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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Adapting to life in a Skoolie in California


Travelling in a Skoolie has meant a lot of compromises to the way in which we live our lives. As 2019 draws to a close and we reach our six-month anniversary (half-way through our trip), it seems fitting to reflect on some of those changes, particularly the difficult ones. I’m proud at how all four of us have more or less adapted to a transient lifestyle but don’t be fooled by the instagrammable loveliness – it has not all been smooth-sailing.

The challenges of Schoolbus life juxtapose nicely witreflections of our trip through California in a Skoolie, a state that required us to continually adapt our plans and way of life.

Redwood hike
Hiking through the Redwoods – pretty much the only bit of California in a Skoolie that we planned and completed.

We envisaged our route through the Golden State as a string of sunny beaches and glitzy cities full of beautiful people (as well as a fair amount of  suburban sprawl and 14-lane highways!).  It ended up as a trip through towering Redwoods, autumnal vineyards, sun-scorched gold-panning towns, breath-taking National Parks and barren plains filled with spiky cactus and dust clouds. We didn’t go near the cities and we barely saw the beaches.

The Top 10 changes and challenges of life in a Skoolie

Driving a skoolie
Life on the road – California in a Skoolie

1) Danger, danger….

The UK is not a dangerous place. America is. I’m not talking about people and weapons, that’s a whole other aspect of the U.S and one that we have not experienced during our time here ;I’m focussing on the animals.

Our wildlife encounters go way back to week one of our trip. Someone in the campsite told us to be careful with the kids running through the grass – they had seen a couple of rattlesnakes. We hadn’t even thought about scary creatures, let alone prepared for them. Research took us down a rabbit’s hole of fear – ticks, poison ivy, spiders… Argggghhh what the heck do they have in this country?!!

Rattlesnakes
Yikes!

The raised pulses continued as we moved north and swapped snake danger for bears. In Montana, Guy and Soren looked up out of the hammock and saw a grizzly bear on his hind legs far too close for comfort. Reflecting afterwards, Guy said, “I suddenly realised I was not the largest predator for once. It adds a whole new level to wilderness hikes when you know that!”.

Once we got back down south and started heading inland toward the Sierra Nevada, we noticed a steady increase in animal warning signs on the noticeboards. “Watch out for rattlesnakes, spiders, coyotes, scorpions, mountain lions...” delete where appropriate (and add if appropriate!).

Tarantula
Watch out for the tarantula!

Even the creatures considered harmless to humans are adrenaline triggers. We were walking in Owl Canyon, a slot canyon in South East California, when Soren nearly trod on a hand-sized, hairy, male tarantula. Apparently they wait under rocks for the females… a comforting thought in a steep-sided canyon full of rocks.

Later, as Soren and I were jogging around the campsite and I was teaching him how to use exclamation marks in a sentence, I saw the long-awaited female scuttling ahead of us, smaller, faster and just as hairy. “Theres’s a tarantula exclamation mark” I shouted. He ignored me and nearly trod on another one. “Literally! Double exclamation mark!!! Move!!!”.

2) Weather

This was always meant to be a sunny trip – an endless summer. Of course long, dry days mean the land is ripe for the infamous California wild-fires during the Fall. Almost as soon as we crossed the border, our plan to head down the coast was foiled by flames.

Campsite California
California – idyllic one-minute, a raging inferno the next.

Huge swathes of the state were burning and the main freeway to San Francisco was blocked off, as well as our route on Highway 1. Fresno City had been evacuated and we met people in trailers who were just waiting to get the all clear to go home, with no idea what would be left of their lives when they returned.

On top of this, the power companies were in panic mode – if high winds are forecast that means higher than average fire risk. Last year they got sued for causing the fires, so rather than risk the same this year, they just switched power off for much of the state. Shops were closed, campsites were closed – it was complete shut-down.

Gold panning
Gold panning. Sadly the boys did not make their fortunes.

We ended up travelling inland to circumnavigate the infernos, looking at the burning glow as we drove across the freeway toward Nevada City, the start of our new route: south on Highway 49, famous for its gold-panning towns and the birth of the Californian gold rush.

The other weather-related shocker is that it’s cold! You don’t feel it so much in the day as the sun is invariably out – perfect fresh winter walking weather – but at night, it’s freezing.

3) 24/7 kid fest

On the roof of a skoolie
Sometimes the only way to get time-out from the kids is to climb on top of the bus – even if it is freezing.

Nowadays, we are with the children 24/7. There is no escape. We don’t even have our evenings because they rarely get to bed before 9.30pm and we are usually in bed not much later. When you live in one long room with curtain separators and no doors, it is pointless trying to have an adult conversation without one or other piping up with a “what are you talking about?”.

Luckily for us America is all for ‘family-time’. We had a brilliant chance to witness this during Halloween in Nevada City. A whole section of the historic Victorian downtown was closed off for trick-or-treating and every house was decorated up to the hilt. Haunted houses were fronted by ghosts handing out candy; spooky walkways beckoned you in and every family in the town was dressed to impress. Apart from us.

We weren’t sure whether we would find a place to trick or treat, even though the kids were desperate, so we didn’t have outfits. I grabbed an emergency bandage as we left the bus and walked into town, thinking I could create am impromptu mummy mask if the need arose. As the sun set and the town came alive in a explosion of Harry Potters, Beetlejuices, witches, ghouls, Disney characters and even a Tonya Harding complete with an ice skate covered in blood – I unravelled my costume only to find it was a hand bandage with a sewn-in pad for wounds. It looked like I’d tried to make a mask out of a sanitary towel. Sorry boys but it was very funny!

Driving lessons in a skoolie
When you only hang out with kids it’s easy to forget what is age-appropriate. Kit’s homeschooling in California involved driving the bus…

Spending all this time with kids sometimes means the lines between parent and child blur – we forget they are only 6 and 9. We have to remind ourselves that they are just kids and not our contemporaries. They have been party to conversations (and language!) that their tender ages should not normally have them dealing with. Most kids like to be treated like grown-ups but this doesn’t always work in their favour; I have several times found myself shouting at Kit to stop behaving like a child. I wonder if they will come back home a lot more grown up than their peers. Will Soz start up a conversation about the meaning of death at a sleepover or will Kit offer to host an after-school dinner party?!

4) Food, glorious food (and a quick cuppa)

Route 66
Get your kicks (or your burgers) on Route 66 – American food may be dull but they serve it up well. We found some classic American diners just off of Route 66.

I miss things like proper stinky cheese and crackers. The boys miss beans and marmite. Guy misses several cupboards and a fridge full of spices and sauces. He’s doing a good job of filling every available space with sauce bottles but it’s not the same.

A “quick cup of tea” was also a treat I didn’t appreciate enough. After waiting 15 minutes to boil the kettle, parched and desperate for that refreshing blend of leaves, it is a great disappointment to taste mud water. Guy has about 5 tea bags in each cup and it still doesn’t taste strong enough.

One area that has not suffered is our wine consumption. California has some great wineries and with Harvest Hosts we get the chance to park up at wineries for the night. We had a fabulous stay outside of Auburn – the owner let us park up in a spot overlooking the vineyard, gave us a bottle and directed us to a picnic area to enjoy our drinks as the sun set on the golden autumnal vines.

Vineyard in Californa
While the boys stayed in the bus and watched a movie, we pretended we were child-free and on a romantic weekend together in Tuscany.

5) Inside Out

We have swapped bricks and mortar for six wheels. A life previously spent indoors, has been swapped for one that is almost entirely outdoors.

Skoolie in California at night
Even if we are inside the bus, it’s not like being in a home. We are surrounded by windows and are exposed to the elements; we can see and feel the weather outside.

California has seen us parked up in old growth forests; alongside crashing coastlines and amongst the Joshua Trees in the desert. Our panoramic view is ever-changing and continually fascinating. In fact the only time we had nothing much to see is when we got hit by a zero visibility sand-storm and were blasted for 15 minutes.

Garage for work
Stuck in the world’s most boring town for a week as we waited for the bus to be fixed

Being outside is great most of the time but it doesn’t always work in our favour. California saw our first bus problems. After an incredible journey through the mountains of Yosemite, our brakes began to smoke. We had to hole up in Oakhurst, home of all things boring, and wait for almost a week to get them fixed. We went to the library for hours, the park for hours, the cheap supermarket for hours and there was still hours and hours and hours to kill. At night we slept in our wheel-less bus at the back of the garage. The glamour!

Cactus in Joshua tree
But when you can get outdoors to places like Joshua Tree National Park, it’s pretty special

All those indoor activities and screens we relied on at home are also gone. Our entertainment in California revolved largely out of finding stuff: sticks for wands and sand dollars on the beach; starfish in rock-pools and the tallest trees in the forest; climbers on El Capitan and gold in Coloma.

6) Me – time: solitude and exercise

Lying on trees
Even a quick rest gets interrupted

If escaping with your only other adult companion is impossible, getting away on your own should be a little simpler.

Or not.

‘Me time’, in my head, is about having a soak in a bath with a vino or a quiet read of a book. I’d also like to roll out my pilates mat and have a stretch.  As I found out early though, to my nostrils displeasure, you cannot put a Pilates mat on the floor of a bus without being far too close to the toilet.  You can’t always put it outside for fear of critters either. My Pilates mat has been put into the boot.

Super cool skoolie
We thought we’d see loads of people travelling in converted Skoolie. Turns out it is not so popular. We have only met a handful on our journey. Combine that with the British factor and America goes crazy for us!

We also face the challenge of being British in America in a super-cool Skoolie.  When people find out they are beside themselves with excitement. They just have to stop and chat. Guy has been asked the most random of questions and had to hold conversations on everything from Trump to Boris to speaking Porky Cheese (turned out, after some confusion, this was actually in reference to a traveller they had met who was also from Europe and who had spoken Portuguese!).

We have swapped squash and running for hiking and wave-chasing. Agate Beach, California, was a particularly good spot.

Exercise has taken a different course in America and California was no exception. We’ve upped the amount of walks to offset the increase in calories- California had a massive variety. We hiked in the Redwoods, volcanoes, desert and along the coast.

7) Screen-time

What’s an evening without Netflix? Well, it turns out, it is a time to drink wine and play cribbage. At least that is what we used to do in the early days when the kids went to bed at 8.30pm and the evenings were warm. Now it is colder and the kids don’t seem to go to bed until about 9.30pm, we just clear up and go to bed ourselves!

On the plus side, it has meant that I have spent more time reading with the boys. We also watch movies together – although the feminist in me is not sure we should be showing things like Indiana Jones with its hapless female leads (although when we saw the tarantula I did become a little shrieky and clingy!).

8) The loss of an electronic limb

Remote location California
Signal is not easy to come by when you are in locations like these – you may need to zoom in to see us! If you are really eagle-eyed you can see that the only other campers at this remote California site were the only other skoolie – travellers that we have met on this trip so far.

Without realising, our smart phones had become extensions to our arms; a useful electronic add-on that allowed us to search for the answer to any questions posed, play music through our bluetooth speaker, read the news and check emails. With great usefulness comes great wastefulness though. Free time becomes filled with inane scrolling through news pages and social media, following a bread-crumb trail of links and watching videos or memes about something vaguely amusing or clever. I found I couldn’t even walk to the shops without taking my phone to catch up on WhatsApp or to add something I didn’t even know I needed to an Amazon order.

Climbing at Joshua Tree
It’s so much better to contemplate the great outdoors rather than your mobile phone screen

Over in America we can’t use our phones that much, which means we don’t go online because the signal is unreliable or non-existent for huge chunks of the time. We have to use maps and books to plan our trip. As for news, we spot the occasional headline when we stop at a supermarket but we’re in America: yesterday I spotted that the Queen was about to die – she’s struggling with the horror of Andrew’s behaviour, who she is keeping in the Tower of London – and that William and Kate were due to be crowned. Meghan of course, the American heroine, has been cruelly snubbed. Brexit? What Brexit?!

Reading in a hammock
We are spending a fortune on reading materials – something I did not really include in the budget

One of the benefits of not having online access is our budget. I was a bit of an Amazon addict at home. I assumed it would be the same here – just a quick switch to .com and life continues as before. We simply can’t do shopping online here though. We’ve tried but it is impossible. We are foiled by a lack of delivery address – the post offices won’t accept UPS and that’s what Amazon like to use. Their solution is Amazon hubs – in Montana the closest hub was somewhere in California though! Now we are close to the hubs, they are full. You also need to be pretty specific on pick up date – that’s tricky for us. Other companies are just as bad – they won’t accept our orders because they refuse to accept our UK billing address or phone number on the order form. It is frustrating but it does mean we’ve returned to a simpler way of life. If it’s not in Walmart  we don’t get it.

Wands
Why buy a plastic Harry Potter wand from Amazon when the great outdoors is full of magical (and free) sticks!

Everything  also takes so much longer to sort out because we don’t have internet. I spent about two weeks of California using every possible moment of signal trying to research and solve our quickly-depleting leisure batteries. Reduced sunlight meant we kept running out of charge and had to pay extra for campsites with power. I solved the problem: many forum chats on solar controllers and inverters later, as well as long calculations about amperage, and I worked out we just needed to rewire the toilet fan, ensure our batteries ran a full charge cycle and didn’t drop below.12v and only charge our devices in the day. See – I am not a totally helpless Indiana Jones heroine… instead I’m just a total bore!

9) Squeaky clean standards

One of the biggest challenges of a trip like this has been dropping my standards of what is acceptable in terms of cleanliness and appearance.

haircut
We cut our own hair now – when you don’t have mirrors and can’t tell what it looks like, you might as well save the cash! 

Right from the beginning we had to make some massive compromises and a lot of this revolved around showering. We have a shower in the bus but it uses our propane up and it depends on whether we have enough fresh water in one tank and space for grey water in the other.

When we started in July, I hated not having a shower every morning and HAD to wash my hair every other day. By the time we were half way through California though, I realised that I’d stopped caring so much. My 4 days between showers has been the second biggest surprise to my pals (the first was when I announced I was pregnant with Kit!).

I get excited now when we go to a campsite with a shower block. I used to fear the cleanliness of a shared camping bathroom but since living in America my standards have dropped to a level in which I happily sit on the floor and admire their bleachy cleanliness whilst drying my hair underneath the hand-dryer. I’m not embarrassed when other campers come in – it’s way cringier when they bump into me carrying a eight-litre bottle of wee from our compost toilet to empty down the loo. It’s got to go somewhere folks!

Hairdryer hair
Classy lady!

Laundry is the other cleanliness factor – we only go every two to three weeks and so we re-wear our clothes as much as we can and then have to store them in an enormous stinky pile in the corner of our very small bedroom until we find a coin laundry with a big enough car park. Things never come out fresh smelling and we invariably find someone else’s odd socks mixed in our bundle.

Our first experience of American healthcare in California. Ouch for Soren’s knee and ouch for the budget!

Cleanliness is also a problem when you have boys that fall over. As we moved further into the Californian desert everything became dustier and dirtier. What do you do with all those filthy scraped legs and elbows if you don’t have a proper place to clean them up? Soren trumped the lot by flying off his bike into a patch of dusty gravel and sharp, slate-like rocks. The screams suggested a bigger than usual bash and, on retrieval, it was hospital-worthy. That meant packing up the bus and driving from our relatively remote camp to a town so he could get scrubbed clean and stitched up.

10) Happy and sad times

Yosemite falls
We are in the most incredibly beauty but we are a long way from home when things go wrong. 

Even with social media bringing us closer to friends around the world, you can’t physically be in two places at once. We’ve been a continent removed from close friends who have had babies; missed big birthday celebrations; have said no to attending the wedding of two of our closest friends (well 3 out of 4 of us have had to say no) and we all but banished Christmas for my mum and sister, who couldn’t see the point if the boys are not around.

We’ve also had to sit back and watch helplessly as family and friends have become seriously, and in some cases terminally, ill. It makes us feel a long way away and a little bit helpless to hear such sad news. All we can do is send messages via WhatsApp and that often doesn’t feel enough.

Sitting a top a rock at Joshua Tree
It is a reminder that we need to live our lives to the fullest – get out there and spend the day climbing on rocks with kids who still want to hang out with us!

Despite those challenges we both agree, no regrets.  Though our hearts and thoughts are with those we love when we do get bad news from home, the reminders of the fallibility of life reinforces our decision to keep on with the adventure. Carpe Diem folks, Carpe Diem!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Sun, sea, Seattle smiles and home-schooling in the Skoolie

After a month in Canada, cold weather nipping at our heels, we felt ready for a new chapter of our travels. Our plan, guided by a need for sunshine, was to scoot down south as quickly as we could, leaving the forests and mountains behind. Night drives down Highway 5 beckoned – one long freeway that would take us from Vancouver through to Southern California. But then, as is always the case, we looked at the map and doubt entered our mind. What about Washington and Oregon? Rain-forests and Redwoods, wild seas and sprawling beaches, how could we miss all that? Should we continue to gamble with the weather and take it a little slower?

Whatever route we chose, we knew it was time for a rethink about the structure of our travelling days. Home-schooling had been put on the back-burner – first because of the summer holidays and then because we had guests – but we knew this had to change. A quick skim of the UK National Curriculum and we could see the boys needed more than the occasional ad-hoc lesson based on the handouts given out at state parks.

It was time for the Skoolie to return to being a school bus and for school to drive itself down the West Coast of America!

