Maine: Down East #1

Down East #1

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Mid-summer in Maine and the campground is empty but for three other sites, although the tall fat fella in the white van with a hound dog drove out this morning. Perhaps he’s moving on? Another couple in the big sand colored tent drove by shortly after and it’s not even 8.30. Maybe I’m alone then? Is anyone else around? Time to explore, well, after the morning coffee on the rocks. Rocks on the coast, solid sit-upon boulders, smooth under bum, and slippery under paws (Harold’s).

I’ve been up for hours, the light wakes us around 5am, the lobster trawlers thunder by, deep and low in the water as I sit on those rocks with a plain coffee. The fog is so thick this morning that the boats are invisible even though voices talk back and forth over the rumble of engine and waves, tides and eddies.

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McClellan Park campground is a little known hideaway right on the ocean with ten sites for campers and tents. The road down is winding and narrow through dense woodland but easy on the vehicle, just tight, there’d be no room for anything bigger than a Sprinter. We pull off to let a sedan pass on the way up, and the couple tells me to claim number twelve.

“It’s open, a nice little bit of meadow, and just the other side of the trees is the shore.” She’s missing a tooth up front in that cheery smile of hers, and her husband says something unintelligable. They wave me off. My new neighbors.

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We camped in number twelve as directed with a hundred feet of mown grass, a ring of birch trees and the sound of the incoming tides on the rocks. The fire kept us warm although the wood Dennis, the caretaker, sold ended up being damp and green. That couple I’d mentioned though, they brought me some dry wood one morning.

“I was worried you’d be cold, that other stuff doesn’t put out much heat, does it? Here you go, your cat came by this morning. I saw him in the trees, shy isn’t he? Yes, I told Jerry we needed to bring you some wood, get you warm. It’s chilly today. They say it’ll rain tonight so cover up your stuff, won’t you?”

She’s in striped loose pajama pants, a pink checkered long sleeved shirt, and another purple layer over her shoulders, quite a colorful thick-set woman in her sixites. Her frizzled hair is held back by bright red plastic clips. Jerry wears work boots, pressed blue jeans, and a sweatshirt with Vietnam Veteran in bold white letters. His front teeth are missing, his tongue swallows his words, and his grin is like a ten-yer-old boys, all mischief and innocence. He’s about the same size too, wiry, compact, small as a pre-teen.

“You have to visit Jonesport, it’s pretty. My sister lives in Millbridge, that’s why we come here. We only live an hour away but love camping here each summer. Columbia Falls too, that’s a stop if you’re heading to Eastport. South of here, go see the ferris wheels on the beach. Jerry here was on stage for July 4th. He’s an Elvis impersonator.”

Millbridge is an odd little town in US 1, with very little by way of tourism, just a couple of stores, a diner and a mexican take-out, just what we want on the ocean, mexican food, right? I don’t find anywhere to get clam chowder, a sudden craving on these grey days. There’s a laundromat, library, bank, and a couple of churches, but no cafes or brew pubs that I can see. Bummer. I’ll not be staying here too long then. The supermarket undercharges me for the beer and I say nothing but feel guilty for a moment, and again as I write this. Oh well. I have worse regrets.

The shore is rough with a deep sudden drop from brown-stained rocks into swilling waves below. My brain imagines Harold slipping in and that fear that comes, knowing I’d jump in to save him. Probably kill us both. But I’d have to. It’s Harold. Fuck. “Get away from there!” I startle us both, he slips but not into the Atlantic.

We walk in the mornings, early, mid, late. We walk in the afternoons, every hour or so I jump up from book or laptop, “let’s go, guys.” All three pets bounce up, two dogs and a cat, and off through the trees we go, over the rocks, I sit on the grass to the east of this path and lean back. I can spend hours staring out over the ocean. This calm rejuvinates me, brings me back to myself, and reminds me of the Gower Coast in Wales. The grey skies with occassional bursts of sunshine. The salt on my skin. The damp air curling my hair. I wish there was a way to live on the coast like this, wake up each morning to stare out over the horizon and daydream in the cool breeze off the ocean. Can I? Make this a goal of mine? Why not? Or perhaps just drive along coastlines for the rest of my life? I could do that.

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My brain ticks over, the lists, the stressors, all that needs to be taken care of in the next few weeks. Instead of tackling any of this increasing number of projects and the relevant details, I make another cuppa. This is the week before I move in finally to a rental apartment in Montpelier, start work, and then college. This is problably the last break for a while. It’s time to explore then, isn’t it? So we do. We do. Gratefully.

Mosquitos follow my everywhere but the DEET works well, not that I’d want to live with it on me year in, year out. But who cares about a few weeks here and there? Toxic crap I know but it works. When I go pee though, that was a problem.

McClellan campground costs only ten dollars per site and another five for a generous bundle of (green) firewood. There’s a shower, potable water, trash cans, and a friendly host who lives near by. Yes, come here. Yes, stay a while. Millbridge is within reach of a bunch of interesting smaller villages, one’s you wouldn’t normally come across on you trip across US 1. The camping has been here since 1946, Dennis tells me, but the State only just realized it, so came a knocking over winter, demanding a licence fee, a few changes, and less sites. Dennis just took down a couple of numbers but left the picnic tables and still mows the grass in those numberless places.

“There, done.” He grins, his eyes wrinkle in mischief, “And they left. Not so bad after all. It might help that the Chief of Police runs this place and threatened the guy, but what do I care? Oh, if this fog eases up, tonight we’re meant to be able to see the Northern Lights!”

The fog only thickened though so I went to bed by nine, curled up in the camper with Harold on the front seat, Rosie in her crate (door open) and Stevie the cat at my feet, looking out the sliding window, gazing upon squirrels. We sleep deeply.

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Such utter calm and peace here, looking out over the Altlantic, I’m dreaming of a retreat, a time in a cabin on the waterfront, a deck, some shade, a place to swim, to walk the dogs, and days of peace to read, write, and create more. Yes. I’ll get right on it. Right after I finish my three years of the MFA.

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Next though, it’s Down East/ Up North. Time to find the eastern most town on the United State’s coastline. There’s a brewery there.

Time Out In Marfa, Texas

Published January 2017 with http://www.fempotential.com/marfa-texas/

Here is a copy of the text for you.

January was a good time to take a road trip, the holidays are over and nothing’s going on. Although, I’ll be honest, having been land-locked in Madrid NM for four months with only a couple of weekends away, town was feeling claustrophobic. It was driving me crazy. Winter so far in New Mexico has been pretty gentle with little snow and mild temperatures, nothing to challenge or keep me engaged. My home was finally finished enough to stay warm and comfortable, and with that in mind, I rented it for a week onAirbnb, packed the camper van, and took off south. I needed a break. I needed a plan of action. What next? How can I make a living as a travel writer? Or as a traveling writer? What’s the big deal about Marfa? Why go there?

Marfa, TX is a small town of 2,000 in far western Texas near the Davis Mountains. Big Bend National Park is 135 miles due south.  Would I head that far south? Who knew.

