In September 2019, with only one month left of 12 years of service to the British Army for my husband Alec, we decided to plan an adventure to take a break from work and celebrate our new freedom.
We cleared out our military house, kept as little as possible, and booked four flights to Los Angeles – two for us and two for our Siberian Huskies, Balto and Laika.
We took some savings and we bought a Ford E150 passenger van and over the following three weeks we set to work converting it into our new home. That was an adventure in itself!
I’m writing this from just North of Zion National Park, where we are currently self isolating in our van out in the wild. The last month of our trip plan was cut off due to the pandemic, and now we’re just waiting for our flights home to open up. (That’s another story!)
So this was where we ended up driving over the last 5 months…
We drove counterclockwise from LA to Key West and back, ticking off as many National Parks as we could intercept (shown on the map as the blue dots).
There’s just so much I could write about this adventure of ours, but I thought I’d sum it up as best I could in a few “top fives”.
5 Best Days
- Bathing in a hot springs off of the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, across the river from Mexico. Then hiking along the river boarder.
- Taking the ferry with the huskies to Dry Tortugas National Park to see Fort Douglas, Florida.
- Hiking sand dunes near Death Valley and taking a mud bath in Tecopa Hot Spring.
- Wild camping with a fire and no one around as far as the eye can see to the horizon.
- Extreme self-isolation for the week up a mountain near Zion.
5 Best Moments
- Finding the house in Baton Rouge my dad lived in 50 years ago.
- Our first morning waking up to a desert sunrise surrounded by Saguaros.
- Eating vegan Gumbo in New Orleans during the night life.
- Visiting Magnolia Silos, eating at Magnolia Table and writing my online course at Magnolia Press.
- Meeting up with Instagram friends across the country.
5 Favourite Small Towns
- Sedona, Arizona – For its red rock and Earth Vortex.
- Marfa, Texas – For its unexpected art and cafe culture.
- Fredericksburg, Texas – For its wine bars, live music and the biggest dog park of all time.
- Gruene, Texas – For the historic Music Hall.
- Key West, Florida – For its sunny seaside life.
5 Favourite Cities
(Not counting Los Angeles as that’s like a second home already!)
- Austin, Texas – For its good coffee and vibes.
- New Orleans, Louisiana – For its atmosphere, architecture and Po-Boys.
- Nashville, Tennessee – For live country music on tap.
- Miami, Florida – For the weather and the beach.
- Las vegas, Nevada – For Downtown and desert life.
5 Favourite National Parks
(Not counting the ones we’ve visited on our previous road trips)
- Big Bend National Park, Texas – Mountains, Hot Springs, wide open space.
- White Sands National Park, New Mexico – Endless white crystal sand dunes.
- Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida – A desert island fort surrounded by coral and turquoise waters.
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico – Other worldly underground wonders.
- Saguaro National Park, Arizona – Cactus heaven.
5 Vanlife Road Trip Tips
- Join a Planet Fitness gym so you can workout to avoid vanlife back pain and best of all, you can shower at their 1,859 locations.
- Invest in solar it’s worth having power to charge everything and run a mini fridge.
- In the West you can stay up to 14 days on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) for free. In the East it’s not so easy – When we were covering a lot of ground and arriving places in the dark, we parked over night at Cracker Barrels who are all about the Southern Hospitality (and blueberry pancakes!)
- Pack as little as possible, there is such a small amount of space in a van, and items needs to be easily accessible to avoid tasks taking up a lot of time.
- Bring at least 18 gallons of water with you at any time. You get through so much with drinking, cooking and washing. We filled up at gas stations or water stations and it means we could stay wild for longer periods.
5 Travel With Pet Horror Stories
- When Laika and Balto jumped ship, swam with alligators and ran into the wild Bayou for 4 hours in Louisiana.
- When Laika got a mysterious deep tissue lesions condition all over her back and had to be shaved and medicated in Mississippi.
- When Balto suddenly dropped 2kg and we were once again back at the vets, in South Carolina.
- When Balto and Laika, in Arizona, just couldn’t understand that it’s not ok to step on cacti.
- When the pandemic lockdowns started and Balto and Laika’s return flights got cancelled indefinitely, and still are.
5 Favourite Drives
- The River Road, Texas – Between Terlingua and Big Bend National Park.
- Overseas Highway, Florida – Between Miami and Key West.
- Route 70, New Mexico – Between Las Cruces and White Sands National Park.
- Route 42, Arizona – West through the Chiricahua mountains.
- Historic Route 66, Arizona.
5 ways I kept my business thriving during 6 months off shooting
- I pre-sold Spring UK branding shoots and asked for six monthly payments to simulate a recurring income for the trip.
- I used down time to write my online course for branding photographers.
- I created visual content for my brand along the way.
- I had 1:1 coaching to keep moving towards my goals. www.amberrosethomas.com
- I created a free Facebook group for photographers in my niche to come together and find community over competition.
And on that note, if you’re a branding photographer or interested in being one – come and join our community of photography friends over at The Conscious Community for Brand Photographers. We’re learning, growing and supporting each other through this crazy time we call life!