endings & beginnings

No, I’m not back in Foxy, but I wanted to check in.


In 2019, I finished my MFA, visited 22 states in eight months while living in a van, and started a new job teaching college (which meant moving to a new town). It was a big one, and I’m pleased.

In 2020, there will be more teaching college, more living in a van, and more who-the-hell-knows-what. I’m pretty pleased about that, too.

I’m a little shy about sharing this publicly, but I’m hoping to try mountain bike racing again this spring.


In the last three weeks I did some travel.

Taught my last class of the semester, attended a couple of basketball games that night, and headed out early the next morning, with forty-something student portfolios in tow.

In the Dallas area, I saw a friend’s band play, and played board games with his kids.

I visited my storage unit to pick up a hardtail mountain bike (yay!) and drop off a newly acquired card catalog (yay!). Rode McAllister Park in San Antonio, and visited a brewery that I used to call home, where I was treated like family still.

After a lovely stay in the Texas Hill Country, and topped up with four cases of beer and half a case of liquor, I headed into my hometown of Houston. I tried to eat all the good food in town (eye roll), and saw some friends who are really more like family. Got my hair cut and colored, and rode Memorial Park, Double Lake, and some bayou paths. Ate sushi, poke, Mexican, BBQ, vegetarian, breakfast tacos, Whataburger; did a yoga class at a brewery and visited two museums; celebrated Christmas with a family that I’ve grown up with. Hops almost got dognapped but all ended well.

At my final stop, I rode the old race course at Lake Bryan for the first time in maybe nine years or so, and hung out with some dear friends. We did some more yoga, visited a few more breweries, and attended a college basketball game.

Throughout I had warm weather, great food, good trails, and the best company. I drove nearly 3,500 miles and visited a 23rd state. I found out that a friend had died, and my mother had a birthday. Coming home to West Virginia, I especially loved seeing the rickhouses along the highway in Kentucky. I saw several bald eagles and many red-tailed hawks, including the first time I’ve ever seen one make a kill (a small rodent). The sun set as I crossed the Kanawha River. I listened to Eddie Spaghetti sing “there’s no such place as far away / until you’ve left something behind,” and thought about how far I’ve come.

vanlife, chapter 1: by the numbers, and other notes

  • 8 months
  • 4 oil changes
  • 1 hit-and-run
  • 19 national parks, seashores, and forests
  • 30 state parks and forests
  • 55 bodies of water where Ritchey’s ashes swim
  • 21 households that took me in
  • 74 books read
  • 40-some mountain bike rides on 20-some trails
  • 75-ish hikes
  • 54 breweries and 1 distillery
  • 22 states
  • 0 speeding tickets
  • 0 flat tires
  • 1 (very minor) theft
  • 2 stoves
  • 1 time overrun by no-see-ums
  • 6 civil rights museums, monuments, memorials
  • 70 birds identified (not counting those in captivity)
  • 21 other wildlife identified (not counting those in captivity)
  • 14 turtles helped across the road
  • 7 artists honored by visits to homes and other landmarks
  • 15,000 miles (approximate, and with deep regret that I didn’t mark down the precise odometer reading when I headed out).

  • favorite trails: Oak Mountain in central Alabama; Blankets Creek just north of Atlanta, Georgia; Dupont State Park in North Carolina; Lebanon Hill in southern Minnesota; Palo Duro in northwest Texas, Big Bend in southwest Texas, and my new home trail in Upshur County, West Virginia.
  • favorite bookstores: Malaprops in Asheville, NC and Content in Northfield, MN.
  • favorite friends: never. 🙂 I love you all.

lessons learned:

  • this life is easier, and much more joyful, than I’d expected.
  • I like being alone just fine. also, I like to catch up with those I love.
  • Hops likes meeting new people.
  • I need way less of everything than I thought I did.
  • whew, it’s hot out here, y’all.

