south through Virginia

upon entering Virginia out of DC we drove southwest in order to hit Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. its a pretty drive that curls and bends and goes up and down across a strip of mountainous midsouth forest. the picture BELOW is from one of the many scenic views along the drive. we stopped there and hiked in the woods for a few hours before getting back on the road.

the big highlight of the drive was seeing a black bear run across the road in front of us. it wasnt a very big black bear but it was still a bear and seeing one is always kind of magical. it climbed the embankment then stopped and looked back at us over its shoulder with those weird dark thinking eyes all bears have.

we visited friends in Charlottesville and spent a night there then continued south along the Virginia and West Virginia border in search of swimming holes. we found one at Blowing Springs National Recreation area (pictured BELOW).

the water was cool, not frigid. we swam. the whole floor of the swimming hole and all the underwater rocks were covered in tiny watersnails. i like snails and kept a few as pets briefly while living in RI and it hurt my heart to feel them popping underneath my bare feet. eventually i found a clear place to stand. i was paranoid about snapping turtles even though i know they prefer murkier water. fortunately there were no close encounters except for some little fish floating up to me and nibbling on my calves.

Blowing Springs Recreation Area is named after some kind of warm-air cave across the road from the campground. the water coming out of this cave is always 53 degrees no matter the time of year. i walked across the road and felt the water; it was indeed cold. the campground was simple but well-manicured (see pic BELOW). it was $10/night and had well-water and toilets. there were other RVs and tent-campers. around mid-day an entourage arrived that looked like something out of Slab City. they had a van, a tow trailer, a car, and a converted schoolbus (!), and they set up a wall tent, a dome tent, a dining tent, a picnic table, and many chairs, and dumped out a big pile of firewood too. oddly i only ever saw 2-3 people at the site at a time...

being in the mountains as we were it was a little cooler at night. the fireflies were out and up in the trees as high as 30 or 40 feet and it looked like a big blinking wall towering over us.

we spent 2 nights at Blowing Springs. at the end of the 2nd day we both started to get a little antsy. there really wasnt much to do other than swim or lounge around the van. so today we set out early (6 am) with it in mind to reach another swimming hole / campground further south along the virginia / west virginia border.

what ensued was a weirdly "unfortunate" driving experience (to quote Jora). it looked on the map like it would take 2 or 2.5 hours at most. i was anxious to get there early and snag a site since it was a saturday. so we just woke up and took off without coffee or breakfast or anything. 1 hour passed, then 2, then 3... and according to the map we still had a trek ahead of us. what the hell? why was it taking so long? the road was very twisty and turny and the line on the map didnt do justice to all these squiggles. driving squiggly roads in the van is very stressful for me. youre constantly fighting momentum. on the downhills you fight with the brakes, on uphills the engine strains.

at 4 hours we were both unraveled mentally. the lack of caffeine, combined with the unprecedented driving time, did us in. it was one of those situations where if i'd known it was gonna be 4 or 5 hours, i would have been OK; but i didnt... so we called it quits and stopped in Blacksburg for the day. we'll try for that swimming hole tomorrow.

thanks for the positive feedback, and thanks for reading.



A quick update from the road.

After my last entry, I spent time in RI and NJ with friends/family. This included a few trips to NYC to visit friends in Manhattan and Brooklyn (by train of course; I'd never involve the van in that). It was unusually rainy and cool in the northeast. NJ in particular seemed to be drowning in its own rain.

Not much went on with van-dwelling aside from telling people stories of my year on the road. I'm not much of an oral storyteller and I had to mentally plan which story to tell to who and how to tell it. The story I found myself telling most often was of Slab City and all its weirdness. But most of the trip involved long bouts of quiet solitude and contemplation which doesn't make for good stories.

I remembered how a year ago while preparing for the trip I kept imagining myself coming back to these places post-vantrip and seeing these people. I imagined I'd be a different man: older, wiser, and so on. I wouldn't feel angsty or amateurish and maybe I'd have a scar or two as well as a handful of crazy stories. I guess I am some of those qualities and did get some scars and stories but it doesn't seem that way. I feel like the same guy except I'm poorer and the whole "solo road trip" thing is crossed off my list of "shit to do before i die". The feelings of angst (or whatever you want to call it... hunger, uncertainty, anxiety, etc) persist and I don't really know what I want to do with my life. In "Into the Wild", Jon Krakeur talks eloquently about that sensation... he describes quitting his job to undertake a severely-difficult solo climb, barely surviving the climb, then coming back and returning to the same job and the same town and so on and so forth, with all his old problems still haunting him.

Now I'm on the road again, this time with co-pilot Jora Johnson, for another month or two of road-tripping.