The night before I left town, it snowed. A good few inches covered the roads and Ortiz Mountains and in a 2wd van, the worries got to me and I didn’t sleep so well. Should I take the interstate instead of a country highway? Which would be safer? Highway 285 was shorter but would there be enough traffic to be safe? Ah, to hell with it, I needed an adventure. Highway 285 from Santa Fe was mostly clear but for some slush and a few snow banks, the traffic was light, and my pets cranky. Rosie, a lab mix, couldn’t settle down. She’d sit in the passenger seat, bounce down, push Harold off the bed in the back. Repeat. For nine hours. Stevie, the cat, hid under the bed, sulking. Poor Harold, a big baby of an Akita mix, shrugged at Rosie’s pacing energy. I drank cold coffee and kept on driving. I needed a time-out. Just like Rosie.

So, yes, why did I head to Marfa? Probably because the forecast was for it to be warm enough for tee shirts in the afternoons, plus some good friends of mine love the place. Suzie is an artist and she’d told me some of the history of Marfa. In the 1970’s, a famous New York artist, Donald Judd moved out to Marfa and created an outdoor sculpture garden of his works in concrete. The Chinati Foundation has become one of the major draws to the town, with celebrities, artists of all mediums, and tourists who all flock to the compound on the edge of town. There is also her favorite place, the Hotel Paisano, where James Dean last acted in a movie before his death. Marfa is now known for its history, the Hotel Paisano, the art galleries, the Public Radio station, and even the Marfa Music Festival in March. It has a lot to live up to.

We arrived late that weekend night and set up camp at Tumble In RV campground on the eastern side of town. I’d picked it deliberately for the proximity to town, its claim to having a walkable path into the downtown district (it didn’t), and a space for tents and campers not just RVs. Late at night, a sub-freezing night, after nine hours driving through snow half of that time, I was depleted and yes, as cranky as my critters. Tumble In was not as I’d hoped. The tent camping area is a bare patch of cut tumbleweeds with strips of gravel to show where to park. No shelter, no picnic tables, no grills or firepits. It was basically a parking lot. I hated it. So did the dogs and Little Stevie, my cat. Too many burrs, no shade, nowhere to walk as we were fenced in by barbwire and three-foot tall weeds. The shower in the morning made up for it. That and a cup of coffee.  Then once refreshed and in a better mood, I looked for a camp host but no, there wasn’t one, just a self-check in booth within a vintage travel trailer. Walking the pups around the RV park, I noticed the overflow area to the rear of the land, closer to the railway but away from the highway and parking lot. With no one to tell me otherwise, I set up camp back there and with Stevie locked in the camper, the dogs and I walked along the path to town. We had to scramble quite a bit so don’t expect a clear pathway to follow, we crossed an arroyo and down a sandy bank to get to a paved street.

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It was a Sunday morning, the church bells were ringing, and having drunk a good cup of coffee at the van, my mood improved with the sunshine and clear skies. The railway was surprisingly busy with three trains shipping containers and vehicles eastward all morning, yet I was still able to let the dogs run free along the track for a while. Until the rabbits tempted them onto the highway to the south of us and my tensions grew again. Damn it. I came here to relax, right? Putting them on leashes is never an easy accomplishment –  they’re country dogs and I’m lazy. Oh well. You do what you have to.

Judd’s minimalist aesthetic really has taken a hold of town; it was a quirky mix of old adobe structures, with rusted iron window frames and clean lines of new concrete. I liked the juxtaposition of old and new but how was it for the long-term residents to see their homes and town be so gentrified? The streets were empty though, that sleepy Sunday feeling perhaps? No, the rest of the week there, it was rare to see anyone walking around. There were few options for hanging out or talking to locals. There were few options for distractions from other people at all. I was alone with my thoughts as usual.

Walking down Austin Street, I came across a laundromat with a handful of folks sitting outside sipping coffees. Frama café didn’t exactly advertise itself but word of mouth and being the only café to be found, it stayed busy enough I guess. I got to chat a little to the others sitting outside, one fella brought Harold and Rosie a bowl of water, and we talked art, travels, and Texas. Most of them were new to town with a newcomer’s energy for the place. I still hoped to find a local who’d grown up in Marfa but never did. The latte was great though but a bagel or something to eat would have helped. Ice cream was the only option, and although it was tempting I didn’t get any. Another time perhaps? Nope, I stuck to coffee there for the next few days. It became our routine to walk to town mid-morning, exploring the four corners of town, and finishing up at Frama. Where was the breakfast place? I lived off the odds and ends in the cooler at the van instead. Oh well. My expectations were nicely lowered after a few days and I began to enjoy town for what it offered. Even the Tumble In campground grew on me for being bare bones, with hot water, little interaction and no one watching over my critters running free.

With a full moon, the Marfa Lights were not to be seen. Have you heard of them? First noticed in the 1880s by a cowboy, there is still no solid explanation for these colored lights that dance in the dark nights outside on Highway 90. My timing once again was against me; it was too bright for me to see anything. Next time? I’d better do some research before I head on another trip as this one to Marfa was the most disorganized possible. My timing sucked constantly. The best part for me in Marfa was that we walked everywhere for a week. The rest of my days I filled my notebook with web addresses and contact info for freelance writers. Researching different tangential ideas kept me busy and the sketch book let me switch off the word-brain in the evenings. As there were few businesses open at the start of the week, and little to see with high-end stores offering treats for the wealthy, but still I got to relax. I enjoyed wandering the wide empty western streets. Trucks slowed down for the pups and I, waved at us, and carried on slowly out of town. Wherever I wandered, I’d see the Presidio Courthouse. It’s an incredibly beautiful old three-story building that fills the town plaza with all roads bringing you back to the spires. It dates back to 1886 and I walked inside one afternoon, curious to see if I could climb the tower to look out the windows facing each direction. It was closed for cleaning but still worth climbing the wooden stairs that opened onto lawyer’s offices on each level based around a central rotunda. I was alone and the peace of the extensive views impressed me deeply, a sense of history and wonder.

 

Hotel Paisano was just around the corner and it quickly became my afternoon choice. The Trost building dates to 1929, and opened only just before the Great Depression. It became a place for ranchers and tourists to stay as they crossed Texas. In 1955 Warner Bros came to town to film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Jett’s Bar is named after Dean’s character and the walls are covered with old photographs from that era. I sat at the bar one day, eating a salad from their limited menu, and chatted to Herb who was visiting. He came from Las Cruces, NM, and was a pilot for a wealthy family who’d come to Marfa for hunting but he didn’t specify what or where.  With a beer in hand, I then sat outside and that’s where I recommend fully. The building is Spanish style with a main courtyard with a fountain and tables in sun and shade. Perfect. I sat and read and listened into the conversations around me. I came back two other afternoons. Now that made me feel like I was truly on holiday. Finally.

