Roadtrip USA: Alternative parental leave

Photo: Lars Schneider
Travelling in an old VW van on a month-long roadtrip through the USA is not really a typical choice of parents with an eight-month-old baby. But it might be the best thing you can do to experience a great adventure as a new family.

Camping under the stars, here in the Alabama Hills. | Photo: Lars Schneider
Camping under the stars, here in the Alabama Hills. | Photo: Lars Schneider
There are moments when we seriously wonder if we should have stayed at home and spent two months relaxing in the garden, swimming pool or on the playground.

Moments like these: It is two o’clock in the morning. Three hours ago, we had reached the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, only a stone’s throw away from Las Vegas. At the official campground, there is the disillusioning sign: “Campground full”. So we park the van illegally on a parking spot nearby and hope that the ranger has hopefully already done his rounds through the park. Just when we want to close our eyes, Fietje wakes up. He cries for 90 minutes, no way to calm him down. We do not know why. Finally, he falls back asleep, too exhausted to keep on being unhappy. When Katrin and I also find our way back to the start of our dreams, suddenly we hear rustling and crackling from underneath the front bench seat where we store our provisions. Light on, and there it is: a mouse. I imagine it grinning maliciously before it disappears into a corner, for now. 

Little man on big tour. And Fietje likes it. | Photo: Lars Schneider
Little man on big tour. And Fietje likes it. | Photo: Lars Schneider
But there are also moments like these: We have spent a night in the tent. The first night camping out for Fietje. All muffled up, he has spent the night between us, sometimes he cuddled with me, sometimes with Katrin. When the sun hits the tent in the morning, he stretches and opens his eyes. Calm but also just a little surprised, he looks around, looks at us and smiles. You do not want to be anywhere else.

On a big journey at eight months

Fietje is eight months old when we put three big Duffel Bags, a baby car seat and a child carrier into two big bags and fly to California. Our parental leave. At least part of it, the bit we want to spend together and as adventurously as possible. With the help of a friend, we buy a VW van. It was built in 1971 – is four years older than me – and is fitted out with a bed and a pop-up roof. It will be our home for two months. In the kitchen there is a camping stove, fresh water from a ten litre canister, our fridge is a cooler which we have to fill up with ice from the petrol station every second day. There are a few cupboards and some storage space. Only the buggy we bought second-hand in the USA always seems to be in the way.

Too beautiful to only rush through: the Joshua Tree National Park. | Photo: Lars Schneider
Too beautiful to only rush through: the Joshua Tree National Park. | Photo: Lars Schneider
As outdoor photographers, Katrin and I have travelled more in the last years than we stayed at home. In the future, that will change a bit, but nevertheless we want our son to get accustomed to travelling as early as possible. However, first of all, we need to learn that travelling has to be done differently now: Already after the first few days, we scrap our plan to do a really long circle trip through the south-west of the USA. In comparison to home, we can only drive here while Fietje is having his morning or afternoon nap. Suddenly he hates having his seatbelt fastened. Only a short while ago he started crawling and there is so much to explore, especially here. So we adjust our plans accordingly: more time at one particular place, less driving. And that is a good way of doing things.

Take along too: the two-and-a-half-man tent. | Photo: Lars Schneider
Take along too: the two-and-a-half-man tent. | Photo: Lars Schneider
Our first stop is the Alabama Hills at the foot of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. This patch of desert is littered with boulders providing natural niches and bays where you can park legally at night. The area is made for forays and little excursions, like a giant adventure play ground. 

After more dusty and warm days visiting desert landscapes and canyons, it is time for the first shower. Katrin and I shower each other with a water bag from the van’s roof. We place Fietje into a folding bowl, warm up water on a camping stove and wash him using a cup. He enjoys it and once again we realise how little we need and especially how little our little man needs to be happy. We also do not need a big bed. In the back of the bus, we have 120 centimetres for the three of us and usually we sleep blissfully and close to each other. Waking up morning after morning together and experiencing how Fietje is the first one to crawl to the window to have a look at the area is what makes you happy. Then, I usually climb outside, open up the tailgate, and we stay in bed for a while, look for some birds in the sky, or listen to the wind. 

