Our entry into the USA was a bitter-sweet moment. We were, in many ways, happy to be returning to the familiarity and relative comfort of good ol’ Murica, but we knew the real adventure was now behind us. Sure, there were lots of cool things to see and do as we made our way up to Canada, but we felt it just wouldn’t hold the same level of interest. We were both right, and wrong…
Our first task, as always after crossing a border, was to restock on groceries. This time however it included numerous splurge purchases on items we had been craving for months; bagels, meats, and high-quality beer. We then wound our way up the crowded interstate highways into the heart of San Diego. There were not a ton of camping options available to us if we wanted to be within easy reach of the tourist attractions, so we decided to go all-in on oceanfront camping right in “San Diego’s premier campground”; Campland on the Bay. However, I’m not certain we knew exactly what we were in store for. Not only was the cost of our “campsite” an astonishing $100CDN per night (our ENTIRE budget for daily living), but it amounted to literally a parking stall in a large paved parking lot, without even electricity. This is where the culture shock began to set in.
Mearly hours after leaving the solitude and simplicity of the beaches of Baja Mexico, we found ourselves in a “campground” which hosts nearly a thousand sites, many of which can cost over $500 per night! Moreover, the average “Recreational Vehicle” parked in one of those luxury sites could be worth more than the lifetime earnings of any given person in South America. Many of these massive RVs spawned modified golf carts to move the owners around the grounds (because, why walk?) complete with booming stereos and custom lighting. Our parking pad was directly next to the restaurant / bar / arcade and the huge outdoor stage. The stage was hosting a karaoke and talent show, which morphed into a full-on dance party as the sun set.
We were now experiencing legitimate culture shock. MJ was especially unsettled by the sudden immersion into American Culture. We cowered near our van, gaping in silence at the circus around us. At least we had good beer for company.
We had decided, long ago, to stop in San Diego for one specific reason; visiting the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum. This was one of the lures that we had been enticing Liam with for the last 8 months, to try and give him things to look forward to when he was struggling. It had grown into a legend and the anticipation was killing him. Rob was also a little giddy to finally see it.
The USS Midway is a spectacular sight. A towering monument to naval and aerospace Engineering. An actual floating airport! But also, an unfortunate reminder of the “industry” of war.
The audio tour system was really well done. There are two versions of the audio explanation at each station along the way. One serious and informative clip for adults and one silly and engaging for kids. Liam and Rob were in their glory! Rushing from one amazing aircraft or exhibit to the next. We spent nearly six hours exploring the Midway and still did not get to see it all! It remains one of the highlight tourist attractions of our entire journey.
Our battered budget could not absorb the $100 per night fee for Campland any longer than 2 nights, so we prepared to ship-out the next morning. However, just as we were getting ready to depart, Rob noticed that El Condor was leaning on a deflated tire! We were pretty sure it was one of the tires we had patched months ago in Colombia. We were not overly-surprised it had finally given up, but it did leave us wondering about the longevity of the other patched tire that we were using. We took comfort in knowing we had a second full-size spare under the chassis that we hadn’t put into service yet. Before leaving the city we also tried having Rob’s comatose iPhone fixed at a nearby electronics shop. Unfortunately it was declared DOA due to water damage. Too much beach-time for that phone. Unfortunately, we lost dozens of valuable photographs from Mexico on it. Not the best start to our day.
In an unusual violation of one of our own ‘Rules of Overlanding’, we departed a location without a specific destination in mind for that night. We had no reservations anywhere else and the state park campgrounds were looking very full for the weekend. So we started driving North, crossed out fingers and put in a call to our new friends Lillian and Steve, whom we had met at our last campground in Baja Mexico. Thankfully they answered our call and generously invited us to their home in Escondido, a short drive North of San Diego.
We were very grateful for the use of their driveway, and the kids were stoked to be granted access to their grandkid’s stash of toys. Once again, we felt so humbled by the friendliness and generosity of the people we met along this journey. The kids adopted Lillian as their new “Honorary American Grandma” and we exchanged open invitations to crash with each other anytime our paths might cross again.
We had a few hours to kill the next morning, before we could check into our hotel in Anaheim, so we found a nearby showing of the latest Star Wars movie to kill some time, much too Liam and Rob’s delight. We then buckled up for the hectic drive up the I5 right into the heart of Los Angeles. Disneyland, and Grandpa and Grandma, awaited!
