As we turn the page on calendar year 2018, this is a perfect time to take stock of the year. For us, it was a year of almost unimaginable change. We started the year in Miami, living in a high rise condo, and I was still working at a large international law firm. We moved into our trailer in February and left our home base of South Florida in March to begin a long, slow journey across the country.
We generally followed the plan that we laid out at the beginning of the year, with the exception of skipping San Diego in December and heading inland to the Mojave desert after visiting Ventura. Our goal has been to see the country, and by any measure we have certainly seen a lot. There is no single way to summarize or capture the incredible variety of experiences we’ve enjoyed this year, but we pulled together some numbers and some subjective observations to create a snapshot.
By the Numbers
One of the guiding principles of our travels has been that we want to see as many national parks as possible. We love the outdoors, and seeing America’s greatest treasures firsthand is one of the main reasons we hit the road. And we have not just limited ourselves to the 60 national parks — we also stop at other units of the National Park Service like battlefields, monuments, and historic sites, as well as state parks and other types of museums. When we started the journey, our exposure to units of the National Park Service was limited, to put it kindly. But here at the end of 2018, we have accumulated a fairly respectable tally. Death Valley, our final park of the year, was our 50th NPS unit visited! Of course, we have just scratched the surface of the 420+ units within the U.S. national park system. We still have plenty remaining to see, as illustrated by this chart:
While the green “sites visited” bars are still pretty skinny, at least they are actually visible, which is a welcome improvement over our starting point. In thinking about what we did this year, I also put together this chart showing the breakdown of the 50 different NPS units we’ve now seen.
This chart covers all the units we’ve seen to date, including those we visited before becoming full time RVers. Frankly, it tells a pretty unsurprising story about our interest in the outdoors. Almost half of the sites (45%) we’ve visited are national parks, preserves, trails, parkways, shores, or rivers. At the same time, we do appreciate and want to learn more about our nation’s history, so about one third of the sites are historic sites and memorials. The very broad category of national monuments makes up an additional 20%. This category includes everything from historic sites like Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine to the vast and wild Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. The distinguishing feature of national monuments is that, unlike national parks, they are created by presidential order, not by an act of Congress, so this group is a bit of a mixed bag. In yet another completely unsurprising finding, we visited very few battlefields. We are just not that captivated by military history, though we did enjoy the three military parks we visited in Alabama (Horseshoe Bend), Chattanooga, and Montana (Big Hole).
I’ve been collecting lapel pins at the sites we visit, and turning them into magnets by snipping off the metal posts on the back and attaching self-adhesive magnets. This is what around 50 lapel pins-turned-magnets looks like on our wall of memories:
States Visited: 21
We are not specifically trying to visit every US state, but I am still impressed by the number of different jurisdictions we visited this year. Several are places that, in our previous life with precious little vacation time, we never would have considered visiting at all. In order, they are: Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, and Arizona. This list includes all the states that we touched in any way during the year in our RV travels. Our briefest flings were with Georgia and Washington — we only drove into these states for a site visit or a hike and returned the same day to our campsite in another state. Our longest love affair was our 10 weeks in Montana, followed by 7.5 weeks in California.
Miles Towed: 8,543
This is our actual number of miles traveled in relocating from one campsite to the next. A straight shot across the country would involve far fewer miles, but we wandered around to visit various points of interest along the way, and to get to the parks where we could enjoy great camping. We also drove a roughly equal amount of miles without the trailer, heading out to destinations, trailheads, grocery stores, etc. Our truck is quickly making up for its first two years of sheltered existence.
Campground Stays: 69
In addition to the destinations we visit and the miles we drive, the places we camp also have a big influence on our experience of the year. We moved into the Airstream on February 13, so we don’t have quite a full year of camping under our belt. We stayed at 69 different locations for a total of 322 nights, making our average stay 4.7 nights. The breakdown of our almost-year of camping:
|Private RV parks||56||17%||Typically full hook-up sites. Luxury!|
|National, state, and county parks||214||67%||This is obviously a broad category, but also the most common type of public campground.|
|National forest / BLM campgrounds||25||8%||These are established campgrounds with limited services (identifiable campsites, picnic tables, pit toilets, water spigots, but no hookups).|
|Boondocking||27||8%||This is free camping on undeveloped public lands, typically national forests or BLM land.|
We clearly gravitate strongly toward public lands, though we’ll stay in private parks when it makes sense. Private facilities tend to be the best choice in urban area, and sometimes we just want to have full hookups to complete maintenance tasks on the trailer without worrying about tank space or power generation.
