July was it. Our last full month to travel as our renters were due out at the end of the month. We raced up to Alaska in June so we could get at least of one month of exploring before heading back. We estimated two weeks of heavy driving to get all the way through Alaska, Canada much of the US and back to Texas. This left us with approximately ten days to further explore Alaska. We decided to spend it in some of the biggest Alaskan highlights – Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks. Then, it was back towards the real world (maybe)*.

Total June Cost: $4,316
Total days in the camper: 30
Total days out of camper: 0
Cost per day: $139
States Visited: Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma
Total Miles: Approx 6,100

Summary

There were a lot of “Wow’s” in July. From one of our new favorite National Parks (Denali), to the huge amount of miles covered (over 6,000) and one of the highest spending months since we started traveling. It was a purposeful stalling in Alaska while the weather was good that caused most of it, but the inevitable can only be delayed so long, and we had to head back south. Emotions were conflicted as nowhere had held us voluntarily captive as long as Alaska and we knew it would be hard to make it back, but money can’t last forever and no more renters meant no more supplemented travel and covered house payment. The real world was calling, and we couldn’t send it to voicemail again.

Spending Details

The Good

We spent most of the month of June exploring the coast of Alaska and only darted inland to avoid the expensive ferries to get to the next coastal  town. As we approached our last few weeks in Alaska, we wanted to make sure and hit one of the most exciting places – Denali National Park. Joining us on our journey to Denali were two familiar faces to the Airstream – Jocelyn’s mom and her dog, Bueno, after they flew into Anchorage.

We scored three nights at the Teklanika Campground in Denali, which is another one of those campgrounds like Yosemite that book up months in advance. However, just like Yosemite, if you’re persistent and flexible enough, you can usually find a few days that work. Teklanika is 30 miles into the park and 15 miles past the turnaround where most cars have to stop, but with the reservation they let you drive into it. Once you’re in the site, you’re not allowed to drive any farther into the park and if you leave towards the entrance, you can’t come back!

They do it for a great reason – to keep Denali wild (with animals and not tourists). The only way to tour the park is on a school bus-like Denali bus that drives the entire road. There are a couple of different types of buses and tours, but with our reservation we were able to buy one pass and ride the buses every day we were there.

Our first day started with a challenging pick up time at 8:15am (hey, that’s early for us) on a bus scheduled to drive all the way through the park (50 miles beyond us) with an estimated total trip time of 8 hours. Even crazier, for the people who started from the entrance of the park, their total trip time is 11 hours!

“STOP!!” we heard screamed from the back of the bus. It was quite startling and we wondered what sort of emergency we were about to experience. Instead, the bus driver simply complied and the lumbering bus slowly came to a stop. The passenger then yelled, “caribou, 3 o’clock”. Apparently, they were previously briefed that when they saw an animal to yell stop, and then the whole bus could have a look.

The bus stopped every 30-45 minutes at various points where you could enjoy an overlook, ranger station with some exhibits or simply a bathroom. It was the random stops that were more enjoyable as they often included caribou, moose or the infamous grizzly bear. It must be the closest thing outside of Africa to a true safari experience. It was a long day, but the beautiful mountain sites of Denali along with the wildlife made it worth it.

But we didn’t see Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) the first day**. The mountain is so tall that it creates its own weather… and apparently it really likes to hide behind crowds. In the summer, you’re lucky to see it one out of three days. We had three days total, so we hoped the law of averages worked.

On the second day, we hopped back on the bus but instead of simply going for a ride and we strapped on our hiking boots and set out to explore the park. They don’t actually mark trails in the park besides simple nature walks, but instead encourage visitors to find their own way… you know, in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness that’s full of grizzlies! We had already seen five grizzlies the previous day, including the most dangerous – a momma with cubs, so this was a little scary!

However, the Alaskan wilderness is mostly tundra, so it was a smaller possibility of getting lost since you can see pretty far, and you could also see any bears that were coming to eat you! We ended up only going a few miles as it was a little disturbing, but it was beautiful.

Denali National Park quickly jumped to one of our favorites, and we’ll definitely return someday. The road within the park is a combination of dirt and gravel with single lanes passing through incredibly steep mountain passes with drop offs, but it’s done this way perfectly to preserve the ruggedness of the land and give you the truth outback experience. It worked.

But we didn’t see Denali on the second day either. As we packed up our campsite and anxiously awaited our next adventure, we wondered if Denali would reveal herself (or himself). We started driving back towards the entrance when we looked back and there she was, a towering mountain that had lurked just outside of our site behind the clouds for three days. It was huge, dwarfing everything around it.

The only thing better than seeing it from far away would be seeing it up close… which we were scheduled to do! Jocelyn’s mom decided to treat us with a Denali flightseeing tour! It was scheduled as a two hour flight with a glacier landing. We had never done one of these before even though we really wanted to in places like New Zealand, so this was a real treat. We boarded our flightseeing plane with five other people, and I was lucky enough to sit in the co-pilot seat to get a bird’s eye view of the action***.

The clouds cooperated as what seemed like one tall mountain instead proved to be a large complex of mountains, glaciers and sheer cliffs. If you ever want to feel small in life, this is a good place to do it. The small mountains are 15,000 feet tall and are dwarfed by the tall one, Denali. The ice fields and glaciers drape the mountains and valleys with new snow and old ice.

After flying around the mountains, we headed to our landing strip… an ice and snow field on the top of the glacier. The plane was equipped with snow skids and the pilot brought it down beautifully. We hung out on the glacier for a while and stood in awe of the mountains around us.

