Van Life: The Strangers I Met On The Road From Montana To Oregon

Van Life: The Strangers I Met On The Road From Montana To Oregon

If the theme of my last Connected States column was about friends on the road, this one is about strangers. Those people who you never would have met if you hadn’t ventured from the nest. On the road through Montana, Idaho, and Oregon, I was lucky enough to meet some rather wonderful unfamiliars, some of whom really saved my bacon.

AU Editor’s Note: this series was originally posted on Gizmodo US in mid-2015, and is very US-centric, but we thought it was interesting enough to share again. Have a read, enjoy, and let us know what you think! — Cam

Author’s Note: This update has been a long time coming, as it’s been well over a month since all this happened. I apologise for the delay. Part of the challenge of this project is figuring out exactly how to document everything, and this segment was particularly challenging for whatever reason. Hoping to catch up quick and that the posts will flow with more regularity from here on out. -BR

When we left off I was dropping my friend Jeff off at the airport in Billings, Montana. My freshly sneeze-broken rib from the previous evening was killing me, so I decided to post up there and take care of some necessities. I did a load of laundry, I pumped out my grey and black water tanks. The biggest accomplishment was that I managed to replace the open/close motor on the hatch of my ceiling fan, effectively saving the hundreds it would have cost to replace the whole tamale.

I didn’t know anyone in Billings (or so I thought), so I decided to see if there were any cool people on Tinder I might want to have dinner with. I can honestly say I was only looking for a dinner companion, because seriously, everything hurt my rib. I ended up matching with a travel writer, and wouldn’t you know it, we write for some of the same magazines and knew some of the same people. So we decided to go to dinner at the Montana Brewing Company. I got a burger that was covered in lil’ smokies. It was a great/terrible choice and I regretted nothing/everything.

She and I swapped stories from the road, laughed a lot, and in the end she invited me to park my van in front of her house for the night. I slept in the van, like a proper little gentleman, and in the morning we grabbed breakfast. Since then we’ve been sharing work contacts and have even gotten each other invited on future press trips. Stranger win number one!

From there it was time to head north. I’d become friends with some writer types when I covered Burning Man from Camp Journeylism a few years ago, and so I was bound for Missoula, which I’d been hearing about for years. On my way up there I stopped at the Berkeley Pit, one of the biggest civic engineering projects in our fair country’s history. It is a jaw-droppingly massive pit mine, with minerals of many different colours painting the exposed layers. I found myself wishing again that I had a wider lens.

Radiolab did a piece on the pit not too long ago, and I won’t spoil the twist ending for you except to say holy crap there’s a twist ending and you need to go listen to it right now because it’s amazing!! Not to oversell it, or anything.

Missoula, it turns out, is a pretty rad town. I met up with Jason and Jessica at a bar called Charlie B’s. It had the advantage of being only of the only bars in town that had power that night, as a massive wind-storm and ripped through town about an hour before I arrived and poles were down everywhere. Jason is on the city counsel and had a line on all kinds of things I might want to see, including a company that had just won a pair of X Prizes. My plan was to head to Glacier National Park the next morning, but I determined that I’d come back through for a day on my way west.

Glacier was everything I had been told it would be. Wild, rugged, beautiful, and completely full of tourists. It also had the rather unfortunate problem of being on fire. Huge sections of the park had been burning in recent weeks, and new fires were still breaking out. As I drove along the park’s iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road (which cuts right through the heart of it) there was a noticeable haze everywhere. I stopped and grabbed photos wherever I could.

Late afternoon I pulled over at a vista where there were a ton of hikers around, evidently a lot of people had missed the last trans-park shuttle and were hoping to hitch rides back to their cars. Most of them needed to go where back where I came from, but I was determined to press onward and find some place to camp, even though I’d been told most of the campgrounds were closed. One guy had just finished a brutal hike and needed to head in the same direction I was going. I decided he didn’t look like the type of dude to stab a dude, so I said sure.

This is Rick. Rick, it turns out, is pretty awesome. He owns an outdoor gear shop in southern Illinois. We had a ways to go before we’d reach the lot where he left his car so I asked if he minded if I stopped to take photos along the way. He was all on board. One of the first places we stopped we could see a flock (heard? Gaggle?) of mountain goats, precariously perched on some absurdly steep cliffs. Watching them climb around, seemingly effortlessly, was rather amazing.

At last we pulled into the lot where he’d left his car, and we could see a group of people setting up some very large telescopes. I wandered over and asked what they were doing. They were about to have a private, guided tour of the night sky for donors to the park conservancy. I immediately played the press card. “I write for Gizmodo. Would it be alright if I stuck around for it?” Worked like a charm.

I said goodbye to Rick who promised to buy me a beer and a pizza if I pass through southern Illinois, and I promised to make that happen. I cooked myself some dinner as the sun went down and I made sure my camera was ready for some long exposures as the donors began to file in.