Outfitting our Airstream to be fully functional off the grid has definitely paid off, since we spend the vast majority of our time camped in sites with limited or no hookups. Being camped right in a national or state park keeps us close to nature, often allowing us to hike directly from the campground. National forest campgrounds are both scenic and relatively inexpensive, and free camping is really a boon to the budget when there is a location that makes sense for the destinations we want to visit. Some of our freebies have been some of the most memorable:
Blog Posts: 75
This is my 75th post of the year, which surprises even me. While I write the blog primarily as a personal travel journal and a place to collect my favorite photos, I am very grateful for all the friends and family who follow along in our journey. Your warm wishes help get us through the challenging days — of which there are plenty!
Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of “By the Numbers,” in which we will discuss what this life of adventure costs us. As soon as my CFO closes the books on 2018, I promise we will present final, actual numbers for the enjoyment of all you financial voyeurs out there.
These are a Few of Our Favorite Things
Outside of the cold, hard numbers, the things that really defined our year are the memories that we made while seeing so many different parts of our country. For the most part, we’ve enjoyed virtually every place we visited. But there are still some places that really stood out to us as truly spectacular locations that we could easily visit again and again. So here are our subjective assessments of the best of 2018.
Hall of Fame
In no particular order (mostly the order in which we visited), our favorite locations that we visited this year for gaping at the wonder of nature were:
Badlands / Black Hills / Devils Tower. It might be a little unfair to group all these destinations together, but it’s our list and we can do what we want. In any event, these places were one of our first big surprises on the journey. We did not expect to love South Dakota, and the southwestern part of the state bowled us over with its scenery and wildlife.
Glacier National Park. A huge park with glorious mountains, serene lakes, prolific wildlife, and almost infinite hiking possibilities. Our appreciation was enhanced by a long stay at Two Medicine, one of our favorite campgrounds of the year.
Grand Teton National Park. Looking at that rugged mountain range just does not get old, and we had premium views from our free national forest campsite.
Redwoods State and National Parks. I mean, just look at those trees. And the ocean. And the ferns.
Death Valley National Park. Harsh, remote, and uninviting, this environment is also glorious and grand.
Last but not least, any place that we could walk to the beach from camp. We loved St. George Island in Florida, as well as Astoria, Tillicum Beach, and Cape Blanco in Oregon, and Pismo Beach and Rincon Parkway in California. What can I say? Ken loves the ocean.
In summary, we seem to like things that stagger the imagination. When our eyes are popping out of our heads in disbelief at the beauty and scale of the scenery around us, we are pretty happy.
Yellowstone National Park. We spent almost three full weeks in Yellowstone (posts here, here, and here), and the geological features, dramatic landscapes, and wildlife were all unforgettable. But for us, constantly fighting massive crowds (or heading back to camp early to avoid crowds) diminished the experience a bit.
Pinnacles National Park. We absolutely loved the hiking, scenery, wildlife, and plant ecosystems in this park, especially since we had modest expectations coming in. But it’s quite small and can be explored pretty thoroughly in about 5-7 days. Also, the campground desperately needs some TLC.
Point Reyes National Seashore. The diversity of environments and in particular the astounding variety of birds really made this park stand out, except that our visit coincided with extremely smokey air resulting from inland wildfires. We would love to visit again at a time when the State of California is not burning down.