After our flight we headed back to Anchorage before Martha flew out the next day. Denali was a fitting climax to the trip. We’d spend the next few weeks driving back to Texas and back to reality.

Our spending report was pretty bad, but we were okay with it. We had a great previous six months where we kept our spending under control, and the number of miles driven guaranteed we’d pay the petrol piper. The one bright spot was our camp site spending as it’s pretty easy to find free or under $15/night spots in Alaska.

As we headed back to the “lower 49”, we passed through British Columbia and down through the Yukon and Alberta. Our driving safari continued and one day we saw 19 bears as we drove! In the beginning we were excited and stopped to take pictures, but by the end we treated them like deer as we had to watch to make sure they weren’t in the road. We stopped in the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park for some great hiking and views.

The Bad

We drove a whole lot, but we knew it was coming. We delayed as much as we could, but the time had come. We typically try not to drive more than 4-5 hours per day, but there were probably 7-8 days in July when we drove over 8 hours. We also paid for it in the gas category with $1,300 for the month… so lucky gas is half the price of what it’s been in the last decade!

I mentioned it last post, but it’s also scary to see how quickly climate change is impacting Alaska. The glaciers are receding and the animals are feeling the impacts. The most observable for the animals is the caribou impact in Denali. The guides told us that with the warmer temperatures, mosquitoes are hatching two weeks earlier than normal. It doesn’t sound like a big deal until you see how impacted the caribou can be by them. We passed by one caribou with its head shoved into the ground. The driver told us the reason was to keep the mosquitoes out of its ears and nose. We came back four hours later and it was still there.

We also saw a caribou shaking like a wet dog and another running through the rivers. All three of these actions were attempts to get away from the mosquitoes. With the pests hatching two weeks earlier, the caribou have less time to fatten up before they have to start running from bugs, and this seriously jeopardizes their chances of surviving a harsh Alaskan winter. Their main source of food, lichen, is also getting driven further up in altitude which makes it harder for them to eat.

But hey, let’s keep debating what’s causing it and not take any action****.

The Ugly

As we made it down to Canada and close to the US border, we still hadn’t heard from our renters if they were moving out at the end of the month. The contract said they’d have to give us one month notice, but they were working through a home renovation, so we gave them two extra weeks. It was mid-month and they asked if they could stay another month! We were okay with it since it would allow us to explore in August, but we wished we knew earlier so we could stay in Alaska.

+1 month. We made it back down to family in Oklahoma and hung out there and Boulder before heading out on our next adventure. The August spending report will now be more than normal spending on a house, it’ll be continued travel spending, and we couldn’t be happier!

 

*If you made it all the way down here before reading the asterisk, you know why it was “maybe” back to the real world. If you skipped down here… well, then read the rest of the post and you’ll know why 🙂
**I stick with the native Intuit name of the mountain rather than the name given later after a president who had nothing to do with and never visited the area. 
***OK, luck wasn’t the simple reason I was sitting in the front seat. The pilot asked our group and I waited at least a few seconds before I claimed it 🙂
****The irony is not lost on me that in the same section I talk about driving 6,000 miles and then complain about no actions to stop global warming… I guess I embody the problem!

These are probably two of Jocelyn’s best pictures from the trip, just incredible. All three were taken in Denali National Park while on the bus during the tour!

Pictures from the drive home through Canada… bear cubs playing, moose twins and a grizzly crossing the Alaska Highway with a motorcycle!

 

Pictures from our flightseeing tour around Mt. Denali!

Denali National Park

 

We also spent a few days in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and did some great hikes

Pictures of the Denali landscapes… and a view of Penny Lane and Denali!

Bears all around Denali National Park…. see why we were scared to go hiking on our own?!

June was our time to make the long and scary drive up through Canada and into Alaska. I won’t get into much more detail on the drive as I already covered most of it, but as always, I’ll break down the costs and add some more details along the way. After floundering a bit in Washington and staying in casinos for five nights in a row due mostly to exhaustion, we hoped Alaska would renew our energy and let us finish our trip on a high note… and Alaska delivered.

As with previous travels to scary places like Myanmar and Vietnam, the fear quickly subsides as the journey progresses. The unknowns become answered, and the fear and anxiety lightens as we progressed in the journey. Alaska went from a far away dream, to one of our most desired destinations to revisit. Combined with the amazingness of Canada, it has quickly jumped to one of our favorite places in the world, and the expenses were quite manageable.

Total June Cost: $3,733
Total days in the camper: 30
Total days out of camper: 0
Cost per day: $124
States Visited: Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon
Total Miles: Approx 4,500

Summary

We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best as our Canadian and Alaskan journey began. We loaded up on groceries in Washington and scouted out free sites along the route. Although the total driving miles were quite daunting, gas prices were much lower than we had planned, thanks to a favorable Canadian exchange rate along with cheaper gas prices overall. Amazingly, we spent less in June than we did in four other months while on the road! We skipped some of the things we might have done if we were on a regular one-week type vacation, but those are the financial sacrifices we’re willing to make to enjoy such a long journey. Let’s get into the details:

Spending Details

The Good

Alaska was the planned highlight of our trip even before we started renovating Penny Lane, so the chances of disappointment were pretty high. We could drive 60 hours through backwoods wilderness to find a fake Alaskan tourist town full of tourists and domesticated bears*. Instead, we found the Alaska we hoped to find.

An untouched wilderness with rugged landscapes, beautiful glaciers, deadly animals regularly crossing our path and unforgettable experiences. Okay, so we didn’t exactly “hope” for deadly animals crossing our paths, but we were okay with it since it meant we would see bears! Each day we kept a running total of how many bear, moose and bald eagles we saw and the numbers fluctuated from 0 to double digits depending on where we visited. At times it felt like we were in a drive through safari, except these animals had no boundaries.

