Van Life

So we bought a van. A monster, borderline bus, 15 passenger van. Never in all my life did I look at the work vans shuffling along the highways and think to myself "I want one of those". It didn't even cross my mind that I would drive one, let alone pile my three children in and buckle them into one. So how did we get to this point?

When baby number three came along we knew we needed a car upgrade that would offer more wiggle room for all the little toes. We also knew we needed something with large tow capacity for when we finally hit the road with a road-ready airstream in the rear view mirror. The next vehicle also needed something with a good bit of extra storage space and a spot for our tag along fourth child - Luna the German shepherd. This ensued a husband and wife car debate that was bounced around for months. There were the heavy duty trucks that offered tow and storage, but fell short on the child and dog space. There were the luxurious Toyota Sequoia type cars that were appealing and could probably handle tow, storage, and family but for full time road living we anticipated it getting a bit too cramped. I felt like Goldilocks trying porridge; we needed to find one that was jusssst right.

Then we made the big decision to commit to a travel nurse contract a little ahead of schedule, before the airstream was ready, in New York City. Remember that other well-known childhood tale (switching from Goldilocks now) - City Mouse, Country Mouse? In this particular fable, we are the country mice. I am a firm proponent of  stepping outside your box every once in awhile and removing yourself from that self-constructed comfort zone, you end up learning so much more about yourself, your spouse, and your children, and everyone gains new experiences and new memories in the process. In general it can be very empowering and form an even stronger familial bond. That's not to say that I wasn't completely terrified and stressed out of my mind about uprooting my family from Charleston, SC and moving us to Queens, NY for 13 weeks. 

Because we signed the contract before the airstream was finished and able to house us on our travels, we decided to buy a Ford passenger van that would serve all our future needs as well as convert into a camper van to serve our current wandering rhythm - aka be our escape into the wilderness van when the city life started closing in on us. 

Papa Nomad built a bed in the back with storage underneath, equipped it with some shiny new racks, and we slapped a "wee little nomads" sticker on there for good measure. Voila!  All set!  

We started our journey on a Saturday and arrived in New York City the following Saturday. This road trip was slow and steady. If I had to label our traveling style i would say it is "spontaneous", we prefer to see where the road takes us - usually only having a general idea of direction, but no set plans. Our experience has taught us that events rarely (if ever) go exactly as planned. Sometimes this impromptu traveling can come back to bite us and we end up in a weird, overpriced RV park- other times it works out perfectly and we discover some amazing spots that wouldn't have been on our radar if we were following a strict itinerary. Our beginning destination was Grayson Highlands and our final destination was my sister's house in Queens, the middle places were yet to be determined. My sister is hands down my best friend, and when she heard we were considering a travel nurse contract in Manhattan her and her husband graciously opened their doors to all of us. How amazing is that?!

We wanted to do the mountain route up north since the weather was still a bit too hot for the coastal route - plus we had had our fair share of summer beach time and the crisp mountains were calling to us loudly so we eagerly answered their call. Grayson Highlands is right across the North Carolina border into Virginia. It is our absolute favorite spot, I'm almost hesitant to share it on the blog because I'm tempted to be selfish and keep this jewel hidden from everyone.  


We first discovered this campsite when Georgi girl was 2 years old and our nomadic spirit was just a tiny flame yet to ignite. We carried a tent and a wagon full of unnecessary, bulky items up the rocky terrain to a perfect tent spot right on the Appalachian trail. Wild ponies were everywhere, and surprisingly very friendly. Georgi was in little girl heaven painting rocks, petting ponies, and pooping on trees. It was the first time we realized how well kids do with only nature to entertain. We had foolishly brought toys, when all she really needed was a stick and some dirt. This place is truly magical. One night we woke up to hear stomping and neighing and unzipped the tent to see a herd of ponies gleaming in the moonlight surrounding our campsite. Needless to say, it reaches fairytale status in my book and this place will always hold a special place in all of our hearts. 

There was one pony in particular that was separate from the herd and uncharacteristically friendly, Georgi named him/her Sushi. 

