Tag Archives: vandwelling

Slowing Down And Smelling The Flowers

Have you ever done something you thought would be a good idea but were uncertain about, and in the end, it turned out to be a great idea? Such is the case with the building of Violet the campervan. Many of you know that in 2018 I converted a Ram Promaster high-top van into a camper. I had a basic conversion done via Wayfarer Vans in Colorado Springs, and I have been adding to the build ever since.  

There is nothing like having a house on wheels. Yes, standard RVs may offer some additional amenities, but their bulky size and price make them less than ideal for my purposes. My little van is spacious enough to live in, yet it fits nicely into a standard parking slot.  

I’m always desperate to travel out West, but gas prices have kept me local this year. However, this has turned out to be a plus as it has forced me to explore the wonders of the Midwest. Last month, I took separate trips to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and most recently, Minnesota.

Julie’s parents are aging, and we want to visit them more often. However, we don’t want to burden them by staying at their place. In addition, her job can be stressful, so combining a visit with a mini-vacation seemed like a great idea.

She is our trip planner and tasked herself with finding a campground and some activities. Although I like to boondock when I solo travel, I usually stay at a campground when I travel with her as I want the experience to be as pleasant as possible. The nicer the amenities, the more likely she will come along on my next adventure.

Although she takes on the travel itinerary, I assume the rest of the preparation responsibilities, so the week before our trip involved many tasks. For example, washing the outside of the van, cleaning its inside, stocking the pantry, buying special foods she likes, planning meals, etc. All of this is time-consuming, but I have plenty of time.  

This trip took us to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, and the Wildwood Campground. Campground hosts and campers are typically amiable, and this place was no exception. We were welcomed to the campground and quickly dispatched to our site. One of the luxuries of camping at an actual campground is the “facility.” No cat hole digging or sponge baths are needed! Taking a shower at home seems routine, but having a real shower when camping feels like a bonafide luxury. 

Yes, we try to do some fun activities when we camp, but daily activities are also joyful. Everything takes longer when camping. Hygiene activities take planning. When the evening cools down, extra time is required to build a fire. Even cooking a simple meal is more involved than when at home. Yes, it may take longer to cut vegetables using my trusty Buck knife, but it does the job. Interestingly, food tastes better when you put just a little more effort into its preparation, and meals become a significant part of the day, as opposed to the eating-on-the-run that happens too often in the real world.

On this trip, we kayaked down the scenic St. Crox river one day and toured several quaint towns on another. Naturally, we also spent a day visiting Julie’s parents. They are in their 90s, and I was concerned about over-taxing them. We planned to bring them lunch and then walk to give them a little break afterward. We would return for a short visit after our walk and leave before we overstayed. However, to my surprise, they wanted us to stay longer, which we were delighted to do. I lost my parents many decades ago, so it is especially lovely to have a close relationship with Julie’s parents. They have always been gracious and welcoming to me, which is much appreciated.

If you separate our activities over the last four days, many would seem mundane. However, they add up to a lovely mini-trip when you explore them in total. Julie gained some needed R-and-R and I got an extra shot of adventure.

See the photos below for some details in photos.  

One of the first things that I added to Violet the campervan were swivels for the front seats. However, I never used them. I’m glad that this became one of Julie’s favorite features.
Over the years I have made my morning coffee in a variety of ways from using a percolator, to camper coffee, to using a pour-over system. However, Keurig pods seem to work out the best for me. Surprisingly, making a cup of coffee consumes very little electric power from my house battery.
We kayaked 7 miles down the St. Croix river, and it was beautiful! I was afraid to bring a camera or my phone due to fear of getting them wet. However, I regretted that decision as the views were spectacular. All I have to show for the adventure are these soaking wet clothes that we “artfully” dried on an available picnic table. You have to be creative when camping!
Julie’s parents live on this lake and have a summer home on another lake. When I was dating her I asked her why they would have a summer home on a lake when they already lived on one. “Oh the second lake is a Walleye lake,” she said knowingly.
Her hometown only had a few thousand people when she grew up and everything was a short walk away. It has now grown but it has retained its charm.
Meal prep takes longer when using a Buck knife and a paper plate “cutting board.”
Ingredients ready for some breakfast burritos.
Burritos done! When possible I’ll cook outside. A little Frank’s Hot Sauce adds spice to life!
Visiting beautiful Taylors Falls/Interstate State Park.
A view of the St. Croix and a riverboat.
Julie enjoyed the beautiful weather.
How about steak on an open campfire? I bought this little grate on Amazon and used it for the first time on this trip.
Dinner is served… Yes, no vegetables. I’ll do better next time.
The charming town of Stillwater, Minnesota is famous for its lift bridge which is now used for pedestrians and bikes. Cross it and you are in Wisconsin.
Stillwater features a shop that sells sodas of every type imaginable.
I love local coffee shops. Here Julie is enjoying the scenery.
When you are the photographer no one takes your picture. I’m stuck in selfie mode.
It was raining on our last morning so it was time to cook inside on the ol’induction burner.
Time for some Avocado Toast!

The Bear Chronicles

When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one.


The offer was made in 2017, but I had to decline.  My friend, Tom had asked me if I wanted to go backpacking with him and his son, Charlie.  He had just come back from the remote Glacier National Park located in the west corner of Montana, and he wished to return in 2018 for a backpacking adventure. The trip would be a father/son experience as I would bring along my son, Will. 

