Big Bend is remote. Reeeemote (emphasis worthy remote). Six hours from El Paso and seven hours from Austin. We only learned of Big Bend through a Google search that went something like “best things to see in West Texas” – a pretty standard search that has thrown my Google news feed algorithm entirely out of whack as we replace West Texas with wherever we are – although if you want to riff on recycling news from Kent, CT I’m your guy.
We had the option to take the scenic route from Austin to Big Bend, but after driving through the Catskills in complete darkness, we chose the most direct path. This took us through Johnson City (look, a cute coffee shop! And oh look, and a President was from here!), Fredericksburg (An old western town with German roots that we were bummed we didn’t have time to stop for) and miles and miles of vineyards, distilleries, and breweries. We’re learning that every. single. state. has their own Napa Valley like wine trailer.
With Phoebe the trailer in tow (and sucking down the gas mileage), we left hill country and entered level land surrounded by mesas – wide, flat-topped mountains with steep sides. One last gas stop in Fort Stockton and we turned south, drove through Alpine, and wound our way through hills that gave way to the Chisos Mountains, pulling Phoebe and the Beast into the Roadrunner RV campground thirty minutes before sunset – embarking upon our first ever camping adventure.
Mid-December, we left the sun and sand to see family for the holidays, to meet a brand-new baby (Wren!), and, importantly, to get Eleanor’s (gd) braces off. A wire had slipped early in the trip which turned Brooke and me into orthodontists. Dr. Brooke used a pair of tiny pink tweezers to yank and reposition the wire. I used a needle nose pliers and Eleanor’s eyes grew two sizes larger when she saw those coming.
We plan on opening a very niche orthodontia practice, accepting patients starting June.
A week after getting back to the midwest, I got a call from Terry Frazer, an older and larger man (his description) who pre-sold us our trailer in September (all trailers were on back-order because of COVID). I picked up the phone and Terry told me he’s retiring. That he’s closing the books and I’ll need to pick up the trailer by noon on Monday. This was Saturday, and the first I had heard from Terry since putting down a deposit three months earlier. I woke up at 5:00 am on Monday, drove to Iowa, and hauled back our camper, a rolling ‘rona avoiding machine we’ve named Phoebe.
To go west, to get to California, we needed a Phoebe. The distance is too great to do day trips and we want to spend weekends visiting parks along the way.
Just over a week ago, we hooked Phoebe up to The Beast (our absurdly large SUV) and drove Phoebe and the Beast south. Five hours of Illinois farmland, one gigantic cross that looked a little too much like a scene from the Handmaid’s Tale, a few more hours of farmland in Missouri, and we pulled into the Memphis KOA (technically Arkansas). There was a folder with our name on it directing us to lot 24. We leveled the trailer, hooked up the electricity, warmed up some frozen soup, slept pretty good and kind of felt like real campers.
Our first major stop is Austin, TX. We’re driving south to avoid wintery weather in the Rockies. But then it snowed in Texas. Wet, heavy snow. People pulled off to the side of the highway to make snowmen, throw snowballs, and slide down off-ramps. Since they don’t have salt trucks the streets were slushy and slippery and the Texans drove fast. I drove slow, leaning forward slightly as we hauled Phoebe up an on-ramp that was so tall it touched the sky (everything is bigger).
As if 2020 wasn’t good enough, the Texas snow was a reminder to always to expect the unexpected. As well as…
pulling into a dark driveway that was unexpectedly steep getting Phoebe stuck, very very stuck. Find 2X4s and plywood and make a ramp bridging the driveway into the street – stuck. Sammy the neighbor comes out of his house to help me back out – stuck. Brooke, who had been out walking with the girls around the neighborhood walked saw our trailer blocking the street and for a second (or longer) thought about turning around – stuck.
The trailer’s in the street (thank goodness for flexible parking rules!), and we’re nearing the end of our time in Austin. Brooke and I hope to write more on this leg of the journey – thoughts on travel during COVID, more details on things we’ve done, the food we’ve eaten, places we’ve gone. And, if you’re interested in knowing where we’re heading next, we’ve started mapping things out.
Austin -> Big Bend National Park (3 nights) -> Las Cruces, NM (10 days) -> Tucson, AZ (for just a night) -> Oceanside, CA (5 weeks) -> Unknown!
If you have recommendations for things to see, food to eat, driveways to get stuck in, please let us know!
One morning, after Hurricane Eta shifted direction, and the waves settled to their regular ocean wavey-ness, the stingray ray arrived. They’re as plentiful as midwestern squirrels and just as friendly. Stingrays are mostly solitary creatures, but this variety is like toddlers on a soccer field or middle schoolers at lunch. They bunch up and flap their…flaps? fins? bodies? around the sandbar – up and over they go, riding waves like underwater surfers.
