Our van was launched after 4 long years of planning, designing, building and dreaming. Our goals for the weekend were to shake down the van, evaluate functionality/livability, get in some good hikes, explore and have fun. We successfully accomplished our goals…just not exactly how I envisioned.
In the weeks preceding the launch, Flay was busy finishing up the storage systems, making modifications to the toilet and “working” his list. I was focused on equipping the van with everything from kitchen paraphernalia, to compost for the toilet, to dog bowls and toothbrushes. I think one day we received 14 different deliveries. It takes a lot to set up a home on wheels.
Our itinerary was to travel to Pisgah NF, camp at Davidson River Campground on Thursday (taking some unknowns out of our first night), boondock on a NF road on Friday, and end at Sideways Farm and Brewery on Saturday. This plan allowed us to test various camping scenarios and practice setup and teardown of camp sites. Great plan…short and sweet…
Thursday, October 8
Our first stop was at a Blue Ridge Parkway overlook. Highlights: Strong signal for Flay to work a few minutes and christening of the toilet.
Leaves were changing and it was a beautiful drive along Forest Heritage Scenic Byway to Brevard. We quickly checked out our campsite and headed to the Ranger Station to get trail information for a hike.
So…I had done a ton of research online about hikes and roadside camping, however, I had questions that I was counting on being answered by a ranger. But…closed…
TAKE AWAY #1: Travel in the crazy time of Covid makes for some unexpected challenges.
Not to be thwarted…we took off for John’s Rock (5 miles) around 4pm. I wasn’t worried at all about the black bear warnings and the one that crossed the road in front of us less than 1 minute from the trailhead. Nope…not at all. I had a good trail description on my phone that disappeared about 1 hour into the hike…along with trail markers. With too many unknowns, we were worried about losing daylight so we pushed hard Highlights: Lots of streams for Saka to enjoy, no one else on the trail and we made it back before dark.
TAKE AWAY #2: We have the gear but it does no good when left in the van. We need a gear checklist.
TAKEAWAY # 3: We should count on losing cellular and always download trail descriptions/maps before hitting the trail. Especially when there are no ranger stations and trail maps available. (We got really spoiled in Bhutan not having to worry about such things!!)
So…it was dark when we got back to the camp site and we were tired. I had this idyllic vision of our first meal “on the road”. Salmon, sweet potatoes and asparagus on the grill…glass of wine…candlelight…maybe even some twinkle lights around the campsite. (Remember all those FedEx deliveries…I was prepared!!) First problem…I was tired. Second problem…I had not done a dry run with the grill.
So…the good. We figured things out together, we were patient with each other and pouring a glass of wine is easy. We did bring Saka’s glow-in-the-dark collar and she is a great camper…even in the dark.
TAKE AWAY #4: Patience and teamwork will be absolutely necessary to survive van life.
The grill called for 250g amount of charcoal and a circle of fire starter. We had issues. It got HOT in 3 minutes. The sweet potatoes covered the entire grill and were quickly done or burned. Unfortunately, the charcoal was pretty much burned out when we put the salmon and asparagus on the grill. Fortunately, we discovered that when all else fails, salmon can be cooked in the microwave. Pulled our camp chairs around the side door and dined…no candle light…no table…no twinkle lights. Actually, at this point I could have done with just the glass of wine (a big glass)!!
Done with dinner, time to clean what felt like a mountain of dishes. Marinade bowls, grill, microwave plate, cutting board, prep plate, our plates and utensils. Wash…dry…put away. There is no space in the van for everything not to be in its designated place.
TAKE AWAY #5: Finish the hike earlier in the day to relax and have time to leisurely prepare dinner.
TAKEWAY #6: Do the dry run at home.
TAKE AWAY #7: Simplify meals. Minimize dirty dishes.
Finally, time for bed. This requires more planning and coordination that I was ready for at this point in the day. Did I mention that I am tired…very tired. With about 15sqft of standing space, 2 people and a big dog, it requires patience and teamwork. Who knew?!?! Did I mention, how tired I am? I think we will get better with this with practice.
See Take Away #4. All slept well.
