Calhoun High School graduate Ashleigh Nicole Gottschalt, 28, spent her spring break in an unusual way. She decided to travel the country while living in the back of a pickup truck with her dog, Misty.
Gottschalt, who teaches in Palacios, made the cross-country trek while her school was on vacation. During the week-long trip, the Port Lavaca resident spent only two nights in a hotel. The other nights were spent in makeshift camper built in the bed of her truck. The camper, she said took only about three days to construct.
“The camper was actually made back in December, so I didn’t have to do much prepping other than having my friend Diana help me make it look cute,” said Gottschalt. “That was tough because we have two totally different tastes when it comes to style. Decorating the camper on the inside for a homey feel was interesting, but I think it came out great. I liked it for sure.”
Though small, the camperhoused a cot, food, snowboard, cooking gear, water containers, books and a ukulele.
“I did a similar trip for winter break, and I was able to snowboard in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico,” she said. “So that was five mountains in five different states.”
Along for the journey was Misty, a mixed breed with a splash of Pit Bull, Gottschalt said.
“She’s a Heinz 57 that I got when she was about nine months old. Her original humans were unable to have a dog at their apartment complex and couldn’t find anyone to take her and they were turning to their last resort and was going to take her to the animal shelter,” she said. “I remembered that most pit bulls end up getting put down, or maybe I read too many Facebook posts about it. Long story short, I ended up with her and she’s a sweet girl. She was absolutely stressed the whole trip, which made it a bit stressful for me, and she definitely had some ups and downs during the trip.”
During her spring break excursion, Gottschalt traveled about 2,800 miles, many of which were tumultuous. For instance, she had planned to make it up to Wyoming and ski at the Snowy Range Ski area, near the Wyoming-Colorado border. She wanted to add Wyoming to the list of states in which she has skied. That leg of the trip, however, was stopped before it began due to a severe winter storm in Colorado.
Despite the many trials and tribulations, Gottschalt and her furry friend saw many beautiful sights and had many positive experiences.
“I’ve been offshore fishing before and I’ve free-dived out the rigs and the Gulf can make you feel small, but the mountains have that affect on you too,” she said. “The prettiest sight was probably the Black Canyon close to Montrose, Colo. but nothing really beat the Texas sunrise over at Caprock Canyon State Park.”
Gottschalt eventually returned home and back to her students safely, but the trip was not always smooth sailing for her and Misty.
“Everything that could have gone wrong pretty much went wrong, but I made sure the stuff I posted on social media didn’t really show that because I have my grandparents and aunt and uncles on there, which is why I do the posts so my family can see, and I really didn’t want to worry them,” she said.
On day one, she set up camp at Brownwood Lake State Park, which is about 70 miles southeast of Abilene. While there, it began raining and became foggy, but despite the bleak weather, Gottschalt arose early and made the choice to head out to ensure her arrival at Ski Apache, a ski resort in south central New Mexico.
On day two of her trip, she was able to leave on time but kept getting texts from friends and family asking if she was doing well—there were reports of grim weather ahead. When she decided to double check everything, she discovered that it was predicted to not just snow at the time she was planning to snowboard at Ski Apache, but there would also be rain as well.
Because she was living out of a small camper, she knew she would not have enough room to house soaking wet ski gear. She was able to find a spot on the weather radar that showed the rain would not arrive until a few hours after setting up her gear. Despite what could have been an evening of nasty weather, she was able to hike and have a relaxing evening listening to the rain.
“It was peaceful to hear the rain turn to snow,” she said.
Day three brought more adventures.
“As I was getting ready for the day at the camp showers, I heard loud growling coming from the area where my truck was parked and I knew better than to go out and check it out. I waited a good 30 minutes before I went out there, and it smelled like urine,” she said. “Turns out, whatever large animal it was sprayed my truck. I have no idea what animal it was, but my truck smelled for miles.”
Gottschalt was planning to drive up to the Denver area, but a friend that lived in the area advised against it because of a winter storm that produced hurricane-forced winds.
“They said roads were closing down and so were businesses, but`` I was still determined to make it to Wyoming, and I thought I could make it around to Black Canyon State Park because their website said that they were still going to be open,” she said. “Negative. They snow plowed mounds of snow to the entrance of the camping grounds, and I was stuck close to sunset thinking, ‘Where am I going to set up camp?’ It was 22 degrees, and I actually was concerned that since this weather was the product of the winter (storm), that I should get a hotel, and that’s what I did.”
On day four, she woke up early and prepared for the 4.5 hour drive to Wyoming when she discovered that Apple maps updated their maps to reflect the damage of the storm and it turned my drive into an 8.5 hour drive.
“I’m not going to lie, I was pretty devastated because it was the main goal. I couldn’t make it to the slopes in time, so I made the bummed out decision to snowboard on my way home,” she said.
“I snowboarded Monarch Mountain,” Gottschalt said about the ski resort that was approximately 170 miles southwest of Denver. “I got a few job offers working for the resort for the summer and met some people who are down to meet up over the summer for white water rafting. That was probably the most chill resort I’ve snowboarded at with super friendly, nice people.”