The small-town logistics could be challenging for some city folk but since I live in Madrid, NM with a population of 350, this wasn’t a big impact on me. There were limited options for eating out, I didn’t find a decent grocery store, nor ATMs but then again, I’d come with a wallet of cash and a cooler of food in the camper van. I have a feeling my timing really was off, and that in spring and summer, town wakes back up. I’m okay with that though. I like low-key artsy towns. With no traffic lights, Marfa lulled me into a slower pace of life. It worked its magic on me. Afternoons, I’d sit outside the van in the sun and draw out quirky characters or I’d brainstorm on how to keep traveling and writing for a living. I came up with some ideas but it’s hard to make it freelance. I figured out that it’s worth me faking it until I make it. That’s the best I can do for myself.

The Chinati Foundation finally drew me in on the last day in the area. I put down my notebook and we drove over there early one morning. I’d not been too keen to be honest, as a field of concrete sculptures didn’t appeal. It was free so why not, right? I’m glad I went though. With the critters set up in the camper parked in the shade of a huge Cottonwood, I wandered into the main building and asked for the self-guided tour of the gardens. The young woman behind the counter waved me over to the path and asked me not to climb the structures. Nothing more than that, no stories, no information, just “Stay off”.

Okay, okay, so walking down past the other buildings, I strode down the slight hill to the open land with a stripe of fifteen groups of concrete slabs. From north to south, there are Judd’s famous works in concrete, a very minimalistic contemporary feel that reminds me of inner cities in the seventies. Unprepared for the magical energy, I stood and stared at the first group. Three structures made of upright walls of concrete with another identically sized slab across the top. An open-ended room in a sense. Walking to the next group, it occurred to me that I was alone on this kilometer-long pathway. In the field nearby, a small herd of Pronghorn antelope watched me nervously.

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Slowly as I wandered around these works, a peace settled on me, reminiscent of living at a Buddhist retreat in the UK years ago. A calmness came from the simplicity of how Judd played with one size of solid cleanly poured concrete slabs, putting them together in different figurations. There was nothing to explain why it appealed to me so much but an hour later, I walked out of Chinati with a relaxed smile and feeling expansive. Yep, I’d go back. First though, it was time to head north to Madrid, NM, to set up my home for another vacation rental. Yes, Marfa. I get it now. And I had a plan.

Travel can help people in so many ways. One woman took a time out type of trip to Marfa, Texas, and was inspired with a plan for her future as a travel writer.

Van Life: Exploring the Northwest with two dogs, a cat and a van

It’s true. A new book of my travel stories just came out. It’s a work in progress so forgive the mistakes, I’m working on it! This travelogue follows our adventures in the Northwest, the details about the small places we found along the way, the people we met, and the critter’s advice when I was having a hard time. Lighthearted and engaging.

Thanks!

Anacortes, WA and beyond

Dirt pile. Tall and wide. Thick forests. Cranky cat. Tired driver. Dogs restless. I pull over and let everyone out. We’re hidden behind this huge dirt pile, nose of van poking out, me squatting like Rosie. Finally a moment to stretch our legs after a long and wonderful day. But long. I’d been driving for too long.

We’d left Anacortes earlier that day, not a great place for Stevie, but the marina was good for me. Watching all the sailboats on the water, hearing the chatter from the sails flapping, the chance to do laundry, walk the dogs on a beach, sit at an outdoor bar, yes it was worth $20 a night.

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Taking the ferry across from Couperville to Port Townsend on the July 4th weekend, we were lucky to get tickets on their busiest weekend. Not being sure how the critters would fare on the ferry, I’d stopped earlier on an empty beach for us all to wander round until they chose to get back inside. Perfect. On the ferry, because of the size of the van, I got to park up front, facing out on that grey morning. I tied Stevie down, gave everyone a treat, closed up the windows and left them too it as I explored. Love ferries.

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On the Olympic peninsula my day went downhill. The noise in the van was back, sometimes. The critters were tired of being inside. And I had no idea where we’d camp. That’s what it often boils down to. If I don’t have a plan, I’m stressed, needing a focus point. Which brings me back to that gravel pile on the side of a small road heading west from Clallam Bay across to Ozette, it was the last chance at a campground, all the others had been fully booked and the forest roads were neither obvious nor easy for a van like mine.

A volvo pulled up. Fuck. Really? I wave frantically at the car, asking it to slow down, give me time to grab the cat who is standing in the open. Stevie in hand, I walk back to the van, muttering evil thoughts to myself. Why here? Why not park somewhere else?

“Harold!” A voice calls out behind me. Stevie tucked in the van, I turn to see Dawn climb out of the Volvo, another woman with her. My brain can’t compute. Huh.

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“Dawn? Is this Annie? Dawn? How the hell?”

Dawn’s laughing, Harold is barking, Rosie is running around like a dervish, and Annie says “hello Sleam, I’ve heard about you! Dawn recognised Harold and the van. You’re not camping here are you?”

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Lake Ozette, a little used national park campground, rustic, bathrooms but nothing else, pack-it-in and pack-it-out. I follow the volvo as we drive through the campground once. It’s full. There is nowhere else. Damn. I’m tired and hungry but no longer worried. My closest friend is here, Dawn! She lives in Seattle, we’d met in Madison twenty plus years ago, and she’d even joined me just a week ago camping near Arlington. I’d not expected to see her again for a few years…

“IS that a campsite?” Annie asks as we walk around, stretching our legs. “It is! Quick, claim it, stay here, I’ll go get the car.”

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Dawn and I hang out in the small clearing, and catch up on the last week’s adventures, laughing at the chances of running into each other here, in the middle of nowhere. Annie pulls up, opens up the Volvo, and the dogs find her cooler.

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La Push, and Mora National Park campground is the next day’s goal. Independence Day, and we are lucky to find a secluded site in the trees, with a sense of privacy unexpected in a place with over 90 sites. Stevie gets to run around too, always the hope. The ravens hated him though, would dive at him, crow at him, harrass him, until he froze in the trees and I’d fetch him back to the motel van. Poor bugger. The eagles hovered over the beaches. Washington coast was not a kitty friendly place, just so you know.

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The next couple of days were perfect. Dawn, Annie, and I made great meals, campfires, sat and chatted until tired, and then since Dawn knew the area, we went to her favourite beaches and walked in the rainy afternoons. Yep, I liked it. Rialto Beach is worth visiting. Even on a busy weekend like July 4th, we had the space to run and hang out and not feel the pressure of containing my pups too much.

Dawn and Annie left me there, duty called back in the city. For me, the sea called. The dogs and I walked as often as we could, and in the mornings it was quiet enough to let Stevie wander on the sand with us.
And that my friends is all I experienced of the Olympic Peninsula. Oh, apart from all the signs for that bigotted presidential candidate that made my stomach turn and the van keep driving. Southwards…

Travel by numbers

“How much did you spend on gas? How many miles did you drive? What did the campgrounds cost? Did you need mechanical work? How much did the van cost?”

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We’re a practical bunch. We want facts and figures. None of this anecdotal crap. Just the facts. Well, some of my friends are scientists, statisticians, more focused on the details than the stories. Me, I’m more of an impressionist than realist, but this is for the rest of you. And no, I didn’t total and summarize any of it. That’s your job. I was too busy dipping fingers and toes in mountain lakes and paddling on ocean beaches.

