The night NOLA swept us away

By the time we arrived in New Orleans we were once again suffering from travel fatigue.

Although we planned the last few months of travel better by staying in places longer, moving on weekends and generally going at a slower pace, van life was still taking its toll. We were excited to be arriving in NOLA, but our hearts ached to be back in Indianapolis and stationary for a few weeks and, beyond that, to be back in Australia in a home without wheels.

We did get out to sample the infamous Hurricane (well, Erik did… I accompanied him by drinking a mint julep)

Thus, our first two days in New Orleans were the antithesis of most people’s NOLA experience. They were spent largely in our Garden District Airbnb with short jaunts out to soak up the French Quarter and eat some beignets and other Cajun specialities. By the time Saturday night rolled around, we figured we should get out and see some live music, even if we planned to have dinner and an early night back in the comfort of our apartment afterwards.

So, we ordered an Uber to take us down to the infamous Spotted Cat jazz club. Our driver was young, friendly and a little nervous – an obvious Uber newbie.  As we wound through the streets it gradually became apparent he was lost, continually blaming it on his GPS (which he was holding in his lap and looking at more than the road). After our fifth u-turn, it occurred to us that we actually might be in an elaborate plot in which we would ultimately meet our untimely end. I surreptitiously got out my phone to check where we were and that we were actually heading in the right direction. Having confirmed that we were, I was then able to assist the now sweating driver get us to our location.

By the time we finally arrived, the Spotted Cat was between bands so we decided to wander up and down the street. We came to a night art market so did some shopping whilst chatting with local artisans about their unusual pieces. On the way out, I saw two poets at typewriters writing on demand for people. I almost mentioned to Erik we should get one done, but quickly brushed the idea aside.

On our return to the Spotted Cat, an eight-piece band was playing and the place was packed. We ordered a drink and listened for a little while, but quickly became overwhelmed by the multitude of tourists trying to take snaps of the perfect jazz experience so decided to check out some of the district’s less well-known clubs.

On exiting the Spotted Cat we heard the sounds of a brass band playing the way only brass bands in New Orleans play, so followed our ears. We were led to a street corner where about 20 people were playing various instruments to hundreds of revellers (many of whom had little-flashing lights attached to their eyebrows and eyelashes). They had blocked the entire flow of traffic but nobody seemed to mind – the cars all wound down their windows to catch a free show as they moved at a snail’s pace through the crowd. We watched for a little while, swaying to the music whilst enjoying cocktails purchased from a little hole-in-the-wall.

As we walked back past the poets, Erik turned to me and said ‘we really should get a poem done’. Our poet, Brandon, quizzed us about what we wanted a poem about, who we were and what we were doing in the Marigny on a Saturday night. We left him to ponder over his typewriter, promising to return and collect our poem in 20 minutes.

We continued to wander. As we did, an incredibly cute dog approached us. Having just spent a week in Austin with our dog-crazed friend, Dani, we were well trained to stop and say hello. His owner asked if we wanted to see him do a trick. Of course we did! We watched the clever boy bark at however many fingers his owner held up, as we clapped and cheered them on.

As we crossed the road to explore a little further, we heard the subtle sounds of a fiddle band coming from what looked like a closed shop. As we approached, we realised the six of them had crammed on the shop’s step to play. As we watched, captivated, more people crowded around. We bought a CD from them and pulled ourselves away – we had a poem to pick up after all.

Frenchman Street Band
Fiddling! As the night wore on, our photos became blurrier…

Brandon had just finished writing it up, and we asked him to read it for us. It might have been the sazeracs, but we were pretty chuffed. You can judge for yourself.

Brandon Steppen Poem
Our trip and future, in poem form

It was now 9.30 and we were no longer interested in carrying through our plans for an early night and dinner at our apartment, but we needed to eat. Wanting to simultaneously continue our musical exploration of New Orleans, we wandered into a funk jam club that offered tacos. It was the perfect combination and gave us the sustenance to drop in and see several more of Frenchman streets musical offerings.

Our musical needs satisfied, we decided to wander back towards the French Quarter. We stopped in at another art market, before heading over to Bourbon street to absorb the craziness that is a Saturday night in NOLA. Erik was also keen to watch the end of the Ohio State football game, so we found a bar that was televising the game. The woman on the door offered to find us a seat before leading us past all the TVs to their bandroom where she squeezed us in the front row to watch a phenomenal jazz band. Erik missed the end of the OSU game, but neither us were disappointed in the result.