Historical / Cultural Sites
As we discovered, some museums and historical sites really miss the mark. Some suffer from an absence of actual artifacts (like the fake log cabin at the “Lincoln Birthplace” or the laughable cutouts at the De Soto National Memorial). Others are insufficiently focused on their own place in history, such as the Brown v. Board of Ed. site in Topeka that tried to tell the story of the entire civil rights movement at the expense of its own topic. But many of the sites we visited did an outstanding job of using their location / artifacts / physical features to best effect while advancing a nuanced view of their social and political context and effects. Some of our favorites:
Kennedy Space Center. This is a bit of a cheat, since we visited over the New Year holiday at the beginning of the year, before moving into the trailer, but in our defense we were actually camping in the area with the Airstream. As lovers of space and science, this was truly one of the outstanding destinations of our year. We were talking about it with excitement for weeks afterwards, and we found all the interpretive materials to be top notch. It was definitely a cut above the uneven U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, which had some great displays but also some pretty lame areas.
Tuskeegee Airmen National Historic Site. The huge array of artifacts from the 1940s made the whole experience fully immersive, and the interpretive materials showing how the WWII service of black Americans in segregated units helped advance the nascent civil rights movement were extremely thought-provoking.
Truman Presidential Library. Our first (and so far only) presidential library was packed with fascinating personal, historical, and political information about our 33rd president and the times in which he served.
Oak Ridge / Manhattan Project National Historic Park. From detailed scientific information about the dawn of the atomic age to the logistical challenges of creating a secret city virtually overnight, the museum and the accompanying bus tour of the uranium enrichment facilities were teeming with interesting details.
Update: Upon further reflection, we also need to add the Museum of the Rockies to this list. The dinosaur fossil collection is extraordinary, but the best thing about the museum is the clear illustration of the process of science woven into all the interpretive materials.
Lewis and Clark
We would be remiss in any summary of this year if we didn’t include some reflections on the Lewis & Clark Trail, which we followed almost continuously for the majority of the year. For us, the trail was an ideal way to start our RV travels. It provided an easy roadmap to follow as we made our way cross country, so we weren’t paralyzed by the question of where to go next. The extensive trail map prepared by the NPS includes scores of locations that are relevant to the history of the period, ranging from historic homes to Army bases to geological features observed by the Corps of Discovery. Instead of worrying about coming up with a route and a list of potential activities, we were able to devote our mental energy to learning how to operate and maintain our trailer, and assessing what pace of travel and what types of destinations were most appealing to us.
It was also really nice to start our RV life on a somewhat unpredictable route, visiting places that were really not on our radar previously. If we spent our first year traveling at a crazy fast pace, racing to the most popular parks like Yellowstone, I think we would have been really disappointed with the experience and likely would have given up this entire endeavor from sheer exhaustion.
Reading Undaunted Courage in preparation for the journey and thinking about the environment that the Corps of Discovery encountered put us in the perfect frame of reference to appreciate the west. Many of the most significant conflicts and events in the history of the west can be traced back to the relentless westward expansion of the U.S., which was jump-started by the Lewis & Clark expedition. Being firmly grounded in the early 19th century starting point really gave us an appreciation for the utterly transformative changes from the time of Jefferson to the time when the west was getting so overrun and depleted that the first national park (Yellowstone) was established.
Spending so many months living that early 19th century journey allowed us to examine it from many different perspectives, and layer on new knowledge and understanding with each site we visited. At the same time, I am very glad that we have finished the L&C trail. I can tell you from personal experience that you might have visited too many Lewis & Clark sites if:
- You correct a docent at a Lewis & Clark museum about trivial facts. (“Actually, Seaman the Newfoundland dog belonged to Captain Lewis, NOT Captain Clark.”) OR
- You visit Lewis & Clark Brewing Company, located in Lewis & Clark County, Montana, sample beers including the Meriwether IPA, and conclude that “the ambiance is a bit lacking in Lewis & Clark-ness.”
Our plans call for 2019 to feature far fewer states, longer stays, but (we hope) just as many memorable experiences. After a full cross country journey in 2018, in the coming year we will be focused on the Southwest and will probably visit only 6 states. Our new 2019 travel map page shows the general outline of our plans, and of course we’ll be posting regular updates to keep the map of actual locations current. See you on down the road!