First off, we visited a friend in Western Philadelphia. The friend lived in an apartment in a dilapidated old house that had no electricity but for that which the rooftop solar panels provided. This amounted to enough power for a few lights and a radio player. Water came from the city. There was a kind of camping, squatting, and city-living fusion going on there. Space was limited so I spent the night in the van alone. People walked by the van all night and some cats got into a fight underneath it (or at least it sounded that close). It's always a little unnerving van-dwelling in a new city.

The next day we walked around Philadelphia a little. I always think of Philly as being bleak, gray, and balmy, and it was all 3 of those things today. It seems like a harsh metropolis as big and complicated as NY or LA but which never achieves the lunatic-joy-chaos of those cities. I think of M. Night Shamalayan's horror movies set in Philly, or of Bukowski's poems about bar fights in Philly, or of the Philadelphia Eagles, a team known for being kind of brutal on the field. This is just my impression as a once-in-awhile visitor to the city. I know its not such a bleak place...

After getting lunch we drove to Washington DC. Jora had her first experience driving the van and did well, even in the hellish traffic surrounding the city. It was odd being a passenger. In DC we met with another friend and are spending the night in his apartment. The van is sleeping on the street below in an unmetered area.

Tomorrow we drive for Virginia...

Thanks for reading...


Back east

I left Portland on Saturday morning around 8 am. I had packed the van up the night before so I just had to get gasoline.

If you've been reading this blog then you know I'm a baby when it comes to long-distance driving. I don't like to drive and I hate driving for more than an hour. Much of this year involved inching across the country hour by hour.

But for this east-bound trek I wanted simply to get it over with. I decided I'd push 'the limit' of my tolerance and see just how long I could stand it.

The result: On Saturday, I drove 12 hours. Sunday, another 12. Monday, 10. Tuesday, 10. And Wednesday, 8.

Those totals include 4-5 stops per day at a rest area to jump out, go to the bathroom, splash some water on my face, buy a coffee, and jump back in the van. On the first 3 days I stopped at 12 hours because that was around when it started to get dark out and my night-vision is poor.

The pictures on this entry show how quaint and often beautiful the rest areas along Route 84 and Route 80 are. The first picture of the cows is in Idaho. The one above, of me on the ledge, is the southern Idaho/Wyoming border.

To keep my mind occupied while driving, I listened to Podcasts on my iPod. I'd never bothered with Podcasts before; but they're really cool! Now I know why everybody else was always raving about them. The most enjoyable listening was from the "Well Told Tales" channel, which offers short stories of the sci-fi, horror, or hard-boiled variety, read aloud by professional actors, sometimes with sound effects.

Above is a truck stop I stayed at in Ohio. By the time I pulled in each night I was usually pretty fried. I'd have just enough energy left to eat a sandwich, have a drink, put on the radio, set my alarm, and pass out.

Above: self-portrait called "rest stop blues".

The hardest segment was crossing Pennsylvania on the last day. It took me nearly 7 hours. It was mountainous, rainy, and I was surrounded by trucks the whole way. Then when I crossed the Delaware River and hit New Jersey, I saw an epic traffic jam on I-80 Westbound. It was 3-4 lanes deep and at least 7 miles long. It was, I'm assuming, all the people who work in NJ/NY but live in Penn trying to get home.

Above: My cat Summit.

I'll be in NJ for a few days, then RI, then NJ again, then I'm heading down to North Carolina (and I'll post entries here about it all).

There was a very strange moment once I got into NJ and got to my mom's house. I went into the little guest room where I usually stay when visiting. It was around dusk, raining, and cold out, and I could see the van parked in the driveway, and it brought me back to when I was here in October. That was before I'd done any van-dwelling but was about to embark on the adventure. I was all anxious about shit that didn't turn out to be important at all. I had no idea what was to come. I remember sitting in that room reading about camping in the Pine Barrens. There was a tremendous feeling of uncertainty; I was on the precipice.

Now it's essentially over. Interestingly, when I think of the whole trip and try to conjure one essential image, I think back to those first few nights on the road, in the Pine Barrens of NJ, in November. Cooking the first meal. Sitting bundled-up and half-frozen in the van listening to country radio and writing in my journal. Hiking in Wharton State Forest. Maybe those days made such an impression on me because I was so electrified by the trip finally starting after so many delays and doubts.

I was thinking today how funny it feels to be living in a house all of a sudden. I feel acutely aware of the floor, and the feeling of other floors below me; of the sound of electronics humming; of the safety, of the mindlessness, of the ease.

Last night I woke up from a dream and looked out the window. It was raining hard. I could see the van down there in the driveway getting soaked. I felt guilty; it was as if it were my close friend, rather than my ride, trapped out there in the storm. I thought about all the nights the van had kept me warm and dry (more or less) in storms.

And I reflected on how I never really named the van, and I never got into the ritual of personifying it like some people do to their vehicles. I never called it "her" or "she" etc. I never talked to it.

So looking at it out there in the rain, I sent it a little thought: Thank you.