That doesn’t mean you’ll automatically see a boatload of animals if you simply cruise into a port and take a quick drive into the interior. We talked to numerous travelers who hadn’t seen many animals at all, but most of them didn’t have the luxury of truly exploring as we did.

However, that exploring meant a lot of driving and a lot of roughing it. We never really knew how easy it would be to find potable water so we limited our showers probably more than we needed to**. When we stopped in Valdez, we decided to splurge on a full hook up campsite so we could shower as long as we needed. If you’re not versed in camper talk, a full hook up basically means electric, water and unlimited use since you’re hooked directly up to the sewer system. It also included Wifi and cable tv, so you can imagine we took some well deserved time to veg out.

Actually, it was hard to veg out because we were still in Alaska! I can guess what you think of when you hear “Valdez” (yes, those sad pictures of birds and seals covered in oil), but thankfully the town and environment have moved beyond that. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Alaska, with the small port town surrounded by mountains which are draped in glaciers. We spent a lot of time just enjoying the views. Our RV park also had a strange attraction: Bald Eagle feeding. They have a license from the state and can only do it when the salmon aren’t running, which happened to be the time we visited.

We watched as a man flung small fish into the air in sync with the diving eagles that would swoop down to catch them in their talons. It was all taking place 20 feet in front of us and while it felt a little strange to see the wild birds fed, it was an incredible site. There we probably two dozen eagles that sometimes took turns and other times battled for the same fish as they dive bombed down towards us. They were beautiful and powerful birds with massive talons that could inflict some major damage on us weak humans!

After Valdez, we continued our touring which meant driving back inland (through amazingly beautiful landscape) and then diving down into the next set of port towns on the Seward peninsula which includes the port towns of Whittier, Homer and Seward that we were set to see.

While in Seward, we decided to splurge on at least one tour to see what they were all about. We took an all day boat cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park that included wildlife and glacier viewing. The trip started with the captain promising one of the smoothest cruise days of the year thanks to smooth seas and a few minutes later we stopped to watch humpbacks feeding right in the bay. To make it even more special, it was a mother humpy teaching her baby to lunge feed!

We cruised out of the bay past a Kiitiwake rookery and cut across the smooth ocean into the Kenai Fjords bay. We had already seen a few glaciers up on the peaks, but now the tidewater glaciers were coming into view as we approached our next stop. The captain expertly guided our large catamaran*** around icebergs as we pulled within a quarter pile of the large tidewater glacier. We sat in awe as we watched small chunks of ice “calve” off the glacier and into the ocean. We could hear the large glacier creak and groan as the “river of ice” bulldozed its way down the mountain and into the sea.

Our next stop was an even bigger glacier, Aialik glacier, which is a full mile wide and 300-600 feet high where it meets the water! As we approached, sea lions and otters played in the iceberg strewn waters and used them as rafts as they soaked up the sun. The iceberg dwarfed the other boats already viewing at the base as we pulled up to take it all in. It was stunning and a feeling of regret passed by me as I realized our overuse of exaggerated terms in the US such as “awesome” were trivialized with their daily use… when in fact, they should be preserved for moments like this.

We headed back to sea and noticed other boats ahead of us that had stopped. It was then our captain notified us of another treat – we’d get to view a pod of orcas! We motored closer and drifted along as a dozen or so orcas spread out before us. It was a great ending to the cruise and made us wonder if the cruise was always the productive or if we were just lucky.

On the expense side of things, we did really well. There are many cheap and free places to camp along the highways leading to Alaska and within Alaksa itself, so we were pretty happy with our $16/day for campsites. We only went out to eat once (another sacrifice considering the amazing sea food there) and kept our grocery costs down by stocking up before we left. We prepared for the worst, but fared really well. Gas was the biggest expense as expected, but it was mostly due the large number of miles rather than the high price (it only averaged around $3/gallon).

The Bad

Tourism in Alaska can be cheap, but is mostly expensive. For most visitors who only have a week to visit, their time will be filled with tours and adventures… all of which cost a pretty penny. The expenses can easily justified as it’s the trip of a lifetime, so I’d say save accordingly and go for it!

But yes, it’s expensive. For our Kenai Fjords day cruise we paid $430 for the two of us, but we also upgraded to the all you can eat salmon and prime rib lunch buffet! $215/each isn’t killer on a regular vacation, but it was a lot for us.

We also eyed additional tours such as the brown bear viewing in Katmai National Park which included a flight and guided hiking, but it was almost $800/each! Glacier hiking, boat tours, plane tours, sea kayaking, dog sled rides… you can do it all, but be prepared to pay. It would’ve been great to do tours in all of the amazing places we visited, but the costs would’ve definitely set us over the top of the budget!

The weather can also be pretty nasty, even in the Alaskan summer. We were lucky to see highs move out of the upper 50’s or lower 60’s and many days were filled with clouds and rain. The interior is usually sunnier and warmer, with it even reaching 90 once in Whitehorse, but we spent most of our time exploring the coast and feeling constantly wet.

The Ugly

The land where the sun never sits sounds appealing until you spend more than a few days there. Here’s a sunset timeline from the Equinox (June 21st):


Yes, that’s right, 1 hr and 5 mins of darkness… and it’s not really even that dark! The sun started flirting with the horizon in the late evening, but just can’t quite make it down until very late. We had that opposite experience Iceland when 20 hours of sunlight transformed into 20 hours of darkness, and it’s just as troubling!