We stumbled home in the wee hours of the morning. New Orleans now had us in its grip and so – despite a lack of sleep and weary heads – we allowed ourselves to be carried away on the same tide of music, great food, cocktails and dynamic personalities the following night.

Van life for sale!

SOLD: converted van ready for van life!

Van at Yellowstone, Wyoming
At Yellowstone, Wyoming in September

It comes fully kitted out with everything you need for life on the road. Yep, you could leave tomorrow!

We have been travelling around the US in a converted 1997 Ford Econoline E150 for the last six months. Our travels have come to an end and we are returning home to Australia and sadly need to sell our home on wheels before we leave.

We converted the van in May 2017, removing all the back seats and building in a double bed with plenty of storage underneath, a desk/shelf unit, an electric cooler and even a hidden safe which will fit two 15-inch Macbook pros and two iPads simultaneously. We also added a leisure battery and an inverter which we have used to charge laptops, iPads and run the cooler.

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The van…

The van is a 1997 Ford Econoline 150 Club Wagon with a 4.6 Liter V8 engine. It runs great. We had the brakes and tires replaced and a new alternator, second/leisure battery and inverter (to charge our devices and run the electric cooler) installed prior to starting the trip.

The odometer stopped working in October near Seattle with 178,783 miles on it (all other gauges still working properly). We estimate it has about 185,000 miles on it based on the fuel usage that we tracked. There are a few minor things that we lived with but could be fixed: loose ground in the stereo can cause it to go silent sometimes, the power locks work most of the time but sometimes you need to use the key,  and the check engine light is on but does not affect performance (we’ve had it checked).

The kit…

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  • Built in bed with 8-inch thick Zinus memory foam mattress
  • 6 Sterilite storage containers & 8 wire storage trays which all slide under the bed (which we used to store our clothes, food, kitchen utensils, camp and sports gear)
  • Eight additional grey storage tubs that fit in the desk/ shelf unit
  • Built-in electric cooler
  • A built-in, hidden safe
  • Trailer hitch and towing package
  • Camp Chef camp stove
  • 2 x folding chairs
  • Aluminum Roll-Up Table 
  • Eumax 10×10 Pop up shelter
  • Christmas lights for pop up shelter and 4 x hanging lights (we used 2 in the pop-up the pop up shelter and 2 in the van)
  • 2 x USB fans to cool you at night
  • First Aid Kit 
  • HP printer
  • Bath towels, sheets, a winter comfoter, a summer comforter and dish towels
  • Various hardware, camping and car accessories

Kitchen Utensils include:

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  • Ceramic Calphalon Frypan with lid
  • Ceramic Calphalon Saucepan with lid
  • Dishwashing container & collapsible drain board
  • French Press Coffee Plunger
  • Kettle
  • 13 Piece Mixing Bowl Set
  • Vegetable Cooker for Grill
  • 4 x bowls
  • 4 x dinner plates
  • 4 x side plates
  • 2 x large serving bowls
  • Coleman 4 person cutlery set
  • 1 large and 2 small kitchen knives
  • Silicone mixing spoon
  • Silicone flipper
  • Silicone whisk
  • Tongs
  • 4 x cutting mats
  • 4 plastic cups
  • Silicone trivet & two silicone over mitts
  • Collapsible 5-gallon water container

Everything was purchased new in May 2017 and in good used condition.

Van at Mt Pisgah
Staying on the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC in August

How much is van life?

The van has been sold. 

Hanging out in the High Desert Part 2: Utah & New Mexico

From the Grand Canyon, we drove just across the border to Utah’s Monument Valley.

Us in Monument Valley
Monument Valley!

We paid our $20 to drive around the loop through the giant red rock structures, eyeing the sign about the roads being unpaved so no RVs were allowed. We assumed this was to preserve the roads, but as we started driving around the loop, we quickly realised there was no way an RV, the roo, or indeed any car that wasn’t gifted with four-wheel drive could make it unscathed around the valley. Feeling a little sad, we turned the van around and bumped our way back across the many potholes to view the valley from the visitors’ centre before driving on to Moab.

The Roo in Monument Valley
The road looks deceptively flat in this photo, but that pretty red track is riddled with potholes

Stop 3 – Arches

As we pulled into Moab, it dawned on us that Arches may be our last stay in the van, so we felt a little sentimental as we set up our camp for the first time.

Our first day dawned bright, sunny but cold. We had a bit of work to do, so holed up in their rather wonderful library for a little while. We ended the day with a beautiful run along the Colorado River, marvelling at the fact that only two days prior we had been 5000 feet above it at the Grand Canyon.

