Lessons From a Solo Trip in a Sprinter Van

grey sprinter van parked alongside rocks at Yosemite National park

Whenever people hear that I made a solo trip in a Sprinter van from Seattle, WA to Ocala, FL, they usually want to know one of two things: 1) What was it like traveling solo as a woman? and/or 2) How much did it cost? This post offers a glimpse into some of the highlights of my cross-country van adventure, and some of the life-changing lessons I learned on that solo trip.

Why I Took a Solo Trip in a Sprinter Van

When my marriage unraveled, I knew that a complete lifestyle redesign was in order. And that’s often the case when we’re blindsided by unexpected changes in life circumstances. As I wrestled with my options and newfound freedom, I ultimately decided that what I needed more than anything was time to process what was happening. I didn’t want make any important decisions from a place of fear, and I certainly didn’t want to feel forced into replanting roots before I was ready.

With this in mind, I decided to give away or sell the majority of my personal possessions, keeping only what brought me joy. The only real requirement was that everything had to fit in the van, which was less than 40 square feet.

In the weeks that preceded my trip, I was basically homeless. After the sale of my home, I stayed with friends or camped at State Parks while I waited for my license plates to come in. Those early days were some of the most difficult. I grieved hard. I cried while simultaneously eating beef jerky in the van. I overheard amusing conversations in coffee shops to pass the time. I read insightful books that helped me learn the *art of suffering well. The possibilities were endless. And, honestly, it was a bit paralyzing.

But I’d done something similar before. In 2012, I traveled through Europe by campervan, and it was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I now see that trip was just preparing me for this one.

Where I Went

Independence Day seemed like a logical departure date for my journey. But beyond the first two nights, I hadn’t made any camping or hotel reservations. I simply trusted that my final destination would reveal itself somewhere along the way. My plan was to drive wherever my heart led me, stop whenever something tickled my fancy, find a place to camp when I didn’t feel like driving anymore. And the next morning, over a divine cup of French-pressed coffee, I’d decide where to go from there.

Day 1

July 4, 2018 – Bainbridge Island & Poulsbo, WA

After a good night’s sleep at a hotel in Issaquah, WA ($193.34), I steered the van toward Bainbridge Island on the morning of July 4th.

Seattle Sklyline view from the ferry

The ferry was filled with cheerful, patriotic families who were oohing and awing over the views of the Pacific Northwest landscapes. Springtime in Seattle truly is magical. I stood gripping the railing tightly while I silently said my goodbyes to a city I’d called home for six years.

My cheeks felt cold as we drifted slowly through the Puget Sound. I snapped pictures of the Emerald City from the deck, doing my best to preserve the memories that I’d collected there — some heartwarming and some heartbreaking. I felt tears welling up in my eyes, but before they had a chance to run down my cheeks, a rush of cold wind dried them instantly, offering me a moment to recollect my composure.

I watched the Seattle skyline fade into the distance as the snow-capped mountains in front of me grew larger. Two chapters of my life — my past and future selves – collided just like the brackish water beneath me.

And just like that, my old life became a memory.

The ferry engine rumbled beneath me as if trying to administer CPR to my mostly lifeless body, which was still in the early stages of healing. But this kind of healing was going take time. Much more time. That much I knew.

As we approached Bainbridge Island, I made my way back down to the parking platform. The van was still warm, which offered a strange sense of comfort that somehow felt foreign to me.

When the ferry docked I was ready. I had to be.

As I meandered through the many familiar stops on the island, more memories rushed back. And then came the all too familiar sadness. My first stop was Sluy’s Bakery in Poulsbo. A friend had recommended it, so I grabbed a decadent maple twist roll and a cup of coffee before heading toward Eagle Tree RV Park ($40.86), where I’d spend my first night.

The RV park was crowded and campsite spots were tight. No doubt, the 4th of July holiday brought larger than normal crowds, but most RV parks I’d visited were cramped regardless of the time of year. That’s one of the reasons I prefer camping in State Parks and National Forests — there’s more space and the views are better.

