P1070846-2 (Large)We’ve been out on our sailboat, Magic, for nearly a month now exploring the fascinating Sea of Cortez in Mexico. I had the week off from my job at the university for the holidays so we did not need to stick to our usual anchorages with cellular service. We visited a new anchorage near La Paz named Caleta Partida and found a fun surprise: mobula rays!

Brian guided Magic into an unfamiliar bay with steep, orange, rocky sides. The water was dark and deep. I spotted a group of white-finned creatures slowly cavorting around the bay near the surface of the water. I quickly grabbed the binoculars and confirmed they were rays, and at least two dozen! Now was my chance to fulfill a dream but we had to act quickly.

P1070794 (Large)We continued into the bay, anxious to drop our anchor and see if we could get in the water with the rays. As the depth became shallow the water turned a pale turquoise and we could see the white, sandy bottom. We anchored in fifteen feet of water and immediately dropped the dinghy. We zoomed away with snorkel gear in the direction of the cavorting rays.

It was easy to find them. Their white fins gently thrashed at the surface, disturbing the calm water. We stopped right next to the group, and gasped with delight as about twenty rays swooped under and around our inflatable dinghy. I put on my snorkel, mask and fins and gently lowered myself into the water. Brian waited in the dinghy to pick me up after I snorkeled with them.

P1070837 (Large)A group of rays whizzed by with mouths agape and wings gently flapping. With each flap of their brown wings a sliver of bright white belly was revealed. They were only a couple feet away and I was frozen. I was both stunned and delighted by their close proximity. I had impulsively decided to share their space without stopping to consider how they would react. Now I considered it.

I was floating there thinking hard about all this when I began to drift away from them. I turned my body to join them.

P1070827 (Large)My heart beat quickly as dozens of rays flowed all around me like silk. They allowed me to penetrate their group but always kept a few feet of distance. They seemed almost close enough to touch. They knew exactly where they were in the water and stayed out of reach. They were friendly enough, yet polite about my personal space. What wonderful creatures!

The entire group would move together, turning at the same time, marching to a hidden rhythm only they could hear. It was exhilarating to join them and see them flapping around me in every direction. I enjoyed about ten minutes with them, then Brian jumped in with them as I waited with the dinghy.

IMG_8401 (Large)Swimming with the rays was completely spontaneous. This wasn’t on any bucket list but as soon as I saw them I knew snorkeling with them was a dream to be fulfilled. This was a dream I had forgotten about, but had felt the pangs of many times in the past. Each time I saw a ray jumping in the Sea of Cortez, or heard about the groups of friendly rays in the Caymans or Hawaii I wanted to know what it would be like to swim with them.

P1070806-2 (Large)There is no way to know when nature will give us these magical opportunities. I’m so grateful this happened and that I had a camera with me at the time!

P1070383-3 (Large)The newest addition to our gypsy caravan is a fun 2001 Jeep Wrangler, which we have been towing behind our 2004 Sprinter van.

Our caravan has reached a point of perfection. We have a comfy converted Sprinter for living and a spunky little Jeep for exploring. The Jeep grants either of us the freedom to go where we want, when we want. We can enjoy 4×4 terrain not accessible to us in our van. On a more practical note, we have a spare vehicle in the event of a breakdown. And yes, the Jeep is insanely fun to drive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s become important for us to have the freedom to do things separately sometimes. Go ahead and make your jokes that the honeymoon is over, but all the married couples out there will hear me loud and clear that a little breathing room is essential sometimes.

Brian and I got married a little over a year ago and we live together in our Sprinter van and on our sailboat. We are rarely more than 40 feet away from each other, which is like being roped together on a glacier for years at a time. Yes, we adore each other but sometimes we have different ideas about what to do and when to do it. I want to spend a lot of time with my friends. Brian wants to do endurance adventures which sound too painful for me to want to participate, like 40-50 mile trail runs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve done pretty well together in a small space, but we were starting to dream of a handy escape pod either of us could use whenever we wanted. We bought a Jeep from a Craigslist seller in St. George, Utah. It was reasonably priced and already had a tow bar! Score!

Immediately after buying it the Jeep began paying big dividends. I was driving it for the first time, following Brian in the Sprinter. Big, black clouds of smoke started to come out of the exhaust pipe of the Sprinter and I texted Brian frantically: “pull over!”. A hose Brian recently replaced came loose and caused the clouds of smoke. No worries, Brian hopped in the Jeep and went to the hardware store to get the correct tool to tighten the hose clamp on the new hose. Problem solved!

12029689_10153817719588072_9194444911192391510_oNext, we arrived in Springdale, Utah. Several of my friends were going to a music festival that night and I hadn’t seen them for several months. I was beyond excited to be with them and Brian wanted to relax that evening and not go out. I raced off in the Jeep and stayed out late with my friends. I felt light, elated, like the world was at my fingertips again. No longer did I need to reach consensus with my partner to go out and impulsively enjoy myself. The next evening I watched an eclipse with the same dear friends, and it became an evening I’ll always remember.

