Written by Annie Lindgren, Sunshine Ink
Accompanying album of photos taken by Annie Lindgren:https://adobe.ly/2Cme4Rz
I left March 9, 2020, for a road trip to desert country. As pandemic spread, I decided to ‘stay gone’ and social distance on the road. I returned home for the conclusion of my trip on July 2, 2020. In that time, I covered 15,000 miles of road through 13 states, slept outdoors 93 nights, hiked countless trails, saw far more new plants, animals, and terrain than I have pictures to prove. All the while I was living out of my Subaru Outback with my Golden Retriever Maverick. Here is the story of my experiences.
I was supposed to be in Australia and New Zealand for the month of March, but the trip was canceled last minute due to the spreading pandemic. I decided to go on a road trip instead, traveling to a place where I could see the ocean and feel warmth. I had never explored Texas before, but knew I would find what I desired.
I spent my 38th birthday hiking in and camping along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon, in a camp spot filled with Texas hospitality. The campground had a parrot in its lobby, which was as colorful as I could have seen in Australia. Further down the road, I explored miles and miles of ocean coast, driving and camping on beaches along the way. I experienced stunning desert terrain in Big Bend National Park. I saw swamps, forests, javelinas, alligators, and a plethora of flowers and birds. The people were friendly, and the warmth invigorating.
When I first entered Texas, I dealt with Spring Break causing campgrounds to be full. Two weeks later, I got nudged out due to countywide lodging closures from COVID-19 restrictions. In the middle, I saw campgrounds open, but not fully attended, and not taking fees. Texas had low case numbers when I was there, still around 300 total, and there were a lot of people out in popular areas. I witnessed empty shelves at grocery stores and precautions in various stages of implementation.
As pandemic swept across America, we all struggled with the sudden change in life as we knew it. Every day with new information. When I drove, I listened to news about it. I had SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio Channel 110 on my presets. At camp, I read the news articles about it. I watched as numbers rose. I read updates on restrictions. I heard about what was happening at home.
I left Texas after two weeks, and on BLM land near Carlsbad, NM, I faced the difficult decision of whether or not to head home or continue. New Mexico and Colorado had initiated ‘Stay Orders’. My employer sent a letter stating my essential worker status, and a press pass, for if I got pulled over. New Mexico had low cases, and I decided to stick it out.
I didn’t want to return home, because I didn’t want to give up my freedom. I worried that home would mean stuck. Colorado is a space where most people spend time outdoors, and I feared the outdoor spaces would be too busy for social distancing. I love being outdoors all the time, was getting daily exercise, and I was able to work while on the road.
I am a freelance writer, owning my own business, Sunshine Ink LLC. I write weekly articles for North Forty News, a northern Colorado news publication. I am a travel writer and photographer with a blog and social media outlets, with a mission to teach and inspire people to live their best life. My followers enjoyed seeing the beautiful places I visited and were happy to follow my journey during a time when so many had to remain home. Being on the road meant doing what I love and getting to share it. The experiences valuable in my goals of sustaining a life of full-time travel.
I spent six weeks in New Mexico, a state that came by its ‘Land of Enchantment’ slogan honestly. So much beauty and warmth. I had trails to myself, and few people were out camping. I zigzagged my way through the southern half. It was April, and still colder at higher elevations. I fell in love with Gila National Forest and the Organ Mountains. The high country desert is so colorful and filled with the history of people who lived there before. I visited the Gila Cliff Dwellings, ghost towns, soaked in hot springs, played in clear streams, saw new plants and animals, and enjoyed the colorful rock formations.
Campgrounds were mostly all closed by the end of March. Three times in Texas, I experienced a campground for the last night it would be open. I didn’t expect to find any open in New Mexico, and instead relied on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land or National Forest dispersed camping. These are free camp spots along forest or BLM land roads (all public land) with spaces along the way with dirt for parking and often a fire pit. I got lucky on March 31, where I closed down one last campground in the Organ Mountains area of New Mexico. I wouldn’t stay at another campground for two full months.