The locals fully embrace the long summer days because they know darkness is coming, pulling into campsites at midnight and instead of quietly setting up sites and bunking down, they’d start a campfire and eat dinner! It was entertaining and maddening all at the same time. We tried to stay on a decent routine of going to bed by midnight, but the light easily made it’s way through our attempts of blocking it. We’d block the windows with our car sun shades, close the curtains and then cover them with blankets or clothes… and it still didn’t help much! After falling asleep, the sun would be tapping on our eyelids again at 4am to nudge us back awake.

It was a fun experience for a few days, bearable for a few weeks, but I don’t think I’d be able handle it long term!

Oh yeah, there’s also the whole global warming thing. Whether you believe it to be fully caused by us or not, it’s wreaking serious damage on Alaska. In fact, if you want to see glaciers, you should probably visit in the next 5-10 years because after that, many of them will only be accessible with a long hike. The rapidity of the melting isn’t unprecedented as there were high melting periods in the 1950’s, but it’s happening quickly with no signs of stopping. It’s also changing or eliminating food sources and habits for the animals and birds, and putting many of them in danger of not living. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Back to how greatness of Alaska. Obviously, if one of our biggest complaints with Alaska is “too much light”, we didn’t have much to complain about. As mentioned in the beginning, it quickly jumped to one of our favorite places in the world, and we definitely want to return. While it can be intimidating to plan and execute the trip, it’s worth it. Even if you don’t have two months to plan a driving trip through the state, an Alaskan cruise would still suffice, although wildlife viewing expectations should be tempered.

As we reached the end of June, we had another adventure ahead of us: Denali National Park. After that we’d have a few more weeks before we needed to head back to the “lower 49”, as the locals called it. Reality would soon be calling, but first we had more exploring.

 

*Okay, so there was one of those “fake” Alaskan tourist towns and that was Skagway. While it might have been a cool frontier town at some point, now it’s filled with tourist shops selling diamonds, furs and all sorts of tourist goods. The other towns make fun of it and say the cruise ship companies own it!

**I used to be a shower every day kind of guy, but when water and holding tanks are limited, it’s not so easy! We switched to showering once every two days… and a few times beyond that! As we learned when traveling the world, people don’t notice they smell… but luckily we had each other to keep ourselves accountable!

***We shared our Kenai Fjords cruise with around 80 other people. While it take away some of the experience when everyone rushes to the side of the boat and you’re trapped three rows back, it’s nice knowing your large catamaran won’t be sunken like the Titanic!

Some of the spectacular wildlife and sites on the Kenai Fjords cruise… the middle picture is a Humpback whale teaching its baby to lunge feed! You can see the baby on the side of the momma.

 

All about the glaciers… the top picture is Portage glacier along with dog caused glacier melting.. the bottom two are from Worthington Glacier

One of our favorite hikes in Alaska – Crow Pass. Along with some more hiking pics below.

Hiking to the top of Worthington Glacier… Lucy really likes to walk over to the edges of cliffs and look down… it’s really quite unnerving.!

 

More views from the Kenai Fjords cruise… the top glacier is the Aialik glacier

 

Mountain views and emerald water kayaking… Alaska and Canada has it all!

 

Eight months of circuitous travel around the United States delivered us to our most challenging journey yet: driving to Alaska. Most of the stories we heard from other travelers were of fairly successful trips with the occasional speed bumps, but it still didn’t quell the fear that comes with a such a journey. But the time was here and curiosity could not be tamed.

As we headed up from Seattle, our point of entry to Canada was Vancouver. We found two major routes – straight up the Alaska Highway (sometimes called the Alcan) or a “kinda” shortcut on the Stewart-Cassiar highway that would meet back up with the Alaska Highway in the Yukon. Stewart-Cassiar was even more remote with increased wildlife sightings but decreased reception and service stations, but as we were ready for adventure, we chose the latter.

We left Vancouver and stocked up on supplies before the trip. We filled up with groceries in Washington before crossing the border which was a good idea because Canada was more expensive. I was pretty sure our monthly expenses were going to double when factoring in the more expensive groceries and gas, so this was okay.

We made the difficult decision to skip Vancouver island and head north as fast as we could. The 40-50 hours of driving was already daunting enough, but when combined with questionable road conditions and infrastructure, the anxiety could only be answered by charging north as fast as we could. We drove around 16 hours in two days with a quick rest stop in between before slowing down for a day.

As we headed north, the road conditions were better than we expected, but we weren’t on the Stewart-Cassiar yet. The drive up Hwy 97 to Prince George was pretty, but it could’ve been the same drive found in many places throughout the US with pine forests covering small mountains. However, when we left Prince George to head west and saw a bear grazing on the side of the road, our expectations began to change. We entered the mountainous town of Houston and we knew we were in for a treat as snow-capped mountains sprang up in the distance.

We were now on to the legendary Stewart-Cassiar Highway. It didn’t seem much different than any two lane road we had been on previously. It wasn’t exactly a highway and there wasn’t much of a shoulder, but it was easy to drive. We continued up the Stewart-Cassiar highway, past small First Nations towns, and spent the night in a free pull off next to a lake – or was it a marsh. The views were incredible and we had the place to ourselves… along with two million mosquitoes!! It was shocking and expected at the same time, but we feared what it meant for the rest of the trip. We sealed up the Airstream as tightly as we could and cringed as the swatted mosquitoes splattered bright red blood across the clean aluminum.

We hurried out the next day and drove to Merizda Junction to drop the camper before heading west and getting our first steps into Alaska: Hyder. If you’re looking for the easiest way to say, “I drove to Alaska”, Hyder is the town to visit because it’s so far south it’s not even connected to any other Alaskan land.