The idea sounded exciting and appeared to be a great way to bond with Will, but he wasn’t interested in going, and the idea of spending a fortune on backpacking equipment without him didn’t hold a lot of appeal for me.  As luck would have it, Tom had to postpone the trip until this year, and during that interim, some things in my life had changed.

The main change being the purchase of an empty cargo van in the spring of 2018, and its eventual transformation into “Violet” my campervan. Violet’s design was the culmination of over twenty years of owning different campers.  I knew what I needed, and more importantly, I knew what I didn’t need to make a van conversion work for me. That conversion process started in the fall of 2018 when I had Wayfarer Vans insert a prefabricated interior into her.  That project added a bed, ceiling, walls, floor, and a kitchen counter to her interior. After that work was done, Tom and I spent several months customizing her further. We added three-hundred watts of roof solar panels, a vent fan, swivel front seats, LED ceiling lights, a custom storage compartment under her bed, a 12 volt Dometic refrigerator, and other refinements that turned a generic campervan into a travel companion with a personality.  She was christened with the name Violet as her interior cushions had a cheerful purple/violet color.  

My empty cargo van.
Empty van converted to Violet the campervan.

I had already taken her on a variety of short trips to Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Also, I traveled to Arizona to gather my graduating daughter’s possessions from the U of A.  During that trip, I sampled four national parks along the way, turning an ordeal drive into an enjoyable event. Those trips confirmed that my planning had paid off. Violet was not only roadworthy; she was very liveable.  

Tom and Charlie would travel to Glacier in Tom’s Ford Flex whose cavernous interior could easily be converted into sleeping quarters for the two of them.  I would follow them in Violet. In the ensuing two years, I decided that I didn’t want to spend days in the backcountry. While Tom and Charlie were backpacking, I would do day hikes where I could ponder and take photos.  It seemed like a plan.

I approached Julie about this idea months earlier, and on the surface, she was supportive.  However, I could sense an undertone of more ambivalent feelings. I convinced myself that clairvoyance was not in my job description and moved forward with my plans.

There wasn’t a lot to do to get Violet ready.  I did have her oil changed, and I gave her a good bath.  However, most of my camping gear was still in her storage bins from my Arizona trip.  I even kept some of the shelf-stable food in her cupboards, as it made no sense to unpack them only to repack them a few weeks later.

Everything was going according to plan until my aspirations were interrupted by, of all things, YouTube. YouTube’s algorithms are a closely guarded secret, but they do seem to have an uncanny ability to predict a viewer’s interest. I wasn’t explicitly looking up National Parks or hiking trips, but I started to get video suggestions on both.  More concerning was the fact that I was also getting a multitude of “killer bear” videos. These videos chronicled the terrible dangers of being in bear country, what to do if attacked by a bear, and the number of people in national parks who disappear never to be seen again.

Each ensuing video seemed to be more dramatic and made me more frantic.  There was the video of the trained “movie” bear who killed an actor with one bite.  There was the video of the happy hikers confronted by a mountain lion. And there was a video of a bear peeling a door off a sedan to obtain the food treats inside.  One video advised:  

“If a bear attacks, lie on your stomach and play dead. Don’t let him flip you over as he will eviscerate you. If he is starting to eat you, no longer play dead and fight him with any method at your disposal.”  

Fight back if he starts to eat you?  I ordered the largest can of bear spray that I could find.  More importantly, I began to develop a real concern that I was about to travel to a dangerous place, as Glacier has a healthy population of both black and Grizzly bears.

A few days before the trip, I pulled out a large plastic storage bin that I keep under Violet’s bed. That box contained some packing cubes in which I would stuff my clothing, one for socks, one for underwear, one for pants, etc.  It was warm in Illinois, and I was only going to bring shorts, but at the last minute, I tossed in a pair of jeans to be on the safe side. 

I needed to buy some snacks as well as some fresh food, and so I shopped for a half-gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a packet of Oscar Mayer turkey cold cuts, a block of cheddar cheese, a case of water, and some chips and nuts.  I also bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. I usually don’t drink hard liquor, but I did have a drink in the evenings when I was traveling to Arizona, and I enjoyed it. Having a whiskey drink had a “manly/Indiana Jones” quality about it. I thought about buying some cigars, but I can only be so manly, and to be honest with you, the smell of cigar smoke makes me sick.

The night before the trip I powered up my Dometic chest-style fridge so it would be cold when I transferred my groceries from the house fridge into it the next morning. I returned my now filled clothing box, and I loaded a case of water into Violet’s “garage” area along with my Kloss carbon fiber travel guitar. Our plan was to leave Monday afternoon after Charlie’s guitar lesson. I had taken trips with Tom, where we traveled in the same car, and we did well together; I was hopeful for a pleasant trip to Glacier.

Decades before I had “caravaned” with my sister Nancy and my brother-in-law Mike.  During those trips, we had CB radios in both vehicles, and we were in constant communication. I found it fun to travel in tandem with them. Traveling in this manner was different with Tom.  There was little car to car communication, which left me in an alert mode so I could anticipate Tom’s next driving action. Also, he is a more aggressive driver than I am. Lastly, Tom likes to wait until the low gas warning light goes on before he looks for a gas station.  I want to top off my tank before the gauge registers one-quarter. This later habit of mine was amplified in the wilderness of North Dakota and Montana where one could drive 100 miles before finding the next gas station.

