Our time in Pennsylvania Dutch Country was short and in some ways bittersweet.
We drove through the rolling hills of farms, overtaking families on their Sunday buggy drives whilst admiring the lush landscape. We tried some Amish food specialities (their version of Chicken Pot Pie, Shoofly Pie and Birch Beer) at a local restaurant, which were both filling and satisfying.
To be perfectly honest, I was somewhat surprised at the welcoming nature of the Amish and Mennonite communities. I think I was expecting disdain for our technology and consumer driven lifestyles, but we received nothing but waves, smiles and general friendliness from the locals who we were essentially coming to ogle at.
We had originally planned to camp here but having previously experienced the whirlwind that is setting up and taking down camp in a 15 hour period we instead booked a cabin in an ‘over thirties’ RV ‘camp’ ground (we were the youngest there by a good 20 years). Our cabin was delightfully simple and homey and we drifted off to sleep listening to the gentle clip clop of horses driving past. Turns out the Amish are quite the night owls.
Our serenity was shattered the next morning as we attempted to meet work deadlines, do laundry and pack up our belongings before checking out of our cabin at midday and driving to Gettysburg for the afternoon. Being simultaneously pulled every which was at once was becoming a common and overwhelming emotion on this trip, but this was a tipping point for me.
In despair, I said ‘I didn’t know it would be this hard’. Erik responded with ‘I didn’t know it would be this kind of hard’. But as we sat, post meltdown, overlooking the beautiful Pennsylvania country side, eating our lunch, all the reasons we came on this trip came flooding back.
Being the generous soul that he is, Erik was kind enough to drive to Gettysburg as I met my work deadlines. We hadn’t really factored in enough time for Gettysburg, but it was almost on the way to Washington DC, so decided to at least swing past. We saw the video narrated by Morgan Freeman, the cyclorama and (to the disdain of the park ranger who we asked what to see if we only had an hour) did a quick auto tour of the battle field.
We were surprised by how well laid out and extensive it was, and have vowed to return one day to see more.
From Hyde Park, we took the ‘roo all the way down the Hudson, through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.
Our first stop (and last, for now at least, on the Revolutionary trail) was Philadelphia. This was our first Airbnb experience where we stayed in a private room in someone else’s house. When we were planning our trip, we thought the ‘Private Room’ option would be a great way to tap into some local knowledge, meet some interesting people and save some money. We thought we were confident and social enough that this would be a breeze. But, like many things we thought prior to starting this trip, this wasn’t necessarily the case. It turns out that our ‘people pleaser’ personality types, coupled with a host that had many rules (including requesting we place used toilet paper in the shared rubbish bin rather than down the toilet… urgh) led to a less than relaxing stay. That being said, we were in the South part of Philadelphia which was walking distance to the major historic sites, but edgy enough to remind us of our beloved Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.
The revolutionary history dots had started to join together for me by the time we got to Philly, and so it was enlightening to walk the streets and understand how each piece fit in the 1776 puzzle. On our first afternoon we got our historical bearings, skipped the long lines for the Liberty Bell and visited Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed. This was all very interesting until a pint-sized, pre-pubescent, pick-pocketer – possibly in cahoots with her ‘father’ – tried to get the better of me. Thankfully, she was neither skilled nor successful at her art.
We also visited the brand-spanking new Museum of the American Revolution. This is an amazing exercise in high quality curation, managing to tell an incredibly multi-faceted story in an engaging and informative way. The absolute highlight was George Washington’s tent. Yes: his actual tent… the one that he lived in and which served as military headquarters during the revolutionary war. My slight fascination with Benjamin Franklin turned into a minor obsession after visiting this museum, so Erik was dragged along the next morning to the Benjamin Franklin museum to learn more about this enigmatic revolutionary character, printmaker and inventor.
I was enthralled by his famous ‘Join, or die’ print and the way its meaning altered over time. This is often thought to be the first piece of American Revolutionary propaganda, but actually wasn’t created as a response to this cause at all. It originated during the seven year war (also known as the French and Indian war), encouraging the colonies to unite together for the first time in history, and, ironically, under the British banner to boot. It was only later that it became a symbol of resistance against the British. I thought it was cool, anyway.
Philly was also a food-filled experience. We lined up and tried authentic philly cheese steak; ate our way through local delicacies at Reading Terminal Market (the most delicious pretzel of the trip, a pot-roast roll, and an Amish apple dumpling); and stuffed ourselves with China Town dim-sum that rivalled Melbourne’s offerings.