Colorado River, Moab
Getting up close and personal with the Colorado

Expecting that the stunning weather would last (we were in the high desert, after all) we were rather surprised when we woke to an overcast day with high winds. As I sat working from the passenger seat and Erik sat huddled on the floor in the back to shelter from the sand and grit flying horizontally across our campsite, it dawned on us that our last van stay wasn’t quite what we had intended. After reviewing the weather forecast which showed the high winds increasing over the next 24 hours and adding in thunderstorms to boot, we began to reassess our options. Fortunately, for only $20 a night more than our humble campsite, we could upgrade to a humble ‘premium’ cabin which would shelter us from the impending gloom and also mean we could pack up a dry shelter rather than a damp one (one of the ongoing goals of this trip). We were sold.

Erik in the high winds
Careful, Erik! This was the start of the narrow ledge where our hike came to a premature end.

The move to our cabin complete, we spent the next day and a half experiencing Arches National Park. Due to some geological rock layering that I never quite grasped, Arches has 2000 plus natural rock arches (see what they did with the name?). We rambled, drove and hiked amongst them, until, on hiking across a narrow ledge which plummeted down into canyons either side, we were brought to our knees by the high winds and decided to call it – and our time in Arches – a day.

Stop 4 – Santa Fe

From Moab, we had a quick two-night stopover in Santa Fe to wrap up our high desert time.

Santa FeSanta Fe

We loved Santa Fe and spent our time eating New Mexican food, drinking margaritas, shopping for cowboy snap shirts and ambling around the beautiful adobe buildings. I better-acquainted myself with Georgia O’Keffee and Erik even played in a poker tournament. It was also truly one of the friendliest places we’ve been to on the trip.

Erik in his snap-shirt element at Kowboyz
Cowboy Hat
Entertaining myself whilst Erik tried on shirts

Curiously, it was also the highest point we ever got to on this trip at a whopping 8000 feet, so it seemed appropriate that we were not only physically heading downhill at the point but also starting to take the Roo into the final weeks of her journey.






Hanging out in the High Desert Part 1: Arizona

I had never heard of the high desert prior to visiting Bend earlier this year. It’s essentially up in the mountains – usually on a plateau –  with low rainfall resulting in desert type vegetation. We spent three weeks traversing this arid landscape in the south-west of the states, marvelling at its sheer size and all-encompassing redness.

Stop 1 – Flagstaff

As we started our high desert stint after a week off work, we knew we’d need to schedule some heads-down-bums-up work time. With this in mind, we booked into an Airbnb in Flagstaff, Arizona for the first week.

We try to stay in Airbnb accommodation when we’re in cities (which are generally not conducive to van life) or when we need a break from, well, living in a van. Given our limited budget for AirBnBs, it can be a juggle to get the space we need to work with the amenities that make us feel our time is better spent in an Airbnb over the Eagleroo. Our Airbnb of choice in Flagstaff was a room with a private bath and a little adjoining work area in a mansion of twelve Airbnb rooms, all sharing two kitchens and several living areas. We arrived on a Sunday night to the darkened mansion, let ourselves in, found our room and checked out the beautifully appointed common areas. It was very quiet, and as the evening wore on it suddenly dawned on us – was it possible we were alone? In a mansion? Yep, nobody else stayed there that first night or any of the six following nights.

Thus, our week in Flagstaff flew by as we worked, watched Netflix, played on the mansion’s resident Steinway (yes – Erik even convinced me to jam with him on a piano!), and generally pretended like we were living in a mansion in Flagstaff. We were so absorbed in our game of pretending to be normal people we didn’t take any photos of our temporary home, but you can check out the listing here.

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We did have one side outing to Sedona, a hippie town with incredible red-rock buttes and steep canyons. It is a new age town, with many believing that the area holds powerful energy vortexes that can encourage a high level of spiritual transformation. We went on a Saturday when it was full of tourists, so the only thing that reached a higher level within us was our stress levels, which prepared us for…

Stop 2 – The Grand Canyon

One of the incredible things about this trip is the friendships we’ve made across the way. Erik had only met Mitch and Dylan twice prior to this year, both times to complete some crazy 50-mile relay run through the woods with a group of friends. Despite this, they welcomed us into their home and showed us some damn fine New Hampshire hospitality earlier in our trip. We had such a great time with them, we decided to move our Grand Canyon dates so we could meet up with them the night before they started a seven-day hike into the Canyon.