Many of the other people who were out camping during this time were other full-time campers. They lived in a variety of mobile spaces, from sprinter vans to campers or rv’s, to a few others living out of a car like me. There were singles and couples, with home bases near and far, many of them remained on the road year-round. These travelers were valuable resources for me to pick the brains of, and I learned so much about making the lifestyle sustainable. They, too, struggled with what to do amidst the pandemic. ‘Boondocking’ is free camping that does not include resources commonly found at campgrounds. Meaning, you have to carry in your water and power sources and carry out your waste. You can typically stay in a place for up to 14 days without having to move on. Living this way is very affordable if you have ways of addressing your needs within your vehicle, and don’t mind the great outdoors. There are many places to pay to camp too, of course, but a lot of these places were closed.
Full-time campers are a mixed population. There are younger people able to take their work on the road, older people who are retired and enjoying the freedom of travel, and those who have found this lifestyle more affordable (and enjoyable) than living anywhere else. The pandemic added to the stressors in this lifestyle, as resources became harder to come by. There is also worry about people becoming sick and not being able to find the resources they need. Fortunately, some RV parks opened up for those wishing to ‘Stay in Place’, in a space with reliable resources.
After six weeks on the road, I had to make a trip home. I was afraid that if I went home, I wouldn’t be able to leave again, so I was quick about it and able to breathe again once I returned to New Mexico 4 days later. I hadn’t planned to be out for longer than a month, and I had a few responsibilities to take care of, supplies to resupply, and gear to grab. I had been washing my hair in a bucket, relying on two small battery packs for power, and wishing I had a sunshade and mosquito net. I left with all of the above, including a shower bag, small generator, solar panels, and hopes for better sleeping.
While I had a fear of getting into trouble for being out and not following stay orders in Colorado and New Mexico, I found that no one ever made me feel like I was doing anything wrong. BLM and National Forest officers were friendly, understanding the need to be out, and helpfully offering recommendations for other spaces to visit. With campgrounds closed, all my camping happened on public lands. The places I visited or was a consumer seemed grateful for my tourism. I stayed in a hotel in Ruidoso Downs, a town typically busy with the racetrack, casino, and mountain tourism, where I was the only visitor in 5 days.
I would occasionally get a hotel room, when I needed to get caught up on Internet needs, or other responsibilities. I would scope it out first to make sure I could get a room where I could access it directly, for the least amount of exposure to potential germs. None were allowed to serve breakfast or even coffee, but that was ok because I had my own. I saved these visits for when they were necessary and only spent seven nights in a hotel over nearly four months’ time. I learned how to use my tablet as a hotspot, where I could get on the internet at camp. My longest stretch between a proper shower was three weeks.
I feared getting sick. I spent a day at camp making masks out of bandanas, hair-ties, and buffs, whatever I had at camp. I collected hand sanitizer and antibacterial cleaning products whenever I could find them. I used gloves at the gas pump. Bathrooms were closed in most places, including rest areas and gas stations, so I got used to pottying along the side of roads. I didn’t have to worry about picking up germs that way. I kept my grocery store stops to once every 7-10 days. I only went inside gas stations after my cooler broke, and I had to start buying ice. I sanitized my hands anytime I touched things that could have germs and even wiped my dogs face down a few times after he was sniffing around human trash or getting petted by children. I was extremely careful.
I made a lot of sacrifices living out of my car and learned much about wants vs. needs, and the little that is truly important. I mastered the art of keeping clean and comfortable when not able to shower properly, using wet wipes and a shower bag. It is challenging sleeping comfortably in a car, and while new mattresses help, the inability to keep flying insects out leads to a relentless nighttime buzzing and bloodsucking. Every camp had battles with elements or insects, and I discovered many ways to make things more comfortable through the use of mosquito nets and sunshades. I became an expert at digging cat holes and pottying in the woods. A generator and solar panels helped my need for keeping devices charged.
