Waylaid

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Driving the Going-to-the-Sky Road through Glacier National Park

The best laid plans…

Our plan was to spend a week in Yellowstone with my brother and his family, visit a family friend in Bozeman, head up to Glacier National Park, then onward to Spokane and points west. Sometime during our stay in Yellowstone, the van started misbehaving. It started…not starting. It wouldn’t even crank. Just…nothing. After a few attempts, it would crank and turn over like normal. So it was an intermittent problem, but we weren’t sure how long it might be until it would become a *not* intermittent problem.

We left Yellowstone and drove to Bozeman. We decided to stay a couple of nights in Bozeman, and the matter worsened. Instead of taking three tries to start, it now took eight or ten tries. We worried about getting to remote Glacier National Park – in the far northwest corner of Montana – and ending up completely stranded. Getting a tow from there would not be easy and would not be cheap.

Here’s the issue: our van is a Mercedes Sprinter. Almost nobody will work on these vans. Those who will are usually Mercedes dealership service departments. They charge a fortune – because they can – and they often have long waits for appointments. We started calling around to see if we could get it worked on. Bozeman was a no-go. Billings had a dealer, but they had a 2-week wait for an appointment. Missoula also had a dealer, but a 3-week wait. The next closest dealer was in Spokane, and we weren’t supposed to be in Spokane for another week. But they offered to see us the next day. Decision time.

Glacier National Park was one of the tentpoles around which this trip was conceived. I’d wanted to go there for years, but it’s so remote, it seemed to only make sense to drive there if we were already nearby. Visiting Yellowstone put us within the acceptable range. This trip was the perfect opportunity to get there. So, being the stubborn woman I am, I suggested we roll the dice and go to Glacier anyway, figuring we just wouldn’t turn off the van until we got there. And if it got worse, we’d cut our time there short and high-tail it to Spokane. So, we made the 5-hour drive to Glacier anyway, and sure enough, it got worse. We spent one night, then drove the iconic Going-to-the-Sky Road from east to west through the park, and onward directly to Spokane. The boys still managed to complete the park’s Junior Ranger program, so at least I didn’t feel guilty about them missing out on that. But overall, Glacier got shafted. Scrapped. Forfeited. I was bummed.

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Junior Rangers

Thankfully, Glenn’s childhood friend Zac lives in Spokane, and he offered to let us use his house while we were in town. This is important, because when you live in a van and your van needs to go into the shop…you’re homeless. So Glenn, the boys, the cats, and I moved into Zac’s house, even though Zac and Maggie were in Hawaii at the time. Their dog Louise was at a kennel, but their cats Taco and Kiba were home and had a house sitter coming daily to take care of them. So Ghost and Eevee got to meet Taco and Kiba (whom we called Sheba because that’s what we thought the house sitter said her name was). Taco was a real dick, and took off one night; we never saw him again the whole time we were there.

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Glenn snuggling with Kiba-Sheba

The van went into the shop the morning after we arrived, but the Saturday skeleton crew couldn’t sort out just what was wrong with it. The diagnostic computer was spitting out conflicting error codes, so they decided it would have to wait until Monday for the shop foreman to weigh in on the issue. So we waited…

As our current not-good luck would have it, Spokane was being smothered by smoke at this time, with fires burning all around it in three states. It was also being stifled by high summer temperatures around 95 degrees every day. During our time there, we were told that the air quality in Spokane was the fourth worst in the world, worse even than China. The advisory was to stay indoors. So we had some of the laziest days we’ve had all summer, sitting inside on our electronic devices, napping, reading, and generally lazing about. We lost all motivation and didn’t even want to go grocery shopping or cook, or even go out to eat. We ordered meals through GrubHub and UberEats, and relished the fact that we had ice cubes to put in our cocktails. We don’t have a freezer in our van, so ice is a true luxury. We could also watch Game of Thrones on a real TV, the actual time it aired. Magic! One day I took the boys out to a community pool with a waterslide and lazy river, and then we all went out to see Dispicable Me 3 in the filtered, air conditioned air. But that was about it.

