A 112-day trip is not a trip that people take every year. We are not sure we will take another one therefore this one was special to us. I have watched movies, read books, and heard stories where 19 century pioneers made their way across the U.S. I always wondered what it was like and how they did it. Now after the trip, I still wonder how they did it.

To put things into perspective, imagine this: after a whole week of excitements going to new places, it dawned on us that, relatively speaking, we were just at the end of the first day, if our trip were 16 days long. This usually means people arriving at their destination after a long flight and the trip is just about to begin. And, after two weeks, people usually are thinking of going home and we were completely relaxed by then and started getting into a habit of going from place to place. This was hard to explain. You have to experience it yourself.

Given the trip was long, it was important to for us to pace ourselves so we didn’t get burned out too soon. We had our ambitious days when we did a lot and we had our lazy days when we didn’t do much. We stayed with friends and relatives: these stays were wonderful and recharging. We spent a lot of time in nature but we also spent some time in cities. We camped a lot but we tried to find different kinds of campgrounds. It all worked out well for us. We didn’t get homesick or felt like the trip was long. In fact, when the last two weeks came about, we were sorry that the trip was about to end and was thinking of planning another one in a couple of years.

The trip had an impact on Kadia that we weren’t expected. She started believing that our van was our house as if we were nomads. She had already forgotten she had a home and many other things. She was ecstatic to find she had many toys when we got home. They were all like new toys to her. We could have gone on and continued to travel for a couple of years, she might not think twice about it and thought that was a normal life. This made me thinking that, to some pioneers, perhaps their way of lives were only ones known to them.

Although the trip was long for us, we always knew we have a home to go back to and most of our routes were known. We were not real explorers: we were accidental explorers at best or factitious ones at worse. This was different than how early pioneers traveled without the safety net of a known home waiting for them in the end. They traveled, bravely and some willingly, into the unknown where food and safety were in question. They were true explorers. We were just tourists. Although we couldn’t explore like early pioneers did–we had comforts of our van, hotels, grocery stores, maps, tour books, campgrounds, ATMs, etc, we got to see many places with many stories to last a lifetime. It was well worth it. If you ever get a chance, don’t hesitate, just do it.


Mosquitoes, Flies, or Bees, which one would you pick to annoy and harass you when you are out camping? We already knew that we would encounter a lot of mosquitoes on the East Coast given that it typically has more rain than the West Coast. When we heard that New England got a record amount of rain during the spring and early summer, we knew we needed to be prepared: we bought mosquito net hat, mosquito backpack cover, and a couple of fold-away food covers to go along with the car seat mosquito cover we already owned (see the picture below with Bryden in the infant car seat).
Bryden with car seat mosquito net

The trip started out well. In Nevada and Utah, there weren’t many flies or mosquitoes, probably because it was almost like a desert there. By the time we got to Iowa, mosquitoes had become vicious. Hiking at Effigy Mounds with backpack mosquito netEven when it was hot, we had to put on long sleeve shirt and long pants during dinner time; otherwise, we would be eaten alive. Although we brought two different kinds of insect repellant, we didn’t use them much yet (to avoid any chemical, DEET free or not) , relying on mosquito net hat, mosquito net car seat cover, mosquito net child carrier to keep mosquitoes at bay. Susan with a mosquito hatMosquitoes are known to attract to heat (actually CO2), male, blood type O+ and black color. I happened to fit that category almost perfectly so I would routinely get a few bites each day. Luckily because of such mosquito magnet I was, the rest of the family were visited less often. I stopped counting when I reached 100 sometimes in July.

As we traveled east, we learned to pick camping spots which potentially would have fewer mosquitos, away from standing water but with some breeze (over 10 MPH wind, a condition mosquitoes do not fly well). Still, in some places such as New England, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec, mosquitoes were not only numerous and large but also would bite through 2 layers of clothing, that sometimes we abandoned eating outside or abandoned cooking altogether. We also started using insect repellant abundantly to some degrees of success. There was also the worry of West Nile Virus as we saw signs posted from time to time. It was a risk we took just like driving can lead of an accident but we all accept and drive nevertheless.