There were many miles where we were the only two cars on the road.

I already had a fear of bears, and I was now dealing with the concern that I would run out of gas on some desolate highway in the middle of nowhere. The only solution was to come clean to Tom about my fears, and with my confession, he agreed to stop for gas more frequently. Strike one on my tough and manly persona.

It is over 1500 miles to Glacier National Park or almost 24 hours of driving. My wife Julie and my daughter Kathryn helped me load audiobooks from the library on my phone, which I could then play via Bluetooth on Violets sound system. Also, I could use my trucker style “Blue Parrot” headset to take and make phone calls. Lastly, I did have a cell signal on most of the highways, which allowed me to use Spotify.  Despite all of this connectivity, I spent the majority of my time thinking, and I tried to use some of this unstructured space to quell my bear-phobia.

Since 1967 there have only been ten deaths due to bear attacks at Glacier, and there are typically only two incidents of aggressive bear events (maulings) per year at the park.  The chances of me being killed by a bear were tiny. I used these statistics in an attempt to appease my concerns, but I was still unsettled. I further analyzed my feelings, and I discovered that my “bear anxiety” was in part masking other feelings, principally my guilt for going on a fun adventure while my family remained at home. 

The first two travel nights, Tom, Charlie, and I boondocked. In other words, we camped in unauthorized and unimproved places.  The first night at a beautiful rest area in Minnesota. The second night in a gravel parking lot in Sand Springs, Montana, a town that consisted of a single building that contained a little store, restaurant, two gas pumps, and post office.

Boondocking at a beautiful rest stop in Minnesota.
Boondocking at desolate Sand Springs, Montana.
We were full of excitement and anticipation at this breakfast restaurant in North Dakota.

Sand Springs is about 360 miles, or about 6 hours away from St. Mary, which was our port of entry to the park.  When we left Sand Springs, I knew that we would be at Glacier by mid-afternoon that day.

Bored, I decided to troll for local radio stations.  I switched on the radio and pressed the scan button. Within seconds a voice crackled through:

“Glacier National Park officials say a man who disappeared on July 8 is still missing, and the trail he’s believed to have hiked on is now closed due to aggressive grizzly activity.”

Mark Sinclair, age 66, left his car at Logan Pass unlocked, and with his dog inside.  He never returned, and it is speculated that he was taken down by a Grizzly. At 66 he was exactly my age, was this a warning? My bear fears flooded in.

As we drove further north towards the Canadian border, the temperature got progressively colder, and it started to rain. It was a freezing, miserable rain, and I was grateful that I had packed a pair of long pants. 

We arrived at St. Mary, which was less of a town and more of a small conglomerate of buildings.  A place whose only purpose was to serve the needs of park goers. Two gas stations, a tiny grocery store, a couple of restaurants, and a few motels comprised the entire town. We turned left off Highway 89 and onto the Going-To-The-Sun road, and we entered the park.

Despite the cold and the rain, the initial views were spectacular and inspiring.  Although I was tired, I was awestruck, and my bear fears subdued. Glacier National Park has almost no cell coverage.  However, there is limited Verizon coverage for a few miles in from St Mary. I adjusted my T-Mobile phone so that it could make calls over wi-fi, and I switched on my prepaid Verizon hotspot.  I would be able to communicate with Tom, who was in the car in front of me, for at least a few more miles as we tried to locate a camping spot.

We bypassed the visitor’s center and went directly to the Rising Sun campground, about 5 miles west. Tom noted, “Last time I was here there were campsites open in the hard-sided (no tents) portion of this campground.”  Unfortunately, when we went to check that the entire section was closed due to aggressive bear activity. My bear concerns were on the rise.

“Mike, go to the visitor center, and I’ll check out some of the other campgrounds,” Tom said.  Tom drove off and traveled beyond the little Verizon bubble around St. Mary. I busied my time watching the park’s introductory video, and talking to one of the park rangers. “How serious do I have to be about bears?” I asked. “We have had a lot of bear activity this season.  I would advise hiking with others and making lots of noise. Don’t forget to carry bear spray.” Her comments didn’t reassure me. I looked at a notice on the center’s bulletin board which warned not only of bear activity but also mountain lions. Next to it was a flyer with Mr. Sinclair’s photo. “MISSING Mark Alan Sinclair.  Last seen Monday, July 8 at 2:30 PM on the Highline Trail.” “Crap,” I thought, this is not helping.

I reconnected with Tom who excitedly told me that there were open campsites at the Many Glaciers campground, about an hour away from St Mary.  An available campsite was fantastic luck, and we started the trek to Many Glaciers. We turned left out of the park on highway 89 and headed north.  We then took another left onto Many Glaciers Road for the long drive to the campground. The Many Glaciers Road was in terrible shape, riddled with huge potholes, and at times it seemed to dissolve into the gigantic Lake Sherburne below.  After we entered the campground, it became apparent why there were campsites available. A large red sign read:

WARNING

No tents, tent trailers, or sleeping on the ground allowed in this campground.  High Bear Frequency.

There had been two separate bear incidents in July at the campground, the last one requiring the rangers to “haze” two bears who refused to leave.  This caused park officials to ask all tenters to depart, which opened up their campsites. “Crap again,” I thought. But at least we had a campsite.

