Traveling through a Land Frustrated by Fracking

My recent travels took me through Colorado, winding my way east from Utah along I-70 and then north from Denver with a stop off in Boulder before heading to Fort Collins and on to the Pawnee National Grassland. Colorado was always a favorite spot for family vacations growing up. In the winters, we would pack our skis and snowboards and head to Breckenridge for the holidays. This always felt special, because the closest thing to a white Christmas at home was building sand castles on Florida’s white sand beaches. The summers we didn’t spend at the beach, we would occasionally fly out to Colorado for a week of hiking, fly fishing, and breathing in the crisp morning air of Colorado summers – a far cry from the oppressively humid clime of our home state. It was in Colorado that my brother and I spent one of our college summers tackling 14ers, pushing our bodies beyond what we knew we were capable of. All that to say, Colorado holds a special place in my memories and in my heart.

Colorado has long been a favorite of mine, and this latest trip was no disappointment.

Colorado has long been a favorite of mine, and this latest trip was no disappointment.

Signing Away Your Health

On this trip through Colorado, I noticed something that hadn’t really caught my attention before: oil rigs dotting the beautiful landscape of northern Colorado. Perhaps my senses were heightened because of documentary I had recently watched called Gasland, in which filmmaker Josh Fox reveals the impact of natural gas drilling in communities throughout the United States. In the film, he visits with residents in one area of Colorado whose lives have been flipped upside down by agreeing to sell mineral rights on their property to oil and gas companies. Many residents see the dollar signs and hastily sign away their rights, while others happen to just live on land that’s adjacent to an area being drilled. Either way, thousands of people in Colorado and other parts of the U.S. have had to deal with the ramifications of oil and gas drilling, and in particular, a new method of drilling called fracking.

Fracking on the Niobrara Shale

Northern Colorado lies along a portion of the massive Niobrara shale play, a large oil and gas-rich region that also runs through Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. While the area has been drilled for years, it wasn’t until the past decade that companies adopted the practice of fracking. This newer process pumps waters and chemicals deep into the ground at a high pressure, fracturing the shale and releasing oil and gas. While considered revolutionary by the oil and gas companies because it allows drillers to reach previously unreachable pockets of trapped oil and gas, this method is the worst nightmare of environmentalists and most landowners.

What’s the Risk?

Why is fracking so bad? One of the main cases against fracking is the use of a proprietary blend of chemicals that is pumped into the ground, which poses a water contamination risk for humans and animals. No one is entirely sure what chemicals are involved, but communities where fracking takes place have experienced an increase in birth defects, cancer, and nervous system disorders, among other maladies. If you need convincing that the water is contaminated, just watch what happens when a resident who lives near a fracking site lights her tap water on fire. Additionally, fracking has been linked to increased seismic activity, putting millions at risk from man-made earthquakes. If that wasn’t enough, each well uses up millions of gallons of water.

Current Tone in Colorado

These facts are especially startling in light of the number of wells in Colorado that now use hydraulic fracturing. According the Bureau of Land Management, approximately 95% of new wells in Colorado are fractured. At the moment, a drop in worldwide gas prices has put a lot of Colorado drilling on pause, but it’s just a matter of time before operations resume and expand. Across the state, anti-fracking activists, also referred to as “fractivists”, have begun petitioning the state government to regulate fracking more heavily. They hoped to get two anti-fracking measures onto the November ballot, but were shy of the verified signatures needed to do so.

Many fractivists push for cleaner, renewable energy sources like the solar energy captured by this solar farm outside of Denver.

Many fractivists push for cleaner, renewable energy sources like the solar energy captured by this solar farm outside of Denver.

Striking a Balance

As someone who loves Colorado and its incredible people, I hope that organizations like Yes for Health and Safety Over Fracking will continue the fight for responsible and transparent drilling practices. I’d hate to see the Centennial State ruined by greedy oil money, but I also understand that the oil and gas industry provides lots of economic benefit through jobs and the purchase of mineral rights. In Colorado, and across the country, the oil and gas industry has a lot of cleaning up to do.

Practical Matters: Life in an Airstream

You don’t often hear of people downsizing from an apartment to an Airstream, but about a month ago that’s what I did. My small Airstream Sport is about 16 feet by 8 feet so at 128 square feet, my personal space was shrinking to almost a tenth of my apartment space in Austin. Traveling the States for a year in this tiny contraption meant leaving many of life’s luxuries behind.