Camping in the van was primitive, to say the least. My possessions were stacked carefully, with an endless number of bungee cords securing the fragile pieces of my life. Every night, I’d have to rearrange everything so my sleeping pad would fit right down the center of the van, where I slept like a sausage link until around 4:30 a.m., when the songbirds decided it was time for everyone to be awake.

As I drifted off to sleep to the sound of fireworks that first night, I wondered what the actual f*ck I’d gotten myself into.

Day 2

July 5, 2018 – Hoh Rainforest, Ruby Beach, and Ocean City, WA

The next morning I awoke to the faint sound of fireworks still going strong from the night before. It was cold enough that I could see my breath, and I shivered the moment I peeled back the layers of blankets from my body. Life in the van wasn’t easy, especially in the early days. Everything from brushing my teeth to making breakfast to taking a shower took about three times as long.

After breakfast and a quick shower, I headed toward the Hoh Rainforest (National Forest Annual Pass $80), which melted away any leftover anxiety from my first day on the road. The forest’s vibrant green treelines felt energizing, and my excitement about the trip ahead was instantly renewed.

One of the best purchases I made was the Annual National Parks pass. At just $80, it saved me over $100 in the first couple of weeks.

Next, I headed toward Ruby Beach, where I stopped to have lunch in the van overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Ruby Beach gets its name from the reddish sand that can sometimes be seen along the shoreline. It didn’t look red to me, but the view was breathtaking.

My next destination was Ocean City, WA, where I’d made reservations for my second night at a nearby State Park ($43). Just a few steps from my campsite, there was a path that led to the beach. I sat on a piece of driftwood and allowed the sun to warm my body until it began to sink toward the horizon.

Day 3

July 6, 2018 – Rainier, WA

Next, I was off to visit some friends in Southern Washington State, where I spent the night in a driveway. Again, temperatures dipped into the 30’s overnight, and I was thankful that I’d packed plenty of blankets. When I wasn’t driving, there was no source of heat in the van.

Day 4

July 7, 2018 – Bend, OR

After a relaxing morning of horseback riding on the beach with my friend, we said our goodbyes and I headed toward Bend, OR to visit more friends.

Day 5

July 8, 2018 – Crater Lake, OR and Lake Tahoe

After a wonderful evening filled with great wine and conversation, I exchanged hugs with my friends and left Bend, where I continued South toward Crater Lake.

The royal blue water was spectacular.

I snapped a few quick photos and hopped back in the van…and drove and drove and drove. I knew I was cutting it close to find a place to camp for the night when I noticed the sun sinking. I’d decided not to make reservations for the remainder of the trip because I didn’t know how far I’d feel like driving, and I wasn’t sure how long I’d want to spend sightseeing. But I also needed a break from my over-planning tendencies. I wanted to stay open on this adventure.

But by the time I reached Lake Tahoe, the sun had set and hoards of people were walking precariously close to the the roadside overlooking the lake. Restaurant and hotel parking lots were completely full, as were each of the campgrounds.

I was tired.

Honestly, I was nearing emotional meltdown status. On the verge of tears, I continued down the long, windy road toward a string of hotels near the Reno border. It was almost 10 p.m. by the time I found a sparsely populated casino parking lot that I could pull into so I could call some area hotels.

After booking the last available room at the Marriott South Lake Tahoe Resort ($339.09), I made my way back onto the road, where I carefully dodged jaywalking pedestrians while simultaneously searching for the hotel’s entrance. I drove around the block six times before I finally found it. One turn of the wheel had me in California, and the next in Reno.

When I arrived at the hotel, I hesitantly handed over my keys to the valet. The van was too tall to fit into a parking garage, so I had to make arrangements at the front desk to park near the front entrance. It was almost 11 p.m. by the time I finally walked into the hotel room. Exhausted, I melted into the sheets and fell into a deep slumber.

Five hours later, I was up and on the road again.

