This isn’t my blog. In fact, before we left on this trip Tim asked me “what do you wanna do about a blog?” and I said, “not blog.” Ha! But he started this thing anyway, and since has done an excellent job of mostly ignoring it while you, his adoring fans, annoy ME about when his next post will be going up. Gah! So as he lollygags the weeks away, leaving you faithful readers two months in the past, I’ll get you up to speed on how things are going in life with a small poop-machine in a small van for months on end. Cuz I know you’re wondering!
When I was pregnant, Tim and I talked a whole lot about taking an extended van trip with the baby to max out on maternity leave. (In Canada, we are fortunate enough to get 12 months of maternity leave, and since we already had the Vanagon, spending a few months living it was a logical thought for us… or so we thought.) “It’ll be cheaper than living in Vancouver for the summer,” we reasoned. “We’ll definitely go if our baby is mellow. Or not. Whatever, he’ll cry at home or in the van - what does it matter where we are? Let’s at least go adventuring.” I think about that now and just raise my eyebrows at us. Such big words from the uninitiated!
In any case, last November came and went, leaving behind a mewling little cub that needed 24 hour love and care. Holy kamoley, its amazing how quickly you discover the extreme full-time-ness of parenting - one of those things you know intellectually before you have a kid, but are still blown away by when they finally arrive.
We had a super cozy winter adapting to a steep learning curve with baby. And then poof, soon enough the crocuses started blooming and the robins came back and Spring had sprung. “Wait? It’s already March!?” “Aaaahhhh it’s April!” May 1st was looming and we were supposed to be moving into a van with an infant… What?! Oh man, did we seriously decide to do that?
In the prep, one of the things I looked hard for was tips on Vanagon living with a baby. Plenty of people are out there are doing extended trips in their VWs, or even extended trips with their small kids, but not many (that I found) that actually blogged about the logistics of how to live in a van with a baby. Three and a half months in and I can happily report: it’s fairly easy, though TOTALLY different than traveling without a cub.
We left when Grizzly was 5.5 months old - he had no teeth, was not eating solids yet, and he had just freshly learned how to sit on his own. We’ll roll back into Vancouver when he’s just shy of 10 months old - almost a toddler! Today, he’s got two tooth nubs that make him look like a rabbit, he’s pretty much addicted to organic California strawberries, avocado and cucumbers and yesterday he took his first wobbly (supported) steps (!)
Living in a van with him has proven to be one of the most amazing, challenging and beautiful experiences and we are so so so so glad for the time to spend as a family, enjoying him and each other.
So in no particular order, here are a few tips and bits of gear that we’ve found indispensable:
1) The trunk of a Vanagon is the perfect baby crib, at least in this pre-mobile stage when he can’t pull himself up and climb out. The trunk is big enough that I can climb in with him to nurse, and the opening to the rest of the van means we can hear him making motorboat noises and talking to himself in the morning. (We sleep up top in the pop-top bunk.) We hang a blanket over the opening into the back bench to create a noise barrier so we can still be in and out of the van for the evening. Granted, we’re lucky - our little guy is a great sleeper and doesn’t seem to mind us cooking dinner five feet from where he’s snoozing. (Seriously. Even if we fry onions!)
In the mornings, we bring him up top to play for awhile while one of us (usually Tim) makes coffee and gets breakfast started.
2) Fresh air = excellent baby sleep. (Phew.) Everyone told us this, and thankfully, its true.
3) In terms of distance, we learned early on that we’re not going to be moving all that fast. We clock about 100 miles on our big days. Grizz just doesn’t want to be strapped into his car seat for the whole day! He needs the time to roll around and kick his legs and make motorboat sounds and flap his arms. So we tend to drive about 2 hours a day, or 4-5 at an absolute max if we really need to boot it somewhere. Sometimes this is really frustrating - I JUST WANT TO GET TO THAT LAKE AND GO SWIMMING! - but mostly this actually forces us to stop in some incredible places we wouldn’t otherwise have… like one time in Big Sur, when we stopped to unstrap the kid and a pod of humpback whales starting splashing around off the coast. (True story, that. O_O)
(Also, I should add that it took me awhile to figure out that stories like Letters to Zerky took place in a era that pre-dates the car seat, when kids could crawl around in the backseat. We could cover a whole lot more ground if he wasn’t strapped in, that’s for sure!)
