America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Guest blog: a visitor’s viewpoint

When my daughter Ruth and her husband Guy started talking about taking the boys out of school and going travelling, I thought it was a great idea … but I guess I didn’t really think it could happen. A million and one reasons why it wouldn’t. But it did.

I should have known that any couple who got married on top of a mountain in Scotland would just keep on having adventures, kids or not! A whole year away – a whole year away from my two beautiful grandsons, let alone Daughter No. 1. Such conflicting feelings – proud of them for taking on this big adventure yet sad that they were going so far away. But I knew the latter sentiment, whilst understandable, was selfish, so of course they had my full support.

Tears tinged with excitement

I didn’t have to wait too long before I saw them all again and this time it would be in Canada – a special trip for my 70th birthday!

When they finally left it was very emotional – a year was such a long time. I was excited though too. I knew I had a big holiday out to visit them in Canada planned – joining them in Banff so we could drive the Icefields Parkway before heading toward Vancouver Island to go whale watching. I was excited about Canada but, aside from seeing them, I was really excited about the unique aspect of the trip: what 70 year old can say they have travelled across the Rockies in a school bus?!

My first bus experience

The Skoolie lifestyle was like comfortable camping.

I’d seen photos and videos of the bus so I sort of knew what to expect, but the real thing was so much better. Basic, yes. But comfortable, and once you got used to the confined space (and having to build the bed every night and take it down again in the morning) it worked very well.

We loved the outdoor lifestyle. Living in a bus meant we got a completely different view of Canada. Every day we woke up somewhere new, we watched wildlife from our window and ate meals next to the campfire. We loved it so much we decided that when we got home to the UK we would buy our own campervan.

It was great to be back with my boys

When it was time to head home again I hated having to leave them all. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see them again but, three months later I was back . And this time we planned it as as a surprise.

A Texan arrival

The Texas trip was different to the Vancouver one. It wasn’t so much of a holiday – it was specifically to see them and I didn’t really care where they were. I wanted to fly out in January, partly because it was Soren’s birthday (and, let’s be honest, I’m always ready to take a trip!) and they worked out that they would be in Texas then. The weather isn’t ideal at that time of year and it wasn’t particularly a place I’d thought about visiting, I was happy to just fit in with their itinerary. It’s always interesting to go to another part of the world and I’d never been to Texas so let’s holiday y’all!

My second Skoolie experience

It was immediately clear that living on a bus was now ‘ordinary’ for the Chimps – all four of them had adapted to a life lived on the move in a confined space with very few material possessions and limited facilities.

Guy is an inventive and excellent cook, which is fortunate as they are managing on a very tight budget so eating out was a real luxury. And the oven is unpredictable, to say the least.

Showers, hair washing, laundry and other such activities happened when facilities were available, which was often irregularly. Back home they have a lovely house with every gadget and machine you could want to make life easier, a lovely big kitchen, a utility room with a tumble drier, a large bedroom with an ensuite bathroom, etc etc. On the bus they had none of this … and it didn’t seem to bother them at all. The whole family had completely scaled down their lives to the basics. And they seemed all the happier for it.

The compost toilet was great – it didn’t smell and it coped with all of us. I’m not sure I could cope long term with it though. I definitely wouldn’t want to be the one to empty it. Poor Guy!

The bigger challenges of Skoolie life

It hasn’t all been plain sailing and I could see where the changes in their lifestyle were posing challenges. Being together 24/7 puts a lot of strain on a family, and adding life on a bus into the equation makes it even harder. Ruth and Guy never have a chance to spend time just with each other, and that works both ways as Kit and Soren can’t ever get away from their parents! There are pressure points, it’s only to be expected.

It was lovely to go for long walks with Ruth – we made up for the deprivation of girlie chats!

Home schooling the boys is a definite problem area. Getting them to focus on their numeracy and literacy lessons whilst driving along the highway with all the interesting things to look at out of the window is very difficult. As with so many things in life, if you’re interested in something, you’ll remember it. If it’s boring or difficult, forget it … literally.

Meeting the alligators at Brazos Bend
Meeting the alligators at Brazos Bend – the boys were much more interested in learning when they were hands on.

It would be so easy to abandon lessons completely, but when they come home the boys have to go back to full time schooling and they need to be at the same level as, or close to, their contemporaries. It will be interesting to see how they’ll be able to use the extensive knowledge of the natural world that they’ve gained from living up close and personal in it.

An unforseen challenge

Heading to the airport this time was sad. I thought it was unlikely I would come back out but you never know. I certainly didn’t know that Coronavirus would make that impossible.

And how things change. As I left Texas, news of a virus in the Far East was just appearing, but that wouldn’t affect us, right? I did notice that the US airport security people were wearing face masks, but I thought that was just typical American over-reaction. Now, four months later, COVID19 has hit us and we no longer live in a free world. Ruth and Guy couldn’t get home even if they wanted to. But, strangely, they are doing self-isolation in reverse. Their nomadic way of life meant they’d had minimal contact with other people, either physically or virtually. Wifi and phone signals were patchy, to say the least, and the State Park campsites allowed for plenty of space between visitors. When lockdown happened they were on a Skoolie Homestead in Georgia, planning to stay a few days, do some work on the bus, then move on. Best laid plans of mice and men ….

Two months’ later and they’re still there, along with a few other Skoolie families, a swimming pool, Wifi and Netflix! And endless on-line resources for home schooling. But that is not what this trip was about and Ruth and Guy have got itchy feet again – they don’t want the last couple of months of their great adventure to finish with a whimper instead of a bang. Part of me wishes they would stay – they are safe and contactable – but I understand why they have made the decision to isolate on the go.

What do I think about the Chimps’ return?

Sitting on a box in a carpark
The reality of living in bus, waking up in a car park and having to sit in a certain place to get phone connection

At home, in a ‘normal’ life, there are things you can’t imagine living without. A daily shower. A pint of draught beer. A decent cuppa. Cadbury’s chocolate. Your own private space. New clothes. Clean clothes! But the Chimps all seemed to accept these deprivations as the price they were willing to pay to embrace their new way of life. When I think back to their lifestyle at home, it amazes me that they gave it all up to live on a bus. But then again, the motivation behind this whole trip was that they wanted a different way of life from the very comfortable but predictable one they already had. They’ve certainly got that. But eventually they have to come home and they’re going to have to think very hard about what happens then.

It would be too easy to slip back into that old, comfortable life but I think they will try hard not to let this happen. I’m so very proud of what they’ve achieved. They had the courage to follow their dream, and I have total confidence that whatever they decide to do moving forward – and Ruth and Guy are always full of crazy ideas – they will succeed and be happy. And as for Kit and Soren – right now they can’t wait to get back to their friends and family (and Cadbury’s chocolate), but in time they’ll look back on their year on the Skoolie and realise how much fun they had and how much they learnt without even realising it.

So this bus is moving on. Now the State Parks are open again they can finish their trip. Self isolation will be manageable when they’re on the move – thank goodness the bus has its own shower and toilet – and as for clean clothes, who cares? Certainly not Kit and Soren! There are so many ifs and buts and unknowns, but on 9 July the Travelling Chimps will hopefully be on their way back to the UK, a very different environment to the one they left a year before. But I for one will be very happy knowing they’re safely home – and within hugging distance. I may never let go!

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!