We were very thankful that El Condor fit (just barely) into the underground parking at the hotel. We felt safe leaving it there, and we were also able to shutdown the fridge and move the remaining contents into the hotel room minibar. It was a welcome relief to be moving out of the van into a relatively luxurious two-room accommodation. Three rooms in fact, including the private bathroom! Beds that didn’t need to be folded up each morning! A 24-hour hot shower! These were things we no longer took for granted.
We had been getting extremely excited for this portion of the adventure. One whole week with Grandpa and Grandma at Disneyland! No driving, no route planning, no school. Just fun.
The four days at Disneyland and California Adventure went by in a busy blur. We maximized our ride-time and made sure to get autographs from as many princesses, characters, and Super Hero’s as possible. We ate, we laughed, we waited in lines. The kids even got to participate in ‘real’ Jedi training and do battle with Kylo Ren in front of a huge audience! It was the full Disney experience, and the kids will never ever forget it.
We took a few days off to do a little shopping and exploring around Huntington beach. We also played in the pool and enjoyed several delicious meals, including one VERY rare kids-free meal! We will always be extremely thankful for Grandpa and Grandma’s generosity, which allowed us the luxury of an extended break from van life.
After we gave goodbye hugs to the Grandparents, we carefully extracted El Condor from the underground parking and headed out to our next reunion. We had arranged to stay with some old friends, Tim and Christie at their home in Orange County. Not only do they also have a young boy and girl to play with Liam and Averie, but we were also lucky enough to be there in time to celebrate Canada Day with them!
Celebrating Canada Day, on a Californian beach was definitely unique for us. It was a lot of fun to be surrounded by Canadian flags, listening to Canadian music, drinking Canadian beers, especially after being away from home for so long. We even had time to get in a little surfing and sand castle building.
The next destination was a complete last-minute decision. We had been thinking that we would carry on up the coast to visit San Francisco and the Redwood Forest. But, we were tired of cities. They are expensive and not conducive to van-life. So instead, we trended North East towards Yosemite National Park. This park has always been on our bucket list, but we had been warned by plenty of people that heading there, without reservations, especially over the 4th of July weekend, would be futile. Its a good thing we have become accustomed to ignoring the nay-sayers. We figured, worst case, if we couldn’t find a formal camp site we could tuck the van into a quiet forestry road for a night or two and move on.
Upon winding our way into the mountains were very pleased with ourselves to stumble into one of the last available sites at the Indian Flat Campground just outside of the park entrance, with a swimming pool no less! Now we could explore one of the most fabled National Parks in America at a more leisurely pace. We were more than impressed with our luck.
It is hard to describe the grandeur of the Yosemite Valley. It reminded us of Patagonia in that way. No pictures or video can do it justice. Every direction you look there is a new and even more awe-inspiring view. Massive granite cliffs, incredible waterfalls, picturesque meadows and rivers. The kind of place where you constantly trip over your shoes because you can’t stop spinning your head around to take in the view. We knew a couple of nights would not be enough…
On our second day in the park Rob visited the campground registration booth; because “you never know.” He sheepishly asked if there had been any cancellations (it was the 4th of July!) and they politely responded; no. He held the door for some other people coming into the booth and started walking back to the van. Just then he heard a call from behind, “hey, are you looking for a site?” Well yes, yes we are! They had just arrived to cancel their last night and Rob was in the right place at the exact right time! We scored a primo campsite, with no reservation, in the middle of Yosemite Valley, on the 4th of July! Futile, they said?!
After night three we still needed to see more so we headed back to the nearest town of Mariposa to stock up on fuel and food (groceries are extremely expensive within the park) and then were thankful to find a site still available at the Indian Flats Campground. We decided the next morning we would drive back through the park to visit Toulomne Meadows, the higher alpine plateau portion of the park, and then carry on through to the North West exit and find camping somewhere on the other side.
On our way up out of the valley we suddenly came to a halt on the narrow winding road. It was clear that there was some kind of vehicle collision about a hundred meters up ahead and no one was moving. After waiting a few minutes with no one moving in either direction, Rob decided he had better go have a look. He arrived at the scene to find a single, badly damaged car sitting in the oncoming lane. It appeared to have hit something square in the front, yet there was no other damaged vehicle nearby. A dozen people were milling about the car but no one was actively administering first aid. Upon realizing this Rob ran back to van to grab our giant first aid kit and ran back to help.