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Fun at the Southside Family Aquatic Facility

Monday came around and the boss man showed up. There was corrosion in the fuse relay (whatever that is) housed to the left of the under-the-steering-column area. They’d need to replace that before they could run further diagnostics to see if anything else was wrong. That repair would cost $750, and the part *might* arrive the next day. My expensive third-party warranty on the van won’t cover anything caused by corrosion (yay!), so we’d have to pay for it ourselves. Tuesday rolled around and they fixed the fuse relay, then determined that there was also corrosion on the DEF injector nozzle, and also a problem with the upstream and downstream nox sensors. My warranty wouldn’t cover any of it, but Mercedes was covering that last item through some extended warranty they had. No idea why, but it saved be a ton of dough. All in, the repairs cost $1500 in parts and labor. And my stupid warranty proved useless yet again.

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Checking out the falls in downtown Spokane with Zac on a smoky evening

Zac and Maggie returned, the boys went home with their dad, and we waited for the van to be finished. We had a great visit with Zac and Maggie, and definitely enjoyed the creature comforts of being in a house. But man, the wind sure came out of our sails. Our plan had been to spend one night in Spokane, then drive to Squamish, British Columbia, for a week of rock climbing. Squamish was another tentpole around which this trip was conceived. Too remote to just casually drive there from home, it would probably only happen if we bundled it with this trip, or flew there. After a reality check that it would still take 8 hours of driving to get from Spokane to Squamish, and another 8 hours to get from Squamish to our next destination, we decided that 16 hours of driving might not be worth the ever-dwindling number of days we’d be able to enjoy in Squamish. Furthermore, I’d recently developed a weird nerve pain in both my forearms and hands, so climbing felt beyond me anymore. We decided to scrap our plans for Squamish.

That made two tentpoles scrapped. Now, like any good seat-of-the-pants travelers, we made lemonade from all these lemons: we got to spend some quality time with Zac and Maggie, and ended up spending the remainder of our meant-to-be-in-Squamish days having a great time visiting friends and family in Seattle, and even got to see my current favorite band Blind Pilot in concert. Considering I couldn’t really climb, it was a mighty good consolation prize. And to be honest, I’m a little road weary at this point anyway. But damn, those were gonna be epic tentpoles!!! I was not so naive to think that we could travel for 14 weeks without mechanical trouble, but it was certainly unfortunate that it happened while in Wyoming/Montana, where finding help with our Mercedes was nigh impossible. This is another inherent flaw in our choice of van. Taking it to the wild places we want to go carries a risk of being sidelined to a painful degree. Sigh.

Insert your own uplifting “c’est la vie” kind of concluding thought here. I’ll just leave it at this: that was a bummer, but it’s all good, and let’s carry on. Three weeks to go.

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Back in action!

Eevee the Huntress

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Hunting chipmunks in Vedauwoo, Wyoming

[Trigger warning: domestic-cat-on-wild-rodent violence]

Back home, we were always amused when Eevee and Ghost would hunt bugs that got into the house. We never imagined what a huntress Eevee would become. So far she has captured rodents in three states that we know of, and for all we know she’s a wanted kitty. She’s captured a young chipmunk, and killed a baby vole (which we originally misidentified as a gopher) two full grown voles,  and a shrew.

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Kill #1, a baby vole at Chautauqua Park in Boulder, CO

 

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Shrew, Gallatin River, Montana

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Adult vole #1, Bozeman, Montana

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I woke up to discover she’d gotten another vole, then went right on hunting for more

Everywhere we go, people stop and talk to us about our cats, telling us how cute they are, and marveling that our cats will tolerate being in a harness, on a leash, and/or on a tether at our campsite. I’ve started telling them about Eevee’s hunting. And in some cases, they get to witness it, or get to see this video:

 

And then there’s the one that got away.

