Van Life by the Miles & Nights

My 40th Birthday Celebration Was Four Months in a Van

The map of the trip indicates a theoretical distance of 5,742 miles, but I actually drove 8,909 miles. That’s 55% more driving for backtracking, day trips, and other adventures.

I used the Google My Maps feature to plot all of my overnight destinations. Here’s my map. The overnights broke down as:

  • 10 Boondocks: that’s when you’re camping off the grid in the wilderness. Four of these spots were on lakes, two of those lakes were beautiful, one was creepy, and the last was bug infested.
  • 8 RV parks: this is where I dumped tanks, did laundry, refilled water.
  • 5 Friends. This is the real reason my trip took me through the Midwest. Sometimes I’d sleep in their driveway, sometimes in their guest bedroom.
  • 4 Walmarts. These are famously friendly for overnight RVs and they are so convenient if you’re just passing through.
  • 4 Truck Stops. These are as convenient as a Walmart, just much noisier.
  • 1 Cracker Barrel. Same sort of deal as a Walmart.
  • 2 City Parks.
  • 2 Hotels.
  • 1 Questionably legal National Park Stealth job. Technically, I was just napping before a permitted backpacking trip.
  • 1 Sports bar parking lot.
  • 1 Super market parking lot.

To find the places to stay I used two tools:

Below are quick reviews of all the places I stayed (in case you want to stay there too), broken out into trip sections. I’ve tried to link to the appropriate Freecampsites review where appropriate.

Phoenix to Bryce

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A. Flew into PHX Airport. My dad picked me up and drove me to the campervan (I was borrowing it from him and my step-mom).

B. The MotorCoach Resort, Chandler AZ. This was a completely acceptable RV park with full hookups, showers and toilets. I didn’t use the laundry, but I did record a video for work.

C. Boondocking on Forest Road 525. This is a popular and easy spot south of Sedona. You’ll end up in a pullout with 2–3 other campers. It felt remote (see this video) and I was able to do video calls tethered off my phone. Cross town traffic in Sedona is a mess, so I tended to stay in my area.

D. Black Bart’s RV Park. This was my favorite RV park — it just had great character. All the amenities were good and I can vouch for the quality of their laundry room.

E. Grand View Point. I drove up to the Grand Canyon around 11:30 at night with a permit to start backpacking the next morning. There were no rangers at the gates, or anywhere, so I just ended up sleeping in the parking lot. That’s a grey-area move but seemed completely ok in the moment. I was up and backpacking by 6:00 that morning.

F. Cracker Barrel in Flagstaff. Cracker Barrels and Walmarts generally welcome overnight campers. But the Walmarts in Flagstaff are some of the few that disallow it. So I ended up across the street from this Cracker Barrel. I can confirm that I did go in and ate one of the most unhealthy meals of my life.

G. Phillips 66, Kanab. I was headed to Bryce and just ran out of energy for driving. I parked next to a bunch of truckers and remember very little of the experience. Probably I went inside to use their bathroom (a cramped RV bathroom makes almost any other bathroom feel luxurious).

H. Boondocking La Verkin, UT. I drove through Zion on my way here (amazing) and then pulled into a maze of dirt roads until I found a nice pullout for myself. You’ll end up boondocking alone, but during the day you will be visited by many people doing recreational ATV riding. I was able to get work done here while tethered to my cell phone.

I. Ruby’s Inn RV Park in Bryce. This was another perfectly acceptable RV experience. I got all the services including laundry, shower and propane refill. It’s close enough to town that I walked in for dinner.

J. Boondocking Forest Road 90, Bryce. This is literally 50 feet before the entrance to Bryce National Park. I was in the first pullout with a few other people and the cell service was good enough to work from. It’s far enough from town that I drove in when I needed something.

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MotorCoach Resort. Boondock South of Sedona. Black Bart’s, Flagstaff. Cracker Barrel, Flagstaff. Grand Canyon (from Horseshoe Mesa). Phillips 66, Kanab. Boondock south of Zion. Me on top of Angel’s Landing in Zion. Boondock outside of Bryce.

