Meet the Roamer Who Spent 2 Years Criss-Crossing America in an RV

And fell in love with America's national parks along the way.

Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac, Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac, Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac, Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

A recent transplant to Oklahoma City after two-plus years of RV living and 13 years in Chicago, Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a particular passion for national parks. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Together with his husband and travel partner, Brad, Matt has visited upwards of 30 national parks, and countless national monuments and preserves. He is the author of The Hunt Guides Chicago and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago, and his bylines can be found in Travel + Leisure, Eater, Culture Trip, and others. 

Kirouac sat down with Thrillist to talk national parks, LGBTQ+ travel, and the pros & cons of life on the road.Thrillist: Matt, thank you so much for talking with us. It’s kind of mindblowing that, after more than a decade in Chicago, you left it all behind to live in an RV. Walk us through that decision… was RV life always a dream of yours?
Kirouac: I absolutely loved my time in Chicago-especially the years spent at our loft in the Ukrainian Village. The RV thing had long been a fantasy of mine, and for my husband, Brad, but I’d never actually considered buying one and doing it full-time.

Early 2018 was a super busy time for us. I was traveling solo for writing jobs, and Brad was often on the road for work. We missed each other and needed to come up with a solution. It all happened rather quickly-one day we’re floating the idea and fantasizing about buying an RV, and the next day we’re at a dealership, driving one off the lot! 

It was about really LIVING our lives together, more fully and regularly. And it was about immersing ourselves in as many experiences as possible. I didn’t want to sit stagnant in one place for too long, or only return to places I know and love. I wanted to explore and see parts of America that most people never do.And it was all rainbows and sunshine for the next two years, right?
Kirouac: When we first moved in, I basically had an emotional meltdown. It was a drastic change going from a big city to a 26-foot RV with a tiny stove and shower the size of a dumbwaiter. I had to become comfortable with a lot less, going long stretches of time without seeing family and friends. 

The opportunity to uproot and travel full-time is a dream for so many, that not many people are able to do. So I spent two years pinching myself and reminding myself of that. And at the risk of tooting my own horn, I discovered I am capable of so much more than I ever thought possible. More than anything else, I loved being able to experience so much with my husband and our dog. We did more in two years than most couples do in a lifetime, experiencing the highest highs and lowest lows, coming out of every experience stronger and more loving; more appreciative of the little things, and more appreciative of each other.

Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac

Tiny houses and #vanlife seem well and good on HGTV and Instagram, but it sounds like you faced immense challenges. What should people know before they join the RV bandwagon?
Kirouac: There are just so many things out of your control. Like limited parking, extreme weather, and shoddy Wi-Fi. Gas is dizzyingly expensive. And things tend to go wrong at random, like when our front door suddenly wouldn’t close properly. Or when the propane runs out and you can’t cook. Having to find laundromats and get quarters was a never-ending headache. All that being said, it wound up feeling really good and cleansing to pare things down and get rid of items. Living has been so much simpler and fresher. RV sales and rentals went through the roof last summer. Still, there’s a lot of stereotypes about the RV community. Who’s actually out there driving these things?
Kirouac: There’s definitely a prevailing stereotype that it’s a lifestyle cornered by retirees and snowbirds in Florida. And that’s legit, but the RV community is FAR more widespread than I ever would’ve thought. There are families with kids of all ages, single travelers, young couples, folks with pets, LGBTQ+ travelers-all staying connected through online communities. We formed enduring bonds with so many wonderful people on social media. It’s the best part of Instagram! We’d post our itinerary-saying we’ll be in this particular city or national park-and our friends and followers would help us plan hikes or meals.You mentioned crappy Wi-Fi. Working remotely from the road seems easier said than done. How tenable is a campsite Zoom call, really? 
Kirouac: Before we left, I had this naive assumption that I could just stretch out on the couch and work while Brad was driving. Nope. We purchased a MiFi device to boost our service, but even that was shoddy at best, especially around national parks. It takes a lot of advance planning to figure out how and where you’ll be able to work.