Friday, October 9
We both usually get up by 6am or earlier when we are home. So naturally, I wake up before the sun rises. Flay can always sleep a few more hours when given the opportunity. I try to be quiet…slip my clothes on and take advantage of the campground’s bathroom. I go back and get Saka for an early morning walk.
TAKE AWAY #8: It is impossible to be quiet opening and closing the sliding door.
At this point, I need coffee.
TAKE AWAY #9 : Prep for coffee the night before.
Here’s what happened. I got the kettle out of the drawer. Turned on the pump. Filled up the kettle. The kettle works great. Until….the smoke detector goes off. And boy, is it loud inside the van.
TAKE AWAY #10: Steam activates a smoke detector. Don’t use the kettle directly under the smoke detector.
So Flay is pretty awake at this point but still in bed. There is not enough standing space with the bed down for me to make (or try to make) coffee and him to get out of bed. Did I mention that Saka is a big dog??
At this point I have boiling water ready and I’ve hand ground what I think is the right amount of beans for a nice, rich cup of coffee. The hand grinder works like a charm. Everything into the French Press. Things are quiet and we are both anticipating the simple joy of a cup of coffee. Until…the propane gas detector detects GAS! Another alarm is sounding and Flay is still in bed. Remember, no place for him to stand. Once we determine what alarm is sounding, Flay troubleshoots from bed. Remember the pump I turned on for water. That activates not only the pump but opens the propane line for the hot water heater. The good news is the alarm works, we needed it to work (there is a small leak in the line that is not detectable when the hot water heater is actually using gas…easy fix for Flay). I learned that the pump needs to be turned on and off as needed.
TAKE AWAY #11: Flay is smart and I have a lot to learn.
Finally, there is coffee. See TAKE AWAY #6. It is hot and weak.
It doesn’t take long to break camp once the coffee ordeal is behind us and we are both out of bed. No problems but a checklist for breaking camp is in our future.
We drive back to the Parkway to hike the Art Loeb Trail (Section 3). Learning from the previous day’s hike. I did screen shots of the trail description and map. No problems. We got an early start before the crowds and it was beautiful. Only problem was the mountain lion we encountered as we walked along a narrow trail through head-high bushes. It was loud, close, and very scary. Thankfully, it was only a grandfather laying in wait to scare his wife and grandchild who we had passed on the trail a few 100 yards back. Could only laugh because it was just like something my father would do!!
We finished the hike in the early afternoon in respect of TAKE AWAY #5. We headed back to Pisgah Forest with a plan to find a roadside camp site along NF477. It’s sprinkling a little but all is good…it is still beautiful and there is plenty of time to find a spot and relax beside the river. Maybe tonight will be the “idyllic dinner”. We find the road with no problem and it is looks like it will lead to the perfect camp site. Private, peaceful, beautiful. Until, about ½ mile down the narrow, steep, gravel road is a large sign “No Roadside Camping On This Road”. Let’s just say that Flay didn’t particularly enjoy backing out.
I did have a Pisgah Forest map and figured out Plan B pretty easily. The best thing about Plan B is the No Roadside Camping sign was posted at the beginning of the road. See Take Away #1 and #4. Scrap roadside camping this trip.
There’s no cell phone signal in Pisgah Forest…even with our WiFi booster…so we head back to Brevard. We sit in the Ingles parking lot with WiFi and I research our options and Flay gets some work done. Davidson River Campground was okay but it really is not how we want to camp. I find The Bike Farm located just outside Brevard. Looked perfect. Called. Full but there is an overflow site. Sure.
We drive up a gentle gravel road, turn at the old school bus used for bike tours and pull up to a vacant house and barn where they store equipment/bikes. It’s private and ours for the night. It’s surrounded by trees, has a grassy lawn and a long covered porch to shelter us from the rain that will be with us for the rest of the weekend. It’s not dark. We’re not too tired. Things are looking up.
TAKE AWAY #12: Being fully self-contained gives us lots of flexibility. Serendipity is good.
We use the leveling boxes to set up the van for the night. They did what we needed and were easy to use. Another van item checked off.
