The best traveling memories are the ones full of dramatic events (everybody loves a little drama, right?). Getting lost, stopping somewhere off the beaten path impulsively, forgetting to pack something important, missing flights, car troubles, and loosing a person or object are all things people have come up against while traveling. Though they are not always bad events, they still make stories interesting. This is how my most recent road trip went down.
My husband and I love documentaries. We are that married couple on Friday night killing a bottle of wine watching a documentary on gardening and totally loving it. A couple months ago we started watching travel documentaries, because we also love to travel and it gives us a chance to virtually travel with people we don’t know. Fun right?! We came across this couple who did a camper van tour of Iceland, and this documentary is the beginning of our camper van obsession. Through countless suggested videos after that, we watched practically every van vlog or documentary that exists. Little by little, we started drafting our plan to get a camper van. After a lot of research and DIY camper van video watching, the search was on. We surfed craigslist, ebay, RV websites, and every other sales website we could find. It’s crazy how rare these things are. We finally found one worth checking out, except that it was 1,055 miles away in South Dakota, and we are located in Las Vegas. We figured it’s time to do a road trip. Worst case scenario we will get to see Mount Rushmore and some places we haven’t been to yet. We got in touch with the seller and headed out to South Dakota, “Great Faces, Great Places”.
We departed from Vegas at 8 PM after I got off of work, and proceeded to drive the entire 16+ hour drive, without sleeping. As you can imagine, we looked really great by the time we got there. If the Walking Dead was auditioning in South Dakota, we definitely would have been hired. Despite our zombie, sleepless faces, we started to scope out the camper van. After the test drive, and thoroughly inspecting the interior, exterior, and engine, we decided to buy it! Thus, Dan the Old Man Adventure Van was given a new life with us. We stopped to grab some food, and went back to the hotel for the evening. After watching a very informative documentary about medical marijuana on the history channel (I love the history channel!) we went to sleep around 10 PM. Total hours awake: 36.
Dan the Old Man Adventure Van is indeed, old. Therefore, the next day we went to get the oil changed and the tires aligned before we made the 1,055 mile drive back to Vegas. We started at Walmart, drove Dan the Van near the garage doors and realized that Dan the Van is a big dude. We went inside to look for the mechanics to ask if they know the measurements of the garage door, and if we could fit Dan the Van inside the garage. After the mechanic took out the measuring tape and checked, we figured out that Dan the Van was too large to fit (lay off those cupcakes, Dan!) and he recommended that we go to the other Walmart across town. Upon arriving at the second Walmart, we learned that Dan the Van was too large to fit in the garage doors there as well. They had a third door he could have fit inside but of course, it was full of equipment and tires on the other side. Typical. This mechanic recommended that we go to Firestone, because he was SURE that Dan the Van would fit there. We took his word for it and went there next. Fail. The garage doors were also not big enough. Starting to get a little bit of anxiety, we asked this mechanic where he thought we could go, and he told us Sears. Crossing our fingers, we headed over to Sears to see what their door size would be. At this point, Dan the Van was really self conscious about his size. We reassured him that we love him no matter what his size. We made our way across town, again, and arrived at Sears. DAN THE VAN FITS! YES! We went inside to arrange the oil change, and the manager informed us that there was a 5 hour wait. Yep, you read that right, 5 HOURS to get the oil changed. My husband and I talked for a minute to figure out our next move. We still wanted to see Mount Rushmore and the day was quickly coming to an end. In the end, he decided he would just do the oil change himself in the parking lot. We went outside to try to change the oil, and it was 11 degrees. He could barely move his hands. We happily forfeited that game. We went inside, and again tried to figure out our next move. One of the employees working there had suggested we call a truck stop to see if they would do an oil change. Surely if a semi fits in their garages a camper van would. I called the nearest truck stop and they told me that there was a 4 hour wait there. Okay, time to cut our losses. We headed over to the truck stop, put our name on the list and asked the manager if we could leave and check in with him in 3 hours and he said that’s not a problem. In the meantime, we took Dan the Van and bee-lined it for Mount Rushmore. Time to see some “Great Faces, and Great Places”.