On our second night there, we were lucky enough to score $6 tickets to see Wilco, Offa Rex (Olivia Chaney & Decemberists) and Conor Obert at a festival in Camden, New Jersey. We’re still not entirely sure why the tickets were so cheap, but there were some rumblings about ominous weather forecasts which seemed to have sent the festival into disaster mode. We caught the ferry across the Delaware, sat on the lawn in an amphitheatre and saw some great music. As Conor Oberst came to a close, it started lightly raining so we made an early escape.
As we Ubered back, two interesting things happened:
One:We learnt that we had just waited for an Uber on a deserted road in the most dangerous city in America… or perhaps 2nd most dangerous, our Uber driver wasn’t sure. I have since looked this up, and according to Neighbourhood Scout, Camden was most dangerous in 2015, 2nd in 2016 but has now slipped to 4th. So I guess that’s why we’re okay.
Two: Erik was mistaken for an Australian. This has happened before, but we had put it down to people hearing my accent first, and then mistaking his mid-western drawl. But in this situation I had said nothing more than ‘hi’ so it was clearly Erik’s steady stream of chatter that did it.
We left Philly with full heads, hearts and stomachs, ready for some down time with the Amish.
So we’ve been on the road for a month now, and we won’t lie: it’s had its challenges.
When it rains, EVERYTHING gets muddy, and our camp takes twice as long to dismantle. Whenever I want something out of the van, Erik seems to be in the exact part I need access to. Campfire dinners can be gritty (particularly when your perfectly cooked pork loin rolls off the grill and into the fire). And campsite shower blocks – ugh.
But generally, every frustration that we face has a flip side:
Rain means we’re staying in beautiful, lush locations.
The fact the Erik is here (even when he’s in my way) and we’re experiencing this trip of a lifetime together fills my heart with joy on a daily basis.
Campfire dinners are like having your own little smokehouse. Everything tastes amazing!
We’ve currently just reached a record low point with shower blocks, so I’m not sure I have anything good to say at this point in time… but they do mean we get stay in stunning outdoor locations and at least get (somewhat) clean.
The first few weeks (which Erik wrote about in his last post) have been heavy with spending time with friends and family. I have been a little overwhelmed by this as our time has been divided between working, sleeping and socialising with the people who have so graciously and generously put us up. As exhausting as this has been, I wouldn’t trade it. I’ve met wonderful people that help me better understand Erik’s pre-Australia (and pre-me!) world (along with a few cheeky college stories to boot), and we’ve had local experiences we otherwise would have missed. Like seeing an 80s themed water ski show. Or being taken for a girl’s night away to a biker bar in the woods (which is not as dangerous as it sounds). Or learning how to dissuade deer flies from biting you whilst running through the woods in New Hampshire with the aid of tape, glue and a baseball hat. Or being taken to visit idyllic, quiet parts of Maine. The list of these small, private experiences goes on and on, and I think will end up being the heart of what we remember about this trip in years to come.
The logistics of living in a van have definitely been through a teething period. Setting up and taking down camp is time consuming, although we’re getting faster at it and learning what is achievable for one night stays as opposed to three night stays. Everything very much has a designated home, and these have altered as we learn what we access when. Some things (like USB fans and our premium pop up shelter) have been godsends. Others we daily curse their existence (our collapsable water storage container is the most ridiculously designed piece of crap and destined for a short life with us).
Then there are the physicalities of living in a van – particularly one you can’t stand up in. For the first two weeks my back was in constant pain from moving around hunched over. I have since learnt to move around in the van on my knees. We recently left the ‘roo set up in a camp site for a few days whilst we snuck off to New York. Oh, the delights of not only being able to stand up in your bedroom, but to not put your shoes on to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night!
For me, driving on the other side of the road has been another challenge. I have done this before (in Sicily of all places, so driving in the states should be a breeze after experiencing the Italian roads), but never in a 17 foot long, 7 foot high, 20 year old beast like our Eagleroo. There have been several times when my nerves have been tested as we teeter along mountain roads or when google maps sends us on a 20 minute detour for the pleasure of a u-turn. Erik’s patience with my driving (and driving related melt-downs) seems to be never ending, for which I am grateful.
We also miss things about home. Our families, our friends, our fat little cat. Oh, and our kingdom for a night watching a movie on the couch! We have an iPad Pro, an unlimited data plan and Netflix in the ‘roo (which OMG do we suffer in Australia with our Netflix ‘lite’) but it’s not quite the same… particularly when we know a whole season of Masterchef has passed since we’ve left.
But, for the most part, it’s great. We wake up somewhere new (and very often beautiful) everyday, and have made made a comfy little home out of our 40 square feet on wheels… We’re here, we’re in the moment and we’re loving it.