The rain let up and we set up the roll-up table for the first time (in about 4 years). A more recent dry run would have been good but we weren’t tired and there was still daylight. All three of us enjoyed the solitude of our site.
The menu of lamb lollipops on the grill and salad was much easier, however, we still need to work on getting the amount of charcoal and fire starter right. We started with more of a bonfire this time but it didn’t take long for the coals to be ready. Lamb went on and cooked about as quickly as we could flip and remove them from the grill. Sitting at the table to eat, sipping a glass of wine, watching the day come to an end was much more what I had hoped for.
Dish cleanup was much easier. Prepped to make coffee in the morning and in bed around 9.
TAKE AWAY #13: Everything is much easier when you aren’t too tired.
Saturday, October 10
Morning was much less eventful and quieter but still don’t have the coffee ground ratio right. We like strong coffee. Oh…as I filled the kettle with water our tank sputtered empty. Also, at some point Flay noticed that the alternator was not recharging the battery. (A relay problem he easily fixed when we returned.) It wasn’t an issue. Even with the clouds and rain, our battery never got lower than 68%.
TAKE AWAY #14: Top off water before your trip and monitor usage. Have a plan for refilling tank.
Saka and I slipped out with a cup of “coffee” and a book to enjoy daybreak and the rain from the porch. Flay joined us not too much later. It was nice to have WiFi to check the weather and confirm that there was no need to wait for the weather to improve. Rain all day. Heavy rain overnight.
We broke camp easily and drove to Dupont Forest to test out of rain gear. With the rain, we opted to hike to Hooker Falls, Triple Falls and High Falls. (about 6 miles total) We donned our rain gear and enjoyed our hike. With good gear, a hike in the rain is a lot better than no hike at all.
We finished about noon and drove back to Brevard. We had hoped to explore downtown but between the rain, crowds and Covid concerns, we drove around one block and then headed back into Pisgah for lunch. We pulled into a pullover next to the river, opened our door and enjoyed private, dry dining with a view. One thing I did do right is planned for easy, no-cook breakfast, lunch and snacks.
Onto Sideways Farm and Brewery for the night. We pulled into the grassy field next to 4 other RV rigs about 4pm. The rain had paused and we sat under a tent and enjoyed great beer, the company of the Dippity Donut proprietor (she had lived van life for a while and we enjoyed her stories and donuts) and others exploring the farm. Saka enjoyed the people watching and extra attention. They had a beautiful flower garden and I cut flowers a bucketful to bring home. (Collapsable bucket–check.) Dinner from the Haus Heidelberg food truck. We felt safe being outside and most people were social distancing and wearing masks. Thankful the rain had paused for a few hours. It felt like a date night. We headed back to van as the sun was setting.
Flay decided to level the van a little bit (I thought it was fine) before settling in for the night. Within seconds, the back tires are mired in mud and getting deeper. Not so nice anymore.
Flay retrieves the Maxtrax boards from the roof rack and starts to get them under the tires. (I thought the boards were expensive when we bought them and in my mind we might need them somewhere far off road and far in the future…definitely not in a “parking lot/field” at a brewery and definitely not our first trip.)
TAKE AWAY #15: Getting stuck can really mess up a good day. Park defensively.
The evening was quickly going downhill and then the kindness of strangers saved us. The man in the camper beside us saw our problem and came to our rescue. His 4×4 truck was still hooked to his camper but he had towing straps. He saw another truck in the parking lot and headed off to enlist his help. Minutes later we are parked on the gravel parking area and feeling very thankful.
TAKE AWAY #16: We are made for community. We are one community. This is good…very good.
Flay visited with our Good Samaritan and I got us set up for the night. We all piled in bed (yes, that includes Saka) and watched a little Netflix. It was cozy but in a good way.
Using water from our hydration packs, we brushed our teeth and called it a night. With torrential rain forecast for the night, we slept well with the knowledge we would have no trouble rolling out in the morning, finding that elusive cup of coffee (at a coffee shop), and making our way home.
THE BIG TAKE AWAY: The van didn’t need a shake out as much as we did. The important things are patience, teamwork, attitude, gratitude and community.