Chilly night temperatures

After close to one month, we leave the desert areas of California and Nevada and drive north. We want to go to Utah and into Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. A change of weather with a storm and snow forces us to take a break in a small apartment in Cedar City. At least we can use the washing machine, charge the camera batteries and eat our meals at a table which is nice for the back for a change. But then, we get itchy feet again, we want to return to the bus and to nature. In Bryce Canyon, we are suddenly 2,500 metres above sea level, at the beginning of April that means chilly nights, even after beautiful days. It is the first time we have to pack Fietje into more than just his fleece play-suit, but we are not sure how many layers he needs. When we are finished, he is a package consisting of several layers of wool and fleece all inside a down sleeping bag. His cheeks are red, the tip of his nose a bit cold, but he sleeps like a log – at minus four degrees.

Family life in the Bulli made in 1971. | Photo: Lars Schneider
Family life in the Bulli made in 1971. | Photo: Lars Schneider
After breakfast, we explore the trails in the park. Breathtaking rock formation in colours of orange run along an escarpment. Fietje observes everything carefully from his perch on my back and shows us the moon. Here and there, there is still a bit of snow which reminds us about the next cold night. “Maybe we should move a little bit further south,” suggests Katrin. I do not mind and in the evening, at the camp fire with roasted marshmallows, we make a plan: Zion National Park, Grand Canyon, Sedona and then the quickest route to the coast. We finally want to go to the sea, smell the salt in the air, bury the feet into the sand.

Of course one wonders if Fietje benefited from travelling around with us. He will surely not remember the trip and there are often moments when we tear our hair out. On the other hand, we feel how good it is for him to be outside every day. Even now, one year later, he prefers to be outside even if it is rainy and stormy. And he does not mind sleeping in different beds three nights in a row..

Nature has built several adventure playgrounds in the south-west of the USA. | Photo: Lars Schneider
Nature has built several adventure playgrounds in the south-west of the USA. | Photo: Lars Schneider
We keep the bus for our next adventure

There are many things on our journey which our son smells, hears and sees for the first time. One highlight is the elephant seals on the beach south of San Simeon. Several hundred of them are just lying there close together, there is a viewpoint only a stone’s throw away. It stinks to high heavans, they grunt, scuffle and are also quite lazy too. Fietje is mesmerised. 

Almost eight weeks have passed by the time we drive into a State Park for the last time to look for a nice pitch and set up home. We are looking forward to home somewhat but we will miss the bus and the simple life. We will come back. We keep the bus, shed it at our friends’ place and vow to drive it to the east coast one day. As a family, to experience even more adventures.

 

4-Seasons info

Tips for trips with a toddler

Getting there 

Up to the age of two, the flight is (often) free. But babies will not get their own seat. Depending how the children sleep, you might want to choose a night flight!

 

Rental

Besides the rental agencies for camper vans, there are specialists in California which rent old VW vans (from 900 $/week): vwsurfari.com, californiacampers.com.

 

Equipment

Good to bring for babies: a folding bowl as a substitute for a bathtub (i.e. from Ortlieb), a children’s sleeping bag made of down (Yeti V.I.B. Junior), sun glasses (Julbo Looping) and sun screen (LSF 50), head cover and clothes offering UV protection. We took along a baby seat for the car (for free in the plane).

Route

Can be planned individually. It is important to take enough time, especially with children! We especially enjoyed the following parks: Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Valley of Fire, Bryce Canyon, Zion. Also: Alabama Hills as well as the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco.   

 

Overnight stays

If you travel with a camper van, you have three possibilities for parking up:

• Campgrounds run by the State and National Parks or private ones (per night 12 – 35 $, often without power and showers)

• “public land” outside the park – no infrastructure but often in beautiful nature

• Parking spots at “Walmart” supermarkets – not romantic but for free for camper vans

 

 
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