Well, you will be happy to know (I hope!) that we made it down the mountain. It was actually easier than we thought. Though that doesn’t mean much coming from me because I have done almost none of the driving on this trip. As much as we hate the gender stereotypes, I did most of the prep work to get us on the road, and Chris is doing most of the driving. And he did a fantastic job getting us down the mountain. We both took a huge sigh of relief when we hit Hwy 1. Clementine farted. Due to a massive landslide this winter, taking a left on Hwy 1 will only get you 10 miles before the road is closed. We took a right.
We pass all the beautiful and intense scenery again. This truly is the coolest drive that I have seen in the entire U.S. It was a long night and a stressful drive this morning, so we didn’t stop at the Henry Miller Library like I had planned. The place looks really cool though, and as I’m writing this I regret not going. oh well.
We don’t do much today except search for a campsite. The Spring Break effect is still in full force, but so is Chris’ luck. Just east of Monterey, we find a site with a gorgeous view of Salinas Valley. This place has the unique distinction of being situated between a race car track and a rifle and pistol range. I know what you’re thinking, but we did not see any confederate flags. Having said that, we are less than 10 miles from another “populated place” called Confederate Corners. For any John Steinbeck fans, this is the inspiration for the town in The Wayward Bus. We don’t go there.
(photo courtesy of C. Laroche)
I take this rare opportunity of downtime to tidy, organize, and decorate the van. Chris sits under the awning (Thank you, Mark!), and watches the sun set with his iPhone. Before my obnoxious flash, it was a very peaceful setting.
No matter what I say right now, nothing will accurately describe the day and night we just spent at Chris’ friend’s parents’ (are the apostrophes all correct?) house. It was incredible, nerve-racking, and the purest definition of off-the-beaten track. We don’t think anything will top this drive or lodging. They have lived in a rather secluded part of Big Sur for about 40 years, which means Chris’ friend and her brother grew up here. It takes them two hours to get to town, and half of that is spent driving on a narrow, winding mountain road along a cliff. The best part about the drive was the paved, narrow, winding road along the cliff. The worst part was the unpaved, rutted, rocky, narrow, steep, winding mountain road along the cliff. Reminder: we are driving a vanagon. Not a lot of power or clearance on this baby.
We learned later that the unpaved road is getting worse every year because the tourists spin their tires, dig holes, and loosen packed dirt. For the experienced folks who live here (and drive appropriate cars), this road is a cake walk. For us, it was a…what’s the opposite of cake? A crushed glass omelet walk. Look at that insane ric rac road!
We eventually got to one particularly steep, unstable, and rugged incline that the van just wasn’t going to make it up. The wheels were spinning forward, but the van was moving backwards. I just, at this very moment, realized that we were one of the tourists ruining the road. Fortunately, there was no one behind us and Chris was able to ease the van backwards into a turnout. We were still two miles to the rendezvous point (the top of their driveway) where Rocky, the dad, would meet us because their driveway was “hairy”. The only thing we could do was hike. Never have I packed less. A pair of underwear, my laptop, and dog food. Water was too heavy. Luckily for us, a sweet couple happened to pass by in their Lexus and they gave Chris a ride. As we were in the middle of a quiet forest, I thought I would use this opportunity to run Clem around off leash a bit. That dog wouldn’t leave the van. I took her ball and walked far away hoping she would jump out to see me. Nope. The van was safe and she wasn’t so sure anything else was. It didn’t take long for Rocky to rescue us and take us to their house. Rocky used to race cars and bikes (not bicycles) and it showed. He thoroughly enjoyed driving here. Interestingly, it felt safer with him driving fast than with Chris driving 5 mph. Clementine did not agree. Here is Rocky holding a four leaf clover that the caretaker’s son found in the yard.
