enjoying themselves were surfers taking advantage of some uncharacteristic waves.

Instead of re-living bucolic memories I huddled in a coffee shop to escape the rain. That night I camped in a flooded, crowded RV park.

In the morning, during a break in the rain, I pulled into the Cape Hatteras National Seashore campground. The gates were chained shut, but I climbed a dune and looked out. The Atlantic on one side, vacant campsites on the other. Abandoned, soggy childhood memories.

“It’s a shame,” came a voice behind me. A man on an old bike had silently rolled up next to me, and together we surveyed the campsites.

“It is,” I said. “I remember coming here as a kid.”

His name was Dave, he was a carpenter, and he told me his wife had passed away six weeks earlier. “We used to come here every year,” he said.

Dave and I talked for a bit, about camping and family. And as we parted ways, he asked me if I liked Italian food.

“There’s a good place called Rocco’s. It’s just past the ferry, when you get back to the mainland,” he said. “We used to go, every year. They have great pizza.”

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It seemed like he wanted me to eat there, maybe because he wasn’t going to. And so a day later I took the ferry back and found the place. It was a big, empty restaurant with a sad feel, and it reminded me of the vacant campsites. I had lunch, and thought about this strange beginning to the trip.

I’d had visions of new adventures and hopes of smooth sailing, but naturally anticipated challenges along the way. And I would not be disappointed: In Texas, a freak ice storm drove me off the Monahans sand dunes; in California, heavy rains stranded me on wild beaches; a night in Santa Fe National Forest, where temperatures hovered just above zero, had me racing for warmer climes as fast as I could coax Rosy.

But as I traveled, re-acquainting myself with the outdoors and seeing parts of the country for the first time, it was the people I met who helped me find direction. As anyone who travels for long stretches can tell you: It comes down to the people. I can’t count the number of times they helped with advice, directions, conversation, or a place to sleep. Or even just food recommendations and a little perspective.

This is the first in a series of posts from a longtime journalist and photographer who lived out of Rosy while exploring the wild worlds beyond the nation’s capital.  Next up: postcards from the road.

Check out more of Robert’s work at http://www.teamwetdog.com

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