As we started heading back west, we started running into more and more flies. Food Cover on the picnic tableThey were very annoying, buzzing around our heads and food all the time. Our fold-away food covers became indispensable (see the food cover toward the rear of the picnic table in the picture on the left). I remember while camping at Apostles National Lakeshore, I used an old map as a fly swapper and killed at least 30 of them. We also learned to put some food scraps about 10 feet away from our picnic tables to attract flies there. That helped. Eventually we had to buy a fly swapper as a weapon.

When we got to the west coast, we thought we had seen everything. Then we ran into a lot of bees at Memaloose State Park, Oregon. With flies and mosquitoes, we could always brush them away barehanded but we didn’t dare to do the same with bees. And we didn’t really want to kill them either so we had to quickly finish our food so they would go away.

So now, pick your poison.

In the fall of 2003, we were at Banff National Park, Canada, and wanted to hike the Sentinel Pass Trail but there was a minimal 6-hikers requirement to hike the trail at that time due to bear activities. Sentinel Pass Trailhead with 6 hikers signWe only had two (Kadia didn’t count because she was only a baby) therefore we waited by the trailhead (see right) for a little bit but no other hikers came by; soon we realized it was a little late to head up the trail as it was already 2 pm in the afternoon. Instead, we hiked the Consolation Lake trail on the other side of Moraine Lake; the trail also required 6 hikers but we were able to find other hikers to go together. I remember when we finished the hike and were back at the trailhead, a ranger caught two persons came out of the trail not in a group of six and took them to somewhere to fine them. Poor souls, maybe they would be out of 100 dollars or so, I thought.

Lone Kayaker on Moraine LakeWe went back to the Sentinel Pass Trail again this time, hoping for better luck. The trailhead was at the Moraine Lake (see left), a picturesque lake featured on the 20 dollar Candian bill. We were there around 9:45 am and, unfortunately, again there was 6-hikers requirement. A ranger was standing guard at the trailhead with a couple of hikers waiting. We were told that both the Larch Valley and Paradise Valley were bear habitats, therefore, the usual group requirement to keep bears away from hikers: bears have not known to attack group of 6 or more. We joined the wait, hoping for better luck this time. However, we were a little apprehensive about hiking with others as we hiked relatively slow with two kids. We didn’t have other choices this time; we made a mental note that next time we will come with friends. Luckily we soon had 9 people to head up together. We mentioned our concerns to others but they assured us that they also hiked at a slow pace and led the way up the trail.

The trail was a steady climb, a series of switchbacks for the 1st one mile. Sentinel Pass Trial Elevation ProfileKadia hiked for about 1/3 miles but soon I realized she cannot keep up with the group pace. I put her in the backpack and continued on with the group. Although the group was going at a modest pace but the climb never leveled off and soon we needed a break badly. Another couple sensed our predicament and asked for a break. Normally when we hike, we like to take a lot of pictures therefore resting unknowingly without needing to take a formal rest break. This time the pace was too quick for us to take any pictures along the way; one consolation was that there wasn’t any good view in the 1st mile anyway as the view of Moraine Lake was covered almost entirely by dense trees.

The trail leveled off after a mile (about 1700 elevation gain) and we were in the Larch Valley surrounded by the ten peaks and beautiful Larch trees. Larch Valley with our group of 9After another half of a mile, we stopped at an open area where we were told earlier by the ranger that people can break up and reform groups there. There were a few log benches there for resting. This area was relatively open so bears and human wouldn’t surprise each other. We decided to stop for lunch and the group broke up, 6 pushed ahead toward the Sentinel Pass while we stayed behind with another hiker. Susan was tired with the pace and, by looking at the climb up to the Sentinel Pass (another 1000 feet elevation gain). We had lunch and rested there. A few groups went by but we still weren’t sure if we wanted to hike the last mile.

Finally when, after we had a long rest, we decided we should go ahead with the hike, no one came by for a while. 3 female hikers heading toward Sentinel PassEventually 3 girls came by so we decided to head up with them (see picture on the right. Click on the picture and the trail is visible in the picture as a zigzap trail a little to the right in front of the 3 girls). Even though we didn’t have 6 but we figured we could always meet up with people coming down later. The last ½ mile up to the Sentinel Pass was steep, 3 female hikers heading toward Sentinel Pass exposed and with a lot of loose pebbles. The footing was slippery: we should have taken our hiking sticks but we had done worse hikes before without hiking poles. Ten Peaks from Sentinel Pass with Kadia and RalphNow I understood why there were a couple of people turned back earlier with the fear of height. As we traversed up more switchbacks, we had a great view looking back at the Larch Valley with the ten peaks: what a spectacular view (see right)! Another hiker told us that there were still patches of snow in June that made the hiking much more treacherous.