The Jeep has already proven to be a great thing for us and I’m surprised more people are not towing Jeeps behind their vans. As we began to explore the idea of towing a Jeep with our Sprinter we didn’t find much information. A lot of RVs tow Jeeps but it’s rare for a van to tow a Jeep. I think MORE vans should tow Jeeps, since it makes a nomadic lifestyle more satisfying and fun.

One of my goals for this blog is to provide useful information about living in a van, so here are the details about towing the Jeep. I am just the reporter. Brian did the work, and he did a great job!

1. Get a tow bar and trailer hitch, obviously.

2. Add an Auxiliary Braking System to the Jeep
Most RVs towing Jeeps don’t have this, but a Jeep weighs little compared to the monstrous weight of a large RV. Our Jeep weighs about half what our Sprinter does, with an approximate weight of 3,300 pounds for the Jeep and 6,300 pounds for the Sprinter. The brakes on our Sprinter would wear out quickly if they were providing braking for both the Sprinter and the Jeep being towed.

Here is how our auxiliary braking system works. When the brake pedal in the Sprinter is pressed, the auxiliary braking system also presses the brake pedal in the Jeep. We chose the SMI Stay n Play Duo auxiliary brake system and have been happy with it. Brian and our wonderful family member, Tim, installed it in several hours. It does require cutting the brake line, so be ready for that. This braking system is easy to set up each time we tow, with only a simple switch to activate it.

3. MPG
When we’re not towing the Jeep we get about 20 mpg in our Sprinter. While towing the Jeep it decreases to 15 mpg, which we are still pretty happy with.

4. Drivability
Driving the Sprinter while towing the Jeep feels good. Acceleration is a bit slower and so is braking, but otherwise driving it is a smooth experience. Brian and I have both driven it on highways and in cities and we agree it drives well. It is important to go more slowly on highways and to drive defensively in cities, but that’s true anytime a vehicle or trailer is being towed.

5. Never back up while towing the Jeep. No, really! Even if you’re an experienced trailer driver, like Brian, the Jeep is nearly impossible to back up successfully.

I hope after reading this more people with Sprinters will consider the added benefits of towing a Jeep. It has made living in a van better in many ways for Brian and I and we love our Jeep!

On a side note, it’s important to follow proper procedures when towing the Jeep. Towing it incorrectly will ruin the transmission. We had to rebuild the transmission in our Jeep soon after purchasing it, and the shop who repaired it suspected it was towed incorrectly by the previous owner. It’s important to follow a checklist and approach the towing process with the proper diligence. It’s kind of early for us to pay a big repair bill, and we’re quickly learning about the extra love a Jeep needs (and deserves).

11187269_10206829526315579_5847633943282300870_oMountain biking is hard. Really hard. But I always wanted to love it. It looked fun and exciting. Mountain bikers always had great leg muscles. So I went for it. I found a used bike with the help of my friend Matt, and then started getting my butt kicked every time I rode. I panted hard uphill and clenched the brakes in fear on each downhill. Later on these would come to be known as my “false starts”. I’m an unlikely candidate for mountain biking. I was never that good on a bike, even on flat ground.

1275927_10202205540038812_1987344339_oThen, Matt found me a husband who became my mountain biking mentor. My true love for mountain biking began. Brian encouraged me to ride regularly and fed me water and Clif bars along the way. He would call out “good job” as I pedaled hard uphill and my legs would spin faster. He’s a skilled mountain biker who enjoys long rides and bike-packing (backpacking on your mountain bike), so his huge enjoyment of the sport was also inspiring.

11312788_10207133339070708_22818522475874109_oWe traveled all over the west in our van with our mountain bikes riding on a rack on the back. We visited delicious mountain biking destinations like Moab, Sedona and Crested Butte. There’s nothing more inspiring for a new rider than to suddenly be in a place which is cherished by pretty much all mountain bikers.

We did many ten mile rides on varied terrain. My confidence grew and I wanted to try my first long ride, 26 miles on the McKenzie River Trail in Oregon. I found out what a saddle sore was about 15 miles into the ride. We quickly aborted the ride and Brian went to get the Sprinter while I rested my injured parts. The next weekend we tried again (with lots of chamois cream) and we made it! It felt incredible to complete that ride, especially after failing the first time.

11953523_10207794000266825_3665510506410659414_oWe continued riding in Colorado this summer. We rode all the classics around Crested Butte and then did a 35-mile ride on the Monarch Crest Trail! This ride began at 11,300 feet and was simply spectacular. It offered plenty of smooth single track trail through green alpine meadows and nice forest riding as well.

Now I have about 100 rides under my belt, some of them pretty long and hard. I’m stoked to have made such progress! It definitely took a lot of patience and persistence. After two years of biking I can look at my collection of rides and say that I’ve become a mountain biker.

12049549_10207762528690253_1433115202285718913_nIt feels great to have worked up to such long rides, but my skills still need some improvement. I clench my brakes hard when I ride downhill and walk a lot of technical obstacles.

Two of my girlfriends who are great riders suggested a dropper seat post and I’m going to try that when we return from the boat next spring. Hopefully it helps, because I feel too high off the ground when I ride downhill. I love my big 29er bike, but sometimes feel like an awkward 5’11” bird perched on top of a tall seat post. Lowering my center of gravity should help me bounce over rocks more safely and comfortably.

