Ranger in the Badlands

Good news, everyone! Ranger is back on the road. The staff at Billings VW worked overtime on a Friday so we could head out of Montana. Woo! We drove to Gillette, Wyoming for the night. On the way, we caught a beautiful sunset in the rearview as we left the West:

We woke up this morning and drove to Badlands National Park. The combination of rock and prairie is so interesting. It definitely had more of a Midwest feel to the park. We watched a film in the visitor center, drove the scenic hour-long route through the park, and did a couple of short hikes. 

It was very pleasant in the park, with a steady breeze and the crowds weren’t bad at all. The Badlands are known for their fossil labs, and you can watch scientists at work. Due to erosion, the Badlands will disappear as we know it in 100,000-500,000 years. 

We are staying at a nice campsite outside of the Badlands. We have about four to five days of long drives ahead, so please keep your fingers crossed for us and our buddy, Ranger. We are considering taking a couple of days in the Adirondacks and Vermont on our way home, weather and Ranger permitting. That would put us home in Massachusetts on July 5. We will keep you updated!

Ranger in Billings, Part II

We received a call from Debbie this morning. Ranger’s parts had not arrived. She had warned us that overnighting parts to Billings does not always mean “overnight.” We remain cautiously optimistic that they will be in tomorrow.

In the meantime, we are enjoying Billings. Everyone has been very friendly here, asking us, “What are you doing today?” and then providing us with advice and recommendations.

We went to an enormous outdoor/sporting goods store and took some funny pictures:

I tried to fool Foz into thinking I caught this big trout, but he immediately dismissed it as a “phony.”

We had decided to trade in Ranger for a Wrangler, until we realized there was no back seat. 

We were (understandably) nervous while hiking in bear country, but here Tim looks like he is posing with an old friend. No bear spray necessary!

All in all, Billings is a good place to wait out Ranger’s repairs. We are especially fortunate that we have the loaner car (rocketship) to get us around town. 

Thanks for your support. 

To be continued (again)…

 

Ranger in Billings

We scheduled an appointment for Ranger’s oil change in Billings, Montana. We decided to go to VW, in case there were other issues that needed to be addressed. We are in the middle of the country and cannot depend on unknown independent mechanics (as wonderful as they can be) in random places, and would like to get the work done as quickly as possible. 

We had been waiting for about an hour when Debbie, the service advisor, came over and said, “Guys, you need to come and take a look at your car.”

Gulp. 

We went into the service bay, where Ranger was visibly dripping oil. Turns out the oil pan had cracked. The serpentine belt, which had been approved before we left, was worn, cracked, and needed to be repaired. It also turns out that 14 year-old VW vans have parts that can sometimes only be found in Sacramento or L.A. It became readily apparent we were not leaving Billings today, or possibly until early next week. This puts a little dent in our planning, as Ranger is our temporary home and we were really hoping to be mostly East before the July 4th travel weekend. 

We waited and mulled over our options. Meanwhile, Debbie was working her magic to have the parts overnighted and we were told the work should be done by tomorrow. We were provided with a loaner 2017 Passat (Tim calls it a rocketship) and we are staying in a comfortable hotel (With internet! And a shower! And real beds!). 

Also, what are the chances…

We pulled into the VW dealership and saw Ranger’s long-lost, green Eurovan cousin. We have seen many white Eurovans but never a green one. We were told that it has 500,000 miles on it. Makes Ranger seem like a baby. 

We are grateful that we didn’t have a major issue on a random highway with no cell service, grateful that Debbie went out of her way for three hours, grateful that we have a loaner car, grateful that we can stay in a very comfy hotel, and grateful that we can keep going tomorrow (hopefully!).

Keep your fingers crossed for us, and Ranger. 

To be continued…

Yellowstoneย 

We left Grand Teton yesterday morning for Yellowstone. We had planned to stay in the park until Friday, but we ran into some roadblocks (literally). We were set to stay at Lewis Lake Campground, which is a non-generator site that rarely fills. Unfortunately, it was not listed on the NPS website that it was closed. Lower Yellowstone is a loop, and we opted to travel the less busy side of the loop to avoid the Old Faithful traffic on the other side. We saw some beautiful aspects of Yellowstone, like Yellowstone Lake:

We also spotted some of Foz’s friends grazing in the hills:

Most of the campgrounds at Yellowstone are reservation only (filling months in advance), so we continued forward. There was a sign for 10pm-7am roadwork, but since it was 9:30am, we figured we were fine. However, they had one-lane, one-way road for 20 miles. By the time we arrived at the last campground in Yellowstone, we had been driving for over 2 hours in the park! Even the bison were stopped for construction:

But, we made it! We grabbed the second to last campsite available and ate lunch in the shade of the visitor center. Take a look at our lunch companions! 