At last, we made to the pass and were greeted with a breathtaking view of Paradise Valley (see below). Paradise ValleyWe came to realize why it was named Sentinel Pass. The 3 girls were going down to the Paradise Valley to meet with their boyfriends who had gone up a few days earlier to maintain trails. Luckily we picked up 4 more persons at the pass before going back down. As it turned out, we were lucky as they were the last 4 persons going up that day. During the trail back down, we ran into 3 young guys waiting on the trail about ½ miles from the trailhead. They were waiting for people to head down together so they wouldn’t get caught for having less than 6 hikers in a group: the fine was 2,000 Canadian dollars, they said. Not sure it was per person or for the whole group, a steep penalty nevertheless. I was glad that we didn’t take a chance of hiking by ourselves, not just for safety sake but also financial sake. This was a beautiful hike. We will come back next time with some friends so we can hike at our own pace. We would like to hike the Paradise Valley as well.

After visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park, we tried to find the best way to head up toward Nebraska on a Colorado state map. When we travel, we usually like to take side roads as opposed to major interstate highways unless we are pressing for time. When we saw Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument on the map, instead of cutting across on 160 and taking 25 straight up, we decided to take 285 then cut across on 24 to 25. We have never heard of Florissant Fossil Beds but the name ‘fossil’ intrigued us; we decided to explore it and maybe we could find some fossils.

We got to the Visitor Center and saw some fossils and petrified wood on displays. We thought we may have hit a jackpot with both rare forms of rocks. However soon we were disappointed as there weren’t any fossils to be found and there were only a few petrified stumps scattered across a one-mile trail. Later I discovered that most of petrified wood were taken from the area back in late 19 century when they were first discovered. People carted them off by wagons. What a tragedy.
Petrified Forest Painted DesertPetrified Wood Instead, if you want to see petrified wood (see right), go to Petrified Forest NP in Arizona. We were there a few years back and it was a wonderful place to visit with many different types of petrified wood and lots of hiking trails through many different and beautiful landscapes (see above left). Please don’t collect them though.

And if you want to look for fossils, then you can go to Craigleith State Park, Ontario, Canada. We had never heard of Craigleith until we were at Markham visiting our friends, Harry and Jennifer and their family. They told us that they camped at Craigleith many times and had a lot of fun looking for fossils on the beach there. After the experience with Florissant Fossil Beds, we didn’t have any high hope but went there nevertheless as it was on the way to Bruce Peninsula.

FossilCraigleith State Park is on the south end of Georgian Bay, a part of Lake Huron. We arrived there on a Thursday afternoon and were lucky to get a campsite. Evidently, it was a popular spot to camp and soon we knew why. The rocky shoreline was beautiful and the water was warm.
FossilInstead of sand, it has a flat rock beach comprised of shale plates that contain invertebrate fossils around 450 million years old. Shale is a sedimentary rock comprised mostly of mud and clay. We strolled along this rock beach teemed with shale fragments, thus many opportunites for great discoveries. We, with our adventurous spirits, took to this task as if we were pioneers out for a fossils hunt for the 1st time carefully combed the beach looking for fossils and shouted with excitement when we discovered them. It was a wonderful time, especially for Kadia as water and rocks were two of her favorite things just like most kids. Soon it was getting late so we sat and watched a spectacular sunset, a favorite hobby of ours when we are on a trip.
Sunset at Craigleith State Park

There were only a couple of more weeks to go before the start of our trip and we were getting anxious. We were still debating on which day to leave as our 1st couple of stops at Great Basin NP and Cedar Break NM might still be snowbound before Memorial weekends; but we didn’t want to wait too long as Utah could get very hot in June. We adjusted our itinerary countless number of times but, with the help of Microsoft Streets and Trips, it was easy.