887467_10207827623187377_1105679168592285859_oI ride cautiously, and my philosophy is that this sport doesn’t have to be dangerous. I’ve ridden expert trails all over the west, increasing my skills gradually and walking anything outside my abilities. I’ve gotten tremendous exercise, seen beautiful places, and enjoyed myself a lot.

In closing I’ll share my dirty little mountain biking secret. I’ve never crashed. Not even once. Not even a small, avoid-a-big-crash-by-taking-a-little-crash crash. I’m attentive and lucky. Cautious and quick to dismount when I see a hairy obstacle. But that’s just how I am, and even cautious people like me can learn to love mountain biking!

P1030095 (Large)I like to look nice even though I live in a van. I try to get a haircut and highlights on a regular basis. Sometimes it can be a pain to find a good salon when I’m travelling.

I usually find salons by looking for five star reviews on yelp or google. I thought this would be a foolproof way to get decent results. Not so. I got burned big time by this recently. I don’t want to name the salon on my blog because that’s mean. The stylist tried her best but my hair looked terrible when I left the salon. She styled my hair in a dark corner so I didn’t even see it until I was outside. Later, I called to complain and they had me come in the next morning to get it fixed. The same stylist worked on me and I looked even worse. I didn’t go back a third time.

Have you ever had your hair ruined? Well, how about after spending over $100 on it? Yeah, then it hurts even more.

P1030110 (Large)I am fed up with random salons. My regular stylist in Boise is skilled and does a great job. Other stylists I meet out on the road are a mixed bag. A lot of them seem to not be listening. I always ask for the same thing yet wind up with very different results. The results are great only about half the time. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

I’m not ready to give up. I want bright, beautiful, freshly cut hair. I just do. I’m sure this is some sick result of my societal conditioning regarding women and beauty but it’s hard to set it aside.

I went to my regular stylist in Boise and asked if she would teach Brian how to highlight my hair. Luckily, she said yes! Brian took a short video and my stylist gave him detailed instructions on how to apply foils and carefully brush the thick, white paste on small sections of hair. She also gave us a bit of leftover dye and showed us how to mix it.

P1030120 (Large)Allowing my husband to dye my hair would be a trust building exercise. Brian was enthusiastic about trying. He’s seen how disappointed I have been after some of my salon visits. I was optimistic he could do as good a job as most salons. I promised not to be upset if it didn’t turn out well.

We mixed up some dye in the van one afternoon. Brian brushed it on one thin layer of hair. We waited in suspense for 20 minutes and then washed it. It looked great! Using the right color and applying it sparingly is just as important as a cosmetology degree, apparently.

Then the big day came when Brian would use up the rest of the product to add more highlights to my hair. The test strip had come out well so we felt like we could proceed with the bigger job. He highlighted the top layers of my hair while we sat in the van. We parked in front of the hostel in Crested Butte, Colorado for this task. They had showers there so I could wash my hair afterward.

It was fast, easy and I didn’t need an appointment. My hair turned out great! I am so happy with it. By closely following instructions and using the right product we were able to get great results.

I think we are onto something here! I am excited to forgo salon visits for awhile. Whenever I visit Boise I’ll see my fantastic stylist, but for regular touch-ups the van is my salon!

DSC00820It was a big moment: my first via ferrata. A via ferrata, or “iron road” is a protected climbing route in the mountains. This promised to be an exciting adventure. It would be a dizzying traverse across a mountainside with nothing but an iron cable affixed to the rock to keep me from falling hundreds of feet. This via ferrata, one of the top ten in the world, is in Telluride, Colorado.

There are very few via ferratas in the United States. They are much more common in Europe, where they enable climbers to travel long distances through the mountains without specialized mountaineering skills and equipment. An iron cable, iron rungs, and sometimes bridges and ladders are the only protection provided in these steep and exposed places.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used a special tether for the via ferrata which was designed to expand like a spring if I took a hard fall. It would prevent violent jerking at the end of my tether if I came off the rock. Two tethers were attached to my rock climbing harness, and away I went! I would also recommend a helmet and pair of gloves with a rubber palm.

I spotted a couple people doing the via ferrata with absolutely no gear at all. Unbelievable! No harness, no tether, no helmet, no gloves, no pack. They were treating it like a hike. I couldn’t imagine!

It was about 9 AM when Brian, myself and about a dozen other friends gathered on the side of a mountain in Telluride. Bridal Veil falls set the background for the via ferrata, and thick forest surrounded the tall waterfall.

DSC00704There was plenty of activity as everyone assembled gear and formed a colorful, excited circle. We did a little group cheer and headed up a steep and skinny trail. This trail climbed briefly and then leveled out as it traversed along the side of the mountain. The route quickly became more exposed as it threaded its way along the side of a cliff. Anyone with a fear of heights would likely go no further, and we hadn’t even seen the portions of the via ferrata secured with an iron cable.