There is not much to say about the Canyon itself except as one of my printers back in Australia put it when I spoke to him whilst there, you Americans got the name wrong… it should be the ‘fucking Grand Canyon’.  It is spectacular for its sheer enormity. So much so that your eyes seem to be playing tricks on you and you don’t trust your own depth perception.

Grand Canyon
Us and a big ol hole

We arrived at the Canyon the night before Mitch and Dylan, giving us a chance to do a three-hour hike over the rim so at least we wouldn’t feel too ashamed of our adventure-less-ness.

Given we were staying two nights at the Canyon, we also had the rare opportunity to watch the sunrise and sunset on the same day from the same spot.

We had orchestrated a neighbouring campsite with Mitch and Dylan, so all this beauty and activeness could be celebrated with campfire tacos, beer, guitar playing, bourbon and tequila whilst we listened enviously to their plans for the next seven days they would spend in the Canyon itself.

Mitch, Dylan, Sarah & Erik
These guys!

We had such a fantastic time we even planned to meet up again in New Zealand for the Queenstown Marathon in 2018. The next morning we were sad to see them go, but – feeling a little worse for wear post beer-bourbon-tequila – I don’t think either of us was jealous that they were the ones hiking 7 miles that day.

Besides, we had more desert to see.

Carving our own Oregon Trail

Oregon was a place I was excited to visit not only because of its raw beauty but also to experience America’s liberal, hipster, heart.

This is the place where (in the major centres, at least… pretty sure its guns and trucks all the way in the rural areas) cold brew coffee, dogs in handmade leather berets and food trucks reign supreme. We had planned a one night stop over in Portland to soak up the uber-hipster-ness before moving on to spend the rest of our week in Bend – Portland’s smaller, more laid-back and mountainous cousin – but then, well, Paul Kelly happened.

Paul Kelly is an Australian musician who has been everpresent throughout our relationship and one whom we both love. So, when we saw he was playing in Portland two days after we were passing through, we rerouted our trip to allow us to experience this Australian music legend at the Doug Fir Lounge, purportedly one of the best small music venues in the US.

Some context for the Australian audience: Paul Kelly is virtually unknown in the states. When Erik (the fountain of all musical knowledge) first came to Australia he didn’t know who Paul Kelly was. With this as our baseline, we knew we were pretty much guaranteed to see Kelly play to a smaller crowd than we’d ever witness him play to in Australia. Oh, and all for the princely sum of $15 each. Because that’s how they roll in the states.

Some context for our American audience: Paul Kelly is to Australia what Bruce Springsteen is to the US. If you want to see him play in Australia, he is selling out venues which hold around 12,000 for around $99 a ticket next month. No joke. Because PK is the shiz… oh, and because liking music in Australia is akin to having a house mortgage (and let’s not start on that).

Paul Kelly, Portland
Paul Kelly in Portland

And it was phenomenal. He played for two hours to about 150 people (I don’t think I’ve been in such close proximity to so many Australians since I disembarked my last Qantas flight in LAX). It was heartwarming to hear so many people singing along to songs about our hometown 13,000km away.

A few days in Portland also allowed us to get our hipster ON. We drank good coffee, spent hours pouring through the never-ending selection at Powell’s City of Books (it really is a city… or in the very least, a complete city block) ate exceedingly well, and stayed in a hippie Airbnb commune.  Our only let downs were the miserable weather (which is apparently true to Portland style) and the night we walked 40 minutes to one of Portland’s many food truck parks only to find ‘open’ on a Monday meant 15 closed trucks and one which was closing down.

Having our Portlandia fill, we drove through the Willamette Valley and the beautiful (albeit frozen) Willamette National Park to Bend. Set in the high desert, Bend is far drier than Portland, so we rolled in on a mild autumnal day and set up our camp as the sun sparkled on the river in the ever-so-pretty Tumelo State Park.

Willamette National Park
The part of our Oregon Trail that led to Bend.

It is hard to verbalise what we liked so much about Bend, but it is one of the handful of places we have visited on this trip that we put in the ‘yep, we could live here’ basket (for those tracking at home – or potentially planning future holidays to visit us – NYC, Asheville, Charleston, and Seattle have made the cut). It just felt like we could spend alot of time there.

Tumelo State Park, Bend
Tumelo State Park, how I loved thee!