Decluttering

I first scoured my apartment for items that I could get rid of by selling on Craigslist or donating to Goodwill. Made some good money selling a couple of old Macs on Craigslist and took all of my unwanted clothes, Abercrombie circa the 2000s, to Goodwill. Since I plan on having full-sized living quarters again when I return, I didn’t want to get rid of my furniture. I hired some hourly movers to haul the non-essentials to a storage unit in San Antonio. I’m not sure if I’m returning to Austin, so I figured I might as well store things near my brother.

Storage is at a premium in my tiny new home, so I left most of my stuff behind

Storage is at a premium in my tiny new home, so I left most of my stuff behind

What Made the Cut

On board the Airstream, space is extremely tight. There’s a small closet and limited storage compartments, but my Land Cruiser does offer additional storage. Here’s what I brought along with me:

  • Clothes: 2 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of shorts, 5 long sleeve shirts, 5 short-sleeve shirts, 1 Patagonia pull over, and 1 heavy jacket (though I’ll be close to Florida by winter so hopefully won’t need to use this). All of these clothes easily fit in the hanging closet
  • Activewear: It’s hard to hike and run in traditional clothing, so I brought a pair of hiking pants, running shorts, and a few breathable shirts
  • Shoes: One pair each of running shoes, hiking boots, boat shoes, and flip-flops
  • Dishes: 4 plates, 4 bowls, 4 glasses, 4 forks, 4 knives, 4 spoons. At any given time I can only seat 4 people comfortably for dinner, so I figured this was the most I’d need. Plus, not having more clean dishes available forces you to wash the dirty ones more often.
  • Kitchen items: I frequently make smoothies and protein shakes so a blender was a must. For my coffee addiction, I brought a compact coffee grinder and I’m improvising with my collapsible coffee pour over device that I usually take camping. I brought one kettle, one large pot, one deep pan, one large knife, one paring knife, a thin plastic cutting board, one mixing bowl, and a few kitchen utensils.
  • Linens: Two towels, two washcloths, and one set of bed sheets. I keep a laundry basket in the back of my car and do laundry as infrequently as possible.
  • Recreational things: I plan on doing a lot of backpacking and fishing this year, so I did bring along a bin with all of my backpacking and camping gear, as well as my fly rods. This easily fits in the back of the car.

This experience has already taught me how little we really need to get by. I can see why the Tiny Home trend has gotten so much attention recently. Living without the extra clutter and noise of stuff feels extremely liberating.

Other Logistics

Things you don't need in your Airstream: piles of old, ugly clothes

Things you don’t need in your Airstream: piles of old, ugly clothes

  • Internet: I had an old iPhone with a removable SIM card, so I went to TMobile and purchased their mobile hotspot plan. Now I have internet wherever I can get cell reception. Most RV parks do offer free wifi, but the hotspot comes in handy when wifi isn’t available, and since I need to be connected to do my work, it’s essential.
  • TV: The Airstream came with a space for a small mounted TV near the foot of the bed, but most of the time I just end up watching Netflix or Hulu on my laptop. Now that I’m done binge watching Breaking Bad, I spend more time working and reading than watching TV.
  • Books: I kept my Austin Public Library card, and can check out eBooks through the Kindle app on my phone for free. I honestly don’t know why people still buy books.
  • Laundry: I keep a laundry basket in the back of the Land Cruiser for dirty clothes, so they aren’t cluttering the trailer. I can usually stretch clothes two weeks before needing to spend an afternoon at the laundromat. Having fewer clothes means I waste less time deciding what to wear and doing laundry. I also don’t see people as often so the definition of “clean” has changed a bit.
  • Showering: The bathroom is a little tight so I try to only use the shower when absolutely necessary. Most campgrounds have showers available that make life much easier.
  • Septic: Yep, you do have to dispose of your waste at some point. Since my tank’s not full yet, I haven’t tried this. I’m sure I will have a whole blog on this when it happens.

Selecting an RV: How I Chose Airstream

Life Before Airstream

Before purchasing my Airstream, I lived in a 2-bedroom apartment in a downtown Austin apartment with a roommate. Rent was steep, over $1300 a month just for my portion of the rent plus utilities. I didn’t really want to sink money to a house in Austin, because I knew I wanted an adventure, but also knew I wanted to stop paying exorbitant amounts on rent.