Numbers of

  • $ spent on mechanics: 716
  • times I thought I’d lost the cat: 8
  • scars on my left hand from grabbing cat and throwing him back in the van: 5
  • times Harold had diarrhea in the van: 2
  • miles driven on Interstates: 346
  • times I spilt coffee in the van: 2
  • weeks on the road: 10
  • motel cost: 76
  • campground fees: 236
  • times I stepped in diarrhea in the van: 2
  • cold plunges in alpine lakes: 6
  • nights spent in a motel: 1
  • books read: 47
  • $ spent on laundry: 54
  • walks per day with dogs and cat: 3
  • walks per day with just the dogs: 3
  • times I bought gas: 26
  • miles driven: 7843
  • times I was scared: 1
  • $ spent on firewood: 15
  • $ in the weekly envelope (budget): 150
  • times I overspent my budget: 6
  • weeks spent on the Oregon Coast: 3
  • nights slept on the beach: 5
  • times Rosie puked in the van: 2
  • Gallons of gas used: 409
  • $ spent on beer: too much
  • $ spent on the road trip: enough

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I’d do it again.

 

 

Montana on my mind

IMG_20160613_154940214_HDRHebgen Lake is just ten miles outside of West Yellowstone in the Gallatin National Forest and covers 12,350 acres. It’s full of heron, cranes, ducks and fishermen on lightweight inflatable pontoons. Highway 20 heads west and just before you hit the KOA campground you need to watch out for the local Fire Dept. on the right and turn up that dirt road. There is no sign or street number but it will lead you to two campgrounds about another ten miles in. The first campground costs and has a host, oh, and water. The second campground is slightly further in to the forest and is free, primitive, and on a first come basis. I was the second there. It’s beautiful. I can breathe again after the claustrophobic Yellowstone National Park.

 

The campground offers six sites, all with table, fire pit and a level place to call home. The vault toilets are at the turn around and really clean. It was perfect there, the water right outside the van just beyond the tree line. The wildlife floated by. The critters ran free and safe. That first night was cold and wet though, we stayed inside the van and once again I was incredibly happy that I bought Vera for this trip. She’s made life easy on us all.

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Back into town, a wondrously tourist focused town outside the park, with everything (almost) named after either moose or grizzlies. Yep, that kind of town. The people in the stores and bakery were super friendly and I spent some time chatting to Mary in the market about the lake and working in town. Short, stocky, and with an open soft face, she grew up there and loved meeting all the visitors. Good for her, it helps when traveling to feel welcome, that’s for sure. Ernie’s bakery up the road had freshly made croissants, and Ernie originally came from France, so yes, the croissant were the best they could be, so that’s where I went in the mornings. Free Internet to send out the articles, reply to email and post a video slideshow. Pretty good starts to my days on the lake.

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We had a social night at Cherry Creek campground. One night was just myself and the mystery tenter who didn’t appear till after I’d gone to bed. The next night the place was packed. All sites taken and more people driving in and back out again. Next to me were two young women from New Hampshire. Elizabeth was a thirty-year-old red head with high energy who invited herself to sit at my campfire.
“I’ve talked to no one by Victoria for a week!” and she stood there sipping a can of PBR, restless and moving constantly, she found more wood for the fire.
Victoria joined us, a wholesome blond, clean and conservative who described herself as high maintenance. Her first camping trip apparently and she’d come along because they’d both quit working for an oil company and needed an adventure. She talked of God, of Heaven, and the “super conservative Christian school”, and then offered me a hit of weed.

A.J, the tenter, was about 5’8, thick of body, an outdoorsman with thick red beard and in his early thirties. “Maybe it’s because I’m a dude” was his phrase often used. A couple in a 1980s motorhome and Butter, their corgi, also joined us. (Stevie was hidden in the van during social hour.) More couples chatted briefly, coming and going. Easy company for the most part and I realized I’d been alone for much of the last two weeks but hadn’t noticed!

 

On Hwy 287 North towards Helena, MT, and along the Madison River the weather dropped back to cold, damp, and with snow in the mountains just above us. The trees dripped and the windshield wipers worked luckily, I’d not tested them beforehand. Over the pass and alongside Quake Lake into a wide lush green valley, and we stop at the riverside for a snack and walk. The rain though sends us all back into the van shortly.

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Past Helena, I find the turn off for NF 695, looking for the next free campground in the Beaverhead Deerlodge Forest. Construction stops us, and Janet, the flagger explains that they’ve widened, repacked, and are grading the road for the next six miles into the forest. Finally I’m allowed to go and following the lead truck, I drive slowly uphill. The truck pulls over and waves me on. I’ve not been paying attention to distances but when the road steepens incredibly and winds up into a wet narrow gorge, I figure I’ve missed the campground. I find a turn out and slowly do a three point turn and then pull off to the side and stop. Doors open, critters out, time for a snack and cuppa tea. There are no views; it’s too narrow and thick with pine and ponderosas. After half an hour of relaxing, stretching out the kinks, and watching the pets explore, we head back down to construction zone and sure enough the campground is in the middle of it. Nope, we’re not staying there. So what’s next? Looking at the map, it’s only another 100 miles to Seeley Lake, one of the places recommended to me. Okay, so back to Highways 141 through the Avon Valley, a quick trip along Hwy 200, and finally north on 83 at Clearwater Junction and the Blackfoot River.

 

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No signs from the Lolo National Forest show me the way, but I’d watched the odometer and noticed when we were at about the right distance from Seeley lake town. The dirt road to the left took us down along the lakeside and I pulled over, not sure what to expect. I left Stevie inside and took the dogs further down the road for a scout out. We found a perfect dispersed campsite just half a mile down so we claimed it with the van as soon as I could. Good timing as another van trundled past just as we set up camp!

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The rain lingered but it was still beautiful. The table made a good kitchen with a view and the short path to the lake brought us out on a smaller lake with snow-capped mountains towering above us. The clouds descended and the rain came back. The van called and I took my mug of wine inside, following the dogs and Stevie to the bed.

 

FLATHEAD LAKE

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Am I in Wales? The wind whips around me, and I zip up the rain jacket, standing next to this incredibly huge grey lake, the waves slapping against the beach and scaring poor sensitive Harold. Rosie takes it in stride and wants to swim as usual. We walk along the waters edge here in Bigfork and take it all in. Stevie is leashed in the van so he can’t jump out when we get back. He’s so comfortable traveling now that whenever he sees me grab the dog leashes, he jumps down from his shelf, wanting to come with us. There is a brewery looking over the lake and since it’s noon, I figure why not! Yep, dogs in van, smartphone in hand, I have a couple of lagers and watch the storm outside.