Our time in Bend was not only to see this delightful part of the country, but also to catch up with Erik’s friends, Conan and Amy. These guys were the ultimate hosts (not to mention a blast to hang out with) spending all three nights we were there with us, and even inviting us to share in their son Tegan’s eleventh birthday party. And with an eleven-year-olds birthday we even got to learn about the Walking Dead comic books, to boot.

We were sad to leave Oregon, and Bend in particular, but the mighty Redwoods of California were beckoning the ‘roo onwards. There is no doubt we’ll be back, and hopefully for much longer than 5 days, next time.

Sometimes you just have a perfect day

Our 24 hours in Port Townsend felt a little like that.

We had a rocky start, arriving to find the historic campground booked out and every hotel room in the town full of happy travelers that were not us. Our only in-town option was the County Fairground, which kind of felt like we might get murdered in our sleep. Stressed, cold, and tired, we looked at options C-E (the fairground being option F). Option C was Oak Bay Campground, a county-operated park 20 minutes from town.  It ended up being heaven on earth and was only at about 15% of its capacity. It was possibly the most beautiful campsite we have stayed at so far: our site was at the very edge of Oak Bay in Puget Sound and was surrounded by trees, providing us with a fairly private little enclave for the grand price of $25 for the night.

Oak Bay Campground
Our own little piece of paradise

The accommodation box ticked, we Yelped nearby dining options. We found a delightful local restaurant, Scampi & Halibut Seafood Grill, where we had a few drinks and stuffed ourselves to the gills with delicious fresh seafood. Happy, warm and full, we climbed in the back of the ‘roo later that night and fell asleep listening to the waves lapping the edge of the bay.

We woke up to the sun rising over Puget Sound and drank our coffee whilst marveling at our little corner of the universe and musing that we would spend a week in that exact spot if we could.

From there, we went into Port Townsend. Months earlier, we had booked to make our wedding bands under the guidance of boutique jeweler Stephanie at With These Rings. We knew from the outset that making each other’s rings was the right option for us, but we didn’t expect it to be such a rewarding experience, or to be so thrilled with the outcome. We left feeling happy, in love and rather accomplished at having just smithed wedding bands out of raw gold.

Stephanie gave us a hot tip to stop off at the Finnriver Cidery on our way out of town. Not quite ready to leave the Olympic Peninsula, we decided to stop in. The place was vibing with happy locals sitting in the sun, drinking cider, munching pizza and listening to a live bluegrass band. We managed to get a free cider tasting board with a token Stephanie had given us (combined with some sweet talking in an Australian accent), ate a remarkably good kale pizza that had been cooked in an old buoy (side note: Americans pronounce this ‘boo-ee’, Australians pronounce this ‘boy’), and I even had my first taste of apple cider donuts.

Finnriver cidery
Pizza cooked in a boo-ee or a boy, depending on where you’re from…
Finnriver Cidery
Anytime is cider time!

As we pulled out of Port Townsend and drove along the beautiful Washington coastline it occurred to me I may have just had one of the best days of my life.

On the road again. First stop: Yellowstone.

Well, not quite the first stop…

It takes 24 hours to drive from Indianapolis to Yellowstone, so we had a few pitstops along the way, as well as an unplanned detour back towards Chicago for 90 minutes, making our 24 hours closer to 27 (lesson learnt: always have Google Maps on, no matter how sure you are of your route).

We were actually meant to start with a 3-day jaunt in the black hills of South Dakota to see the Badlands, Crazy Horse, and where a few presidents are reportedly carved into the hillside. But, as we both contracted a lurgy within days of leaving, we postponed and the Black Hills had to be cut to make our date (booked 6 months in advance) with Yellowstone. Whilst we were both disappointed to be driving across such a vast stretch of the country only stopping for coffee, fuel (for both the roo and her human companions) and sleep it was amazing to see how much the landscape changed again and again.

Once we got to Yellowstone, it was incredible. It is the first National Park in the World (thanks again to our good friends the Roosevelts, although this one was Teddy’s doing) and you can see how it inspired the idea of National Parks. It is hard to do the rugged thermal beauty justice in the written word, so here is my photo essay of our highlights….

Old Faithful
Old Faithful being, er, faithful
Hiking out to Fairy Falls in the snow
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (yep, that’s its real name!)
Prismatic Springs
Grand Prismatic Spring
West Thumb
West Thumb, overlooking Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation lake in North America
More West Thumb. Steamy!
Yellowstone Lake
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

As beautiful as Yellowstone was, it was also the most challenging stay so far.

