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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Lessons in Louisiana and Mississippi

The Deep South. The words conjure up an array of images, each promising a very different picture of America to that which we have experienced so far. We were entering Louisiana and Mississippi, each State a centre for the chequered history surrounding slavery, war and poverty, but also a heartland for the music, food and Southern way of life that charms travellers from around the globe.

There were many lessons to be learnt on our journey through the first States of the Deep South – not everything was as it seemed and we were surprised at every turn.

When it comes to State Parks, don’t make presumptions

The closer we get to the east, the harder it seems to be to find cheap or free blm campsites. I am sure they exist but not with the prevalence of Montana or California. The answer to our problem: State Parks.

State parks = power = margaritas and movies in bed!

State Parks are like the little brother of National Parks. Like all younger siblings there is an element of copying – they have the same focus on nature, conservation and education – but unlike their big brother, they keep a much more local focus. They also offer some of the most economical ways to camp around the U.S, offering big sites with shower and dump facilities in some of the most wonderful environments the State can offer.

Palmetto Island was the boys favourite – here they are plotting the best way to photograph armadillos on the way to the splash park. Unfortunately the plans failed, hence this photo!

Each state is different; Texas offered free fishing, Montana offered ultimate wilderness and Oregon offered exceptional beach access. We weren’t expecting Louisiana’s to be anything special – they are not a rich State – but we were wrong! Alongside the bayous full of alligators (don’t swim here folks!), they offered free laundry and waterparks and fire pits. That makes for a very happy family!

There is no such thing as slavery?!

Did you know that more slaves ended up in Brazil than in America? It was a new fact to me. It was one that Louisiana wanted to point out though – perhaps because they wanted to deflect from the awful struggle that has been so well documented of the plight of American slaves on the Louisiana plantations.

The slaves quarters at Whitney plantation. The bowls are for boiling sugar cane.

Visiting a plantation had been high on my agenda. I wanted to explain what had happened to the kids and also learn more about how America had learnt from her past and what she was doing to change her future. You can imagine my surprise when, on asking my Texan friend which plantation to visit, her response was to “skip the plantations” altogether.

It turns out the Louisiana story is crafted more around southern glamour Think big hoop skirts and mint juleps in beautifully manicured tea gardens. Slaves are not entirely forgotten – our Texan friends said they had seen a plaque at the plantation they visited that ‘thanked the Africans that came to help set up the plantation’. Hmmmm.

A project was undertaken to talk to people who lived through slavery – most of who were children at the time. The Whitney commissioned an artist to make statues of those children and it was a moving tribute.

I found a National Geographic article about a different plantation – the Whitney – that focuses entirely on the slave experience. The write-up suggested all Americans should go and visit this ‘hard-hitting’ and ‘truthful‘ museum. It sounded more like what I was after and so we chose to go there instead. It was a much more realistic portrait. Very little of the tour is spent in the big house – most of it is split between the memorials for the slaves and the slaves quarters. The tour guide brought home the horrors of working in the field with water snakes, alligators and sharp cane. He showed us the sugar cane warehouses where cane was ground up and repeatedly boiled in increasingly smaller bowls, leading to perils such as spitting sugar that would weld to the skin or loss of limb in a grinder. Needless to say, the idea of someone’s job being to stand with an axe next to the grinder in case someone got a hand caught (it was better to chop a hand off than have a whole arm mangled) was the takeaway for the boys.

One of the exhibits memorialises 45 slaves from the area that tried to escape in 1811. They were caught and tried: guilty. Their heads were placed on poles as a deterrent. This photo is from visitnopc.com as unfortunately the exhibit is hidden and we didn’t realise it was there until we read about it later

It was moving and saddening to hear about the Whitney slaves but it wasn’t anything new. Perhaps the greater lesson for me was the fact that Americans seem not quite ready to fully face up to their murky past and the role they played in shaping the racial divide across the Nation. Why hide the most moving exhibit of the 45 beheaded slaves from view? It should be seen because it really happened.

At the time of the National Geographic article (2016) the Whitney was the only museum dedicated to slavery in the U.S. The only one! I guess slavery so wholly goes against the ideals of ‘freedom, equality and justice‘, it’s just too big a pill to swallow. The one saving grace is that The Whitney tours have been so popular that the surrounding plantations have started to include ‘slavery tours’ as part of their larger offering to the public. It may not be the perfect way to approach the subject but at least it is included.