4) Cloth diapering is totally doable on the road, seriously. For awhile there, I thought we were pretty hardcore for continuing to use cloth away from our home washing machine. But I just keep meeting these old hippies that tell me how they travelled around in their VWs in the 60s and 70s, and hand washed their cloth diapers in a bucket for two or three kids at a time. By hand!? No thank you! It’s a good reminder that laundromats are no hardship. (Plastic diapers stuck to coral reefs, that’s a more of a hardship.) If you wanna know more about how to do this, email me and I’ll give you tips galore. Cloth diapering FTW.
5) When we left, Grizz was still 100% breastfed. At six months old, we started introducing solids (er, mush) - a messy affair! A clip-on high chair has given our little man a place to sit at a picnic table, which seems to be where we eat most of our meals. It folds down way small too!
(Also handy when we rent the occasional AirBnB and aren’t feeling like having pureed squash all over us.)
6) For me, I honestly cannot live without regular doses of forest time. An incredibly helpful purchase was a hiking backpack for the baby. I love love love carrying the beastie in my soft carrier but as he gets heavier and heavier, my back is just not up to the job of lugging him up and down hiking trails strapped to my chest for many hours on end. There are big trees to see out here and damnit, I will see them! Good thing Grizz actually loves being in there. Maybe he’ll grow up to be a Mahout. (This thing lives in the back cargo rack of the van, not taking up precious interior space.)
7) Even without a doorframe, we still make regular use of a Jolly Jumper. Grizz loves hopping so much, we couldn’t fathom leaving home without this critical baby apparatus. Turns out that rachet straps + two big trees + a couple of foam mats = poof - world’s happiest cub. (Freeing up parental hands to do other things, like pee or eat or start a fire or wash dishes or anything of the other 8 billion things you do with free hands. For all you non-parents out there, start appreciating your arms and hands more.)
8) For heaven’s sake, don’t let him drive. Never ever let him drive, no matter how much he begs you.
9) Shark hats make babies laugh. At least our baby. And that is a very very very good thing to remember when he’s starting to wig about being strapped into his car seat for too long and it’s time for the Mom-clown show while Dad steps on the gas to get us to our next destination.
10) Traveling with a baby means that everyone everywhere will talk to you. Seriously everyone. Grizzly is a magnet for middle aged ladies, teenagers, elderly men, other kids - even the LAPD! We chat with everyone, all day long. If it isn’t the baby people want to talk about, it’s the van. So we get stuck in parking lots a whole lot, chatting chatting chatting. “He’s nine months old.” “It’s a 1991 with a Subaru engine.” These are the sentences we have said the most since leaving Vancouver three and a half months ago. Like I said, we don’t actually travel very far distances in a single day ;)
11) Keeping baby out of the direct sun is surprisingly difficult. Strollers are stupid and don’t have full sun cover. Exposed arms and legs flail out of a baby carrier. In sunny California we’re constantly bombarded with hot rays from that fiery orb in the sky. A few things I use: a white shawl to toss over Ivan when he’s in the carrier, sunscreen (even though applying it to his chubby arms and legs is probably my least favourite thing in the world), always a hat. We chase the shade. At the beach/lake/river/pool, he wears full UV rashguard, trunks and hat - even though he looks like a senior citizen in Florida with that ridiculous neck/ear flap combo. In the van, a spray bottle set to “mist” cools him down in the backseat on hot days. (No A/C in the van makes for some roasty days.)
12) Anything will work as a baby bath. We use a plastic tub, which now that he’s standing, he just pulls himself up in.
13) If at first your child does not like hammocks, try and try again because obviously this is unacceptable for a Vanagon baby! You will win them over, I promise you this.
14) Some days - you’ll know them when they happen - you just gotta let them get drunk and pass out. Just make sure you take the car keys first.
15) Obviously a baby cannot learn to crawl or stand or walk in a 2 foot space. We bought a couple of awesome roll out mats that have been indispensable for hanging out in parks, at the beach etc. Cannot recommend these enough! Fold up small and tuck away easy.
16) And finally, my last tip - for those days that the baby has napped like crap and he’s cutting a tooth and he’s pooed like 8 times and somehow weighs like 50 lbs today and he can’t stop pulling your hair and sliming you with his gross drool hands, there is this one critically important fact you should never ever forget: babies fit in Grandma’s suitcase.