The drive was one of the most incredible we’ve seen anywhere in the world. It was like New Zealand and Iceland, or maybe Nepal. Incredible mountains on both sides with glaciers hanging over the tops and coming down the sides. If this was what we were in for during the rest of the trip, it was going to be a good one!

We stopped by Fish Creek Observation Area where you can watch grizzlies feed on salmon, but we were about two months early since the salmon wouldn’t run until the end of July. We did meet two interesting guys who worked for the national forest. They looked like the Alaskans you’d expect to see – long grizzly beards, tough faces and mountain man dress, but as soon as we started chatting, they were as nice and friendly as could be.

I asked him if there was “color” – gold – in the streams (because what else would you ask an Alaskan?) and he said an old timer told him there was, but that it takes two weeks of work to get an hour’s worth of pay! I guess we won’t fund our trip by panning. The towns were very small, but exactly what you’d think if you thought of a small Alaskan now.

We also had some pleasant surprises along the way. I expected to pay an egregious amount on gasoline, but in most places throughout British Columbia, it ranged between .99 to 1.37 per liter. This is equivalent to $4 to $5.48 per gallon, but when considered against the exchange rate, this comes down to around $2.70-$3.75, which was similar to many parts of California. It might not be as killer of an expense as we thought!

The drive continued through the vast distances of the Cassiar highway where it feels like a combination of an outdoor safari and a scenic byway. The beautiful vistas in all directions of snow covered mountains can only be interrupted by the occasional animal sighting. “BEAR” – one of us would yell as the other quickly darts our eyes to find it. If Jocelyn saw it first, she went for the camera, and if I saw it first, I’d see if I could stop fast enough or need to look for a turnaround spot so we can come back and get some pictures. Most of the time the bear would take off if we had to loop back around, but occasionally, they’ll continue on grazing as if no human was bugging them.

Most of my turnarounds were simply a quick u turn in the middle of the road – that should show you how lightly traveled it is!

After five days of heavy driving, we were successfully through the Stewart Cassiar and onto the Alaska Highway. Right away there was more traffic and things felt more “developed”, but that’s just because we had spent so much time in remote country. The Alaska Highway threads through British Columbia and the Yukon territories and includes spurs where you can drive south to additional Alaska towns of Skagway and Haines.

It was a pretty mean thing the US did – let the Canadians keep the interior, but take the valuable ports – or maybe it was the Russians who did it and we inherited it after the Alaska purchase.

The drive into Skagway was even more beautiful than the first trip into Hyder. We also had an experience that reminded me of when we when we traveled the world in 2013, and on the second to last night before our trip ended, we were finishing our driving tour around Iceland. Almost ending poetically, we had an incredibly beautiful display of the Northern Lights. Fast forward to our current trip. We were already enjoying the scenery as we drove to Skagway, Alaska when alongside the road I saw a furry hump… sure enough it was a bear – and even better, a grizzly bear! It wasn’t until we pulled over we learned the gravity of the situation.

As if lined up to reveal themselves one after the other, we saw a second grizzly, then a third grizzly, then a fourth grizzly! If the trip would have ended right then, we would’ve been happy as it was that powerful (as long as it didn’t end with us getting eaten!). We were within 20-30 feet of them as they grazed along side the road on dandelion flowers. A few times they thrust their noses in the air to get our scent, but they weren’t too worried about us. We didn’t know if it was because they were simply unaware of any threat, or because they knew they could deal with any threat we could present! We think it was a momma grizzly and her three adolescents. We stuck around for probably ten minutes as we took some fantastic photos and just sat in awe. Sitting in awe was easy to do as we were safe in our cars, but we couldn’t imagine how scary it would’ve been if we were hiking and ran into them.

Skagway seemed like a great little Alaskan town until you drove into it. The “frontier” buildings were connected by boardwalks that were nothing more than an amusement park for visiting cruise ship passengers. A visitor center volunteer told us in one day they could be flooded with over 10,000 tourists looking to get the “true Alaska experience”. Their thirst was quenched by the dozens of shops offering beaver skin hats, gold nuggets and authentic Alaska tourist gear. Walking through the town reminded us of many foreign cities where shop hosts do anything they can to get you to visit their shop.

We continued out of town, back to our camper we had left halfway up the road. The drives from the Alaska Highway into Skagway and Haines take between 3-4 hours, so we usually found a spot to camp somewhere at the top. And the campsites were quite easy to find. British Columbia has free government campgrounds along the way and the Yukon has $12/night sites that offer free fire wood. Our expenses were continuing to be much mellower than I expected.

As we headed out of Haines and back to the Alaska Highway, we drove along the northern border of the Canadian Kluane National Park and shortly after the US Wrangell – St. Elias National Park. The views were incredible as massive mountains hovered to our south with rivers of ice hanging off of them. Wrangell-St. Elias contains nine of the sixteen tallest mountains in the United States, with the tallest (Mt. St. Elias) measuring just over 18,000 feet. It was an easy distraction for the long distances of travel, until we experienced true arctic frost heaves.

The twenty remaining miles as we crossed out of the Yukon and back into the US were some of the roughest roads we had ever experienced. At times, we couldn’t go over 20 mph because the heaves would first swallow our car and camper until we emerged out of the other side like a bike over a ramp. These were some seriously bad roads! It continued as we crossed into the US and felt like there was a standoff to see who could have the worst roads going into the other country. They were brutal, and we actually got excited when we saw gravel stretches of the highway because it usually meant smoother roads – even if it meant 30 miles of gravel, or under construction, roads.