The shock of home-schooling

Studying in a bed with a view
The views are very distracting Mummy!

Stepping into the world of children’s learning has come as a bit of a shock to us. I can see all you teacher folk laughing at me as I write this, but I truly expected that engaging our 6 and 9 year old in a daily dose of home-schooling would be easy.

My assumptions were grounded in research that I’d done on home-schooling before we left. This came in the form of conversations with other parents who agreed the boys would undoubtedly “learn so much from the experience”; teacher friends, who reinforced what our headteacher told us, “focus on literacy and maths and the rest will just come” and an article by Monkey Mum, a primary teacher turned home-schooler who said that if you removed assembly, registers, general sorting out, lunch, faffing, Christmas concerts and so forth, children spend less than an hour or so in focused learning. I put all those thoughts into a plan that consisted of an hour a day split between maths and literacy. I’d take one, Guy the other. They are 6 and 9 – how hard could it be? 

I wasn’t concerned about how the kids would take to home-schooling on the Skoolie. Every single parent’s evening we have ever attended at the school has been the same: 5 minutes of a slightly frazzled teacher’s time telling me “he’s such a good class friend” and “he is doing well in everything, no real trouble-spots” and “he’s such a good example”. Whilst I appreciate that this is many parent’s dream parent-teacher meeting, and I’m obviously very grateful that they do so well at school, I had a very skewed idea of what to expect – they sounded like the easiest pupils in the world.

A learning curve for all of us

Doodling home-schooling
Why write a creative story when you could just doodle the day away?

As soon as we started to sit down to some real home-schooling, I realised that the majority of my preconceptions about how home-schooling were wrong. My two angelic children are total pains in the butt – they can’t focus, they lose interest and their brains don’t work. Teaching is also not a simple thing to bosh out – it takes a lot of effort. 

It also takes a lot of research. I have two English degrees and Guy is a numbers whizz but we are not teachers – we need to look up what number lines are and perfect fractions; we need to learn grammar because they didn’t teach it when we went to school – we just know how to structure sentences intrinsically. I find it depressing watching them break down their sentences based on the grammatical function of each word – what a way to stem spontaneity and creativity.  

home-schooling the great fire of london
We even managed to secure us some free downloadable teaching materials from the wonderful Teaching Packs. They didn’t tell us to make a bonfire in their “Great Fire of London” pack, but we thought it was a good way to learn how the houses caught fire so quickly. 

My lack of engagement at school also meant I was very removed from what each of the boys were actually studying as well as how they learnt and progressed through different topics. I read the UK National Curriculum but that doesn’t tell you how to get the information successfully into their brains past the barriers of glazed eyes. We realised that we were going to have to put a whole lot of time into planning lessons that did not seem like lessons – not so easy when you don’t have access to internet for research, can’t print off materials and the only workbooks available are based on the American grades and have the wrong lingo.  

A hair-raising trip to the Olympic Peninsula

Of course our school is on the road and all the time we are moving. Alongside planning exciting lessons on adverbs, we had to get a route planned out of Canada before our visas expired. 

Ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles in Washington
America here we come!

There were two options departing Vancouver Island. We could get the ferry back to Vancouver and drive south or we could get a ferry to Washington, landing back in America at Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula. With our new resolve to see more of the West Coast, it was not hard to make the decision.  

The Olympic Peninsula is home to Olympic National Park – three million acres of mountains, rainforest, alpine lakes and fog-covered coastline covering most of the Northwestern tip of America. It’s unlike any other park in the country – you can stand in the snowy mountains and look at glaciers one way, Orca in the Puget sound in the other (well supposedly… you’d need very good binoculars!) then hunt for sea fossils on the ocean-formed mountain tops. It is not nearly as busy as other National Parks, largely because it is so isolated. It sounded perfect for us.

Well almost perfect. Because of the mountains that surround it, ONP boasts the wettest climate in the lower 48 states and is often shrouded in mist or getting pounded by rain. Our luck with the weather continued though; no rain was predicted. The Ranger’s Station at the base of Hurricane Ridge Road – one of the only roads up into the mountains and close to Port Angeles – even had a marker-pen sunshine on their weather advice board (you start to rely on this kind of guidance when you have no signal on your phone!).

Skoolie in the mountains
Skoolie in the mountains – perfect spot for home-schooling

Any smug feeling we had about a sunny trip to Olympic vanished once we’d settled into camp though. The Heart o’ the Hills campsite is hidden in the dense canopy at the base of Hurricane Ridge Road and it wins the award for the coldest place we have stayed. It was bitter – icicle drips from noses and woolly hats to bed. The campsite was practically deserted and most of the loops were closed off because it was low season – no other fools in Skoolies.

Ice driving – the scariest drive so far

In the morning, after an hour of freezing home-schooling with two very reluctant boys, we turned out of the campsite up the long road to Hurricane Ridge.

Icy roads hurricane ridge
The roads were clear but the black ice was visible on the roadside

With no phone signal we were unsure of whether we would even be allowed up the pass in our Skoolie because of the frosty cold – surely the road was too icy. I wasn’t even sure my toes were still there, my feet were just frozen lumps. We emerged out of the campsite into glorious sunshine though – who knew there was heat in the world!

Hurricane Ridge was open and we ascended up the wiggly, steep road. As we climbed higher, we spotted snow ahead. Then suddenly we were in it – a white, mountainous landscape with jaw-dropping clear views for miles. The roads were largely clear but there was patches of ice on the side of the road where the mountains or the trees cast their dark shadows. It was with some anxiety that we weaved our way to the top, conscious that we would have to get back down again. The sun was warm though and would hopefully melt those patches…

Snowy hurricane ridge
Snowy Hurricane Ridge – the boys were excited to throw snowballs

Cresting the pass, the scenery opens out and you are surrounded by huge, craggy, snow-topped (in our case) mountains. Bright blue skies made the snowy meadows sparkle and the boys were beside themselves to be playing in a proper wintery landscape. In the far distance we could make out the North Cascades and Vancouver Island. It felt a world away from sunny days on the beaches in Pacific Rim just a few weeks before.

We left before the sun went down – like Cinderella we were on a time limit – but all was fine and the road was good. And then it wasn’t. Guy drove into a pullout on the outer edge of the pass to let some cars pass – force of habit; we know no-one wants to get stuck behind a crawling bus on a mountain – and we hit some black ice. There was a heart-stopping moment as we lost control and slid toward the sheer drop. You do not want to be in a 14-ton bus when you hit black ice and you certainly don’t want to be on a mountain pass. It wasn’t nice. Thankfully, Guy got some traction and was able to control the bus back onto the road again. We didn’t let anyone else pass after that!

Turning experiences into learning

Having spent time at Olympic National Park I thought our eldest would enjoy writing a newspaper article about a true story involving the non-native mountain-goats menacing hikers because they have a penchant for sweaty hikers socks and toilet waste – they crave salt and humans are the saltiest thing they can find in an environment with no natural salt licks. 

flying goats

I figured we could interview a Park Ranger and find out what they did to solve the problem (knowing full well they airlifted the goats by helicopter to the Cascades National Park in a dramatic sounding relocation exercise). Goats, wee, daring rescue…. perfect right? 

Nope – must try harder. Apparently this is not funny or interesting mummy. “Can we just do the Victorians like my friends at school are doing?”

Dungeness – back to the coast

After a death-defying, butt-freezing, school-failing day in the mountains we headed back to the coast, walking along Dungeness Spit. The sun and salty air were like medicine for the soul – we were ready for the coast!

Stepping back in time in Seattle

Seattle sign
Touring Seattle with a family that calls it home was way more fun

We’ve had Seattle on the agenda for 10 years. Back when we were backpackers, child-free and bouncing our way around Central America on chicken buses, we met an American couple on their honeymoon. We bumped into them a few times – we had matching Central and South American itineraries it seemed – and they ended up joining us in Bali with a group of our pals at the end of our 6-month trip.

Pre-social media, staying friends with people you met on your travels was not a realistic option. Keeping some kind of letter-writing friendship alive over continents and decades was impossible – life just gets in the way and you drift apart. Facebook has changed that though and we’ve kept a hold of Matt and Heather – we’ve seen each other buy houses, change jobs, have our first children and then our second. And thank goodness we have. As soon as we knew we were coming to America we got in touch and scheduled in some literal face-time at their place in Seattle.

The top of the Seattle wheel
The top of the Seattle wheel

Amazingly, they had space to fit a 37ft bus outside their city home. Even more amazingly they weren’t put off by our grubby bus-ness and invited us to sleep in their basement remodel for the weekend. I, of course, said yes to this instantly with as much British graciousness as I could muster. A night in a proper home – what a treat! I’ve also always wanted to know what a ‘basement remodel‘ is – we just don’t have them in the U.K. All I can say, having stayed in said remodel, is that it was a wonderful experience and I wish we could have one!

Towel in bed
Sorry for the gross photo but after 3 months living on campsites in a Skoolie, it is quite incredible to pad barefoot around on thick, lucious carpet; power shower yourself in water so hot it almost scalds and then have a real towel to dry off instead of a travel towel!

Heather and Matt were perfect hosts and evidently knew the way to our hearts – giving me full use of their laundry room (the clothes actually smelled clean for the first time!), feeding us Chinese food for dinner, providing a range of IPA’s for tasting and even driving to get fresh cinnamon buns for breakfast. Heaven. They even had a playmate for the kids – their son was close in age to Soren and the three boys more or less disappeared for the weekend. It gave us lots of time to relax and chat with Matt and Heather, talk about life in America – from politics to culture – and compare it to the UK. They were even able to enlighten us about our bus mechanics and helped Guy out with some tools. I hope one day we can repay the favour and have them to stay in the UK – they can enjoy the lofty views of the British version of the ‘extra floor created in a house’, our attic conversion.

How many people can you fit on a skoolie
How many people can you fit on a Skoolie – fun times in Seattle

Come as you are – the 101 south

After our delightful weekend pretending we lived in a nice house in Seattle, we put our foot down to reach the Washington border, stopping briefly at Astoria harbour on the border to visit Buoy Bar – a bar Heather recommended (there were sea-lions underneath that you could watch through the glass floor – what a great kid distraction!).

We drove through Aberdeen, childhood home of Kurt Cobain (where the sign amusingly welcomes you to Aberdeen, “Come As You Are“, Guy finally got the chance to sample some fresh oysters at Brady’s Oyster Shack in Westport and we camped for the night in the first of several beautifully kept beach campsites, separated from the sea by rolling dunes.

Empty beaches and beautiful sunsets on the Oregon coast
Empty beaches and beautiful sunsets on the Oregon coast

We joined the infamous Highway 101 south of Aberdeen and followed it south, crossing into Oregon at Astoria. The coastline continued as before – rugged and impressive. Autumn, or Fall, is clearly not the recommended season for Oregon. It’s overwhelmed in the summer months but the roads were clear and the campsites were empty when we went.

Wave watching
Wave watching – it is hypnotic

The change in weather offers a different kind of excitement at this time of year though – it is wild on the coast when the wind blows, waves crash against the rocks and shoot through blowholes in a spectacular fashion. If we hadn’t been so desperate for sunshine we might have been tempted to slow the pace.

Cannon’s beach was our first taste of a summery beach. It was huge, golden, full of strolling couples and laughing kids. We were filled with joy and excited about the change of scene.

Cannons beach
Summer was not lost to us, we would not be cold forever! Note I am not wearing my woolly hat!!!

Cheese central

Just as we found the sunny beaches, we had to leave them behind as the 101 swung inland. I forgave the curve because there was a Harvest Hosts stopover at a French cheese producer’s in Tillamook, a town that is also home to the massive Tillamook cheese factory. Along with sunshine, the other thing I was missing was cheese and this inland route promised a cheese-fest!!!

Tillamook Creamery is one of the big cheddar type producers in the U.S (or certainly on the West Coast). Conveniently for our learning schedule, they offer an interactive factory and museum tour with cheese tastings. Winner!

The Oregon Dunes – a full day of fun!

Oregon Dunes
Oregon Dunes – miles of empty sand and just us to play on it

Full of cheese (overfull – we literally had brie for dinner and then cheddar for breakfast!), we continued back to the coast, travelling through jaded and windswept seaside towns as we motored on. Cape Perpetua provided some good blowhole entertainment but it wasn’t until we stopped at Eel Creek Campsite, a site noted in our Road Trips USA book, that we found our favourite Oregon spot: the Oregon Dunes.

The campsite was thin on information and didn’t seem particularly special but the description in our book talked about a path from the campsite right into the Oregon dunes. It was drizzling and nearly dark but the boys and Guy decided to go out for a quick investigate. By the time they came back it was pitch black, they were soaked but they were completely exhilarated.

Dune jumping
Dune jumping

I found out why the next morning. The unassuming path climbed through the woods and opened out onto a completely new landscape – miles of golden sand dunes backed by thick forest and with views of the sea in the distance. We spent all day running up and down sandy mountains, racing each other, making huge sandy leaps and slow-motion movies as we careered down the soft slopes. It was so much fun. Of course we almost got lost on Guy’s shortcut back to camp (I say we did, Guy says he knew exactly where we were at all times!) but we found our way home just before dark really fell. 

Smiles at the Oregon Dunes
Smiles at the Oregon Dunes

As we continued on to California, we started to see the Redwoods. Some of the best old-growth forests are just south of the border but you’ll have to wait for descriptions until the next blog. I can’t tackle California just yet – that deserves its own blog entry! For now it’s goodbye to Washington and Oregon with a big recommendation to take on the coast whatever the weather – we ended up spending 3 weeks on the coast instead of a couple of days. Stunning!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Crossing the border – one month in a Skoolie in Canada

Our original plan for a gap year in North America was to spend six months in the U.S and six months in Canada in a skoolie. I had dreams of weaving our way through Alberta, B.C and the Yukon, eventually reaching Alaska. I wanted bears, Orca and wild salmon leaping. I wanted to camp out in the Denali Park wilderness under the Northern lights and see if it felt as other-worldly as the other end of the Pan-American highway, Southern Patagonia.

Then we looked at the weather.

Unless you are looking for snow, the best-weather months for the Rockies in Canada are June, July and August. Even the shoulder months, May and September, can sometimes be risky the higher you are or the further North you travel. If you are a full-time skoolie family who don’t much like the cold, turning a Canadian-travel dream into reality means starting a trip in Alberta or B.C in April or May. Therein lay the problem.

 

Planning a trip in a Skoolie to Canada

We had three issues that threatened to scupper our Canadian adventure in a skoolie:

  • The start date of our trip. The headteacher at the boys’ primary school advised us to take the children out of mainstream schooling for a complete school year rather than part-way through. This, he told us, would be less disruptive to the boys and their class mates. Unfortunately, in following that advice, it meant there was no way we could get to Canada before mid- July.
  • The start point of our trip. If you are spending a year in a skoolie, you start your trip from the place that you pick up your vehicle. A Canadian skoolie-conversion company made sense. We found one based in Saskatoon – Paved to Pines – but although they looked great and were lovely on the phone, they were above our budget. As you will know from previous posts, price ruled our decision and we ended up with a company in Salt Lake City – 960 miles from Banff in Alberta, Canada. We could just have put our foot down and covered the distance but that is NOT a way to engage kids with a road trip. We wouldn’t be able to get there until sometime in August – smooth journey permitting.
  • The type of bus we bought. Canada is fussier about skoolies. If you have air brakes on your bus, which many newer models have, you cannot drive in Canada without a special endorsement for air brakes. Hydraulic brakes are not an issue. Americans can take a special test before travelling across the border that provides them with the requisite detail to their American-issue licenses. Although U.K licenses are valid in Canada, U.K drivers cannot do the air brake test – they need to have the comparable qualification on their U.K license. You can’t drive a bus in the U.K without a HGV license, which covers air brakes, so if you have one of those then you are fine. If not, the only route is to pay £2k to do the HGV test or choose a bus that has hydraulic brakes. Someone somewhere was smiling on us as the bus we found had hydraulics. Hurrah!

B2 visitor visas for the U.S – can you cross the border to Canada or Mexico?

One more issue reared its head when we reached America. The B2 visitor visa only actually allows you to go into Canada or Mexico for one month and this time-period is included in your overall ‘stamped-in’ time within the U.S.

The visa small print says that you have to return to the U.S before your I-94 (the stamped final date of your stay) expires. This, as we’ve mentioned earlier, is only given six-months on from the date of entry.  If you want to extend your I-94 date for a further six months, you need to apply for an extension and that costs a crazy amount (it’s going to clock in at around $800 for us!!!). It seems silly to waste your time granted in the U.S by going to Canada.

I know what you are thinking – we have multiple-entry visas, valid for the next 10 years, why not do six months then go to Canada, returning to get a new six months. That would be ideal (and much cheaper) but unfortunately you can’t reset your visa by visiting other countries in North America. You have to fly further afield before they will stamp you in again for six months. That said, it can be done. We met a couple who have let their i-94 expire whilst in Canada and then returned to get a new six months. They did warn that you are at the mercy of the customs officer and, as a rule, they are  not super-enthusiastic about rule-breakers!

The best laid plans

Knowing that we had just one month and it would need to be well planned, it seemed like a good idea to set a date and arrange to meet my mum and her partner for their three-week holiday. They were desperate to book a trip out to meet us but we had been struggling to commit to a destination because we didn’t know how well we would all travel and where we would be.