Bryce to Albuquerque

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A. I left Bryce and with the intention of boondocking outside Capital Reef National Park, but I couldn’t get cell service anywhere. So I kept driving through the night until…

B. San Rafael Swell View Area. In the dark of night, this seemed like just a run of the mill rest area. I’d been driving for a long time and was tired, so I pulled in to crash. What I didn’t know is how epic this part of Utah is. A rest area in Utah could be a National Park in 49 other states. Waking up here was one of my favorite moments in the whole trip because it caught me by such surprise.

C. Yellow Circle Road, Moab. There’s a large dirt field south of Moab that has a lot of campers. I spent several nights there, but always went into town to work because the cell service was very sparse. I don’t have anything special to report about this boondocking spot, although I bet I could have had a more social experience here if I’d worked for it.

D. Boondocking Mexican Hat, UT. I was in the area for Valley of the Gods (amazing), to recreate a picture from Forrest Gump, and then to see Monument Valley. I didn’t work from here and don’t have much to report other than that I safely spent the night.

E. Invitation Only Driveway in Albuquerque, NM. I pulled into the driveway of two college friends, Derek and Raegan late at night and in the morning was greeted by a coffee cup being passed in through my window. It’s invite only, but if you get the invite, I’d recommend. They are great hosts, their house is easy to work from, they border a trail system on the north end of town, Derek is a very solid home brewer.

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San Rafael Rest Area. Arches. MTB in Moab. Me on the Forrest Gump route. Monument Valley. Hand delivered coffee right through the window.

Albuquerque to Hot Springs

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A. Started in Albuquerque. I’d flown home to NYC, leaving my van at long term parking, but then spending another night at my friend’s driveway. The plan was to then book over to Arkansas for mountain biking and backpacking. This was a very long drive.

B. Elk City Lake Park, OK. This was a fantastic city park with electric hookups for RVs. I was right on the lake, took a loop of the lake on my mountain bike, and had a whole day of work with excellent cell service.

C. Boondocking Nichol’s Lake in Henryetta, OKa, This place was sketch and I wish I’d found a Walmart instead. I left this place at first light and coworked an hour away on a comfortable sofa at Harbor Mountain Coffee House in McAlester. That place I liked. While there, check out Taco Bobs.

C. Boondocking Lake Wilhelmina. Stay away! I pulled into a nice secluded spot next to the lake and started making dinner. Then I started noticing bugs. Everywhere. I don’t know how they got in, but I probably smooshed a good 4 or 5 hundred. Hundred. I ended up taping over vents and turning off the lights.

D. North End of the Big Fork Trail. Technically all I did was park here. I actually backpacked 7 miles south and slept there.

E. Treasure Isle RV Park. Great RV park, although they didn’t get my sense of humor. The guy there introduced himself as Big Dave and I shook his hand and said, “Regular sized Tony.” Funny, right? He didn’t think so. This is a fantastic RV park. I used all the amenities, parked next to and swam in the river, and a wonderful stray dog came up to me asking to be adopted. Her name’s Eloise now and she lives with us in NYC.

F. Walmart Super Center. I was trying not to stay in RV parks unless I need to use their facilities. This was a convenient Walmart near the Casino where I was watching the Warriors playoff run.

G. Boondocking Oachita National Forest. I was here to ride part of the Womble Trail. It was a beautiful secluded spot right up against the lake. I got so many ticks on me here though, both while Mountain Biking and transferred by the new dog (I was just calling her, “Hey Girl” then).

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Elk City Lake Park. Abandoned Building at Nichol’s Lake. Pleasant looking boondocking spot at Lake Wilhelmina. Then the attack of the bugs. Parked at the head of Big Fork Trail. Getting an evening visit from a stray dog. Walmart in Hot Springs. Boondocking near the start of the Womble Trail.

Hot Springs to Little Rock to Bentonville

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A. Leaving Hot Springs. I was feeling pretty dirty and had pulled dozens of tics off of me, so my plan was to get into Little Rock and stay in a hotel room with a proper shower.

