A Van Life Experiment

Photo by CACTUS Blai Baules | Stocksy

They call her Tootsie.

When her owners dropped her off in front of our Colorado home in late July, on the eve of our road trip to the Northwest, she looked prime for Instagram—you know, for that #vanlife craze that’s sweeping social media.

Tootsie is a veteran of the road—a camper-van with more than a decade of mileage under her hood—that we found on outdoorsy.com. She stretches a considerable length and houses a pine breakfast nook, a two-burner propane stove, a custom butcher block-topped fridge cabinet, a queen pull-out gaucho bed for my husband Greg and I and a twin bed for our three-year-old son. Tootsie is stocked with bedding, kitchen supplies, camp chairs, a TV to play DVDs and almost everything we’d need for a two-week road trip through Oregon and Washington.

Traditionally, every summer, we take a direct flight from Denver to Redmond, Oregon, to visit family in my hometown of Bend. As a break from the norm, I want to show my East Coast-bred husband a taste of the Northwest beyond Central Oregon. Numerous magazine stories and social media posts depicting the van as the ultimate tool for an outdoorsy road trip convince us to drive rather than fly. Renting one of these coveted vehicles would give us a taste of van life. Maybe by the time we return home, we’d be ready to sell one of our cars and join the millennial vagabond movement—at least on weekends.

We spend the next day packing Tootsie full—and I mean full—of food, clothing, bike gear, toys… it seemed there was a nook and cranny for everything, unlike my Outback. We supplemented the fridge space with a cooler, and, luckily, all our non-perishables pack neatly in a ceiling-to-floor pull-out pantry. We load the bikes on a trailer-hitch bike rack, secure the car seat in the sideways facing bench seat, pick up our son, Hagen, from preschool and head west on I-70.

Our plan is to take turns driving until we need to pull over for the night. But, soon, our roles emerge. Greg: driver; Hagen: demanding passenger; me: quasi flight attendant. I quickly learn that flight-attendant duties with Tootsie in motion requires advanced yoga positions, and Tootsie’s aging suspension isn’t helping. As I rummage around for cups, straws, utensils and more, I learn to nimbly move to compensate for every bump in the road.

At the end of our first day, we succumb to fatigue and pull over at a rest area outside Ogden, Utah. Tootsie blocks most of the bright lights and insulates us from the idling semi-trucks. We steal a few hours of sleep before a car alarm jolts me awake and into the driver’s seat. The boys sleep, while I head west.

Driving Tootsie is a minor workout, not a bad thing when you consider the calorie burn. I’ve never driven a vehicle the likes of Tootsie before and its length and height take some getting used to.

Roughly nine hours and the state of Idaho later, we are still hours from Bend. We spot a pull-out next to the Malheur River, a small meandering brown waterway we’ve been following on Highway 20. The heat outside inspires an impromptu swim, with Hagen happily floating sticks. The sun and fresh air feels so good, we have to force ourselves to climb back inside Tootsie and finish the leg.

We only stay two nights with my parents in Bend, and a king bed, a shower and the space of a house feels luxurious. But van life awaits. My dad and his German shepherd will follow us north, handy sitters during our mountain biking breaks. We summit Santiam Pass, cresting the Cascades between the jagged peaks of Three Fingered Jack and Mount Washington, and follow Highway 22 to Highway 101. Tootsie sways left and right as we head north along the Coast Highway to Tillamook, then on to Nehalem Bay and Manzanita, which I haven’t visited in decades.

Early Oregon Coast memories always involve inclement weather—family pictures with faces obscured by windswept hair and Gore-Tex hoods. Now, the last weekend of July, during an Oregon heat wave, the sun blazes, the Pacific reflects the cobalt-blue sky, yet the wind prevails. My son is having the time of his life flying his first kite. Seven miles of wide, sandy beach stretches from the bay to forested Neahkahnie Mountain, jutting 1,600 feet above the beach. The raw beauty rivals any beach in the world.

Inland one block, the heat feels lovely, especially from the shaded front porch of our cozy vacation rental. Over the long weekend, Tootsie takes a break in the driveway. We walk to and from charming downtown Manzanita, hike up Neahkahnie Mountain and watch our son explore the beach and its toddler-sized pools with their strange inhabitants.

