Magazine article Sunset

Rolling with It

Magazine article Sunset

Rolling with It

Article excerpt

I'D set out that morning from Santa Cruz, California, with big intentions: Drive 245 miles to a lush campground north of Mendocino, whip up a healthy meal on the stove of the 1988 Volkswagen Vanagon I'd rented, and fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. Instead, I was parked in the driveway of my friend Holly's house in Healdsburg, 100 miles shy of my destination, like a 10-year-old who tries to run away from home but ends up pitching a tent in the backyard.

I like to think of myself as a perfectly capable solo driver and group camper, but this combo of roughing it on my own during a long road trip had me at a loss. Holly poured me a glass of wine and said everything would work out fine. She regularly camps alone, and knew all about the fear of meeting drunk men or bears in the woods. But my worries were more mundane: locking myself out of the van, running out of food, not knowing where to stop.

"I need a plan," I told Holly. "And I need groceries."

A FEW MONTHS earlier, back in Santa Cruz, I'd started thinking about driving up U.S. 101 to Northwest beaches. It was a romantic idea, one that would take me along rocky coastlines like the ones that flood Instagram feeds with the tag #vanlife.

We've all seen them-filtered images of boho roadtrippers who have swapped homes for vintage camper vans and an ever-changing landscape of foggy highways, cozy campfires, and mugs of chai. I wasn't about to permanently give up my house keys, but a week or two on the road had its allure. A quick online search unearthed a Vanagon rental company called Peace Vans in Seattle (peacevansseattle.com). And it happened to be owned by an old friend: Harley Sitner and I had worked at summer camp in Northern Michigan as young adults before losing touch. When I called to catch up, he said he had a 1988 Westfalia sitting in Santa Cruz, ready to be driven back to Seattle.

As soon as I picked up Hana, as I was already calling the van, and headed over the Santa Cruz Mountains, I understood why Harley had mentioned her "quaint acceleration." Vanagons are pokey, and guiding Hana through the curves felt a little like skiing, where you weight one ski to initiate a tum and momentarily float. But Harley hadn't schooled me on gas stations. A hundred miles into my trip, I pulled up to a pump for the first time only to realize it was on the wrong side. Finding it impossible to maneuver the hose around Hana-all IS feet of her-and too afraid to attempt putting her in reverse, I cut bait, found another gas station, and started over. At that point, it was clear I was going to get only as far as Holly's driveway that night.

BY 10 THE NEXT MORNING, though, I had psyched myself back up, and Hana and I were heading north on U.S. 101 through endless green and light rain. Without an itinerary in hand and little more than Google Maps on my phone, I drove more than six hours to cross into Oregon. Once I got there, all I wanted to do was find a place to crash, so we stopped to camp at Harris Beach State Park, just north of the coastal town of Brookings. Like good road-trip mates, Hana and I knew when to give each other a break from hours of being cooped up together, so she stayed parked by the trees while I walked to the trail overlooking the ocean. Waves smashed against rocks standing several stories high in the water while the sun set behind them (dreamy beach scene, check!).

When I woke up the next day, I gained a new appreciation for van life over traditional camping-instead of breaking down a tent and packing up, I just climbed out of bed (a bench seat that folded out) and got behind the wheel. …

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