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HUNGRY HORSE RESERVOIR

 

The road in is well marked, leading us to the dam and the lake’s 50 plus mile length. The road is NF 895, and well maintained, so much so that motorhomes and trailers head in the same direction. I know that beyond the first four campgrounds that are in the first ten miles, I’ll find a primitive campground perfect some 24 miles in. Only four sites, no water, and limited access. Perfect. The weather is still stormy but after a couple of beers, I’m okay with that. The trees drip moss, and the undergrowth is thick and healthy.
Then we turn south and suddenly the lake opens up before me. Stunning. Deep, wide, a dark grey, and high barren alpine mountains covered in snow, yep, that’s where we spending the night.

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Our campsite faces the Flathead Range and the Great Bear Wilderness area with Elk Mtn at 7389 ft., Mt Cameahwait at 7879, and Felix Peak at 7996, all snow packed.

 

I pull out the union suit and put on the Sorrel boots for warmth as we all explore. It feels safe so I let Stevie walk with us. He’s pretty focused on us these days and follows along with the dogs, going where they go, trying to keep up. Then if he loses sight of me, he meows until I whistle and then he pops back into range. Good fella. I sit by the lake with a mug of wine and suck it all in. Beautiful. There is so much out there that I feel pressed to keep moving, I’m having a hard time sitting still in any one place. This then is a trial run, a testing ground, and yes, I’ll have to come back with more time and no deadlines.

I had a rough night, couldn’t sleep, restless legs, twitching, and then the hail and snow started. All four of us on the bed cuddled for warmth. I had a moments panic at the thought of driving out of here on snowy roads but then let it go, there was nothing to be done. The snow didn’t stick anyway. It is June, and here I am in long johns and layers…I like it.

 

 

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

 

Now this is my kind of park, laid back, little used, not the crowded claustrophobia of Yellowstone. The entrance to the North Fork area is a small welcoming log home down a two-lane dirt road. The ranger is friendly and even gives the pups a treat each. Nothing for Stevie, she wasn’t expecting that. We chat for a moment about the roads in to this side of the park and she tells me that they’re both fine, either the 6 miles to Bowman Lake or the 15 miles to Kintla Lake. She recommends Bowman though. “The ranger there likes dogs, the other one is more protective of his station. I’d take them to Bowman, it’ll be easier on you all.”

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Past Pinebridge, a small town of thirty people with an incredible bakery, the road narrows to one lane, winding back and forth up into dense forests, in and out of trees with hints of the Glacier Mountains ahead. The road is better than mine at home which is funny as all the write ups about this lake and area had bitched about the horrible rough road, to the point where I’d almost not come thinking I needed the 4Runner or something. Nope, any old car can do it, just drive slowly around the potholes and up the switchbacks. No biggy.

 

BOWMAN LAKE

 

A high glacier fed lake, almost ten miles long and yet narrow, is so clear and pristine, it took away my need to do, to move, to photograph or to write. I just sat on the water’s edge with two dogs on leashes and stared. For a long time, we just sat there. The lakes, the campgrounds, the hiking trails all were in a hushed awe of this lake. Phenomenal.

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I took photos, I can’t describe it, the peaceful beauty, and knowing that one day it will dry up and be gone. I’m lucky to see this. To share this. Of 150 glaciers noted in 1916 when the park system came about, there are now only twenty-five glaciers left, and those are shrinking. The mountains to the north of us were all ranged from Square Peak at 8777 ft. to Rainbow Peak at 9891 and had snowcaps but not nearly as much as I’d expected.

 

Young elk wander through the campgrounds and stop at my table as I read some ten feet away. We look each other, the soft fur on the antlers impresses me, they aren’t and move along to the next visitors. Dogs and cat luckily are inside the van with doors shut. You see, I’m made the mistake of letting the dogs off leash while I opened up the van to put them back inside and Rosie ran. Into the road, caught a squirrel, killed it with one quick bite, and left the proof of hunting nature in the middle of that damn road! I threw the dogs inside, grabbed the shovel and picked up the body and hid it in the trees… It’s not a good place for my critters, all on leashes, especially Stevie as the signs warn of mountain lions lurking in the area, being “active”.

“You might lose a pet if unattended or leashed out of your sight.”

Oh shit, that’s about as real a threat as I can deal with. All three pets are on lock down. I won’t stay here long, just enough to stare at the lake and absorb as much of this peace and beauty as possible.

 

We head back down to Pinebridge the next day and buy a pastry, a Brie and turkey fresh from the oven pastry. Delicious. Driving down the North Fork road towards Columbia Falls takes us an hour and a half, what with slow going rough roads, elk and deer sightings, checking out the Flathead River, more stops to pee and stretch, and to unleash the hounds. So many places to camp in the Flathead Forest, if (when) I come back to Glacier National Park, we’ll set up camp out here and drive it to sight see. The road widens and speeds up as we get closer to town and then hitting the main highway west, we aim for Libby, Montana, our last night in the state.

 

LIBBY

 

I miss the turn off; I’d been looking at the sign for a local brewery, tempted but not enough to detour. It’s been a long day and I want to stop and settle for the night. Driving up a narrow canyon on an empty highway towards Canada, I pull over at the Ranger’s station. Yep, wrong way. I’m on Hwy 37 and not 567. Tough, I’m not going back. We pull off at the first national forest road, drop down another dirt road and end up on the riverside in an obviously used dispersed campsite. That’s good enough for me. I step out and take a breath, look around, yep, feels safe. Unleash the hounds.

 

The Kootenai River flows shallow and clear. The railway tracks are surprisingly busy with freight trains heading to Canada. I wave to the drivers and one blows the horn back. I salute with my mug of tea. The critters play and explore. I make dinner as the clouds build and rain drizzles once again. Montana has been damp and beautiful.

 

Leaving in the morning is a relaxed affair, but for Stevie running into the trees when a train came by and he wasn’t near the van. I lost sight of him for a while but when I walked into the trees calling him, he called back. We found each other, little bugger.

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I drove out of the campsite, relaxed and ready for another good day. I drove and drove, finding us up high on a dirt gravel single lane road heading east. The wrong way in other words. I kept going and we came out on Hwy 2 about thirty miles east of Libby, and it had taken us an hour to get there. My day was not starting out so smoothly after all. It went downhill from there. Three campgrounds later, some found, some not, we settled in at Garfield Bay in Idaho. Tired now. But we’re in Idaho! Time to put the kettle on. Oh, and find Stevie again…

Good days and bad days

We woke up as the sun came over the snow capped mountains. I opened the doors and Harold and Rosie ran outside to sniff and pee next to Elk River, full of snowmelt and tree trunks flashing past our campsite. The sun warms me as I set up the coffee and light a fire. The dogs run free. Stevie sits in the doorway, stretching and relaxed. He pops down and follows Harold into the little clump of five-foot ponderosas. Then he catches up with Rosie in the tall grass and sage bushes that cover the open range to the north of the van. The coffee brews as I get dressed and the fire catches light and gives off a warmth that I crave. I hunker down next to it, sipping and watching the critters play together.