About 25 minutes into the drive, we drove into a cloud. A cumulonimbus, white cloud, on the road. It was like being inside a marshmallow. We didn’t have great visibility (maybe 20 feet maximum) and we were thinking, “What if we drive all the way to Mount Rushmore and can’t even see the president’s faces!?”. Despite our fears, we figured we at least had to go and try. When in doubt, try it out! Our pilgrimage up the mountain was a success because the more we drove up, the more the cloud dispersed and the more clear it became. We made it to Mount Rushmore and we saw the “Great Faces”! There was not one cloud up there and the forest was so beautiful! Dan the Van got his first photoshoot and we spent some time poking around the area. We couldn’t stay long because we had to get back for our oil change, so after almost an hour we left to head back to the truck stop. We arrived with time to spare, so we stopped in the truck stop to get what my husband calls “potato ledges” (because he is French). For whatever reason he can never remember “wedges” instead of “ledges”, but I find it hilarious. We snacked on those and waited for Dan the Van to be finished with his oil change. After devouring the ledges/wedges Dan the Van was ready and we hit the road. We didn’t even try to get the alignment done because along with not fitting into any of the garage doors, we didn’t fit on any of the alignment machines either.
Our plan was to drive to Rock Springs, Wyoming and camp at the local Walmart. There, we could pick up some supplies we needed and grab some food to make dinner. Just past the tiny town of Wright, Wyoming, it started to apocalyptically snow. Our visibility was maybe 10 feet, the roads were extremely slick, and it was windy. Both of us were really stressed out and had a lot of anxiety about driving in these conditions. The worse part was, we had no propane, a half tank of gas, and no blankets. All of these things we were planning on picking up at the next Walmart (A+ for preparation!). We had both lived in cold weather cities before, so snow driving wasn’t anything new to us. Although what was new was driving this narrow, very tall vehicle with bad alignment, and not so great tires. Dan the Van was slowly trekking through this crazy snow storm, his maximum speed reaching about 20 miles per hour. At this point, we just wanted to get to the closest Walmart, which was 25 miles away in Casper, Wyoming. Thankfully there was little to no people driving on the road or the highway, so after about an hour and a half we finally made it to Walmart. Dan the Van was such a champion! We parked and went inside to grab all of our supplies and food. We found pretty much everything we needed supply wise, and then we contemplated what to do for dinner. We opted to make veggie wraps/burritos, with whatever looked good. Being the creative, improvisational chefs we are, the final ingredients for our “wrapito” were: hummus, broccoli slaw, red pepper, avocado, black beans, and tie it all together with a spinach wrap. It was sounding a little bit boring as we were thinking about it, so I ran back to grab some Sriacha. From what I’ve learned, spicy spices (that sounds like a 90’s rap name, watch out Vanilla Ice) makes anything taste good. I have a serious addiction to spicy flavor and Sriacha definitely hits the spot. All of those ingredients combined made for a pretty damn good wrapito! After we finished eating, we set up the bed and made a blanket cocoon to keep us warm. The next morning when we woke up I was very sad to see that we did not morph into butterflies, but at least we succeeded to make it through our first camper van night in 9 degree weather! Success! With sleepy eyes and messy hair we prepared ourselves for our journey of the day; make it to Bonneville Salt Flats for our next stop. We had a long day ahead so we grabbed some snacks and juice from our sleepover host, Walmart, got Dan the Van some morning gasoline (his idea of coffee), and rambled on.
We had hoped that the roads would be better; they weren’t. Sigh. The night had frozen the snow and created an abundance of black ice, and barely any roads were plowed. So on we went, driving at a rapid pace of 35 miles per hour. We dismissed the idea of going any faster because it was already dangerous going as fast as we were. Although we were all frustrated about the snow, I had to admit that it made the landscape quite beautiful. The golden, rolling hills we saw before were now cloaked in a white blanket and the sky was a deep, infinite blue. It made for some great photos, which I am always on the lookout for. Once we got closer to Interstate 80, the snow was managed much better and the roads were clear. We stopped at the Flying J truck stop to get some potato “ledges” and fill Dan the Van up with some gas for his afternoon snack.
After a brief rest, we began the long haul down Interstate 80. The alignment was so bad, there was a few times we hydroplaned, but other than that it was a smooth ride and we were making great time. Hours passed by and soon we were almost to Salt Lake City. We decided to get some Thai food while we were in town, and take it to go so we could eat it once we got to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Sometimes I think I could live off of green curry it’s that good. After stopping to get the Thai food, we headed west for the Salt Flats. We had been there two years before, and we couldn’t wait to spend the night there! It was dark out by the time we left Salt Lake City, and we were driving beneath a huge full moon which lit up the landscape in a dreamy, silver light. It was eerie how bright it was. You could see everything as if it was almost daylight, even as far as the surrounding mountains. Two hours had passed, and we were coming close to our stopping point. Careful to not miss the exit, we kept our eyes open. We drove a few more miles, found our stopping point, and pulled in for the night. Dan the Van sat proud in his parking spot, thinking of the rigorous journey he had accomplished. When we got out of the car to let Peanut out, our little princess chihuahua, we noticed that the dry lake bed was covered in water. It was magical and something I’ve never seen before. The small amount of water, which must have collected from the same storm that we encountered in Wyoming, left the dry lake bed looking like a huge mirror. The water was completely still and you could see a picture perfect reflection of all the surrounding landscapes and the sky. After taking little Peanut for a short walk, we went to town on the Thai food, prepared the blanket cocoon, and went to bed with the view of the moon reflected in the dry lake bed.