They couldn’t leave the UK before mid-September, but this meant we had time to get to know the bus and cover the miles north. The weather in September was cold, but not that cold. It all looked perfect – a holiday within a holiday. We would go to Canada in a skoolie!

Planning a trip from the comforts of the sofa, with the internet at your fingertips and a massive map full of wonderful possibilities, is one thing. Travelling on the roads and chatting to other rv’ers is another. By late-August we started to notice a trend in travellers heading out of the campground and driving away in the opposite direction to us. “You’re going North??? Good luck!!”

The Skoolie rule: follow the sun!

Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time in Yellowstone and the month we had in the wilds of Montana, watching bears, swinging in hammocks and fishing in rivers, was incredible. We knew nothing about the state before we got there and would have just raced through if we hadn’t been delayed by our mid-September date with the family. It’s just a fact – the rule for most other skoolies and RV full-timer’s is to follow the sun. By the end of August it’s time to start the pilgrimage south.


You could feel the Montanan mood switch from summer-relaxing to winter ‘battening-down’. People stopped sitting outside and we noticed more warm jackets. It got too chilly to sit on the roof deck and we had to stop at thrift stores to swap our flip flops for trainers and slippers, then again to buy extra blankets.


The cooler weather started to affect where we stayed and travelled: Glacier National Park, on the border with Canada, offered only reduced services from September 1st; Campsites had signs saying ‘see you next year!’ and several of the Boondockers Welcome hosts homes were ‘unavailable’ because they are only Montanan’s in summer – they head back to homes in Texas or Arizona for winter.


The glorious weather that we had enjoyed was also going crazy – Yellowstone was in the news because of forest fires (which follow a hot summer) and then, just a couple of weeks later, early snows. We had a definite sense that the weather was closing in on us but it was too late to change the plans. We were going to Canada come rain or snow.

A brief note on customs – travelling in a Skoolie across the U.S border with Canada

If you read all the forums and watch the millions of YouTube videos on border crossings between America and Canada in a skoolie, you could work yourself up into a state of panic. It all sounds incredibly difficult and scary, with customs officials rifling through your belongings, dogs sniffing every crevice of your bus and hundreds of dollars of food and ‘weapons’ (bear-spray, penknives… etc.) getting confiscated. We got ourselves prepared and listed all our food, put all of our dangerous items together and made sure we were not wearing sunglasses or headphones. We put on our best British accents and the kids smiled like angels.


Crossing into Canada from Glacier National Park Crossing into Canada from Glacier National Park[/caption]


Our experience leaving the U.S went like this

U.S Border Control: I like your bus, it’s cool.

Guy: Thanks!

U.S Border Control: How long are you guys travelling for?

Guy: A year hopefully.

U.S Border Control: I wish I could do that but I’m too old (he was at least ten years younger than we were)! Can I see your passports? How long are you guys travelling to Canada for?

Guy: About a month.

U.S Border Control: Great. Have a nice time! Enjoy your bus!


The end. I don’t even think they looked at me and the kids in the back, just waved us on through.


On the way back in it was a bit more detailed. We travelled by ferry into Washington State. This time they actually got on the bus and asked us our plans and wanted to know what foodstuffs we had on board. The shades stayed on as the border guy skimmed through page 1 of my list of food. He could see we put the effort in and so just asked us about fresh fruit and vegetables, we told him about a tomato salad in the fridge and some other salady bits – he said we seemed like good people and just to make sure we ate the salad shortly after we arrived. Jobs a good’un and we were on our way. It took less than five-minutes.

A (cold) holiday within a (supposedly hot) holiday

As we headed up through the prairie-land on our way toward the Rockies, the temperature continued to drop. Thankfully groceries seemed cheaper though (and they even had cheese that tasted a bit like cheese!), so we were able to counter-balance all the woollen purchases we needed to buy from thrift stores!


Top tip – if you love a thrift store, go to Crossway Thrift in Canmore. The shop assistant said that people go to the town for winter sports, buy extra stuff in the boutiques and then just donate it (or the stuff they have sacrificed to make way for the new stuff in their cases) before they leave to go home. We bought some immaculate, expensive-brand clothing for just a few dollars.

Canmore is worth a stop anyway – it’s like Banff, it just doesn’t have the slick reputation. Perhaps at one point it was considered grittier, and I would testify that it did feel a bit grimy camped in a free spot down by the rail tracks, but it has a new leisure centre and some nice bars and pop-up food places (including a double-decker bus). It has even gone some way to counter the rough edges, albeit accidentally, by covering them in bunnies. Literally. Canmore has a rabbit problem. It started with a few escaped domestic rabbits and, as rabbits tend to do, multiplied magnificently so that there are cute, cuddly bunnies on every patch of green space.


They don’t look like wild rabbits, they are very much domestic, soft-looking bunnies that you want to scoop up and stroke the silky ears of. It’s bizarre! Many of the locals hate them though – they bring bigger predators. Eek!

A Canadian holiday – when 4 become 6

And so we embarked on 3 weeks of holidaying, sharing our bus with 2 more people and 2 more people’s luggage. It had its challenges but they were mostly space-related. The downturn in weather meant that we had to spend more time inside the bus. More warm clothes and blankets were needed and we had to deal with 6 people’s wet clothes and towels. There was people and stuff everywhere – it was chaos!


I genuinely don’t know how families of 6+ live in buses like ours full time – they must be way more tolerant than our family is! That said, once we all settled into it all, we had a great time laughing, exploring and reaching opinions on all of the places below…

The yays and nays of Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and the Icefields Parkway

The Canadian Rockies had long been on my list of places to visit. Right at the top was the Icefields Parkway, part of Banff and Jasper National Parks, which runs from Lake Louise to Jasper.


The Icefields Parkway is one of the ‘must-do’ things in Canada in a skoolie (according to every list ever written!) and is full of epic scenery, amazing hikes and wildlife galore. So did it live up to expectations?

First up some myth busting!

I had also read, whilst in the U.K, that large R.V’s could not travel on the Icefields Parkway so I came up with an elaborate plan for my mum to hire a six-seater car in Calgary airport, drive to Banff to meet us and for us to leave the bus behind. We even booked an Airbnb in Jasper, which was pricey when you are used to bus-life.

Myth alert!


Large R.V’s are NOT banned from the Icefields Parkway – they are banned from Glacier National Park’s ‘Going to the Sun’ Road. I, of course, had never heard of the latter and so when I was looking at the route to plan the trip with my mum, Google combined info from both parks because they both ban heavy vehicles. The difference is that the Icefields Parkway ban is for commercial vehicles, not R.V’s. The Banff tourist office confirmed the mistake.

As we had the car by then, we asked where we could park it whilst away. “You can’t in Banff, you have to book it into a campground for the regular camp price“. Ouch.


Myth alert!


As soon as we got to Lake Louise we saw a place for R.V’s to park overnight – overflow parking $10 a night. We could have left it there and saved ourselves $20 a night. Grrrrr.


We left Banff feeling like it had all been an expensive mistake but, as it turned out, it was better in a car – the car parks on the Icefields Parkway are quite tight. If you want to explore, cars are better than R.V’s.

Junior Ranger Programme – is it the same as the American version?

Whilst in the Visitor Centre, we picked up some details on the Canadian version of the U.S Junior Ranger program. The kids have loved the U.S booklets and badges and so we made a beeline for the Banff visitor centre to pick up the details. It was the same kind of activity book and there were five centres. Rather than badges you got dog tags. It was looking good.


When we did get the Banff booklet completed, we were well past the town and weren’t going back, so we stopped at the Icefields Parkway centre. It seems that you are supposed to return the Banff one to Banff though – strangely they haven’t really thought about the fact that most people are travelling up and down the parkway and so might not be in the same area twice. Icefields have their own dog tag, as do three other locations (none of which were very clear). In the end (to combat the famous Soren sad face) he gave him a dog tag for the Icefields Parkway and Jasper National Park instead, which meant he was not at all engaged with the idea of filling in those booklets as he already had the badges. Ranger fail!

Banff

Banff was much like a posher version of Canmore. It had a good brewery pub, some tasty beaver-tails and an Irish bar in which my mother endeared herself to staff by nearly giving one of them a heart-attack. Oh how we all laughed at the waitress who screamed when she opened the toilet door and found a 70 year old woman lying face down on the floor, “I was just trying to squeeze under the door because the lock was stuck!”. Day one of their holiday and already a drama!


The best bit of Banff was the forest campsite. It was close to the 

Banff hoodoos, which were a tad over-rated as far as incredible views go. The forest site had roomy spaces and plenty of free wood for campires. It was a big thumbs up for Banff from the team!

We left Banff via the Bow Valley Parkway. It is the route you will need to take if you want to do any of the Johnstone Canyon trails, but it is also better if you want to spot wildlife. Apparently that is. We didn’t see the merest hint of a bear or elk or moose or anything! Still, I’d recommend it because it is quieter than the main road to Lake Louise and there are some good trailheads if you have the time to go and explore.

Icefields Parkway – Wilcox Pass

The road is beautiful but it is long – it takes a good few hours to drive it – so we decided to do Lake Louise once we had collected the bus and could stay overnight. We motored on to join the Parkway and drove about half way before we made our first stop, a few km from the Icefields Parkway Visitor Centre where most people stop to see the Columbia Icefields, taking buses that actually drive on to the ice, and the Athabasca Glacier via a glass-bottomed walkway. Our plan was to view the glacier from a different vantage point and save the mega bucks that these two activities cost. This wasn’t just because we were being budget-concious, closer research uncovered that there is an element of tourist baloney involved in both of their leaflets.


Myth busters back in action!


Myth 1: The glass walkway is not over the glacier and doesn’t actually go very far out from the road. Even the kids didn’t seem bothered about missing it.


Myth 2: The trip to the Columbia Icefields is not a trip to the actual icefields, you just drive onto the surface of the edge of the glacier and get out for a few photos. I’m sure it’s great to stand on glacier but we watched them herding people on and off, bus after bus – it’s a factory line operation.


Myth 3: The non-bus / free option they promote is a short hike to the face of the glacier. It’s only 1.4 km but it is super-busy and you end up some way away from the face of the glacier. I imagine there are lots of selfies of people standing in front of a pile of muddy rocks.


By far the cheaper option with the most impressive view, in my opinion, is to walk up to Wilcox Pass – about 4km (8km round trip). This is one of the highest passes in the park and there is a lovely climb through the forest before you emerge onto a wide plain. It ascends gradually onto the pass, where you are surrounded by peaks. For those looking to get that mountain-top feeling, you can continue 1 to 2km up to a point which gives some amazing 360 degree panoramas (and yes you can look down smugly at the folk walking in procession to the glacier face and the buses queuing to get on the glacier’s edge!).

Jasper

The remaining drive to Jasper was lovely but perhaps not quite as dramatic as the curves and passes of the first half. That may have been because we were a bit exhausted with the drive by then.

Jasper is the main centre for the far end of the Icefields Parkway and Jasper National Park. From here you can connect to Edmonton or Vancouver. It was nice enough – it had plenty of restaurants and shops to look around if you like that kind of thing. I’m not sure it really warrants the popularity it has. We really struggled to find accommodation even though we were out of season and I would say it was over-priced. We also struggled to find places to eat that weren’t booked up. Moral of the story – if you want to go Jasper, book your food and bed early and don’t expect too much!

Maligne Canyon – Jasper National Park

We gave ourselves an extra day to enjoy Jasper National Park. Maligne Lake is supposed to be lovely but we could not face an hour drive to get there. Instead we took the shorter route to Maligne Canyon – about 20 minutes from Jasper. It was a great walk following a series of waterfalls across a number of different bridges. It was impressive and educational, signs throughout explained how the canyon formed and how the crossings were built. It was also beautiful.

Sunwapta and Athabasca

We returned to the Parkway on day three of our trip. This time we stopped at Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls. They were both impressive but are so close to the roadside car parks they were swarming with people. We followed the advice of some blog I’d read that recommended walking to the lower Sunwapta Falls – just 2km down a trail. Predictably this was deserted and the Falls were much more enjoyable as a result. Not as lovely as Maligne Canyon though – more just a break in the journey.


As we continued down the Parkway, past the halfway point, the scenery became more engaging. Perhaps it was the different time of day or the angle, but the trees seemed to have embraced Fall in the day we were away. The mountain-sides were a mix of golden yellow, amber and red – it was stunning.

Lake Louise

We went back to Banff and swapped the car for the bus again (yay bus!). Then we headed back to Lake Louise and stayed in the overflow parking site I mentioned earlier. From here you can pay $4 for a shuttle to Lakeside, which makes total sense as the car parks at Lake Louise village or near the lake are rammed. The shuttle stop also has connecting shuttles to Moraine Lake if you want to try and do that too. We didn’t have time but it is meant to be just as, if not more, picturesque.


Of all the places we visited, Lake Louise was the busiest. It really is spectacular though. We lucked out with a glorious, sunny day – the impossibly turquoise-blue water was shimmering, the mountains surrounding them were golden with autumnal larch trees and the snow capped peaks were a stark white against the blue skies.


The crowds were thick as we reached the water’s edge but even the shortest hike clears the way considerably. It’s a 2km walk to the other end of the lake and, by then, most of the lazy legs, bride and grooms, parent’s shepherding toddlers and the selfie-stick brigade had given up, preferring instead to pose for a dollar with a man dressed as an Indian Chief before going back to their vehicle.


We were riding on the grandparents wave and left the kids for the first time in 2 months to go on a proper hike. We headed past the beach at the far end of the Lake and followed the valley up to the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. From there it was a steep-ish trail to view the Plain of Six Glaciers themselves, where we had lunch.

We had to double-back a short distance but then we picked up the Highline trail and joined the Little Beehive trail, climbing the steep slope for some phenomenal views over Lake Louise below on one side and on the other, Emerald Lake, which is clear and green and provides a sharp contrast to the cloudy, glacial waters of it’s famous neighbour. There is another tea house – Lake Agnes – sitting in the shores of, you guessed it, Lake Agnes, so we hiked down the switchbacks expecting the basics but the staff hike up with new food every day and cakes are baked on site. We had a cup of Darjeeling and a slice of chocolate cake. We made our way back to Lake Louise, sun-kissed, wind-swept and feeling a little bit guilty about the great day we had had.


As it turned out, the parents weren’t at all jealous. They’d had a lovely day on the Lake Louise gondola – the kind of treat the kids always want to do and that we always say no to because of our budget. They had great views (although no sightings of bears despite it being bear-season and a blurb that said almost all rides spot a grizzly) and thoroughly recommended it.

Recommendations for the Icefields Parkway, Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise

Emerald Lake with the golden larch trees – truly spectacular.[/caption]

This might be a bit controversial but if you are a family travelling, I don’t think you need to drive the whole Icefields Parkway to see the best bits. Unless you have time to spend in Jasper or are continuing on from there, my recommendation is to drive as far as Wilcox Pass to do the hike, then return to Lake Louise. It’s a loooong time in a car otherwise – particularly with kids – and though the stops are beautiful, they are busy.

If you are not with kids, the best way to explore is with a back-country permit and camping gear. This, I think, is perhaps the way to get out into the remote Rockies wilderness.

In terms of timing, I would consider Autumn. It may be a but cold but if you are lucky with the weather, you might get some of the glorious Fall colours that we experienced.

From Mountains to Coast

The second leg of our trip in Canada was Vancouver and Vancouver Island. We spent a week travelling from Lake Louise through Yoho National Park, Golden, Merritt and Dewdney, fishing and wine-tasting and biking, before reaching Vancouver. An old friend of mine has lived here for years and so we upped our budget for an RV park, stayed at the Capillano River RV park, close to the centre, and played the grandparent card again so that we could go out and party.



Yay, hanging out with young people again in a city! Let’s drink beer and cocktails and shots!


Boo, first hangover for the trip. Let’s leave the city and never drink again!


Of course the rest of the fam had a good time. They visited the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, which was excellent. We joined them for a stroll around the Gas Light district and then the harbour promenade – it’s a lovely city.

Vancouver Island

The big draw for us was Vancouver Island to see whales. The two main centres are Victoria and Tofino. I had been to the former 20 years ago and had perhaps my all-time favourite nature experience: Orca breaching in front of the boat and then swimming underneath us. I really wanted this for the boys and had been told Tofino was an even better place to go, so that’s where we headed.


We caught the ferry from Horseshoe Bay. It was pricey taking a bus but hey-ho we are kind of attached to it!


Again, the weather felt like it was on the turn – chasing us. Not long after we left Banff we heard that Banff and Calgary had had their first snow of the season. By now it was the end of September and there were signs on the highways saying vehicles had to carry snow chains. Quite by chance we realised that the clinking chains under the bus were not to deflect stones etc, as we thought, but were ‘automatically deployed snow chains’, controlled by a special button in the drivers area. Cool!


We broke the drive to Tofino at English Man River Falls – a State Park that had a campground open until October 1st. We had 1 night before it closed down for winter. Lovely site with some kind of kids biking trail that has made this campsite the favourite of our whole trip so far. It was also close to a shop with goats on the roof – that sealed the deal for them!

Pacific Rim National Park

The sites were expensive in Tofino and although we nearly booked Bella Pacifica, there were several reviews saying it was cramped and had bad service. There were much better reviews for a site 20 minutes outside of Tofino – Green Point Pacific Rim Long Beach Unit – so I booked in there.