I talked to the camp host, Rae, who found us a spot, and then I went to the campgrounds kiosk to fill out paperwork and to pay my fee.  I have a National Parks Lifetime Pass, and so the nightly rate was only $11 for a beautiful site. We were staying for 8 days, but Tom was paying for half of the bill.  $44 for eight days of camping, perhaps my luck was changing.

“Are you sure that we can camp here for eight days?” I asked Tom. “Sure,” he replied.  We parked our vehicles, and I went to place the receipt on the campsite’s post. I looked down at the post and saw the word “reserved,” and my heart sank.  Just at that moment, Rae came by doing her rounds. “Can we have this site for eight nights?” She rose a single finger to indicate that it was for one night only.  We explained our situation and the fact that Tom and Charlie were going backpacking in the wilderness. Rae nodded and said she would see what she could do, but there was no certainty.

That night I could barely sleep.  It was raining outside, and something or someone kept bumping up against Violet.  My GI system was going hyperactive, but I didn’t remember where the bathrooms were, and there was no way that I was going to leave the safety of Violet and enter the black void of the night. I started to feel responsible not only for myself but also for Tom and Charlie, as if I had to solve the camping problem on my own.  Where could we leave Tom’s car? Could I camp outside the park? How much did the motels cost? Did they have rooms available? I had many questions, but no internet access to explore solutions.

At 7 AM the next morning, I heard Tom’s engine start-up.  He was going back to St. Mary to secure backpacking permits for Charlie and himself.  I didn’t go out to wish him goodbye; I was already beat.  

After they left I heated some water to make coffee and I cooked some oatmeal to which I added freeze-dried blueberries.  My breakfast was OK, but my stomach wasn’t into it. I started to read through the materials that the park gave me. Where were the other campgrounds?  If I paid the nearby Swiftcurrent motel a fee could I leave Tom’s car in their parking lot? The questions continued.

The nearby and very sweet Swiftcurrent Motel.

I felt tired, dull, and queasy, but I decided to walk around the campground to get a lay-of-the-land.  Just as I was opening Violet’s cargo door, I saw Rae approaching with a note in her hand. She saw me and happily told me, “I arranged everything.  I placed you in a different campsite for the next seven days. I already put the sticker on the site, and it is yours.” A massive wave of relief came over me, and my queasy feeling was instantly reduced by at least 50%.  Through her kindness, we got past a major hurdle. “Rae, you are the queen of the park. I am so grateful for your kindness,” I told her with sincerity.  

Our initial beautiful campsite.
The campsite that Rae found was was also great!

On Tom’s return, I told him about my sleepless night, my worry, and Rae’s incredible thoughtfulness. “Mike, I never would have left you alone with this problem.  We would have figured something out together,” he said. I knew that he was right; I tend to take on all burdens by myself, a habit that I’m am trying to break.

“Do you want to hike to Iceberg Lake?” Tom queried. “I guess so,” I replied.  I grabbed some snacks, a dehydrated Mountain House Turkey dinner, and a liter of water, shoved them into my Osprey day pack and headed to the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan trailhead. The temperature was cold, perfect for hiking, and although tired much of my crazy worry had passed.  We entered the trail and started our uphill climb to Iceberg Lake, so named as it typically has snow icebergs floating in it even in the summer.

The scenery was spectacular, mountains, lakes, streams, waterfalls, and meadows filled with wildflowers.  Everywhere I looked was a postcard picture and I took many photos even though I realized that they would never compare with what I was witnessing in person.

Spectacular scenery.
Everything was so beautiful.
Wildlife was everywhere.
Hiking the path to Iceberg Lake. Note the beautiful Bear Grass (Lily) flowers.

As we continue to walk, it started to rain again, and that rain eventually turned into snow.  I dug into my pack and pulled out my hoodie and put it on. We ultimately reached Iceberg Lake and paused to take in its surreal beauty.  It was late July, yet that lake had vast slabs of snow in and around it. Tom set up his Jetboil, and we each reconstituted our meals. Me with my dehydrated Turkey Dinner, Charlie with Chicken and Dumplings, and Tom with Teriyaki Chicken. At our feet, fat marmots cajoled us and begged for food, not unlike Mercury, the cat back home.  We didn’t feed them as we had been warned too many times that such generosity is harmful to wild animals. Eventually, the marmots wandered off to a family less concerned about following the rules.

Eating Mountain House free-dried food at Iceberg Lake.

Hiking downhill was harder than going uphill as my big toes kept smashing into the front of my Vasque hiking boots.  We meandered back towards the trailhead, and I was once again dazzled by the scenery, which included vast stands of flowering bear grass, a prairie lily with towering white blooms. Our 10-mile hike was almost over as we were about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. Directly in front of us was an object that was half-way into the path.  At first, I thought it was a black boulder, or perhaps the trunk of a burnt tree; neither consideration made a lot of sense. A second look revealed the object’s true identity. Ten feet in front of us and entering our hiking path was a huge black bear! Surprisingly, I didn’t panic; I fell back on my doctor in crisis training. I slowly pulled out my bear spray and snapped off the safety on the trigger.  I held the can in my right hand at about hip level as I started to call out, “Hey bear, hey bear,” to let him know that we were humans. Tom and Charlie also had their bear spray at the ready as we stood motionless and tried to appear non-threatening.  