Not all museums are equal

Back in Idaho we made a hilarious trip to the Potato Museum and we use this as our benchmark for all museums. Was it as engaging as the Potato Exhibit?  Did they have as much variety (ha ha) in their offering?

We find ourselves in the strangest parking spots!

Well I can report that the International Petroleum Museum in Louisiana is high on the potatometer. It looked good – we could stay for free on the land if we took the 90 minute tour around the oil rig, which showcased submarines and drills and all sorts of boy’s toys. As our mumbling guide droned on about pipe diameters in a hot, sticky, airless cafeteria, answering every question with a “well I don’t know for sure about that...” , we wished we had chosen to pay for a State Park. How disappointing.

Then, to top it off, we stepped out of inner rooms on the oil rig and I trod in a cat poo. Excellent. “Ah, yeah” said our petrol man, “I hate that cat. They keep it to get rid of all the rats up here”. Double excellent.

Mardi Gras is not all boobs on Bourbon Street

The lights of Bourbon Street – the hub of the French Quarter

I was so excited about New Orleans – it was one of the only dates we had set in our diary. We HAD to be there for Mardi Gras because that is something that has always been on my bucket list.

The closer we got the New Orleans, the more precarious our plan felt. People kept telling us how dangerous New Orleans was – particularly at Mardi gras. “make sure you lock up your Skoolie”, “be careful going out at night”, “don’t take out your valuables”, “don’t take the kids to Bourbon Street” and such like. Could it be that bad?

Music and colour on every corner

From the minute we arrived, staying at the wonderful Jude Travel Park which offered us a cheap transfer into the city, we found New Orleans to be a delight. Hands down, it’s the best city we have visited on our tour of the U.S. Don’t be put off people!

Lovely coffee shops with lovely aunty Lou Lou

We arrived on the weekend before the big Mardi Gras events but there were still parades on everyday. We watched several from the Garden District which was a great family friendly alternative to Bourbon Street. The boys went wild for the freebies thrown out by the floats and Auntie Lou-Lou was declared Queen of the Freebies when she showcased her haul at the end of the day.

We didn’t avoid the infamous French Quarter completely – why would you? True, it can get a bit risque but as long as you don’t go too late then we found it to be OK. We stopped to watch music on corners and collect beads thrown from balconies above. The boys barely raised an eyebrow at the topless women selling nipple glitter – there was too much other stuff to look at. The worst of it was the number of amazing looking jazz bars that we just couldn’t go inside. When you live in a Skoolie and feel a bit nightlife-deprived, going to New Orleans with two under 21 tag-a-longs during Mardi Gras is just a tad frustrating!

There is more to the flying of the Confederate flag than meets the eye… or is there?

A common sight – US flag, Confederate flag and a Trump Pence placard.

The information our favourite travelling family shared with us about the plantations was part of a bigger conversation about where to stop in the South. They had little advice because they hadn’t really found anywhere to recommend – southern hospitality? More like southern animosity…

we couldn’t get used to the confederate flags in Mississippi and Alabama. You are white so you will be fine. We are brown so I’m more tuned in to white nationalist folks and their weird gatherings. They won’t mess with you.”

True to their word, the minute we crossed the border into Mississippi we started to see more and more Confederate flags. Why fly a flag for a battle that ended in 1865? Surely it couldn’t be allowed if it was just a racist statement. Or could it?

First a bit of history…

The Confederate army, from the Southern states, fought a bloody battle in 1861-65 against the Unionists, the Northern States, largely over slavery

The Confederate flag is the flag of the southern army that fought in the Civil War, a conflict in which somewhere between 620,000 to 750,000 people lost their lives – more than the number of U.S. military deaths in all other wars combined. The Confederate army suffered the bulk of those deaths. They lost the battle and were denied what they felt was their right – to secede and to keep slavery. With the rules imposed on the south, coupled with battle losses, the southern states lost everything. Mississippi, for example, went from being one of the richest states to one of the poorest.

It may have been been in the 1860’s but the fight of the Confederates has been romanticised somewhat. The Guardian spoke to flag flyers who claim it has nothing to do with slavery and racism anymore, it is about historic pride and ongoing oppression of the South by the North.

Of course to most black people this is all it stands for. The war’s key issue was slavery and the Confederates wanted to keep it going. Over the years it has become the emblem of pro-white rallies – even the Ku Klux Klan flew it.

