Our cross-country adventure started in mid-October when we headed northwest out of Alabama on I-22. As soon as we crossed the Mississippi River into the delta wetlands of Arkansas, I sensed a sudden change. Here, trees shrink and the land flattens, hinting at what's to come. Driving our van on curvy Arkansas roads into Oklahoma, we continued west. Halfway through the heartland, bushes replace trees, and grass-covered hills take over the landscape. Small lakes dot the lowlands, eventually changing to flat prairie that extends to the horizon.
The change from one landscape to another is my favorite part of traveling across country. I love noticing the quiet details of one landscape giving way to another, and I appreciate the opportunity to live in and better understand different environments. This journey -- looping from Alabama, northwest to Oregon, south through California, and east again -- allowed me to experience nearly every kind of landscape in our beautifully diverse country.
My husband, Garrett, and I had a rough sketch for our trip, mostly vague destinations, and a deadline to arrive in Portland by the end of the October. Traveling with our 10-month-old daughter and huskies in our newly converted Ram ProMaster, we wanted to start with some familiar territory, so our initial route took us to familiar campsites until we crossed north of Utah and into Idaho.
We parking-lot camped through crowded parts of the South until we reached west Oklahoma and made camp at one of our favorite sites. It's a quiet spot nestled along a stretch of highway that wraps partly around a lake. The first time we camped here was a few years earlier in late spring, when the insects and tall grasses were all starting to come alive. This time in late fall, the tall grasses were dried or cut back to clear a view of the lake. We worked and camped here one day and decided to move on to our next spot in west Texas when we clocked out the following day.
It was nearly dusk before we reached our next site. The sun beamed across the prairie and shot red, orange and yellow across the sky. If you pay attention to it, you'll see how the seasons, clouds, moon, and location change the color and intensity of a sunset. Across the prairie you can see how the entire sky bends with the earth. The colors bend too, and when the stars finally begin to show, you can see the gradient of light fading from the sky into blackness still bending around the earth.
I learned years ago when we first started traveling that waking with the sun is medicine. It's peaceful and gentle. There's plenty of time and no rush in an early sunrise, and of course, nothing compares to a sunrise in a new place.
The air was still cool that morning in Texas, and we quickly put away our bed and let the dogs out before starting breakfast. We designed our ProMaster van to be as dog-friendly as possible by leaving both side and rear doors fully accessible and limiting our cabinetry.
Building a van to suit our needs meant maximizing multi-function. We decided to wait on choosing several important accessories and permanent decisions until after our long road trip so that we had plenty of time to get familiar with our layout and feel more certain with final choices. For our van floor plan, we knew we wanted a murphy bed in the rear along with an added seat/second bed at the front, but we also wanted to keep our floor plan open to allow more space for our pups. We decided to test out a portable power station for the trip, and chose a small 240 watt-hour solar power station, 60W solar panel, and additional shore power connection when needed. With our solar battery bank we could recharge from the sun, wall outlet, or from the van's 12V plug to keep our bank fully charged without needing to park in the sun all day. Our minimal power needs also meant less time charging and less worry for maintaining.
Our road trip went from west Texas through New Mexico and up north through Colorado quickly. We made one stop in Colorado at our favorite mountain site before scooting through to Utah the next day. Our deadline to be in Portland by October 31st for a Victron training event made us anxious to reach new lands before running short on time, but Utah has a way of making me hang around and we decided to take a couple more slow days there before moving on. We camped in a new spot every night, hiked a few trails, cooked dinner along the Colorado River, and it was nearly Monday by the time we reached Idaho.
Late on Sunday night shortly after crossing the Idaho border we pulled into a dark and unfamiliar campsite: the worst time to pull into a new site (IYKYK). It was the type of campsite you find when you just need a place to sleep, and have few other expectations. Just a green tent marked on our map saying, "sleep here".