It didn’t matter though because we officially made it into the Alaskan mainland. All of the fear and anxiety before to the trip was worth it because it encouraged us to be prepared – both from a supplies standpoint and a mental capacity to endure the long stretches of highway. We saw many vehicles with spare tires and extra gas cans strapped all over, but we were lucky enough to get through without needing either.

We’re glad we made the drive and I jokingly told Jocelyn we could drive it next time in a Prius. Okay, that’s probably a little too far as the frost heaves could swallow one, but the drive was pretty doable with sufficient service stations, decent enough roads and the safari-like experience.


According to my 21 year old self, I was going to be a multi-millionaire at my current geriatric age of 35. Sure, this was the same 21 year old who was doing death rides in shopping carts, throwing watermelons off of apartment balconies and drinking too many Natty lites*… so I don’t really care if he’s judging me now!

I didn’t have a plan then, I only had hope. Hope won’t make you rich, but I have learned what will – something much more exciting than watermelon tossing – passive income!

What I’ve learned is most of us can’t become rich off of our salaries alone due to two reasons:

  1. Lifestyle Inflation: spending will increase to consume full income no matter how much one makes
  2. Salary growth (or lack there of): our salaries won’t grow fast or high enough on our own to make us rich

We live in a system that uses our emotions against us to drive us in a direction that’s not to our advantage. You were more than comfortable in your sweet 1993 Chevy Lumina with maroon interior and cheap Ikea furniture when you graduated college and got your first job, but it’d be an utter embarrassment if you still had the same dull trophies one full year after that, right?? I sure thought so, and I let lifestyle inflation dictate a very small savings or investing rate.**

As for the salary growth, unless you’re able to pull in a huuuggeee income from doing things like being a dirty politician or packaging bad car loans into debt instruments to leverage against and sell to Wall Street banks, you’re going to need some additional assistance to get rich. This might seem dire, but there is hope.

Hello lack of hope, meet Passive Income

Passive income is money you get through automatic channels you’ve previously set up that require very little effort from you. They’re sweet, but they take some time to get going because usually it is returns you make off of your own money. Other people define passive income more loosely like selling a book you wrote on Amazon or selling handmade leather bracelets on Etsy, but those don’t sound passive to me because they require a lot of work and I’m not good at leather working***.

Let’s review the more common types of passive income:

  1. Investing
  2. Real Estate
  3. Building a network of drug dealers
  4. Pimping
  5. Rodan and Fields

1. Investing

I’ve been investing since I was 14 when I bought some gold coins that I would later sell to purchase my first truck. My first stock investments came in the biotech and dot com bubble in 1999-2000 when my dad let me throw in some money to his account as we played the market. It was amazingly fun when our portfolio was going up 10% a day, but when it all came crashing down it took my dreams of my first million before high school with it. I could’ve worn a class ring on every finger and had my own harem of cheerleaders.

My next investments came after college with my first company-provided 401k and an eTrade account with a few hundred dollars of “play money”. It started building up very slowly after a few years to five figures (probably less than $11k) and this is when I realized I would need to make the returns come faster if I ever wanted to be rich. Forgetting my earlier lesson of getting burned in the market, I started playing with futures, options and penny stocks and once again lost most of it. If anyone tells you to day trade or start playing with those dangerous asset classes to get rich, run.

It took me quite a few years to finally realize what investing was all about. Small additions of money invested consistently over the long term in a safe, diversified portfolio. No get rich quick schemes, no day-trading and no pyramid schemes. As you progress in your career, you’ll need to continue bumping up your dollar contributions to really see your nest egg grow and you’ll start to experience compound interest, which Einstein called “the eighth wonder of the world”.

Compound interest happens when your money has babies of its own, and eventually those babies start to have babies. Obviously, the more money you have, the stronger and faster the effects of compound interest. Once your nest egg starts growing big enough, you’ll see passive income really kicking in as your stocks start throwing off dividend payments. Also, unless you’re wasting all of your money on penny stocks, you should see some major gains in the values of the stocks which you can eventually sell for a profit… yielding more passive income.

2. Real Estate

We jumped into the real estate game when we rented our house out in Dallas after fixing up the ‘ol Airstream and traveling North America. We’re lucky to clear over $1,000 a month on our mortgage, so we’re creating a positive passive income. We may lose this stream of passive income when we’re done traveling, but for now it works.

I don’t have too much experience with real estate yet, so I’m not going to BS you, but it’s definitely a secondary passive income stream I want to develop. My goal would be to start acquiring some properties using the 1% rule (gross income should be greater than 1% of the house value) and see if I like it.

The problem is you still need your salary to have enough money to invest in the beginning.

Even when we were both working last year, there were days when the stock market movements would make or lose more money in a day than we made from work! That’s when passive income starts getting exciting… especially when we’re in the middle of a bull market like the one we’re in now. However, obviously, you gotta have some money before you can start buildling these passive income streams.

You need to do all of the dirty little things like budget, sell stuff on Facebook, live off of one income (if your family has two), put the kids to work, make sure the pets pull their own weight and work more. You have to be serious about this for a long time before your money can start making money. You’ll have set backs along the way like a big drop in the stock market, but as long as you’re still investing, that’s a good thing, because you’re able to buy stocks for cheaper.

This is how getting rich will work for the majority of people. Sure, there are phenoms like Mark Zuckerburg who invent an entirely new industry and make billions (maybe this is what my 21 year old self planned to do), but for the majority of us, it’s nose to the grindstone… or better yet, budget to the grindstone.

