On the Road with a Jucy Camper + Kids

“Papa, there’s your favorite van!” our three-year-old daughter squeals as late 70’s model Volkswagen Westy sputters past us down the street. For years we’ve admired from afar the Westfalia and the care-free, adventurous lifestyle that it symbolizes. But being a family with two young girls and not an iota of mechanic skills among us, a van that’s infamous for breaking down just didn’t make it a practical choice for family road trips. And so we continued to watch, admire and lust from afar. Hoping that one day, I’d take an auto mechanic class at the local community college, or happen upon enough money so that we could buy a Westy and outfit it with a brand-new Subaru engine.

And then, Zozi happened.

“Dona, you gotta see this,” Vibhu said, his eyes glued to his computer screen. All I noticed was the neon purple and green, and the words in bold ‘West Coast Roadtrip’. My eyes scanned the screen.

‘Hit the open road….pack the surfboards…fully-equipped camper van rental.’

3 minutes later, we had just invested $319 towards a dream of family wanderlust in a camper. I still didn’t really get what we had purchased, or why I had never heard of this company, Jucy. But my mind raced with ideas, plans, and memories that were just itching to be made.

Fast-forward 3 weeks, and I’ve got the keys to our Jucy camper–a neon purple and green Dodge Caravan that’s been outfitted for the next generation of adventure seeking travellers. The Aussie I meet in the San Francisco Jucy Rental Office has just returned from 32 days on the road and the energy bursting from him is intoxicating. “It’s cold in Yosemite, make sure you bring extra blankets. You’re going to Death Valley? Make sure that the Tioga Pass is open before you leave. Here are some ciders we never finished, stash them in your fridge for later.  Geezus, have a great time. Oh my god, that was fun.” His energy was effervescent. I couldn’t wait to get on the road.

We had a vague idea of what we wanted to see–Yosemite, Death Valley, and the Hot Springs off of Hwy 395 in the Eastern Sierras. But with only 5 days, that’s a whole hell of a lot of ground to cover, especially when you’ve got a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old along for the ride. It was November 2 and day-light savings time had just ended, so we only had a few hours of sunlight left and a lot of miles to cover if we wanted to get out of the city before nightfall. With little more direction than a map on our iPhone, we gunned it east towards Yosemite.

Knowing that camping reservations in Yosemite National Park have to be made months in advance, we didn’t even bother trying to secure a place for the night within the park boundaries. But the US Forest Service operates loads of free campgrounds in the National Forests all across the US, so we found a no-frills campsite somewhere along Hwy 120 just outside of the tiny town of Groveland in the Stanislaus National Forest. The forecast called for below-freezing temperatures overnight, so it was no surprise that we were the only campers. Chasing the setting set, we parked, and raced to get our beds set-up, dinner cooked, and the girls dressed in layer upon layer before we were enveloped by utter darkness.

We didn’t exactly plan well for this trip. Vibhu had been off working in San Francisco the week before, and I’d been jetting around Northern California with the girls visiting family and friends. The day before we were meant to pick up the Jucy camper, I gathered a few essentials, but was preoccupied by the notion of getting too cold, so packed a month’s worth of warm clothes for the girls and stacks of extra bedding.  Did I remember a lantern? Or how about firewood? What about dish soap? Hey a map even?

That first night, we felt a little out of sorts as we realized all of the little things that I had forgotten to pack. So with no campfire to settle down around for a few hours before bed, all four of us huddled inside the van laughing at the stupidity of forgetting fire wood.

Lesson #1: Camping sucks if you’re cold. Bring extra blankets if you’re going to be venturing into the high country between October and May. 

We were warned by fellow JUCY’ers that the Penthouse (the sweet pop-up on top of the van) doesn’t have much insulation against the cold, so with sub-zero temperatures projected, Vibhu slept by himself up in the Penthouse while the girls and I slept in the van. Lucky for us, we had borrowed a few Danish-imported duvets from a friend so we had a one-up on the cold and all managed to stay toasty throughout the night. JUCY provides light-weight sleeping bags and an extra blanket, but they’re not nearly enough during the colder months.

Lesson #2: In many parts of the backcountry, there is no cell coverage, so you’d better damn well have a map. You know, one of those old-fashioned paper ones. 

A few days before this trip, we had purchased our first smart phone.  A shiny new iPhone  that within minutes had us snapping selfies and downloading all of the oh-my-god-I-can’t-live-without-this apps that I had only ever heard about during playground chatter. I felt myself falling into the vortex of Instagram, Shazam, Flipboard, and WhatsApp. Navigating around San Francisco just before we picked up the van, I had become smitten with the navigation abilities on the Map function on the iPhone. I’ve always loved maps and pride myself on my ability to navigate really well with one, and until last week scoffed at the use of a navigation system. But while driving a stick-shift in San Francisco with two kids and a husband whose ability to read a map is about as good as my ability to order off of a menu written in Hindi, that lovely lady directing me where to go was my saviour. And setting off for Yosemite, I just plain forgot that my new navigating BFF can’t do her magic without cell reception. Duh. Any gas station will have local and regional maps for sale. Please buy one.

Lesson #3: When a loaf of bread and peanut butter starts to get a bit bland, having a full kitchen is pretty sweet. 

Or, if you’re like a growing number of people with special dietary needs, this really is a game changer. My husband follows a Paleo-inspired diet to help manage an autoimmune condition, which when you’re travelling can, lets be totally honest, suck. When your typical restaurant choices typically amount to nothing more than bun-less burgers or a piece of meat with a side salad, having the ability to avoid those roadside digs all together was awesome. Before setting off, we made a trip to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to stock up on triple-washed winter greens, pre-cooked sausages, fresh fruit, nut butters, Lara Bars, and tons of jerky. This gave us the freedom to leave the fast-food, big truck laden interstates for the much more interesting and often desolate old highways of the west. We were able to cook up a hearty meal on the side of a remote highway while our 3-year-old roamed among the cactuses and our 3-month-old gazed at the sky under the shade of a Joshua Tree. Plus there was not one minute of whining in a restaurant, priceless.

Lesson #4: The backseat in a JUCY camper is really really far back there, and when you’ve got kids to entertain, it’d help if you had a robotic arm and contortionist abilities. 

In order to make room for the bed and extra storage space, JUCY campers only have seating for 5. They’ve taken out the middle row of seats which is awesome for leg room, or if you need a little breathing room from your travelling companions. But with kids, its less than ideal. Lucky for me, my 3-year-old was quite adept at catching flying objects that I flung at her from the front passenger seat. Containers of snacks, books, even an iPad were all hurled her way to help keep her entertained on those days when well, we just had to drive. We tried hard to arrange our days so that the bulk of the driving was done during nap times, but when you’re covering 1000 miles in 5 days, there was still quite a bit of awake time in the van. Next time we rent a JUCY, we’ll be investing in one of these.

Lesson #5: The JUCY camper and the company behind it, is awesome! 

From the customer service reps that I initially spoke with to make reservations to Sophia and her crew at the San Francisco office who got us geared up and off on our adventure, everyone was an absolute pleasure to talk to and seemed to really love their jobs. Nothing speaks more highly of the quality of a company than the happiness of its employees, and JUCY obviously treats their employees well which makes me love them even more. And we’re not the only ones who love them either. Check out what others are saying about JUCY here.

After our first stint in a camper, Vibhu and I are ready to outfit our Prius with a Penthouse so that we can hit the open road and continue living the dream…but until then, we’ll rent a JUCY.

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