Like A Virgin, I climbed into our first (rented) van, hoping to experience joy and be respected at the same time. We were cautious but eager to be enveloped by the Cabana van, relishing both the rush of the road and the calm of the night after the exhilaration of stepping into independent van life ( for a week.)
Michele and I have been indulging in the van life vicariously for several years – watching vlogs, going to a few RV shows, poking our heads into vans being customized in Seattle and just scrutinizing (read drooling over) the Sprinters parked near our daily neighborhood walks. The longer we waited to decide whether the van was in our future, the higher the prices climbed. And so the opportunity to rent from a company in Ballard came up, and we decided to make a trial run of it. Maybe it might be cheaper to rent a van a few times a year than buying?
Would the life style suit us? Would I fit (at 6’3”) or would I be forced to sleep in the downward dog position or the child pose? Would dumping black water be revolting or just routine? How comfortable was I with our own shit? Could we handle the gas guzzling machine given the sky high pump prices? Would I go into shock as the dollar figures climbed since I was used to eco-friendly Prius savings? Was packing light mandatory or could we indulge in a few luxurious personal effects, e.g. coffee grinder, back scratcher, fly rod, metal detector? ( No metal detector, but the Netflix show about the hobby was a hoot and intriguing. )
Managing to neatly fit some of our gear into the van (and then heap the rest on the bed) , and adjusting all the mirrors and seats to suit our needs, we headed out on the first leg of the journey to Waitsburg, WA. Pick up in the van was as sluggish as a sloth in heat. Yet once up to cruising speed, it had the momentum of a buffalo headed for the Yellowstone. The reservation at the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park was a safe stop since we had cruised through the sites on a previous visit to Waitsburg and Dayton. Though no park staff appeared to greet us, my name was on the site post so we felt welcome. We backed in and set up camp.
A local, who was standing in the nearby stream with her dog, recommended going up stream to seek a swimming hole. Avoiding the dreaded hemlock plant on the wooded path, we found the spot of gravel and narrow hole with some current. Jumping (actually easing my way as my groin sucked it up) in, I swam a few strokes against the current – not managing to make any progress but emerging energized by the brisk water.
Pulling out the kitchen drawer from the ”garage” under our bed, the stove was no different than the mid-century Coleman design my family used when we tented across America. No Coleman lantern with fragile mantle (that my father cursed over ) was necessary since the two solar panels on the van lit up the interior and exterior.
Walking around the campground, we found the state offered two tipis, for the total immersive experience in Sacajawea style abodes. Culturally inappropriate…nah! Just loads of fun for the family in TP2. One child was riding around in his PJs, and his sister toured the sites with training wheels rattling along.
Next stop Helena…and little did I know how much driving this would entail. Through the Palouse to Lewiston,
and then swerving through the Bitterroot Moutains for 200+ miles along the Lochsa River.
Beautiful views for the passenger Michele (she does not get carsick), but exhausting focused attention for me. We passed multiple Lewis And Clark historical markers dotting the landscape, and only stopped at one marking their climb up Lolo Pass in hail and thunder. And then we zoomed past Lolo Hot Springs…oh, I could have used a soak but dinner awaited in downtown Helena. I resorted to sitting Tai Chi warm up exercises. Anyone passing the other direction might have worried about the head rolling neck moves and shoulder shrugging that the driver was having a seizure. I was maintaining an inane smile that would appear certifiable to the observer passing at 50 mph.
North Helena KOA Journey offered an end row at a little extra cost, which included a gas fire pit and two fire-red plastic Adirondack Chairs and a view of the valley. And…And..we had power, if needed, and a black/grey water connection! The KOA offered miniature silos ( ovens most likely) and cabins in addition to multiple sites with bits of lawn spaced between the behemoth RVs. These were mansions on wheels often with a SUV in tow. Why do they even leave home if they are insulating themselves from the world with sofas, mini-bars, tubs, king-size beds, TVs and micro-waves? Where is the adventure? Not that one must deliberately face hardship on the road, but damn, the owners of such monsters never have to leave their safe bubbles. The only stress they must endure is the mounting gas bills. But for most that probably is chump change. They are Easy Riders in Easy Chairs.
One huge advantage of the 19’ van is that parking is not a problem…well angle parking is not a problem so heading into to town for a meal or checking out attractions in a more urban space remains an easy proposition.
A favorite attraction for us in Helena is the Archie Bray Foundation ceramic center and its bizarre location at an old brick factory that is crumbling into the valley floor. The aging kiln stacks added a surreal Dali touch. Their annual auction was fast approaching but the items’ prices would be out of our league so we found some token pieces in the shop.
Our visit was intended to honor the memory of Michels’s Aunt Cal who died at 102. At the Helena Veterans cemetery she was given a memorable send off, complete with Bugler in 19th century Calvary outfit. Watching him as he played with a dry Montana hillside as a backdrop, I felt I had stepped into a Charles Russell painting. Aunt Cal’s husband , Uncle Bob and Michele’s mother Ethel used to peer into Russells’s studio to watch him paint, until Russell’s wife would shoo them away.