Their house is completely off-grid. In all of the excitement, I didn’t take as many photos as I should have. We spent the evening talking to Rocky and Geri about all the perils, explosions, drugs, and general craziness that happens in this part of the country. I must have said, “Holy shit!” about two dozen times. The stories they shared reminded me a lot of the ones my dad and uncle used to tell. You start to think about how much they have lived and, at the same time, marvel at how they have managed to live so long. I learned that ice cream is a rare luxury, and vanagons can explode (not ours). I wonder if all people who live this remotely for this long are this strong, independent, self-reliant, stubborn, and generous jacks of all trades. Riding to school on horses, no electricity, avoiding mountain lions hanging out in trees and relocated bears, surrounded by all of the wilderness that you can imagine. It makes you one hell of an interesting person.
We stayed in their yurt about a half mile up their hairy driveway. Walking around at night I kept picturing a mountain lion jumping down from a tree and me having to save Clementine because she would attack it. Chris had anxiety dreams because of the drive the next day. We still had to get off the mountain.
These mailboxes have the best view.
It’s been a while since we’ve stayed in the same place for more than one day. Incredibly, this becomes an aching feeling and staying put starts to feel like a luxury. We decided to stay one more day at Sunset Beach and use the time to plan the next couple of weeks.
Also, today we learned a valuable lesson about taking walks in the brush.
Lots of them.
I walked Clementine around our campsite and within 15 minutes, she had several ticks on her. She is on Revolution treatments so this prompted me to learn a little bit more about what ticks and Revolution actually do. Now I am not a veterinarian, but Cornell told me I was on their waiting list in 1994, so I’m expecting my call to vet school any day now. After a thorough identification process that involved a lot of “Do you remember if it had a wonky spot or a little spot?” it looks like we are running into dog ticks, which is what Revolution is supposed to repel. That does naturally lead me to question Revolution’s effectiveness, and I am considering writing a terse letter. Dog ticks don’t transmit Lyme disease, but they do carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, canine ehrlichiosis, and babesiosis. A few managed to grab some skin before we pulled them off Clem and she didn’t appear to suffer any side effects.
This campsite borders a huge amount of farm land and it is harvesting season. Our alarm clock was the running of farm equipment up and down the rows of produce that would go into our bellies. It is humbling to see the amount of work that goes into harvesting our food. Lots of people bent over, row after row, hand-picking fruits and vegetables. In one day they cleared a couple acres of fava beans. I keep thinking we could do this work for a few days to cushion our budget, but then I remember that I’m lazy and we drive on by.
Happy Birthday, Sunshine!
I don’t know why California has been a goal. It could be the warm weather, the sun, the Pacific Ocean, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. But it was. And the fact that we were in Cali for about 10 minutes before heading to Billings, MT was a (self-inflicted) tease.
We could smell the ocean before we saw it. I took this subpar photo at Seacliff State Beach just in case the world ended and this was the only glimpse we got of the big blue. I realize that my reasoning is flawed, but there you have it. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to stay here because we didn’t have a toilet in our van (there was a public restroom 20 feet away). The camping wasn’t great anyway. so there. But in the photo you can see what looks like a sunken ship at the end ofthe pier. That’s the SS Palo Alto and it’s a sunken ship at the end of the pier. It used to be a dancehall with a bar and swimming pool. Wicked. Fortunately, this was not the only glimpse of the ocean we got. Tonight we stayed at Sunset State Beach.
We arrived in California just in time for Spring Break. There are a few stressful events that we can foresee on all of our road trips. #1 The van, #2 the van, #3 the van, #4 not having a spot to park for the night. Spring Break is going to be a bit of a thorn. We scoured the California State Park website. Apparently it is pretty new and it needs work. If there is one thing you should know about Chris it is this, the boy has a preternatural ability to wait until the last minute and still get a camping spot. I get super stressed and envision our night spent in a grocery store parking lot getting harassed by the police, and it never happens. He’s lucky.