Same with Zoom. In Tucson, the intense Arizona heat made it difficult to do anything. When the temp exceeds 100 [degrees], the AC can’t really handle it, so [the RV] basically becomes a 26-foot oven and devices just stop working, or get SUPER slow. It got to the point where any time I needed to use the phone, it’d have to be early in the morning or after sunset. 

If you’re going to be constantly moving from one place to another and boondocking along the way (aka parking without plugging in someplace), it’s hard to maintain a steady work routine. But if you’re comfortable with longer stints in RV parks or campgrounds, Wi-Fi will be much easier to come by.

Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac

For people of color and the LGBTQ+ community, cross-country travel comes with a whole different set of fears and headaches. What was your experience traveling as a gay couple?
Kirouac: I will happily say that the vast majority of places we’ve been and people we’ve met have been absolutely lovely, gracious, and welcoming. I was able to make meaningful, sincere connections with so many towns-Albuquerque, Orlando, and Rapid City all come to mind. Unfortunately, all it takes is a few scarring experiences to taint a city or state.

A low moment for me was when a group of teenagers in Cheyenne, Wyoming, shouted some aggressive homophobic language as I walked by. It made me want to crawl back into our RV and never leave. But that same afternoon, at a coffee shop I’ve come to love, the barista gave me a free coffee for no discernible reason. It was pure kindness and warmth when I needed it most, and proved to me that one hateful comment does not speak for an entire community. 

My best advice is, try your hardest to see the good in people. Try your hardest not to stifle yourself or hide who you are. Be you, but be mindful at the same time, and don’t put yourself in situations that could cause fear… or worse.Visiting national parks became the central focus of your travels. Tell us how the Hello Ranger community got started.
Kirouac: When we set out, it wasn’t our goal to visit as many national parks as possible, and we certainly had zero plans to start a podcast about it. But it became clear that these inspiring places needed to be a priority for us. They provided such enriching, soulful experiences as we criss-crossed the country. 

That said, we were both too distracted by the extreme beauty of these places to realize the jarring lack of diversity within them. National parks are primarily visited by white people. But the National Park Service slogan is “Find Your Park,” indicative of the fact that our national parks belong to all of us. No matter your age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, abilities, or level of experience, national parks should not feel intimidating or out-of-reach to anyone.

After doing two seasons of Parklandia-a more straightforward podcast with iHeartRadio that documented our own experiences in the parks-we wanted to create something that delved deeper and highlighted diverse communities. Hello Ranger put the spotlight on other folks experiencing the parks in their own ways… in their own words. Because our shared lands are for all of us, not just the physically fit thru-hiker or the straight white couple.

Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac
Photo courtesy of Matt Kirouac

What are your all-time favorite national parks?
Kirouac: It changes regularly, but a strong short list of parks that I love and recommend would be Badlands in South Dakota, Big Bend in West Texas, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Everglades in Florida, and Yellowstone in Wyoming. 

Among these, Badlands holds a spot near and dear to my heart. It’s mesmerizingly unique and beautiful with a Mars-like landscape. My favorite thing to do there is wake up super early and catch sunrise by the parking area for the Window Trail and Notch Trail. And then, when things are sufficiently sunny, hike the Notch Trail. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed… well, pretty much everything. How did it affect day-to-day life on the road? Where are you now?
Kirouac: We were in Houston, with plans to start this grand cross-country loop through California and the Pacific Northwest, when the pandemic hit. We decided to slow way down and spend longer stints in RV parks to minimize our travel footprint and remain as isolated as possible. We spent two months in Tucson, two months in Santa Fe, then moved to Oklahoma City, where we’ve been ever since. 

We never expected to settle as soon as we did, but it felt like the right thing to do-for safety reasons, and for a sense of comfort and stability after two years on the road. We talked about Asheville, Albuquerque, Richmond. But we’d spent considerable time in Oklahoma City-it’s geographic location makes it a convenient stopover for road trips-and had come to love it for its restaurants, neighborhoods, and affordability. People here are kind and supportive, and deeply proud of their city. There’s a palpable sense of ingenuity and creative energy here. Also, great chicken-fried steak and onion burgers. 

All the stars aligned. The time felt right. You know it when you feel it.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Next Flight Out for more travel coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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