My favorite Austin foodtruck may have been my original inspiration for buying an Airstream. This silver bullet serves up some fatteningly delicious doughnuts.

My favorite Austin foodtruck may have been my original inspiration for buying an Airstream. This silver bullet serves up some fatteningly delicious doughnuts.

After looking into various travel options, I arrived upon touring the country in an Airstream. It was affordable, offered wonderful opportunities to live an outdoorsy lifestyle, and enabled me to still have the comforts of home. Plus Airstreams are having a moment right now thanks to hipster food trucks that have made them popular with millennials. So, I started my quest to find the perfect Airstream.

Shopping for an Airstream

Spacious enough for me, but not sure how this would sleep 4 like the manufacturer suggests

Spacious enough for me, but not sure how this would sleep 4 like the manufacturer suggests

I started researching Airstream models online and discovered that Airstream makes both towables and motorized vehicles. While the motorized fleet is nice, the idea of basically living in a bus for the next 12 months sounded cramped. I also liked the idea of having my own bathroom and kitchen facilities on board. I drive an old Toyota Land Cruiser, which has towing capacity for a small RV, so I started looking into the towable options, which had everything I was looking for. I knew that aside from my brother or an occasional friend meeting up with me, I’d be on the road alone, so I didn’t need a huge trailer.

After doing my initial research online, I found an RV dealer in Fort Worth that specializes in Airstreams and drove up to check out a brand new Airstream Sport 16 they had just gotten in. The Vogt RV Airstream lot was filled with a large variety of Airstream towables, with everything from the Bambi Sport 16 to the massive Airstream Land Yacht. Tempting and pretentious as owning a “yacht” sounded, I stuck to my original plan to shop the more economical Sport 16.

The Layout

When you walk into the Sport 16, there’s a generous-sized dinette to the right that measures about 7.5′ by 3.5′. I needed ample table space since the trailer would also serve as my office space for the next 12 months, and I like to spread out with dual monitors. There’s a small range, microwave, and mini fridge in the pint sized galley, plenty big enough for 1. The bed is surprisingly spacious, measuring 4′ by 6.5′ with an LED TV mounted on the far wall. Rounding out the space is a cramped but workable bathroom with working toilet and even a shower.

After working on the price a bit, the friendly sales guy closed the deal and that day I towed my brand new Airstream back to Austin to start packing.

Bro Time: Hiking & Exploring Big Bend

I was lucky enough to have a big brother who wanted to tag along for the first couple weeks of my trip. After we finished moving my stuff into storage close to his home in San Antonio, we hit the road towing my Land Cruiser – first stop Big Bend.

The Drive to Big Bend

Leaving San Antonio at 6 a.m., we headed northwest on I-10 through Boerne and Kerrville, before I-10 shoots due west around Junction. By 10:30, we reached Fort Stockton and pulled off to refuel both car and bellies. Some quick Yelp research revealed Mi Casita as a local Tex-Mex favorite, and this close to the border we couldn’t resist. Murals depicting lush landscapes, florescent lights buzzing overhead, and spices wafting from the kitchen made this exactly the authentic Tex-Mex stop we were looking for, and we weren’t disappointed. This was our last chance to indulge ourselves before a week’s worth of camping food so we gorged. An enchilada plate, quesadillas, and a smothered burrito later, we were happy and back on the road.

When you get to Fort Stockton, you feel like you are just about to the park, but then you are still another hour and a half from the park entrance. This drive is down two-lane roads passing through expansive ranch land. As you continue, the mountains start looming larger and larger. We finally got to the park entrance at 2 p.m. and had to drive even further in to reach the main visitors station.

After a long day of driving to get there, the mountains welcomed us to Big Bend

After a long day of driving to get there, the mountains welcomed us to Big Bend

Airstream Camping

We spent the first two nights camped in the Airstream at the Chisos Basin Campground. There were no hookups available, so we didn’t get to test out the new bathroom facilities, but the campground did have toilets and running water. The first night, we grilled out and grabbed beer from the little tourist shop up the hill by the lodge. Always up for whatever is local, we found “The Beer from Out Here”, a beer from nearby Big Bend Brewing Company in Alpine, TX.

