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Have you ever spent more than a couple of weeks camping? While some people might scoff at the idea, for me, spending time outdoors seeing the country over six months out on the road was a bucket list experience. At the time, money was tight as I was making the transition from a full-time office career to a freelance writer. What better way to do it than travel on the cheap while getting an in-depth look at some of the most beautiful spots in the West?
Of course, six months of car camping doesn’t come with “luxuries,” like a kitchen to cook in or even a shower, but over a decade later, the memories made were mostly positive despite the few bumps along the way. It began in the spring when there was still snow on the mountain peaks.
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We left from the Black Hills of South Dakota, where my partner is from, packed our gear and chihuahua into my compact car, and took off. Our destination was southern Washington State, where we planned to stay at an organic farm in exchange for a place to stay until the weather started to warm. Aiming to drive straight through, we stopped for a chilly nap at a rest stop off the highway.
The rain was coming in buckets when we arrived, this was Washington after all, and as it turned out, our room wasn’t ready either – instead, we were given a spot in a shipping container to set up our tent. That room was never ready, but we enjoyed spending our days planting, weeding and taking care of other farm chores while one of the chickens, Lilith, frequently followed, hoping for an easy worm dug up in the soil.
When we weren’t working, we spent our time exploring the Oregon coast and hanging out in Astoria, just was across the bridge that divides the two states.
We anxiously awaited for the baby chicks who were about to hatch and helped ensure they had a good start once they arrived, a highlight of our time on the farm. But with the weather finally starting to get warmer and drier, it was soon time to move on.
Our next destination was San Juan Island, the largest in the San Juan archipelago. We’d answered an ad to housesit at a farm, with a place to stay in exchange for various chores, including milking the goats. As it turned out, the owner of the property was a hoarder, the kind you might have seen on those reality shows. We had to squeeze through the junk in the yard, while the smell of the goats wafted through the air. Inside the home, it was even worse, with dirty dishes piled high as flies buzzed around. Even worse, the “guest house” we were supposed to stay in turned out to be a tiny old trailer and rats had moved in. We pitched our tent outside.
While the island itself is beautiful, this was definitely not what we expected. Still, we stuck around, immediately cleaning as much as we could so the owner and his wife could attend an out of state wedding. Milking the goats wasn’t near as easy as what you might expect, and while we’d planned to stay six weeks, after the frequently bickering couple returned, we decided that would be the last of our farm stays.
Back on the road again, with the snow melted, we headed out to make our own adventures. As it turned out, that was a lot more fun and the possibilities were practically endless. Tree stumps made a perfect seat for our little dog, and we enjoyed evenings around the campfire and our days spent hiking, from the mountains in northeast Washington to the wilds of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
The views were incredible, and the peacefulness of it all even more so. There was no one else around for miles.
We camped outside of Yellowstone National Park alongside a river and got to watch as Old Faithful erupted, spent time stuck in buffalo “traffic” and marveled at the rainbow-hued hot springs and powerful Yellowstone Falls.
We visited small towns to pick up groceries to cook campfire meals, only occasionally dining out. We spent very little money out on the road, staying mostly in free camping spots. While I was starting to miss some of the comforts of “home,” the sense of freedom and new experiences made it worth it.
While we did take an occasional break to stay in hotels and enjoy a shower, most of the time, bathing was done in pristine lakes and rivers. It’s hard to beat being out in the water on a warm summer day surrounded by such breathtaking scenery.
Our neighbors were wildlife, chipmunks that occasionally came to dine with us, and deer, one of whom came so close to our tent one night, I could hear the sound of its breath.
One of the last places we stayed was especially unique. Growing up in remote Nevada, my dad told me about a “secret” spot to camp where natural hot springs were turned into soothing baths in the desert using old cattle troughs. We got to camp right next to one, enjoying a soak in the morning surrounded by the mountains and desert landscape, and at night, under the star-filled sky.
I wasn’t ready for it to come to an end when we made our way back to the Oregon coast after an early snowstorm closed the roads, making Yosemite impossible to reach, resulting in a chilly night spent in the car in below-freezing temperatures.
We called Oregon home for over a year until returning to Washington once again to put down roots on the “sunny” side of the Olympic Peninsula.
Some day, I might like to do it again.