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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau

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Adventure Travel

Dec 08, 2017

Living Small: A Road Trip Across America

The below story is written by Dakota Arkin Cafourek.

A published writer and editor who is dedicated to a love of travel, storytelling, and the arts. The Outdoor Journal, has published 3 of Dakota’s stories, and you can find links to each one at the bottom of this page.

A couple transform their compact SUV into a kitchen, dining, den, and bedroom-on-the-go for their epic journey from NYC to California—and back.

My possessions have seldom filled more than three rooms. I have been an urbanite for the better part of my adult life, and city living has made existing in small spaces familiar. We brush through empty pockets in crowded sidewalks to pass amblers, find our own stillness on a crowded subway and make eye contact with the bartender like there isn’t a room full of others doing the same. We live stacked atop and alongside the other inhabitants of our city and are suspicious of quiet. Our way of life is a doorstep to experiencing the excitement outside—an anonymous expedition through the city’s stage. I have oft considered my apartments a mere personal credenza in the likes of New York City, Paris and Berlin. And like the real estate adage, the smaller the apartment, the more grandiose the experience outside: location, location, location. It also meant: expensive.

And so, when my fiancé, Andrew, and I made the transition from a one-bedroom garden apartment in Cobble Hill to a car, the move was driven by the promise of grandiosity beyond our Brooklyn dwelling—one which would swell to the whole of the United States.

By Dakota Arkin Cafourek – Instagram @DakotaArkin

In a perfect storm of rising rents, West Coast wedding invitations and new career hopes, I quit my job. We packed our belongings into a 10’ x 10’ storage unit in Quogue and transformed our Buick Encore, a compact SUV, into our kitchen, dining, den, and bedroom-on-the-go. It would be the smallest quarters we’d ever had, but environs as dreamy as the Colorado Rockies, the canyons of Wyoming, the Pacific Coast Highway and beyond would become our front porch, our back deck, and long driveway.

In a few short days, our clothes, toiletries, camping mugs, first-aid kits, USB cords and HDMI cables filled my childhood bedroom in Amagansett, New York. From one village west of Montauk (“The End” of Long Island), Andrew and I prepared for everything we thought we might need to cross the country from the easternmost part of New York to the coast of California. I was energized in a whirlwind of imagination, and my native Minnesotan, outdoor aficionado fiancé guided our way. I recall the night before leaving, Andrew looked at our first-aid kit and then to me, “You know what to do if we’re hiking, I fall on a rock and start bleeding profusely, right?” “Nope, no idea;” I responded assuredly, confident in my inexperience. He sighed. The minutia of organization removed our minds from feared unknowns awaiting us in our big adventure.

By Dakota Arkin Cafourek – Instagram @DakotaArkin

In a small space, we knew that thoughtful organization would be paramount and so we reclaimed six stackable plastic drawers, leftover from my college dorm room and grabbed two taller, narrower sets of plastic drawers at a nearby store. Like the New York skyscrapers we were leaving behind, our belongings would be tall and stacked.

We each took three of the drawers, using them as our own clothing bins. I brought everything from water-resistant bike pants to a pair of stilettos. Andrew packed arguably less, but a tie made it in the mix for the three weddings we would be attending. We packed jogging gear, camping gear, a range of clothes fit for brunch in San Francisco, ATV riding in Montana and a spirit tasting in Nashville. “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat…” would be dodged. I dedicated one drawer to socks, undergarments, a scarf, hat, gloves and a bathing suit. One drawer carried my outdoorsy gear, from jeans to tees and tanks to running tights. My remaining drawer included dress pants, blouses, a fancy dress and a sun dress. Andrew, minus the dresses, added a bottle of whiskey to keep us warm over the campfire.

By Dakota Arkin Cafourek – Instagram @DakotaArkin

We removed the back seats of the car which added significantly more space and helped keep a level foundation for our packed items. Our clothing drawers would be accessible through the rear hatch of the car. This later drew strange looks from passersby as it was not infrequent we were parked on a sidewalk in Nashville or Portland, grabbing a new pair of socks or a change of clothes from the back dressers in our vehicle.

