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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Back in action!

My Small Victory at Goat Rock State Beach

IMG_3084We got a late start, so we didn’t arrive at Goat Rock until around 2:00. God, what a glorious day. Clear blue skies, temps in the high 50s, and calm waters. The hills were that brightest green of grass in a drought-busting rainy season, and so much silt had flushed through the mouth of the Russian River that there was a field of brown murky water extending beyond all the offshore rocks and then some. At the edge where the dirty, brackish water mixed with the clear blue seawater, a white foamy line marked the junction.

The trail was a sloppy mess, with a few side paths trying to avoid the worst of the mud. But the flat area in front of Sunset Boulders was just a bog – no way around, no clean way through. You wanna climb, you’re gonna get muddy.


Hi, every climber in western Sonoma County!

This fine Sunday afternoon seemed to draw all of western Sonoma’s climbers to the crag. The place was pretty much at capacity, with nearly every anchor and landing area in use. We seldom do anything on weekends, when the rest of the world floods out to recreate, shop, travel, whatever. We have the privilege to be able to do these things during the week, so we might as well spare ourselves the crowds and spare the crowds our presence by staying in on the weekends. But we were in town on our way to a retreat, so it made sense to come check out this spot.

“Orange hat! Hey, orange hat!” A voice rang out from atop The Ram. The voice came from a very outgoing, helmet-wearing climber, who invited Glenn to use his rope to climb up for setting our anchors, thus sparing him soloing the 5.5 R/X that’s the easiest way to the top. He offered to give him a tour once he got up.

“Oh, I don’t mind soloing it, but if I use your rope it’ll make her feel better,” Glenn replied.

“That’s all that matters! If she’s happy, everyone’s happy!” Wise man.

At the top, Glenn asked him if he was a local steward. I missed the rest of their chatter, but there was a lot of it. Later on, when this gent and his group were packing up to leave, he seemed to narrate much of their preparations. He was there with lots of friends, and turns out he’s from Fort Ross, just up the road from Goat Rock. There were some other pairs of climbers there, and some small groups of boulderers. They all left within about 45 minutes of our arrival, and we had the whole place to ourselves until we were doffing our helmets and coiling our rope, when a group of five or six young puffy-clad dudes from Vallejo rolled up as the sun was getting low in the sky.

This is honestly the first time I’ve ever written about a climbing session. What is there to say? The spot is tough to beat on a good weather day. You’re super close to the beach, so you get plenty of spectacular coastal scenery, but high enough up on a grassy perch to feel safe from the sea, unlike climbing at an actual beach crag. The clump of boulders was once a popular spot for wooly mammoths to rub their backs, so you can see some polished surfaces on the overhanging parts of the boulders. There are safe belays, short, easy climbs (with soft grades compared to other spots in the Bay Area), and everything’s at least three stars. It’s a pretty perfect little playground for a half-day outing. There are a couple of 5.8s up crack systems that would make for great early trad leads. One word of caution: there was a fair bit of poison oak among the rocks between the boulders. I don’t think I’m allergic, but Glenn is, so we were both careful to avoid it, and washed the mud off our shoes when we got back to the van. Outdoor shower for the win!

This outing was a small victory for me. I need to climb at a few more crags like this with high-quality rock, highly-rated climbs, and short walls. Here’s the thing, friends: I get scared. It’s hard to call it a fear of heights, but it’s definitely a fear of falling. Or maybe it’s actually just a fear of failure. Whatever it is, it plagues me. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Why do I even do this? I don’t like this feeling! I just want to get down and go do crossword puzzles.” And then I have to remind myself, “You say this is your favorite thing in the world to do.” And I repeat it like a mantra. I have other self-talk, too. “You climb routes seven grades harder than this in the gym.” “Your legs are stronger than you think.” “So what if there’s no hand when you get there? He’ll catch you.”



On this day, I needed no mantras, no self-talk at all. I felt fine. Maybe it’s because the routes were all three stars. Routes that flow well just…flow better. The holds present themselves; the moves aren’t any easier, they’re just easier to find. That was fun. And if I’m going to be psyched to climb all summer, I need to know that it’s going to be fun. Fun first! Safety third! I don’t know what’s second, but it’s probably food related.* I may have only gotten in four short climbs, but it was just what I needed. Short climbs give you a sense of accomplishment, and if you can finish a tougher grade than you’re used to, who cares that it was only 30’ tall? For me, that’s enough of a confidence booster to matter. So Goat Rock, my hat’s off to you! Thanks for being just what I needed.

*For the record, safety is always first. Saying “safety third” is a great way to remind people that they suck if they’re not being safe. It’s also apparently a Burning Man meme, and I’m pretty sure it was printed on the tee-shirt worn by some miracle-he’s-lived-this-long climber in Valley Uprising or some Reel Rock film.


Routes I climbed (grades according to Bay Area Rock 7th Edition, not Mountain Project):