As a part of our planning, we joined the AAA so we could get all the paper maps we needed for the trip and roadside emergency service if necessary. Even with the two GPS devices we were bringing and a laptop with digital maps, we still felt safer and more comfortable with paper maps. We also tried AAA’s trip planner online (triptik) but didn’t find it to be useful for such a long trip. However we brought our itinerary from Microsoft S/T into an AAA office for them to prepare the triptik for us and, to our delightful surprised, within a few days we received a heavy box from the AAA. In it, it had of 8 spiral-bound triptik books with our itinerary, direction, regional maps, and some brief descriptions of towns near our route. It also had tourbooks and maps for all the states/provinces we would be visiting. I especially appreciated that someone manually with a highlighting pen, traced our route and stops on an United States map. We made a duplicate of it and gave them to our parents so they would know where we would be going. That was great.

We didn’t actually use the triptik books much as sometimes they were buried in the van and we couldn’t find them. We also didn’t use the directions from Microsoft Streets and Trip as we liked the challenge and adventure of finding our own ways. We mainly used paper maps to figure out where we would like to go and kept the Garmin GPSMap 60C on to keep track of our position and for detailed maps when our paper maps weren’t sufficient. That worked out well. The tourbooks were helpful to locate campgrounds a couple of times at the beginning but as we got used to finding places (by signs on roads, by symbols on maps or just by asking) to stay, we didn’t use them much anymore.

Also we were struggling with the idea of taking a toddler and a baby on this long trip ourselves, not to mention our parents were not encouraging us either. We have never even taken such a long trip ourselves as adults. The longest trip we had taken so far was our two-month-long honeymoon around the world. Then when Kadia was a baby, we took her on trips to Banff, Caribbean, and Greece. Now with two, the responsibility doubled. What happened if they were sick? Were they too young to be traveling so far? Would they be able to enjoy the trip? Would Susan’s parents need us because Susan’s dad had a heart attack a couple of years back? Should we wait for a few years? Would I lose my job even though FMLA was supposed to have job protection? There were many reasons not to go. So should we?

Another thing we worried about was the financial burden of the trip on us. Three months without pay would not be easy. The California FMLA would be of some help with 6 weeks of money equivalent to unemployment pay. However, for this to work, we would need to keep our budget to a reasonable amount. We knew that in order to stick to our budget of $100 per day, we would have to camp and cook a lot ourselves. Luckily we had a lot of experiences with camping and have done a couple of 10+ days camping trips to Southwest and Northwest with Kadia and we enjoyed the trips. We might be able to do it.

With a workable budget, we listed out our reasons to go:

  • It is a great opportunity to spend quality and quantity time as a family.
  • Kids are too young to complain or said “are we there yet?”
  • Kids still think spending time with their parents is cool.
  • We may not have another opportunity to go again.
  • We want to do it before kids may not want to spend time with us and before we are too old to travel.
  • We are a little crazy sometimes

Finally, we decided to go for it and what a great decision that was. We had such a wonderful time that we are already planning for our next long trip to Alaska maybe in another couple of years. Kadia still often mention about THE trip and want to go again. If you find yourself debating on going off to a trip like ours, I would highly recommend it. We had a dream and we fulfilled it; we will never have regrets. Send me questions if you don’t find what you are looking for in my blog yet. I have a lot of other things I want to write but I may not get to your topics, if ever, for a while.

A few pointers for now:

  • Don’t over-plan. We only had a rough schedule just to gauge the amount of time we need. We never intended our itinerary to be our bible.
  • Keep a flexible schedule and be open-minded. Something unexpected will always come up on a long trip. Welcome them and adjust your plan.
  • Don’t drive at night in unfamiliar places. We didn’t go to cities much but out in remote areas, we avoided driving at night as animals can be deadly as a light pole in the dark.
  • Always carry paper maps; don’t depend on electronic maps completely
  • Enjoy yourself and let the trip to take you places you have never heard of before.
  • Finally and most importantly, bring your common sense with you. Safety always comes first. Trust your gut feeling and err on the safe side.

Believe it or not but the tallest sand dunes in America is in Colorado, a place not known to be a desert environment. We have always found deserts fascinating: the simple beauty of sand dunes and its abundance of life when you expect none. We have gone to Death Valley to see spring blossom, to Saguaro NP to see the majestic cacti, and to Joshua Tree NP for its unique yuccas. I remember one time we were in a sand storm while hiking on a Death Valley sand dune; the sand formed a layer of sand cloud suspended about one foot off the ground, flowing around our feet as if we were walking on heaven. Here at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, we saw the tallest sand dunes.