Turns out, some young partiers were kicked out of Sunset the night before we got there, so there were a couple of spots available for middle-aged, unemployed folks with no direction. There was a nice walk down to the beach where Chris and I (no dogs allowed) watched the little sandpipers run back and forth into the surf. I could watch these little guys all day. Look how cute they are! I’m having trouble uploading the sandpiper video, but here is a photo of some other adorable creatures.
Chris was able to pick up the van, get gas, and drive it to Carson City! It’s running and starting and doing all the van things that it is supposed to do. It’s still making an unusual noise, so Chris is on his way back to have the mechanic look at it again.
But it’s running, guys!
Later that day:
We took the van for a test drive around Reno. I’m embarrassed by the image I had of Reno before I even visited it. I can be a judgy bitch, and I need to work on that. There are parts of Reno that are depressed and desperate filled with casinos, pawn shops, shady law firms, and broken concrete sidewalks, but once we got away from the semi truck parking lot and industrial section, Reno was a cute town with a gorgeous, well-kempt open path lined with sculptures along the rushing Truckee River, super nice people, a cool co-op, and tasty food. Most of what we drove through was artsy, fun, and colorful. I’m a huge fan of murals and Reno had some good ones. Chris also found the nicest bookstore I have ever been to (and I’ve been to a fair share), called the Sundance Bookstore. I know Elliot Bay Books is the bomb, and I will always have a special place in my heart for bookstores that take up entire city blocks (hello Strand and Powell’s), but this one was in an old mansion. The interior appeared to have all of the original woodwork representing a perfect definition of wabi-sabi. Each room in the house held a different subject. Maps and navigation? Upstairs hall closet. Bestsellers? Living room. Kids Books? An upstairs bedroom.
I was thinking of ways to hide us all inside the giant dragon on the top floor and living there forever, but Clementine would definitely give our position away. She is the worst at hide and seek. Instead, we ended up getting some poke, and taking a nice walk along the river until it got too chilly.
I’d like to come back to Reno someday.
Still in the auto shop parking lot. Which is good, because that’s where we parked last night. After finding a nice place outside to pee (between two giant trailers), I immediately called La Quinta and reserved a room. Chris and I packed up Clementine and a couple of bags. He biked and I took a Lyft with Clem to La Quinta. Even though I asked for permission before reserving the ride, and told him I was bringing a sheet for his seats, and he could have said No, it was very clear that my Lyft driver was none too thrilled with having a dog in his car. He warmed up to me eventually and thanked me for being considerate before ranting about all of the other passengers who were not so thoughtful when bringing their pets. Of course I felt morally superior to every other passenger he had and I tipped him well.
At La Quinta we were extremely fortunate to be able to get a very early check-in. At 10a, we got in our room and crashed on the bed. Chris rode his bike to Reno to explore the area and he came back with an unexpected report. He liked it. It was cute. And there was a killer bookstore! We can’t leave Clem in the room, so I vowed to check it out tomorrow and ordered enough Indian food to feed us for a few meals. Not much else happened today. We watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Very good movie. Is there nothing Frances McDormand can’t do?
Tomorrow the plan is to get the van fixed, drive around and test out the mechanic’s work, leave Clem in the van while we explore. We decided to stay one more night in Reno just in case something else happens to the van.
We get up feeling refreshed, but less than optimistic about Speedy’s ability to fix the van. Chris is concerned that he is doing more damage than good. Vanagons are a pain. You really can’t bring it to just any mechanic. There is even a map that fellow vanagon owners have put together that show all of the knowledgeable mechanics in the U.S. It’s surprisingly sparse and there are a lot of miles we need to cover. This adds another level of complexity to planning our road trip.
Luckily, there is a user-approved vanagon mechanic in Reno that everyone says is super nice. Chris calls and he says he can look at the van on Monday. So we call AAA and tell them we need a tow to Reno (166 miles away) (thank you again for AAA, mom!). Chris rides his bike, and I walk Clementine the two miles from the motel to Speedy’s. The van is being loaded just as we get there. Burly guy of few to no words and a younger boy (apprentice?) of few to no words. They let Clementine get in the cab with us! Another journey in a tow truck begins. Has anyone ever toured the U.S. by tow truck? Could we be the first? Save gas and reduce wear and tear on your own vehicle!