It was incredible – right in the heart of the old forest – each site had Douglas Firs and Red Cedars all around, the forest floor densely packed with fallen logs, ferns and fungi, tiny creatures and earthy smells. I loved it. We had both just read The Overstory, which is set against a theme of trees, so it meant something different to be surrounded by temperate, ancient rainforest. To make it even better, a short path led to a huge beach – miles of crashing waves and yellow sand covered with twisted driftwood and long ropes of seaweed, bulbous at the end.


If you are driving to Tofino I would also recommend the scenic rainforest trail – two easy trails through rainforest, some of which is on boardwalks. There are lots of information boards and more life around you than you can ever believe. One fallen tree, at the peak of it’s decay, can host billions of living organisms.

Tofino

The arty town of Tofino has lots of galleries and coffee shops etc. It’s main offering is whale watching and hot springs trips. A few people had told us that it made sense to book the latter as although a bit more expensive, it was 6 hours rather than 2 and, as the skippers are all in contact, if there is a whale you still go and see it. We had rubbish rainy weather though, with just a small break in the clouds due at 3pm. We almost didn’t go but at the last minute booked a 2-hour slot and were the only people on the boat.


It was a fun, surprisingly dry 2 hours. The scenery was rugged and wild – there is not much civilisation in the west of Vancouver Island. We saw several grey whales surface in the waves, although disappointingly greys don’t seem to flick their flukes in the air before going under, so it was just a grey shape in the water and you couldn’t really gauge the size. I’d hoped for Orca but there are no resident pods, just visitors, and none appeared. We did see a few sea lions and sea otters though, some of which were floating together in a raft. That was pretty special.

Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park

Our last few days with the grandparents were on the East Coast. We chose Rathtrevor Beach because it was a State Park close-ish to Nanaimo and the Vancouver ferry. It was lovely – forest again, next to beach. Perhaps the best bit though was its proximity to an ‘English pub’. The Black Goose Inn was the closest we had seen to a pub from home and we spent a wonderful afternoon by the fire, eating pies and drinking beers. It seemed a fitting end to a fabulous Canadian holiday.

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Glacier National Park: Should you visit late in the season?

When you think of National Parks in America, the names ‘Yellowstone‘, ‘Yosemite’ and ‘Grand Canyon’ are the first to pop up, at least with Brits. When you get to America, and specifically Montana, it’s a different story. Despite the state being three times the size of England and full of wilderness, wildlife and stunning mountain passes (check out our video of Skalkaho Pass!), the one park worth mentioning was Glacier National Park. Every local spoke wistfully of the Park and every traveller we met was either on their way or their way back. Glacier, it seemed, was a ‘must-see’.

The trouble is Glacier National Park has a postscript: get there before Labor Day.

The Labor Day weekend – when Summer becomes Fall

Heading to Glacier National Park in a skoolie
Heading to Glacier through a lush green Montana

Montana experienced an unusual summer. It is so heavily wooded that fires are the norm. They ravage the landscape, affect visibility and leave a smoky smell everywhere. This year there was a wet spring and so core temperatures did not get so high. Montana was clear and lush and fresh. Many people told us we were experiencing it at its best and it was a total joy to travel and camp.

When you spend every day travelling, you lose sense of the days. As we happily meandered our way towards Glacier National Park, which sits on the Canadian border, people started mentioning the looming Labor Day – one of the busiest camping weekends in the season. After Labor Day, the kids go back to school, the RVs are replaced with people carriers, smaller campsites close down, work resumes in earnest, part-time Montanans head back down south to winter homes in Arizona and Texas, and Summer becomes Fall.

Without really realising it, we arrived within the vicinity of West Glacier on the first day of the Labor Day weekend with no reservations. Bad planning Chimps!

Hungry Horse Reservoir

Hungry Horse Reservoir
Sunrise on the Hungry Horse reservoir

Guessing that campsites would be busy and trails packed, we decided to wait out the weekend at a campsite on the Hungry Horse Reservoir, half an hour away from Glacier National Park. Many people use the campgrounds as a base for the park in the summer as the official camps fill quickly, but they are worth a visit in their own right. The campsites are in the Flathead National Forest and at $23 per night (no showers but they have water and long-drop toilets), they cost the same as the National Park sites and the locations are stunning.

The reservoir is enormous and beautiful with emerald green water, forested islands and winding creeks, ideal for kayak explorations. We stayed at Lid Creek campground, camping in the trees just a short walk to the water and a beach. Doris Campground and Lost Johnny Campground were both beautiful too.

We met some lovely folk in Lid Creek – Shannon and Brad – who live in Kalispell, the nearest decent-sized town. They had visited Glacier hundreds of times, pre and post having kids. They gave us loads of info on where to camp with our bus and where to trek with a family (nice and easy) as well as amazing hikes if you could get a bit further into the park (i.e. without the kids!). Obviously we wanted to do the latter and so we came up with a plan to work on the boys to get them to agree to a 10-mile hike: we’d start simple and build them up. “Use whatever is necessary” Shannon said knowingly, for it is a truth universally acknowledged by all mothers that bribery is the only way to get kids to walk that far. Marshmallow power!

Navigating Glacier National Park

Climbing trees in Glacier National Park
Mountains and trees – the stuff of little boy dreams!

Glacier’s full name is Waterton-Glacier National Park – it is billed as a ‘National Peace Park’ because it joins together Glacier National Park, Black Feet, Flathead and Kootenai Indian Reservations in America and Waterton National Park in Canada. Aside from the very obvious customs border, it is all one big park and there are some incredible back-country camping and hiking opportunities.

If you don’t want to / can’t head off with your tent in your backpack to find the true wilderness, you are a little more limited to hikes starting on the Going to the Sun road, the only driving route through the park. The narrow road snakes it’s way up and over Logan Pass in a series of hairpin bends and sheer drops, which make it pretty spectacular. It is closed to everything over 21ft so if, like us, you have an RV, you’ll need to get the shuttle from Apgar or St Mary’s Visitor Centres in West Glacier or St Mary’s respectively.

A bus problem

The shuttle stops all along the GOing to the Sun Road  at Glacier National Park
The shuttle stops all along the Going to the Sun Road, which makes hiking without a car very easy – as long as you can handle the shuttle queues!

And here lies the Labor Day problem. The shuttles.

The free transport was introduced to reduce pressure on a park that is getting more and more visitors each year. The Going to the Sun road cannot cope with all the people visiting and there simply isn’t space in the car parks. Our camping neighbour said he had queued for a space at Logan Pass at 7.30am, which is 1.5 hours drive from Apgar – and this was now off-season. Summer must be awful.

The Park encourages people to leave their cars at the Visitor Centre and get in the bus queue. This isn’t too much of a problem if you go before Labor Day as they run frequently. If you visit afterwards, as we did, they are reduced in number. Most of the drivers are employed through a local agency for the summer only. And what does a summer bus-driving job attract? School bus drivers looking for summer work. If the weather is good after Labor Day, tough luck – the drivers have all gone back to their regular jobs.

Hiking and camping in Glacier National Park

Going to the Sun IPA at Glacier National Park
First rule of camping: get somewhere, get a site, get settled, get a local beer

Apgar campground is the place of choice for large RVs. After Labor Day prices go down to $20 per night. The sites have toilets but no other services – you need to have your own shower or just enj`oy your own filth. The big benefit is that you can walk to the Visitor Centre shuttle stop, as well as Apgar village and Lake Macdonald. We biked and pottered around the three on our first afternoon, picked up our Junior Ranger packs, ate huckleberry ice cream and skimmed stones on the clear water to settle in. It had a nice atmosphere – not as ‘fake’ as Yellowstone’s camps and villages.

Avalanche Lake and Trail of the Cedars

Trail of the Cedars  at Glacier National Park
We got into trees while we were in Glacier – this ancient Red Cedar forest is woodland is all that is left of a tree that used to dominate the mountainsides of Glacier.

Day two we got up early to catch the shuttle to Avalanche campground, where the trailhead for the Trail of the Cedars begins. This is an easy one mile boarded promenade that weaves through huge old Red Cedars, magnificent thick trees with deep crevices in their bark. They tower over the path and keep it calm and cool.

Halfway around the trail there is a junction leading to Avalanche Lake. A gradual two-mile incline takes you up through the forest past chipmunks and ground squirrels, fallen trees, moss-strewn boulders and streams – remnants of an old glacier that forged a path here. Eventually it all opens out to a circle of mountains complete with waterfalls – all of which are cascading into the stunning, turquoise Avalanche Lake. It was unbelievably picturesque and serene, despite the number of people on the same walk. Any greater crowds and it would detract though, so think carefully before you attempt it in high-summer.

Avalanche lake  at Glacier National Park
You can even fish for free at Avalanche and we caught several small trout (all of which were thrown straight back in).

Logan Pass – Hidden Lake Overlook Trail and The Highline

You can catch a shuttle to Avalanche but then you need to transfer on to a smaller shuttle to make the ascent to Logan Pass. Two hours queuing and we gave up and put our thumbs out. I’m not normally an advocate of hitch-hiking but I’m not an advocate of sitting in a bus queue with two bored children either. The Park Ranger told us he always thumbs a lift and that was good enough for us. We split up – 1 boy each – and within 10 minutes had both secured lifts to the top of Logan Pass. Guy and Kit with a young couple from Chicago on a ‘vacay’ and Soren and I with a couple of retirees from North Carolina who were driving toward Canada to visit relatives. Winner!

The Highline Trail  at Glacier National Park
Walking the Highline Trail – top tip, the first part has great views and some adrenaline, cliff-edge hiking!

The Highline Trail is actually an 11.6 mile hike that takes you to a spot further down the Sun road – the loop- where you can pick up the shuttle again. Shannon had told us that the first part of the hike is the best – it cuts across the Garden Wall, a sharp ridge, and gives you a panorama of the park. Because you start at the highest point, this section also has some of the most exciting action – there are parts where you have to hold on to a rope and traverse across a narrow passage at height. Boy heaven! You join this hike across the road from the Visitor Centre.

After lunch we scrambled back and took the popular, heavily tramped Hidden Lake Overlook Trail. The trailhead starts behind the Visitor Centre and at 3 km, much of which is boarded walkway or flat path, this is the trail that most people attempt. Shannon and Brad said it was worth battling the crowds so we powered past everyone, which was no mean feat as as soon as anyone hears our accent they want to stop and chat. Once they hear about our bus we can’t get away from the conversation so we tried to kept our mouths shut and our heads down but Kit’s thrift store Green Bay Packers t-shirt kept attracting attention. ‘Go Pack!’ people would shout at him and expect a some kind of return response!

A view worthy of the walk to get to it at Hidden Lake Overlook at Glacier National Park
Hidden Lake overlook – a view worthy of the walk to get to it

The view was spectacular but full of people holding cameras and phones. Our campsite neighbour David told us to walk past the viewpoint and just carry on for a couple of hundred metres – a top tip as we had the view to ourselves of a deep blue lake flanked by steep crevices and Sperry Glacier.

St Mary Campground, East Glacier

As we couldn’t drive across the park, we headed out of Apgar and took the long route around the edge of the park, stopping at Browning for supplies. Browning is part of the Indian reservation and it was very desolate and run-down – very different to the American towns we had visited so far. It wasn’t helped by the drizzly rain that wouldn’t shift. They had a Visitor Centre somewhere that we thought might be interesting but we were wet, cold and a little bit too focused on the peach pie we’d bought at the supermarket. We headed straight back into the park again at the East entrance.

Glacier National Park
The views on the east of the park were just as stunning as the west – looking back up the river from St Mary’s Falls

St Mary is the other end of the Sun road to Apgar. It too has a Glacier National Park Visitor Centre and free shuttles but it immediately seemed less busy and commercial on this side, more desolate. Bear activity in the area meant it was only open to hard-sided vehicles, which perhaps helped us secure a campspot at St Mary campground late in the day. Prices were the same – $20 per vehicle – and the Visitor Centre was just across the bridge.

The trees of Glacier

Junior Park Ranger at Glacier National Park
Soren swearing in as a Junior Park Ranger

Kit had to attend a ranger talk to to secure his Junior Ranger badge (Soren had already nailed his by finding a Ranger and grilling him, ever so cutely, about the opportunity to spot Picas at Logan Pass). We duly biked to the Visitor Centre at 7.30pm and sat down in the theatre expecting something along the lines of Yellowstone’s Ranger talks, a slide show about the mythical ‘Old Man Coyote’. This one was by a Ranger who was talking about something a lot more personal to him though; his area of study and the reason why he was working in Glacier: trees.

We had been surrounded by trees for a month and it was fascinating to learn about five of the species found in Glacier. It shed a whole new light on how the forests work – for instance, I thought forest fires were universally bad but in some cases, trees have evolved to use fire as a tactic. Ranger Dan showed us a closed up Lodgepole Pine cone – this is a tree that has evolved its own niche way of competing in the forest. The trees grow close together which attracts pests, this kills some of the trees and creates dead wood. The dead wood catches fire easily and although this kills some more of the trees, it doesn’t take them all. Instead the flames allow the trees to play their trump card – the pine cones only open in intense heat. The forest re-seeds the area and allows the Lodgepole to spread before the other trees have gathered themselves. Fascinating!

St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls

East Glacier National Park
Beautiful views on the east of the park

We caught the 9am shuttle up to Sun Point on St Mary Lake and hiked up to St Mary Falls, then on to the slightly higher Virginia Falls. It was a beautiful, relatively quiet seven-mile return walk alongside the glacial St Mary Lake, past Baring Falls. The scarred Rockies rise up on the other side of the Lake, giving it the perfect backdrop – picture postcard. It was mostly in tree shade and flat-ish, with an easy final ascent – a good warm up walk that you could shorten depending on ability by catching the shuttle / getting off at Sunrift Gorge or St Mary’s Falls.

Many Glacier

Fishing on Lake Josephine  at Glacier National Park
When you are camped next to a river with the same name as your mother, well it would be rude not to use that as a reason to go fishing!

Many Glacier is considered by many to the be the heart of the park and so although the weather was on the turn, we wanted to try and fit it in. It’s on the east, further north than St Mary. Unless you have transport you can’t get there as the free shuttles don’t go there and, after Labor Day, the paid buses stop. Many Glacier Campsite is the most popular campsite and even though we arrived before 9am, we had to wait for a space to become free. There is a size limit at this camp of 35ft. Even though we are 37ft we regularly tell people at sites like this we are less. It’s not a massive lie – the sites are always massive and we have a huge overhang and know we can fit in smaller spots than most people think.

Camping was again $20 with no services apart from toilets. If you are in desperate need for services, the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn has coin operated showers and basic groceries. We bought bread and eggs for a small fortune. If it’s something more civilised you want, the Many Glacier Lodge is a short bike ride. You can enjoy the vista from the lounge, warm up at the huge fireplace and partake of the free Wifi whilst drinking cheap drip coffee.

Iceberg Lake

Many Glacier was a big stop for us – this was the long walk that the boys had agreed to. We’d chosen Iceberg Lake, a 10-mile round trip that starts at Many Glacier – behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. The lake is famous for bobbing icebergs, which was the big draw for the kids. We checked the weather for the following two days and it was overcast and wet. We were over a week into camping with just solar power and the invertor had started beeping at us “give me power”…. we couldn’t really stay longer so we decided we should do our big walk that day.

The hike increases in elevation early on, then levels out as you walk down the valley. We strode along a ridge, kids motivated by sweet treats at every 2km. The tops of the mountains were hidden by low clouds but you could sense the size of them above you. The view down the valley, thick with trees and with no development or people in sight, felt like one of the wildest places we had been. This was definite bear country!

You reach a fork in the path at Ptarmigan Falls (where we did indeed see some Ptarmigans). You can hike up to Ptarmigan Lake on the right fork but we stuck to the left and continued through the pine forests toward the jewel in the walk – Iceberg Lake. It was a very beautiful spot but kids don’t care about beauty – where were the icebergs??? Before I even had a chance to get out the sweets to appease them, we heard a deep creaking noise and turned to watch a huge chunk of glacial ice slide off and sink into the water. Result!

The hike back was a challenge. The marshmallows I bought had merged into one sticky glob. Legs started hurting and more rests were required. There was only one way out of this one…. “whatever is necessary”…. I agreed to get them a kitten. The rest of the walk was spent discussing names. I now have nine months to talk them out of cats.

Glacier – too late in the season?

 Scenery at Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park may have reached Fall but it was not too late in the season to enjoy one of America’s most stunning parks

Yes we got here late and yes, the shuttle queues were a pain but we got lucky with the weather. We had ideal conditions for hiking most days and the late season meant a quieter Glacier. We had no trouble finding camp spots and we walked in some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen. I think the crowds in summer must make it a very different experience. The hikes we chose were all ‘park favourites’ and I certainly wouldn’t want to do them with any more company than we had. With better planning and warmer weather, it would perhaps work to do a back-country hike and camp instead. If that is your preferred option, don’t forget the bear spray – Glacier is known for the high numbers of both black and grizzly bears.

We absolutely loved the 11 days we spent in and around Glacier. If you could guarantee the weather then I’d recommend out of season. Of course you can’t – just three weeks ago we were merrily hiking the trails. Today the Sun road is closed and the camps are under four feet of snow. You will have to take the gamble we took if you go after Labor Day.