At this point one other young woman, a volunteer firefighter, had reached the scene and was happy to have Rob’s help and supplies. Rob began tending to the passenger, a middle aged Asian male, who had suffered serious facial injuries. The firefighter made a call for EMS (it was not clear that anyone had actually even called 911 yet!) and then tended to the female driver. Both were conscious but injured and confused, and neither seemed to speak fluent English. Rob was shocked and disappointed to find that our massive first-aid kit did not contain rubber gloves, and there was a decent amount of blood all over the victims and the inside of their car. He asked some questions to try and determine the circumstances and had the victim apply trauma pads to his wounds while they awaited the professionals.
When the first EMS vehicle arrived Rob gave them a quick situation report and expected to be told to go back to the van. Instead they gave him some rubber gloves and asked him to continue helping! Thankfully Rob has completed a fair amount of first-aid training and is not inexperienced with high-stress situations. After some preparation and some careful lifting, they had extracted the victims from thier crumpled car onto stretchers for their pending helicopter flight to the hospital. The paramedics figured they each had suffered serious head and internal injuries and would need immediate emergency care.
Rob was a little frazzled when he got back to the van, but was eager to get moving again. We wove our way up out of the valley and crammed the van into the trailhead parking lot for the hike to see the Giant Sequoias. The kids were a little intolerant of going on another hike, but they were rewarded with their first giant-tree experience. We were even treated to a bear sighting on the hike back to the car!
It was late in the afternoon as we finally made it to Tuolomne Meadows but we stopped at the ranger station to stretch our legs and see what we were missing. Without camp site reservations we would likely have a lot of driving ahead of us to make it out of the park before evening. However, buoyed by his success in Yosemite Valley, Rob decided it was worth the time to inquire at the campground booth if any sites were somehow available. Not even the “No Vacancy” sign hanging out front would deter him. Lo and behold, they had a great site available for the next two nights! Perhaps it was the universe’s way of sending MJ a birthday present? Regardless of devine intervention or blind luck, we gratefully accepted the site.
Tuolumne also proved to be an impressive sight to behold. The next morning we set out for a fantastic hike to eat lunch at the top of Lembert Dome followed by a tranquil rest at the edge of Dog Lake. We rewarded ourselves afterwards with ice cream and some cold adult beverages to celebrate MJs birthday. Cheers to Yosemite! We arrived with no reservations, no expectations, and received a full week of fun and adventure.
After yet another scenic drive out the North end of the park, we finally departed Yosemite towards our next destination; Lake Tahoe. Once again, arriving without reservations, we were lucky to find (expensive) accommodations at one of the local campgrounds near the center of the action.
We spent our one-and-only day in Lake Tahoe doing a bit of shopping, wading in the extremely cold lake, and taking advantage of the nearby laundromat. It seemed like a fun town, and if we had more room in the budget we would have stayed longer. In fact, it might be preferential to visit again in the winter to sample the multiple local ski hills, including Heavenly, who’s gondola actually starts right in the center of town.
Our next target destination was Lassen Volcanic National Park. As the name implies, this is situated high up a volcanic massif, in fact the largest “plug dome volcano” in the world! The drive up into the park was scenic but uneventful and reminded us of the Rocky Mountains near our home. Just as we pulled up to stop at the park entrance gate we noticed a strange squealing sound emanating from the right rear wheel. MJ took the kids into the visitor center while Rob picked an open corner of the parking lot to investigate the noise.
Only a few minutes later, Rob appeared in the vistor center with his hands covered in brake dust and an expression of dismay on his face. The squealing noise had indeed been coming from the right rear brakes. They were toast! The inside pad was completely worn away and the backing plate was now grinding into the rotor disc with every pedal stroke. This is not an uncommon issue for vehicles that are driven on dusty roads as often as El Condor had been. Regardless of the root-cause, we now found ourselves near the top of a mountain with unreliable brakes and no spare parts on hand.
We weighed our options and decided to try limping the van out of the park towards civilization before we resorted to calling in a tow truck. Now that we were in the good ol’ USA, we figured we were likely to find the parts we needed at any decent auto parts store. So, Rob put the wheel back on and we turned El Condor back the way we came. Using the transmission’s manual shifting mode to engine-brake as much as possible, we carefully worked our way back down the volcano. It was already late in the day so we decided to stop halfway at the Battle Creek State Park campground. We were pleasantly surprised to find it almost completely empty and set amongst an incredible old growth forest.