Before I get too misty-eyed, let me wrap up this wrap-up post. In nine months or so, the plan is start chapter 2. Thank you so much to all of you who have kept up along the way. If you got a postcard from me on the road, would you consider sending me one now that I have an address? PM me for that info. Lots of love.

Foxy in her new WV home-for-now

winding down

Well, friends, we’re nearing the final hours of Foxy livin’. I’ll try and review a few things for you here, but it’s busy times (when I’m within cell range in these lovely mountains).

Since I last wrote to you, I headed into the town of Elkins for a day and a night, to see some friends and do some conferencing about my upcoming new JOB (eek). From there, we drove up to Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state of West Virginia.

We had a couple of nice nights of camping, with weather cool enough that we had a fire one night, and hiked a bit up in the hills.

I’ve been reading & writing furiously, and doing some planning for the move coming up, and a couple of visitors right out of the gate. I know I keep using this word, bittersweet, but truly… I’m excited for all the change, and I’m going to miss this here.

on a Wednesday

I woke up on a beautiful cool morning (cool! for a change!) in the Monongahela National Forest and took Hops for a couple of miles on gravel roads and soggy trails. While we were out on the trail, an email came in from an author I greatly admire who very generously had offered, some weeks back, to read my thesis. She said she loved what she was reading. My heart was in a bit of a flurry from the high compliment from such a highly regarded source, but I left the email to answer later, from a proper screen with a proper connection to the internet. Back in camp, I cooked some eggs, washed dishes, and packed up for the day.

I drove into town and parked, made some phone calls, and answered the lovely email from the author. I bought groceries–and just to be able to park, leave Hops, and buy groceries midday was such a change and a beauty, this milder, more forgiving weather. I parked us for several hours at a state park’s picnic area, where the signal was a little stronger, and I got a little more work done, including prepping for another author interview that evening. I drove back into town for a burrito in the late afternoon, and parked at a trailhead to eat and read a book in peace.

Backing out of my parking space, I made a mistake. I didn’t see the ditch behind me, and Foxy’s rear wheels just slid in. I was in this trouble by a margin of less than a foot, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades; the van was going nowhere. I checked it out: the wheels weren’t dug in; there was matted grass, and not mud, under her tires. It all boded well, but still I was going nowhere. I dragged some rocks over and packed them beneath & behind the tires. I got a little traction, but still no progress. A nice man on a bicycle stopped and apologized for being unable to help. He consulted; we agreed on the prognosis. He advised I walk across a nearby bridge, over the Blackwater River, to a nearby grocery store (the same we’d already visited that day) for help. That had been my next plan anyway, so off Hops and I went.

At the store, we had to wait a few minutes for the right opportunity to come along. A big man in work clothes approached perhaps the biggest pickup truck in the lot. “Excuse me, sir? I… got my van stuck, just right there across the bridge. I’m looking for some help. Do you maybe have a chain or a tow strap on you?” Well, he didn’t; but he consulted a few neighboring cars and trucks, and then his buddies (they turned out to be his employees, actually) came out of the store–they were driving the other giant truck in the lot, parked end-to-end–and located a short but serious cable that we agreed might work. We convoyed across the bridge in two trucks, the four of us plus Hops. “Is that your van? No wonder you got stuck! Geez.” My new friend shook his head. “Looks heavy.”

It took mere moments to hook up truck to van, everybody accelerated on schedule, and Foxy was free and shipshape again. I shook the boss man’s hand briefly; they all accelerated off in a hurry, and Hops and Foxy and I were back on the road.

We went directly to the dollar store for Oreos, and when I came back out, my friend the boss man in the big truck was parked next to Foxy. I grinned and waved. “My name’s Von,” he said, offering his hand again. I gave my name. He said he’d turned around to come back: “I have a five-bedroom house just up here”–he pointed–“and you are welcome to come and stay. You could have a room for the night. If you need a shower, do a load of laundry. I just needed to come back and see.” He’s working as an electrical engineer in the area, on the big windmills. I thanked him again and again, explained that Hops and I were actually having a great time out here–we really are, especially now it’s cooled off so nicely–and we’re moving into a place next week and have just had a shower and laundry. He said, “Oh, you’re enjoying your last days of freedom.” He called it a blessing upon him, to be able to help. And we went our separate ways again, me still thanking him. I drove back to the picnic area with the decent signal, where I’d be conducting an author interview in another hour.

