6 Lessons From My Camping Trip Across the USA
My fiancé and I left New York on a whim, in a storm, with only a car and a $40 Walmart tent. We never looked back.
Driving through hurricane Joaquin on the night we decided to leave New York with all our belongings packed tightly in a sedan reminded me of the time I was learning to surf in Bali and ended up stuck underwater with the waves pushing me and my surfboard further under. Because of the storm, we had to abandon our idea of stopping by Charleston for a brief culinary excursion; the cars on its streets were growing flippers. We were stuck in the middle of the storm, so not only there was no way back, there was almost no way forward, either. Yet this was exactly where we intended to go. We pushed through the rain and the night like a determined school of fish, crashing at a motel when fighting the current eventually drained us. Our tent, and our camping trip, would have to wait until after Atlanta.
As the oil-dark Pacific waves swished at our feet on Venice Beach, we laid out two blankets and pillow, hugged tight, and bedded down under an open sky.
Here was my first life lesson: stop overthinking, over-packing, and just leave. Sometimes “dropping everything” can be the beginning of something wonderful.
Lesson number two, however, was much less poetic: sometimes, you do need to plan for the weather.
Ok, we didn’t exactly “just leave.” My birthday present from my beau was a set of camping essentials wrapped in a sleeping bag (yes, we’re weird). About a week into the camping trip, once we’d established what we were missing, we stopped by REI to get some extra pads, a collapsible lantern, and plastic plates. My unscientific list for sleeping and eating in the forest–besides that mentioned above above–includes a sleeping bag, warm blankets, a pocket stove, canister fuel, a pot and a mini frying pan, aluminum foil, and some utensils. With just these, a stop over at a supermarket, and lots of determination, we managed to create a steak dinner in a wet Tennessee forest after dark. Racoons were all over it, and startled, I flipped a glass of freshly opened Hess Cabernet on my bonfire steak. We were saving that bottle for the night “we finally leave New York”, and it tasted majestic against the humidity. It also made a delicious wine sauce for the meat.
Lesson number three: come prepared, but embrace the flukes.
Relationships are as essential in the forest as provisions and warmth. That includes relationships with the four-legged masters of the woods. Hence, in Memphis’ Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, we paid tribute to the racoons. First, an unopened pack of Hawaiian rolls was gone in sixty seconds from the doorstep of our tent; then, a covered pot of beans left precisely for this purpose on the table was licked clean and left nearby. Then, at the Plaskett Creek Campground in Big Sur, a neighbour awarded us some queso fresco and an impressive hunk of the best firewood there is, red oak, as compensation for starting his fire too late and clouding our dinner with smoke.
Lesson number four: life in the wild is better when you pay your dues.
We managed to create a steak dinner in a wet Tennessee forest after dark. Racoons were all over it, and startled, I flipped a glass of freshly opened Hess Cabernet on my bonfire steak.
We traveled from New York to California through Atlanta, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Finding places to sleep along the way, however, proved surprisingly challenging. Spoiled by technology, we rarely write things down anymore, and our impromptu departure meant we hadn’t done any research. We had to rely on extremely limited and fickle mobile Internet, and choose our coffee shops along the way carefully.
A camping trip in the wild is not as easy as it looks. Usually, it entailed hiking three or more miles into the wilderness. Most of the time you will need a campground. We stayed at the Turquoise Trail Campgrounds by Albuquerque, NM and San Simeon Creek Campsite by Cambria, CA, with a few motels in between so we could bathe–this was especially important on the west coast, as it was in the middle of drought mode, and all water-dependent camping facilities were closed. Luck was mostly on our side because we were traveling in the off season. But campgrounds get full quickly when the weather is nice, so it is always best to plan ahead. We missed an opportunity to camp out in Sedona, AZ, as all campgrounds were full.
After we finally reached California (it took us roughly two weeks, with all the stops we made), some family friends took us to their hill-top house in the Central Coast and treated us to wine and conversation. A feathery bed had never felt so good.
But, even better was a night when we turned up in Los Angeles too late to check into a campground, and without a hotel reservation or the budget for one. As the oil-dark Pacific waves swished at our feet on Venice Beach, we laid out two blankets and pillow, hugged tight, and bedded down under an open sky. The next morning’s hazy fuchsia sky with palm tree imprints was the highlight of the trip.
Here are my two final life lessons from this chaotic gallop I will never forget. Lesson number five: plan ahead to avoid being pushed too far out of your comfort zone, which will inevitably happen. And number six: never plan everything, and be grateful for the journey and the turns of the path.
6 Lessons From My Camping Trip Across the USA