Upstate New York: Travel Journal
My dad and I co-own a vintage Volkswagen camper (a bay window Westfalia, 77 for those of you who are into vintage vehicles). Last summer her engine blew, so we missed out on camping the whole summer. She got repaired, and we decided to kick off this summer with a week-long trip through Upstate New York: from Watkins Glen to the Catskills and (the real) Woodstock for the 50th anniversary.
We don’t like planning much. We’re the “let’s wing it and see what happens” type of people, keeping ourselves open to whatever opportunities roll along while we’re on the road. So on Saturday, we set off with the humming new engine, some of our old maps of New York State, and no plans at all.
I’ve got to say: State Parks are wonderful. $20 a night, flush toilets, plenty of camping sites in the forest, and dead quiet during the work-week. If you’re ever looking for an affordable vacation, State Parks are the way to go.
Travelling in a bus
I’ll start by saying that it is as dreamy as you imagine it to be. Travelling in a VW bus is tons of fun. Time slows down, you can feel the blood in your veins become lighter while you cruise down two-lanes. The morning sunlight glows through the pop-up canvas and bathes the little cab with a warm yellow glow.
So what’s not as glamorous? Well, VWs have their quirks. Driving on the freeway involves a wrestling match with the steering wheel to keep the vehicle in your lane while the crosswinds and tractor-trailer rigs blow you off the road. Something will go mechanically wrong—on this trip, we started dripping gear oil all over every parking lot, she started idling low because the valves needed calibrated, and two days in, the ignition switch died which meant we were pushing her and bump-starting down a hill every time we had to get moving again.
Keeping it clean & comfy
If you’re a neat freak, you might find it easy to make a bus your home. As long as everything has a designated place, you’ll find it easy to stay clean. It gets messy fast, but if you know exactly where everything belongs, putting it back will start to become second-nature. You can’t get around the dirt, on the floor, though. Best advice is to keep a little hand-broom and dustpan, or a rug that you can beat out every day or so.
Making it feel like home
The joy of having a bus is in the little MacGyvering operations you can do to make it your own. We have a vintage lamp bolted to the counter for nighttime reading. A hook in the roof to hold a rechargeable Coleman lantern. A flashlight wound around the pole holding the pop-up, so I can read in the top bunk. A makeup mirror zip-tied to the pop-up. A wooden console between the driver and passenger seat, with cupholders and a big cavity for a 5 gallon water tank that’s rigged up with a motor to the little sink for running water.
Whether you have a vintage VW or a newer van, these personalizations are what really make it feel like home. So if it’s your dream, find a cheap van that runs well, and go bonkers on it!
Day 1: Watkins Glen KOA
First stop, and most expensive. KOAs are great for young families, but if you’re looking for more of a wilderness experience that’s affordable, skip the family resort and go straight to a State Park. It was surprisingly lovely to eat facing a pond and green glade, and we did fall asleep to a chorus of bullfrogs, but after this one, we stuck to the parks.
Day 2: Ithaca Farmer’s Market
On the way down from Ontario, I had grabbed a tourist booklet from a rest stop. Some of you on Instagram had recommended I visit Ithaca, so I read on about it. Waterfalls, farmer’s market, great parks—seemed like a little gem. The farmer’s market is THE place to go if you’re into organic foods, crafts, music or locally made goods. With café lights and covered for rain or shine, this market is a dream.
We needed to stock up on some food for the trip, so I directed Papa Brown to the market. When on-the-go camping, I love shopping local. You’re supporting the town, and eating better. We picked up a carton of local eggs (which didn’t need to be refrigerated, bonus!), a bunch of radishes, and a handful of organic heirloom carrots.
Day 3: Robert H. Treman State Park
Reading up on the best waterfalls, we poked our heads in to Robert H. Treman State Park just south of Ithaca. It has a swimming hole at the base of a beautiful waterfall (open on weekends only), and after a hot day we were keen to check it out! Inside the office we saw an 8-mile long hiking trail around the ridge of the gorge, with more waterfalls. This was worth a 2-night stay, definitely.
Going from a Sunday to Monday was a great choice—we took advantage of the swimming hole, and enjoyed a hike without being clogged with other tourists to the spectacular Lucifer Falls. On the way back from the hike, while we were getting soaked with a downpour of rain, I spotted 51 Red-Spotted Newts on the pathway!
Day 4: Binghamton: Robot City Arcade
That night, I decided I should do a bit of research on where to go next. At the picnic table in the dark, I pored over the NY map and circled towns that had great vintage shops or other cool things. The coolest one I found: a giant old-school arcade in Binghamton. That alone was worth the data overages I incurred in my research.
The arcade is tucked in behind a video game store. It’s dim and neon and quiet and everyone minds their own business, which made it the best arcade I could imagine. And pinball. Endless classic pinball. We spent $20 on tokens and a couple of hours discovering the oldest pinball machine, and me getting addicted to Centipede, before moving on to the antique stores just down the road.
Day 5: Woodland Valley State Campground
Papa Brown had wanted to visit Bethel, the original Woodstock festival location, so we drove on out to see the spot where the stage stood. There was an undeniable energy in the air. It was off the beaten path, so after some quick searching, I found a cool-looking campground in the Catskills at the end of a tiny road and we set off again.
We arrived without much gas (and no cell service) a few hours later, at the end of a mountain road. And this is where things got interesting. The bus wouldn’t start. We turned the keys, nothing. Not so much as a click. Luckily, we were on a slope. I got behind the bus and started pushing, and Papa Brown popped the clutch. The engine roared to life. We looked at each other, and without any words, we knew that we’d likely have to bump-start the bus the rest of the trip.
The bright side? Our site right on the river was gorgeous, and the perfect spot for reading.
The next few destinations were Woodstock (the actual town), and Kingston. Finding a slope to push the bus off from every time, we somehow managed to hike our way back through the Catskills and enjoyed our first purchased meal at a cool coffee & antique shop called Outdated, in Kingston. They made a mean avocado basil sandwich.
The day in Kingston was hot and beautifully slow, ambling through the covered shop streets. It felt like New Orleans. Had our bus been top-notch, we would have gone hunting for more antiques, but unsure of if we’d find some good slopes to push off of, we headed down to another state park to stop off at before heading back home.
The whole trip was chill and easygoing, and amazingly simple. Living for a week with a Coleman stove and two dishes and a book was just what I needed to refocus, restore my attention span, and connect with my imagination again.
There were a few things I noted down to visit the next time I travelled to New York State. Foxfire Mountain House is a place I’ve always wanted to stay at, and I’d love to do a working farm stay where I board with farmers and help with the chores. This kind of work helps my mind re-set. And the rolling view of the land to the Finger Lakes is as peaceful as you can imagine. So let’s just say that the trip was a bucket of fun and unpredictability. And somehow, we managed to push the bus all the way home.