The bear paused and looked at us.  After about 10 seconds he slowly waddled first parallel to our path, then away from us.  I breathed a sigh of relief, but I was also aware that it seemed like bears were everywhere at Glacier National Park. 

We celebrated our hike with a trip to Kalispell and a stop at “Famous Dave’s” rib joint. I have to confess that every muscle and every joint in my body seemed to be sore, and even getting out of the car was difficult for me. I took a couple of Motrin with the hope that I would be my old self by the next morning.

I wasn’t sure how I felt after the bear encounter.  In some ways, it confirmed the fact that there were bears everywhere, and that they were not afraid of humans.  However, all of us, including the bear, acted reasonably. I went to bed exhausted and slept like a rock.

On Thursday I woke up to Tom knocking on Violets side window.  He was frying up bacon and asked me for the eggs that I brought on the trip.  With them, he made a bacon and egg scramble, which I relished along with a hot cup of strong coffee.  

Tom was repacking his huge backpack with clothes, food, a medical kit, and other necessities. “Where is your compass?” I asked. “Hmm, can’t find it,” Tom replied. “You can use mine,” I said. “Take my battery pack, and don’t forget your trail map,” I said. “Yes, father,” Tom replied and flashed me a grin.  

Tom agreed to purchase an InReach satellite transceiver before the trip, which I programmed to work with his iPhone.  The InReach radio transmits directly to the Iridium satellite constellation of 66 active spacecraft, which are about 500 miles above the earth. Since I also had a device, we had to ability to send simple text messages to each other even though we had no cell coverage.  

I called on my experience as an amateur radio operator and established a nightly communications net with Tom.  I used the visual imagery of the points of a triangle to outline the three daily steps that he needed to do. My litany was as follows:

First Point: At the start of your daily hike turn on the InReach’s navigation function and have it transmit your current position every 30 minutes.

Second Point: When you arrive at camp, turn off navigation to conserve your batteries.

Third Point: Between 7-8 PM contact me via the device,

By using this simple protocol, Tom’s position was tracked (in case of emergency), and as a net controller, I could stay abreast of any particular needs or problems that he was having.  Without the satellite radio, none of this would have been possible.

The tiny InReach satellite communicator.

Everything that could be done for the hike was done, so we piled into Violet, and I drove north to the Glacier/Waterloo International Peace Park, which is yards from the Canadian border.  Our destination was the Belly River trailhead, which was the starting point of Tom and Charlie’s 45-mile hiking journey. “Why don’t you hike with us a little bit, it can be your hike for the day,” Tom said.  Never one to ignore a good idea, I agreed.

Getting ready to hike the Belly River trail.

This path was completely different from the Iceberg Lake trail.  Dark, lush, wet, and very green. It sloped downward making hiking almost effortless. It’s beauty compromised by the legions of mosquitoes that were as big as horse flies and just as aggressive.  The hiking was so easy that I got caught up in the moment and I continued past my initial turnaround point; eventually, I bid my farewell to Tom and Charlie, and I turned back the way I came. 

Now going uphill, I became aware of just how far I walked.  In the stillness, I felt very alone, and a disappointment came over me as I was once again filled with concerns over bears and mountain lions.  Every 60 seconds, I called out, “Hey bear,” and snapped my carbon fiber trek poles together to make a cracking noise. At one point I saw a stand of tall shrubs move as I heard loud grunting. “Hey, bear.  Just passing through bear,” I said in my most convincing voice. 

By now, the temperature had risen, and the canopy of trees acted like a Saran Wrap cover keeping the humidity high on the forest floor.  I was sweating bullets. A couple of hikers approached me; I stepped out of the way so they could pass as we exchanged pleasantries. The brief interaction re-grounded and calmed me for the remainder of that journey.

On my way to the campsite, I stopped at the “Two Sisters” cafe for a ridiculously expensive hamburger that was also too salty.  I then returned to my campsite and contemplated being alone. I grabbed a cold bottle of Kirkland water and started to sip on it as I ran various options through my head.  It couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t explore the park further, so I knew that I had to push forward despite any fears. I reached for the packet of information that I received when I entered the park; my goal was to come up with a list of potential solo hikes.  I grabbed the pile of pamphlets, maps, and newsletters; out fell a glossy flyer with a bold headline, “Be Bear Aware!” The second item was: 

“Avoid hiking alone.  Most bear attacks have occurred with single hikers.  If possible hike in a group of 4 or larger.”  

I was a solo hiker who was already fearful; I didn’t need to see this. I thought about making myself a whiskey and coke to calm down, but it seemed like too much work.  Instead, I fell into deep despair. I had an urge to turn the key on Violet’s ignition and drive home, but I had a responsibility to make sure that Tom and Charlie were safe.  Besides, I was in possession of his car. If it had to be moved, I was the only one who could do it as he was literally in the middle of nowhere. Without the internet, I couldn’t check facts and research options.  I was mad at myself for being a wimp, but all of the evidence that I had supported my feelings. With no immediate options, I temporarily escaped by falling asleep for almost two hours.

When I woke up I had a new conviction.  I would come up with a workable, and hopefully, an enjoyable solution. I was at one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I was determined to experience it positively. The question was, how would I do it.