Vanlife in the cold was something new to the Eagleroo crew. And when I say cold, some days barely crept above freezing and the overnight lows were -10C (14F). It was impossible to be outside without a ski jacket on, and most of the time I wished that I had brought my ski pants, too. This was a shock to our constitutions, having just driven from Indy where the mercury hung around the 30C (86F) mark. Erik drove us into the park in a blizzard (he agrees it was a blizzard, this wasn’t an Australian’s version of a ‘blizzard’) and although the snow generally melted pretty quickly once the sun hit it in the afternoon, there was plenty of the white stuff to be seen, crunched through and admired.

The night we arrived we jumped into bed fairly soon after arriving and, snuggling under our winter comforter with beanies on, we were cozy and slept pretty well. The second night, however, we left the doors of the van open for hours as we prepared, ate and packed up our dinner (Yellowstone is strict bear country. Absolutely nothing can be left out, meaning we essentially had to pack up camp after every meal). When we climbed into bed that night, we realised that our memory foam mattress which held the heat so well in summer also holds the cold equally well in winter. I am not lying when I say there was a moment that night when I genuinely wondered if this was how hypothermia started. It took a good two hours for the bed to heat up that night, and we vowed to buy some hot water bottles to help warm the bed up before we got into it in future.

The remoteness of Yellowstone’s campsites also meant that whilst we were at our home base we were sans hot water, showers, electrical hook up or any sort of phone reception. Fortunately, it did have fully plumbed bathrooms which were heated (yes, heated!) which provided a great reprieve from the cold, particularly when it came time to get changed in. We also were afforded many hours of blissful, uninterrupted campfire staring without being disrupted by social media, email or other online distractions.

Having no phone service meant we spent most of our working hours at the Old Faithful Inn which was fortunately pretty much everything you want from a mountain lodge. It was cozy, rustic and always had hot beverages available.

The threat of bears was ever present. And not just those cute black bears that we saw in Shenandoah, but also the great big eat-your-face-off grizzly bears. I’ll be honest: much like Americans are petrified of our snakes and spiders back home, grizzly bears scare the bejeezus out of me. This fear was not diminished by all the signs around the park saying ‘WARNING: BEARS PRESENT. THEY CAN KILL. DO NOT HIKE IN GROUPS OF LESS THAN FOUR OR WITHOUT BEAR SPRAY.’ Thus, I was nervous about hiking given it was just the two of us and we didn’t have proper bear spray (we did, however, have a small pepper spray that Erik insisted I carry to go running with in the states, which I kept in my pocket during all hikes and to go to the bathroom at night. Just in case.). At the start of one hike, someone had written an ‘EXTREME’ in red permanent marker above the ‘WARNING’. Needless to say, I was on high alert the entire trek.

On the look out for bears

Despite these challenges, it this didn’t diminish our pleasure at being at the park. We loved our time in this (sometimes austere) thermal wonderland, and given Yellowstone was closing down for the season as we left, we felt lucky to see it in the snow-covered state that many don’t experience.

Oh, and the only bears we saw were at the bear rescue centre after leaving the park. Phew.

This guy!





Moonlighting in Memphis

We weren’t meant to be in Memphis, or not yet, anyway.

But the lure of two of my family members  – my Dad and brother – being in the country was great. Even greater still was the lure of ambushing them. As Erik said, ‘It’s not often you get to surprise a Linklater.’

So, after we disposed of our very sad, slightly grey pork loin in the Charleston Holiday Inn swimming pool bin (which you can read about here if that comment lacks context), we jumped in the van for our ten-hour drive to Memphis for project ‘Ambush Linklaters’. The drive was largely uneventful, although was almost made significantly longer by an attitudinal Google Maps app which kept rerouting us. I thought we had been super sneaky in our ambush plans (I even roped my mother in from Australia to call them on the auspice of ‘checking in’ so we could figure out what their plans were), so I was disappointed when we rocked up at the same dinner joint as them when we meant to be 700 odd miles away and my brother simply said “here they are” . Apparently, my second phone call to find out their exact locale as we entered the outskirts of Memphis was less than discreet. It’s not often you get to surprise a Linklater.

Gus' Fried Chicken
Fried chicken with my peeps

But, we were in Memphis with my Dad and brother, and that was all that mattered. We caught up over Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, whilst I answered my brother’s many queries about middle America, and marvelled at how far I had come in four months. Yes, you have to tip in a place like this. Yes, you will like iced tea. No, it doesn’t have sugar if you ask for unsweetened. Yes, when they say fried pickles they mean deep fried pickles.