Day 6

July 9, 2018 – Yosemite National Park, CA

The next morning I continued South through the Hackamore region of California toward my next destination: Yosemite National Park. That was the moment I finally realized this little solo trip in a Sprinter van was real. I was far, far away from my support network now. I was really on my own.

I was at least functional again after a few hours of sleep, but I was far from rested. But the moment I entered Yosemite, I felt more relaxed. My shoulders, which felt like golf balls filled with concrete for most of the trip, lowered ever so slightly. My breathing slowed. I felt less anxious. Everything seemed slower there.

Honestly, I wasn’t at all prepared for how beautiful Yosemite National Park would be. I mean, I’d heard people talk about national parks and I’d seen a few pictures. But there isn’t a picture in the world that could do its beauty justice.

In the early afternoon, I secured a spot at the Porcupine Flat campground ($12). After lugging my cooler to the bear box and securing all of my food, I sat on the edge of the picnic table and felt fully relaxed for quite possible the first time in months. One of the best things I’ve discovered about traveling in a 144 Sprinter van is that you can fit into smaller, more primitive campsites, making it more likely to secure a campsite with a view.

It was 68 degrees during the day and 36 degrees at night. And I slept for 12 hours straight that night.

Day 7

July 10, 2018 – Sequoia National Park & Bakersfield, CA

The next stop on my bucket list was Sequoia National Park. Since I’d already visited the tallest trees a few years back at Redwoods National Park, I didn’t want to miss out on seeing the widest ones. After snapping a few pictures of a few of the oldest remaining Sequoia’s, I headed toward Bakersfield, CA.

I would have preferred to stay at a campground, but I really needed to do laundry, so I booked a reservation at a nearby Residence Inn ($191.85). Plus, temperatures had been reaching 100+ degrees, so staying in the van would likely have been unbearable.

Day 8

July 11, 2018 – Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

While eating breakfast the next morning, I heard on the news that someone had been stabbed to death the night before in a hotel parking just a few blocks away. And people say camping is dangerous.

Next stop: the Grand Canyon.

After a quick photo op at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, I was back in the van heading out to find a campsite for the night. Storm clouds were closing in quickly and it’s much easier to set up camp when it isn’t raining.

It stormed all night at the TenX Campground ($10), so I locked myself in the van and read some of my favorite books: *No Mud, No Lotus and Loving What Is. The inspiring words contained in those books were a big part of my healing process.

Day 9

July 12, 2018 – Flagstaff, AZ and Four Corners

After hearing horror stories about the temperamental diesel exhaust system from other Sprinter van owners, I decided to never allow the fluid to get below 1/2 full, so I headed toward the a Mercedes Benz dealership in Flagstaff, AZ to have it topped off. While I waited in the service department lounge, I scrolled through some possible points of interest to visit next. The Four Corners looked relatively close on the map, so that’s what I settled on.

But that seemingly short trip turned into yet another full day of driving through the desert. Hot. Dry. Desolate.

At one point I honestly thought I was hallucinating. What looked like a tiny, doll-sized person was standing up in the middle of the road in front of me. I blinked several times, trying to determine if it was a stuffed animal or a real person. For a moment, I swear it had its hands over its eyes scanning out over the horizon. Then, in a burst of energy, it scurried off the road. That was my first ever meerkat sighting.

When I finally reached the Four Corners monument ($5), I was exhausted. That long trip back through the desert was not something I was looking forward to. After waiting in line for thirty minutes to get a picture smack dab on the four corners, I ordered some delicious cinnamon fry bread and hopped back on the road.

By that point, I was drooling over the thought of fresh vegetables and salad. Life on the road left me with limited food preparation options. I had a cooler with ice, but in the desert’s brutal heat it didn’t last long. A few times, I’d opened the lid to find water-logged food bobbing in a pool of water. For that reason, peanut butter and jelly became a dependable staple when grocery stores were too far away.

When I finally reached Albuquerque, NM, I headed for the nearest Whole Foods and called some friends in the area to see if they minded having a hobo spend the night in their driveway.

