Taking in a Memorable Success: Official VanLife Adventure #1

VanLide Adventure Michigan to Florida

Sometimes you get the opportunity and you just have to go for it. We are lucky to have just finished our first official VanLife adventure. This, after recently getting our Tellaro van and a wild unofficial adventure to get some electronics stabilized.

Packing and preparing our van for the first leisurely adventure was a two-day proposition. It takes more time to pack and is a bit tedious because it’s our first time out. We both need space and to know where the precious stuff is. It’s been a long time since either Paula or I have camped, and the class B experience is brand new to us. So, we hope we’re reasonably prepared.

Whispering Hills, just north of Lexington, KY

After a later-than-expected start, we headed south out of Detroit through Ohio and into Kentucky. The Dodge ProMaster Tellaro van handles well, and we settle into our first road trip. And Paula does great driving the van for the first time.

We start looking through overnight options on the FreeRoam phone application, our first such attempt. Given our timing and location and our fumbling with the app, we cannot find many options. We call and make arrangements to arrive at Whispering Hills, right at their 8PM closing time.

As RV facilities go, this probably wasn’t a bad one. Friendly, large and nearly full, it is good for many of the RV crowd. But that’s not us. We probably could have boondoggled somewhere on the edge. Still, it was a pleasant night and we learned.

High Falls State Park, just south of Atlanta, GA

This well-kept, small old state park is relaxing, and has convenient six-mile access to I75. In the morning we have a bike ride around the camping area and then go on foot down Tranquility Trail. We also go down a trail which looks out over the turbulent Towaliga River. The trail to High Falls is currently being refurbished. There is a historical marker and remnants of an old grist mill; during the Civil War it was burned by Rebels to keep it out of Yankee hands.

Here we meet the camp’s resident volunteers, Marion and his wife. He tells how experienced Georgia campers sprinkle Borax around their tires to keep the notorious piss ants away. You can tell Georgia takes its state parks seriously.

Dunedin, across the bay from Clearwater, FL

The Seminoles gave Clearwater its name. It’s the Gulf of Mexico, never deeper than 30-40 feet; some speculate that this shallowness is why the hurricanes seem to avoid this region. So says the old man, and he might well know. He did, after all, hand-build a boat and use it to fish these salty waters for many years.

The old man, our old man, is Bob Russell, Paula’s father. Bob is one of the last, if not the last, of the Hell Hawks. He was an underage flyer of P47s in WWII after the Battle of the Bulge. He was shot down near a bridge over the Rhine River, while providing Army air cover. They were keeping the Germans from retreating to Berlin.

Bob is now 98 years of age, and we are a couple of family members that are lucky to spend time with him. However, we are also able to get out together and enjoy the area. And of course, the fresh grouper!

The Dunedin Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is a nice active facility. Bob is a real hero of WWII, and still an occasional visitor. This time, Paula signed up as an auxiliary member. This was a milestone in making her retirement official. In the dark parking lot, I don’t think about the long low Live Oak limbs arching over top. And the top rakes through them. The next morning, I climb up and can find no damage.

Vanlife Adventure #1 Got to the Beach

Paula has walked the beach at Clearwater for forty years or so; I have walked it for ten. So, it’s the most walked beach of our life. The mind clears walking the beach. Maybe we all have an affinity with big salt water because the pH balance is so much the same as the womb. You’re close to mother nature.

If you make it to Clearwater, you might appreciate the iconic Palm Pavilion. The place that started as a hot dog stand, that is now grand-fathered into one of the exclusive few open bars; it is the entryway into the less-developed northern section of Clearwater Beach. There’s also the distinctive old Palm Pavilion hotel.

Stephen C. Foster State Park, Fargo, GA

After four nights in Dunedin, we start our return. Our first night will be the Stephen C. Foster State Park in the southeast corner of Georgia. This will be about a five-hour ride. This takes us to our second night of the trip in the Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites system.

We’re comfortable heading north in the van and without thinking, I get in a McDonald’s drive through line. I come around a corner and see the warning sign about low heights. It’s going to be really close. And there are cars in line behind me, so no easy exit. All I wanted was a coffee. The guy behind sees the predicament; so, he watches closely as I easy through. No groans or scrapes. Thank goodness.

We go north on Route 19 and then angle northeast on Route 441 toward the northern border of Florida. Before crossing into Georgia, we stop in at Mr. B’s BBQ in Lake City. We have the best BBQ in recent memory, and sign the wall of many names.

Now we are in Georgia and we miss the turn toward the park. It’s a poorly marked turn on the backside of a weird intersection. And magically, cellular died at the same moment. Right, Paula?

Deep in the Okefenokee

We get turned around and head afresh to the park. We roll down a dedicated seventeen mile stretch through pouring rain and water swollen ditches. This is “special” Route 177, straight through the primitive Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Basically, the Stephen C. Foster State Park sits inside the federal park.