We don’t talk much on the ride. The scenery is gorgeous. snow-covered mountains, yellow beige grass, wetlands, winding roads. When we get to Reno, we are dropped off at the auto shop. It is in the industrial part of Reno. We call around a few hotels, but there is a women’s aviation convention and some dog show going on. This means that all of the budget-friendly/pet-friendly rooms are taken. So we sleep in the van. in the parking lot of another auto shop. in the snow. Is it still considered “hardcore” if you whine the entire time? The surrounding area appears to be a giant parking lot filled with semi trucks and trailers. There are no bathrooms. Did I mention that it was snowing? We hadn’t eaten, we were cold, I had to pee, and we were getting cranky. Chris suggested a walk and we found an Italian restaurant/bar right around the corner that has been in the same place since 1937. I found out later that “Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, recognized Casale’s Halfway Club as the oldest continuously family-owned and operated restaurant in Reno, and possibly in the entire state.” I really only wanted to use the bathroom, but I’ve never felt comfortable doing that without purchasing something. I ordered a veggie pizza and, as a paying customer, I make my way to the ladies’ room. As I pulled open the door, I came face-to-face with a smaller, rougher version of Grandpa from Grapes of Wrath. But, the most shocking thing was the giant reciprocating saw he was holding a mere 12 inches from my face. And why was the blade red? “This does NOT look like the ladies’ room”. “Nope”.
The staff was very friendly. The pizza was just okay. Tiramasu was awesome. The restaurant was super cool.
It was a rough night of sleeping. Cold and inhospitable.
I just googled “At what point in a comedy of errors can you start crying?” Google was less than helpful.
The new starter was installed in the van this morning, and we were off and running! Just kidding. It still had trouble starting. After fussing around with it, calling in a guy on his day off, and charging the battery for way too long, we were off. It felt good to have the wind blowing through the van again. Everything was going well….until about 80 miles into the trip…the van stops accelerating, and we are on a highway heading up a pass and losing momentum (more rapidly than is typical in a vanagon). Chris downshifts and the gas pedal stops working. We are still on the highway and almost at the top of the pass. The shoulder is non-existent, traffic is coming up, and there is a nasty headwind. This is not one of my most secure moments in the van. As if the highway planners foresaw this exact event, or maybe this happens all the time, there is a fortuitous pull off for trucks right as I start to fear we may begin moving backwards. Chris barely coasts the van over, when it shuts down. We are at the very top of Emigrant Pass on I-80.
It is clear as soon as we step out of the van that:
1. AAA is going to save our ass
2. Judging by the smell (in 25-30 mph winds!) and the noxious green slough running along the side, truckers have been using this pullover to urinate for about 50 years. #vanlife
I wonder if this is where the Toxic Avenger was born.
It takes about an hour and a half for the tow truck to get there. The closest town (without backtracking), that wikipedia acknowledges as more than just a “populated place”, is Winnemucca, NV 100 miles away (thank you, mom, for the AAA plus membership!). The driver won’t let Clementine into the cab so she has to stay in the van for the duration of the ride. This does not make me happy because, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, when it comes to my dogs I am absolutely insane and completely paranoid. The driver is like every other tow truck driver I have ever met. Burly men of few to no words, but willing to talk if you find the right topic. Between Chris and I, we can talk about almost anything. This driver was an ex-miner. He quit because his mother was concerned about his safety, which I found very endearing. Our driver shared some fascinating stories with us about gold mining, and showed us mining points of interest along the way. When he dropped us off, he told me we were good people and wished us luck. He even called Chris later to see how it was going at the auto shop.