The water is clear and when it piles up, before it breaks, it’s mostly transparent, like a thick pane of glass. Clear enough to see two great big stingrays shooting right at us. Being the shortest, Lucy was at eye-level with their unexpected smiling faces. Her eyes widened, her little body turned, and her tiny legs ran. The friendly rays changed direction.
Stingrays jump. A whole lot. They fling themselves out of the water like flipping pancakes. They do this to either A) avoid being eaten by predators, B) Find a mate or C) to have loads of fun. We like to think it’s C and are waiting for two rays to hit flaps in mid-air, a most epic high-five. But, it’s probably A. Not being lunch or dinner is an integral part in a stingray’s life.
We saw a shark at the edge of the sandbar on the same day the stingrays came hurtling at us. The shark was as long as Lucy is tall, and once again, Lucy’s eyes widened, her body turned, and her little legs started pumping towards the beach. Except running in water is hard, and she fell – half running, half swimming until I picked her up. Since this was the first time any of us had ever seen saw a shark outside of an aquarium, it took a decent amount of cajoling and a good amount of Googling before the girls ventured back into the Gulf, boogie boards in tow.
Another day, Eleanor was wearing goggles and swimming underwater when a jellyfish floated by, inches from her face. Calmly (although, this freaked me out way more than the shark), she pointed it out, and we watched it drift, aimlessly it seemed. It was sturdier than I expected but still challenging to see. This time we stayed out of the water for a bit. A jellyfish to the face would be no way to spend a day at the beach.
Crabs scuttle. Pelicans dive, beak first, gaining speed from twenty-feet high. They fly in groups, gliding between the swells, wings brushing the surface like a water skier taking a turn. Dolphins arc their backs in and out of the water. Yesterday they were jumping as high as a Brookfield Zoo dolphin show.
I’m still waiting to see an alligator, but it’s probably best we don’t stumble upon one.
Halloween was our last full day in Kent and it started with getting a carwash. After a month of driving The Beast through several states and the twisting New England roads, she needed it. The nearest carwash was 30 minutes away, in New Milford, and it was trips like this that made me miss being 10 minutes away from everything (especially Trader Joe’s!). We waited outside, Eleanor and Lucy already wearing their costumes, along with a mom and her daughter. The two, too big vehicles, rolled out of the tunnel, and off we all went.
Eleanor and Lucy took horseback riding lessons twice a week. The stable was at the bottom of the hill that winded up to our house – past the endless rows of New England stone walls built when everything we could see was farmland.
Taylor, the kids’ riding teacher and daughter of the stable owner, invited us to their annual Halloween party. The horses and their owners dressed as Star Wars characters, farmers, and puppies, and when we arrived, a familiar little girl said, “Hey, I saw you at the car wash this morning! I’m Grace!” Grace told Eleanor and Lucy that she liked their costumes – a cat and Medusa (Brooke was teaching Greek Mythology around then). I told Grace that I liked her costume, too – she looked down at the football jersey she was wearing and said, “I’m not wearing a costume.”
Later that day, we went to a pizza place we liked, watched a parade of Halloween themed floats that were created by the local artists, and had the feeling that this is how community starts.
We hiked and went on day trips: New York City, Rhinebeck/Poughkeepsie, and New Haven. One day we went to a Flea Market. At the outset Lucy said she wanted to find a Littlest Pet Shop seller and sure enough, she found one.
The house was owned by friends of family, a couple from Brooklyn who bought a country house in January. They quit their day jobs and today make a living telling the future.
From the top of a hill, we watched fall flow through the mountains. We watched the fog roll through the hills as we drank our morning coffee.
At the bottom of the hill was Mountain View Farm, first established in the 1700’s and today is 3 acres and run by a small family. Twice a week we’d visit the shed/shop and buy eggs, pork, kale (lots of kale), garlic (garlic grows well here), and anything else that was in season.
Weigh the veggies, list what you bought, write your name and leave some money. That’s it.
And at the very bottom (the tippy bottom, as Lucy says) was a creek. We fished, unsuccessfully, and climbed rocks, successfully.
In the mornings I would run. The fog would lift just enough and sun would squeak over the hills just enough for me to jog up hills and sometimes through the trails. Turkey were awake, deer too. Several times I saw what I think was the same hawk, or a a large owl – it flew gently between the same trees. Once I could have sworn I saw a bobcat, or a large cat – it was being chased by crows.
We cooked hotdogs, ate s’mores and gazed up at the stars. This house, this town, this was a good place to be.