Upon leaving the resort, she headed for the Great Sand Dunes State Park in the southern part of Colorado.
“I stayed there over the winter break and it is a breathtaking view to see the sand dunes and the mountains in the same view and I wanted to see it again,” Gottschalt said about a previous trip to the area. “Well, this go around, I went off road further than what I did back during winter break, and I didn’t realize that I was driving a bit too rough and my water container leaked in the truck and got my dog’s bed wet. I didn’t realize that it was wet until about midnight when my dog kept whining, and I check her bed to feel if the hand warmers were working for her, but come to find out her bed was damp, and I’m surprised she didn’t start whining sooner. I did have the heat lamp going in the camper, so I guess that’s why it took until midnight for me to see that she was uncomfortable. I had to make the decision to pack up camp in 17 degree (Fahrenheit) weather and keep driving on to New Mexico. I only had about 250 miles left of diesel exhaust fluid and I couldn’t just keep the truck running and risk the mileage to get lower when I didn’t know where the next place would sell DEF. It was the worst part of the drive, but I did get to see how beautiful the stars were.”
Gottschalt did make it New Mexico, but she needed to sleep and to dry out the camper. With this in mind, she rented a hotel room, giving the camper the opportunity to dry out while also doing some night skiing at Angel Fire, located in northern New Mexico just outside of Taos.
“The snow was powder and it was a perfect night out for some runs. The night ski area was super basic as far as level of difficulty for riding, but it had a spectacular view. So day four and five ran together.”
Day six started at 3 a.m. with Misty experiencing some stomach issues. The pup needed to be let out just about every half hour.
“I got so tired of getting up that I started to not leash her because she was being such a good girl about going to do her business and coming back until she decided to run off wandering. I followed her for a bit, and I made the decision that its probably best if I went back to got in my truck to look for her and just as I was about to pull out of the hotel parking lot she came running back,” she said. “She stayed leashed for every moment after that.
The pair began the journey home to Texas with the planned destination of Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the panhandle, but Gottschalt adventures continued.
“When we pulled up to the state park, my heart sinks because I see the sign that says that everything is filled and the ranger tells me I couldn’t stay there. I desperately wanted to camp another night so I drove out to Caprock Canyon and set up camp at 10 p.m. at the primitive camp grounds,” she said. “It was beautiful, the epitome of the ‘stars at night being big and bright deep in the heart of Texas.’
“I’m bunkering down, and I accidentally leave the keys in the truck and I think to myself that everyone was already settling down when I got there and that it wasn’t impertinent to lock the tailgate. That is until a truck pulls up right next to my truck in the just about empty parking lot, and I hear footsteps crunching on the gravel. What gets worse is that they start pushing on my camper, and I freaked out. I kept quiet because I didn’t know what I would say to them, and luckily I think they were just interested in the uniqueness of the camper because they walked off. I peeped out the window and watched them start down the trail. I told myself that they must’ve just been out stargazing because they were gone for half an hour and when they came back they automatically left. It was really a beautiful night, but man, they scared the living daylights out of me.”
On day seven, she woke up early enough to catch the Texas sunrise and started her hike into the canyon to go bouldering. She was hoping for a signal on her phone to use a bouldering app to guide her when her canine companion stopped walking. It was then that she realized that a bison was nearby staring at them.
“In my head, I think, ‘That the dang thing is going to behave just as a cow would stare us down and eventually keep moving along.’ No. It starts walking in our direction snorting and ramming its body into stuff, and I assumed it was doing this to mark its territory, but the bison followed me and my dog doing that for about an eighth of a mile,” she said. “It was pretty crazy. After that, it was smooth sailing home back to Port Lavaca.”
Gottschalt teaches East Side Intermediate School in Palacios as a fifth grade reading, language arts and social studies teacher. She is a 2009 graduate of CHS and a 2014 graduate of University of Houston-Victoria with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. She earned her k-6 Texas Teacher’s Certification in 2016.
In the past on every holiday or early release, Gottschalt has given her students something that is both a “cool gift and educational.” This time, instead of giving them something on the day they left for spring break, she promised them a gift from her travels.
“They asked for pet rocks, so we were reading the book, ‘Sing Down the Moon,’ which is a historic fiction about the Navajos being forced on The Long Walk to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. I had it in my lesson plan to finish the book when we got back from spring break, so on my journey I stopped at Fort Sumner, N.M. and picked up 50 rocks off the ground,” she said. “When I came home, I had a rock painting party and we painted each rock with the Zia and super glued googley eyes. The kids were able to take their pet rocks home after they wrote their mini documentaries over The Long Walk and The Trail of Tears, and the majority of them were extremely excited and the rest were glad the mini documentary was over.”
When not with her students, Gottschalt plans on traveling again and hopefully making it to Wyoming.
“It’s been great to be back in the classroom and to give the kids their pet rocks. I love adventuring and seeing different places, but teaching will forever be more fun to me.”