Yellowstone National Park was next on itinerary and we passed through gorgeous country to reach West Yellowstone. Rolling hills with pines softening the ridges, and ranches spreading across the valleys. Mountain ranges framed the scene. Ennis, a fly-fishing mecca, was packed and the western style store fronts were a stage set for tourists. Virginia City is just up the road, so it comes by its heritage legitimately yet the faux rustic look hid pricey souvenirs and western attire. Not a parking space to be had. Last time we came through here, our car broke down so we had to spend the night. The town was less faux rustic then. I did get some tips on fly fishing from the repair guy though.
We rushed through West Yellowstone, since it was teeming with tourists and shops stocked with cheap memorabilia , stopped at the obligatory Painted Pots geysers and Old Faithful (also packed with visitors from around the world,) crossed the Continental Divide three times and found our camping site at Bridge Bay. Registration took a while because the staffer needed to inform us about the recent bear sightings and instruct us on how to prevent evening visits from large, furry intruders. I knew all about close encounters with bears in Yellowstone. As a kid, when arriving at a camp site in Yellowstone with my family, we stopped to observe a couple of brown bears raiding the garbage cans, (Yogi Bear would never stoop so low.) I was transfixed as I stared out the half open car window. This was better than any Route 66 bear trinket. Our neurotic poodle, Suzette, was also transfixed. One bear decided to check us out and soon enough was almost to the window. Suzette lunged just as the bear found my door. With one commanding scream from Mother, my brother reached over and rolled up the window as the bear’s nose smeared the glass.
(For more on Ursa and Suzette check the story on my blog.)
Our site was level and near the edge of the woods,…and also near the dumpster where many campers left trash to avoid attracting bears at their sites. Well what about us? We appeared to be at ground zero for bear marauders. So we made our S’mores over the open fire, burnt the hand carved sticks for roasting the marshmallows, doused the flames, locked the van doors and slept peacefully – glad we were not hunkering down in a tent.
Next morning we drove to the nearby Lake Lodge…and found one of the most peaceful spots. A stroll on the beach was out of the question, since a Very Large Buffalo had usurped the best sunning spot.
Hardly anyone was at the Lake Resort Store and their selection of goods was a cut above the Old Faithful products. Check out the glasses. I was inspired to Buy some Bison.
South to Grand Teton National Park, but first we needed to get around a couple of traffic jams at wild animal photo ops. A Park garbage truck driver was not pleased at the slow down, honking and gesticulating wildly to clear the way so that he might make his appointed rounds. .
Checking in at Colter Bay campsite, we listened to more bear warnings (one bear sighting per day), and were given the reassuring advice that we would be fine hiking nearby as long as we had our bear spray. What the Hell! That item was not in my ditty kit. We walked to the beach unarmed but vigilant. No huffing or puffing or grunting near the path. We survived.
Our Jackson Hole rendezvous with Connie and Rich happened at the Center For Creative Arts. Connie had curated a show of artists who had collaborated, poets with painters and sculptors (and contributed her poetry.)
Touring some of the facility, we came across another temporary exhibit with one piece that seemed apropos given all the warnings about trash and bears:
After a send-off from Connie and Rich, we headed back to camp and an early bedtime so that we might get up early and tackle Teton pass (10% grade) in the cool morning hours.
At dawn, we pulled up stakes (actually thank goodness we no longer had that chore), dumped the black/grey water to lighten our load over the pass and headed back west to Pendleton Oregon.
Eleven hours later (mostly highway driving dealing with some hefty crosswinds) we found our Pendleton KOA. Our site was right next to a federal agent who parked his big black SUV next to his large trailer (a more permanent resident). Our cement pad cracked under the back wheel, but at least it did not turn into sink hole. The view at sunset made up for the crumbling space.
Pendleton Woolen Mill was our highlighted stop the next day, after a walk along the dike until the town woke up (nothing was open until 10 am). We did walk away with a blanket (with flaw and discounted price) plus a western shirt for me. My excuse, we were in the town where the Pendleton Rodeo stirs up plenty of dust so I needed to blend in.
If you have ever heard of Sam Hill, you will know he loved building with cement whether it was a highway, mansion in Seattle, the Maryhill Museum or his version of Stonehenge. You gotta love his vision even if the end result was choking fumes and paving of paradise. The Maryhill Museum was initially envisioned as a utopian community and when that failed, a museum was born. Rotating exhibits of indigenous artists pulled us in, though some permanent exhibits of Rodin sculpture and Romanian furnishing are worth a look.
Sam Hill’s Stonehenge is one remarkable oddity high above the Colombia River gorge. The story goes that this exact replica (of the original Stonehenge design) is not quite in the proper alignment to signify the accurate days of the solstice , but whose quibbling over a few degrees. No Druids buried here, only Sam Hill’s gravesite down below the edifice, sitting alone on a bluff.
I only asked for one more detour on the road home, and that was to check out the changes in Tieton outside of Yakima, off of Route 12. Years ago, two Seattlites had a vision and bought two old apple warehouses to make it a reality. One warehouse was converted to condos, and the other for art installations and climate controlled storage of coffee table art books. Now a small artist colony has developed that has aspired to be inclusive of the surrounding Latino community. Around the square are a couple of Mexican restaurants, a local grocery store, a community art center, a Tieton Made shop selling locally created goods, some studios and office space. Most spaces were closed. Weekends appear to be the best time to visit. We will return on the Day of the Dead.
Back in Seattle, it was a relief to dismount from the beast of a van yet we both feel this mode of travel has its advantages. Cabana is offering 15% discount on our next trip. Where to next?