DSC00770We hiked along the well maintained and easy to follow trail. This was no stroll in the park, though. There was a drop of several hundred feet right next to it, within stumbling distance. I moved quickly but carefully, mindful of the exposure next to me but not worried about it. After all these years of canyoneering and big rappels I don’t have very many feelings about big drops anymore. It used to make my heart pound but now if I have a secure place to stand I feel comfortable.

DSC00828Soon the trail was too dangerous to hike without protection. A sharp corner lay ahead of us with sketchy footing underneath. An iron cable was attached firmly to the rocks and curved around the corner. We got our tethers ready and I noticed how exposed the footing was on this first corner, and it would only get more difficult from here. I haven’t done any climbing in a long time, am I ready for this? Sonny was in front of me and encouraged me to continue.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASonny and his wife Calius had done many via ferratas before and felt completely confident. Sonny offered to stay right in front of me and Calius offered to take plenty of pictures to commemorate my first via ferrata. All photos in this post were taken by them. What great friends I have! Brian was right behind me and he had done this same via ferrata a couple years ago. I felt surrounded by wonderful, supportive people and it made it easier to clip my carabiner on the iron cable, then tenuously follow Sonny around the corner.

DSC00850I moved along the cliff, tethered to the iron cable with my carabiner. I couldn’t help noticing there was a real risk of a fall of several feet. The iron cable didn’t feel as secure as being belayed during a rock climb, since there was usually plenty of slack in the tether. Plus, in the event of a hard fall the tether will expand by an additional foot to break the fall.

The traverse continued with big views of green trees under us and the city of Telluride far below. This was a place of incredible beauty. I was moving along quickly and enjoying the sights around me when I came around a corner and my breath caught in my throat.

P1020730 (Large)I had arrived at the biggest traverse on the route. I had seen pictures of it. This was the spot where people clung to little metal rungs and moved across a sheer vertical rock wall a full 500 feet off the ground. Moving my tethers correctly along the iron cable here was of utmost importance, otherwise a mistake would almost certainly mean death.

It’s essential to stay calm and mindful during activities like this. Every movement of the carabiner has to be right, every clip, every time. Fear only distracts you, making the experience more risky. Better to stay calm and place all focus on the gear and the process of moving it safely from cable to cable. I’ve learned to not even look down in situations like this. It doesn’t help.

DSC00783Sonny moved out onto the big wall, stepping from rung to rung, clipping and unclipping his two carabiners. Now it was my turn. I ventured out onto the first metal rung, which was secure and trustworthy. I moved over to the next rung, and using one hand moved my carabiners to the next portion of the cable and screwed the gates shut. I had to grip a rung with one hand and move the carabiners with the other, all with a 500 foot void below. This was the most intense part of the experience. My heart was pounding!

DSC00785There were two problems. First, my palms were sweating and it made my grip on the rungs slippery. Second, these rungs were not made for tall people. A couple of them were so close together I had to scrunch my body in an awkward position to keep my feet on one rung and my hands on the other. There were no other foot or hand holds so the rungs where necessary here. I was also forced to pause in uncomfortable positions while using one hand to move my carabiners onto the next portion of the cable. I just kept moving, rung to rung, keeping my full attention fixed on my next move. Feet, hands, carabiner. Feet, hands, carabiner. Soon I was back on solid rock and the big wall was behind me. Wow, that was exciting!

DSC00896There was still some challenging climbing ahead of us after the big wall. One section of the route was overhanging and required us to traverse a short distance while hanging from metal rungs using our arms. In the middle of the overhanging I had to rely on one sweaty hand to keep me on the rung as I moved the carabiner with the other hand. There were many surprises along this wonderful via ferrata, and soon we found a small tree right in the middle of the route! I put my arms around it in a loose embrace to grab the rock on either side, and felt almost as if I were dancing with it. We enjoyed ourselves very much on this fun route, and felt safe and protected at all times. No one took any falls that day.

P1020742 (Large)At the end of the via ferrata we found our last surprise of the day – wild raspberries! Calius and I ate many berries, Sonny ate a few, and Brian looked on with amusement. Eventually, we all headed down the mountain full of excitement over the great experience we had shared.

Category: Uncategorized

P1010174-1 (Large)Our 100 mile backpack starts tonight! We’re hiking the southern portion of the JMT in California. We’ve trained by doing a couple grueling weekend trips, but we don’t have any long distance backpacking experience (yet). Our training trips have been pretty painful at times, and we hope we’ve learned enough lessons on these shorter trips to help our big trip go smoothly.

Nothing gets you ready for backpacking like backpacking, so we dove right in. We started training by doing a popular backpack called the Northern Loop in Mount Rainier National Park. It was 33 miles and about 9,000 feet of elevation gain. We did it in three days.

P1010438-1 (Large)Oh, the pain. Each day we descended 3000 feet, and then climbed 3000 feet. I read about the Northern Loop years ago and always dreamed of doing it. It’s amazing and I highly recommend it. But not as your first backpack of the season. Oh my.

