When last I left you guys, I was hinting at the beginnings of our amazing 13-state sojourn across America, full of camping and learning and being utterly in awe of the wonders of nature all around us. Sigh. It really was wonderful. But how did we get there, you say? In my wildest dreams, I just keep blankets and camping supplies in the back of my car and tell the kids to load up whenever I feel the mountains calling. However, the truth is, that’s the stuff my actual nightmares are made of. I’m a self-admitted neurotic with a serious over-planning problem. I want to be a Kerouac, but truthfully I’m more of a Capote. The idea of the open road is soooooo alluring, but I tend to stick to the comfort of my own four walls and just dream about the outside.
So how’s a die-hard control freak to survive 14 days on the open road with 3 out of 4 kids? Well first, you’d have to understand my starting point. In the 6 weeks prior to our trip, we sold our home (which was totally my dream home in my dream town with my dream neighbors and dream circle of friends) and were planning a cross-country move that, after multiple house-hunting trips, had still yielded us no official place to go. And our oldest angel, whose autism has directed a great deal of our lives up until this point, was struggling more and more with our transient family dynamic. After months and months of seeking help and the right answer for what we were facing (and lots of tears from this mama), we decided the best road for her was to live full-time with her dad back in my hometown. Total torture for me, but absolutely the best thing for her. That’s motherhood, right? Do what’s best for the cubs and lick your wounds on your own? So that’s what this trip was for me. Licking the proverbial wounds by getting out into the great wide open and remembering how small I am, how small my little life is in the midst of the great creation in which we all exist.
Oh and did I mention I’m pregnant? Yep. True story. Long sought-after baby #5 is officially on the way, and this trip coincided with my second trimester, so after being housebound with puke and exhaustion for three months, I was thrilled to channel my emotional energy into something that wasn’t my own misery. I’m not too proud to admit that in our entire 18 months living in Utah, we never went skiing, never went hiking, and never explored the national parks that gorgeous state has to offer. It just wasn’t our stage of life. But now, especially with our big girl, who’s been a flight risk in the past, off safe and happy with her dad, and with our boys potty trained and sleeping through the night easily, we had a lot more possibility at our fingertips. So where did we start?
- Deciding how to do the stops: for me this question meant, do we camp in a tent? Do we look at cabins or hotel/motel arrangements? I never actually considered renting an RV, although tons of people do that, mostly because my boys are walking destruction crews and I really don’t want to be liable for what they might do to a rolling home-away-from-home. After some trial runs in the backyard, and letting my inner Kerouac run wild, I opted for the former, and we packed our trusty Coleman 4-man tent into our van and never looked back.
- Figuring out where to stop: Like virtually every homeschooler, I care a LOT about value. So even though my initial plan was to look at every possible monument to the Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, I wound up opting for an annual national parks pass, which cost us $80 and covered our entire family for unlimited national parks visits for a full year. I stuck to our original route, but found national parks and national forests along the way that offered tent-camping (the most expensive of these was $31 a night- which blew this hotel-staying mama’s mind) with access to bathrooms and showers as frequently as possible.
- Figuring out what to pack: This was the trickiest part for me. Mostly because I am a notorious under-packer. I never bring what I need. Never. The minimalist in me is always certain that 90% of my initial list is superfluous, and then the realist in me is stuck in the middle of nowhere with no toothbrush and two pairs of underwear. I’ll write a separate post about all my must-haves for cross-country camping later, but for now, here are the things I’d pack again without question: tin foil dinners (one for each night), our YETI cooler (which we restocked with ice every 2 days), non-perishable snacks and breakfast items, and the $25 foam mattress toppers which we double-stacked on the floor of our tent. (We packed a down comforter and fleece blanket in addition to our sleeping bags, and a king-size quilt to cover the mattress toppers, and our tent was a cushy dream-home in the cold nights of Montana and Idaho.)
- Mapping the trail: I used my trusty US Road Atlas for this part. And it was SO much fun. I somehow stumbled upon a list of the most scenic roadways to see in the US before you die, and I used that as my starting point. We literally took only Scenic Byways for 90% of the trip, and stayed off the interstate with the exception of our final stretch to Atlanta. Some of what we drove: the Hells Canyon and Palouse Scenic Byways through Washington and Oregon, US 12, which is the Lewis and Clark Trail that cuts through Idaho and Montana, and Highway 240 through the Badlands National Park area. I used a highlighter and traced the routes that would let me see the sights we wanted to see, then circled campsites along the way before searching to see if those sites could be reserved in advance, and what their amenities were.
- Planning day-by-day: This was the most fun part. I’m a bullet-journaler, and I used my bujo to map out for each day:
- Starting point/location and estimated time to leave
- Destination and target arrival time
- Stops along the way and drive time
- Breakfast, lunch, and dinner plans
- Camp site details and amenities
- Route notes (because GPS doesn’t work in a lot of places we went, and because even when it does work, it typically tries to send me via interstate and not the scenic routes I preferred)
Once I had my trail mapped, my campsites identified, and our passes purchased, I filled out my BuJo with all the details of the trip for each day, and reminded myself: this is fun, and this is all up in the air. Be willing to make changes. We did have to change a few things up, and it was absolutely necessary to still approach this trip as a vacation that was open and adaptable as the journey led us, but the advanced planning made everything so much simpler. We had a blast, we saw the country, and we didn’t cry (too much) when things veered slightly away from our plans. Stay tuned for the actual nitty gritty of our trip!