The scene: I’m pulling out of my childhood home in Seattle driving a 1981 air cooled, 4 speed manual Volkswagen Vanagon (named Grandma Chug) with 14-inch rims and an engine that pops and whirs in the rear compartment. A six-month-old Red Heeler (named Crag) curled up on top of too much gear, clothes and sleeping bags. There’s an 8 ball on the stick shift and a peace sign on the ceiling. I was ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
Interlude to set the stage: I am 22 years old and a college graduate. I spent the summer after graduating painting houses and saving money to prepare for this adventure. I bought Grandma Chug for $6500 dollars. The first thought I had when I met her was wondering what she would say if she could talk. The stories she could have told about each of the stains and marks on the interior. This van had been loved and lived in.
I was over the moon about the score of my lifetime. Grandma Chug would be my companion and shelter through storms and sunshine across 20,000 miles. I’d live in this space for two years. Let’s take a minute to introduce my sidekick. Because it’s critical to remember that we were the Three Musketeers. Me, Chug and Crag Dog.
This puppy stole my heart two months earlier. I knew that my Vanventure would be far less lonely with a puppy buddy. This dog caught my eye searching online – speckled like a wild animal with a strength exuding independence. I asked to see him first and I was led to his kennel. I locked eyes with him and squatted down and said, “Crag?”.
His tongue flopped out of his gaping mouth as he sprinted onto my lap and urgently marked his territory. The warm spot on my jeans was the sign I needed. This dog had chosen me. It was out of my control and I couldn’t stop smiling.
Our first day together Crag was granted off-leash powers. I looked at him and asked him to come back (we were at a park in Boulder) when I called. I told him that, as a good puppy, he should go play with all the other dogs. If he came back when I requested, he could earn off leash privileges. I closely watched him for 10 or so minutes as he played with the pack. I yelled his name with my fingers crossed.
He stopped mid stride. Looked at me. And sprinted in my direction. My judgement was sound and he had passed the test. This bode well for my upcoming trip. I needed a companion that would be able to hold their own. That wouldn’t require a tremendous amount of coddling. The Vanventure had been in the idea stage for a month or two.
It would be a long, cross country adventure. We would climb rocks, ski the mountains and raft the rivers. We had the gear to do it. I needed a dog that had the spunk to go big. A puppy that immediately started climbing cliffs and being pulled over rivers. (But more on that later.)
We would be sleeping and living on the road would be worth it for the experience. I’d spent so many years sitting in a classroom and I needed a dose of the human experience. I’d spend so many months busting ass starting a painting business. Work and school had dominated my life for too long. I had saved up enough to break free – for a time.
I wanted to meet the real people of the US – who were not affected by affluence and higher education. It’s cliched I know. How Chris McCandless of him. For my trip into the wild, I similarly knew almost nothing. I had no plan. All I knew is that I had a dream, a dog and a van. I budgeted $5 a day – to extend the trip as long as possible. I’d live daily on the price of a Venti Starbucks’ Latte. Beyond that – no idea.
I had a basic outline of how I wanted to chase the weather. Which climbing (wilderness) areas were noteworthy destinations. I bought Chug off Craigslist in Seattle! I’d bring her from Seattle to Colorado – finish work for the summer – and head over to the East Coast. I’d haul a friend to Rhode Island. Incentive to go somewhere new.
At this point in my life, I had a terrible West Coast bias. I am from Seattle and went to college in Colorado. My whole basis of existence was in the mountains of the NW and the Rockies. I was looking forward to seeing new areas and exploring a new terrain. However, I did not have grand expectations for the climbing. I was proven wrong on every level. All the locations I saw were memorable and breathtaking. Every mile I traveled across this country taught me valuable lessons and provided countless stories. All this is to tempt you to keep reading more of the story. 😉
Interlude officially over. Me, Crag and Chug are pulling out of my driveway in Seattle. Ready to test her out for the first long haul. It’s a 24-hour trip from the NW to Boulder. It took me easily 30 hours. I had no idea how accurate the advice a fellow Vanlifer had given earlier in the summer was, “You’ll love this van as long as you’re not in a hurry to be somewhere.”
It never bothered me. Rushing wasn’t a component of living a dirtbag life. The first hill on a highway was the moment that I learned that going uphill Chug maxed out at a sluggish 30 MPH. Vail Pass was always terrifying. There were so many things that I learned about existing on the road. Tricks and tips about sleeping and cooking and meeting people. I was in for quite the learning curve about what all these decisions meant for me and Crag. Slow and steady really did win the race.