Gathering silver and gold on America’s backroads

  • The Epic Van with two Casita pals perched on the edge of the prairie at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.

So says the iconic scout song I learned as a Brownie, too many years ago to count.

The sentiment is true. The past four years full-timing in The Epic Van has been a testament to this theme. We’ve driveway surfed from Washington to California to Kansas to New Orleans, looking up old newspaper colleagues scattered to the four winds. We’ve broken bread with relatives near and far. And we’ve camped with and made fabulous new friends on the fly in Idaho, Montana and California.

I don’t know who’s silver and who’s gold in the Girl Scout song, the old friends or the new ones, but they’re both infinitely valuable.

This past fall, we met old friends and made new ones in one of our favorite familiar places, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, where Tom and I volunteered for three months in 2016. When we were volunteering here, we had lots of visitors, including my brother and sister-in-law, Barry and Leslie, my mom, our “second-son” Corbin, and friends Jen and Reg. Read about those visitors here.

The “old friends” in our song were Keven and Georges. We have known Keven for decades, since working together at The Arizona Republic. She recently retired from the Dallas Morning News. She met her husband, Georges, a witty Belgian chef, while taking a tour of Mexico that Georges was guiding.

We had been trying to coordinate a meet-up since we had dinner with them about two years ago to talk about their plans for a year-long trip around the perimeter of the United States in their Casita camper. (You can follow their travels at .)

But events that cropped up kept altering the path of The Epic Van, and we kept missing each other, sometimes just by a week or two.

Finally, we marked an “X” on the map and converged.

It happened to be Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, one of my favorite places on the planet. Keven and Georges were heading around the northwest corner on their counter-clockwise path from Dallas. We were heading from Utah to the Northwest to visit family in Washington and meet up with Stanford Fellow friends in Oregon.

The “new friends” were Bob and Allison, Canadian Casita owners who Keven and Georges had met at a couple of previous campgrounds. Like us Roadtrekers, these Casita kids are quickly connected over rig talk, and K&G became fast friends with B&A. Bob is a firefighter and Allison works for a non-profit. We had never met, but our nomadic travels connect us with kindred spirits around many campfires.

We arrived first and staked out three campsites clustered at the edge of the prairie, where we could catch the late-afternoon fall sun, watch the Roosevelt elk, if they wandered by, and still have fabulous views of the stunning ancient redwoods.

Soon, The Epic Van was bookended with twin Casitas, and we were off on a quick, two-mile hike to see some of the oldest, tallest trees on the planet.

We loved showing everyone a place that feels like home to us. Every bend in the trail was familiar, but still amazing. The creek, the ferns, the mushrooms, the towering redwoods.

Our eyes full, we returned to the campsite and uncorked the champagne.

Let me say, if Georges ever offers to cook dinner for you, even out in the wilds, sit back, relax and prepare to be amazed. While the rest of us were lounging, munching cheese and crackers and sipping bubbly, (well, Keven, did have some sous-chef duties) Georges was making oysters Rockefeller. Over the campfire. Then he grilled fresh rockfish. To perfection. Over the campfire. And he brought a beautiful cake for dessert. A++++++ for camping cuisine.

The next day we headed out on my absolute favorite hike ever. I mean of all the hikes I’ve ever taken in my life. Including all the amazing, wonderful, inspiring hikes we’ve taken in the past four years in The Epic Van.

The James Irvine Trail heads out from the Visitors Center at Prairie Creek and winds through amphitheaters filled with ancient redwoods, carpeted with ferns, trillium, and huckleberry. About 4½ miles later, you walk into Fern Canyon, where steep walls are covered in ferns, dripping with water falling down the canyon sides. We crawled through fallen trees, tiptoed across branches crisscrossing the creek, and made our way to wild, windswept Gold Bluffs Beach. It’s breathtaking.

We perched on a driftwood log to eat our lunch, then headed toward Miner’s Ridge Trail for the hike back. Along the way, Georges helped some fellow hikers push a car out of the rocky stream that crossed the dirt road.

On the hike back, we shared stories with our new and old friends, camping stories, favorite trips, and deeper life stories, kids, parents, hopes, fears. Long hikes are like that. They peel away the facades.

Back at camp, it was Tom’s turn to cook, and it wouldn’t be a lie to say he was a bit intimidated to cook for a former restaurant owner and chef. He made curry rice noodles with vegetables and chicken, and it was a hit.

Bob and Allison, eyeing the snow predictions in Ontario, had to leave a day before the rest of us, but we vowed to meet again.

Our last night, Georges cooked again, this time engineering a cooking station in the bear box, designed to safely lock up food from curious bears. He secured his camp stove inside, and the heat from his cooking warmed the top, creating a warming station for the plates.

The menu included a trio of fish, rockfish, salmon and cod, in a cream sauce, and ended with a fruit flambe. I kid you not. The only mishap happened when, walking to the picnic table in the dark, I stepped in a hole and fell, hitting my temple on my camp chair. Instant knot. Not-too-instant shiner that grew over the next week. Trust me when I tell you, I paused only a moment before digging into the feast Georges had prepared.

We’re planning to meet Keven and Georges again this week in Portal, Arizona. Maybe Bob and Alison will show up. Or some other new friends.

Later in February, we’re meeting our dear Idaho friends, Jeff and Ann, to camp at Lake Pleasant. We met them the very first week we started full-timing, and it was definitely gold. We’ve visited them at their very cool home in Yellow Pine, Idaho (check it out here) and on the road. Every time, me make memories.

Where are you camping? We might just show up to share some time around the campfire.

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