I had weeks worth of food in my car, limiting choices to what I had on hand, but I got creative in making healthy and tasty meals. Food resupply options are limited in rural areas when you are vegan, and there was a week in New Mexico, where I was living off chips, salsa, and beans, peanut butter, and bread. I didn’t eat out a single time. I never had a campfire either, not because I didn’t like them, but because I never felt the need to have one. I had trouble finding water with visitors centers and campgrounds closed, but learned how to ask for water or utilize water stations located at gas stations. Trash disposal was challenging in places, but I learned to keep an eye out for trash cans and dispose of it whenever possible. I felt like I was desperately trying to live off the land during a time where all towns looked like ghost towns.
After finishing up with New Mexico, I moved on to Arizona, where I spent three weeks before an emergency need to return home. Arizona was filled with challenges and experiences that taught me much. It was also beautiful, with plenty of spaces to explore and camp.
Arizona was when I got a flat tire in the woods and had a car battery die (while I was in town getting new tires installed, thank goodness). Maverick, who has never had a hotspot, developed a hotspot under his ear. I had the supplies to care for it but didn’t have shavers or a way to effectively keep it clean, living in the forest with no running water. I learned much about border patrol and had some close encounters. I had a helicopter fly through camp, went through countless border patrol checks, ran into an officer in the middle of the desert in a space void of visitors, and other things I witnessed that I won’t share here. It was May by the time I was there, and the temperatures were reaching 102 degrees. Even the 17-hour commute home from Arizona was stressful, with three indicator lights lit up on the dashboard.
I handled everything well, solving each problem on my own. I reached out to Maverick’s veterinarian regarding the ear. I had everything I needed to deal with a flat tire. I survived weeks of camping and hiking near the border. I learned to travel during the heat of the day. I got my car in for needed services. There were obstacles, but I made it through them all. It is such a confidence builder to figure things out on your own and see the things you have learned in the past save your butt in the present. I felt more confident than ever, like a lone warrior out in the woods, surviving.
Arizona was beautiful and similar to New Mexico. I focused more heavily on the southern parts because I had never visited those parts before. Lowell and Tombstone looked more like empty film sets than tourist destinations. I spent time in the southeast corner before traveling over to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. On Cinco De Mayo, I drove for an hour along the border between Arizona and Mexico, observing stretches of a wall in various states of ‘built’. The desert terrain was classic and brutal but contained plants I had never seen before. When I was done with the desert heat, I headed north to the National Forest areas of central-eastern Arizona. It was a lovely mountain forest area with cooler temps and more plentiful water sources. My favorite camp spot was along the Mogollon Rim, where I spent six nights with a perfect view of the valley. There is more to see in Arizona, and I will return when the weather cools again.
When I set out for a road trip to desert country, I had planned to visit Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The slow and thorough pace at which I traveled led me to miss out on some parts, but I also missed a lot of places because they were closed. I had to stop planning to visit places due to all the closures. Instead, I chose roads to explore and visited whatever I found along the way, often asking locals for recommendations. In the end, I spent ten weeks exploring desert country, with some ocean and forest mixed in. I saw plants and landscapes I had never seen before and learned more about what it was like to live in those landscapes. The vibrancy of desert plants amazes me, and the colors that fill each sunset and sunrise are unlike any other. It is a terrain where life is earned through hardiness and patience. I love that it is a space enjoyable during the fall and winter months, and I look forward to returning when cooler temperatures swing around again.
I had planned a trip back to Colorado towards the end of May, because my son was turning 21, and I wanted a birthday beer with him. The trip came sooner rather than later as the hotspot Maverick developed needed veterinary attention. I saw friends and family during the visit home, learning more about what others were experiencing during this time. So many people were struggling, but also growth and acceptance were happening. I noticed many differing opinions on everything. Everyone processing all that is happening based on their individual perspectives, circumstances, and political views. Once I hit the road again, I felt ready to get away from it all. During this time, George Floyd was murdered, and it seemed that things in the nation were getting worse, rather than better.
