The Epic Van

Nest

West to East chronicles: Day on the Niobrara in Nebraska, Soybeans on Iowa 3, Grounded in Northern Illinois

  • A trestle over the Niobrara River on the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, a rail to trail near Valentine, Nebraska.

A trestle over the Niobrara River on the Cowboy Trail, a rail to trail near Valentine, Nebraska.

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.

Iowa soybean fields turning yellow.

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.

The Epic Van getting a ride on a flatbed tow truck.

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.

Double trouble: weather and dash alerts

  • Weather can be an issue when you live in a tin can on wheels.

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.

Roadtreking Reprise: Photo Safari 2 (for us)

  • Roadtreks parked at Chewing Black Bones Campground on the Blackfeet Nation, just outside Glacier National Park.

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:

  • Roadtrek, Mike and Jennifer Wendland, and Mel, for helping create and nurture this great community and for all the work to put this week together.
  • The Blackfeet Nation for sharing their home, their chief’s leadership, their storyteller’s wisdom, their delicious food, their beautiful songs and their dancers’ gracefulness and strength.
  • Campskunk for his generosity in minor (and not so minor) unauthorized repairs, and just for being awesome. Sharon for coming out to mingle with the riffraff. It was the highlight of the week. And feline Fiona for letting me take her picture. So accommodating for such a celebrity.
  • Mary Ellen and Sue for arranging and inviting me to participate in the Creativity in a Camper. It was great fun and I loved hearing all the stories and advice from our fellow writers. And for the wonderful books that I’m already tearing through.
  • Mary Jane (we finally meet) for her amazing Wild Tea and discussion of cook book publication, and Jeff for being a stand-up tea guy and a great hiking companion.
  • Sandy and Lynne for being lovely neighbors and lunch partners, and for forgiving American politics on behalf of all Canadians.
  • Dan and Rhonda for a great lunch and more Canadian/American political crosstalk. Are all Canadians so calm, considerate and insightful? It seems so. And Dan for allowing us to watch his creativity in action with his painting.
  • Linda for re-congregating our first photo safari group (missing you Mary Z), for a great late-night visit with Pat, our new friend Janet, Steve (we know you’re itching to go full time) and the nice man with the whiskey whose name I’ve temporarily misplaced.
  • Jeremiah for being an excellent bus driver, guide, singer and storyteller, for remembering all our names, and meeting ALL our expectations. And for the book recommendation.
  • David and Nancy for being just as interesting as we remembered, updating us about your lives and bringing gluten-free chocolate dessert to the pot luck. You’re the best. Next time in Big Sur!!! With your new rig?
  • Yan and Kiki for taking us to Hidden Falls, sharing huckleberry sodas and a barefoot walk in the grass, and for initiating us into Kiki’s Realm. I still have a warm feeling about it, but it may be from what came out of the bottle.
  • Don’t call my awesome ride an RV

    • Sitting on the steps of The Epic Van in Texas's Palo Duro Canyon with our folding bikes and Pippi, our 16-year-old cat, who traveled with us until she went to the road trip in the sky.

    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.)

    The things we carry (and where)

    • Our rolling house IS a very, very, very fine house (a gift from Janie). And the owl, crafted from an A&W Root Beer can, is a gift from our son, Nate, to remind me of my first job, the beginning of it all!

    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?

    Laundry, a lost chihuahua and a doppelganger in Del Rio, Texas

    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.

    Room with a view (kitchen with tiny fridge)

    • Eggs stay safe in a plastic camping case.

    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.

    Close encounter with bear (spray)

    IMG_1648-croppedThe day I bear-sprayed myself started out fairly organized.

    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.

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