I’m only nine days into my journey across the country and I’ve already learned a thing or two.

I had a bit of a mishap at the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. I decided that I was going to camp there as I was leaving the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. I tried looking at the maps online, but it was hard to understand them. After calling the forest office, I was told that the foyers of the ranger stations were left open at night with maps. I hoped the paper maps at the station would be more useful.

I stopped over briefly in Cornwall, New York in the Hudson Valley to visit my friend Brendan Davis. After helping him with a mini-video project about me and my van for his company, Ràs Life, I was on my way to the forest.

I did not arrive at the Marienville ranger station until 9:30 p.m. It was after dark and all the rangers were gone. I found the maps, but they were the exact same thing as what was online. I found the closest campground to where I was, and set off into the darkness of deep, Pennsylvania woods, fingers crossed that there might still be a site available for me.

The woodland roads turned into dirt roads, which became thinner and thinner as I drove along. At times it looked more like an old stream bed than a road. Just as I thought I was getting close to the turn I was supposed to take for the campground, I hit a dead end. A sign on a locked gate blocked the road, announcing that no cars were allowed (but foot traffic was welcome). I was still several miles away from where I needed to be.

I tried a side road and hit another dead end, and came back to the road block, parked my van in a pull-off, and decided to call it a night. My plans to pitch my tent and cook a nice meal turned into sleeping in my van and eating a cold can of baked beans. It ended up being a good thing that I slept inside, because a huge thunder and lightning storm came through. I watched the flashes of lightning illuminate the whole forest through the window blinds.

Lots of mistakes were made here, with the recurring theme being lack of planning. I should have left Rhinebeck earlier, I should have had a longer conversation with the ranger on the phone, I should have determined my campsite before showing up, I should have showed up with daylight left, and I should have checked the weather.

It wasn’t so bad. In the morning when I woke up to the sunlight streaming in through the blinds, I found myself in what felt like a rainforest. As I trudged off into the brush to pee, I found myself face to face with a deer. I had a hot oatmeal breakfast, spun the van around, and admired the sheer hugeness of the forest as I drove out. I even came across a beaver waddling his way down the drainage ditch of the road, with a one-track determination to reach his destination, wherever that was.

Waking up in the Allegheny National Rainforest after a poorly-planned night of camping and a big thunderstorm.

I planned the leg of my trip from Cleveland to Chicago much more carefully. After Cleveland, I slept in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Angola, Indiana, a town we had walked through on the Climate March. Camping out in Wal-Mart, surprisingly, wasn’t that bad. The next day I was able to spend plenty of time at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, as well as tour a few industrial sites on my way into Chicago to meet up with friends. More on that coming in another post!

My goal on this trip is to leave myself open to potential diversions and changes of plan. However, there is a balance to being completely spontaneous and being an itinerary-worshipping super-planner.

Quick camping tips:

  • If you can, plan you camping trip on week days. Parks and forests tend to be much less crowded on week days and nights than on weekends.
  • Have cash on you to pay campsite fees, they’re often a do-it-yourself affair with no credit card swiping available.
  • Check the weather! Bring rain gear even if your phone says it isn’t going to rain! This should include a footprint (a tarp) to put underneath your tent. I don’t care how waterproof your tent was designed to be. I’ve always regretted it when I didn’t bring a footprint.
  • Avoid hypothermia. Ditch the cotton clothes. Every last thread.
  • Have paper maps and written directions in addition to a GPS. A piece of paper won’t tell you that it’s lost signal.
  •  In general, state forests tend to be much less crowded than national forests, national parks, and state parks. State forests tend not to be as well known, and often have less amenities, making them less attractive to the average weekend/family camper. One drawback: state forests often have websites that aren’t very user friendly. I’m currently camping at a state forest in Iowa, and I’m pretty sure the maps on their website were made with the Paint program.
  • Call ahead to ask about campsite availability.
  • Call ahead even for Wal-Mart camping. Wal-Mart is generally welcoming to overnight campers, but it’s good to check, and if a cop comes and taps on your window, you can tell them that you were given permission to be there.

Do you have any stories of planning and travel mishaps? Any advice for how to make a trip run smoothly?



One thought on “Balancing spontaneity

  1. AWE-SOME description of yr camping-in-the-van experience: as you observed, it turn’d out better than if u had set up yr tent !! —–Creek-water


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