We went for a short hike through Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs, which were beautiful. You have to remain on the boardwalk to avoid being scalded by the water and acids that lay just below the surface, as illustrated in the below warning sign:

It started to thunder, so we went to the General Store for a cone of Montana Moose Moss ice cream (verdict: very good). We mailed a postcard from the Yellowstone post office:

We then returned to Ranger and fell asleep. We made dinner and caught a beautiful sunset from our campground:

Amazing! We stayed up for a Ranger evening program on the history of campfires at Yellowstone. 

Fun and informative!

We wrestled with our decision to leave Yellowstone early. It is such a stunning and enormous park. However, in the end, we knew that we would better enjoy it in another season. With the roadwork, it would take us at least 2-3 hours one-way to drive to the Old Faithful area of the park. The park as a whole was extremely busy, and since the road would be closed until 7am,  we would be driving into the chaos with limited parking options (there are no shuttles). We were happy to see the animals that we did, happy to see some beautiful sights, and happy with our ranger program. 

We would recommend visiting Yellowstone during its “shoulder seasons” of April-May or October, based on what Yellowstone employees told us. The spring and fall are much less crowded and there is a lot to see. The height of Yellowstone’s season is mid-July through mid-August, when over 90% of their visitors arrive. As one employee in the General Store told us, “If we can see the floor, we aren’t busy. We don’t even try to get into the park in June, July, or August.” 

All in all, the Yellowstone that we did see was beautiful and we hope to visit it again! 

We are currently in Montana, enjoying a brief spell out of the van as Ranger has his oil changed. We are heading east!


Talk soon! 

Grand Teton National Park

On Friday, we left Colorado via Fort Collins. We had a great stop in this college city and decided to head over to the flagship location of New Belgium Brewing. We had a flight of beers and chatted with a retired chemistry professor for over an hour. I went to check out and two of the friendly bartenders asked where we were from and I told them our story. Soon, we were showered with free stickers, beer, and bottle openers. New Belgium is employee-owned and appears to treat their employees and customers well. We will feel good about buying their beer in the future. 


We then drove to Laramie, Wyoming to sleep. When we woke up, we drove another 3.5 hours to Rock Springs, Wyoming. People call this state “The Big Empty” and they aren’t kidding. We’ve never been in a state so devoid of people. The landscape is incredible, though.  We woke up early Sunday morning and made the drive to Grand Teton. Here are some photos from our drive:


The park is large, and we opted to stay in the larger campground last night so we could enjoy the southern part of the park. We hiked Jenny Lake loop to Inspiration Point:

We had a beer at Signal Mountain Lodge, which was relaxing and fun. We would recommend Signal Lake for showers, laundry, coffee, and camping when it’s less buggy. 

This morning, we changed our site to the quiet and beautiful Lizard Creek Campground and went for a hike at Christian Lake, in the center of the park. We were nearly the only people on the trail, which was filled with wildflowers. We were happy to have our bear spray with us!

Tomorrow, we will make the short drive to our camp in Yellowstone. We are planning to stay until Friday, when we make the push back east via Montana. 

Talk to you from Yellowstone!

Questions and Answers

First and foremost, Aunt Pat of Maine-fame had surgery yesterday and is in the hospital. Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers. We love you, Aunt Pat!

———–

While we make our way through Wyoming, we thought we would answer some questions that we’ve received via text and emails (people are especially interested in the poo-powder). Here we go!

Are you sick of eating any particular food? Craving/missing anything surprising? 


I thought we’d be eating like we do at home, with lots of chopping and spices. This has not been the case! We have been leaning on easy to prepare foods with minimal clean-up. We eat oatmeal or English muffins for breakfast, usually some type of sandwich for lunch, and easy dinners (salads, sandwiches, bagel pizza, rice and beans, spaghetti, etc). We also get some good cheeses, fruit, trail mix, and crackers to have throughout the day. We found out the hard way that too many beans/full-fat yogurt can result in bloat, which is not fun (especially while living in a van). When we get sick of things, we try to have a day out with inexpensive eats (burritos, salads, pizza) and that helps us reset. I crave daily hot showers with water pressure and hot drinks, mostly. It can be messy and time-intensive to make coffee with the French press. The shower bag is great, but a “real” shower feels incredible. I have also found it very surprising how hard it is to recycle on federal lands. Most campgrounds have trash but no recycling. 

Who were the questionable fellow campers that caused the early departure from Gila (or better question is what did they do)? 