Speedy’s Automotive in Winnemucca is on the outskirts of town. It’s the only place that is willing to even look at the van before Monday. Here is a review we found online:
“Worst machine shop. The Guy that runs the shop is extremely rude. Puts other jobs in front of yours. Tells customers he is in no f***ing hurry to do the job. Will never go there again nor will I tell people to go there.”
There is a KOA and trailer park next door, and a restaurant a little less than a mile away. That’s it. We get there around 3:30p. As usual, the wind is kicking up a fuss. About an hour in, some local fellas come by and start poking around the engine with Speedy. Someone suggests that the gas pressure might be a problem, so they release a lot of gas onto the ground (no catchment bucket). I am being generous when I say that the guys waited 15 minutes before lighting up a cigarette. Clementine and I took a looooong walk faaaaaar away. Speedy works on the van until 6:30 with no luck. It’s a Friday, so he says he will be back the next day and within a few minutes is gone. As the self-proclaimed budget officer, I decide we are going to sleep in the van to save money. I’m learning on this trip that my budget decisions usually end up making us as uncomfortable as possible. After filling our bellies at the restaurant down the street and looking at the weather forecast, I admit that warmth, a clean bed, and a shower would do us good and sleeping in another auto shop parking lot in freezing temperatures would only maintain our unhappiness.
Scott Shady Court was a blast to a past I never knew but saw on TV. Check out this sign! (Photo by Chris Saulit) and the most vintage corner in any motel room I’ve ever been in.
We sleep well.
Note from Briana: I have been asking Chris to write something for my blog, since having multiple voices and perspectives lends depth to an experience. He finally sent me something this morning! Yay!
I have just been told that Chris also posted this entry on his FB page. I’m not sure how I feel about not being able to get an exclusive for my blog from my own fiancé. Luckily, he and I will be together for many, many, many hours to come so we can talk about this and what it means for our relationship, the whole world, and possibly the ramifications for the universe.
Without further ado…
Me: “Honey, on a scale of one to ten, how disappointed would you be if we never left Montana?”
Honey: “One. Wait. Which is “greatly disappointed”? Or “not disappointed’”
Me: “Ten is greatly disappointed”.
Honey: “oh, ten then. I want to get back on the road”.
We finally left Billings. The slow, drawn-out separation with Maddie was probably the best for all parties. We cuddled with her for eight days while my dad and stepmom learned how to spoil her. Reportedly, my dad broke his own ‘no dogs downstairs’ rule the day after we left, and Maddie now joins him to binge watch Netflix series.
We took a brief detour to Missoula to visit my mom, then took the slow road south through the mountains of Idaho. It always amazes me how beautiful these places are, and how desolate as well. I got to counting cars along the road: 19 between Darby to Salmon, 15 between Salmon and Challis, and 22 more between Challis and Arco. Each of those legs was over an hour in length. As I write this, we’re on a narrow two-lane highway between Twin Falls and Wells, Nevada. It’s overcast with a nasty headwind. Barren snow capped mountains in the distance disappear into the clouds.
Last time I was on this road was winter break of my last year of college, late December, 1995, on my infamous trip to Baja with Nate, Roman, and Sarah in a 1976 VW camper van. (Nate’s hopefully joining us in Georgia. Roman lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and rarely makes a peak in FB. I lost contact with Sarah after college, though I heard she’s a vet-tech near Bozeman.) I wrote a long, polished story about this trip, and it’s currently waiting for an outlet to publish it. I edited out this tidbit from the original draft:
In a remarkable display of my leadership, foresight, and planning, I concluded for the group that the most treacherous part of the drive from Missoula, Montana, to San Francisco, California, would be passing through the Sierra mountains on the Nevada/California border. Thus, I decided, we should leave Missoula in the afternoon so we could cross the pass the next day. I neglected to consider the fact we were leaving Montana the day after Christmas. We crossed the Monida pass that evening in whiteout conditions and, for technical reasons not worth the words to explain, we slowly drifted to the side of the road near Idaho Falls because the key wasn’t properly in the ignition. After skating across Pocatello on black ice (“look!” said Sarah, turning the wheel back and forth, “We’re just skating forward! It doesn’t matter what the wheel does!”) we turned off the road to Wells, Nevada.