Our first full day in the park, we went and cached water for our backpacking journey the next day on the Outer Mountain Loop, dropping water at Juniper Canyon Road and Blue Creek Ranch. The park has a very unreliable water supply, especially during the warmer months, so it is advised that you either carry all of your water in, or cach it along your route. For the 3-day hike we were planning, carrying enough water with the rugged and steep terrain was nearly impossible, which is why we opted to store, as many hikers do, water along the way. That evening, we prepped our backpacks, drank more beers, and hit the sack early in anticipation of our early departure.

Hiking the Outer Mountain Loop

We had a lunch with spectacular views from the top of Emory Peak

We had a lunch with spectacular views from the top of Emory Peak

This hike is a strenuous 30-mile hike, and as the name suggests, loops in a circuit around the Chisos Mountains. We had obtained back country permits for 3 nights, but really wanted to cover it in just 2 nights.

  • Day 1: We set off from the Basin hiking up the Pinnacles trail. Even with water cached, we still had to carry pretty heavy packs, and this first section was a doozy. In the first 3.5 miles, we ascended 1600 feet and had sweeping views of the the Basin below. Stashing our packs in the bear proof boxes, we slackpacked our way to the top of Emory Peak, the park’s highest peak and had a brief lunch of jerky, nuts, and lots of gatorade. The second half of the day, we hiked at a leisurely pace, descending 3000 feet over 6 plus miles into the desert below. We had cached water at both recommended locations, so we went and fetched our first supply at Juniper Canyon Road. With a backcountry permit, you can pick your campsite as long as it’s far enough off of the trail. The first night, we laid our packs out without a tent and saw the most spectacular stars I’ve ever seen in my life.
  • Day 2: We woke up day 2, and brewed some coffee with our portable pour over (totally worth the extra weight). After a breakfast of granola with evaporated milk and dried fruit, we strapped the packs on and headed out on our ten-mile hike. By 11 a.m., we were pouring sweat – it was really hot and the trail was really rocky and exposed, with lots of elevation changes. We stopped to examine the ruins of Dodson Ranch and snacked on GORP while we took a breather. We made it to Homer Wilson Ranch and excitedly retrieved our 2nd stash of water for the cache bin. Some generous soul had left behind 2 beers labeled “free”, so we were treated to happy hour by an unknown but very loved friend as the sun started setting. A few rounds of cards, and some macaroni and cheese later, we settled into a deep sleep by 8:30, wiped out from the day.
  • Day 3: The final day of our epic hike, we started with an arduous 2500 foot ascent. Panting our way up the 5.5 mile trail into the woodlands, we stopped frequently to hydrate and chow down on serious quantities of salty snacks. But the hike was worth it. From the switchbacks we saw increasingly stunning views and finally arrived on flat trails carving through the Laguna Meadow. The final three miles took us down into the Chisos Basin, where we could see our gleaming Airstream waiting for us at it’s parking spot near the Chisos Mountain Lodge. Completely drained but content and feeling accomplished, we guzzled beers and chowed down steaks at the lodge.

Big Bend was an epic start to my epic journey across the country.

The Journey Begins – One Year in My Airstream

I am embarking today on the adventure of a lifetime – a one year road trip around the country in my newly acquired Airstream. This trip has been a longtime coming, but everything just recently fell into place for me to finally do it.

Originally from Florida, I majored in computer science and landed a job doing web development for a major corporation right out of college. I started helping friends with their websites on the side, and soon built up a big enough referral base to quit my day job and do my own thing. My business, ScreenGrab, specializes in helping small businesses with their web design. Working for myself means I can live anywhere, so a few years ago, I left Miami to be closer to my brother in San Antonio and get in on the Austin tech scene. I love everything about Austin – the breakfast tacos, the workout culture, the tech nerds, the incredible music. Working for myself has enabled me to make the most of this vibrant and eclectic city. I’m that guy paddleboarding on Town Lake during the middle of the afternoon when everyone else is inside tethered to a cubicle, because I have the luxury of setting my own hours. Life is pretty awesome.

As much as I love Austin, I’ve been itching to travel. With my job, all I need is an internet connection, so I can literally go almost anywhere in the world. But rather than jet-setting, I’ve opted to go the cheap route and travel the country in an Airstream. There is so much of this country that I haven’t seen, and traveling in an RV makes it affordable and convenient. So I found the perfect 1-person Airstream, packed up my stuff and put it in storage, and today I’m hitting the open road to explore the country. Glad you’re along for the ride!