I was still shaky from the stress of having Foxy out of commission, and having to approach strangers for help. But I was also glowing with the pleasure of meeting such a decent human. Von was so kind, and I really appreciated his offer for additional help. I wish I’d gotten his address so I could send him a thank-you card or something. The kindness of strangers: always a beautiful lesson. I felt well cared for. And really, this calamity was a very small one: we were just a little bit stuck (admittedly, this is like a little big pregnant), and so close to town, and I just knew the West Virginia pickup-truck-driving men would take good care of us; and they did. It was a beautiful experience, in the end.

And yet still I was shaking as I set up for my author interview – which of course went beautifully, too, a lovely chat with a talented writer and a friend. Leaving the picnic area with my interview complete, I stopped for a beer at the local brewery just before closing, and traded brewery stickers with the nice young man behind the bar, just as his boyfriend showed up with a burrito for his (the bartender’s) dinner (yes, from the same burrito place; it’s a small town). Leaving the brewery with a single beer in me, I stepped into the delightfully cool air, where Hops was safely napping in the van. We drove into the dusk, back into the national forest, where we’ve made camp again for free at a spot that has begun to feel like home.

Just next week, I’ll be moving into a “real” home, one with walls and ceiling and no engine or tires attached. I’m looking forward to that next chapter; but gosh, on a day like this, when I’ve experienced all the emotions and played in the mud and seen the sun and felt the cool air on my face, this life looks pretty good. Right now Hops is snoring next to me and I have all of the van doors open and I’m about to crawl under the blankets, because the air is cool and slightly damp and we are the two luckiest creatures alive. Viva vanlife. And thanks again to Von, my guardian angel this Wednesday.

a few more stops

Just killing time in West Virginia, before I move into a house and out of this van, for better and for worse…

I had thought I might spend a night at Tygart Lake State Park, but the camping facilities didn’t especially impress. I let a bit of Ritchey go in Tygart Lake at a deserted boat ramp, Hops had a run around, and we moved on.

Cathedral State Park is a lovely area, but no camping; we were there to see the old-growth hemlocks. It’s a very small park; we walked several trails around, apparently, the whole space, and could hear road traffic at all times. But what is there is worth saving. According to their signage, the average age of the forest is 350 years, and some trees are over 500 years old. The largest are some 90 feet tall and 21 feet in circumference. I definitely saw some in that range.

After a little hike at Cathedral, we’ve returned to the Monangahela National Forest, the same spot where we camped in late May when we first entered this state. It’s a lovely area and free! When I want a little more cell signal or a picnic table, I head a few miles downhill to Blackwater Falls State Park, where day use is free. And the town of Davis has a brewery I quite appreciate. Just hanging out, reading and writing, hiking with the dog and watching time pass by.

Here’s a little photo pack of the last few parks and hikes.

Seneca Rocks

From Blackwater, we moved into the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, which is part of (or contiguous with?) the Monongahela National Forest. We’re staying at Seneca Shadows campground, which is practically, yes, in the shadow of Seneca Rocks, a famous rock formation and rock-climbing destination.

Seneca Rocks in morning light

That’s the Rocks there in the foreground.

Hops and I did the hike up to the observation tower at the base of the rock formation proper, and it is no joke of a hike – just a mile and a half up and the same back down, but steep the whole way. These views are from the observation tower, from which one can look basically straight down at one’s car or van.

A sign there at the top of the hike/base of the rock says (I paraphrase), “go beyond this point and die.”

Camp isn’t bad, either.