I’m a shy person who was taught at a very early age to believe that if I engaged someone before they engaged with me, I would be an unwanted imposition on them.  Intellectually, I knew that was not the case, but in the past, I didn’t possess a model to change this behavior. My friend, Tom is very friendly, and I have been teaching myself the art of successful interaction by watching him and modeling his behavior. I was already walking up to random people and starting a conversation at Glacier, and I was pleasantly surprised at how kind and receptive most folks were to me.  However, to turn around my situation at Glacier, I would need to up my game and move from simple interactions to the dreaded task of asking someone for something. If you have read other post from this blog, you will recall that as a child I was typically shamed and humiliated when I asked for help, and my resolution to this angst was to become wholly independent of others. Although I have changed this behavior with people that I trust I certainly have not done so with people who I don’t know. I bit my lip, and I told myself, “Follow the pattern of behavior that you have seen.  Accept that rejection and humiliation may occur. Assume that you will have enough successes to offset any negative interactions. When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one.”  

Months before the trip I had purchased a large volume on Glacier National Park, but I never read it.  I now pulled it out and studied its contents. I decided that I would go on a significant hike every day, and the determination of that hike would be based on its overall popularity. This statistic would make these paths the ones most traveled by others.  I reminded myself that bears maul only a tiny number of hikers, and mountain lions attack less. I convinced myself that being proactive and reasonable would place me in the majority category of happy park goers, rather than the minority group of those attacked by bears.  I was not about to let my fears stand in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

My hike the next morning was to the old Ranger station at St Mary, and then on to the Beaver Pond Loop.  I walked the mile from the visitor’s center to the trailhead, but by accident, I entered at the exit of the path, not the beginning of the loop.  This not only meant that I was hiking mostly uphill, but all other hikers would be walking away from me, not along with me. As I started the path, I was met with a yellow warning sign noting caution due to recent bear activity.  I swallowed and moved forward. Much of the forest in the Beaver Pond area had been burnt in a wildfire giving the landscape an exotic look and feel. However, the absence of shade had a pleasantly unexpected consequence; the entire forest floor had become a sea of wildflowers.  Pedals of dark yellow, ultramarine blue, deep coral, and pungent pink surrounded me with both their visual beauty and fragrant smell. At one point I saw fresh bear scat on the trail. I couldn’t go back, so I went forward.

The old St Mary ranger station.
The forest floor was covered with wildflowers.

That evening I went through my usual routine of making dinner and tidying up the campervan.  However, I also incorporated modifications of activities that I usually would enjoy at home. I studied by reading all the printed material at my disposal.  My Glacier National Park book, handouts from the park services, and even an instructional manual. I took the time to become better at operating my hiking GPS unit.  I turned on my old Grundig 350DL worldband radio and listened in to some international shortwave stations. I then tuned the FM band. The only stations that I could receive on FM were from Canada.  I found CBC1 at 101.3 from Lethbridge, Alberta, and felt comforted by its NPR-like programming. I listened to downloaded music and the audiobooks that Julie and Kathryn had kindly set up for me the week before.  I was enjoying myself; I was starting to feel like my old self again.

At 7:05 PM, I received a text message from Tom, “The scenery is spectacular. You should have hiked with us.” I responded by wishing him safe travels. I then turned off my transceiver and went back to my other activities.

The next day I hiked to St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls, the most popular hike in the park.  Putting my plan in place, I made a deliberate effort to say hello to everyone that crossed my path.  I also asked several people if they would be kind enough to take my picture. This action resulted in smiles and pleasant interchanges.  The falls were spectacular, and despite another bear warning sign, I felt comfortable hiking due to the number of people around me. While hiking the path, I found a large flat rock that overlooked a small waterfall.  I took off my Osprey pack and pulled out my bottle of water along with a whole wheat and peanut butter sandwich. Sitting on the rock, I savored the beauty of my surroundings and was surprised by a sense of awe and joy.  It was a good feeling.

I asked strangers if they would take my picture as a conversation opener.
I sat on a rock and ate my whole wheat peanut butter sandwich.

My evenings continued along with my recently developed solution, and my sense of aloneness evaporated away.  My pace slowed to meet my more limited demands, and I continued to feel a sense of peace.  

My nightly contacts with Tom continued, and over the days he informed me that his three-day hike was becoming a four-day hike, then a five-day adventure. Tom and Charlie were unable to cover the 45 miles in the time that the ranger had given them.  They were also altering their plans by taking a somewhat longer, but flatter trail. I was grateful that his movements were tracked and that we could communicate. If I didn’t have those communications, I would have demanded a search and rescue operation when they didn’t return at the designated time. The InReach communicator had made an enormous difference.

The next day I hiked to Redrock Falls and Bullhead Lake.  I kept alert and saw what appeared to be a nice family hiking ahead of me.  The family consisted of a mom, a dad, and several adult children. I approached them, “Hey guys, I’m a lone hiker, would you mind it if I hiked along with you?”  “Sure,” replied the mom. We started walking and entered into an animated conversation. I usually don’t tell people that I’m a doctor, and I certainly don’t tell them that I’m a psychiatrist as I don’t want to intimidate them.  However, this mom got that information from me in short order. “What kind of doctor are you?” I called upon one of my other board certifications and told her, “I work with people who have addictions.” At that point, a big smile crossed her face, and she said, “I’m a nurse, and I’m in recovery!” She then noted, “My husband is an addictions counselor, and he is also in recovery.” We continued to talk and had lively conversations on SPECT scans, ACEs, nutritional therapy, and a variety of other exciting topics.  She introduced me to her son, who had just been discharged from the Marines. She said, “He is a photographer,” which is another one of my great passions. With him, I talked about image sensors, lenses, and all of the other things that only photographers care about. It was a delightful hike filled with beautiful sights and pleasant conversation.