We had trouble finding camp initially and had to circle through backroads, lose service, turn around, regain service, and pull onto an unmarked dirt road -- in what seemed to be the general area -- before we found the designated campsites. It was off-season which meant the sites were winterized, free until March, and empty! We pulled into a dark spot and set up our power station to run our lights before unpacking and setting up for the night.
In the morning, a pink sky lit up the valley and casted lightly across the frosted desert brush and mountains that surrounded us in every direction. Our campsite and van backed up to a wooden fence that lined a reservoir filled with ducks and geese mid-migration. At one point we heard them start rustling loudly, flapping, and splashing water until they lifted in synchrony into the sky and flew off through the valley. It was startling and beautiful -- something you only see from being wholly in nature.
Idaho immediately became a favorite state for me. The crisp air, open mountain valleys, and quiet spaces made it easy to love. We were short on time though, and cut through Idaho in a couple of days, mostly staying to the south moving west through Snake River Valley. I especially wanted to see Oregon's desert, so we decided to make our route through Bend to Portland.
The days were getting shorter and colder, and we could feel the change happening especially fast as we went further north. In the high desert the days felt like they took forever to rise and set, and it had a permanent cold, empty feeling. The southwest desert is bright and warm and even the red rock makes it feel warmer when it's cold, but Oregon's dark rock, empty space, cloudy skies, and dull colors made it look and feel even colder.
We headed to the Oregon coast after our work week in Portland, and camped a few nights along the coast before starting our trek south on highway 101. Traveling on the 101 is a completely necessary trip that follows the Oregon coast through tall Redwood forests, into California, and eventually across the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge. The Redwoods were magnificent and unforgettable. Though with few places to disperse camp, we were forced to look for a state park to stay for the night.
Staying at state parks is a great way to support and protect public lands and parks. Reserving and paying online makes it easy to get more park information and even see available campsites before purchasing; however, some site locations require online payment only, pre-registration only, or even cash only. Be sure to check online information and requirements prior to going.
Reaching the desert was a treat for us, especially after hustling through populated areas of California. We slept one night at a rest stop somewhere along interstate 5, and made it to camp in the Palm Desert late the next day. We camped there a full week before peeling ourselves out of the warm desert and back on the road.
It was a needed break from weeks of travel, just to sit in nature without feeling the need to pack up and head off again. Both are magic and add to the feeling of complete freedom. It's wonderful to know you don't have to plan life out and can just do as you feel, whenever you feel it. It also means you have a constant change to account for and nearly no complete feeling of rest or relaxation, so planning for longer camp stays in between long driving hauls is the best way to combat road fatigue and stay eager for adventure.
Back on the road the world blurs past. Yellow lines dotting the black pavement are a comfort to see again, and one mountain passes by to reveal another until opening to a valley that melts desert mountains into mesas. Back on the road -- headed east at last.
On the way home I started to think more about the van and experiences from our trip. Weighing out the pros and cons of our van design, it was easy to think of improvements or additions that would help our van travel.
The wonderful thing about campervans is the ability to customize to your own needs. For us, this meant adaptability, multi-function, dry camping, and off-grid camping without adding extra weight or taking up valuable space. We like things simple, and believe in having less and appreciating experiences over unnecessary belongings. For me, traveling is about disconnecting from everything, working and living among the land, feeling free and in control of each day, completely present in every moment, and untethered from outside pressures or opinions.
Out there you just exist -- and out there to exist is just enough.
Brianna works in Campervan HQ marketing and customer service roles, and frequently contributes to the Campervan HQ blog. She's traveled seasonally with her husband, Garrett, and ten dogs since 2016, and recently started exploring travel adventures with their young daughter. Brianna is a writer, maker, and outdoor enthusiast who values minimal living.
Garrett works in Campervan HQ product specialist and customer service roles. He and his wife, Brianna, have experience remodeling vintage travel trailers and in 2022 started their first ProMaster van conversion. Garrett is a painter, musician, and an expert on road maps.