There was an older man who asked us about our van (he had an older VW model) and he was a little out of it, like he was on sedatives or something. He wasn’t going to stay there, but the overall remoteness of the Gila contributed to the creepiness. In general, we have felt very safe on the road and people have been great across the board. 

I note there has not been an update about how the poo powder is working. Is this a product that we should all be using in our homes – particularly those of us with a litter box? ๐Ÿ™‚  


Ha! We have not used the poo powder! We have been fortunate that all of our campgrounds have had either flush or vault/pit (composting) toilets. It is waiting under the van bed. Will keep you posted (without too many details, ha). You can read about “Ever wonder who cleans the toilets?” by the National Park Service here. Good news! They are looking for volunteers!

Have you learned anything about yourself that has surprised you?  

So far, it is that we need very little (material-wise) to have a good time. I thought this might be the case, but I am happy to find that it is true. I have also been surprised at how much we rely on technology and creature comforts and how nice it can be to not worry about keeping up with things. I find myself excited but a little squirrelly when I use the internet after days without it. I also have always believed that people are good, and we have been happy to reach out to others and vice versa.

Have you guys actually been using the scale (I would think it would be hard to keep your weight on with your vigorous schedules and the food limitations)?  

Haha, we have the scale and it makes itself known by falling out of the van all the time. If these falls haven’t impacted the calibration, Tim has lost weight and I have roughly remained the same. He weighs himself regularly and I do not. We hike about 15-30 miles a week and have to do a lot around camp, which keeps our activity levels up. 

How often are you using artificial light? (if not at all or not much, I wonder how that adjustment has been – it seems ideal and healthy to me to be more in tune with the natural rhythms of the day and night). Especially in our screen-centered worlds!

We don’t use a lot of artificial light. We have our little solar lanterns that we mostly use to find our way around in the dark and read. We use headlamps around camp, but only occasionally. We get tired early and we are usually falling asleep around 9:00-10:00pm and wake up between 6:30-8:00am, depending on how tired we are. We are less tired than we were a couple of weeks ago. Since we rarely have service in our campgrounds, our phones stay on airplane mode and serve as fancy watches and flashlights!

What is Ranger’s gas mileage?

Roughly, Ranger gets about 20 miles per gallon, which isn’t terrible, considering he hauls all of our gear up mountains. 

Do you sleep well in Ranger? Do you use your tent?


Yes! We regularly sleep 8-9 hours per night in Ranger. We have a 2″ memory foam topper that sits on the bed (full-size) and we can both stretch out comfortably. We crack the windows if it is hot and put the curtains down in more populated areas. We are very fortunate to have Ranger for sleeping–he protects us from animals, high winds, cold temperatures, storms, people, etc. We have used our tents in “tent only” sites that allow us freeedom from paved RV lots. 

Is there anything you wish you had left at home?

We both would have brought less clothing and physical books, but other than that, we use most of what we have. I think I would streamline our boxes and maybe get smaller containers that take up less space. We would both advocate bringing less and buy what you need as you go. 

Is there anything you wish you had brought? 

Other than our Aeropress coffee maker and a battery-powered radio, no.

Did you make camping reservations beforehand? How do you just show up?


We have made a few reservations for Forest Service campgrounds online, only to change or cancel them, due to changes in our plans. Overall, unless you know exact dates or are only camping on the weekends, we don’t recommend reservations. They are hard to come by, and the first-come, first-serve sites allow us the flexibility to come and go as we please and change our site if necessary (loud neighbors, etc.). We have not been shut out of a campground so far. 

How can you afford to take this trip?

We planned for a trip of this sort for over a year. We knew when Tim had job security, we would travel. With changes in my job, the timing was right. We had saved for Ranger, bought him in cash and planned general costs for camping. We stay in low-free/free campsites provided on public lands (not KOA or RV campsites), shop for food once a week, and don’t do many (or any) fee-based activities (rafting, climbing), which results in a less expensive trip. We also budget pretty strictly during the year to allow for travel home and for pleasure. 

Those are some of the questions we have received so far. If you have a question, you can leave a comment or send us an email. We are in Laramie, Wyoming right now and we will stop one more night before we reach Grand Teton. 

NOTE: If you are 62+, you are eligible for the Senior Interagency Pass. According to the NPS, “A pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). Children age 15 or under are admitted free. The Senior Pass may provide a 50 percent discount on some amenity fees charged for facilities and services such as camping, swimming, boat launch, and specialized interpretive services.” This pass is currently a one-time fee of $10 in person (!) or $20 if you order by mail/online. We were just told by a ranger that the pass will increase to $85 in October. Regardless, you can find details on the Senior Pass and all other annual/lifetime passes here. We use ours all the time and are so grateful for the ability to visit our beautiful public lands. 

Talk soon!