Day 10

July 13, 2018 – Albuquerque, NM

The next morning, after some coffee and fun chat with friends about what it was like to take a solo trip in a Sprinter van, I headed East toward Texas. I was hoping to surprise my great-Aunt, a spunky woman in her early nineties who has a knack for storytelling. The Texas winds were brutal, and driving a high profile vehicle made it even more intense. But I finally made it and enjoyed a wonderful evening with a woman I admire greatly.

Days 11 & 12

July 14 & 15, 2018 – Austin, TX

The next morning I turned South again, toward Austin, TX…and breakfast tacos.

I spent two nights at the Westin in Austin ($183.81, $247.41) near my old stomping grounds, so I could hit a few more favorite spots and visit with friends. The trip back was more emotional than I thought it would be. I felt physically ill as I drove through the familiar sites, like the house we owned when we were first married. I knew then that the next day I’d need to move on.

Day 12

July 16, 2018 – Baton Rouge, LA

When I left the next morning, I came to the surprising realization that my next destination wasn’t as clear as the rest had been. I had to fight the urge to turn the wheel of the van back toward Washington State, where my heart wanted to be. The air in East Texas was sticky and steamy. While driving through Paige, TX I giggled a little when I noticed a sign in front of a church: Satan called, he wants his weather back.

I imagined he did.

That night, I stayed in another hotel near Baton Rouge ($157.01) just to keep the skin from melting off my face.

Day 14

July 17, 2018 – Duluth, GA

From Louisiana, I crossed over through Mississippi, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a free grey water dump station at the Welcome Center. (Clearly, van life makes you appreciate the little things.) I spent the night in Duluth, GA ($158.68), where evidently vacuuming the hallways after 8 p.m. isn’t frowned upon. Between the mosquitoes and the extreme heat, I went ahead and crossed that off my list of possible new permanent residences. But the air conditioner in my hotel room sure felt nice.

Day 15

July 18, 2018 – Spartanburg, SC

On Wednesday morning, I headed toward South Carolina to visit my grandparents. I couldn’t help but smile when I passed a sign that read Issaqueena Trail. That seemed fitting, and reminded me of my home in Issaquah, but it was great to be able to spend time with family. Living so far away from everyone for the past several years made me feel disconnected, and I wished I’d made the time to visit more often.

Day 16

July 19, 2018 – Uwharrie National Forest, NC

On the last night — and the only night during my 17-day transcontinental trip — I experienced an unwelcome disturbance in the middle of the night at the Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina ($5). I probably would have continued traveling to a few more destinations if it weren’t for that incident, but I was exhausted from the lack of sleep and, frankly, I was getting tired of being on the road. By that point, I’d spent $1,667.05 (an average of $86/night) on lodging and park admissions, and I was ready to take a break from the road.

Day 17

July 20, 2018 – Ocala, FL

The drive to my mother’s in Florida was a long one.

I was about to begin the next chapter of my life, but I was still without answers. For the past several weeks, I’d been driving around the country aimlessly with all of my worldly possessions crammed in the back of a van. And I felt slightly disappointed that I hadn’t found a new place to call home along the way. Nothing had called me to stay.

Even so, the trip had most certainly changed me. While I may not have been able to explain it, I could feel it. I was more confident. I was more determined to create my own happiness. And I realized that life really does go on, even after the heaviest moments.

Over the course of about two months, I’d driven more than 10,000 miles, visited 57 friends and family members in 20 states, and spent $940.13 on fuel. This life-changing trip in a van was most certainly filled with lessons in self-care and lifestyle redesign.

As I pulled into my mother’s driveway, I felt exhausted. I hadn’t showered in two days and I had no idea what my life was going to look like. But for the first time in my life, I was okay with that.

Acceptance of what is was one of the most peaceful feelings I’ve ever experienced.

What I Learned From My Solo Trip in a Sprinter Van

I learned a lot during that trip, but here are my biggest takeaways.