I set my alarm the night before in hopes of waking up for the sunrise. Thanks to the amazing battery life of Apple products, my phone died during the night so I woke up just as the sun was finished rising. The sky was hued with beautiful blue and pink pastels which were also reflected in the lake. I started my day with some photography of the surrounding area and Dan the Van, and after we got ready for the upcoming day. My husband made us a “wrapito” for breakfast, along with some juice, and once we finished eating we left. Westward we went, into Nevada, and then south down 93 towards Vegas. The landscape was gorgeous. It’s rare to see the desert covered in snow, and I admired every minute we drove through it. We saw wild horses running through the valleys, lots of birds searching for their lunch, and little bunnies running between bushes (trying not to become lunch). Dan the Van felt like a mustang galloping through the wild west. A few hours passed, and we stopped in this small canyon to have lunch. At this point, the snow had melted, and the weather was temperate and pleasant. We let out our inner children by yelling absurd things into the canyon and listening to the echoes. It’s the simple things in life. For lunch we finished the leftover Thai food, and we sat for a little while to relax. After wandering around and taking photos, we came back to the car.
My husband gasped once he came closer to Dan the Van, and yelled for me to come look. When I got there, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The tread on the front, driver side tire was so worn out, the cables were starting to show. It was a miracle that the tire didn’t explode by this point. We had checked the tires before we bought Dan the Van, but it was the side closest to the engine that was bad, so we couldn’t see it unless the wheel was turned outward. We contemplated our next move. Should we change the tire here? No, because we didn’t know if the spare had any air or if we had the correct tools. We made the decision to slowly drag our wounded warrior, Dan the Van, to the closest gas station, which was 20 miles away in Alamo, Nevada. We drove about 30 to 35 miles per hour on the highway, and had our flashers on. In the town before Alamo, Crystal Springs, a police officer started to pull us over. My husband got out of the car and explained to him what was going on, and he kindly offered to help us with his tools. We got the spare out and to our luck the tire pressure was good, the police officer brought out his jack, and we pulled out the socket wrench from our spare tire kit. We got Dan the Van jacked up to change the tire, and found out that our socket wrench that came with the van doesn’t reach the lug nuts. Therefore, we couldn’t change the tire. It was a typical, “Well what do we do now?” type of moment. After a few minutes of brainstorming, we decided we would continue to limp Dan the Van to the gas station in Alamo. The police officer followed us in case anything happened along the way (not all police experiences are bad!). On the drive there, I called the gas station to see if they had a tire service. The employee informed me that they do, but he just closed. Great. I asked her if they do emergency services and she said she would call him to come back. Yes! Finally good news. After what felt like a very long 10 miles, we made it to the gas station and pulled up to the tire shop. We met Dan the Van’s rescuer, I think his name was Jeff, and he proceeded to change the tire with ease. The right tools make all the difference. He finished changing the tire, and we went inside and paid. We were about 2 and a half hours from Las Vegas, so we figured we would make it home in one piece. After resting for a few minutes, we took Peanut out for a quick potty walk and homebound we went. Dan the Van, the champion he is, made it home without any more problems. We unloaded all of our bags and things, and finished our trip by opening a bottle of wine and watching documentaries. Life was and is good.
In our pre-van research, we heard many people talk about the realities of “Van Life”. Just about every person said that there are always bumps in the road, but in these moments there are life lessons to be taught, and people to meet that you would have never met before. Our journey to pick up Dan the Van was nothing short of road bumps, and we learned valuable lessons because of it. I think it’s very important when dealing with any type of dilemma to not lose your cool. In every problem there is a solution; some just take longer to find than others. These kinds of trips are the ones you always remember. Even more so than the ones that have no problems, because as humans we love a bit of conflict. It makes our stories and memories compelling. In the end, I believe that we attract the energy that we emit, so putting out good vibes produces positive outcomes. What goes around, comes around kind of thing. When things go wrong, make the most of it, keep moving forward, and try not to wallow in the negative happenings. We had a great time getting to know our Dan the Old Man Adventure Van, and we are so proud of the warrior he is. Currently, he is getting some much needed upgrades and is awaiting his next journey which I will continue to document. Until then, may your feet take you to places you’ve never been. Ciao.
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Jessica Passecker Photography