Rocky Mountain National Park

As I mentioned in our previous post, we are spending a few days at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). It is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. 

RNMP was the fourth most visited National Park in 2016. It is large–415 square miles with over 300 miles of hiking trails. To beat the crowds, we wake up early, make breakfast, clean up, and head downtown for the first Estes Park shuttle to the mountain (7:30am). On both days, there have only been a few other people on the bus. Yesterday, we hiked the famous Bear Lake trail, and then made our way to Dream Lake, Nymph Lake, and Alberta Falls. These are the park’s most popular trails, which can be justified by the amazing views: 


It started to get crowded around 11am, and we hopped on the shuttle for the visitor center. It was designed by Tom Casey, a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright and is a national historic landmark. 


We spent the afternoon in town, catching up on things and drinking coffee. We went back to the campsite and read by the fire. 


This morning, we started our hike with the Cub Lake trail, the Pool, and finished at the Fern Lake trailhead. It was very quiet, so green, and provided a different perspective of the park. 


Our hike was the perfect blend of relaxation and effort. We had some interesting conversations with our shuttle drivers on our empty bus and headed back to town. 

We realized that pushing ourselves to do things at off-times is key to beating the crowds. Case in point: below is the Bear Lake shuttle at 7:45am…


…and at 11:30am, after a major rush, with three buses servicing the stop:


We hope these tactics will be helpful in Wyoming!

We will pack up our camp tonight and head to Wyoming tomorrow. We plan to take our time driving to Grand Teton National Park, arriving after the weekend rush for campsites (hopefully!) on Sunday. We will then plan to camp in Yellowstone the following week, but we are flexible. One of the most important things we have learned is to be able to roll with the punches when possible. It reduces stress and allows us to visit some unanticipated and wonderful places (such as Bandelier and RMNP).

Talk soon! 

Hello, Colorado!

Trip Update: We had planned to travel across southern Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park and then to Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks in Utah. That is, until we started doing some more research. 

We were concerned about those triple-digit numbers in Utah, the competitive aspect of camping inside the parks at the end of peak season, and driving Ranger in that heat. Therefore, we adjusted our plans to drive north through Colorado along I-25 to Wyoming. This change will allow us and Ranger to remain cooler, and we will be in Wyoming prior to July 4th. We are saving the Utah parks for a future Spring/Fall trip, when we can better appreciate these places.

Therefore, we opted to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, in southern Colorado. We were surprised by this park. It is nothing like White Sands. The dunes are the largest in North America, with snow-capped peaks to the side. Water flows from the mountains and creates a small swimming beach area at the foot of the dunes. We have never been anywhere quite like it. 

It was quite a workout to get near the base of the First Dune, and it is recommended that hikers begin in the morning due to the heat and thunderstorms. There is limited camping at Great Sand Dunes, so we headed up to Colorado Springs for the night. 

We woke up the next day and headed over to Garden of the Gods. It has a visitor center with extensive information about the park’s history, flora, and fauna. If you were to visit, we would recommend parking in the main parking lot within the park first, hike around, and then go to the visitor center. By 10am, nearly all of the parking lots were full and we did a short hiking loop. It is a very scenic place to stop and take in the rolling fields and red rock. 

We decided to move away from the crowds and leave the busy I-25 corridor in search of a shower, some laundry, and to get back to the mountains. We drove to Estes Park, which is at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park. We found a nice campsite about 10 minutes away from Estes Park Visitor Center, where you can hop on a shuttle to the park’s hiking trails. This park is absolutely beautiful. It is nice and cool here, and Ranger is excited about minimal driving since we are taking the shuttle. We will be here  through Friday morning before we head up to Wyoming. 

More photos and details to come…

So Long, New Mexico

On Saturday, Meredith and Tim arrived in Wild Rivers. We had found another nice campsite right on the rim of the canyon, overlooking the Rรญo Grande. 

We visited and went for a short hike on Saturday night. Tim built a great fire and we watched the International Space Station fly overhead. One of the highlights was watching the full moon rise over the mountains. 

We spent yesterday in Taos, which is a funky community north of Santa Fe. All the flowers were in full bloom, we had a great lunch, and the Bs requested a poem:

We also saw this advertisement and thought it could facilitate Sig’s return:

We ended the day with bagel pizzas and a moonrise viewing. It was refreshing to spend time with our friends in a spectacular setting. 

This morning, we left the great state of New Mexico. We have been traversing the state for a month. We have met inspiring and caring people along the way. We have hiked 100 miles, driven 1,500 miles, and been blown away by the landscape. We are grateful for its hospitality and beauty.

We went to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (post to come) and we will spend tonight in Colorado Springs before pushing north. 

Talk soon!