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Beg, borrow and (get it for a) steal – budgeting for a family gap year

You can’t expect to give up your job and travel the world without a little tightening of the purse strings. But how tight does tight have to be to fit within budget? As we head into month three of our big adventure and everybody else heads back to school and work, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about how we we are managing to afford a gap year in a skoolie in North America.

Two months into our trip and we can already see that some of our budgeted figures were wildly wrong. Whether it is because of our location and the varying costs in each state, the impact of Brexit on the value of the British Pound or the unforseen costs of having to furnish our skoolie, keeping within the parameters of ‘the budget’ has been more of a challenge than we were expecting.

‘Guestimating’ our original budget

Working on the budget on a laptop in the skoolie
When the boys go out to play, Mummy sits inside and balances the books and sometimes writes blogs!

The word ‘guestimate’ makes it all sound a bit flippant. Don’t be deceived – we put a lot of effort into budget-planning. After all, to make this trip last a year we need to know we can afford to eat, wash our clothes, find places to camp, have fun, visit the attractions that we have travelled so far to see, cope with the costs of managing our UK lives from overseas and suck up the expense of owning and furnishing a bus in North America.

Several months before we even announced our plans to travel, the budget was an ever-growing beast of an Excel document. We factored in how much of our savings we wanted to spend on a bus and whether we could get any return on investment. We looked at our existing living expenditure, costs in North America and the reported spending of families travelling in the U.S in skoolies / RVs. We then ‘guestimated’ what it would cost us.

Hidden lake overlook at Glacier National Park
Our budget included an ‘America the Beautiful’ pass, which gives us access to all of the National Parks for free. We hitched a ride up to Logan Pass and trekked to Hidden Lake Overlook. 

We researched all the fixed costs (visas, national park passes etc) and included money to cover purchases like bikes. We built in a generous contingency and then factored in all of our UK outgoings and income. There are pages of figures, which I won’t bore you with unless you specifically want to know them!

In the end, it all boiled down to two crucial sums:

  1. Did we have enough in our savings for the initial outlay of the bus?
  2. Were our monthly outgoings likely to be less than our monthly income from the UK, making it a ‘cost-neutral’ year?

For both answers we came up with a yes.

The (rather large) cost of a skoolie home

Budgets must include full bus equipment
It’s not just the structure of the bus we had to think about. We had to fully equip our home for the year, make it feel cosy and prepare it for all kinds of weather – we needed everything, from blankets to bikinis. 

The bus cost about the same as a house extension, which in a funny kind of way it is. While we hope to get some money back if we sell it at the end / use it somehow in the future, we also had to accept that we may not make anything on it. If it breaks down and can’t be fixed or blows up in a huge propane explosion, our investment goes with it. Of course, after two months going feral in the wilderness, there is also the distinct possibility that Guy releases his inner Thelma (or is it Louise?) and drives us all into a canyon shouting “I’m never going back to work again”!

As discussed in our earlier blog, How to buy and convert a US school bus from the UK, we could have gone with a cheaper bus, i.e a secondhand one off eBay, but we felt there was too much risk. We also couldn’t justify the prices the more established conversion companies were quoting for a new bus, so we took a gamble with a new company who were prepared to reduce their prices to get the business. We wrote a detailed contract and ensured they bought insurance to make sure everything could be delivered safely and within the price agreed. We kept a small contingency aside just in case.

bus overhanging cliff with budget bikes hanging
We just wanted to get on the road and start enjoying ourselves (and park in the tightest of parking of spaces!)

It almost worked to plan. The budget ran out just a couple of weeks before we jetted out of the UK so we made the decision to use our contingency in order to get the bus finished. It wasn’t enough to cover everything, but it was enough to get us on the road.  

Lots of people have asked us about the contract and why we had to use the contingency. We just wanted the bus done in time for our arrival and this was the only way.  We figured it was all part of the skoolie-build learning-curve for both the company and us. When you are new to something, mistakes happen. You live and learn. We love our bus and it is mechanically sound, which is what matters.

Budget living means DIY whilst camping
Shelf building… that sucks. No-one else on the campsite has to do DIY!

The upshot of an unfinished bus is some unexpected DIY. We hoped we’d seen the back of tools and loose screws after trying to get our house, campervan and rental properties sorted before we left, but it turns out that ‘Guy the handyman’ has had to come on holiday with us; we furnish as we go – curtains here, shelves there – something new every month. It sucks up a lot of our cash as we have to buy materials and tools and we also spend more time in hardware stores and less time at attractions or dining out – such is life.

Grocery shopping – a budget busting exercise

noodles - the best budget meal
Noodles, mercifully, are cheap everywhere. I’m not quite sure we need this many packets though.

If we ignore the additional monthly costs of the bus, we felt our budget was roomy enough to cope with all other eventualities. Then we went grocery shopping. I had budgeted for the same spend as we had in the UK – keeping in mind that we are lazy at home and usually end up at the local Co-op buying over-priced broccoli, potatoes and some kind of 2 for £7 fillets for dinner (why is it that pre-planning meals and shopping in advance at the grocers / butchers seems so impossible?)

As we travelled through Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, prices seemed to go up and up. A loaf of wholemeal bread at home, £1.20. You want butter on that? Let’s say £2. In Montana, prices are at least double that for the most basic brands. Cheese, cereal, tins… same story.

Eating on the roofdeck of the skoolie
We have had to down-size our tastes – Guy has resorted to eating tinned oysters instead of fresh, doused in the vinegar I use for cleaning.

The solution to escalating food costs? Give up those ‘middle-class’ tastes! No more handfuls of cashews for a snack, soba noodle soup with pak choi, almond milk on cereal and salads full of seeds and fresh leaves. No more last-minute Co-op. We are still rubbish at planning our meals but we buy in bulk, treat ourselves with ice pops from the freezer, enjoy box wine (it doesn’t seem to last any longer… or am I just drinking more?!) and when we are feeling frivolous, the odd tub of hummus ($5 – about £4.50 for a small tub!). We make do…

Not so healthy living

At the start of our trip, someone we met told us that we need to watch our weight and do more fun runs. It wasn’t based on the sight of us…. the bus was not sagging and the kids were still walking through the doorway without turning sideways, but as a travel tip in general.

The reduced budget has had a big impact on the type of food we eat. Much of the stuff we buy – the cheaper stuff – is full of sugar, salt, additives and preservatives that you just wouldn’t find in the UK. If you want to eat healthily (or even go for food without any of the bad stuff in it) you pay more. Even fresh fruit and veg is almost prohibitively expensive. It will be interesting to see if Canada is the same.

Finding food for free

Don’t worry – we are not foraging in the bins just yet. We have managed to acquire some rather spectacular free foods though. Soren caught a trout on his first ever day fishing, enough to feed us all. Of course you could argue that the fishing license made it quite a pricey meal, but Guy also caught a couple of little ‘uns and it was good sport.

We’ve also lucked out with some of the hosts we’ve met through Boondockers Welcome. Andrew the hunter shared some deer meat and burgers from his last season’s hunt, Ben the gardener gave us access to his vegetable crop and Liz the baker gave us some delicious sourdough bread and ciabatta. Boondocking is the way forward!

Going out

bears or beers
Beers or bears? The former is so tempting but we when you live in the woods most of the time, the latter is more likely. We had to spend our cash on bear spray, so it’s cans in the bus for us!

So far prices have been comparable to the UK. We can go out for a meal in a family-friendly restaurant, spend £50 and get a feed for four with a couple of beers. Of course that is if we were actually going out. This is always the area that gets cut when you are skint – going out.

Most people would think this wasn’t too much of a hardship for us – we have a kitchen so can cook – but life in a skoolie means we spend a huge amount of time living in the woods or out by remote lakes. It is such a treat to dip into a town and live the way we used to.

When we come upon somewhere with a cosy feel, where the hum of civilisation and the smell of coffee beans roasting is like a hug from an old friend; where the fizz of a cold IPA and the laughter at the bar threatens to overwhelm you with the first flush of drunk, it is all we can do to stop ourselves running foward with our wallets open. No can do when you live on a budget. Back to the bus my friend. Make your own coffee. Heat up your own milk in a frying pan and enjoy scraping off the milk skin. Drink your own booze out of melamine cups.

Missed opportunities (sometimes) worth missing

beavertails - a budget breaking treat
Occasionally we’ll find a delicious treat. It’s never a healthy one though (which Kit is very happy about!)

Luckily for our wallets, the opportunity to eat rarely crops up. We spent a month in Montana, which is three times as big as the UK but with a a population 60 times smaller and almost entirely from a different demographic, there is not the demand for the kind of eateries we are after. They don’t have a plethora of coffee shops and vegetarian restaurants around every corner – they couldn’t sustain them. This is not Brighton!

The reality of eating out is desolate looking cafes that serve pie and ‘drip coffee’, burgers and fries, pizza slices and fries, grilled cheese (not as nice as it sounds because American cheese is like eating slices of of plastic) and fries. If you want something better / healthier, you spend a whole lot more and then the kids complain it’s horrible and only eat the fries.

I think we may find more choice when we hit the west coast, but it’ll cost even more. Canada is already is proving to be tastier – we had some ‘strong’ cheese earlier that was faintly reminiscent of a mild UK Red Leicester. I was very excited!

Best shared with friends

Sitting around table
New friends! This is David – a mine of National Parks knowledge – who joined us for beers (not bears) in Glacier NP

Going out for dinner with the family is one thing but socialising is another. Because we are camping this is in many ways made easier. We’ve been invited to join people at their bonfires for s’mores (toasted marshmallow sandwiched between crackers with a chunk of chocolate), for card games with neighbours and then there is just the general interest in the skoolie, which means anyone passing stops for a chat and a photo.

A British love of booze

Harvest Hosts brewery
An overnight stay at a Harvest Hosts brewery is free… if you don’t count all the money you spend on beer and pizzas at the bar!

There is not so much of a drinking culture here – only one couple have invited us over for a wine and they were, ironically, from a town a few miles away from where we live in the UK. Guy lives in hope and when someone shouts ‘come join us’ from a firepit or they pop in to see the bus, he always brings out a couple of cans in case he can tempt someone. It rarely works – one fella drank half a can to be polite, another asked for ‘English tea’ instead and the third had a massive rehab story that kept Guy chatting, beers hidden in bag, for a good hour!

One place we have enjoyed a tipple is at the distilleries and breweries we’ve stayed at as part of the Harvest Host‘s scheme. They let you park for free as long as you sample their wares. It ends up costing more to stay at one of these places than the cheap campsites though as the quality of the booze is good and after one or two drinks, who cares about the budget?!

Fun on a budget

boy in rain
I am not bored.  

Now there’s a word. Holidays are fun – a couple of weeks of camping and mucking about in the woods is brilliant. How about 2 months of it though? Well I can report that it is still fun. Whether it is because we have slowed our pace down so much that the days just drift by, or because we are connecting better with the boys, the days seem to disappear with very little complaint.

I’ve banned the ‘b’ word, which helps (and no, that is not ‘budget’).  If anyone says they are bored then they lose a point. The points don’t come off anything particular but they seem to do the job of motivating the kids to stop saying they are ‘b’ and that is sometimes enough to stop it happening!

Paid – for activities vs free

kayaks are a good budget activity
Who needs to pay for a boat trip when you have packed your own boats?!

This is really for the kids. Guy and I don’t feel any desire to pay for aquariums or cable cars. Quite amazingly we manage to avoid most expensive activities by substituting them for cheaper / free versions. We dispensed with the Columbia Icefields explorer trip (a bus that goes onto the ice) by hiking up a mountain next to it instead – we had an amazing view of all the people trekking in a line towards the glacier lookout and all of us were glad we weren’t in it.

The wonderful Noni (my mum) bought us kayaks, so that keeps us busy near water. We bought the kids fishing rods which, if we have a license, means hours can pass untangling reels. The best thing has been bikes though (currently Soren’s favourite hobby – running, fishing and, mercifully, whistling have been relegated!). The boys go round and round campsites on an endless imaginary mission and when we are close to a point of interest, we have alternative transport to a 37 ft bus. What would have been a massive motivation mission to get the kids to walk a couple of miles /a massive motivation mission to strap down the whole bus and drive, now becomes a super cool bike ride.

Biking bonus

But how did we afford these bikes on our budget? Again, we found they were double the cost of those at home and so we started looking around in pawn shops and thrift stores. We were almost defeated by the lack of places big enough for these kind of stores, but then we got to Missoula which is a university town. This gem of a place was full of love for bikes and all those that ride them – “you want to get yourselves to Freecycle – they have second-hand bikes” said a friendly thrift store worker. And they did. For free. FREE! “We don’t sell them ma’am, they are free!”.

Come again? Free?

Yep. Freecycle is a community project to support bike-riding around Missoula. People donate old bikes or broken bikes to Free Cycle, they put them in their warehouse / yard and they teach people how to bring them back to good health. You do a course in bike maintenance, volunteer 4 hours and then choose your bike, they have all the tools, equipment, bike bits (from the stripped bikes that could not be restored) and lots of helpers. It’s such a winning idea, I loved it. Kids don’t have to volunteer, so they just get the bikes for free. And, bonus for us, if you can’t volunteer then you can just donate $30. We ended up walking out (or biking), after just 2 hours of hunting and maintenance, with 4 functional bikes. All for $60.

Livin’ in the city (or forest or prairies or the driveways or the car park)

skoolie parked by lake
Camplife. We never know where we will end up but it’s almost always beautiful and usually inexpensive

I mentioned in my last post – http://camping that our preferred camp spots were the free / low cost dispersed or un-serviced sites. That is still the case. Luckily, we are coming in way under budget on camping which has offset the high food costs. Hopefully, as we move to more populated areas, food costs will come down as I don’t think free campsites will be so readily available in places like California.

Of course you can’t always go for free. We have solar panels, water and propane so we can live off-grid for several days at a time, but not indefinitely. Water is usually available for free but we do need to plug in now and then to give our battery a boost. We try and tie those days into power, WiFi, laundry and lengthy shower bundles – get all the jobs and the enjoyable things done at once. It means we spend a shed-load but we all end up clean and sparkly!

Talking of laundry, we spend about $20 USD every 2 – 3 weeks. We could probably do it less but I can’t bear all the dirty stuff all over the bus. It’s a budget saving that I am not prepared to make!

Keeping the bus on the road

My transport budget covers fuel but also bus issues. Fuel has been cheap in comparison to the UK, but we had predicted as much. It’s more expensive in Canada but then they don’t charge as much for groceries – it all balances out. It costs us about $120 USD to fill her up.

We’ve only had one RV mechanic call-out for the bus – the batteries were dead and we couldn’t charge them. We also couldn’t get the heater to work. In the end, both issues ended up being settings errors and we were soon on our way.

The one thing it doesn’t cover is the decorating I mentioned earlier. We did some massive shops at Walmart and Ikea, which got us sorted on bedding etc, but with no budget set aside for this kind of thing and all our contingency gone, it is pretty painful to hand over the credit card. 

Feeling the goodwill

Now that we’ve found a few more charity shops, we have cut our costs significantly. We’ve come to rely on them and why not – they are well-stocked and cheap. We’ve replaced the hats that both boys have lost, the sunglasses that both boys have lost (twice), the shoes that both boys have lost, found life jackets, baseball mitts, bike helmets, school books, t-shirts for the kids, kitchen stuff, books, movies – it’s a budget shoppers paradise!

budget patchwork quilt from yard sale
A patchwork quilt for just $25 – bargain!

We’ve also made good use of yard sales. I was looking forward to these – sifting through piles of useful bus stuff whilst drinking homemade lemonade… that’s what happens, right? Evidently not. I’ve only found one so far and it was a miserable affair down a long, deserted road in a lot full of garages. All she was selling was old VHS videos and romance novels. I was just about to give up when I found a rather lovely king-size patchwork quilt. Just what I needed. Hurrah! There may not be lemonade but I’m still gunning for yard sales for potential bus furnishing on a budget.

And so the budget for next month…

Eating dinner outside
We’ve made it work for 2 months – let’s hope we can carry on for the next 12

It’s not quite Thelma and Louise time yet, we’ve managed to stay within budget both months and will hopefully stretch those good times for the next 10. Our balancing act will continue – the West Coast is potentially more expensive for camping but we’ve hopefully got less to spend on bus decoration. We have more visitors coming, which means more going out for dinners, but perhaps food costs will come down because more people = more choice and cheaper options. Then again, perhaps it won’t. Perhaps Brexit won’t happen, the pound will become strong and everything will be affordable again. Then I’ll be going out and hitting more than that first flush of drunk!!!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

How to go to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park on a budget

If you are on a roadtrip around America, chances are you are going to take in as many National Parks as you can. These huge areas of land showcase some of the most stunning and diverse landscapes the country has to offer. They are packed full of geographical wonders, wildlife in abundance, amazing hikes, historical information, educational activities for children and, for those living on wheels, some darn excellent camping spots.

The problem is they don’t come cheap and they don’t conform to a last-minute schedule. Not if you are in a large R.V anyway. If you don’t mind living under canvas, you can back-country camp with a permit, or turn up at smaller campsites that don’t take bookings, but neither of these are an option in a 38ft yellow school bus. You can’t just pull over wherever you feel like it either, there is no hiding in Yellowstone; our home only works for ‘stealth camping’ if we park up outside a school and small American children are not the kind of animals we plan on spotting! Campsites are booked months in advance and, with a captive audience, no doubt expensive.