School and Work
When we left, our kids were still registered in their school district. This meant they could have been remote learners like the rest of their class. But, traveling gave us something new – school outside of 9 to 2, outside standard curriculum. Brooke, God bless my dear wife, could teach our kids using our location. She, they, could use days in new ways.
Working nomadically is nothing new for many at Automattic and this home made it an easy transition. The desk was large, the chair comfortable, and the wi-fi strong. As an added bonus, the room was heated – unlike the sunporch at home (old home? former home?) I packed a bag with my Macbook, a laptop stand, a Lume Cube light, wireless keyboard/mouse and some notebooks. When you really stop and think about it, it’s wild that you can earn a living with nothing more than the things you can fit into a backpack.
This was a very long post and I could continue further. Living in Kent, living in the hills, this was all new. It was fulfilling. We’re in Florida now but before I write that post, let me leave you with some more horses – Bentley and Chewy.
When was the last time you read a book that you loved as a kid?
Since we’re on the edge of the Catskills, I thought it would be fun to read one of my favorites, My Side of the Mountain. I dreamt of living on the land and at one point did run away from home – all the way around the block and into my backyard fort. But, discouraged that nobody was looking for me (and hungry), I went home for a snack. Running away requires a plan, or at least Oreos.
In the book, Sam runs away because there are just too many kids in just too small of an apartment. He builds a home in a tree, trains a falcon, makes acorn flour pancakes, and eats the fish he catches.
Eleanor and Lucy, just like me at their age, felt the tug of inspiration. They found slugs under a stump, formed a fishing pole out of a stick, string, and clothespin, and went down to the creek to find dinner. Eleanor didn’t catch anything…
and Lucy felt so bad for the slugs had to let them go…
but none of this diminished the joy of making something out of nothing.
Recently, my friend Omar asked me how we decided to do what we’re doing. Did we wake up one day and come to the conclusion that we should sell our house, pack our things, hit the road? Was it more than just a whim? If you know Omar, then you know this is a silly question since a few years back he saved up a bunch of money in order to quit his job and travel the world for a year. Whims don’t just happen.
Brooke and I met in college. We married young and moved into a low ceilinged garden apartment in La Grange Park. The buildings were old, heated by boilers and the pipes ran right above our heads. In the middle of winter we would sleep with our windows open.
Leaving LGP, Brooke distinctly remembers looking in the rearview mirror of our U-Haul and swearing we’d never be back. Our apartment in Roscoe Village, a tree lined neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, was 15 steps from a coffee shop and our neighbors became our best friends. We adopted a dog who spent half her day perched in our front window and the other half running across the courtyard to our friend’s apartment where she’d sit as we played euchre.
We bought a condo in Bucktown and Eleanor was born a year later. Now, when we’d take a walk, we’d walk to a park to push our baby in a baby-swing. Dinners would happen earlier than before. We lost touch with the latest and greatest the city offered.
The apartment was on the third floor and there wasn’t an elevator. We loved the condo but sometimes it would shake when a big truck would rumble by. Around this time we started to think about baby number two, as well as trudging up three flights, carrying Lucy (#2) and Eleanor, holding onto Sadie’s leash, with a bag of groceries hooked under one arm.
So, we moved back to La Grange Park. Ha!
For eight years we lived in a small but wonderful home that Brooke masterfully renovated. We raised our girls, marking their height on a wall in Eleanor’s room. They started school and met friends, we met friends too. Good friends that we would meet to skateboard with in a cul-de-sac. Friends that, by happenstance, booked a trip to Spain the same time we did. We met in Girona, wandered tight ancient streets and ate ice cream.
Brooke and I love to travel. The thrill of discovery and being somewhere new. But in our twenties we didn’t. We didn’t have the money and it didn’t fit the plan. After having kids though, that changed. We wanted them to appreciate the world outside of the Midwest. So we stayed in our small house on too busy of a street and spent anything extra on experiences, experiences that got us wondering where home really could be. A question we’ve asked ourselves countless times, a question that hasn’t gone away.
There’s this teacher named Rob Bell. He has a podcast and in some of the episodes Rob talks about the bass note. The low hum. “Something within you that knows the truth in you” he said on one episode. He suggests we try to listen to “a life that’s been speaking to us this whole time.”
The pandemic hit and for the first time I stopped traveling for work. Brooke lost her job, but she’s a masters educated educator who can teach our girls. And amidst it all there was the low hum that kept getting louder. So when one of us said “Should we sell our house? And then travel the country for a year?” the other one, without question, said “I was thinking the same thing.”
So here we are, on a journey, trying to listen to the bass note.