 

*Don’t judge me, it was in college… and those particular memories were from the summer when I stayed in Stillwater and co-directed a summer camp

**I think it was actually a negative savings rate

***You’d think I could learn while living in a camper for a year, but much like “learning to play the guitar”, my lack of artistic ability may always prevent me from being a proper hippy

Entering the month of May meant we had survived eight months of nomadic living; no permanent place to lay our head at night, always in search of the next great camping site and a return to the basic needs and wants of life. Some people ask us what our favorite place has been while others ask us how we’ve survived that long in a tiny camper without killing each other, both very valid questions!

We were lucky enough to catch up with many friends in April and this continued into May as we headed to Portland. We spent a few days with a friend there who just happened to have an extra apartment! We also made a side trip to catch up with family for a few days in Colorado and Oklahoma before heading north… to the last great frontier… Alaska! But first, we must cover May.

Total May Cost: $4,044
Total days in the camper: 21
Total days out of camper: 10
Cost per day: $130
States Visited: Oregon, Washington… and British Columbia, Canada!
Total Miles: 2,400 (+ 4,600 side trip)

Summary

Our expenses were higher in May as we prepared for our northern exposure and made a fun side trip to catch up with family we hadn’t seen in five months. To lessen the impact of the extra mileage on the 4Runner, we rented a car in Portland that was more comfortable and had much better gas mileage. This paid off as in total we drove almost 5,000 miles in ten days… I’m sure the rental car company wouldn’t have agreed to our $18/day if they knew we were driving that far*. We saved a lot of money on campsites because we stayed with our friend in Portland and also stayed with family for a few days. I broke out the side trip costs just so they don’t distort the other categories too much, but I like to keep all expenses in the totals just so you have a realistic expectation of what this trip will cost us (with surprises and all). Here are the details:

Spending Details

The Good

The best part of Oregon – which is a similar theme to our entire trip – was catching up with friends who we hadn’t seen in a long time. In Portland, we caught up with a former co-worker and friend from my Accenture and HP days (when I actually had a job). He moved his family to Portland a few years ago from Houston and really likes his new city, so we were excited to see it… and also excited to use his extra apartment which he hadn’t rented out yet! He let us stay in it for as long as we wanted, but our need for tortured travel meant we only stayed two weekends on either side of our extra road trip.

Let’s talk Portland first. Sure, there are shows making fun of it like “Portlandia”, but it actually does a decent job of pointing out quirks of the city’s inhabitants. It’s full of nice and interesting people.. and yes, things like four people stopping at a four way stop and waiting for an hour as they all try to wave the other people on really could happen here. But don’t let the niceness fool you, we also talked to people who had friends lower themselves off the main bridge in town to block the oil company (I believe Exxon) from disembarking on their mission to explore and map oil in the Arctic Ocean. These are people who are nice for the right reasons!

We really loved our friend’s neighborhood in Portland, the Sellwood area. It was obviously designed in a different age when houses were neighborly instead of compound-y. The front porches were active with friendly chats and only a few blocks away are some of the famous Portland food carts. You can walk down to the river with a large public park and even an amusement park, or catch up with neighbors at “share square”, a designated street crossing where each corner involved sharing: a tiny library, neighborhood bulletin board, small playground and a hangout area. It also helps to be there in the right time of the year, there was some rain, but it was offset with beautiful sunny days that highlighted the streets full of flowers. It reminded us of our former beloved neighborhood in New Orleans.

We parked Penny Lane and the 4Runner in Portland while we made a quick side trip to Oklahoma to celebrate my dad’s birthday. Sure, it’s hard to call a 28 hour drive a ‘side trip’, but with a rented hybrid including satellite radio, we enjoyed it! We also stopped on the way back in Boulder to spend a few nights with family there. It was nice to have real showers and real beds for a while, but the north was calling and we returned.

As we continued on, we left Portland and headed into the interior to explore some of the state and national parks. We first headed into Bend to see what the city was all about. I previously discovered a love for Deschutes’ “Black Butte Porter” beer and when I found out they were in Bend, that became a must visit. We spent an afternoon sampling beer and food before heading to their brewery and taking a full tour. This was on a workday (I think Tuesday) so let’s say it was for scientific taste-testing and to make sure I agreed with company standards. It passed.

We based at a state park south of Bend and spent four days exploring the area. We first went north to Smith Rocks State Park and watched as the landscape which had already turned from the sub-tropical rainforest of the coast, to a drier mountain climate in Bend, change again to an almost desert like landscape of Northeast Oregon. Smith Rocks State Park is centered around desert mountains and is a world renowned climbing site. We headed out on a 5-6 mile hike with Lucy and little did we know, would become very important in someone else’s day.

As we rounded a corner on the steep ascent, we saw a lady with a big dog standing next to the trail. The dog was out of control, so we stalled a bit hoping our mountain selfies would give her enough time to move on. It wasn’t for our own safety, but more because we don’t always know how Lucy will react. Sure, we think she’s the best dog in the world, but after she penned a little dog earlier in Oregon, we have been a little more careful!

Okay, I guess I should tell that story first – we were hiking with her on a leash, when a little Jack Russell, off-leash, came charging at us from down the trail. We’ve adopted the approach of unleashed dogs are calmer because they’re not in “protector mode”, so we let go of Lucy. Lucy met charging little Jack like a Patriot missile, but Little Jack is apparently a little Napoleon as his owners told us afterwards, and Lucy wasn’t going to cower to his demands as she’s ten times bigger. Instead, she quickly flipped him on his back, penned him down and probably used some dog words not appropriate for the blog. We removed her and since we were in Oregon, the owners profusely apologized and refused to lay any of the blame on Lucy, even as we insisted it was partially her fault! Such nice people.