We are neither rich nor organised, but we really wanted to do Yellowstone and Grand Teton, so we decided to go anyway and see if it was possible to do it cheaply and without pre-planning.

Why go to Yellowstone National Park? Is it worth it?

Beautiful scenery at yellowstone
Beautiful scenery at every turn: Yellowstone is a top destination for outdoors lovers

If National Parks are the pinnacle of America’s outdoor experiences, Yellowstone National Park is at the very tippidy top of the pile. It is the first American National Park and has the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs and the largest number of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states. You can spot bison, grizzly bears, eagles, moose, elk and the relatively recently reintroduced, grey wolves from the road, whilst watching geysers shoot high into the sky or staring into bottomless turquoise pools or following winding canyons that rival Grand Canyon in drama.

All that in mind, it does not take a genius to work out why people recommend booking Yellowstone in advance. It is supposed to be a year-round park but winter conditions close many of the routes and presumably limit the amount of camping options. Spring and summer are a different story; all 3,472 square miles of land can be explored and it is absolutely massive; the Grand Loop Road that circles around inside, close to most of the major attractions, is 142 miles long alone!

Why didn’t we book?

Grand Teton view
Free spirits – we want to pull over wherever and whenever we want!

We always knew we wanted to go to Yellowstone, it was marked on our planning map as one of the key first places to visit. So, given the American penchant for road trips and camping, coupled with the potential ‘wilderness experience’ of the National Park and the summer holidays, why didn’t we plan ourselves better?

When we arrived in Salt Lake City we had no idea which direction we would travel (or even if we would travel at all!). All we knew is that we wanted to go where we felt like going; follow recommendations when they came and stop and start at will. It sounds a bit airy fairy, but that is surely the joy of living on the road? It also has to be the reality – if you get a bus issue, who knows how long you might get stuck in some random town waiting for parts.

Research into Yellowstone was starting to make us think we would have to abandon our free-spiritedness. The excellently helpful ‘Traveling family’ @thewebbproject, who we met at the Grand Teton Distillery, felt that this wasn’t the case though. We just need to work in a bit of balance. They told us that they get together a rough route and then book the hot spots in plenty of time. They then use these dates as a guide to get them there – meandering a little if they are moving too fast, speeding up with a couple of long drives if they are lagging behind. It sounds like good advice.

What about Grand Teton National Park?

Cascade Canyon Grand Teton National Park
Contemplating Moose at Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

We started our National Park adventure in Jackson Hole, which is actually at the southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park, which sits below Yellowstone. The two parks join together but somehow Grand Teton seems to be ignored in the National obsession to visit Yellowstone. It’s very different – far more mountainous. We had never even heard of it. Well almost. We were both reading Bill Bryson when we arrived and he mentions the Tetons. Our top fact was that they were discovered by the Canadian French who had named them because their snowy peaks looked a little like breasts (those French!). Teton is actually an old word for cow’s teats, which makes you wonder what the explorers lady-friends boobs looked like.

Breasts aside, Grand Teton National Park has some beautiful lakes, the Snake River, bears a-plenty and the Teton range of mountains, which sit along an active fault line and many of which rise over 11,000 feet.

Back to the issue: How do you visit both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park without booking in advance?

Old Faithful, Yellowstone
Old Faithful geyser, erupting faithfully!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is also a useless thing if you are just a few miles south of the park with nowhere to stay that night. We stopped in Jackson Hole, a few miles from the south entrance to Grand Teton, to get some WiFi and plan what to do.

Entering the park is not the problem, you can sort this out at the gate or at the tourist information centres. No planning required! The entrance fee at the gate is $25.00 per vehicle. The pass can be used for seven days and will get you in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. You can buy a one-year pass for $50.00 if you live close to Yellowstone / go a lot, but if you are touring, like us, it makes sense to get a National Parks pass – America the Beautiful – for $80.00. This gets you in to all national parks in the country. It seems camping is the sticky point.

What to do if you haven’t booked a campsite?

Beautiful and free campsites in Grand Teton national park
Beautiful and free campsites are available just outside the National Parks

Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton are surrounded by National Forest, which we know provide cheap or free camping sites that you do not have to book in advance. Yellowstone is so massive that it takes ages to drive to the edges of the park, seriously compromising any opportunities for early or late wildlife spotting, but Grand Teton is not nearly as popular as Yellowstone and is not as big. A quick search on Wikicamps identified a few potential spots in the Bridger-Teton Forest that were only 20 minutes from the park gate. We decided to risk it.

Yellowstone has 5 bookable, what I would consider budget, campsites in the heart of the park, which you can book via Xanterra. 1 of them – Fishing Bridge – is closed until next year. There are some more expensive private RV sites, but as I pointed out in the last post, these are not for us. I tried to find space online but the Xanterra website was not working well for us – it showed everything as booked, was difficult to navigate and I wasn’t sure if things were  actually booked or the screen had just not refreshed properly. I was about to give up but then I read on a forum that it pays to call them as there are often last minute bookings. We did this and wwwwaaaahhhey… they had space for us at Bridge Bay Campground, next to Yellowstone Lake, for for two nights at $26 per night. Booked – Yahay! It was neither impossible nor expensive!

As a note for anyone else planning a trip to Yellowstone, as well as the bookable sites, there are several ‘turn up on the day’ sites. Most of these last-minute ones are not suitable for larger vehicles and fill up by about 9am. You have to be lucky and probably have a plan B, but if you have a tent or a small camper then I’m sure you could chance it. All the visitor centres list the campsites and show what time they filled up the day before, so you can get a good idea of where to head if that is your plan.

How long do you need to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park?

Morning Glory pool
Morning Glory pool – turquoise forever!

This really depends on what kind of person or family you are. We spent 8 days in the environs of Grand Teton and Yellowstone but it was a very leisurely 8 days. We didn’t spend all day, every day exploring because it very quickly becomes too much. It was very busy at the tourist hotspots and the Grand Loop Road often has lengthy traffic jams because a bear or a bison has wandered onto the road. With all this traffic it felt far more like a safari park than a great natural wilderness. The tourist hot spots, full of activities and museums etc, were also a bit too reminiscent of Centerparcs for my liking, with signage everywhere and happy rangers on hand to give you a jolly welcome. The kids loved the educational activites, all of which contribute to them earning a junior ranger badge. They learnt about conservation, how geysers work and the science behind predicting an eruption…. there’s some good home-schooling right there!

The best bits of both parks are the views you get when the people thin out and disappear. We got up super early on two mornings to drive the Lamar Valley – the Serengeti of North America – and saw bison galore, grizzly bear, black bear, elk and even 2 wolves (which might have been coyotes… we certainly heard wolves just before we saw them though). From the deck of our bus we had the best view of all the action. Ha ha cars!

Where did we stay, was it good and what did it cost?

Bison crossing Lamar Valley
Bison crossing Lamar Valley

To go back to costs and planning, only two of those eight nights were inside the park at Bridge Bay Campsite. We spent 4 nights in free forest land bordering the parks and 4 nights in paid-for campsites in neighbouring towns. All of them I would recommend.

Upper Teton View campsite – FREE

We stayed at this lovely spot – Upper Teton View – just east of the main highway through Grand Teton. It provides easy access to Grand Teton Park – you can backtrack 20 minutes to the south gate for Jenny Lake or continue for 30 minutes to the north gate, where you can visit Jackson Lake or Colter Canyon.

The site was up an unpaved, bumpy road and we were nervous about the bus, but we’d read that it was worth the drive. For the feint of heart, there is a lower Teton View that you reach first. Several bigger RV’s were pulled in here and there was even a mobile ranger station if you wanted to get some tips. If you want to continue to Upper Teton, carry on up the bumpy path. It gets pretty steep and at one point, you reach a fork. DO NOT TAKE THE RIGHT. We did, it was difficult to drive and when we ended up at the top we found just two campsite spaces that were full. We had to go all the way down to Lower Teton View, turn around and do the while hill again. Eventually we got back up to the top (and breathe!), to find several camping spots.

The view was breathtakingly gorgeous and the folk camping were lovely. Night one we were closer to the trees and got bitten by mosquitoes, but night two we parked in a more open space and it was perfect. As the mountains turned orange at sunset, we had that ‘this is why we are travelling’ moment!

Jenny Lake

Swearing in as Junior Park Rangers
Swearing in as Junior Park Rangers

From Upper Teton it is easy to get into the south of Teton National Park. First thing in the morning we went to Jenny Lake and did a gorgeous walk around the bright blue water to the hidden waterfall (you can get a boat if the 2 miles are too much). We continued up to the hidden waterfall (where most of the boat people turn around) and then continued into Cascade Canyon – as delightful as it sounds. It reminded Guy and I of happy days trekking in Torres del Paine in Patagonia, except it was moose on the path instead of alpaca and our pockets were full of incentivising sweets instead of trail mix. We also had two extra, slightly less motivated trekkers in our team! We caught the boat back instead of taking the 2 mile trek – ouch, a big queue and a big ticket; one way was $38. A return was $50.

Colter Canyon

We spent the next day around Colter Canyon Village, which I don’t think had any particular merit. The best bit was the chaos that ensued when a grizzly bear appeared close to the lakeside beach. We watched it being fielded off by rangers carrying pepper spray. Our first real grizzly!

Grassy Lake Road Campsite – FREE

Magical sunsets
Magical sunsets

We wanted to stop as close to Yellowstone as possible the night before entering our second of the parks – the best way to beat the queues. There are 20 dispersed sites just off the Rockerfeller Highway, the link road between Grand Teton and the South Entrance of Yellowstone.

We got there quite late and followed the turning onto Grassy Lake Road. It’s tarmac at first but then it hits fairly smooth gravel for a few miles. When I had read 20 dispersed sites, I assumed 20 campgrounds. This was wrong – it was actually 20 camping sites across several areas. Areas 1 – 4 are down by the river. They all had between 2 and 4 spaces and all of those were full. After site 4, the road turns inland a bit. Site 5, which has 1 space available, comes next and then there is several miles to reach the next camping spot near the reservoir. There are more spots there, and we met several campers heading that way, but we were worried about the windy gravel road getting steeper. The parking spot in 5 is set back from the road but we figured there would be space to turn and so we decided to stop there and assess our options – perhaps we should go back to Upper Teton? As we rumbled along to the end of site 5, lady luck was on our side…. the spot was free. Everyone passing it must have assumed it was full. We had our own campspot, complete with a serviced long-drop toilet and bear box, for the night!

This one is Guy’s favourite spot so far. It felt like we were deep in the wilderness, tall grasses and trees all around us. We had the sounds of nature clicking and swishing and calling all night. We didn’t see any bears, but it felt more like bear country than anywhere else we had been. Fabulous!

Top tip – if you are in a big rig like ours, it’s worth running down to check if the spaces are full in 1 -4 as it can be hard to see from the road. We got stuck turning back out of one after a failed investigation and it took a 10-point-turn to get ourselves back on the road again!

Old Faithful and the geyser basin

We got into Yellowstone early and headed in the opposite direction to our campsite so that we could visit Old Faithful. This geyser erupts about every 90 minutes and sits in a geyser basin full of other wonderous sites. Parking the big bus was a concern, but there is plenty of space if you get there before 9.30am.

The geysers were fun – perhaps a bit overhyped – but the hot springs and pools were fascinating. Clear blue ringed with orange and red – all with names that seemed to come with a story: Abyss; Beauty; Dragon’s Breath; Black Growler. One dad that I was walking behind was joking to his complaining daughter that each one was named after the person who fell into it: Beryl; Daisy; Pearl… it was going well until they reached one called ‘Infant’ and then it got a bit dark. The stories stopped!

It was busy at Old Faithful but not so much that you couldn’t move. It was unforgivingly hot though (and smelt of eggs, according to Soren…. alot!)

Bridge Bay Campground, Yellowstone National Park – $26 per night

We entered proper campsite territory. Bridge Bay is the biggest of the sites and there were lots of campers. That said, it is well-managed, clean and tidy. There is a big outdoor amphitheatre where they show films and give talks every night – the boys were super keen to attend (it was at 9.30pm and it was about coyotes and wolves so they imagined a late night and wild animals!) but after about 15 minutes of unengaging waffle (and a very dull slide show) of the tale of ‘Old Man Coyote and his bargain with the wolf’, they were keen to go home to bed!

Bridge Bay is on the central loop of the park, so it is an easy one to work into your plans. We had to double back on ourselves a couple of times, so a more organised person than us should really book camps at different spots.

There were lots of elk wandering around the campsite. It’s lovely until you want to go to the toilet and a horse-sized creature with massive antlers is in the way of the ladies loo. Brilliant.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Bison jam!
Bison jam! Add some time to your journey as they will not get out of your way!

On the east side of Grand Loop Road is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I guess Grand Canyon has the copyright on the first two words and so you have to include the last two! The Yellowstone River plunges 1200 feet and the thermal waters have cut a fascinating channel through the rock, tinging everything with a golden-yellow hue. It’s very beautiful and also very busy. We followed the main route to Artist’s Point accompanied by bus loads of visitors, which detracted slightly from the incredible views. We decided to lose the noise and headed inland on a quieter trail. This is definitely the way to do Yellowstone; we saw a handful of people for the rest of the walk and had meadows filled with wildflowers, mud pools, hot springs and elk all to ourselves.

Cooke City – Clarks Fork, Shoshone National Forest – FREE

This was a dreamboat of a spot, not far from the east entrance. This is one end of the Lamar Valley and if you stay here, you can drive the Lamar first thing in the morning. We had already driven it once to reach the exit / entrance, but it was too late in the day and too busy.

The bend in the river, where we parked up, was a designated dispersed site. One other R.V was there but we didn’t see any people – perhaps they had left it whilst exploring the park. The water was clear and gurgling, the backdrop of the Beartooth mountains was impressive, the forest was thick and green and the sunset glorious. If it wasn’t already colonised by a gazillion mosquitoes it would have been perfect. Windows closed and a killing spree solved the problem more or less. It was worth the few bites though to watch the sun come up over the mountains.

The Lamar Valley

Wolf watching over breakfast
Wolf watching over breakfast in the Lamar Valley

When the tourist info lady marked out the Lamar valley as a ‘must-see’, we figured that we weren’t being let into a little secret. Everyone was going to be doing the Lamar to see the wildlife. We decided to do it early and set off from Bridge Bay at 6.30am. By the time we got there, it was well after 9am. It’s not that far, but this is the land of the bison and they like to stand in the way of the traffic. We didn’t see much so drove out and stayed in the spot mentioned above.

The next day was a different story – we left at 6.30 and were on the main road through the Lamar by 7am. We saw bear, bison and even a couple of wolves. Totally worth the early start and the different start point. If you want to see wildlife, definitely do it early.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Sorry Yellowstone but why is Mammoth a highlight? If you go in to the park from the north, perhaps it is a bit more exciting. If you leave from the north though, having seen everything else, Mammoth is…. a mammoth disappointment!

Eagle Creek – Gardiner – $7 per night

We stopped a night outside of Gardiner in a managed campsite in the Gallatin National Forest. It was up a very steep hill – scary bus territory – but we made it. All the spots were taken but we passed the ranger on the way in and, as the sites are massive, we just shared a space with someone else. It rained so we didn’t do a great deal other than sleep.

Gardiner was nice – after a week in the wilderness it was good to have proper food and coffees again. It was less good to find that all of Kit’s presents, which I had ordered from Amazon to be delivered to the Gardiner Post Office by General Delivery, had been returned to sender. It turns out that you can send post to be held at U.S post offices for a month (like poste restante) but they don’t accept UPS deliveries. Amazon, of course, use UPS. Arrrggghhhh!

Rainbow Point – West Yellowstone – $20 per night

Kayaking on earthquake lake
Kayaking on Earthquake Lake – created when an earthquake triggered a landslide that blocked the Missouri River as it flowed into Hebgen Lake, close to where we stayed. 

West Yellowstone is a major entry point to Yellowstone and so every other shop is a tourist trap selling t-shirts and huckleberry products. It has an IMAX, supermarket, ice cream stand and hardware store – everything a civilisation-deprived family might need. It also has the Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Centre. It’s a non-profit place which has lots of info on animals, which frankly we’d had plenty of at the visitor centres in Yellowstone, but also has rescued animals. We got to see wolves and bears a little closer, with a lot more protection. I’d say it is a tad overpriced – it cost us $45 for 4. Your ticket gets you in for two days, but you really are done within an hour or so. You can pay more to hide food for the bears to find – $5 more – but I dissuaded the boys from doing that.

We stayed at Rainbow Point on the Hebgen Reservoir. It was a nice wooded site about 20 minutes outside of West Yellowstone. Completely booked up on the weekend, so as it was Thursday evening we just made a flying visit. This was one of the areas affected by the 1959 earthquake and landslide, which created Earthquake Lake which we went on to visit. Guy spotted a grizzly yards from our camp. Yikes!

So how much did it cost

We did it last minute, so what did we spend? Overall we spent less than $150 for the week (not including park entrance as we have the pass for the year). We spent less than $80 on accommodation for 8 nights, and the educational activities were just $3 per child. The boat at Jenny Lake added on a chunk, that we probably should have avoided,  and we did a pricey shop in Colter Canyon to buy bread and eggs and milk ($25!).  If we had been more organised we could have saved cash there as well.

The long and short of it is that yes, it is do-able on a budget and do-able last minute. Go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton – they are fabulous.