We were at the Yale bookstore because we were on the hunt for a lobster roll, and Eleanor was hot. The day was warmer than we expected, and Eleanor was in long sleeves. Areas being closed by COVID stifled our stroll through the campus. The Rare Books Library. The not so rare books but the probably still great library. Many areas were closed off only to students.
So we found ourselves in the book store, buying post-cards (and not a t-shirt as it happened), and asking the person behind the cash register for pizza recommendations. “Pepes. Sally’s. Modern. This is where you go for New Haven Style pizza. And by the way, the IKEA just opened back up, so you might want to check out the IKEA as well.” We went to Modern.
But wait, the IKEA? You’re recommending a visit to the local IKEA? Sure, it just opened. But, IKEA? Looking back on the day this is the black cat walking in front of you, the ladder you just walked under, the mirror that just smashed.. We should have felt the energy shift when we took her recommendation, ignoring my friend David’s, and ate at Modern.
The pizza was greasy. There wasn’t a park nearby. We ate it in the back of The Beast (as we’ve started calling our large vehicle). The beach wasn’t charming. We didn’t even bring the girl’s bathing suits. The historic homes closed at 4:00. A farm nearby closed at 2:00. We went to Trader Joes and picked up peanut butter, nuts, milk, and snacks.
And this brings us back to the reason we drove to the coast. Lobster roll. Yes, Connecticut isn’t Maine or Rhode Island, but we midwesterners were excited. Fresh lobster is exotic. Where we come from, it comes from a fish-tank – claws rubber-banded with those small thick rubber bands.
Lobster is also seasonal, and the lobster shop was closed.
But this time, we didn’t push on. We learned from the week before – on our second day we spent too much time at the Falls, drove to a place that was closed, and chose to take the scenic route (my call, bad call, too dark, too mountainous, I kept waiting for a deer to hit us).
This time we packed up and went home. We didn’t get home too late, so we ordered good take-out. We started a fire. And looked at the stars, observing again that night just how many there are. Brooke saw a shooting star, so did Lucy.
We won’t get every day right but we’re learning how to make the most of each one.
That was easy, we said, pulling into Niagara falls nine hours after leaving Chicago. We’re going to be great at this. Our car packed better than I expected (a layer of Rubbermaids topped with duffles and baskets). The kids did great – watched shows, read, played games.
And hey, that first day was pretty easy. Our first stop was Elkhart, IN – the town where RVs are born (and then delivered to driveways by very large storks). In the travel-center, the hot dog spinning machine was broken. A panel was removed exposing insides (that’s how the sausage is made, I chuckle silently). It’s decently complicated and looked to be stumping the maintenance person who was referencing instructions on YouTube – just like the rest of us! A father and son are wearing camouflage. Lucy’s wearing a camo shirt too. Soon we realize it’s hunting season.
Indiana goes by quickly, Ohio takes longer. It’s all farmland except for the occasional tree that managed to escape its flattening fate. We picnic outside an eerily empty rest area, eat pb and j, and keep rolling.
A stop at Starbucks sends us through Cleveland, a seemingly fine town that will forever be remember as the city Brooke spotted a Bald Eagle. It flew yards above our head as we slowly drove onto an onramp connecting us from one highway to the next.
Lucy slept a little. Eleanor didn’t. This is typical.
Lucy, for reasons unknown to us, has always wanted to travel to Pennsylvania. “Where are you most excited to travel?” we’ll ask. “Pennsylvania.” is the quick response, often stretched out to Pennnnnsylvaaaaaania. There was much cheering when we crossed the border and moments of awe when we drove next to Lake Erie.
Trump signs have been a common part of the landscape. Trailers painted. Homemade items of all kinds. In PA one large sign stood in front of a cross, mostly blocking out the cross – that ancient form of capital punishment. Maybe that was the point.
New York. Full of vineyards. I had no idea. Day one ended with Chipotle and a night at the Hyatt Place Niagara Falls. We’re sufficiently frightened of COVID and avoid humans as best we can. The room we stayed in had been empty for four days. We wiped it down. Ate our dinner and saw the falls at night.
“We should see if we can sell our house,” we said. “Test the market,” we said – right before drum beat of Netflix. The girls were asleep. We slept on the idea. And then, a few days later, our house sold in less than 6 hours to the first person that toured it over Zoom.
So here we are, about eight weeks later, saying goodbye to our home of eight years. Hello to an open-ended adventure. Hello, hello.
Next week we head East for mountains, farm country, maybe the ocean. We don’t have it all planned out. It’s like mapping an unmapped part of our psyche. What’s life like when you don’t have a plan?
Stay tuned, swipe up, right, left, wave your hands in the air.