I can understand the need to remember the past but you also need to recognise how that past affects the future.

As we left New Orleans, we drove through a smaller Mardi Gras parade in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. Confederate flags flew in the crowd and on the floats. I read in the paper afterwards that a 12 year-old black girl had been beckoned over to one float – usually this means there is a gift to be thrown out – and the white man gave her a ‘mammy doll’ with a noose around it’s neck, telling her that this would be her when she grew up. The float organisers distanced themselves from it saying that it went against their policies and so forth but it’s hard to read this and then have sympathy for White Americans as the oppressed party.

Southern food comes sweet and salty

We were excited about the food in the south. Gumbo and boiled crayfish, red beans and rice… it all sounded yum.

Give me the sugar!!!!!

Some of it was. If ever you are in New Orleans, make some time for beignets and coffee (ask for it strong – we are yet to get a good cup in the U.S). The fresh doughnuts are served warm and covered in icing sugar. They melt in the mouth. Watch your kids though – There must have been a bag of sugar emptied on each basket and Soren practically had his face in it!


If you are ever in Bay St Louis, not only should you avoid their Mardi gras parade, stay well clear of Cuz’s gumbo. Wikipedia describes a good gumbo as “consist(ing) primarily of a strongly-flavored stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and what Louisianians call the “Holy Trinity” of vegetables, namely celery, bell peppers, and onions. At Cuz’s you can remove the meat, shellfish and vegetables and replace them with salt, salt and more salt. Take your rumbling tummy to Rita Mae’s in Morgan City where the home-cooked shrimp lafayette was infused with spices and a love of the good in life.

Alabama didn’t make the cut

Sorry, we drove through and got to Florida by sunset

I feel it was something of a sham to put our Alabama sticker on our travel map because we didn’t even set foot in the state. We were on a tight schedule to get Louise to Orlando and so we literally drove straight across it and out the other side. Sorry Alabama. We hear you have a good warship museum in Mobile but frankly it was a little too expensive for us to justify stopping.

Good kids can go bad

I have mentioned homeschooling before, when we were just starting to knuckle down and focus on how best to teach the kids whilst on the road. We found our way. As we weaved our way down the Washington coast it all came together – literacy and maths, half an hour (ish) each a day plus whatever learning came along in the form of excursions, National Park workbooks etc.

Science lessons with Soz and literacy with Kit. Both embracing the wizard theme!

As we moved through the year and we got to the real meat of the curriculum, we hit the learning wall. Although our youngest had no trouble, it became tougher and tougher for our 9-year-old to keep focused. Our short and snappy lessons were met with a blank and sleepy-looking face. If children are like sponges then he was one in which absorption was at full capacity – no more was getting in and a fair amount seemed to be leaking out in the form of tears because he “hated learning in the bus”, “couldn’t concentrate in America” and ultimately “wanted to be back at school in England”.

Lessons are rarely half hour…. Not because Guy is sidetracked or anything…

It’s hard to play the role of teacher when you are not one. It’s endlessly frustrating to see your child give up when you know they are capable. It’s hard not to end up shouting, which we have done because it’s become such a massive, head-bang against the wall, time-sucking, mood-hoover of a challenge for all of us. We try to be patient and to go at his speed but there has to be a balance – if we want him to go back into school then there are certain number of things he has to learn.

School in a school bus is not as easy as we thought

I’d love to tell you that we found the answer in the Louisiana lessons, and in some areas we have, but overall it’s a work in progress. Suffice to say homeschooling is not the breeze we had envisaged! Maybe at 9 going on 10, concentrating is just impossible and learning is evil. Maybe, and I think this is most likely, he thinks it will all be a waste of time as his Hogwarts letter will surely be arriving soon…

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Skoolie Stays

Camping in a Skoolie in America​

Camping in a Skoolie in America

How easy is it to get around in a 37ft school bus and where do you sleep? We have all the answers!

 

This is where it began – the change of scene that we all need now and again. 

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

The beautiful part about living in a Skoolie is that your home comes with you, whatever the destination. We left Utah, snaking our way up past Bear Lake and into Idaho, before crossing the border into Wyoming for our first National Parks: Yellowstone and the lesser-known, Grand Teton. Throughout this first month of our travels, we learnt about the wide range of options for those living in a home on wheels and what worked for us and our bus. 