The two remaining stackable bins were our kitchenette, our toiletries drawer, even our junk drawer for maps and other tiny souvenirs we acquired along the way. In it, we also carried Andrew’s embossed National Park Passport, which we would stamp at the several visited on our journey—from the Great Smoky Mountains to Yellowstone National Park. We each kept a toiletries bag, shared a giant bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Almond Soap (which also came in handy for washing dishes) plus I had packed a makeup bag, blow dryer, comb, and brush. These bins were accessible from the driver’s side rear door or with a long backward stretch between the front seats of the vehicle. In the drawer most accessible from the passenger seat, we kept our on-the-go pantry—full of crackers, raw almonds, and occasionally gummies and licorice.

The rest of our kitchenette drawers contained camping plates, mugs and bowls, silverware, a chef’s knife, a mandolin—not for playing, but for julienned bell peppers—and a cutting board. On the road ahead, the actual places we would lay our head would range from campsites to AirBnB, hotels to guest bedrooms. Cooking would be a way to show gratitude to many of our hosts and ensure economic and healthy choices sans kitchen. Accessible from the passenger rear door was our Coleman Powerchill 40 Quart Thermoelectric Chiller. It charged in the standard plug built into the center console of the car and kept at a steady 40º F below the outside temperature while using less energy than a mini-refrigerator. In this way, we could pull over on the Blue Ridge Parkway, grab cheese and prosciutto out of our chiller, slice up a tomato and construct a sandwich for consuming at a serene, empty picnic table with a vista of North Carolina. We did not consume fast-food a single time on our travels through 29 states over six months.

Storage bags from the Ikea Skubb collection and a handful of vacuum bags made by Ziploc also proved imperative to our packing. Large bags were handy for storing vacuum-sealed winter wear that we would not need for several months of West Coast living. Small bags were great for shoes—from hiking boots to flip-flops, sneakers, stilettos, and ankle boots. Needless to say, I brought along more pairs of shoes than Andrew. An array of camping gear slipped into the car like real-life Tetris.

From campsites to weddings in wine country and the many cities and sites in-between, we were as prepared as we could be. Our own country had been such uncharted territory for me. Our car was now packed and ready or not, the journey was starting now. A not-to-scale New York state magnet was affixed to the rear of our car, with 47 others ready in waiting: Alaska and Hawaii were unlikely destinations this trip. A GoPro hitched to our front dashboard was set to record the drive at 60-second intervals (which we eventually improved to capture every 30 seconds) and on a sun-filled late August morning we faced the car toward Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett and hit Record. The sand looked especially white and the ocean, a most vibrant blue as the sun brightened and emboldened the beach. The adventure was underway. Living small would be our roadmap to living large.

By Dakota Arkin Cafourek – Instagram @DakotaArkin

Our tour of the U.S. would take us southward through Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Tennessee. We would then venture west into Arkansas, north through Missouri and up into South Dakota. Westbound, we’d cross the badlands into Wyoming, Montana and ultimately reach San Francisco. From Seattle to San Diego, Andrew and I covered the coast before our eastward return across The Loneliest Road in America through Nevada into Utah. 2,330 miles from Amagansett, we took an impromptu route through Colorado, visiting Aspen, Telluride, and Ouray before heading south on the Million Dollar Highway to Santa Fe. Eastbound once again, we high-tailed across Texas to Southwest Missouri for the holidays, followed by a frigid January visit to Columbus, Ohio and ultimately a rush to beat the most epic snowstorm of 2016 to reach New York City—where the city welcomed us back with a miracle parking space right outside the apartment, and then held us captive for two days of snowfall.

As much as we were prepared, there were still a number of unforeseen improvements we would make along the way. A week into our trip, we spent our first night in the outdoors at the Honeybear Campground in Boone, North Carolina. We set-up our tent, yoga mats, plaid wool blanket, and lanterns; we even brought a bistro style table and entry rug for more of a “glamping” feel. The temperatures dropped into the low 40s and our plan to sleep on sheets and use one sleeping bag as a duvet proved a total failure. The next day, we made a visit to R.E.I. and purchased an additional sleeping bag—there is a science to staying warm and we opted in. Our next camping edition was in Northeastern Arkansas where temperatures and humidity levels surpassed 90º F and 90 percent, and we were awake by dawn for the sheer joy of returning to air conditioning.