The next morning we continued our slow roll down the mountain to the town of Red Bluff. We squeaked and squealed into the first auto parts store on the main strip and within minutes Rob emerged with a set of brake pads and a new rear rotor! Needless to say, it might not have been so easy had we been driving a more exotic brand of vehicle. MJ distracted the kids with snacks and a movie while Rob jacked up the van and proceeded with the repairs, right there in the store parking lot. Less than an hour later El Condor was mended and rolling North along Interstate 5 towards Oregon.
Our next destination was the city of Bend, Oregon. It is known in some circles as the “Mecca of craft beer.” We are told that there are more craft breweries in Bend per capita than almost anywhere else in North America. It is also an outdoor recreation hub, within minutes of the epic local ski resort of Mt Bachelor, and the world-class rock climbing area of Smith Rocks. For these obvious reasons, it had been on Rob’s radar for a long time and we were excited to see it. Unfortunately for us, the weekend we arrived the city was hosting a very popular quilting convention (!) and we were unable to find space at the first few campgrounds we tried. We were just about to pull away from yet another “no-vacancy” sign when the campground owner waved us down in the parking lot and said he’d make a special exception for us. He’d let us camp in the driveway of one his vacant cabins, for only $80 per night! We were not sure if we should thank him for such “generosity”, but we were happy enough to finally stop driving for the day. At least it was a very nice campground with lots of green space, a small lake, and amazing bathroom/shower facilities. We also made sure to take full advantage of the swimming pool and hot tub, obviously.
The next morning we drove into downtown Bend and began our self-guided brewery tour and shopping trip. The kids were less than impressed with our plan to walk around tasting strange and wonderful beers all day, but we had been looking forward to this and would not be dissuaded by their whining. The town of Bend is extremely pleasant to wander around and we definitely found more than our share of quality ale and interesting little shops. Once we had our fill (literally), we bought some off-sales and left the city to check out the local wilderness. Not far from Mt. Bachelor we found a vacant site at an informal little campground near Spark Lake, where we enjoyed a tranquil campfire with a mountain view. Something we had all been longing for.
The next two days were heavy driving days. In a blur of busy Interstates we crossed the remainder of Oregon and Washington, with a one night stop at a Wanapum State Park Campground where we took a swim in the Columbia River (ironically, amidst a large family from Mexico) and contemplated the fact that the next day we would be returning to Canada! It was a bit of a surreal thought.
The I90 brought us straight to Spokane, where we turned North along a scenic secondary highway to head directly to the small boarder crossing at Nelway. We nervously approached the customs booth and wondered what the border guard would make of us and our journey. Would they interrogate us? Would they tear apart the van? Would they triple check our story and documents? We nonchalantly explained to the customs agent that we had just driven back home from South America. He raised his eyebrow and said; “That’s a trip you wont soon forget! Welcome home.” A feeling of elation and pride washed over us. It was an emotional moment. We pulled over for some pictures and hugged and cried and laughed.
We did it.
From this point on, we would be travelling familiar roads. Within an hour we were pulling into Rob’s brother’s driveway at their house in Nelson, BC and the kids got to hug their cousins for the first time in nearly a year. It was also Liam’s birthday, so we had another great excuse to eat and drink and celebrate!
We spent the next week just decompressing on the patio, making phone calls, catching up with family and friends, and reintegrating ourselves into our old network. We played at the lake and took the dog for walks and scrubbed the grime out of the van. It was glorious. We did have one close call when Rob was vacuuming up in the bunk bed of the van and somehow the bunk shifted off of its rails and he fell awkwardly to the floor and nearly crushed Liam under the wreckage! Luckily, it only resulted in a few scrapes and bruises.
Eventually, as always, it was time to move on. We were partially eager to get home and partially dreading the official end of our journey. So we decided to breakup the final leg of the trip with one more stop, in Golden BC, to catch up with old friends and procrastinate for a few more days. From there it was a short final jaunt over the Rocky Mountains into Calgary.
It was a surreal and emotional moment to pull into our old street. The same one that Rob had driven El Condor out of some 11 months prior. But there was no cheering crowd, no banner or balloons, no finish line to cross. In fact most of our neighbours were away for the weekend. We parked quietly in front of our house, shut off the van, and gave each other hugs.
The trip was over. After years of saving, planning, preparing and executing. We had done it.
Find our USA & Canada Photo Journal here.
Check out our Final Word blog post here (under construction).