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Lucky little chipmunk in Vedauwoo, Wyoming

I chased after Eevee when she got this chipmunk by the head, because I’m kinda demented and wanted a picture of her with the critter in her mouth, and she eventually put him down. I went to take his picture, then turned to video the next hunt. The little bugger ran right across my foot! I guess he got lucky!

Note that Ghost has basically none of these instincts. He mostly just looks at the poor victims, and occasionally pounces on them if they seem to magically reanimate. But at least we have one mouser in the family!

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Ghost followed this not-dead-yet vole under the van, then didn’t quite know what to do with it.

Reflections on Eight Weeks of Vanlife

IMG_5339Intermission. It’s been eight weeks since we left home – two adults, two children, and two cats. We still have six more weeks to go!

Yesterday I flew from West Yellowstone to San Francisco to pick the kids up from their dad to bring them back out on the road for more adventures. So today we will fly back to Yellowstone and keep on rolling. Since we sublet our house for the summer, I stayed over last night at a good friend’s house, and some other friends stopped by in the evening. So I had four people asking me questions about our trip, and me all alone (Glenn, help!) to try to answer them. I surely rambled a lot and didn’t make much sense, but they were nice to me anyway.

One thing I’m learning is that LOTS of people want to do what we’re doing. “Tell me all about what it’s like – it’s a dream of ours!” I try… But it’s not all that easy to explain what it’s like. It’s pretty much what you’d imagine it’s like: four people and two cats in a van can be cramped, cat hair ends up everywhere all the time, and there’s never enough places to put everybody’s shoes.

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Even the cats are piled on top of each other

The biggest difference for me in daily life has been developing the essential routine of stowing. Stowing is not cleaning or tidying or organizing. It’s usually all of those things, but it’s also putting items away securely. One simply cannot make “piles” in a van. Everything has to get stowed. Here’s all of the stowing that happens between waking up and driving somewhere:

  • Put bed in upright/couch position
  • Strip sheet from bed
  • Stuff 2 blankets into their stuff sacks
  • Stow sheet, 2 stuff sacks, and 2 pillows in cabinet above bed/couch
  • Remove 2 cushions from being part of the bed
  • Remove table top from being part of the bed, fetch table leg, erect table
  • [make coffee, cook/eat breakfast, change clothes, brush teeth, etc.]
  • Empty coffee maker, stow in the lowest cabinet, somehow squeezing it between the pots and the Tupperware
  • Wash all the dishes, dry them, put them away (sometimes this can wait, if everything can fit securely inside the sink, and if we’re not going to be on any bumpy roads that would make it all rattle around a ton)
  • Fold pajamas and put them away (you can’t just leave them out because you’ll step on them in the tiny hallway, or the cats will lay on them and get hair all over them, or something will spill on them; and they usually have to be folded because otherwise they simply won’t fit in the place they belong)
  • Stow table leg and table top
  • Move fruit basket from counter to bench, where it (usually) won’t slide right off onto the floor (we used to keep it in the microwave, but then we’d forget about eating the fruit and it would get overripe)
  • Stow all books, electronics, games, EVERYTHING
  • Arrange our rechargeable fan just-so on the back cushion that it can still recharge and blow, but hopefully won’t crash onto the floor
  • …and that’s when it’s just me and Glenn. With the boys’ beds in the mix, there’s even more.

Stowing is not to be confused with STASHING. Before we started our trip, I knew we’d need more storage/stowage than what we had. So I ordered us some stretchy mesh pockets to mount on the wall – I call them stash pockets.

 

The idea is that some items should be readily accessible, and that storing them inside a cabinet or box is impractical because they’ll just get buried in there and you’ll never be able to find them when you need them. So instead, they need “stash spots.” These can be parts of the car like a cubby, cup holder, or glove compartment; or, they can be add-on stash pockets. But the idea only works if you use the same stash spot for the same item all the time. Otherwise you can’t remember where you put the thing the last time, and it might as well just be bopping around in Granny’s junk drawer for all the luck you’re going to have locating it.