It was also during these camping experiments where we learned that while our car was expertly packed, it was not easily unpackable. We soon purchased a 20 cu. ft. X-Cargo topper from Sears and our new attic would hold our lanterns, tents, sleeping bags and all the rest of our camping equipment which made the entire set-up and takedown process easier by two-fold. As winter approached a few months later near Lake Tahoe, we also learned about California’s requirement for snow chains and a purchased a pair of these to have ready for our tires. In Aspen, a blizzard hit and I purchased a pair of ski pants and a ski jacket at a nearby thrift shop as I realized my original plan of layers was not going to cut it. It also suited me for an impromptu day on the slopes while Andrew found a company called Suit Yourself, where a guy named Lorenzo showed up in a parking lot with a van full of ski and snowboard gear of all kinds and sizes, and on the mountain we were.

For us, the practicalities of living and working on the road are dependent on Internet access. Monday thru Friday lose their meaning to daily work sessions squeezed into the morning, afternoon or night at a café, bar or rented apartment with our laptops. It just so happened that Andrew needed to meet a deadline at the time we were camping beneath Mount Rushmore and made multiple late-night drives in pouring rain to catch one bar of phone service to do so. For such times we were flexible to adjust course.  There was a 48-hour stop in Rapid City, SD where we barely left our hotel room diving into work, but when we lifted our heads up it was to look out onto the Badlands. For us, it was hardly a sacrifice, for we were grateful for the opportunity, even if some moments proved difficult or raised a feeling of homesickness. We tried to create a sense of stability even amidst constantly changing locations by limiting consecutive days on the road. This allowed us time to balance work and sightseeing. There would be weeks when we were completely motionless and committed to one city and other instances when we paused for just a night or two in a destination, propelling our way forward.

By Dakota Arkin Cafourek – Instagram @DakotaArkin

Before our first foray into the great West from Kansas City, we had seldom ever driven a distance longer than five or six hours but the sheer vastness of country beyond the Missouri River meant longer driving days and an audible “Woah!” from Andrew and I as we crossed epic canyons and valleys. The West is a place where the terrain is omnipresent and man is master of none, even dwarfing city skyscrapers as though it could swallow Manhattan in one large gulp.

The only fixed itinerary items were three weddings and the holidays. Otherwise, we determined our general destination drawing a line on our atlas, and would start to plot where exactly we would sleep and shower about two or three weeks ahead—I promise we had the opportunity to shower (almost) daily.

By Dakota Arkin Cafourek – Instagram @DakotaArkin

Writing this nearly a year since we set off, I can tell you we have not yet chosen a place to stay put. We’ve slowed down, spending more time with family on Long Island, in New York City, Columbus, Springfield, MO, and Minnesota, preparing for our nuptials in the fall. Our road trip across the country began with so many unknowns and now fills our minds with memories, stories, imagery, newfound friends, and experiences. It is familiar and a mark on who we are and who we will become. I learned if we can dream it, we can do it. We are still compelled to wander through cultures and landscapes, to chance upon the traditions left to us from an earlier time and the makings of this generation, and so we have not unpacked our bags. Indeed, one day in the not too distant future, we dream of seeing our furniture again, making a home for ourselves—one without wheels. Then, we will unpack.

*This is an excerpt from Jeanie and David Stiles’ book Building Small: Sustainable Designs for Tiny Houses and Backyard Buildings

Dakota Arkin Cafourek is a published writer and editor. Dedicated to a love of travel, storytelling, and the arts, she serves cultural institutions in New York City and East Hampton, NY.

The Outdoor Journal has published more of Dakota’s work, such as Idyll in the Highland Mountains and One Night on Earth.

You can find more of Dakota’s work on her website (iamdakota.me) or follow her adventures on Instagram @dakotaarkin.

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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