Excerpt from Van Life, a finalist in the 2018 NM/AZ Book Awards and 2017 Grand Winner of the NW Book Festival Contest.
Chapter One: STUNNER PASS, COLORADO
Is this what they call a midlife crisis?
The Huffington post describes it as a “dreaded period of time with images of a Harley-mounted silver haired woman riding off into the sunset.” Well, that didn’t sound too bad to a nomad like me.
Stunner Pass campground is high up in the mountains north of Cumbres, New Mexico, following a well-maintained road for twenty miles to the seasonal village of Platoro. Then though, it suddenly became narrow and winding, with steep drop-offs, and we crossed one 12,000 foot pass after another. To think that those run down rock foundations had been mining encampments blew the cobwebs out of my zoned-out driving mind. Cliff faces had dropped rocks onto National Forest road 250, and it was tricky avoid them while keeping momentum on the gravel and sand. Finally a valley opened up to the left, and crossing the river one last time, I took the fork northwards and pulled into a primitive campground. One other family had set up on the far side under some aspen trees. There was another site nearer the river, high above but close enough to hear it fly by full of snowmelt and timbers.
Looking around nervously, I took a deep breath and simply opened the doors. Out jumped Rosie, then Harold, and finally the Tiger snuck out from under the bed. He stood on the step, sniffed once, looked at the dogs, and then hopped down as if it were just another day.
That evening, sitting at a wooden picnic table next to a raging fire, drinking a glass of malbec, full of curry and good humor, I couldn’t help but grin. I’d just had a dramatic shift in lifestyle, that’s for sure, quit my job, well, technically it was a three months sabbatical, but we all knew what that meant. I’d bought a van a week before, then packed up my home, left keys with friends, and thrown two dogs and a cat in Van Dreamy and set out for the Northwest. A vague plan, some savings, and a home on wheels, I really couldn’t stop grinning. Midlife crisis? Yep. Fine.
Questions and lingering ideas kept spinning round late at night, it’s true. What am I doing with my life? Working retail when being self-employed and creative most of my life kept me going nicely? The easy option was no longer so easy. It’s not that time is running out, but more along the lines of ‘what next?’ Time for a challenge apparently. This was it: Taking Cat Stephen for a ride.
Stevie wore his harness reluctantly, hating how the image of a training bra made me snicker. After only a couple of days, there was no more micro-managing the poor bugger. I usually do give up, and even the dogs are rarely on leashes, so why torture the cat? Rosie, the mischief-maker, had taken Stevie the Tiger on a small walkabout. Harold, the biggest and best dog in the world, lay on his blanket near the van, watching us all. He weighed in at sixty-five pounds, a solid mid-sized black dog with a white chest and front paws. His tail stood at half-mast most of the time unless he sensed a threat, then chest filled and tail raised a challenge to the incomers. In reality, he wore a transparent sign telling other dogs to attack him.
Is this is a mid-life crisis? Leaving home, no real plans, no real goals? Buying new toys, that is, vehicles? Big changes? Yes, probably. I’ve been restless for a long time. It’s not new for me to travel loosely. Or to take little backcountry camping trips. For three months though? No, I haven’t done that for more than a decade. Not since I’d packed up my home in Madrid, NM, and moved to San Francisco and then Alaska. I’d had nothing going on so why not eh? This time, the job was good enough, great co-workers who’d become friends, some good customers, some idiots, but it was retail. Indoors. I’m an outdoor dog. Working under fluorescent lights for eight hours a day, answering stupid questions, that’s what was draining. My joie de vivre, curiosity, and interest in people and their stories took a hike for a few years.
“Ah, but, you’re ALONE in the middle of the San Juan Mountains, that’s not going to help is it?” Harold is so pedantic.
Yes, it is. Time out from having to make small talk. Time out from routines. Time with the critters in beautiful places to recharge my inner batteries, well, yes that will help. Help work out what next. Where next. Turning fifty next year, a concept that doesn’t exactly freak me out, but it gives pause. Time to see if this is how I want to spend the next ten years. Is it? In the meantime, there was a job to do. An outdoor kind of a job. “Anyone hungry?”
Harold jumped up and ran to the campervan with tail wagging high. Rosie pushed her way to the front of the line, normal behavior for the middle ‘child’. Stevie hopped onto the wooden table and stood next to the cooler. I doled out the dinners, and settled back to watching a fire with a wine in hand. Brain quietened. Smile broadened. Critters munched. Not a bad start.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry Harold. I didn’t know that looking out the window in the middle of the night and growling meant your bum was about to explode.”
I picked up the cat, opened the door, and threw out the dog. I dropped the cat. Looked for a flashlight, turned it on and checked out the damage. Stevie stared at me from the bed. Rosie curled up on my pillow. Crap. Everywhere. One big boy bum tum on the rugs, carpet and dog bed, all around the edges as if he’d tried to be tidy as it flew out. Poor bugger. One foot stood in a sludge pile. Grab cat, throw out rugs and bed, take the water bowl, and step outside, drop the cat back inside and close the door. Damn. Damn. Damn. A midnight crisis was not a good start. A shitty start you could say…
Harold whimpered most of the night. Despite the wish to leave him outside, just in case, but with a frost on the grass, the threat of bears, and an overwhelming guilt, I let him back onto my bed. He fell fast asleep. I didn’t.
With the fire going and a brisk fog surrounding us, it was most definitely springtime in the mountains with a lingering blue-grey mist down in the valley. Harold ate his breakfast as if nothing had happened. Stevie followed Rosie into the trees around the van. I pulled out bedding, carpet, rugs, clothes, crates, pretty much everything. Since I had to clean thoroughly this morning, it was a perfect time to reorganize. Note to self: Don’t just make packing lists – use them. The number of odds and ends forgotten was growing in number so out came the notepad for another list.
The aspens were only just budding out, and a slight light green hue covered the hills around us. To either side of the narrow valley, mountains rose to over 10,000 feet, an alpine profile of boulders and bare land, with a few grey white slashes of snow in the south facing creek beds. Lower down a forest began; thick mixed conifers were home to much wildlife and the morning alarm of birdsong echoed around our meadow.
With coffee in hand, it was time to look at maps, brush teeth, and build a new routine. With the critters, and for me too, it really helps to have some kind of routine, otherwise Harold stares at me constantly, uncertain and is a right nervous Nellie. That first morning started us off with a pattern of fire, coffee, food, and a short walk including Little Stevie. Back to the van, throw the cat in the van, and then a mile or so hike with two happy dogs and one hyper human, caffeined and ready to explore.
Stunner Pass was a miners’ camp in 1892 during the Colorado Gold Rush. Over four hundred miners lived and worked up there and the foundations of a few shacks remained. How they took the gold back down to the nearest town, or brought supplies up here astounded me: horseback and carts in snow and rain, what a combination. The Post Office even delivered mail by sled dog teams. Most of the miners left in search of more gold and the encampment faded away as another dream took hold.
I took buckets down to the Alamosa River and filled up enough for washing myself, two dog bowls, and rinsing out the last of Harold’s poopy butt mess. Our picnic table was covered with blankets, clothes, and kitchen supplies, all taking up space. Not the time for writing, perhaps a nap then? Yep, a nap, good idea. With all the critters inside, doors closed, we settled down for an eleven o’clock nap.
BIO: Sarah Leamy is an award-winning author of over eight books. VAN LIFE is a full length travelogue and will be shared here on WLJ once a month with a chapter and photos.