It was time to head north to cooler weather, and I wanted to explore Idaho. Still jonesing the missed Utah, I planned to swing through the northern part of the State. I left May 28 and headed out on Hwy 14, driving across the top of Colorado, staying north of Dinosaur National Monument for a Colorado in springtime send-off.
Northern Utah and all of Idaho were absolutely beautiful. I fell in love with Bear Lake, and the higher elevation mountains reminded me of Colorado. I saw such varied terrain, and a lot of outdoor spaces to explore and experience. There were hot springs, rivers and lakes, volcanos and lava fields, wilderness and wildlife preservation areas, trails, ghost towns and historical sites, the Lewis and Clark trail, and beautiful farms surrounded in lush farmland. It was a wild place loaded with flowers, animals, and thick forests. Everywhere I went, I found so much more to explore. Unfortunately, I battled the weather and spring storms almost daily.
Tom Petty’s song ‘Time to Move On’ played in my head, and on the stereo, throughout Idaho. It was my ‘morning pack-up-camp’ jam. Less than ideal conditions kept us on the move, with the weather and lack of cell service. It rained almost daily and had wind and cold in the mix. When the weather was bad at camp, we had to stay in the car, which was also where we slept and traveled. It was not a big space. Having no cell service meant I couldn’t get on the internet for work and had a harder time scheduling phone interviews and getting articles posted. We still fit in hikes and saw lots of beautiful countrysides, but work was challenging and relaxation infrequent.
Campgrounds were open again, which was nice, but an added expense that was not always in the budget. A lot more people were out, and many campgrounds were full or felt full. I did find some with covered picnic tables, which helped have an outdoor space even when it rained. Living in a car, with a dog, in a rainy, muddy climate was challenging. After a while, it smelled like a bear lived in the car. The constant moving, the stress of being behind at work, the nights of poor sleep, and the days of the same old foods was wearing on me. By the end of this stretch, I was exhausted.
In the woods of Couer d’Alene National Forest, in northern Idaho, I made a big decision. I would buy a camper that I could pull with my car, and my mom happened to have a perfect one she would sell me. A 13’ Scamp, with a bathroom and shower, a kitchen and sink, a bed and table, screens in windows, a fan, heater, and even an air-conditioner. It ran off power, battery, or propane, and could keep us comfortable in spaces from boondocking to staying at an RV park. It would feel like ‘glamping’ compared to what I had been doing. I just needed to decide when to break and retrieve it.
I learned that loneliness can wear at you. Humans have genuine needs for socialization and human contact. It helped to have friends communicating with me along the way, but I would go weeks without having in-person communication with anyone. Longer without seeing a familiar face. Being home didn’t solve this as one had to be careful, especially vulnerable populations, which many of my favorite faces fall into the category of.
I am incredibly grateful for the companionship of my Golden Retriever Maverick. He is loving, loyal, and interactive. He is the reason I always find the motivation to go for a walk or mind the rules about when it is time to wake-up or eat. He is funny and smart and provides a regular supply of laughs and smiles. He is obnoxious, needy, and can be quite the pest, but always in the name of attention. He loves all the kinds of adventuring that we do, and it is fun watching him experience things alongside me. I do my very best to include water in each day, as it is both of our very favorite element. I also do my very best to keep him safe and healthy, just as he helps me with the same.
Everywhere I went, when I had the opportunity to interact with others, I asked questions to find out how others felt about what was going on. I found in the states with fewer cases, that people were not as worried about COVID-19, which makes sense if not many around them had been impacted. As restrictions were lifted, I saw public spaces become more crowded, and very few people wearing masks. When I returned to Colorado, I felt refreshed to find people mostly all wearing masks, as I saw very little mask-wearing in all the states I stayed in or passed through. New Mexico was the only other State I visited where I felt they were doing an excellent job of staying ahead of potential disaster.