After dinner, we checked in at the Econolodge, where Dad and Tom were staying. This was a dreary affair of a hotel, set atop an even drearier parking lot. As we walked the halls to our room, we tried not to touch anything. We arrived at our room, hoping for the best. Alas, our key didn’t work, so I guarded our luggage whilst Erik went all the way back down to the ground floor to wait 20 minutes for the desk clerk who had decided to abandon her post. When we finally got into our room it reeked of stale cigarettes, the hot water didn’t work, and our coffee pot looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the hotel opened in the 1970s. Not wanting to face the MIA desk clerk again, we decided to make do (and perhaps get an STD check later on).

Econolodge Memphis
Waiting to be let into our room at the delightful Econolodge. When Erik saw us he said ‘Get up! You’ll get hepatitis!’

As we wandered the streets the next morning marveling at the beautiful abandoned art deco buildings, we realised the state of the Econolodge was representative of Memphis itself, which has surely seen better days. There is nothing that represents a great city well into its decline more than a boarded up, midcentury office building with a revolving restaurant that has most of its windows broken. We spent the morning in the library, which left us feeling even sadder about the state of the world, before retiring to a coffee shop for the rest of our working day (Tom and Dad meanwhile enjoyed the excellent Civil Rights Museum and toured Sun Studios. Damn this working holiday.)

However, not all is lost in Memphis. We met up later that day for a cocktail in the Peabody Hotel and to watch the Peabody Duck March. Watching these five ducks waddle from their fountain in a four-star hotel foyer to the lift which took them to their purpose-built $200,000 duck penthouse was one of the most joyful things I have ever experienced.

After cocktails and ducktails, we wandered down Beale street – a part of Memphis that is fortunately alive and well – for a drink, some live music, and some local food.

Beale Street, Memphis
Soaking up the Beale Street ambiance

Our two nights in Memphis were bittersweet: we shared some great times with some of our favourite people, but it is sad seeing such a wonderful city in such a state of disrepair. We will be back in Memphis on leg 2 of our trip and hopefully will get to know the good parts of this tired old southern belle a little better.

We just won’t be staying at the Econolodge.


Savannah, sans an eclipse

Yes, we were in Savannah for the eclipse! The almighty eclipse that crossed the entire continental US in its arc of totality.

When we originally mapped our trip across the US we were only vaguely aware of the eclipse, but fortuitously planned to spend this time in Charleston, right on the path of totality. ‘Well, that’s worked out nicely!’ we thought…

Turns out Charleston’s campgrounds were completely booked out and any rooms available were in the thousands of dollars per night. Not being flush with this sort of cash, we decided to switcheroo our dates with Savannah which was scheduled for 98% totality, but whose accomodation was far more reasonably priced (and available!). Not a bad trade off when you consider the crowds of crazy eclipse chasers that were forecast to descend on Charleston during this time!

The weather was forecast to be cloudy all the way along the coastline, so we figured we had as good a shot as anyone to see the lunar-solar collision. We bought our eclipse glasses and picnic supplies. We located our picnic blanket to afford several hours of comfy eclipse viewing. We found a nice wide open park (complete with confederate statue – thanks Savannah) to watch the eclipse. We were ready.

Eclipse sunglasses
Eclipse ready!

We got down to the park and set ourselves up, praying for the spotty cloud cover to hold and hoping to at least catch glimpses. We were thrilled that with our eclipse glasses we could actually see the sun through the clouds. We were winning.

That was until, 5 minutes prior to the sun starting its slow creep across the moon, dark storm clouds started brewing, followed by a steady few hours of thick cloud cover and rain. It got colder and darker, but that was about it. Our eclipse experience was a bust. But hey, at least we got to look cool in our cardboard glasses for about 3 minutes, right? Right.

The eclipse, with Spanish moss
The eclipse, with Spanish moss

But it wasn’t all bad. We saw some art at SCAD, visited the Mercer-Williams house (of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame), went on a ghost tour with some drunk people and ate at Lady and Sons, a southern style restaurant owned by US celebrity chef Paula Deen. And, on the plus side, we can now at least wipe the word ‘totality’ from our vocabularies for the next little while.

Art time at SCAD
Artiness at SCAD
Savannah Prettiness

Ps. Savannah is actually very pretty – those who haven’t been should actually put it on their wish lists. Just don’t do it during an eclipse – you’ll be disappointed.