I’ve always had a terrible memory for astronomy, which is one of my great failings, because I love it so much, and every time someone points out a star, or a planet, or a constellation it fills me with a little bit of glee. The tour of the night sky was really wonderful and inspiring. One of the first things we saw was the ISS, blazing a trail across the sky, far brighter than any satellite.

As the tour began to wind down the guests started leaving, and their headlights spoiled my night vision each time. So I grabbed my camera and hiked off over a hill, making plenty of noise so as to not accidentally sneak up on a rattlesnake or bear. I ended up with a handful of shots that I really like a lot.

One of the advantages of picking up Rick and finding the star gazing event was that it actually gave me a place to park for the night, one that’s normally not open for overnighting. The campground I’d hoped to get to that night was close because of the fires, so it was a rather amazing option. I crawled in, took one last shot through my van’s window, and passed out.

I woke up to the smell of smoke. It was far worse than it had been the previous day. I got out and found that not only was the lot now completely full of tourists’ cars, but the mountains in the distance were now just silhouettes. A couple more fires had broken out overnight and things were incredibly smoky.

I left the van, and hiked up to Hidden Lake, a gorgeous little pond in the middle of high ridges. It’s really breathtaking. On the way I saw some big horn rams and the odd waterfall, too, but the trail was choked with tourists and the air was choked with smoke, so I headed back to the van.

I ventured a bit further north on the Going-To-The-Sun Road, but all the places to pull off were closed, and every view I got was little more than haze. Plus, I could feel my eyes and throat start to dry out, so it was time to flee the flames. I turned around, and headed to the southern entrance of the park where I rented a kayak and went for a six mile paddle on Lake McDonald.

The paddle was an important test. I’d recently agreed to join an expedition that would be kayaking from Cuba to Florida. I already hadn’t been kayaking in more than a year, and then a broke my rib which further set me back, and it was still very tender. The paddling didn’t seem to aggravate it, anyway, which was a massive relief. It was also absolutely gorgeous out there.

I headed to Whitefish for the night and did another friend-style Tinder date. We had a couple drinks and she showed me around town, and suggested I park my van at a paddle shop called Paddlefish Sports, saying the owner had travelled for many years and would likely welcome a guest in his parking lot. Another shout to the kindness of strangers.

The next morning I headed back to Missoula to check out Sunburst Sensors. I grabbed Huckleberry milkshake along the way. Northern Montana is somewhat obsessed with huckleberries (think blueberries but more tart and flavorful), but I was told that it was bit of a tourist thing.

At Sunburst I met James Beck who gave me a tour and explained what the company was all about. In July the company had won two $US750,000 X Prizes for ocean health sensors. Both sensors were designed to monitor the pH levels of the water of long periods of time.

On the high end was the tSAMI, which won the prize for accuracy and durability. It’s made of titanium and can survive at depths in excess of 3000 meters (1.9 miles), which is pretty nuts. The other one, the iSAMI, took the price for a cheap version. It’s only good to a couple meters or so, but frequently organisations like NOAA are just attaching them to buoys anyway, so that’s not an issue. They can be built for under $US1,000, which is extremely affordable by research standards.

It struck me as rather amazing that a company so far inland had won an X Prize for the ocean, but it was explained to me that the company was started on the West Coast and then moved back to Missoula, where the founder was from. Almost all of the components are built right there in town (including the parts that must be machined), and it’s all assembled and tested there, too. A big motivating factor was the creation of jobs in Montana.

From there I went to the Strongwater Mountain Surf Company and rented a board. In Montana. You read that right. Turns out there are a couple standing waves on the Clark Fork River. I’d never tried surfing a standing wave before but it seemed as good a day as any to try. I was told the water was low so the wave was small and it was extremely shallow. This is why I was renting a foam board. I had no desire to rip the fins out the Varial Foam Dwart in my trunk, thankyouverymuch.

When I got to the wave there were a handful of local teens surfing it and unlike the beaches of LA, the vibes were very friendly. At first I tried paddling into the wave, but that went poorly. I was told it was easier to “acid drop” into it, which is basically when you throw the board onto the water and then jump onto it. A couple tries and a couple more tips, and I was up and riding it as well as any of them. Which wasn’t that well. The water was so low that nobody could stay in the wave for more than five seconds or so, but still, I felt validated.

It’s here that I should confess that I have a secret plan to surf every coastal state in the U.S. Well, every ocean-facing state was my original plan, but now I’m starting to add some weirdos into the equation. I was towed behind a jet ski in Michigan, and I surfed a standing wave in Montana. I feel like they’re bonuses, but whatever, I’ll take them.