Each State is handling education, marketing, restrictions, and guidelines differently. Hotline numbers, symptom checklists, interstate message signs, posters at trailheads, restriction signs posted on doors, closure guidelines, were all different from State to State. Businesses everywhere have adapted quickly, and I didn’t step into a single one without seeing signs of how they were addressing health safety. Some even met my needs without having me step through the door.
My fear of getting in trouble for being out, or of getting sick, subsided by the third month on the road. We knew more about how the virus spread. I also knew I would not be in trouble. I did feel out of place often being the only out of state license plates in the area, but people remained friendly and helpful. I did have people in Idaho suggest it wasn’t safe for me to be out as a solo woman, which spurred me to dive deeper into what that notion is all about. More blogs to come on this topic. I never felt unsafe due to my status as a woman solo traveler. If anything, I appeared more approachable, and people were quick to offer help or advice. I enjoy traveling this way because I have more vibrant connections with the spaces I travel through when I can move at my own pace.
I learned to give up planning, and instead base decisions on the factors of that day. It forced me into a heightened level of mindfulness for the here and now. I felt gratitude for the most basic of things. I learned so much about living a lifestyle of full-time travel. I learned what is important to me and the sacrifices I am willing to make to have the life I want to live. I had a lot of experiences that built my confidence and taught me more about who I am.
I spent three and a half weeks in Idaho, coming out the top after a few days in the Bonners Ferry area. It was June 24 when I decided I couldn’t take any more of trying to manage the life of living out of my car with my dog. A stop at a friend’s house in Montana told me that no amount of laundry doing was going to make my car smell better and that exhaustion was impacting my mental health. It was time to head to Missouri to buy a camper.
We slept in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota along the way to north-central Missouri, where my mom lives. It was my first visit to North Dakota, the 47th state checked off my list. I made the trip in three days, arriving at mom’s house on June 27, Maverick’s 5th birthday. I picked up gifts for him on the way through Minneapolis. My mom had the Scamp set up and waiting for us, and we spent our five-night stay sleeping in our new digs.
July 2, I returned home to Colorado after a day-long drive from Missouri. The maiden voyage drive with the Subaru hauling the Scamp was a success. The Scamp camper will address so many barriers I faced in making the ‘on the road’ lifestyle sustainable. I can’t wait to hit the road again.
Over 116 nights ‘on the road’, from March 9 to July 2, Maverick and I spent the following: Sixty-one nights in dispersed camping, either on BLM or National Forest land. Twenty-six nights spent in campgrounds, with a minimum of toilet, water, and trash services. Six nights camping at friend or family-owned properties. This equals 93 nights total spent sleeping outdoors, and the remaining 23 nights spent indoors. Including eight nights spent on friends or family’s couch or spare bed, eight nights spent in my bed at home, and seven nights spent in a hotel. We slept in ten different states and covered 15,000 miles of roads through thirteen states. It was an incredible adventure.
I recoup and regroup in Colorado, as the situation with the pandemic continues on with uncertainty. I look forward to returning to all the states I visited, exploring them further as things are open and time allows. I continue training for adventure and working towards getting work to a place where it can be sustainable on the road. I will hit the road again in August for backpacking and mountain climbing adventures. Stay tuned for more blogs about things I learned traveling the backroads of America during a pandemic while living out of a Subaru Outback.
Album of Photos from the journey: https://adobe.ly/2Cme4Rz
Other photo albums related to this journey:
New Mexico: https://adobe.ly/36WEG6Q
Last five weeks (Utah, Idaho, Montana, and other): https://adobe.ly/32gXCNg
To see more blogs about this trip, check these out. They include details about where I visited:
New Mexico: https://sunshineinkllc.com/new-mexico-the-land-of-enchantment/
The final 5 weeks (Utah, Idaho, Montana): https://sunshineinkllc.com/on-the-road-during-a-pandemic-the-final-5-weeks-of-a-17-week-journey/
All photos were taken by Annie Lindgren