The scenery was breathtaking and it helped to distract us from the physical difficulties. We hiked next to the tremendous Carbon Glacier and felt the cold breeze blowing across. We swam in shallow, warm Mystic Lake. We crossed brown, violent glacial streams, sometimes on bridges and sometimes on sketchy logs. We hiked through beautiful forests and enjoyed wonderful drinking water from small, gurgling streams. We met two fun park service employees dressed in sparkly fourth of July outfits, and invited them to camp with us at Mystic Lake. We had a lot of wonderful experiences, but each day it got harder and harder to climb with my sore leg muscles.

P1010459-1 (Large)The pain eventually wore me down, and on day three we had a fight. Brian told me I was complaining and I burst into tears. We quickly made up and decided we will do our best to avoid backpacking fights because they’re awful. There you are, in the wilderness, with one other person. The last thing you want is tension between you as you hike through a beautiful place, trying to enjoy it but not really enjoying it at all. We agreed I should plan our next trip and gather all the information for it, so I don’t feel overwhelmed by the difficulty. For the record, Brian did not pressure me to hike the Northern Loop. I was enthusiastic to do it, but also a little too optimistic about my abilities. Our long Sierras backpack will not be as difficult as the Northern Loop, so that’s reassuring.

P1010766-1 (Large)I got to work planning the next training trip. It was my birthday weekend and I was excited to hike by waterfalls and eat berries on the Eagle Creek Loop in the Columbia Gorge. It was only 22 miles with 4000 feet of elevation gain, so overall it was easier than the previous trip. We were already in the Columbia Gorge living in the van at a nice $10 campsite and canyoneering the wonderful waterfalls and creeks of the gorge. This backpack trip was right in our “neighborhood”, only a 10 minute drive.

The side of the loop with the waterfalls (Eagle Creek) was really impressive. We saw a dozen waterfalls, and the best was Tunnel Falls. The trail went behind Tunnel Falls and through a short tunnel before it emerged on the other side. Small water droplets flew in the air and lush ferns surrounded us as we prepared to pass behind the thundering falls.

P1010654-1 (Large)Once in the tunnel, the sound of the waterfall became extremely loud. The black, rocky sides and ceiling of the tunnel were dripping wet and there were some small puddles on the floor. The tunnel was about 20 feet long and tall enough to stand in comfortably. Tunnel Falls was the highlight of the backpack trip.

We also hiked through beautiful forests and foraged for blueberries and raspberries. The climbing was still painful, especially one day where we climbed nearly 3000 feet. That night my back and legs hurt badly, but then in the morning I felt ok and ready to hike again. I might be getting a little more used to those stiff 3000 foot climbs.

I can do everything with relative ease except the 3000 foot climbs with a heavy pack. There isn’t time to train more, though. The big trip is here. Brian has agreed to help me by carrying my pack up some of the 3000-4000 foot passes if I’m in as much pain as I was during our training trips. On one hand, I feel ashamed. Why didn’t I train harder, lose weight, or do more to prepare for this trip? I hate the idea of not being able to do these climbs without hurting so much.

This is no time to question the past. We talked about the upcoming backpack and decided we both really want to do it. We will do whatever it takes to make it happen. Brian says if he were hiking solo he’d be hiking hard for 10-12 hours per day anyway, so to help with my pack sometimes is no bother. It’s still a tough concept for me to swallow. It requires me to examine my independent approach to life, that I can do anything I want, that I don’t need anyone.

We’ll be doing this backpack trip as a team, and I am trying to come to terms with that. If it means Brian hikes up some of the steeper parts of the trail twice to get both our packs and I swallow my pride while he does it, then ok. That may be what it takes to complete this hike.

We will hike a portion of the John Muir Trail from South Lake to Whitney Portal, travelling over 100 miles in 14 days. During the trip we plan to summit the highest mountain in the U.S. (Mount Whitney). We’ll have no resupplies for food, so we’ll start hiking with enough to last two weeks. Food alone will weigh over 40 pounds.

I’m excited, and sure we can do this together! I’ll let you know how it goes.

Category: Uncategorized

IMG_1506 (Large)You know that routine you go through doing the dishes, scrubbing them hard with hot water and smelly antibacterial soap? Stop doing it. It’s totally irrelevant. You’re wasting your time. I’m about to tell you why.

As I adapted to a nomadic existence, some of my routines had to change. I began van life clinging to standard rituals I learned indoors, like washing dishes. Washing dishes was especially challenging in the van with no running water and I couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t require carrying an extra container of water and a wash tub. So I got creative. I put my dirty dishes in my gym bag and after working out I would take them into the shower at the gym and wash them!

The showers were private and I never got caught doing this. I also never washed off large pieces of food into the shower at Gold’s Gym. That would be gross. I just did a quick soak, scrub, rinse as I was washing myself and then put the dishes right back in my gym bag before anyone could see what I had been doing. Easy solution.

I know, I probably just lost some of my blog readers. So uncouth, these things van vagabond does. Forgive me, dear readers, for I was just trying to keep my dishes clean and avoid getting sick. I truly believed something terrible would happen to me if I ate from a dirty dish.