Our grand plan (or itinerary) started as us pipe dreaming about our trip. It included several bottles of wine, a whopping map of the US and hundreds of tiny 1cm x 1cm post-it note squares. We popped a post-it on EVERYTHING we wanted to see, and from that a reality (and possible route) was born.
From there, things got real. We had to provide a fully detailed itinerary along with my US visa application, and were lucky enough to stumble on the free, mostly user-friendly, road trip planning site Furkot. We mapped out possible dates and our most likely route – which looked like a lopsided infinity symbol across the country.
Our trip has taken many twists and turns along the way. Our original plan was three months in Indianapolis at the start, followed by an East coast loop, a three week break back in Indy, then a West coast loop. Then we found out Erik could only be out of Australia a certain amount of time if he wanted to apply for citizenship in the year after we returned so our trip got shortened…. then my sister got married in Australia half way through our planned Indy time… we were planning on crossing to Canada several times during our stay, until I was informed on arrival at LAX (despite differing advice received previously) that this was not OK, so Canada has now been crossed off and will likely be exchanged for a trip to London to get my visa renewed… we had tickets to see Aretha Franklin at Chautauqua, then Aretha got sick and was replaced by Jay Leno who we have zero interest in seeing… the list goes on and things get chopped, changed and moved around. This is all okay: part of this adventure is learning to live life a little more flexibly, and not getting caught in the day to day.
We also want to be able to follow our gut instinct when we’re on the road and stop for a few extra days in one place if we are feeling the vibe, and move on faster if we’re not. Giving ourselves the room to be flexible has been a challenge. Not only because of our (my) inbuilt desire to plan, but also because some National Park camp sites require bookings about six months in advance, and, of course, people want to know when we’ll be landing on their door step.
But it is so exciting to be on the road after so much planning, planning, wine and more planning.
You can check out our up to date itineraries below, and follow along as they shift and change over the next six months.
So, we’ve spent the last month fitting, kitting and fulfilling our #vanlyfe dreams.
We start the trip in earnest this coming Saturday, but since we were lucky enough to be invited to the backyard music festival, ‘Rabscuttlooza’, in Rensselaer (Indiana) last weekend, we thought – given the ‘roo was 90% of the way there – it was a good opportunity to give her a test run.
In preparation, we spent the whole of Friday evening spreading the entirety of our belongings over our friends’ living room (they may be unwilling to have us back after that little display!) before packing them into tubs and baskets. We packed our tubs and baskets into their van tub and basket holders. We made our bed. We turned on our electric esky (cooler). We were ready.
We set off around midday and it was all smooth sailing until we stopped for gas. Erik was filling the van whilst I took a bathroom break. As I walked back toward the bowser (gas pump), I noticed liquid pouring out the bottom of the van as Erik was filling it. A short burst a drama ensued, as we quickly worked out that as we filled the van, a good percentage of the fuel was leaking out onto the asphalt below it. This was an alarming and depressing start, but after a quick Eagleroo inspection and conference in a McDonalds parking lot, we made a (quite frankly, rather ill-informed) decision to keep going and take it to a mechanic when we were back in Indianapolis. Fortunately, we managed to limp the rest of the way to Rabscuttlooza without further mishap.
We had a wonderfull afternoon, full of music, Mexican food, good company and a violent game called hammerschlagen (which you can read about here). Late in the evening, as we settled in to watch Donnie Darko (yep, Rabscuttlooza has a strong rabbit theme – it’s THAT Rabscuttle) the most intense storm I have ever witnessed rolled in. After a lightening strike put an end to watching Donnie D (and our friend’s entertainment system), it was time for bed. We were a little apprehensive about sleeping in our customised metal box during such a storm, but determined not to chicken out of our test run, so settled in to sleep to the sounds of pounding rain and thunder claps. However, this wasn’t what kept us awake during the night… and now we arrive to lesson one of road living:
When stopping overnight, always park the van on flat surfaces.
We had managed to park the van so not only were our heads pointed down a hill, but we were also slanted to the side. So not only were we sleeping with a slight sense of vertigo, but Erik was also rolling into me all night and at one point I actually came off the mattress. It was a tough first night, but a solid lesson learnt. We’ve now downloaded a level app to our phones so we can make sure we are parked in a way that will ensure a decent nights sleep.
But, we made it! The ‘roo is currently back at the mechanic (we fortuitously had her booked in for a leisure battery fitting), so she will hopefully be back on the road on Saturday when we officially start our trip. Stay tuned.