So yes, we’re sometimes hesitant with her, but back on Smith Rocks, the lady wasn’t budging. We headed up and as we approached her, we could see the fear in her face. She was dog-sitting for friends who were climbing the mountain and the large German-Shepard mix had taken control of the hike as it kept jumping at and scaring her. She asked if she could try walking with us and we agreed, hoping the wise and calm nature of Lucy would calm him. Instead, she growled at him and he submitted to the wise old lady. She continued along with us as we realized they would become new participants in our day. It was cool though, because it kept Kujo under control.

We ventured down the mountain and agreed to part ways as she could see her friends climbing and figured they would be down soon. We broke off the trail and had lunch while Lucy cooled off in the river. As we continued on, we could hear an obnoxious barking which echoed down the canyon and shortly after we saw the owner standing next to it. It was then Jocelyn realized it was our friend again. Kujo had totally taken over and our friend’s last resort was to tie him to a nearby tree and panic… she broke into full tears as she saw us coming. I’m not always good with hints, but I guess this one was clear enough. We told her we’d get Kujo back to their campsite so she could tie him up and wait there for the owners. I took his leash and he challenged me with a nip and bark – and Lucy nearly broke her leash away from Jocelyn trying to get over to him, but I got him back under control with some Cesar-like mind tricks**. We led him back to the campsite with no issues and a relieved (and soon to be quitting) babysitter found some peace.

Our next day trip was to Crater Lake National Park. We kept the camper at the state park in La Pine so we wouldn’t have to drag Penny Lane on the five hour round trip South. From previous research, we knew most of the park was still closed due to snowed in roads (even in mid-May!) but we still wanted to see the lake. As we approached the Rim Village, we saw parking lots boxed in with snow 15 feet high and crammed with cars and tourists excited to see the lake. We found a spot and hiked up the snow hill to see the view. It was a gorgeous deep blue panorama with reflecting clouds and a snow-covered crater.

It’s here I steal some content from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He visited with his son and said something was wrong the place. It was just too perfect – like humanity had never been there. He said it would be better if they piled some beer cans around the rim or maybe even a giant beer can pile in the middle. We caught our view and spent just as much time watching the other tourists swarming the sides before heading back to their cars and checking Crater Lake off their list, just as we did.

The Bad

The only bad from May was our own damn fault. It was the lack of respect we gave to Washington. Maybe it was due to exhaustion caused by nine months of nomadic travel or maybe because we were getting excited for the last leg of our trip, but either way, we didn’t do Washington justice. The highlight is we stayed at casinos for five nights – which meant free stays – and since we had free stays, we of course had to gamble.. and guess what, we actually won on slots and craps! I much prefer losing because then my appetite for gambling is gone for a while, but it’s nice to have some income when you don’t get income.

We did see Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington and enjoyed some camping near it, but much of the park was still under snow. We headed to Olympic National Park afterwards but the casinos were kinda far so we didn’t do much exploring in the park. Actually, we drove to the national park campsite but didn’t have cell phone reception, so instead we opted for the casino which had free electric hook ups! It was also cold and rainy since we were back on the coast, so we weren’t having much of it. We hopped the ferry to Whidbey Island and stopped in Bellingham to stock up for our final northern leg. Our grocery expenses were higher due to this stock up, but the investment will surely pay for itself as we experience the much more expensive shopping in Canada and Alaska.

The Ugly

We’ve seen our share of poverty as we’ve traveled the US, and unfortunately the closer you are to Native American reservations, the more noticeable the poverty becomes. We saw this throughout the Southwest as well as up through California and Washington. But the extreme poverty wasn’t limited to reservations.

One of the more unsettling impoverished towns was Aberdeen, Washington. As soon as we rolled into town, we noticed things weren’t quite right. Our visit to Walmart was full of faces that seemed to tell stories beyond our comprehension, and driving through downtown made it more noticeable. The few buildings that weren’t boarded up housed government and social services. After a Google, we learned it used to be a thriving logging town, but after federal regulations made logging more difficult, business dried up. I’m not sure what happened as there was still lots of logging in Oregon and parts of Washington, so maybe there was more to the story than just that. The town is now plagued with poverty and opioid addiction, which doesn’t lead to a happy ending. It’s the same story playing out in many places in the US.

We ended May on a high note as we crossed the Canadian border and checked into the Sheraton in downtown Vancouver. I still have hotel points, so we decided to spend two nights resting and soaking up as much hot water, wifi and tv as we could. Lucy did well as an urban dog forced to use sidewalks as a bathroom and riding elevators 27 stories… she’s so refined.

We made it to Canada. It almost feels like we did this entire trip just so we could make the last drive into Canada and Alaska. The unknown challenges and dangers were outweighed by the possible thrills and experiences, so the trip was a go. Google Maps said it was 48 hours of driving to Anchorage, so we rest and make it our mission in June.

*Okay, I have to admit it. I was actually upgraded to a nicer hybrid for an extra $8/day… usually I’m the King of don’t-try-to-upgrade-me, but I did some quick math to determine it was worth it… even though a little piece of me died. 

**Actually, there were no Cesar (the dog-trainer) mind tricks, I instead used my mom’s old farm trick, stepping on his back feet when he tried to jump on me. He didn’t like that, but it got him under control!

Meeting up with friends is always one of the best parts of the road trip!

Mt. Rainier National Park

Crater Lake National Park – I love the bottom pic because it looks nearly the same right side up as upside down!

Snow in La Pine State Park, Deschutes Brewery and Smith Rocks State Park

Silver Falls State Park is probably one of our favorite state parks. The nine mile trail takes you around some of the most gorgeous waterfalls in the area.

Mt. Hood National Park