During the next few years living in a van I evolved more and so did my dish washing routine. Every now and then I would just have to eat from a dirty dish because I hadn’t been to the gym in a couple days. Each time I ate from a crusty dish I was sure I would get sick. It was like eating from a petri dish, right? The bacteria were sitting there multiplying as the dirty dish sat in my van.

But you know what? I never, ever got sick from doing this. I never got any sort of food poisoning or intestinal distress from eating off dirty dishes. Due to circumstances and just a change of priorities that is bound to happen with such a drastic lifestyle change, I started eating from dirty dishes more and more often. My confidence grew and I realized this wasn’t going to make me sick.

Of course, whenever I would deal with raw meat (which was very rare) I would go through the proper washing procedures and then sterilize the dishes with alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel. I never wanted to test the limits of consuming raw chicken juice. I’m daring, not stupid.

Once I realized a dirty dish probably wouldn’t make me sick, dish washing became merely a matter of aesthetics. I didn’t want little pieces of granola intermingling with my salad so I would give the bowl a good wipe with a wet paper towel between uses. Still, no sickness, so I took it up a notch. I got even lazier.

I stopped washing dishes completely. Now I will only wipe a dish between uses if flavors are strong and will ruin the taste of the next food to go on the dish. For example, a dish must be wiped between a curry stir fry and a bowl of cereal. However, I do no cleaning whatsoever between two savory meals, such as a salad and a stir-fry.

This has been going on for years with no adverse effects. I have tested the limits of crusty dishes, and can assert that you all can safely re-allocate your dish-scrubbing, hot-water-wasting, rubber-glove-wearing time to more important activities.

IMG_1008 (Large)We made the transition from sailboat life to van life on May 1. We put the boat into storage in Guaymas, Mexico and then took a bus to Phoenix to get our sprinter van out of storage. The last few weeks have been incredibly action packed. Wow, has it really been a month since we started living in the van again?

We had three main goals when we reunited with our beloved Sprinter:

1. Get back into shape. Life on the boat tends to be relaxing. It’s difficult to find tough outdoor objectives at sea level without a car or bike to go inland. We’re changing that this fall and bringing bikes onto the boat.

2. Finish customizing the van. We built out the inside of the van in December and all the main components were installed, but smaller things were saved for later.

3. Deal with mail. It’s been six months since I’ve picked up my mail and there will be a large pile to wade through.

P1000068-1 (Large)First, getting into shape. We had a canyoneering fest planned for Memorial Day weekend. Canyoneering tends to serve up big helpings of difficult terrain. I respect the physical demands of this sport and I’ve learned from personal experience that it can be brutal when I’m not in good condition. My last canyoneering trip was in Death Valley, one of the more challenging canyoneering areas. I didn’t train enough for it. I had been living on the boat and jogging at sea level but it wasn’t enough, and the off-trail approach hikes felt grueling at times.

photo (21) (Large)We got back to the US with three weeks to prepare for our upcoming canyoneering trip. We hit the ground running as soon as we arrived in Phoenix and drove straight to Sedona, a mountain biking paradise. The next day I rode one of my favorite trails, the Mescal Trail. Riding was hard but I felt on top of the world. I had been away from my mountain bike for 6 months and had missed it so much. Later that day we went swimming in Sedona at Grasshopper point. After months at sea I craved the feeling of water and even though it was ice cold I swam around in the aerated water below a small waterfall for several minutes. It felt good to experience an adventurous day on land again.

IMG_1053-1 (Large)We continued to bike as hard as we could at least five days per week. We went to Colorado and rode trails at higher elevations. We rode classics like Phil’s World and the Colorado Trail at Junction Creek. We rode every trail we could find that wasn’t muddy, and some that were.

There is nothing like pedaling a bike up the side of a mountain to whip your body into shape. After three weeks of hard riding we went on our canyoneering trip, and we handled the grueling terrain without much difficulty. The three weeks of mountain biking had worked! Canyoneering was still hard. It always is. But I had enough conditioning to perform well, and that felt great.

IMG_1215 (Large)During our mountain biking frenzy, we would use our spare time to customize the interior of the van. I set up a convenient van kitchen with all things in easy reach. Brian installed many accessories like a fan and a rack to hold wine glasses. In such a small space, everything must be done to add organization and storage. Brian dreamed up an idea for a wonderful bungee net above the bed, and it holds a lot of items. Soon I’ll write a post showing our new customizations in more detail.

P1000280 (Large)Ugh. Last topic is mail. I hate mail. After sifting through my mail I had a pile of junk mail three times as high as the mail I care about. I suppose I shouldn’t have let it go this long, but we’ve been busy cruising and scuba diving and the thought of mail was so far away.

The bright spot in my homeless mail situation is definitely the UPS Store. I have had a mail box at their store in Boise, Idaho since I started living in my van in 2009. This is a terrific service. They will send your mail to you wherever you are, and you just pay the postage for forwarding the mail plus a couple dollars. They will even sort out the junk mail beforehand.

P1000116-1 (Large)Having a consistent address is essential for us. When you own property and cars certain agencies absolutely insist on mailing you important things. They refuse to send these things electronically. If you miss mail there can be big penalties, like losing your vehicle registration for missing an emission test, or having your insurance cancelled because you missed a notice in the mail. Mail is a necessary evil.