B. Motel 6 Little Rock. I didn’t love it here. I’m not a big fan of hotels with a lot of nightlife — this one made me nervous that someone was going to break into the van. But, I did enjoy the hotel room and remember feeling very refreshed. The only reason I was in Little Rock was to see the Clinton Library. I’m a big fan of the LBJ Library and wondered if all presidential libraries are that good. They are not. The Clinton Library was built for propaganda, knowing that at least two people in the Clinton orbit would later be running for president. It did not do a good job of handling the impeachment (only two sentences hidden in a timeline) or Clinton’s role in mass incarceration.

C. Crosswoods Restaurant and Sports Bar. This was probably as close to real Arkansas as I got, given that every other spot was either a tourist destination or surrounded by Walmart money or both. I loved this bar. I’d timed my drive to pull over here to catch the Warriors playoff game. They fed me, indulged my fandom, and invited me to camp in their parking lot. The guy next to me was interviewing the next day for a college cross country job and we ended up talking about the hall-of-fame high school coach Joe Newton (a few of my friends will know how excited this made me). I would 100% recommend eating and staying here.

D. Walmart in Rogers, AR. The locals refer to the Bentonville area by the acronym NWA for North West Arkansas and they do this with seemingly no knowledge of the music reference. Anyway, I was in the NWA because Walmart has poured a lot of money into building mountain bike trails. Normally trails are maintained by volunteers — this was the first time I’ve ridden a trail and run into professional groundskeepers. It was cool. This Walmart is solid.

E. Workman’s Travel Center. This is a truck stop that I also tried while I was in the NWA. It did have paid showers and I took advantage of that one day. It also had a fenced dog run and that was also nice (I think I’d switched from calling her “Hey Girl” to “Eloise” by this point in the trip).

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Me in the Oval Office at the Clinton Library. Crossroads Sports Bar. Eloise at an NWA Walmart. Eloise at the Workman’s park

Bentonville to Minneapolis

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A. Starting in the Bentonville area, I really wanted to see Branson and so headed that direction toward St. Louis. Branson has always seemed like the tourist destination I was least likely to see on my own. In person, it felt mostly like an outdoor mall with the exception of a Dolly Parton themed dinner theater thing where they bring live horses around your table. I deeply regret not having time for the dinner.

B. Wild Bill’s Travel Center, Ridgedale, MO. This is just before Branson and I stayed for the bare minimum of time. My “this is a bridge too far” for cleanliness is if there are used diapers strewn about. But I was tired and needed a place to pull over and sleep.

C. Meramac Valley RV Park. This was on the way to St. Louis. I don’t remember much about it except for that they had a water outage while I was trying to do laundry. Otherwise, it seemed fine to stay at.

D. Street parking in St. Louis. This might have been the only city street boondocking that I did. I was camped outside my friend Sarah Burcham’s house. A long time ago, she did an A+ round of friendship: introduced me to the woman I dated the whole time I was in St. Louis, got me my first great job at O’Reilly, and then got me a book deal at O’Reilly. I completely recommend being her friend and then one day sleeping outside her house. Eloise got spayed while we were in town — so if you need that during your #vanlife, I’ve got tips.

E. Driveway parking in Kansas City. I spent one or two nights in the driveway of my friend’s Connor and Makenzie before they coaxed me inside. This is also a stretch that Sarah joined for. Pro BBQ tip: Kansas City understands Burnt Ends and Connor knows exactly where to take you.

F. Hotel Grinnell. This was a shameful stretch of indoor living. This hotel is new since I attended Grinnell and is great to stay at. If we’d have stayed in the van, I would have been comfortable with any street parking. I managed a Grinnell reunion with three old friends and meetings with two of my professors. Eighteen years later, a few of my professors still remember me — this is the benefit of a small school.

E. Friends in Minneapolis. More indoor living. The van slept on the street. We slept on a nice bed and had nice showers.

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Meramac Valley RV Park. Me in front of my old St. Louis home. Burnt Ends at Jack Stack in KC. Connor and Makenzie in KC. Eloise visits Grinnell. Eloise at Minneapolis Coffee Shop.

Minneapolis to Sturgis

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A. Minneapolis toward the Badlands. My mom joined me for this part.