We could stay a week, but Washington is calling. Back inside Tootsie,we leave Oregon as we cross the 4-mile Astoria-Megler Bridge and follow the Columbia River to 1-5 north and then drive east over Snoqualmie and Blewett Passes to the Bavarian town of Leavenworth. There, a friend lives on the Icicle River and promises wood-fired pizzas and mountain biking. We park Tootsie under a large tree and appreciate the convenience of visiting friends without needing their bedrooms or kitchen. The next morning (early to beat the heat), we mountain bike at Ski Hill Project, an ever-evolving trail system at the base of Leavenworth Ski Hill that offers something for all levels of mountain bikers.

By noon, we set off for Bellingham—an ambitious drive on the North Cascades Scenic Byway through North Cascades National Park. Known as one of the prettiest drives in the country, Highway 20 seems well worth the mileage and van-tipping curves. We pause briefly at pull-outs with vistas of jagged, glaciated peaks, hanging valleys, waterfalls and alpine lakes before descending into pastoral Skagit Valley. Just before dusk, we pull into Larrabee State Park on scenic Chuckanut Drive just south of Bellingham. The campground is full, but we reserved a camping site online. That night, we enjoy the privacy Tootsie provides in the high-density campground. By day, Larrabee proves a veritable kid paradise, with a large playground, winding trails lined with towering Douglas fir and, best of all, the Samish Bay shoreline, which harbors rocky coves and tidepools to explore at low tide.

For us, the Chuckanut Mountains, with access right across Chuckanut Drive, offers some of Washington’s best mountain biking. We ride the 6-mile Chuckanut Ridge Descent, which offers a varied introduction to Bellingham mountain biking—grippy sandstone and gnarled roots through magical old-growth forest.

That evening seals the area as our favorite stop of the trip. Just three miles south of the campground, Taylor Shellfish Farms sells freshly shucked oysters, or in our case, whole Dungeness crab, on an idyllic waterfront farm. We claim a picnic table and crack seafood, sipping BYOB libations, while Hagen tosses old shells into tranquil Samish Bay during a pink sunset.

The next morning, we drive through Bellingham to Gooseberry Point to catch the 22-car, 10-minute ferry to Lummi Island. With nine square miles of rural land and wild, empty beaches, Lummi Island manages to remain under the radar. We park Tootsie and, at a fair price, nab a Farmhouse Suite at Nettles Farm, which grants us access to a working farm and a fully stocked professional kitchen that includes a stone hearth oven. Owner Riley Starks curates a true agritourism experience—we feed poulet de Bresse chickens, munch berries off the vines and forage edibles.

Starks, a commercial fisherman for 45 years, invites all four of us on his boat to observe the sustainable fishing method Starks and an organization called Lummi Island Wild have worked to revive. Traditionally, the Lummi Tribe used a unique fishing method called reef netting, which suspended a net between canoes in the path of the salmon on their way to spawning grounds. Today, 20-foot towers have replaced canoes. Spotters stand on the towers to watch for schools of salmon swimming between two platforms, and they raise the suspended net to corral the fish and then transfer them, unharmed, into holding pens of flowing seawater. There, the salmon can rest, releasing any lactic acid that may have built up in their flesh. And any unwanted bycatch is released. Reef netting, recognized as one the of most sustainable fishing practices in the world, results in arguably the cleanest-tasting salmon.

We head back to the mainland and begin the long drive home to Colorado, with a few camping and mountain biking stops along the way. In the final hours of the drive, we debate van life. We appreciate the storage, privacy and space of the van—the option of standing and stretching without pulling over made long stints of driving possible. And the van’s cozy nooks made comfortable sleeping nests.

Tootsie had been good to us—but we had to give her back. Would we kick our usual travel habits to the curb and adopt van life like so many others? We looked at each other and knew the answer. Van life claimed its place in our hearts, and will claim its place in our travel plans as well (at least on weekends) along with tents, cabins and hotels.


Taking a road trip with kids?
A key to happy kids on a road trip is getting plenty of exercise, and hiking with kids is a great way to make that happen. A new book from Timber Press, 50 Hikes with Kids: Oregon and Washington by Wendy Gorton, tips off parents to the best kid- friendly hikes in those two states.


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