Now What?

Little did I know when I acquired this yellow bandana in 1991 that it would be with me longer than the Pontiac I had purchased just one year earlier; a car that I assumed—for the better part of three decades—would be with me always. But way back then, I would never have guessed that my taste in travel would evolve to its current state, and now the LeMans is on the market, waiting for its new owner. Still, there’s no reason that this bandana—which has been peppered with road dust across hundreds of thousands of miles of North American travel—can’t continue to ride along as I explore new corners of the continent in my next vehicle.

I got an excellent taste of the road ahead during last month’s western excursion. In a borrowed 4WD GMC Envoy, I set out to do something I had never before attempted: complete a long road trip without spending a single cent on lodging. And I pulled it off quite easily. Motel charges have always been far and away the biggest chunk of any journey’s total cost. But this year, I traveled for 15 days and covered more than 4000 miles, all for less than $900 worth of gas and groceries—the trip’s only expenses.

In recent years, each motel stay seemed to be more unpleasant than the one before. And frankly, those experiences are the primary driving force behind my desire to purchase a vehicle that’s big enough to be a home away from home. This trip in the Envoy was a great way to test out the transition from conventional lodging to vehicle camping. With the rear seats folded flat, and the simple addition of an air mattress and sleeping bag, I had exactly enough room the stretch out at full length; not an inch to spare on either end. Even so, I was perfectly comfortable and slept surprisingly well each night—a much more satisfying sleep than I’m used to from nights in motels or tents. If I can be that cozy in an SUV for two weeks, a nice roomy van with a real mattress is going to feel like a luxury suite. Here’s hoping that I’ll never have to spend another night in a motel while I’m on the road.

So lodging charges are now relegated to the “good riddance” file, joining the fees that one has to pay at developed campsites. Whenever possible, I’ve avoided pay-to-stay campgrounds; the few I’ve experienced in years past were just as noisy and irksome as motels. You know from reading this blog that my preferred way of enjoying the wilds of North America is through dispersed camping on federal public land—national forests, national grasslands and BLM lands—and I’ve been making the most of these tranquil no-cost campsites for quite some time. But with each season, I’m learning that there are more and more free camping opportunities out there, particularly at the state level, such as in wildlife areas managed by the state DNR (big thanks go out to Jeff at the Iowa DNR for all of the helpful information he shared with me last month). With so many dispersed camping options available, I have a great chance of camping fee-free for the rest of my traveling days.

A key contributor to the deep sleep I experienced on this journey was the isolation of my chosen campsites. And that’s been another big incentive to get out of the LeMans and into a rugged van—being able to make my way to sites that are located deeper in the wilderness, using roads, tracks and trails that are inaccessible to the Pontiac and its low ground clearance. During several of last month’s stops, I had an entire road and all of its potential campsites to myself, because I had ventured down a track so narrow, uneven, rocky or deeply rutted that RVs and vehicles pulling trailers dared not follow.

My recent sleeping bag upgrade was a success, living up to its rating; I was perfectly warm each night, even at 9,000 feet up in the mountains of southern Wyoming, with overnight temps in the low 20s (°F). Even though I’ll be atop a proper mattress in the van, I intend to stick with the superior warmth of the sleeping bag, rather than messing with sheets and blankets.

I’m glad that my tent-camping days are behind me now. And while there’s much to be said for sleeping in comfort at my age, there’s just as much to say about driving in comfort. This was my first long journey in more than 30 years that didn’t see me riding on the back-breaking bench seat of the Pontiac. Driving in that comfortable, modern seat last month did a great deal to reduce fatigue. Heated seats, lumbar support, cruise control…all are going on the “must have” list for my van purchase.

While my van will indeed be outfitted for driving and sleeping comfort, it’s definitely not going to be a showcase of craftsmanship. Many campervan owners are embellishing their vehicles with decorative wood trim and furnishings. I’ll have none of that; no cabinets, no drawers, no countertops, no closets, no fold-out seating or tables…likely, no wood whatsoever. Nor will my van be rigged with indoor plumbing (I’ll shower and brush my teeth outside, as I did last month) or kitchen equipment (I previously addressed the lack of any need for cooking while camping in this blog post). Other than my bed and a 12-volt refrigerated chest for my food, the remaining space will be used to stow my gear—below window level, that is; I want all of the glass in my van to remain unobstructed so I can enjoy the view in every direction. Overall, I’m aiming for an interior that is utilitarian, modest and durable.

In case you’re wondering, I am not looking to hop aboard the “van life” movement. That term primarily applies to full timers who live and travel in their vans all year long. My current formula of taking a trip and then returning home will remain in place; I enjoy the balance of a road life and a home life. But having my own campervan will change a few things about the way I travel. For instance, with the elimination of lodging costs, I’ll be able to journey more frequently than just once or twice per year. And with the superior sheltering effects of a van, a large chunk of the calendar (i.e., winter) now becomes part of “travel season.” Finally, while I was never that excited about touring the eastern half of the country in the Pontiac, my camping experiences last month in the high country of Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest have given me a new appreciation for quiet campsites on the piney tops of hills and mountains. Shorter trips closer to home are now on the menu, and I won’t always have to cart myself two time zones away to revel in some natural peace and quiet. I can choose from a wide range of destinations to suit my mood and my available time, whether it’s just one or two nights at a national forest in my home state, or a six-week epic adventure through Newfoundland & Labrador.

I will not be participating in the rendezvous scene or in other social gatherings that are popular with many van lifers and those in the RV crowd. I’ll continue to steer clear of developed campgrounds, metropolitan areas, festivals, national parks and other places where people congregate. I’ll also be relinquishing the highways and roads and campsites to the traveling public during the summer months and on major holidays. I’ve never been keen on summer travel anyway and I don’t see that ever changing. My goal remains to journey as a solo wilderness explorer, giving myself as much personal space as I can find.