I ask a Marine to take my photo at Bullhead Lake.

That evening Tom texted me outside our 7-8 PM time. “This mountain is kicking my ass,” He wrote.  Later he sent, “I’m cramping all over.” I wrote him back, “Tom, you are severely dehydrated you need to up your fluid consumption right now.”  

The next morning I decided to hike the beautiful Lake Josephine, and then take the path to Lake Grinnell to see the Grinnell Glacier.  Sitting at the edge of Lake Grinnell, I pulled out my snack, a peanut butter Clif bar, and I started to much. Another fat marmot approached me, and like the one at Iceberg Lake, he began to beg for a chuck of my bar. “No way marmot.  You are supposed to be wild, go find some acorns or something,” I told him. A couple came up to me, laughing. “That guy was after our food too!”

On my return trip and I had a few random conversations with fellow hikers.  I came upon a young family with two boys who appears to be around 10 and 12 years old. “Hi there, would you mind if I hiked with you?” I asked. “Sure,” was the reply.  The family was from Southern Illinois, and they were heading to Yellowstone after their stay at Glacier. I entered into a long and delightful conversation with the dad.  At one point, we hiked up an incline, and I was exhausted. “Hey guys, I need a little break, and I’m going to rest for a couple of minutes. Thank you for walking with me and safe travels” The dad replied, “Well if you are going to stop, then we are going to stop too.” We paused for a bit, and then started our walk and talked again.  We exited the trailhead, and I thanked them for their company and bear protection. Smiles and handshakes were exchanged.

Facilities on the Lake Grinnell path.

Directly to the right of me was a park bench, and on that bench was Victor, a man who was camping next to our site. “Victor, do you mind if I sit with you, I’m exhausted.” Victor nodded, and I sat down and wholly downed my flask of water. Victor was a quiet man, but with a little encouragement, he started to talk.  He told me that he had retired early from his job as an overland trucker, and he was now living only on social security. “I need to go back to work. I don’t have enough money. But I need to lose some weight first.” He noted that he was from Great Falls, Montana, which was a few hours southeast of the park. There were no mention kids, and his shy demeanor left me with the impression that he had been single all of his life.  We chatted for about 20 minutes, and I then continued my walk back to the campground.

The text message from Tom that evening revealed that he was exhausted.” Initially, he was going to use the park shuttle system to get back to the campsite, but those plans changed with his new exit at Packer’s Roost, which was several miles west of his designated extraction point. I would be picking him up. “Bring four large bottles of Gatorade, preferably lime.” He wrote.  I had already had purchased a care package for Charlie and him, two real Cokes were chilling in my fridge, and I had a pack of Oreos for Charlie, and some banana bread for Tom. “You got it,” I replied as I made a mental note to pick up the sports drink on my drive back to the parks main east entrance.

The next morning he contacted me to confirm our plan.  I drove the hour from Many Glaciers to the St. Mary Visitor Center, stopping at a gas station to pick up four large bottles of Gatorade.  The gas station didn’t have lime. Instead, they had red and blue drinks. Not knowing what the flavors were, I purchased two of each and stuck them under my sleeping bag in an attempt to keep them as cool as possible as my little fridge was already full.

I knew that I would be waiting at St. Mary, but I wanted to pick up Charlie and Tom as quickly as I could as they were clearly at the end of their endurance. Still, it would take me over an hour to travel over the narrow and winding Road-To-The-Sun from St. Mary to their extraction point.

Hours later, Tom messaged me that they were at the trailhead, and I started my drive along one of the most beautiful roads in the US.  Eventually, I spotted them waving their hands and looking very bedraggled. Charlie gave a little cheer when I gave him the Oreos. Tom set about drinking three large bottles of Gatorade and a coke; he was very thirsty.  Charlie said, “Uncle Mike, we don’t have to go on another hike today, do we?” I replied, “Today is a day of rest.”

Tom bedraggled and dehydrated after I picked him up at the Packers Roost.

Afterward, I asked Tom about his backpacking adventure. “It was very hard at times, but I feel that it was a success.  Charlie and I worked as a team, and we got through it.” He said, “When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one. I remembered that elephant thing you talked about a long time ago, Mike.  You said that handling a big problem is like eating an elephant; you do it one bite at a time.” Tom said he thought about that saying with each step he took up that “ass-kicking” mountain.

I smiled to myself; I worked through my issues using things that Tom taught me, and he worked through his problems with something that I taught him.  I guess that is the benefit of a good friendship; you are stronger because of each other.

Some good resides in bad things, and some bad lies in good things.  That is the way life is. When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one. If possible, try to make lemonade out of your lemons; if this is not possible considering tackling your problem, “one bite at a time.” 

Our last meal in Glacier before we started our long drive home. Tom and Charlie are as good as new after some food and fluids.

Peace

On Living In A Cargo Van

I moved to the far western suburbs of Chicago 30 years ago. Many things in my life have changed since that move. I married 25 years ago. I had three more children. I purchased a house. However, there is one thing that I did before all of the above that has remained to today. That one thing is my retirement camper fund.