B. We spent the night in a Sioux Falls Walmart. The Walmart was fine, but what really worked out was that there was a lot of art for my mom to visit while I had a day of work. I forget which Walmart we stayed in.

C. Boondocking Badlands Overlook by Pinnacles Entrance. Earlier in the trip a guy had described boondocking near the Badlands and waking up to find he’d parked on the edge of a cliff. That’s exactly what happened to us — it was awesome.

D. Happy Holidays RV Resort. This was an excellent base of operations while visiting Mount Rushmore (sort of cool) and the Crazy Horse Memorial (way cooler).

E. Sturgis RV Park. This was a completely boring experience — but could have been 1000x more exciting if we were there during a motor cycle rally. As it was, all the amenities were great, but the place was empty and low energy. It was a nice stop on the way back from a trip to Devil’s Tower.

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Sioux Falls. Badlands Overlook. Me talking to the camera at Mount Rushmore. Devil’s Tower.

Sturgis to Glacier

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A. Sturgis. I dropped my mom off at the Rapid City airport and then had probably the longest drive of the trip, 7.5 hours. I did a really good job of not leaving myself any long drives, but this time I was rushing to get to Missoula for a plane trip back to San Francisco.

B. Bozeman driveway belonging to John Allwine and family. I’d worked with him at O’Reilly along with his dad. In a stroke of perfect timing, his dad and mom were also in town visiting and so it turned into a big reunion.

C. Town Pump, Milltown MT. This was a nice truck stop that had the loudest, screechiest metal-on-metal train running past. It was so squeeky, that Eloise jumped into bed with me and needed to be held. To be honest, that was kind of nice.

D. Boondocking Big Pine Campground. This was beautiful boondocking, but didn’t have any cell signal. I did end up finding a nice place to work further down the river.

E. Walmart Super Center, Polson, MT. I remember very little other than that I was on my way to Columbia Falls and wanted a place to stay. I was here for the absolute minimum amount of time.

F. Super 1 Foods, Columbia Falls, MT. This was one of my go to spots in Columbia Falls. I made that town a base of operations for awhile. Eloise has a vet there and a place for boarding. I swam at the town pool and made a home at two different coffee shops.

G. Town Pump, Columbia Falls, MT. It’s bad form to stay at the same place too long, so I kept alternating between Super 1 and here. I wouldn’t say I had a preference.

H. Walmart, Kalispell, MT. At one point I ventured further west to try out a mountain biking trail and ended up at this Walmart. I also saw a movie next door (the second Sicario). This is by far my favorite Walmart just because of the sky. It was the most “Big Sky Country” feeling I got anywhere on the trip.

I. Many Glacier Campground, Glacier National Park. Montana was kind of a bummer for boondocking because there wasn’t any open federal land. So I ended up camping in Many Glacier which was fine, but didn’t have any cell service and then driving into St. Mary for work. I really did enjoy working at St. Mary’s lodge though and wish I could have boondocked closer to it.

J. Glacier Basecamp Lodge. This was my last RV park, knowing that I needed to empty tanks and prepare the RV for storage.

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Six Allwines. Reunited with my cousin in Missoula. Big Pine. My main work spot in Columbia Falls. Best Walmart in the country. Many Glacier Campground. Grinnell Lake. Me on top of Haystack Butte in Glacier NP.

At this point, I drove back to Missoula, stayed at a Motel 6 while I got the van cleaned, and then dropped the van off at long term parking where my dad and stop-mom flew out and did their own trip.

It was a mess finding a direct flight for Eloise back to NYC, plus she had heartworm, so I decided to rent an SUV and drive back. It was 2400 miles with Sarah joining us in Minneapolis. Eloise spent the entire trip trying to climb from the back into the driver’s seat.

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Would I do it again? Definitely. If you’re at all inspired, I’d recommend focusing on Arizona and Utah. They had the best combination of parks and boondocking .Then just a shade behind, do Montana. Only do the Midwest if you have great friends there, which I do.

Written by

Human potential busy body. Founded @coachdotme, @bttrHumans, @bttrMarketing. Helped @medium @calm. Current work focus: Habit Coach Certification.

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