Anyway, from Missoula I left pre-dawn and made a beeline for Sandpoint, Idaho. My friend Mia, who I’ve known since kindergarten, lived there for almost 10 years and just happened to be visiting while I was passing through. She took me up the lift at the Schweitzer resort, and while the views were somewhat obscured by smoke (Northern Idaho was on fire, too), I could imagine what the slopes look like covered in powder, and I promised myself I’d come back in the winter.

Mia’s phone rang and her friend told us to get down to the marina and bring a bottle of prosecco. Okie dokie. We blazed around the lake and I got another non-traditional surf-style under my belt when I tried wake surfing for the first time. Basically, you get towed behind a boat on a surf board, then your reel yourself into closer to the boat until you’re in the steepest part of its wake, then you let go of the rope and you keep going. Theoretically.

The reality was a lot trickier. While I made it to my feet on my first try, and I was able to get into the wake, I found the super-thin, not-so-buoyant board really hard to dial in. I kept catching an edge and then falling out of the wave. One time I actually hit the boat, which booted me out, too. Definitely something I want to come back to. Maybe I’ll surf Kansas.

That night we went to Sandpoint’s music festival and saw The Devil Makes Three, who I absolutely loved, followed by Trampled By Turtles, who are very good at playing their instruments very fast, but kind of made me want to slit my wrists with their super depressing lyrics.

The next morning it was time to head to Portland because I had a plane to catch in two days. I had about 6.5 hours of driving ahead of me and I was making good time, and then everything went wrong. Or one thing went wrong, but it was a big thing.

As I was driving merrily along suddenly the air conditioning shut off and the vents abruptly started blasting hot air. I mean, hair-dryer-set-on-high hot. So I pulled over and looked under the hood. Didn’t see anything, levels looked good. So I drove on, but this time the engine struggled to start. I drove a bit further and now the battery light had turned on, and the car stereo had started to flicker. I pulled off to the side of the road and turned off the engine. It wouldn’t start again. It was just after 5pm on a Saturday and I was about 100 miles from Portland, in the middle of nowhere, Oregon.

Let me tell you, if your car has to have a breakdown, just after 5pm on a Saturday is literally the worst possible time. All the shops have closed for the day, so you can’t confirm whether they can work on your big arse van or not. They’re also going to be closed all day Sunday. Now add the fact that you have a 7am flight on Monday morning, and things suddenly get very stressful.

But here again came strangers to the rescue. The tow truck driver, tried and failed to jump my car, so we determined to tow it, even though we didn’t know where to. Just getting the van onto the back of his flatbed was a serious production, complete with laying stacks of two-by-fours under the back wheels to keep the tailpipe from scraping as it was jacked up. It took us a good 40 minutes to get it on there.

I was trying to figure out how I was going to afford being towed all the way to Oregon when he said he had a buddy with a shop who doesn’t work Sundays, but maybe he’d make an exception. It took four calls before the guy answered the phone, but sure enough he said he’d come in the next morning. Amazing. The driver towed me to the lot at the mechanics shop (which cost me $US200 out of pocket), and then drove off.

I was now in a dark lot, on a dark street, in the middle of nowhere, and since my van wouldn’t start I had no means of escape. It was really the first time in the month I’d been on the road that I felt sketched out. This feeling only intensified when a mysterious car pulled into the lot, parked right beside me, and then sat there blasting ’90s power rock.

I turned the lights off in the van. I grabbed my baseball bat and stun-gun flashlight (I’ll explain that another time), and sat there, poised. Ready. For what, I don’t know. It didn’t matter, because nothing happened. My neighbour just sat there, blasting his music in a dark lot in the middle of nowhere for two hours, and then the stereo went silent and I assume he fell asleep in his car. Who was I to judge, as I did the same.

The next morning the shop owner, a guy named Les Hewitt, knocked on my van’s door. He was a big man with no sleeves and a lit cigarette in his mouth. He knew his way around an engine, though. He juiced up the battery enough so that the van would start. Tested the battery, then tested the alternator. Boom, dead alternator was the call. Somehow he managed to find the part on a Sunday morning, had it delivered, and had me back on the road by 10:30am. I couldn’t believe it. My arse was saved.

I made it to Portland and had a lovely dinner with two of my favourite people, Karl and Lauren, and a couple of their friends who were in town visiting. I threw all kinds of crap into a small suitcase and two backpacks, which is what I would be living out of for the next four weeks. I got roughly half an hour of sleep, then drove the van to PDX, parked it in long-term parking and walked away.

It had been just over a month since I’d started living in the van full-time. Over that period I slept in it every single night, and I logged roughly 5,700 miles. I realise now that that pace was overly ambitious. I felt like I was always speeding through places just to get to the next one. Most of the towns I stopped in I just got a glimpse of what the place was all about and then I had to move on. I’m hoping to go much slower from here on out… when I can.

Next time, gear testing in the wilderness of British Colombia. As always, thank you for your support. You complete me like a flower completes a ground squirrel.

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