Some examples of stashes: by the bed, which is also under the TV, and next to the charging ports, we have a stash pocket which holds the remote controls, charging cables, and Chapstik. The Chapstik is the stash. In the upper stash pocket by the sliding door, we keep cat treats, the cats’ leashes, walkie talkies, and cameras. Honestly, everything in there is a stash, but the thing I grab most often from there is the good camera. The keys to the cargo box have a stash spot that we both use religiously, which is kind of a miracle. The trouble comes when you get lazy and don’t re-stash your stash after using it. Or worse, if you stash it somewhere else. This bad habit of mine long ago earned me the taunt “Stasher!” Now if some always-easy-to-find thing goes missing, I get called a stasher and get shamed for stashing it somewhere random. Yes, stowing/stashing/organizing is so important in our lives that it was the genesis of a new kind of domestic teasing.

By now someone’s thinking, “Nobody cares about that boring stuff! What about traveling all the time?!” Well, it’s awesome. And taxing. It can be a lot of planning – doesn’t always need to be, but can be. And a lot of driving. And we eat “in” a lot more on the road than we do at home in the city, so there’s a lot of shopping, cooking, and dishwashing to do. But yeah, getting to see cool different places all the time is rad. Duh!

So far we’ve been to five states and ten national parks. We’ve climbed in more different spots than I can accurately count without doing a lengthy look back at our records. Wildflowers blooming all over the Rockies, elk and mule deer munching grasses, raptors screeching to defend their nesting area, chipmunks and squirrels chirping out an alarm when the cats come outside to play, marble-size hail bouncing off the van and the ground, the smoke-tinged horizon glowing peach and hibiscus at sunset, rivers bending gently through a grass valley or raging ferociously through a rocky gorge, and craggy peaks high above, daring us to climb them; these are the sights and sounds of our summer so far. And I can’t wait to get back to them.

Rocky Road

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I once was told that Rocky Road ice cream was created during the Great Depression, to give people something to smile about. Well, last week – on National Chocolate Ice Cream Day – we probably should’ve gotten Rocky Road instead of plain chocolate, because we needed something to smile about after an actual rocky road beat the hell out of our van.

We were staying in the town of Escalante, Utah, right on the northwestern boundary of Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. There are some well-known geological features nearby which I wanted to explore, or we never would’ve been in Escalante in the first place. Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-Boo Canyon are two popular slot canyons which you can explore on a 3-mile hike, squirming through tight squeezes and allegedly smiling in delight the whole way; Devil’s Garden is a grouping of hoodoos that you can actually run around and climb on; and Batty Pass Caves are another cool-sounding spot to check out right in the same area.

The catch is, the canyons are 26 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a BLM road inside the Monument; the caves are down a little ways on a spur road across from the canyons; and even the hoodoos are about halfway down the road (13 miles) to where the canyons are. Had I listened to the checker at the grocery store, who told us even he was shocked by how bad the road was, or read any one of the many websites warning visitors of how treacherous the road was, or put two and two together when I saw that multiple outfitters in Escalante ran twice-a-day shuttles to the canyons, I might have thought twice about driving out there in our van. I later learned that car rental companies don’t even allow you to take their cars on Hole-in-the-Rock Road. They’re smarter than we are.

I had told the boys that we could play hide-and-seek at Devil’s Garden, so they wanted to go there first. The road was almost all deeply rutted washboards, with a few potholes mixed in just for grins. Our van got jostled around like a can of Sherwin Williams on a Home Depot paint shaker. The silverware drawer is always the first to slide open. Then the drawer with the cooking utensils. We even got the little slide-out table to open. The “closet” door edged its way open as the drawers inside scooted toward the aisle. Even the stereo and other parts of the dash were threatening to pop their mountings. I gritted my teeth and held on until we got to Devil’s Garden.

“Now I understand why multiple outfitters in Escalante offer shuttle services,” I thought.

When we got there, a puddle soon formed under our city water hookup. The ballcock was nowhere to be seen and our fresh water tank was quickly draining onto the desert parking lot. The microwave/oven had slid backward into its housing. An upper cabinet popped open and (thankfully only) a book fell out onto the kids. The paper towel roll had unspooled from its holder beneath the overhead compartment and onto the floor. I was not happy.