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Happy Campers

Everyone (mostly!) agrees that camping is fun. Roughing it with your family and your pals, sunkissed and merry on whatever tipple is being passed around, cursory barbecued dinners and endless bags of the kind of bad-for-you snacks you’d never normally purchase at home. Somehow, the bonfire’s dancing light makes everything magical and you no longer care about the rules – who gives a crap if the kids turn feral and don’t go to bed until midnight? Nobody cares if you can’t sing in tune – there is a guitar and someone said singalong!

At some point, usually part way through day 2 of your camping weekend, the slightly grimy feeling suddenly gets unbearable. The bonfire-smoked outfit starts to feel itchy and the idea of another marshmallow makes your teeth hurt. It’s not long until all you can think of is heading home for a a soak in the tub and a cup of tea (from a kettle that boils in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes), putting the kids to bed (on time) and going into another room several shut doors away from them.

Messy skoolie
It’s hard to keep a small space tidy when you live with 3 boys!

We are 3 weeks in now – has the day 2 feeling hit?

RV Camping in Style

I’m doing my best to make sure that since arriving in America, living outdoors stays enjoyable. We’re not in some poky little tent with a coolbox full of melted ice and soggy packets of bacon. We have a 37ft long bus with a hot shower, toilet and a fridge freezer. We are hardly roughing it; as I type this the kids are watching a movie in the bedroom (powered by solar), Guy is cooking in the kitchen on a 4-burner propane gas oven and I’m in the living area on my sofa drinking a cold wine from our full-size fridge freezer!

Watching movies
Anyone for Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets (for the tenth time??!!)

Our 37ft skoolie sounds huge but it isn’t. Well not in comparison to everybody else’s vehicles. In the two weeks we have been here, we have seen more than one 40ft motorhome, often towing a car, and a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. And it doesn’t stop there – they roll up to their site for the night and crank open the slide-outs; weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth. I assume they are making space for their gigantic beds, everything is of course bigger over here, or perhaps even a dog walking area. Americans seem to have dogs but we haven’t really seen anyone walking with one.

So the inside of our camping experience is cushty, but what about the outside?

Home-from-home; camping in America

On the road camping in a skoolie
On the road – hitting Grand Teton National Park, part of an endless caravan of massive rv’s.

We chose a destination that is set up for and relishes road-trips. America is a nation of campers and the roads seem built to accommodate their need to roam. In the UK, if the journey is longer than a couple of hours we start to wonder whether it is worth the effort. Three or four hours and we have to wait for a bank holiday weekend so there is time to ‘recover from the journey’. In Yellowstone we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck to camp for the weekend – and they even brought kids. I’m yet to discover what the American version of calpol is but I’m guessing they look at it in the same way as sugar and salt for kids over here: bigger portions = happier families. Either that or their weekends are longer.

Once you have tugged your weighty rig into its new resting place, you can continue the home-from-home experience. Campsites have everything a travelling family might need – plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops… just plug in and unleash the marshmallows.

Of course you pay for the pleasure of a temporary piece of land to call your own – we’ve seen sites ranging from $30 to $80 per night. If you are on the road for a long time though, as many people appear to be, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, costs $585 for 5 zones. Add additional zones for just $54 and this allows you to stay in their sites for free for a year. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like a lot (yep!), you can sell your membership to someone else when you leave, which helps recoup some of the outlay. Alternatively, other skoolies have recommended KOA (campsites of America) as a budget option – you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay.

The hills are alive with the sound of … generators

Roof top view from camping in Tetons
Room with a view. A magical backdrop courtesy of the National Forest land surrounding the Tetons – a beauty when the sun went down.

We budgeted for campsites with all the amenities but within days we realised that the kind of camping was not the kind of camping we liked. The sites are big and a bit impersonal – they look at bit too much like car parks with a bit of nice landscaping. Even if the site does not have power – in some of the parks you have to make do with what the State provides – it seems to be the norm to park up and whack on a massive great generator. It’s so noisy and anti-social!

We’ve actually got a generator – Oquirrh believed that we could not live without aircon and that we would have to have a generator to power it if we were intent on camping off-grid, so we took their advice and used all of our contigency funds on something that weighs 16 stone, sounds like a massive lawnmower parked right outside our door and takes up a huge chunk of our storage space. Needless to say we haven’t used it once. To solve the need for cooler air we just left Utah and travelled north up the Rockies where the mountain air provides the evening chill! I guess we need to get on and sell that generator… anyone interested (after I’ve sold it so well!!)

RV budget camping in America

If you don’t mind missing out on the serviced shower blocks and restaurants, National Forests and BLM land are full of great sites that do not require booking and are usually close to all the places that you want to go. Some of these sites have rangers or on-site managers, invariably retirees called Buck or Bud or Wade, who live in their own RV and just occassionally come out to drive around in a golf buggy to ‘check y’all are ok?’. They cost about $15 to $25 and they have long-drop toilets and water.

The state camping sites are lovely and you are more likely to find people properly camping in tents or little trailers, enjoying the great outdoors. People are incredibly friendly and accommodating – thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. Most of them love the bus. All of them love the fact we are English as it gives them licence to tell us about their great, great, great whatever who came from Lancashire or their undisputed link to the Saxons.

Dispersed camping

Dispersed camping in Wyoming
Oh hello, I am completely free and totally gorgeous – come and camp in your skoolie Chimps…ok!

If you don’t want to spend any money on accommodation at all, that is possible in America. If you don’t mind driving a little further down the track into the National Forests or to reach BLM land, there are free places to camp – ‘dispersed sites’ (not ‘depressed’ as one person with some helpful advice for us remembered them!). These are rarely more than just a space to camp, so you need to be self-sufficient, but if all you want is a parking spot and nature, you are on to a winner. They are not even that far from the action; we visited Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone in high summer and stayed in neighbouring forest land for free most nights. It took us just 20 minutes to bump our way back down the track and get back into the park.

You can find all the cheap / free campsites by searching on Campendium or Wikicamps. We love the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they are always a surprise. You read the briefest of details about them and then throw the dice – most of them involve a tense journey up an unpaved road. Will the bus do it? Will we be able to turn around? Are we going to fall off the edge of a cliff?! Then you round the corner and discover the most incredible view, the money shot. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience; we had a view over Grand Teton at sunset from our roofdeck (celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Boondocking

Slightly blurry… too much potato vodka with other travellers at the Grand Teton Distillery

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Before we came out, we’d heard that boondocking was an option – free camping, not on campsites. From what we could gather, there were various truck stops and Walmarts that let you crash in their parking lot. All that is good, and we have made use of them, but we’ve also signed up with a couple of boondocking sites. Boondockers Welcome costs about $30 and puts you in touch with locals that are happy for you to park up on their land. This may be farms or even larger properties. We are yet to try it out but we have heard good things.

We’ve also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gives you details of wineries, breweries etc that are happy for you to visits and stay. Its proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. We had a lovely stay at Grand Teton Distillery and were very happy with our potato vodka! You can also pay to upgrade and stay at golf clubs – some of which require you to actually play a round but many of which are just in lovely locations. It was on offer the day we signed up so we took the plunge. It looks as if Montana has several, so we’ll do our best to get around as many as we can!

This blog has some good explanations on boondocking that include dispersed camping options.

Camping with real Americans

Soren has a lesson in the mighty moose from Ron Swanson counterpart from Eagleton – Ron Dunn (look him up if you are not a Parks and Rec fan!)

We’ve also met some fascinating people in the free sites. There was a great volunteer ranger at one of our first free sites – Dan Harris (American’s always introduce themselves with both first and surname). He told us in his thick Utah accent , grey ponytail swinging, that we had met ourselves ‘a real hillbilly but not a redneck ’cause I don’t agree with Trump’.

Unlike the UK, the land belongs to the people and is just managed by the Government on their behalf. Trump wants to privatise this and Dan Harris felt it would be a loss to the people. He’s a hunter, but much of our chat was about the positive benefits of hunting to the eco-system – apparently hunting has increased the amount of wildlife in the area and, because of the cost of permits, funded improvements to the land. If the land is privatised, what will happen to it?

We showed good British interest in his stories and so he invited us to see the mounted head of the moose he’d shot in his living room. Apparently, it was quite a small moose but stuck up on the wall of a tiny living room, scattered with hunting magazines, it looked absurdly massive. On the opposite wall was an elk head, attached to a plank of wood wedged in a doorway so you couldn’t actually get through, and a deer head. There were pictures of cougars he had hunted (but deliberately not killed) and more elk. He said “elk was just about the best meat ever” and that he would have offered us some, but what he had left in his freezer was 2 years old and not as good as when it was first killed. I was pretty thankful for that. Guy was probably not! As we were leaving I spotted a gravestone on the floor – apparently it was his great-great-great grandmother’s headstone which he had salvaged from the churchyard. Yep, a true hillbilly!

RV camping with American creatures

Arrrgghhhh chipmunks…. far too much like squirrels (my nemesis)

We Brits don’t really have to worry about wildlife when we go camping. What’s the worst that could happen… a daddy-long-legs gets into your tent and casts weird leggy shadows everywhere? A dog escapes the confines of it’s leash and eats someone else’s picnic? Over here it is a bit more serious. We were merrily running around at our first camp in Utah, wading in the stream and building rafts from tall reeds, when a friendly camper came and told us she’d seen a couple of rattlesnakes in the grass so we should be careful with the kids. Oh, and we should also watch out for tics and poison ivy. Gulp!

Now we are up north in Yellowstone area, it’s less rattlesnake and more bear. I am very glad we have an indoors toilet and I don’t need to try and find the campsite one in the dead of night! Our biggest problem though is mosquitoes. We don’t have bug screens on the bus and if we camp in the woods we get them bombarding us. Tonight we are staying in the most beautiful spot in the Shoshone National Forest, a hop and skip away from the North East Yellowstone. We are near a rushing river backed by two huge, snow-capped mountains – again staying for free – but I can’t open the doors for fear of attack. I have literally been around the bus twice to wipe the blood marks from squashed mozzies off the walls. Oh the glamour of it all!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

America – we have arrived

We are one week in to our year long tour of North America. In some ways it feels as if we have been here for ages. In others, as we navigate past incredulous Americans in our big yellow bus, it feels as if we are total newbies. Who cares though? We are very happy to finally be here.

We’re leaving home, bye bye

Before we could get on the plane to America we had to go through a hectic, stressful month that was filled with anxiety, tears, late night DIY sessions, hours on the computer researching insurance, many trips to the dump and the charity shop, several long and stressful what’s app / skype conversations with Oquirrh Mountain Bus (the company doing up our skoolie) tackling last minute bus issues and so many leaving drinks that our livers felt sodden. 

No matter how much you plan in advance, most of the effort for this kind of trip has to take place just before you leave. Guy became a DIY and property-management machine, working all hours to get our house ready for our tenants whilst also trying to sort out the damage and rental changeovers at our flats. My month was spent packing up our house and offloading the contents of our lives on whoever had space (good work Nicole and Ros!), getting the kids out of school and prepping Bill the campervan for his new life as a Quirky camper listing (which means you can hire him – check him out here).  

When we shut the door on our home in Hove, closing that chapter of our lives that has lasted 8.5 years, it felt very strange. The boys found it pretty sad. A year seems forever when you are 6 and 8 and after an emotional departure from school, it was no great surprise to see that moving out upset them. Even though we know they are going to have the best adventure, it’s hard to see them crying because of the enormous upheaval you have brought into their lives. 

Packing for a year in America

Things got a bit easier once we had left the house. Short of buying insurance, sorting out visas and flights, we hadn’t bothered preparing for America – the idea was that if we didn’t already own it or know about it, we could just buy it or research it when we arrived. We had 10 days before departure and so anything that might be useful was thrown in the van for sorting out at my mum’s house. Over the following 10 days we decanted, repacked, decanted, dumped stuff, repacked, weighed-in, decanted, repacked and so on.

London to America baggage
Weighed down with bags

The last time Guy and I travelled we had two rucksacks. 11 years later and with 2 boys in tow, we arrived with 4 x 23kg bags, 4 x 8kg bags and 2 car seat bags (free with most airlines). It was ridiculous that we had so much stuff to take to America and even more ridiculous that we were able to take that much luggage as our allowance. How on earth can people need that much space for a 2 week holiday?!

Getting to America

The flight to Orlando was long and dull – what flight isn’t – although we were pleasantly surprised with Thomas Cook. The seats were roomy and the snacks were plentiful. For £6 we could access the movie library so we plugged the kids in and barely heard from them for 8 hours! We arrived at what would have been a late night for them but was just lunchtime in America. The plan was to find a quiet corner in a transit lounge for them to nap for 3 hours, Orlando had other ideas. We had to pick up our luggage, deposit it again in about in a pile just before customs, then join the world’s longest customs queue to go back into the main airport where we had to check in again.

America tourist visas
Visas – about the only thing we got sorted before we left

I was anxious about our America custom’s check. We have B2 visas which allow us to stay for a maximum of a year in the US. That doesn’t mean you get a year though. We had read in a few places that you are at the mercy of the security officer on the day and when we were beckoned to move forward in the queue by the grumpiest face I’ve seen in America, I didn’t feel too confident. We asked for a year and Mr Negativity did a lot of head shaking, telling us that our visas are not valid for more than 120 days etc. Eventually he said he’d stamp 6 months and we could reapply but he didn’t think it was likely we would be approved unless we had a VERY good reason for staying. Whatever you say Monsieur Miserable – we’ll take our chances. 

Jet lag, film sets and big yellow buses

Salt Lake City orange flags to cross road
The weird world of Salt Lake City where pedestrians are so rare that you have to grab an orange flag when you cross the road so that drivers notice you.

We inadvertently kicked jet lag in the face by arriving at our hotel at 11pm, having not really slept for 24 hours. I don’t know how the boys kept in such good humour. We all passed out and actually slept a regular American night and woke up on our new time zone.

We had a day to relax in SLC before picking up the bus, so we took to the streets to explore. We made it through deserted streets to Temple Square to see the big Mormon temple, then overheated and had to retreat into the mall. I overheard someone telling their daughter that it was 100 degrees Farenheit outside, which perhaps explains why no-one was outside. It is so strange to see a backdrop of snowy mountains when the air around you is so hot you feel as if you are melting.

All we could do was escape into the aircon of the planetarium, which proved to be a great choice – there were loads of amazing, free exhibits and a movie screen that covered a domed ceiling. We watched coral reefs from recliner chairs, flying above the water and diving deep into the sea. A world very different to the dry lands of SLC outside. 

Finally, the school bus

We arranged to meet Blake from Oquirrh with our bus on day 2 of our American adventure. I felt sick to my core travelling in the taxi to his grandfather’s house. What would we do if we hated it?  Worse still, what would we do if there was no bus? Were we going to find out we had been scammed? This was one of our biggest fears – we had, after all, found someone on the internet and paid out a whole lot of money without being able to see the work in person. It is exactly what people always say you shouldn’t do. Anxiety levels were high.

Of course it wasn’t completely foolhardy. We had done all of our due diligence.  

  • Oquirrh were new but the business was registered.
  • Blake was happy for us to rewrite the contract and to get the liability insurance we requested.
  • We spoke to another customer for a reference and she could not have been more positive 
  • Our friends Pip and Ade met him (and the bus) whilst travelling through SLC some months ago and gave both the thumbs up. 
  • The final lump-sum payment was to be made after we had seen the bus.
  • Overall, Blake and Katie came across as trustworthy, good people and sometimes you have to go with your gut instincts about a person. We liked Blake. 

Honk Honk – there is the bus!

We pulled up in our Uber and saw the bus from the road – we recognised the roof deck. What a relief. Blake then appeared, smiling, to welcome us to our new home. More relief!

We literally couldn’t wait to get inside. Blake did not send us many photos of the progress because he was so busy, so although we had seen the layout on paper and had seen some of the wooden structures for the sofa, kitchen and bunks, we had no idea what it looked like. It was so strange to step into the space and see it for real. 

Skoolie interior
Stylish inside and out

A tour of the inside

Soren made a video tour of the bus!

The floor is dark wood and the walls and ceiling are white. The ceiling has been lined with length-way planks, which stretch the space, it looks amazing. As you step past the driving seat, there is a big u-shaped sofa and a large dining table – plenty of room for dining and working. The kitchen has white cabinets with a gorgeous dark wood butcher block on top that matches the floor. The fridge has plenty of space (such a luxury to camp and have a good fridge) and we even have a full size cooker. Oh lordy, does that mean I have to cook? 

Behind the kitchen area is the boys space, toilet and shower. We’d hoped that the bunks would be roomy enough for them to store their toys and to sit and read etc, but although super comfy to sleep in (and Kit’s favourite part of the bus), it’s a bit too coffin-like to hang out in. Luckily though,  there is a reading nook opposite their bed. We’d wondered if that was wasted space when Blake suggested it, but he was totally right. It’s a great little space for two boys who like to snuggle up on cushions to read. Even better, it keeps them and their dusty bodies off our bed. 

The shower is roomy and works well. We have hot water (propane heater) and there is good pressure. This was important to me – we plan to stay off-grid most of the time and I can only rough it long-term if there is an option of a proper shower. Of course it only works if we actually have water. Even though we have a 100 gallon fresh water tank, we need to check the levels in this heat – I learnt that lesson whilst we were at a remote campground in Utah where water was not available. It was so hot we had to preserve what was left of the tank and I had to stick my head in a stream to wash my hair – more ice-cream headache than Badedas moment.