Now that we’re back in shape and the van has been customized to our liking, we are looking forward to a summer of adventure. We have backpacking, kayaking, canyoneering and kiteboarding on our schedule. It’s going to be quite a summer!

IMG_4232 (Large)“What if the baby birds are extra soft and downy? Is it ok to touch them then?” I joked.

There was a lot of talk about petting tame baby birds as Brian and I motored through the night to reach Isla Isabel. Our guidebook showed photos of white, fluffy baby birds and said the birds had no fear of humans. Many varieties of Boobies and Frigate Birds nest on Isla Isabel but we didn’t know if it would be the right time of the year to see babies.

We arrived at the small island, anchored Magic near two other boats, and went ashore. We landed our dinghy on a small beach near a group of metal sheds. Mexican fishing boats lined the beach and some of the fishermen were moving nets from boats to sheds, pausing to offer us a friendly smile. Hundreds of birds of various sizes swirled excitedly around an open shed door, looking for scraps.

IMG_4721 (Large)We walked up the beach and found a tall, metal sign describing the trails on the island. A half dozen Frigate Birds lounged atop the sign, with three foot long bodies, curved beaks and deep black, alien eyes. They merely turned their heads lazily toward us as we stopped to read the sign.

A crumbled concrete path led into a shady forest of stunted trees which grew to only about fifteen feet tall. The forest was filled with the enchanted cackling sounds of the Frigates. I squealed as I began to see nests and fluffy babies in the treetops. These were big babies! The baby Frigates were about a foot tall, with downy white and brown feathers. They always huddled next to either mom or dad in their nests.

IMG_4095-1 (Large)Captivated by the babies in the treetops, I jumped as leaves rustled near my feet. A small iguana sprinted away into the trees. As we continued on the primitive path, we saw at least a hundred iguanas in the small, enchanted Frigate Bird forest. Most were around 10 inches long including their tail, but we also found several larger specimens up to three feet in length!

Anyone who doesn’t like lizards would find a nightmarish scenario on this island. Iguanas and other lizards were everywhere and blended well into the grass and leaves. They would constantly run out from under our feet as we walked. We never got used to this, and we would giggle and jump each time. They were mellow and non-confrontational, and mostly just wanted to bask on rocks in the sun. They were great photo subjects and kept us from gazing up at the treetops the whole time. There was also plenty to see on the ground.

We walked through the enchanted Frigate Bird forest and then followed the trail up a steep, grassy hill. Brian was in front and was the first to see the baby bird in the grass.

“There’s a baby bird right here on the trail!” Brian called out with excitement.

IMG_4174 (Large)I rushed up to him and indeed, there was a single white and brown Frigate chick in the middle of the trail. It stood calmly among large mounds of green grass. Its parents did not appear to be anywhere nearby. It seemed very tame and didn’t even flinch as I approached. I got within just a few feet, and then lay on the ground next to the baby bird. It let out a gentle cackle as I settled down next to it.

The baby was so wild and fearless. It trusted everything it came into contact with, because it didn’t know otherwise. This was the perfect opportunity to pet a soft, friendly, baby bird with no parents around. But fulfilling that human fantasy just didn’t feel right on this sacred island, where the animals probably still live as they did a thousand years ago.

IMG_4274 (Large)We enjoyed the baby bird, and then continued up the path to the top of the hill. We found ocean views in every direction and over a hundred Boobies and Gulls nesting on the ground. More squeals of delight gushed out as I spotted several Boobie chicks. They were indeed the cutest chicks on the island. They were also big babies, about a foot tall, with bodies covered in fluffy, white down. Their inquisitive, innocent faces were precious. Even though they were almost as large as the parents, some parents still tried to sit on the chicks. Some roamed independently, making cute and clumsy progress across the uneven grass.

We wandered slowly through a minefield of nests and birds on the hill, sometimes receiving a squawk when we passed too closely to a nesting Booby or Gull. Overall, we felt tolerated and accepted in the bird world (birld).

IMG_4383-1 (Large)We spent about an hour on the hill, making our acquaintance with the friendly birds and avoiding the squawking, nesting ones. Many of the mature Boobies were quite curious and even seemed to enjoy having human visitors. I met an especially friendly one sitting on a tower that stared intently at me as I stared right back into its cute little face, only five feet away. This went on for at least two minutes.

We saw two blue footed Boobies enjoying a strange mating ritual, where they lift their feet one at a time and shift their weight back and forth as they dance slowly for their partner. They shyly danced for each other near a cliff edge, with the deep blue pacific ocean in the background. Could anything be more romantic? The little exhibitionists glanced over at us periodically to see if we were still watching as they danced.

IMG_1057 (Large)The birds were the most exciting part of our visit, and the scuba diving at Isla Isabel was also wonderful. The water was warm and visibility was good for Pacific Mexico (around 30-40 feet). The underwater rock was different from other places we’ve been diving in Mexico. One dive featured shelf after shelf of different animals as we descended on a shallow wall, like a layer cake of exciting ocean creatures. We found a small underwater cave and arch near Punta Bobos and had fun exploring the rocky features there.