I have a pool of money that I established over 30 years ago. The fund amount is sensible, but not tremendous. It has served as my “dream fund,” a fund to build a dream on.

When I approached my retirement, I started to think in earnest about that money and how I would use it. I have the heart of a country boy, and I am the most content when I am in nature. My spirit has always gravitated out west, and I am drawn to places there. Would I want to move there permanently? The truth is that I want to live close to where my kids are. For me, relationships trump scenery. However, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to spend extended periods of time exploring the National Parks and other scenic wonders.

My ease with the outdoors offers me the advantage of doing these explorations relatively cheaply. I have a senior pass for the National Parks, and I have camped my entire life. I have owned campers in the past, so I have a good idea of what I need when it comes to creature comforts.

If I camp for more than a few days, I need to be in something that keeps me off the ground. I am also a “compartment” kind of guy, and I like the idea of having most of the things that I need at the ready and organized. I don’t mind cooking, so I need some sort of ability to do that. Naturally, I need a way to charge my camera, phone, and other gadgets.

With proper ventilation and a 12-volt fan, I can likely survive without AC. My last camper had a bathroom, but I never used it. It was more straightforward to use the campground’s provided facilities. Refrigeration would be helpful, but I’m teaching myself how to make real meals using my own dehydrated foods and off the shelf products. I can’t go for an extended period eating only granola bars and beef jerky.

What I have discovered from my years of camping is that I don’t need a lot to thrive. At home, I am a gadget lover because I like exploring innovation. However, on the road, I practice KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!).

The primary goal of my retirement fund was to purchase some sort of camper. Pop-up, trailer, RV? I have toyed with all of the above, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

My fund is not generous enough to buy a new RV, but I could afford an older C class. They are the best RV value, but they are big and bulky. I would likely have to tow a car, a hassle that I don’t want to do.

A pop-up could be a solution, but do I really want to constantly setup and teardown at 65?

I looked at trailers, and they seem to be an (almost) perfect option. However, there is my backing up problem. Dear reader, I understand the mechanics of backing up a trailer, and I am able to back one up. However, I need a backing up guide. If my wife is with me, I can get my camper where I want it.

You may remember that I am dyslexic. This problem impacts my senses of position and space. It is challenging for me to conceptualize where a trailer is relative to its tow vehicle. When I back up a trailer by myself, I have to continually get out of the car, visualize where the trailer is, back up a bit more, and repeat. It is very frustrating. I marvel at my friend Tom’s backing up ability. I have been with him many times when he had to back up a considerable construction trailer; he is a real pro. He has offered to teach me his tricks, but I will always have my spatial problem.

My needs have also changed over the years. I started to seriously look at options two years ago . At that time I felt that I needed something that would sleep my entire family, as our favorite vacations had been grand camping adventures. However, we have not had a big family campout for over three years. Even overnight campouts are limited, as my kids now have lives of their own.

It is sad for me to think about the end of our big family camping trips. However, when a door closes a window opens. If I accept this reality, I also can refocus my efforts on ways to camp that allow travel for one or two.

A “Class B” camper comes to mind. These are tricked out vans that offer all of life’s conveniences in miniature. Full kitchens, bathrooms, built-in entertainment systems. However, they are costly, and many of their luxuries (like the bathroom) are not needed by me.

For the last year, I have been talking to my friend, Tom, about building out a cargo van. He is willing to help, and he has the skills that I lack. At one point he found me an old mini-bus that could be converted, but I was too chicken to pull the trigger. Even with Tom’s expert help the conversion process could be lengthy and daunting.

Every camper option seems doable,, but I always find something to keep me from moving forward. That is until this last week.

I stumbled on a YouTube video from a company that makes a modular system for the Dodge Promaster van. This is a relatively inexpensive cargo van that boasts a “tall” version that has an interior height of over 6 feet. Their system locks modules into floor tracks, and the whole interior is easily removable. The kit includes the floor, wall and ceiling panels, a platform bed, a simple kitchen, and a seat/storage box. The best thing is that it can be installed in 2 hours.

Cargo vans have only two seats, but for those now rare family trips, we could use a second transport car, and a tent for other campers. If needed, I could sell my current car and use the van as my primary vehicle. I am moving into retirement, and my transportation needs are simple.

I mentioned the option to Julie, and she seemed reasonably receptive. We have been married for a long time, and we no longer find it necessary to “make our points” with each other. Well, at least most of the time.

Dear reader, I’m not sure where this will all lead me, but I’m pretty excited about it. Tom said he would go with me to check out some Promasters at the local Dodge dealership, and I have sent an email to Wayfarer Vans, the company in Colorado who makes and installs the conversion kit. This option seems like the right balance of convenience and price. Say a little prayer for me so that I make the right decision.

When I started writing this blog, I talked about traveling to National Parks to photograph and write about them. This could bring me one step closer to that dream. My plans have moved slower than I initially expected, but they are definitely moving in the right direction. Fingers crossed.

Our time on this planet is short. I have spent my life in service of others, and it is still hard for me to think about my personal needs. I can’t always do what I want. However, I don’t want to draw my dying breath considering, “Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I experience that? Why didn’t I try that?” Dear reader, I am working hard to live my life to its fullest. You never know what tomorrow brings.

I’m learning how to dehydrate my own food.

I’m 6’2″ and I fit!

I want to photograph and write about nature.