Washing hair in a waterfall in America
It was freeeeeeeeezing!

The other necessity is a working toilet. We went for a Nature’s Head – well known by the skoolie community – a compost toilet. That sounds gross but it is the best option for a bus as it reduces the amount of waste water you accumulate and removes the need for chemicals. It doesn’t smell at all because the system has a filter that separates liquids from solids. The latter go into an area filled with peat moss and it can take about 90 ‘deposits’ before you need to change it, you just have to rotate it with a wheel on the side. It doesn’t smell at all. The liquids go into a bottle that you empty out in the toilet, or even as fertiliser. When we met with our headteacher at the school he suggested we incorporate everyday activities into our maths learning and so Guy is planning a question relating to the gallons of piss he will have emptied by the end of a year living in a bus… it’s pretty high (and pretty gross!).

legs on a bed in a skoolie
People always post pictures of their bronzed legs, draped over a beautifully made skoolie bed with a jaw-dropping view in the background. Well here is one of my dusty thighs and crusty feet. Ooooh the glamour!

At the back is our bed – a proper king size (or queen as they call it here). Blake installed a T.V here so that we can watch movies in the bedroom. There is also a roof hatch that we can climb up to enjoy the world’s best roof deck. It is lush up there – perfect for a sundowner (or a game of chequers if you are a 6 year old!). This was Guy’s long-awaited dream and it is both his and Soren’s favourite spot on the bus. 

Mirrors are your friend

It’s pretty scary hitting the road in a 38ft, 14 tonne vehicle. You have to have a special HGV license to drive something of that size in the UK but in America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license. Taking his family out on the road was the bit that Guy was anxious about. Blake had given him a quick lesson the day before in a parking lot – “rely on your mirrors to see where you are” –  and he’d watched a few youtube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’, but that first journey was a test of his nerves. He nailed it though and we were on the road, just the 4 of us, ready to go camp America style. More on that next time!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Why choose a family gap year in North America?

When you can choose to travel anywhere in the world, where do you pick? A family gap year is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, so we wanted to make sure we chose a destination that would work for all of us.

We didn’t end up where we expected.

Developed vs developing?

World Bank Developing Countries Map

My husband and I are both well travelled – backpacking is in our bones. Within months of first meeting each other we’d gone on a remote trek in Nepal and before we committed to moving in together, we spent 6 months roughing it through central America. I know that if it was just us heading off travelling, we would not even consider any of the ‘World Bank’s Advanced Economies’, opting instead for the challenges and excitement of developing countries – giving us an insight into a world very different from our own.

However, we are not going on our own. When you are 9 and 6, what you consider to be enjoyable about a holiday is very different. We want the kids to stay engaged for the whole of our family gap year. If we choose the wrong place, they might want to cut the trip short and come home.

At the same time, we don’t want to take a year out and spend a shed load of money if the destination doesn’t excite us. What to do… what to do.

The big question – what works for all of us?

We need to make sure our holiday is a winner!

To decide which destination would would be the most enjoyable place to travel, we broke the big question down into smaller ones:

  • What would the kids love?
  • What would the kids hate?
  • What could we cope with?
  • What do we all need?

We hoped that by answering these questions we would be able to make a better educated decision on the destination for our family gap year.

Love it vs HATE it.

To get a good idea of how the kids might find a developing country trip, we had a think back to previous travel experiences and tried to imagine what they would think in the same scenario:

Glacier trekking in Argentina

‘This is amazeballs I never want to leave’

  • Whale and dolphin watching
  • Hiking on glaciers and watching icebergs roll
  • Fishing, swimming and diving from boats
  • Kayaking on turquoise seas
  • Playing with new friends
  • Camping under the stars and toasting marshmallows
  • Climbing mountains and being the first to the top
  • Snowboarding, ski-ing and sledging
  • Surfing and body boarding
  • Ice creams and tasty treats
  • Building dens and getting muddy

‘I want to go home this is rubbish’

Boiled egg and cabbage

This was the vegetarian option in Bali – a boiled egg and some overcooked cabbage and potatoes
  • 14+ hour bus journeys in which you don’t get a seat
  • Completely unappetising meals.
  • Injections and tablets.
  • Roadside cafeterias that only serve food like Mondongo (hubby ate this in El Salvador even though it was covered in flies and we didn’t know what it was. It’s tripe apparently) .
  • A language you don’t understand.
  • Bedbugs and mosquitoes.
  • Being chased for a photo because you have yellow hair .
  • Delhi belly .
  • Mopeds careering around the road carrying driver, 3 passengers, a basket of hens and some window glazing (ok – they probably would find this hysterical … until we had to cross the road in front of them).
  • Hostel after hostel after hostel after hostel…

Love it, hate it… but can we cope with it?

When I talk about what we could cope with, it’s more than our own needs and interests. When you have kids you do have to seriously consider how their experiences are going to affect you and whether you are being a responsible parent or not.

‘Mummy is freaking out right now’

What would I do if we got stranded on a desert island because the boat we had arranged failed to turn up? Or if the chicken bus we were travelling in swerved around a mountain pass too quickly? How would I react if the only transport option was on the back of a moped with bare tyre treads? How would I handle it if someone tried to scam us or threatened us? All of these things have happened on my travels.

There is also the strange interpretation of health and safety…

Why is it when we are travelling that we sign up to activities and trips that we know we would never do at home? This is not just because the experience doesn’t exist at home, although there is a lack of volcanoes to surf down, piranha-infested rivers to swim in and anacondas to track, but because they simply wouldn’t be allowed at home. They are far too risky.

Volcano boarding in Nicaragua
Safety gear to snowboard down a volcano? Just a pair of rubber gloves and a white tee-shirt for me!

Now that we are contemplating taking the kids on a family gap year, do we really want them pestering us to go on an lion hunt armed with sharp sticks or trying some kind of ‘spiritual’ concoction to banish demons? Do we want them trekking up live volcanoes to stick pokey sticks into the fire? No!

Needy needs

Along with what we want, there is also what we need. On the most basic level this is food, drink, a bed, a vehicle and money in our pockets. We also want beautiful landscapes, open spaces, amazing architecture, good food…

But what about the needs that can’t be found in every country? We spoke to our headteacher about taking the kids out of school for a year and whilst he told us that as long as we focused on maths and literacy, the rest would just come with the experience, he did say we need to consider their developmental age too. We plan to extract our youngest from school for the whole of year 2 of primary and, apart from this being a SATS year, this is a big one for his understanding of social structure amongst peers. It is really important he interacts with other kids his own age – not just us and his brother, and that they both stay connected to friends and family at home. We need somewhere where he can do this – somewhere with a language and culture he can understand and reliable WiFi.

The WiFi thing is important for us too. Although I like to think we are going to switch off our devices and spend a year living our lives to the max, the reality is that we too need to stay in touch. We both want to freelance to fund the dream, you can’t do that if the only place you can connect is a WiFi cafe 3 hours north of your campsite.

The North American dream

Road trip!

It didn’t take us long to realise that our family gap year should be about wildlife and nature and beautiful landscapes. It should be about family activities that are exciting but also safe. It should be about finding English-speaking friends who the kids can play and learn with and it should cater to our WiFi needs.

We whittled the choices down and landed on North America. It offers everything we need and has some of the most incredible road trips, which is a biggy because in order to keep costs down (and interests up), we would want to escape the cities and live life on the road.

Behold the birth of the bus idea!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

How to get a United States B2 visa for a family gap year

To go to America as a visitor, you need a visa. UK citizens are eligible to apply under the ‘Visa Waiver Program’, but this only gives you up to 90 days. We obviously wanted to get our moneys worth from our big yellow bus, so needed longer. The only option for us was the much lengthier (and more expensive) process to obtain a B2 visa.

B1/B2 visa

There are loads of visas available but if you are travelling for tourism purposes, you want a B2 visitor visa. These are specifically for non-immigrant people who are ‘travelling to the United States for tourism, pleasure or visiting’.

When you are researching and filling in the paperwork, don’t be confused if you see different B options. A B2 visa is also used by people going over for medical treatment, so you’ll see lots of people talking about medicals being required. To make it even more confusing, a B2 visa is also often grouped with a B1 visa, which is for business use. A B1 visa has it’s own list of factors that don’t necessarily seem relevant to a tourist but rest assured – this is the one you need.

You may also read about single and multiple entry visas. Don’t worry about this – it’s the same visa and the single or multiple decision is made during the interview. Chances are if you have been before, you’ll be given a multiple entry.

First Step: Complete the DS-160

The DS-160 is long and tiresome. You can save your progress along the way, which you should regularly do as it seems to like crashing. It also won’t progress unless you complete each page, so if you don’t know your address on arrival etc, be mindful of any temporary information you put in as if you forget to change it later, that is what will be submitted and they may question you at interview.

Apply here if you are ready

The photo section

passport photos for visa
Now keep a straight face…

You can load up a picture to check it is sized correctly at the start, then again at the end of the form. There seems to be a fairly common error on the confirmation page though – it tells you that they can’t ‘confirm your image’. Of course, without confirmation you cannot progress to payment, which means you cannot get the details you need to book your visa interview. Oh the frustration!

I contacted the U.S embassy but they couldn’t advise on the photo upload failure because the DS-160 form is run by the U.S, not them. The advice is to check the trouble-shooting form which helpfully advises you to bring a photo on the day if you are having trouble uploading one. Of course it doesn’t recognise the fact you can’t book that interview because the form won’t let you complete. Do I sound like I am going crazy??!!

Eventually I gave up. I went back the next morning and literally clicked through every page from the start. This time it worked. I had no problem with my kids, so perhaps it just gets busy at certain times.

The questions

The form itself is split into 15 sections. It covers everything from your personal information to your travel companions, work history, U.S. contact, previous travel and lots of security and background checks. These are asked regardless of who you are applying for, so expect to fill in a lengthy form for each member of the family.

Before you fall into a panic like I did once you’ve submitted your form past the point of return, you didn’t miss a whole section about where you have travelled in the last five years, your work and education background and whether you have worked for a charity. Men get asked loads more questions to women (how very sexist!). Even though I knew the form wouldn’t let you progress without filling in all boxes, I only felt calm again when I found the question comparison on some obscure forum. And breathe!

It’s kind of funny that they should filter out questions about work and travel for women but they still keep in all their security questions for kids. Evidently it’s more ridiculous for me to have a work history than my 6-year old to have conspired to commit human trafficking whilst taking drugs and escaping prison?!

All the visa and passport stuff is asked in this section and so be ready to fill it in with your B1/B2 request.

Visa options

There is a handy walkthrough of all the DS-160 questions on the Visa Traveller blog

Family forms

After you have filled in your own form and confirmed it is all correct, there is an option to apply for a family. You still have to complete all the forms, but I believe it just allows you to fill in a new blank form, rather than over-writing your last one. Ironically, this is the one time when over-writing is helpful as you don’t have to keep typing in your address etc. I can’t confirm this as because of all the crashing and failure to upload, I ended up having to do ours separately. It didn’t seem to matter – I still got all 4 confirmations through with separate reference numbers.

Payment

Once you have completed the form, you have to pay the disgustingly large sum of $160 per person. This is non-refundable, so you really want to make sure you got those questions right. Once you submit your form, there are options to print it out and to email it. Choose the latter so you have a copy. Make sure you also print it out / note down the number as you need this to apply for your visa interview and it can sometimes take a bit of time to get your email confirmation through.

Top tip: note down your DS-160 confirmation number as you need all of them to apply for a family interview

The visa interview

The form alone does not get you anywhere. When your DS-160 confirmation comes through, it will tell you what needs to happen next. Namely, you have to go to the embassy in which you plan to apply for a visa for an interview.

There was lots of availability for visa interviews and we scheduled one the following week. Give yourself time to prepare though as it takes a while to get everything together. Once you have confirmed, you will get another email with various bar codes and information that you need to print.

Keep in mind that unless you can return to London the following week to collect your visas from one of the designated collection points, you will have to pay a small fortune to have it couriered to your home. We went with the collection option. It’s worth noting this down as you get so many different emails it took me ages to go back and find it!

Book a visa interview here.

Taking the kids

Fingers crossed before our visa appointment at the United States Embassy
Fingers crossed before our appointment at the United States Embassy

Although we had read on the U.S . Department of State pages that children under the age of 14 do not need to apply in person, when we applied with our DS-160 reference numbers we were told that all 4 of us had to turn up in person. I checked this with the U.S. London Embassy because it meant taking the kids out of school, but they just sent back an automated style message that confirmed that if the form requests attendance then attendance is required.

Arriving for your interview

The time slot you choose isn’t necessarily when you will be seen, so don’t structure your day around it. We were given 11am and arrived at 10.40 to find lots of people waiting outside. Although we didn’t have to join that queue, we got stuck in one going through security inside and had to wait to collect our interview number. We eventually arrived in the interview bit at about 11.15 and our number was called around 11.30.

The interview is split into two sections – the first checks your documents and then second asks you questions. You have to wait in between the two but get your decision at the second. After that you are free to leave as your passports, if successful, will be sent to the collection point you specified in your application. All in all, we were there for 2 hours.

Top tip: take snacks and stuff for the kids to do. It’s dull waiting!

No laptops allowed in the U.S. Embassy

District Coffee shop near US embassy
You can store your laptops and bags at District coffee shop.

We noticed there was a sign that said that laptops were not allowed and could not be stored at the embassy, which was a pain as we had brought one.

The woman checking paperwork at the door helpfully directed us to a coffee shop around the corner called District. For £10 you get a coffee and a secure place to keep your things – while we were there 3 people came in to request the same thing, they must be making a killing!

Top tip: leave your laptop at home. If you can’t, head to District on the way over

What you need to take to your interview

  1. Current Passport that is valid for at least 6 months.
  2. DS-160 confirmation page.
  3. Confirmation and Instructions page from the embassy
  4. One 5 x 5 cm (2 x 2 inches) colour photo taken within the last 6 months.
  5. Accompanying family members marriage certificate (spouse) and/or birth certificate (for unmarried children under 21)

All of this was easy to get apart from the photo. We had submitted some online but when it came to printing them I had trouble. The criteria say the picture should be 5cm x 5cm and so I had taken photos and sorted them out on Photoshop. Our photo-printer is useless though, so I sent them to Boots and Max Spielmann at Tesco to get printed and both automatically resized them – cropping my head off. Max Spielmann said that there was nothing that they could do about this and if we wanted proper photos, we had to pay £15 per person for their visa photos. What a rip off! Worryingly, the attendant said the photos I had would not be accepted as there was a slight shadow on our youngest sons, the other son had a bit of hair over his ear and my head was too small. Panic stations! In the end we found that PhotoMe booths have a US visa option for £8 per person – still a rip off but not quite so bad. We had to suck it up and drive across town to make sure we all had a set of photos.

At the interview mine and the boys online photos were fine. Ha Max Spielmann – I’m glad we didn’t let you rip us off. Ironically the only problem was my husbands as he had used the same photo in his 2 year old passport. This was outside the 6 month photo criteria they set and so we had to provide a new one for him. We of course had it with us but I don’t even think it would be an enormous problem if you didn’t – the US embassy had two Photo-Me booths in the room.

Top tip – Photo-me booths do US visa photos if you need them and they have 2 machines actually within the US embassy interview area.

What you should take to your interview

As well as the above, the consulate recommend that you should take supporting materials with you and this is crucial for the second part of your interview.

Prepare to be asked about every aspect of your trip – who you know over there, what do they do, why you are going now, why so long, what are your plans, do you have family over there, how will you cover costs and how can you prove you want to return to the UK.

It really does seem to depend on who you get as to how severe the questioning is. We read lots of forum threads with recommendations on remembering addresses of friends, providing photos to show your life and relatives in the UK, taking as many documents as possible to show ties and coming up with budget and savings detail to prove how you will fund your trip. We did EVERYTHING.

In the end our questions focused on what we wanted to do while we were there and why did we want to go for longer than the ESTA visa allows. This was easy as it was all true – we told her that we wanted to go now and for a longer period because of our kids – once they get too old it will become harder to take them out of more serious secondary schooling. Also they won’t want to come with us then! We talked about going to see bears and going on camping adventures, visiting family and taking an RV down the coast.

She checked both boys birth certificates (the longer ones which show both parents names) and asked about the kids schooling. We talked about our plans to work with the school to follow their curriculum and to re-apply when we return as both boys loved their school. Although it was a faff taking the kids, I’m sure their smiley faces helped – they behaved beautifully and she had a laugh with them when they asked what an RV is. We told them it was an American camper-van and she commented that they would learn a whole load of new American words. First clue as to our fate.

Fun and games bit over, we got to the more serious questions. This is where they need to know you can afford to be there and also committed to returning home. We had stayed up late formulating a loose budget for a year long trip and getting our savings and funding streams in order. When she asked us about how we would fund our travels we were able to show her exactly on a spreadsheet. No supporting material was requested to prove the figures were correct, although we did have them in the file just in case.

Thumbs up outside the US embassy - we got our visa
The U.S Embassy says yes!

She approved all of our visas. Hurrah!

A day later we received a message to say they were being couriered to our collection point. We had planned to go to London a week later and so picked them up then. We had been issued multiple entry, which is fab. It means we can use the same visas going in and out of America for the next 10 years.

Top tip: Be prepared. Take as many documents as possible to back up your story.