IMG_4531 (Large)We saw many large fish, including a school of shiny, silver jacks. They always caught our eye and never allowed us to get close for photos. During our last dive at the island I even spotted my favorite eel hiding under a rock! A Zebra Moray is always an exciting find.

We took a longer hike all the way around the island just before leaving, and found birds and beautiful scenery everywhere. There is even a crater in the interior of the island surrounded by nesting Frigates.

Isla Isabel is one of my favorite places on earth. This little paradise of friendly animals took me back to a more primitive time in the history of the world, when animals weren’t wary of us yet. It was very special to share their enchanted world for a few days and feel so accepted by them.

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20150320_123156 (Large)We love San Blas, a sleepy town between Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Some say there isn’t much to do and the bugs are terrible, but we enjoyed a blissful two weeks there. The bliss began after we found a place to stay away from the bugs. We made the mistake of anchoring in a river estuary one fateful night, and the bugs were epic. No-see-ums called “jejenes” came right through our insect screens and feasted on us all night. It was too hot for a blanket, but any exposed body part would quickly become covered in pink polka dots from all the bites.

IMG_3484 (Large)Lesson learned. We left the estuary and found a spot at sea. A wild beach with crashing waves, palm trees and jungle became our backdrop when we moved to an anchorage near our favorite surfing spot, Matenchen Bay. We settled into a routine of working, surfing, relaxing and fervently scratching our bug bites. During the week we usually had all the waves to ourselves in the bay. On weekends, Mexican families came to picnic and swim while vendors roamed the beaches selling loaves of banana bread and mangoes carved into the shapes of tropical flowers.

IMG_3629 (Large)I learned to surf in San Blas. Brian already loves surfing and we have several boards on Magic. This winter I’ve been learning new ocean sports. I already learned how challenging and intimidating kiteboarding could be and I wondered if surfing would be just as difficult.

The answer is no. Surfing was easier than kiteboarding, and much more relaxing. It felt meditative to float in the water and watch waves roll in endlessly across the Pacific. I kept my attention on the different sizes and shapes of the waves, watching them rise, build, and break as I waited in a wide, sandy bay. When the right sized wave would break near me, spilling its frothy top over onto itself, I would jump onto my board in front of the froth, paddle like mad with my hands, and then let the wave catch me and shoot me quickly across the surface of the sea.

IMG_3677 (Large)My own personal surf school consisted of relaxing and playing in the waves with Brian nearby to help or encourage. The time slipped by lazily day after day. No lessons, no pressure, no expectations. Brian taught me to ride the breaking waves on my belly and it felt exciting enough for awhile. Belly rides were great! Who needs to stand up on the board? This most basic version of belly surfing was all I did for the first ten days, as Brian skillfully surfed all sorts of big waves nearby. Then suddenly, one day, it happened! The belly rides were long and smooth that day. Without thinking much about it, I first knelt on the board and then stood up as the wave carried me to the beach.

IMG_3707 (Large)It was an exhilarating feeling to ride a wave standing up. My first dozen rides were stiff and awkward. There were some uncomfortable wipeouts. Then I started to practice different ways of standing on the board and riding the waves became easier.

Matenchen Bay was surfing heaven and maybe I was spoiled having my first surfing experiences there. It might be hard to top this experience, with so little competition for waves, a beautiful bay with a sandy bottom and a great selection of different sizes of waves. Plus, fresh banana bread to snack on between sessions! Does it get any better?

The small town of San Blas was incredible, too. People were very friendly, chain stores were nearly non-existent and we had some of the best shrimp I’ve ever had in my life. We met a great local couple on the street who quickly invited us to their home. We visited with them awhile and enjoyed some easy chatting since they spoke good English. We felt enveloped in their love and it was such a warm welcome to San Blas, which is the kind of place where a gringo can integrate easily into the community. I love places like this.

IMG_2974 (Large)We took a jungle tour near Matenchen Bay. We usually don’t enjoy tours, but this one was really worthwhile and not that costly. Wild crocodiles lounged by the side of the river as we enjoyed them from the comfort of a small powerboat. Some of them were so still, laying there with huge open mouths, they almost looked fake. We visited a crocodile sanctuary as well as seeing them in the wild.

IMG_2999 (Large)Mangroves formed a shaded tunnel through which the boat would sometimes barely fit. We eyed the trees warily for dangling snakes as the boat wormed its way through the narrow passage. We read Boa Constrictors hang from the trees here, but we didn’t see any that day.

IMG_2828 (Large)We did see too many turtles to count, many fascinating birds, beautiful lilies, and even a couple orange butterflies harassing turtles by landing on their noses over and over as the turtle tried to get away by withdrawing into its shell.

San Blas is a special place, and now that I’ve had the full experience maybe I can see the benefit of all those horrible jejenes. Otherwise, San Blas would be full of resorts, tourists, and KFCs. The authentic feeling would be lost. Our guidebook called the jenene “nature’s guardian”. Nature chose an effective guardian for San Blas, and that tiny creature has effectively repelled most tourists from its gorgeous beaches. Good job, jejenes!


About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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