  1. We may not get to choose how our life unfolds, but we do get to choose how we respond. Life is full of change, but it’s also full of choices.
  2. If you don’t own it, you can’t change it. Whenever a relationship ends — whether it’s a friendship or an intimate relationship — it’s essential to understand your role in it. When you stop making your problem someone else’s problem, you can do something to change it. And that’s how you reclaim your joy.
  3. You must know, communicate, and protect your sacred boundaries. If you don’t know and communicate your boundaries — what you will and will not accept from others — you can rest assured they’ll be crossed and you’ll feel taken advantage of.
  4. Our level of disappointment is directly proportionate to our expectations. Think about this: people only ever fail our expectations of them.
  5. Travel is good medicine. Travel has a way of grounding us, putting things into perspective. What may on the surface seem like an impossible problem to solve, somehow feels easier from the road.
  6. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. We have to get over this idea that the life we want is going to just land in our lap. The truth is, we have to take action. We have to ask for what we want. And we have to be okay with hearing no, or not right now.
  7. If someone wants to leave your life, let them. Allow people to come in and out of your life without manipulation or resistance. Those who want to be in your life will stay; those who don’t will go. And that’s okay.
  8. Go where you are led. Trust your intuition to lead you where you are supposed to be. There were many times along my travels that I veered off the interstate simply because a sign or a tree or a bird seemed to grab my attention and direct me there. It was so liberating to be reminded that, as human beings who live in a free country, we really do have the ability to go anywhere and do anything.
  9. Impermanence is a sure thing. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, lasts forever. Everything is in a constant state of change. Go calculate the surface area of that tree in your front yard — by the time you’re done calculating, it will have already changed. We’re constantly growing and evolving. When you release the impossible notion that anything should stay the same, you can embrace change and experience more joy.
  10. Love attracts love. What we give is what we get. When we show love and kindness to others, that’s what we get in return. And when we’re unkind to others, judging or criticizing them, that’s also what we get back. Like attracts like, and love attracts love. A big life lesson for me has been that withholding love is equally destructive. When we withhold love — as a form of punishment or to demand love in return — we are also withholding love from ourselves.
  11. Self-care is a powerful tool. Self-care has proven over and over again to be a life-saving tool for me. In each of the 8 Dimensions of my life, I’ve seen the power of self-care play out in ways that have enriched my life and invited more joy and ease. Self-care is the foundation for resilience. Without it, I don’t think I would have had the courage to listen so deeply to what my heart was prompting me to do. And I certainly wouldn’t have had the strength to do it.
  12. Everyone we meet is a teacher. Some people teach us skills or strategies that make our lives easier, and some teach us what we don’t want to become. But remember that every person who touches your life in some way is a teacher.
  13. Allow all emotions. The grieving process can be downright ugly and unpredictable. Random things can trigger tears or anger, but suppressing our emotions only intensifies them. During my journey, I chose to allow everything — anger, sadness, bitterness, joy. And doing so helped me release negative emotions more easily.
  14. Stop giving a damn what other people think. One of my favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quotes is this one: “What other people think of me is none of my business.” And it’s so true. It really isn’t any of my business what others think. Besides, most opinions are nothing more than a reflection of the opinion-holder, not the subject. If you can focus on being so busy living your life that you don’t even notice or care what others think, you’ll be invulnerable to their opinions.
  15. Everything in life happens at exactly the right time. Sometimes I think I stayed in my failed marriage longer than I should have, and other times I think I didn’t stay long enough to do all I could to save it. But the reality is, everything that happens in our life happens exactly as it should, and right on time.
  16. You’ll remember it differently. I didn’t believe those words the first time I heard my therapist say them, but I do now. Time really does a number on our perceptions and memories. And as the lessons from our life struggles become clearer, we can begin to appreciate the gifts that were nestled inside of them.
  17. Stay open. While it’s important to have goals and a clear vision of the life you want to experience, staying open to new opportunities and experiences sometimes brings even greater rewards. When it comes to your goals, get clear on what you want, but stay open to how it manifests.

Since that life-changing trip, I’ve continued to curate and refine a life that I love. I now understand that lifestyle design is a life-long process, and I’m finally able to experience more ease and joy than I ever dreamed possible.

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