After rock-hopping and some very hot hide-and-seek, we returned to the van for lunch, then decided we should head back to town rather than continue on that road to the canyons. On the drive back, the heater vent – already loose – came halfway off, risking shearing off the one remaining screw altogether. The wooden wall-mounted spice rack was disintegrating. We argued a bit about how best to drive so as to minimize further damage. Then we argued about how we should think and feel about this unfortunate turn of events. One thing we could agree on was that the chocolate ice cream needed to happen.

We stopped at a hardware store on the way to the house we had rented (to keep the kitties safe from heat while we explored during the 100-degree days) to get some supplies for repairs, then bought the ice cream, then went home.

All in all, eventually, we discovered we’d managed to:

  • Break the city water valve
  • Knock off the heater vent
  • Dislodge the microwave oven
  • Knock the shelf pins loose that held the drawers up in the closet, causing them to collapse
  • Break the spice rack

Over the course of the next few days, and after deciding to risk more destruction on similar roads, more and more things began to malfunction or get broken by our abuse:

  • The motorized step on the sliding door would deploy while we were driving, causing it to take a beating, cracking the plastic on the front corner and causing the motor to groan
  • I dragged our rear end onto a steep hillside to access a dispersed camping spot, shredding the wiring to our cargo carrier, and causing it to hang down and drag on the road
  • The kitchen faucet started spraying water – probably because the messed up, over-drained water tank pumped sediment up into the faucet
  • Under pressure, the bathroom faucet started leaking into the bottom of the closet – maybe for the same reason – onto the upholstered cushion below

Various patches have been made over the last few days, giving me more of sense that we’re held together by chewing gum and duct tape than that we’re actually repairing things in a fashion that would appeal to a buyer whenever we go to re-sell this thing. Some were true fixes, others were literal Gorilla-tape hacks.

  • The city water valve was capped altogether
  • The heater vent was bolted (not screwed) back on
  • The microwave was reseated
  • The closet shelf pins were put back (later coming undone again, now being replaced with L-brackets as a permanent fix)
  • The spice rack was glued back together
  • The motorized step had to be disabled altogether by disconnecting the wiring assembly under the step and taping off both ends
  • The wiring to our cargo carrier was replaced and re-mounted
  • The kitchen faucet was disassembled and put back together without the inner parts of the diffuser to muck things up
  • The bathroom faucet… we couldn’t do anything about this one, but realized that we need to neither use high-pressure city water nor fill our fresh tank all the way

Oh, also, one of our two stove burners is running way lower than the other, so low you can hardly boil water on it.

So…yeah. All these creature comforts are not without their weaknesses, and our use case for this van may simply be too abusive for them. To put it bluntly, we’re beating the shit out of this rig. We had some stressful conversations wherein we both bemoaned the fact that this vehicle doesn’t seem to suit our lifestyle. We’re rock climbers. We bought a camper van so we can drive to and camp at climbing spots. Many climbing spots are located down absolutely craptastic roads. When driving to the crag makes you anxious that you’re destroying your investment, and results in time-sucking repairs, is the van really enhancing our lives? Would we have been better off just sleeping on the floor of the minivan, cooking on a camp stove, drinking water from a jug, and peeing in the bushes? Sometimes simpler is better.

But me – I cannot accept that. It is in my nature to have faith that there is a solution to any problem. Maybe a simpler, more rugged class-B motorhome will work for us. Maybe a custom van conversion would be better. We started chatting about our wish-list of features. There are plenty of features and systems on this rig that we don’t need, and others we don’t have that we wish we did. Eliminate some unnecessary potential sources of malfunction, and add some new technology that supports our adventurous travel. All of that in another post…

For now, enjoy some pics of our damages and a few repairs we hacked together.

And here’s a pic of one of our cute road kitties to alleviate any anxiety this post may have caused you. You’re welcome. Now go eat some ice cream.

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