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Good days. Yep, we have good days. Like today, we have the safety and space to stretch our legs in peace and quiet. The river’s waves are the soundtrack. The sun marks the time of day. The routines are established. Coffee. Fire. Small walk with Stevie included. Put him back inside the van and close the doors as I feed him. Big two mile walks with dogs. Back for their breakfast, releasing the cat, and second cup of coffee for me. The fire needs tending and I sit next to it as I drink and feed it with down and dead wood found near by. I fill the bucket with ice-cold water and wash myself. I stretch for half an hour but Rosie likes to step under my version of downward dog so that’s not as easy as it could be. The sun is up fully and warm so it’s time for shorts and a tee shirt. The critters find their spots and lie down for another nap. Stevie is most comfortable on his shelf with my clothes, peering down up on us. I wash my smalls (socks and the such) in the bucket and hang them out to dry. Breakfast for me next, chopped veggies, left over chili, and an egg for this morning. I read as the fire dies down, finish the chapter, and wash the dishes.
Not a bad start to the day here in the valley north of Steamboat Springs. It’s taken us five days to cover about 600 miles. This might take a few months to get to Oregon…

 

Bad days. Yep, we have bad days. Two days of them, in a row, and I was exhausted, figuring out if I should head home and leave Stevie with friends. Or would he be happier staying even if fighting us constantly?

Fifty miles or so north of Salida, Colorado, we’re driving up another mountain pass on hwy 24 when the family has a melt down, all but Rosie.

Me: too much coffee and not enough to eat.

Harold: bum tum, needs to get out fast.

Stevie: “Let me out! Let me out! I can’t stand this! It’s too much. I hate you all. I hate you all. I’ll rip you to shreds if you don’t let me out. NOW!”

 

I pull over at the peak of the pass in a layby and let the dogs out. I grab Stevie and attach a leash and a rope to that. I open the door and he makes a run for it, through the trees, heading away from the family and the van that he hates so much. He’s all over the place, panting and wheezing and having a panic attack. I hold the rope and follow him around, hoping he’ll wear himself out. Finally he pees under a pinion and wheezes as he walks slowly back to the van and jumps in and finds his water bowl. I unloop the rope but attach his leash to the crate inside so that he can’t make a jump out of a window or door if he has another panic attack.
I eat some sandwiches, and Harold hides behind the trees making funny noises. Rosie just sniffs and wanders round before begging for the crust. I’m exhausted. How do I do this when Stevie hates it so much? Was it wrong of me to bring him along? I don’t know but that morning was the hardest this week. His anguish tore me up.

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Later that day, we arrived at Crosho Lake, a small 30-acre lake in the Flat Tops outside of Yampa, Colorado. It’s a glorious little deep blue pond surrounded by snow covered mountains and untouched ponderosas and aspens. Local fishers park just past this free National Forest campground and for some reason I’m uneasy. The dogs jump out and explore as I set up camp. Stevie is inside the van still. Harold and Rosie chase something up through the trees behind me and Harold comes back with ears down, looking uneasy. The trucks come and go, loud voices and louder music. I’m uneasy. I’d hoped to stay here a couple of nights but we don’t. I keep Stevie on a rope at all times, even though it means that his morning walk is a scramble through the woods with me trying gamely to keep up. It works though, he’s worn out by the time we get back to the van and he simply jumps up to his happy place, the clothes shelf. His leash is then tied to the crate again. This valley, as beautiful as it is, is not safe for us. I pack up, douse the fire, and we head for Steamboat Springs north of here by only 80 miles. We drive up and down huge mountain passes in the Rockies; the Continental Divide is my constant companion on this trip it seems. The van, known as Vera Danell VanDreamy McLeamy, climbs and descends these mountains without a hiccup. From 6800 feet to 13,541 and back to 7900 feet in half an hour. No worries, mate.

 

In Steamboat, I find a pet store and explain the stress on my poor kitty. Susan finds me some calming treats, but they’re for dogs so she calls the manufacturer and asks about giving them to a cat. No worries we’re told. I also get some Rescue remedy for us all. Susan chatted to me a while, easing my tension with simple conversation. Oh, and next door was a liquor store so I got a six-pack for my own mental health. Rescue remedy in the water bowls for the critters and direct into mouth for me. I take the dogs for a walk downtown and along the river, it’s great, I like the style and the feel of the place. I’ve left Stevie with the special dog treat and laced water, hoping for a mellower cat.

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Susan, from the pet store, recommended Elk River Road, which was on my research list as a place of camping in the forests and it’s good that a local tells me the same. We find the turn off and pull off on the NF 400 dirt road until I see some dispersed campsites by the river. A few others are camped here and I find a space with fire pit and obvious parking spot a short distance away. I step out alone and take a breath. It feels safe. I have no strange fears or creeping nerves. I open the doors and let the critters out. We walk, all of us, Stevie unleashed and free, and he does his happy skip and follows Harold. It’s a good day. Finally.

 

Good days and bad days. I have to listen to my instincts. I can’t keep to a rigid plan if the campsite isn’t good for all of us. When it’s a short term, one night, we have to stop kind of a place; I’m okay with keeping everyone on leashes and ropes. It’s temporary. They all walk pretty well on leash, the dogs follow my lead, and at other times, I have to follow Stevie’s. At night, I research other options, the next places along the route I’ve roughly planned for us. I consider distances and keep our driving days to 150 miles maximum. The mornings are spent with walks, campfires, and breakfast. If we’re staying and it’s therefore safe for us all, the doors are open and we laze around, in and out of the van, napping for the critters, and fiddling around for me. I check out the next destination for reviews online (when I have the Verizon connection) and descriptions, looking for small lightly used NF and BLM campgrounds that are free, or close to. Places that aren’t too closed in but where the dogs and hopefully Stevie can walk safely with no surprises. It’s a process, working out what we need now that Stevie is with us. Shade for the van in the daytime. Little traffic. Quiet and calm. That’s the goal.

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Today though is a good day. Rosie has been amusing herself playing in the dirt. Harold naps on my (our) bed. Stevie naps on his shelf. I did the laundry, read, cooked, and cleaned up before reading some more. The afternoon will be much of the same.

 

 

WYOMING

 

Finally, we made it out of Colorado. It took me a week to drive 700 miles, a roundabout kind of a route through the Rockies and up into southern Wyoming. I’d heard of a small rustic campground in the Dinosaur National Monument but on further research found that the road was severely rutted after winter and hadn’t been fixed yet. My attitude to Vera the Van is slightly more timid and cautious than with Faith the 4Runner. This is my home now, I need to take no extra risks than are necessary. With map and smartphone in hand, the back up plan was to shange directions and head towards Willard, Colorado and then north towards Saratoga, WY. That’s where we are, but again, not as originally planned.
The BLM campground (the turn off is at mile marker 17 on Hwy 130) was so flooded there was no road, no tent sites, and no river as such. It looked like swamp lands of Alabama. I parked near by, took my shoes off, and we splashed our way around, taking photos, and watching Rosie dive in and out of the puddles and running river. Then the mosquitos found me.