Life on the road

We may have been sleeping in campgrounds but we were sleeping in relative luxury. Living in a Skoolie is not like traditional camping – we didn’t have to store our food in a coolbox full of melted ice or sleep on slowly deflating airbeds for a start! Our bus-home had everything we might need for a comfortable life: a hot shower, toilet, fridge freezer, cooker, comfortable beds. Of course all that takes up space. We measured in at 37ft plus few extra feet for our bike rack. So how easy was it to get around?

 

Americans truly love the road. In the UK, if a drive 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 – we need to ‘recover from the journey’. It is completely different in America – there is nothing they like more than a road-trip.  In Yellowstone, we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck, with two kids under 10, to camp for the weekend.  

They may like the road but they also like their space and comfort. As we drove through Utah, Idaho and Wyoming we passed numerous 40ft motorhomes, often towing a car or a boat, as well as a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. Many of them had slide-outs too (weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth) to make the living space bigger. Our 37ft skoolie looked small in comparison and size was never an issue as we navigated our way north.

Campsite camping in a Skoolie

Skoolie at a state campsite
In National Parks, there are less options. If you want to stay in the park, you have to stay in a National Park campsite. These are usually the most basic - just a toilet, with a waste and water station. Unfortunately those that perfer amenities tend to resort to generators, which can make the sites a bit noisy.

We budgeted our trip based on staying at proper campsites with all the amenities but campsites in America really varied in cost and facilities. You could be looking at anything from $7 to $100+ a night depending on where you are and what type of campsite you choose.

 

As a rule, campsites run by the state, national parks, US Forest Service and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) are much cheaper and in more rural locations but often come with more basic facilities – They may not have power or they might not have a shower block.  they invariably have terrible mobile phone coverage. The privately owned campsites are more like holiday homes and have big sites with plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops etc – but they often felt a bit big and impersonal. Lots of people live in RVs in America and it felt like many were just holed up in their front rooms watching cable television. 

 

Because we could live off-grid and wanted to explore the outdoors, we quickly realised that we preferred more basic camping, but that’s not a choice for everyone. If you do prefer to have all your amenities close at hand, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, breaks America up into different zones and you can pay for individual or multiple zones. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like more than you can afford, you can just join a membership scheme like KOA (campsites of America) or The Good Sam Club– you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay. 

Basic camping in a Skoolie

Beautiful camp spots
This stunning site cost us all of $7 in an honesty box

State camping options vary according to each State. In Montana, as well as other more remote places on the west coast and in the desert, we had no facilities other than a long drop toilet, but they rarely cost us more than $10- $15 a night. On the west coast in Oregon, Washington and California, the state sites were on the beach and had lovely shower blocks etc. They were often closer to $50 a night. 


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 were incredibly friendly and accommodating – they were all thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. They loved the Skoolie and usually went bananas when we told them we were English!

Free Skoolie camping: Dispersed sites

Wilderness camping spots for free
Sites like these are completely free

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 (although sometimes you get a long-drop), 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 loved the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they were 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? Would we be able to turn around? Were 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 (a celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Free Skoolie camping: Boondocking

Harvest host at distillery
Our quest to sample local produce saw us drinking potato vodka in Idaho, eating cheese in Oregon, trying lavender oil in Washington, eating sourdough and pickles in South Carolina, drinking wine in California and whisky in Tennessee.

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Americans are much more open to the idea of people camping than the Brits are. There are various truck stops and Walmarts that let you sleep in their parking lot, as well as official schemes that help to hook you up with people willing to offer you space on their land. We had several great experiences using Boondockers Welcome, staying with a lady in Montana who showed us how to bake bread, a Texan who let us pick fresh fruit and veg from his veg patch and gave us some of the deer shot last year (well, we were in America!) and many more. 

 

We also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gave us details of wineries, breweries etc that were happy to put up RVs. It’s proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. For a family with kids, this was often the best way for us to sample the local wares – parking in a city to go to a restaurant was not an option, our bus was to big and our budget too small. It turned into a real highlight of our trip. America does have foodies after all!

camping with goats
We had some friendly neighbours at the Goat farm in Tallahasee

We also used Hipcamp, which often meant paying a little to stay on someone’s land, but that was a good option too. We found ourselves volunteering on a goat farm in Florida and a pig farm in Georgia that gave us and the kids the kind of opportunity you just wouldn’t find at the regular campsites. 

 

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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!