The dunes were formed as eroding sand from the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains were trapped in the San Luis Valley. Over the millennia, sand slowly piled up to where they are today: sanddunes without a desert. It was a popular place and we were lucky to find a campsite on late Wednesday afternoon. The next afternoon around the same time, the whole campsite were full. By early Friday morning around 6, new campers were lined up to take any vacant spots. Arrive early and get a campsite overlooking the sand dunes; it is worth it.

Sand Ripples and Animal FootprintsIn the morning, we loved to head out to the dunes when the sand was still cool and the ripple marks on sand dunes were still undisturbed. We usually would catch a few animal footprints as well. Also it was safer. By the afternoon, the sand would get too hot to walk on it barefooted and there was also the risk of lightning. On a sand dune, any person would be a likely candidate of lightning. We saw a sample of fulgurites (crystallized sand due to lightning) and we didn’t want to challenge the power of the nature. The wind usually picked up in the afternoon as well and may holler all night, wiping out all the marks of daily doodles and returning it to its natural beauty again the next morning.

Kadia big smile with sandKids love to play in sand; Kadia was no exception. She raced around sand dunes, slid down them, fell into them, buried herself in sand and tossed sand around as if it was magical dust. She ran down this one sand hill but fell face down into the sand. We were expecting her to cry but she got up with this big smile, her face, teeth, eyelashes all covered in sand. It also brought out the child in us as we run around and laughed our heads off. Kadia liked it so much that she did her junior ranger activity book and got a junior ranger badge.

Hiking on sand was tough though. A 700-foot sand dune may equal to a 3000-foot mountain as each step we took, we slid back down to the exact same spot we started with if not further. With a baby on my back (see the photo below), I soon gave up the idea of scaling the tallest sand dunes, maybe next time. If you ever are in Colorado, stop by this park and have a blast.

Hiking at Grand Sand Dunes

We camped next to this Dutch couple with their one-year-old daughter, Julia. They were on 3 weeks tour and were camping as well. We saw a lot of CruiseAmerican RVs on this trip and quite a number of them were Europeans. They indicated that they loved outdoors and wouldn’t think of staying in a RV. We would like to take a camping trip to europe sometimes like they did here. That would be another great experience.

Bryden and JuliaDutch Family

It was already late April and it was time to check what we needed to bring for the trip. We have already decided to take our 2005 Toyota Sienna. It was still relatively new therefore reliable for the trip. Basically, our van would be our home for 3-4 months and it had to carry everything we needed. We made a quick list of big and essential items that we had to bring:

  • Clothes for everyone (3 to 4 suitcases)
  • Camping gears: 4 sleeping bags, sleeping pad, pillows; a 4-person REI tent, a tarp, 3 camping chairs
  • Two child carriers
  • One Stroller, a front-pouch baby carrier, and a playpen
  • One dining booster seat
  • One child bath tub
  • One bed rail
  • Toys for kids
  • Electronic equipment (cameras, camcorder, laptops, gps, cell phones, dc/ac inverter)
  • Food and drinks
  • Camping stoves and propane canisters
  • Cooking gears, plates, pots, cups, bowls, utensils, refillable water jug, oil & seasonings
  • Three ice chests (one big and two small ones)
  • Supplies: paper towels, tissue papers
  • Books and CD
  • Maps and guidebooks
  • 1st Aid Kit and duct tapes

After debating for a while to see if we had enough room in the van to take all the stuff, we decided that even if we did, everything would be so cramped that we would have difficult time to find things within the van. Our next choice was to use our existing Yakima Basketcase which had be useful for our normal camping trip locally. Again, we decided that it might not be a good idea as other regions may rain in the summer where as California rarely does. Finally we decided to buy a Yakima Platinum Pro 18 rooftop cargo box to store all our camping gears in it; this way, we only had to open it when we camped. We justified the buying as it can be used for skiing later. It was a good choice as we would have a difficult time without it.

In retrospect, we still brought more things than we needed. Some of the items we didn’t use much such as the camcorder (we used movie mode on cameras), the playpen (Bryden hated it) and the bed rail (too much trouble for each night). In another post later, we will go into more details, the usefulness of different items.

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