Back at the van, Stevie was unimpressed and sat inside. I made a cup of tea, slathered DEET all over me and sat down to work out what next. This is the good side of driving slowly and not very far every few days, I’m not tired or stressed. Hundred and fifty miles at most every other day, this will take months to get to Oregon! The animals are more relaxed and at ease with this pace too, even the cat. When plans change, I have the time to sit and find another place for the night. This time it was to head back into Saratoga to the city owned fee campground on their wildlife reservoir. It’s empty, spacious, and full of birds, including a whole flock of cranes, magestically swooping overhead to land in the water and float by. Over and over again. Peacefull. The slight storm last night kept the sky colorful and the rain soft against the roof. It was a great way to fall asleep.
The doors are open, and all four of us went for a walk this morning along the lake. The mosquitos are the only downside but more goop and they leave me alone. Rosie is sleeping under the table in the shade, Stevie and Harold are in the van on the bed. Coffee, walk, breakfast, cleaning up, and stretching, that’s how I start my days.

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This afternoon, we’re heading into Saratogo itself. There is a library so I can get internet and send off my articels, check emails, and research Lander Wyoming. The other charming thing about this town of 1450 is the hobo hot springs downtown, with showers and a park. That will be my reward for doing my homework, oh there’s a brewery within a block. Yep. A good day.

 

 

 

 

Taking Cat Stephen for a ride

Taking Cat Stephen for a ride. Okay, so Cat Stephen is more commonly known as Little Stevie, a somewhat feral cat that came to our home when only a few weeks old.

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He’s an indoor/ outdoor kitty, a fierce tiger at home. This is his first camping trip. We’ll see how he does. Since I worry about the little bugger at home, I figure I can worry about him on the road as well. He’s wearing a harness these days, and he’s tied up to a thin leash that is attached to the van itself. This way he can’t jump out when I’m stopped for gas or to stretch my legs.

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Day one in the van with two dogs and a cat went surprisingly smoothly. The first mile out of my place is dirt road, shaking up the van nicely, and Stevie was contained in the large soft carrier. He didn’t like the noise. He didn’t like being contained. It was loud. For about ten minutes. He protested. I reassured. Rosie looked out the window and Harold looked worried.

 

North of Ojo Caliente, about an hour and a half from home, I pulled off onto a Forest Service road and let the dogs out. I opened up the windows, pulled down the screens, and let Stevie out of the carrier. With a bowl of water and the freedom to stretch his legs a little in the peace of a stopped vehicle, I left him to it. Five or ten minutes later, we returned, the dogs had run, peed and pooped, and were in a better mood. This was now the test. Attaching Stevie to the leash and opening the doors for him to explore. He didn’t want to, not really. A very nervous tiger he was, he scooted under the van, but it seemed to help him, to hang out with all of us outside, drink a little water, take a break.

When we set off again, I had him attached to his lightweight leash, which in turn was attached to the thin long dog tie-down. This way Stevie could find a favorite place in the van yet I knew he couldn’t escape through a window or door when I would next stop. We drove quietly for another hundred miles and pulled off on FR250 heading into the Rio Grande National Forest. The river flowed thick and fast, flooding much of the valley to the left of the dirt road. After five miles we stopped for a lunch break and the dogs ran through the meadow to the river and soaked up a gallon each, Rosie returned a brown wet dog instead of her usual white self. Great.

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Stevie timidly stepped down and under the van. He no longer seemed as shocked by the day’s events, but more curious. He showed no interest in running off which was great. We hung out in the shade of the van and ate a sandwich, drank water, the usual kind of light meal. Stevie popped back into the van and climbed up on the shelf again, his happy spot.

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I’d forgotten how far it to get to Stunner Pass and a slowly driven twenty nine miles later, along a narrow steep gravelly switch-back laden road we came to the pass of 10,541 feet. Snow hid in the shade of the barren Aspens. Rosie was getting restless. Harold and Stevie were quiet. The campground of five sites had only one other family. I let the dogs roam free, attached Stevie to the tie-out, and opened up the doors, settling in for a few days here. The Alamosa River is full of snowmelt and the constant roar reminds me of the ocean. This is stunning, a deep valley between ranges, with tall pines and a thick forest of Aspens only just beginning to bud out.

In 1892, some four hundred miners set up camp here during the Gold Rush, with a post office next to the river and mail delivered by sled dog for six months per year. By the early 1900’s though, all but a few miners had moved on looking for more gold, more gold, and more gold. There is one cabin at the entrance to this primitive campground, partially restored by the looks of it, but falling down again.

In the middle of the night, Harold wakes me shaking and whimpering as he looks out the window. It’s cold for sure and I figured he’d seen or heard some animal and was scared. With a blanket over him, I fell back asleep. I woke soon though to the sounds and smells of diarrhea. Yep, Harold shat all over the van carpet. Poor bugger. I struggled to find the flashlight and attach Stevie to a leash. Harold leaps out unhappily as I throw out his bed and the carpet matt. I look down to see I’m standing in wet sloppy brown poop. Shit. Yes. I climb out, it’s bloody cold, and I wash off in the dogs’ water bowl. Harold has climbed back inside onto my bed and fallen asleep, snoring. Rosie is still asleep. Stevie purrs.

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The morning at the campsite is even better than last night, a slow moving mist, the roar of the river, a smoky fire and strong coffee. The other campers left early. The doors are open to the van and all animals are off leash, free to roam. Stevie comes and goes a little, all the sights and sounds and smells suitably awe him. His shelf is his happy place. Harold’s bum is still giving him issues. Rosie is muddy again. And I’m tired and my cheeks (upper cheeks) ache from smiling so much.

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Life is good.

Making screens for a camper van

The motivation: Stevie (the cat) and the two dogs need to be contained inside the van at times, and the mosquitoes need to stay outside.

The research: I looked online and didn’t come up with many ideas but one caught. I can’t remember who did it but the basic idea was to use snaps as the way to connect the screens to the van itself. Andrea recommended getting screens from a fabric store, as it’s softer, more flexible than those for doors and windows at a DIY store. Made sense to me. I put the word out before heading to town though and ended up with three kinds of material to use. All are softer, and I can see through them, which I like.

The method: Since I didn’t have any belting to sew onto the edges of the material to stop it from ripping, I found some lightweight canvas. I measured the side door first. Thinking I’m likely to have one of the side doors open and that I’d climb in and out at times, I halved that width. I did add a couple of inches for an overlap.

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First off, I sewed an edge of canvas along the top to the soon-to-be-screen door. It’s not pretty; I’m more of an impressionist than perfectionist…it works though.
I had bought some supposedly heavy-duty snaps from Lowes last week, just in case. They’re small but seem tough and well made. We’ll see how they hold up though. It says 15 pieces on the container but in all only makes six snaps. I’ll have to get more, even for this one small side door.

Using a knife to cut a hole in the material where I wanted the first snap, it fixed in solidly to the canvas edge I’d made. I then held it up to the body of the van, marked the spot, and screwed in the base as directed on the box. I didn’t pre-measure anything but simply held the screen across the top edge, marked the ideal spot on both the van and the screen and went one by one. It works for me. Not the most detailed of workers, the snaps ended up holding the material tightly across both top and bottom.