We have returned as a family to this spot twice since then. The last time was when we attempted tent camping after our west coast teardrop adventures and it was wet, cold, windy and we left bitter and exhausted. I wrote this little blog post about it. This time around we redeemed ourselves with comfy van camping and perfect weather. 

Sushi - is that you? Did you have a baby and become mean and bitter? We are naming the baby something like wasabi, mochi, or saki, take your vote in the comment section below.

Another fun fact about this place (as if there needs to be more). This is where I told Papa nomad that we were expecting our third wee one. We camped in the same spot this go-round and little Allan Jasper celebrated his 6 month of life amidst the wild ponies. It was crazy how the baby ponies came right up to him and rubbed their noses on his head, two different ponies did this and I thought it was supremely special. I mean did they know that he was a youngin like them? Allan Jasper did not seem to mind the attention, in fact he didn't seem to notice. It was all just too cute, I thought my heart was going to explode from too much sweet at one time.

Margo was digging the whole wild and free style and chose to strip down and be one with nature.  

We stayed here two nights then headed north. Unfortunately we got a flat tire in Luray, VA. Fortunately, we weren't bound to any set plan so we chose to make the best of this slight misfortune and peruse the local attractions. We brought our van in to be serviced at the dealership and they drove us over to their famous caverns- Luray Caverns.  


It was pretty darn cool.  

This is an active cavern -meaning it is not dry- meaning it has water. This was a lake. The bottom half of this photo is the reflection in the lake. mind blown.

This is an active cavern -meaning it is not dry- meaning it has water. This was a lake. The bottom half of this photo is the reflection in the lake. mind blown.

Then we drove the Skyline Drive to our next camping spot, Mathews Arm in Shenandoah National Park. The car mechanic had mentioned that we would see black bears. I was skeptical of actually getting a glimpse of the allusive shy beast, but sure enough, we drove up and immediately saw one in the campsite. We saw another one the next day up in a tree eating some acorns, and more on our drive out. They were pretty darn adorable but I would be lying if I said I slept without fears of clawing bear paws on our windows. We give that campsite 5 stars! 


If you look closely in the second and third picture you can see the black bear in the tree...

After viewing wild ponies and wild bears the kids started getting disinterested in the long car rides, and our efforts to try to pass the time by enthusiastically pointing out every cow and horse along the way was failing. We started to take shorter spouts of traveling and meandered through Virginia.

Cunningham State Park was a short distance away. We toyed with the idea of passing through Washington, D.C. but decided to remain on our northbound mountain course and stay clear of parking and traffic.


The next campsite was amazing because our backyard was a literal nature playground. Boulders and fallen logs created a child's climbing and exploring dream land. They discovered all sorts of mosses and insects, balanced along every log imaginable, and climbed every rock in sight. We built some fairy houses and went on a waterfall hike, once again this was a 5 star campground, Virginia is for {nature} lovers. (except if you want to get technical - technically this was Maryland)

The rest of the trip was rather uneventful. We camped in a few eclectic RV places and hopped around until reaching New York. Then we passed the city to do some exploration of upstate New York. Our first camping destination was a total bust - we planned on staying at Harriman State Park by Bear Mountain - come to find out that they do not allow dogs. Big and little nomads alike were grumpy and ready for food and leg stretching. The state park lady tells us that dogs are not allowed in any of the New York State parks. This was a major blow because we rely on state parks for affordable, serene, camping and we couldn't just hide our 75 pound barking dog under the bed. Thankfully we called the other state park that was in our line up and shockingly they allow dogs - so we headed in that direction and reached Fahnestock State Park in time for some rock climbing, tree yoga, and a yummy campfire meal. This was a really awesome campsite with one downside, it gets really crowded on weekends. Luckily we arrived early on a Friday and were able to snag a spot, but it was still louder and more crowded than the empty, quiet spots we were used to. 


The next day I Yelped an orchard near me and it came up with Fishkill Farms. This apple picking was amazing, and it so happened to be a full blown fall festival that day that included live music, a market, and sunflower fields - we were pleasantly surprised.

We breathed in a big gulp of country air, grabbed our sack of apples, piled in the car, and headed toward the city.  


Van Life Adventures- To be continued.

Mary Herlocker2 Comments