Chipmunks and horses, and bears, oh my

After the excitement of several back-to-back metropolises, it was a relief to get back to the cool greenery of the wilderness. We were heading to Shenandoah National Park, my first foray into the state of Virginia. Extending along the narrow ridge that is the northern apart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah’s spectacular views, star filled skies and cooler climes were the perfect antidote to the steamy hustle-bustle of the city.

Shenandoah Valley View from Skyline Drive
View from one of the many lookouts along Skyline Drive

Shenandoah and Skyline Drive  – the scenic drive which runs the full length of the park and eventually turns into the Blueridge Parkway – was established as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. The more we traverse the states, the more we are exposed to the long term impact FDR had on his country. It’s a nice reminder of the true beauty of America and its underlying values that can easily be forgotten today. As we started to traverse Skyline Drive and oohed and ahhed at the views to the flat plains to both the east and the west, I thought ‘FDR, you can be part of my American entourage’. (Just to be clear: so far it’s me, FDR and Ben Franklin… and I guess Erik).

It is truly a spectacular part of the country. Before we left Baltimore, our friend Jeremy ‘Drummer’ Carlson had told us that ‘you feel like you are on top of the world’ in Shenandoah. He couldn’t have been more right. In the same conversation, Jeremy also mentioned we might see black bears in the wild. And, as we drove towards our campsite on the first night, a car stopped on the side of the road alerted us to our first Ursus Americanus. Turns out the Australian response to seeing her first bear is similar to an American (or at least Theresa Venon’s) response to seeing her first kangaroo. It goes something like this: ‘SQUEEEEEEE!!!!!!’. Throughout the rest of our Shenandoah stay, we saw another 5 bears. My excitement didn’t lessen at each one, although I’m less concerned about been eaten by one now.

Bear in Shenandoah

Unfortunately, wilderness and wifi (or phone service) are mutually exclusive. Whilst this afforded us several days of zen unplugged camping, it made it more challenging to complete work. I had a meeting at 7pm on our first night there, and as we drove into our campsite at about 6.30pm with zero reception and no wifi, I had a minor freak out. We had heard that the nearby lodge had wifi, so scuttled up there and hooked into the slowest and almost non-existent service I’ve ever experienced. Disaster hovering as my Skype meeting loomed, I looked down at my phone and (insert hallelujahs and sun streaming from the heavens above) I had two bars of service. Perched right on the Western edge of the mountain range, the lodge just managed to pick up service from the town in the valley below. As I set myself up and tried to lower my blood pressure, an email popped up postponing the meeting. This is the life of a digital nomad.

Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah
Erik walking part of the Appalachian Trail that follows Shenandoah

Fortunately, the following days were blissful. We worked from the two lodges along Skyline drive, hiked to waterfalls, went on a slow but pretty horse ride, watched live music at the lodge, discovered the effects of drinking at altitude and spent a good amount of time just hanging at our second campsite. We didn’t like the one we were assigned initially so on our second day we found a walk-up site which was shared with a family of chipmunks (again: SQUEEE!), gave us more privacy and shade as well as delightful neighbours that invited us over for s’mores (or, as I can’t stop calling them: shmores).

Shenandoah Chipmunk
Our friendly neighbour

On our fourth day, we made the journey down the mountain to see Luray Caverns. This was another tip-off from our Shenandoah guru, Jeremy ‘Drummer’ Carlson. When we arrived, we were apprehensive at the tourist trap appearance of it (there were crowds of people, a ‘Toy Town Junction’, a maze, a ropes course, a gem shop… you’re getting the picture ). However, thinking Drummer wouldn’t steer us wrong, we approached the long line to buy tickets and asked an older gentleman exiting the caverns if it was worth the wait and the not-so-cheap price tag. He told us it was, although you have to listen to ’10 minutes of history bullshit at the start’. So, we made the leap and boy oh boy, was it worth it! We walked 2.5km through underground caves filled to the brim with stalactites and stalagmites. One section was even lit with 600 birthday candles (it was their 139th birthday . . . I’m not sure who did the maths on that one). It took us an hour and 30 minutes to wander through this underground natural wonder, and I even liked the 10 minutes of history bullshit at the start.

Luray Caverns
Luray Caverns in all their glory

On our last night, we packed up our camp early, ate at the lodge and then lay in a field watching a meteor shower (I know, this place is ridiculous!) until the sky clouded over. We had a long drive ahead of us to Asheville the next day, and wanted to drive as much of the Blueridge Parkway as possible on the way there. It was hard to pull ourselves away from Shenandoah but we did so at 5.30am, stopping at one of the Eastern overlooks on Skyline Drive to watch the sunrise as our farewell.