By the way, last month’s “anonymous driver” experience was a new one for me. In my 32 years of convertible travel, the LeMans was a green light for total strangers to approach me and start a friendly conversation. I always treasured those encounters, but it turns out that I also liked being invisible on this recent road trip. No one gave me a second glance; I was just another guy in just another SUV. Sweet.

The Pontiac has always been a useful and eye-catching prop for adding a sense of scale to landscape photos. As for the van I end up purchasing, I expect it to be nondescript and utterly forgettable. And while it may appear now and again in my campsite pictures, it’s a safe bet that future photos and blog posts will focus less on the vehicle and more on the scenery…and my enjoyment of the silence and the solitude.

On the subject of silence, let’s go back a few weeks to my previous blog post, where I wrote about the joy of listening to great music while riding in the Pontiac. Here’s a fun fact about last month’s road trip: I did not use the Envoy’s stereo at all during the entire 4000-mile ride; not a single song heard the whole way; nothing but the sound of the tires on the road. Didn’t plan for it to happen like that, but…

Maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear my favorite music in a vehicle that afforded no view of the big prairie sky overhead. I suppose this long winter break will give me enough time to reset my brain’s music center, and I’ll be ready to wade into my playlist during next year’s first excursion. In any case, boredom never intruded during those 15 days of silence. I’ve never been afraid to be alone with my thoughts, and that time was put to good use—processing everything that I was learning about this new approach to travel, and mapping out my priorities for the road ahead. I now feel that the journeys yet to come are going to be even more rewarding than my initial expectations.

And the cherry that capped this trip was the confirmation that selling the Pontiac was the right thing to do. While I had reservations earlier this year about losing my old friend, the success of October’s journey has certainly made it much easier to let go.


The Last Ride

More than 32 years after my very first ride in the Pontiac, our last drive together is now in the books. With the LeMans currently listed for sale, I’ll be shifting my focus toward future road trips and launch the search for the vehicle that will be making those journeys. (Of course, there are still plenty of old Pontiac photos and video clips in storage that will pop up occasionally as I unearth them…maybe even a story or two that has yet to be told.)

Music would play a big role in this final cruise, as it always does when I’m in the LeMans, so I thought of the tracks I had to hear one last time from this particular seat. I have previously written about the artists and genres that enhance—and are enhanced by—driving on prairie roads under a big sky. That applies closer to home as well. In fact, on most of my sunrise and sunset excursions along the farm roads in my home county, this vehicle is essentially a rolling jukebox, and the day’s drive is really just an excuse to enjoy some of my favorite songs in the best possible setting. I’ve listened to far more music while riding in the Pontiac than I have in my everyday vehicle or inside my home.

Rolling across scenic North Dakota

(If the video above does not display, follow this link to YouTube.)

Once I had gathered about 30 or so of my favorite driving songs, I hit the road late in the afternoon. Good driving weather on this day, with high thin clouds in the west, a crescent moon to the south, and clear skies in the east. In the end, I rode for more than three hours and logged over 100 miles on this grand finale.

The Cowboy Junkies have released plenty of music over the years that pairs so well with a drive on lonely country roads. I played their version of the Allen Reynolds song, “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” which features a chorus that seemed especially appropriate for the occasion…

Someday I’ll get over you
I’ll live to see it all through
But I’ll always miss
Dreaming my dreams with you

Once the sun went down, it was time for a track that is steeped in reverb, and has always been, for me, the ultimate prairie night-driving song: “Once Upon a Time in the West,” the opening track from the second album by Dire Straits. This one sounds great when played loud enough to fill sky around you. And once is never enough; when I do ride at night, I usually play it three or more times.

What to choose as the very last song I would ever hear in the Pontiac? I had to think about that for a moment, but the answer came to me faster than expected and with no room for uncertainty: “Lenny,” the beautiful instrumental track that Stevie Ray Vaughan wrote for his wife, Lenora, and which closes out his 1983 debut album, Texas Flood. Few tunes scream “coda” as perfectly as this track does, but there’s another reason—one that dates back 32 years—why this choice worked so well for my last moments in the LeMans.

When we started out on that first cross-country journey in 1990, it had only been a couple of weeks since Stevie’s tragic death. Even before that event, I had planned to stop for a few days in Austin, Texas to visit my friends there. The city was certainly humming when I arrived that September, and we took in a lot of live music downtown. Before I left, my friend suggested that I dub his SRV CDs so I could enjoy them on my long drive ahead. With a fresh pack of blank TDK 90-minute cassette tapes, I did just that, as well as copying some of his other albums by Texas guitarists that were new to me. Continuing westward and leaving my friends and Austin behind, I enjoyed my very first miles of driving a car through a wide open landscape. And it was there, rolling along US Highway 190 in the vast emptiness of western Texas, with Texas Flood playing on the stereo, that I first felt the incredible power of those four key ingredients working together—a convertible, a big sky, a lonely road, and great music.

US 190 in Texas

Over the years, I have listened to these wonderful tunes inside my home, as well as in sedans and other mundane vehicles. Trying to compare those musical moments to my experiences in the LeMans is definitely an “apples & oranges” scenario. Having an unobstructed view of the surrounding sky as you roll down the road makes all the difference in the world when hearing these songs. Without a doubt, the hardest thing about letting go of the Pontiac, the hardest thing about living without a convertible, is the realization that listening to some of my favorite pieces of music will never be as fulfilling.

Thanks for the ride.