West to East chronicles: Day on the Niobrara in Nebraska, Soybeans on Iowa 3, Grounded in Northern Illinois
September 15 – Day on the Niobrara in Nebraska
We wake up at a Conoco parking lot for truckers in Valentine, Nebraska, to the sound of one rig idling. Last night, the lot was partially filled with about a dozen semi-trailers. Shouts of Cornhusker football fans on game night rang from a bar next door. We’re here for a second time to enjoy the Niobrara, a National Scenic River. In 2013, Judy, Nate and I rented a Roadtrek for the first time. I was skeptical about living full-time in a 21-foot vehicle and wanted a trial run. Our float down the lazy river on a hot July afternoon near Smith Falls State Park was one of the highlights of our 10-day vacation. After that, I began to serious consider the possibilities of wandering full time. Our plan today is to hike on the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, which stretches 189 miles from Valentine to Norfolk along an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern rail line. Our segment begins several miles east of Valentine at a signed turnout on U.S. 20. We double back toward Valentine, enjoying a view of the Niobrara from a trestle 150 feet above. The river, originating in Wyoming and fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, drains a region where the Rocky Mountain forest we’ve traveled for weeks gives way to box elder and bur oak, and where western short grass, the mixed-grass prairie of the Sandhills and eastern tall grass intersect. We travel in afternoon sun in northern Nebraska, crossing the 100th meridian and moving into greener ranch country above the river. An hour of solitude on the plains on Nebraska 12, at last interrupted by a passing vehicle.
September 16 – Soybeans on Iowa 3
Leaving Ponca State Park in Nebraska, on the bluffs of the Missouri River, we pass a flooded riverfront campground and boat launch. Late-summer runoff, unusually heavy, is pouring in this unchannelized stretch of the Missouri River. As we enter Iowa at Sioux City, hay fields are out and corn and soybeans are in. I follow the lead of William Least Heat Moon. Our “blue highway” through western Iowa is Iowa 3, a more intimate alternative to four lanes on U.S. 20. I stop at a roadside stand near Cherokee to buy sweet corn and tomatoes, summer staples of my boyhood in central Illinois. I ask the seller about yellowing leaves in soybean fields. Was it because of heavy spring rains? No, the bean fields always turn yellow at the end of growing season. I was red with embarrassment. I left soybean country for Arizona 40 years ago, returned to Illinois many times, but never in September. I’d lost touch with the harvest cycle.
September 17 – Grounded in Northern Illinois
Sadly, there’s no time for rail trails in Iowa. We blow past the Hawkeye state. Judy and I gather groceries in Dubuque for a family reunion dinner in Freeport, Illinois. The Epic Van stammers a bit going up a hill in Dubuque on the way to the Mississippi River bridge. East of Galena, birthplace of Ulysses Grant, a bit of stammering turns into a whole lot of bucking and wheezing as we travel through steeper and steeper hills along U.S. 20, a route used by truckers. Near the top of hills, I edge onto the road shoulder as we slow under 30 mph with the pedal to the metal. Something’s not right, either with the transmission, or fuel system. (We filled up on biofuel about 50 miles ago.) We’re only 40 miles from Freeport. Surely we can limp in. Twenty-three miles from town, defeated, we turn off on a gravel road across from a herd of cattle and dial for a tow truck. It’s 3 p.m. Just before sundown at 7 p.m., the flatbed hauling vehicle we requested arrives. My cousin Jeanne and her husband, Dick, come from Freeport to rescue us. We load clothes and perishable food into their vehicle, and head back to pared-down dinner and lots of catching up on family comings and goings.
We live in a metal box on wheels, so weather becomes a demanding taskmaster we can never ignore.
This spring, we faced down the polar vortex and the bomb cyclone.
You know I love The Epic Van. And I love the company that makes it, Roadtrek.
The first year we were on the road, we went to the Roadtreking Photo Safari near Yellowstone. It was a gathering of my kind of people. We still have friends from that first meetup.
Now, three years later, we just finished our second Roadtreking Photo Safari, this one near Glacier and, once again, it was a blast.
My personal thank-you list is looooong. So, here goes. Thanks to:
This may be totally stupid, but I have a hostile reaction when people say, “Oh, you’re driving around in an RV. Cool. My grandmother does that.”
This usually happens after I’ve told them of our totally awesome, unconventional, fearless life on the road. After I’ve specifically told them that I live in a big camper van. (Which, OK, technically is an RV but, in my world, is my free-spirit house on wheels.)
People we meet are amazed that we’re actually living in our fancy camper van. One of the first things they ask us is, “What do you do with all of your stuff?” Then, “What did you do with all your other stuff?”
Stuff seems to be the big issue for people. It was for us when we lived in a big house. We filled it with stuff. When we decided to sell the house and live on the road, we got rid of about 60 percent of our stuff. The rest, antiques, family photos, boxes of vintage Christmas decorations that can’t be replaced, that beautiful glass-front bookcase we waited years to buy, that stuff is in storage for the day we decide to stop rolling, whenever that may be. In fact, Tom and I figure that, if we had it to do again, we would get rid of half of what’s in storage. We haven’t missed any of it in the more than a year since we left. Our bed and dresser now sit in my mother’s guest room, where we stay when we go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But what did we take? What’s in The Epic Van? What makes it a home? What was a mistake and what was sent packing?
The laundromat in Del Rio, Texas, was the lone business in a shuttered shopping strip, miles from downtown. The good news: It was open until 11 p.m. Little did I know I would meet my doppelganger there.
By Tom Nichols
When Judy and I began shopping for a Class B RV, we quickly decided that openness in our “house” was more important than the capacity of our refrigerator.
We chose the Roadtrek RS Adventurous, with nearly 360-degree windows. There was another model, the CS Adventurous, that had a much larger refrigerator that stood all the way to the roof, but it eliminated some windows. We opted for light.
Six months of full-time living in The Epic Van, and our choice has been validated.
We were planning to leave early from Bog Springs Campground in Madera Canyon, a beautiful spot in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona. We wanted to get to the Titan Missile Museum on our way to a campground near Arivaca.
We were up early, stowing our bedding, making breakfast and packing up all our gear, camera, hiking boots, camp chairs, grill, computers, knitting, cat. I wasn’t even thinking about the bear spray.