We made it to the turn off to Wells around midnight. An hour later, along this same desolate stretch of road from where I currently write, the VW started coughing and spitting and eventually just died on the side of the road. We got out and looked at it for a few minutes wondering what to do, 2am, pitch black, just above freezing, 50 miles from the nearest sign of life. Five minutes later, a pickup pulled over and four young men got out. Marines, they said, stationed in Great Falls. Going to Vegas for New Years. They looked at the van, gave it a push, and it started.
The pass was fine.
This was the beginning of a trip that featured whales, sea turtle rescues, fluorescent algae blooms, yet overshadowed by being held up by gun point on the side of the road. I should try again at getting that published.
The second to last time I was on this road was the summer of 1986. I was 14 and went down to San Diego, where my mom had been living, to help her move back up to Ketchum. She was getting some work done on her Saab the day before we were to leave. While test-driving it out of the mechanic’s, she backed down a steep driveway, causing a loud screeching noise from the tailpipe that she didn’t think much of. We took off the next day. We pulled into Vegas to fill up, and noticed the gas tank was leaking. The loud screech the previous day was the tailpipe being jammed against the tank, and a day of driving resulted in melting a hole in the side. It was Friday evening and the Saab mechanic was closed, so we found a ‘friendly’ mom and pop shop in town who were kinda nice to us, the way vultures are nice to struggling deer in the final stages of dehydration. They worked over the weekend to replace the gas tank, and sent us on our way. We made it to Wells, Nevada, currently 8 miles up the road from where I’m writing right now. After filling up the newly replaced gas tank, we decided to try making it to Twin Falls, only to discover the car wouldn’t start. We found a mechanic in town who 1) had heard of the vultures in Vegas, 2) considered them vultures, 3) found all sorts of detritus in the replaced gas tank, and 4) it would take several days before parts came in. I forget if it was three or four days that we spent in Wells, three or four days which I have no memory of at all, but I’m sure the town hasn’t changed much.
In case you haven’t been to Wells, if you’re familiar with the video game “Fallout 3”, the wasteland is pretty much the same thing: rusted out vehicles, abandoned buildings, a constant wind, tumbleweeds tumbling across every parking lot, and two headed Brahmin bulls wandering the roads (though in Wells, they only have one head).
Thirty minutes after I wrote that entry, after we filled up with gas and let Clementine gallup through the sagebrush between the truck stop and interstate, we discovered that the starter had gone out on the VW. Luckily next to the truck stop was a mechanic, who tinkered with it briefly before concluding it was indeed dead, and the nearest replacement was in Elko, and would arrive tomorrow.
We made it!! To another mechanic. Hold those Reno bets.
Stopped in Wells on the way to Reno to get some gas, and vanagon decided that this was a good place to stop, and refused to start.
Lucky for us, we were only about 50 feet from a mechanic. Unfortunately, the starter is shot and the part won’t get here until tomorrow morning. So tonight we stay in Wells. In the gas station parking lot facing the garage. Just for reference, Wells isn’t even halfway to Reno.
Right now we are sitting in the van, which is currently locked in a long, dark tunnel at the auto shop. We are surrounded by cold concrete, white corrugated metal, tires, chains, exposed insulation, viscous fluids in 5-gallon buckets, and mechanics. But free wifi!
Outside the wind is whipping around trucks, huge tumbleweeds, skirts (mine), and gas station dust. Clementine and I ventured into the lobby for about a half hour and we met the manager’s son. He is super cute and just wanted to mush Clementine’s face. She let him. We watched Chasing Monsters and talked about dog breeds. I learned about “noodling”. Seems unfair to the catfish.
Walked a little around Wells and decided that the van was the best option for hanging out.