It’s been raining for seven days according to the officer keeper and she says no end in sight. There are several campsites around each of two loops. Each site has electric and water hookups. And there is a community spot for waste disposal. The sites are a bit littered with storm refuse and the like. Not everything is totally maintained, but good facilities (like a hot shower) are available to us. This is the hot off-season and the bugs have been terrible. So, there are many camping sites available. 

Waterfowl abounds, to say the least. Flocks of big black ospreys. We set up for the night in what might be the biggest black water swamp there is. The rain has just subsided, so the bugs have not yet returned this evening. We enjoy a late day walk around the camping areas.

We see a variety of animal life and warning signs about alligators and black bears. It’s a dark sky park, meaning little light pollution. Hence, there are brilliant vivid celestial views at night.

We are witnessing nature and beauty in the making, here in this refuge. This is a paradise of which we knew not until yesterday. Here we are, basically with the park to ourselves. The importance of this place in an ecological sense is profound. Reverence for the refuge is more poignant given all today’s environmental tragedy. I feel the privilege of being able to experience this place.

Bugs Win One During this VanLife Adventure

It’s a stifling night in the swamp and somehow, the air conditioning failed. With a fully charged battery bank and plugged in to shore power, it would not come on. With no AC, we opened windows and ran the exhaust fans. It circulated the air, but also drew tiny gnats and mosquitos through the screens. Or maybe it’s those piss ants. Now I can find the breakers even if it’s dark and I’m buzzed.

Cloudland Canyon State Park, near Rising Swan, GA

So, today we are angling from the southeast corner of Georgia to the northwest, hoping to avoid Atlanta traffic this time. But, no. All roads go to Atlanta, unless you have a day or so. At one point, within about a ten-mile stretch, it was the Georgia Technology Corridor, the best hot boiled peanuts, and the Jefferson Davis Memorial Turnpike.

Cloudland Canyon is stunning. We had heard good things about this park and area. To us, it is all merited.

Cherokee Falls is a beautiful spot, at the end of a moderate hike. This area is part of the origin of the infamous Trail of Tears.

There are camping loops on the east and west rims, all with electricity and water for most sizes and setups. There are only five sites on the east rim, and they have easiest access to the trail heads, waterfalls, and scenic overlooks; it includes the day-use area. The west rim is more secluded. Every site is great.  

Chickamauga Civil War Battle Site, near Trenton, GA

A thread through our adventures is the goal of seeing Civil War sites. And our first big one will be the fabled Chickamauga. It is a twenty-three-mile day trip from our camp site to our Nation’s first military park.

Without knowing what to expect, we spend some time in the visitor’s center. We get our bearings and decide to take the eight-stop auto tour. First though, we get an informative introduction from young Pierce. It’s so nice to see bright enthusiastic stewards of nature and history.

There is honor and an air of reverence in all aspects of the Chickamauga experience. The country is still healing from that reality. And so many of the same, or at least startlingly similar, conditions are present in today’s society. Hence, it seemed especially poignant. Two-days of battle at Chickamauga spawned many moving stories. Experiencing it first-hand makes one want to go read those books again.

The Chickamauga Civil War Battle Site was a profound highlight of this VanLife Adventure. Here shown is the Wilder Brigade Monument.
The Union headquarters was overrun by the Confederates three times in two days of fighting, once from this prominent hill. It is here that Lieutenant Colonel John T. Wilder, in the face of Union mistakes, salvaged some of the Union effort, leading the Lightening Brigade.

VanLife Adventure Back at Cloudland Canyon

Vanlife adventure at Cloudland Canyon. Spectacular.

Between Chickamauga and Cloudland Canyon, it was quite a VanLife adventure day. Two nights at this park was not enough. It’s the top of our list so far, and we’ll be going back.

Lessons Learned from VanLife Adventure #1

We did great. And now we know more of what we don’t know! Kidding, sort of. We learned tremendously. Here are highlights:

  • Travel partners will come to clear deeper understanding of what safety really means. For example, one might be more or less or differently inclined to boondoggling than another (one might be more set on comfort). Since this is recreation, physical exertion can come into play – you need to be sensitive of each other’s limits.
  • The Ram ProMaster really drove and handled well; it’s fun to drive! It was surprising to see four of them in the Cloudland Canyon park. It was disappointing that one of the interior window fascias and its blind attachment came loose; almost as if it had never been attached in the first place. We need better and more consistent use of phones in conjunction with the entertainment system.  And you cannot forget how tall it is; even the oil change place in Florida had to open their door extra wide.
  • Trip planning and packing/organizing can be greatly improved. For example, we know better how far to go in a day, and will make better use of maps/services. You need to know everything in the van, every what-why-how-and-where.

Full Lessons Learned from this summertime VanLife adventure are included in our Van Life Bible. We chronicle our adventures and maintain practical need-to-know insights for Class B VanLife. Sign Up!