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I’ll have to pick up more snaps for the sides. I’d like to know that I can fall asleep with the door open and that Stevie, the little bugger, won’t decide to crawl out for another adventure. We’ll see.

Now I’ve sorted out a method, I’ll go ahead and do the other half of the side doors and hopefully I have enough material for the back doors too. For a first attempt, I’m pretty chuffed. It works! Just need a bunch more snaps to play with…

Part two: I have more snaps, but only six of them unfortunately. I did get Velcro though. The plan is to screen off the small windows in the doors themselves, they open outwards a couple of inches, more than enough for a wriggly cat, and enough for a thousand mozzies. Not good either scenario.

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I measured, well, I held the material against the window and cut it a couple of inches wider on all sides. I then cut the heavy duty Velcro both sides of it and lay strips across the top and bottom of each window. Tearing off the protective plastic off the sticky side of the Velcro, I held the screen material across the top and pulled it tight before attaching it to the bottom line. The sides were loose though so I added a couple of shorter pieces of Velcro and stuck it all together, pushing it firmly to stick in place. I left it alone all afternoon and went to the pub.
Stacy mentioned how the Velcro didn’t stick well to the vinyl when she tried to do the same in her own van and that’s exactly what happened when I got home. The whole tape just pulled up and away. But! Now I had more snaps. So adding just one on each corner at the bottom means that I can pull up the screen and the Velcro does its job just fine, with a little help of the snaps that is. Yep, that works. I now have working screens on two back windows and a large one across one of the side panel doors. Not bad for a Sunday.

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Heavy duty Velcro. ($8 for 4’ by 2”)

Heavy duty snaps. (6 for $7.50)

Scissors.

Measuring tape for the more detailed approach.

Screen material from your friends.

 

 

Modifying the van for the pets.

It was a random conversation, a chance meeting and a joke that led me to buying this van four days before I was heading out to Arizona. A 2003 Dodge Conversion B1500 van is now part of my ever-growing stash of vehicles, one for each occasion! I know, I know, but I don’t have kids so why not, eh?

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I drove the van home and opened up all the doors, side and back, then let my dogs and cat out of the house. All three ran over, jumped inside and sniffed around. I folded down the backbench seat into a short bed, threw over a thick blanket, grabbed a cold beer, and sat down. Rosie claimed the front driver’s seat. Harold lay on the bed with me, his tail thumping as he sighed, looking out the window. And Stevie, well, Stevie purred and explored under the bed, around the other four seats, and then the shelf above the bed. I could hear his happy loud wanderings and then the little cat found a spot on the bed next to Harold and I. I sipped my beer as the critters all fell asleep that first afternoon. Naptime.

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A week later and I’m back after Phase One of my summer’s adventures. I’d left Stevie at home with the neighbors checking in on him and had taken the two dogs to Overland Expo West, a huge gathering of some ten thousand travelers, those who love extended vehicle dependent explorations of new places. I’d camped in Coconino NF near by and driven in each day, parking in the corner with windows open. The dogs happily walked with me as I checked out vendors, participating as a panelist on some roundtable discussions, and presenting a class on traveling with dogs in the backcountry. Yep, it was a good trip. We even got to see the Grand Canyon on the way home, of course I broke down within 50 miles of the park, but that’s what happened five years ago too so it came as no surprise.

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We’re home now, and I’m modifying the van for all three pets. Living in a van with pets, yes, that’s the goal for summer. There’s really not much online so I thought I’d write about how I’m doing it incase it helps someone else with ideas. We’ll all do it our own way, but this is mine.

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I started off by taking out one of the seats behind the front passenger but I did leave the one behind the driver’s seat. Some friends think I should remove it for more storage. I did consider that but here I am, sitting at a table in that very place. A comfortable leather seat, a folding lightweight table, and a window with a ledge for my cooling coffee, yep, this is perfect.

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The week in Coconino Forest was a week without writing; it was disconcerting. I worried that I’d not find a comfortable creative place within the van in the coming months. Outside was so incredibly windy that I wasn’t inspired to sit at the table next to the fire pit and write. Two days ago though, I looked around my property and found a small shelf, about 18” x 24” as well as some chains. I rigged up a hanging table, one that could be set up and taken down easily. It was heavy though, awkward. I liked how it looked but that was all. I still didn’t sit down at the table with the laptop and write. I took photographs instead. Not a good sign.

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Now though, I’m happy.

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Yesterday morning I had a sweet surprise from REI. I’d recently got a credit card from them for emergencies on the travels. After using it just once, as thanks, they send out a $100 gift card for their stores. Oh sweet…I drove to Santa Fe to meet Alexis for a late lunch, stopping by REI on my way. I found a very lightweight-folding table for $40. I got it. I’m using it. This is perfect, the right height, the right depth, and easily stashed out of the way when we’re driving. Yep, it’s a winner already. And here I am writing again.

Another consideration for me has been Stevie, the cat. No, he’s not gone anywhere yet. I’m building up his comfort in the van. I leave the doors open as much as possible. I set his bowl of dry food on the wide dashboard. There is a bowl of water for dogs and cat on the floor near the side door. I’ll want to get one that has a non-spill lip at some point, but for now, a regular water bowl is what we have. We hang out in here. I drink my coffee in here even my home is only a few hundred feet away. I read, nap, and even sleep in here with all three critters of mine.

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I have a small carrier for Stevie, a soft one with a strap. I mostly got it for emergencies; if I had to walk away from the van, say at a mechanics or something. I wanted to know that I could bring him with me as needed. For now though, it’s where I’ve stashed his litter box, in the carrier with the front and top doors open, and hidden behind this jump seat. It’s out of the way but accessible for a cat but not Rosie’s tongue.

There is also a large soft canvas crate, meant for medium sized dogs, but a perfect home for Stevie as needed. Again, when it arrived by FedEx yesterday, I set it up, threw in one of our blankets and put it on the bed in the back of the van. Rosie and Harold sniffed it. Stevie stepped inside and claimed it as his, purring all the while. The plan is that whenever I stop for gas or shopping along the way before arriving at a campground, I’ll pop the boy inside, zip him up, and not worry about him skipping out when the doors are open. Hopefully.

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We’ve been sleeping in the van together, all four of us. Rosie still prefers the driver’s seat. Harold likes to be on the bed near me, and Stevie purrs up and down, changing spots every few hours, but even on the first night he didn’t try to escape, just settled down, and purred the whole nightlong. He’s a happy boy. He’s coming with us. I even took us for a short ride. I didn’t zip him in his tent, I just started the engine. Stevie sat up. I drove off. Stevie climbed onto the shelf. That was that. I see us all camping and hiking together. I’m scared of losing him, my little cat, but I have that fear every day at home too since he comes and goes like the wild child that he is.

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The windows, doors, and building screens for the van are next. I’ll let you know how I do that project. I have some ideas and will pick up materials today.