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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
BIO: Sarah is the author of the award-winning VAN LIFE as well as quite a few other books. You can find links to her work on www.sarahleamy.com