95 Miles From Anywhere
“Fuck it. I’m going fishing again.” I declared. “You coming?”
“No.” said Aimee “I guess I’m going to stay here and see if I can find something in the Bentley to fix this.”
And with that, I stubbornly laced up my boots, grabbed my fly rod and stormed off across the road towards Soda Butte Creek, leaving Aimee and the van nestled in the canyon opening of Pebble Creek campground. This was the second time that day that I’d sought refuge along the twisting gravel banks of the creek. We’d had big plans for exploring the park when we woke up that morning, but it only took 5 minutes of turning the engine over with no result to realize we’d suddenly found ourselves in crisis mode. We ran through the basic checklists all Vanagon owners have become accustomed to when things stop working, but nothing was adding up. It seemed like the first crank on the ignition was always the strongest, and with each successive attempt the returns diminished. The agony of sitting in the drivers seat, trying to remain calm and collected for 5, sometimes 10 minutes at a time between attempts became maddening. “We gotta wait longer. We’re flooding the engine.” I said. “Lets walk down to the water and fish a little, it’s beautiful out…”
And so we did. For next 3 or 4 hours we fished our way down from the campground towards the confluence with Soda Butte. It turned out to be one of the best mornings of fishing we’d had all summer. No cameras, no pressure, just a much-needed distraction in the form of warm sun, sapphire water and ghost like trout peaking in and out of the undercut banks. After Aimee landed an unexpected 19 incher we returned to camp for lunch, and what we hoped to be some better results. But after a long, procrastinating meal we were met with a sobering reality; the van still wasn’t starting.
The fishing wasn’t as good for me the second time around, partly because we’d covered much of the water earlier and partly because I wasn’t fishing it with the same jovial vigor that I had that morning. I was no longer hoping for a miracle, I was simply prolonging the inevitable. I looked back at camp to see it suffocated by dark storm clouds. With each drift of my foam beetle the clouds bled outwards until eventually even my stream oasis was cast into shadow. Then came the rain. And lightning. Dejected, I made the soggy half-mile trek back through sage brush and bison chips to camp. The look on Aimee’s face told me everything I needed to know. We’d reached the end of the line.
There’d been times when our lack of cell phone service out west was a godsend. But now, with our backs against the wall, there wasn’t much we wouldn’t do for twenty minutes of internet access, or at the very least the ability to call someone familiar to explain and discuss our plight. We asked the camp hosts if they knew anything about getting towed out of the park. “You don’t want to have to do that…” They cautioned. “It’s going to be expensive.” As it turns out a private company owns exclusive rights to towing in the park, and they charge quite a premium. Considering no matter where you are in the park’s interior you’re at least 80 miles from the nearest town, we knew it wasn’t an option. By now it was late afternoon, and the stress of the day was wearing on us. “Let’s just make dinner, do our best to get some sleep tonight, and make the final call in the morning.” Aimee suggested. “Ok.” I agreed.
Aimee got to work on a hearty dish of pasta with meat sauce while I paced around the fire ring doing my best to try and feel normal. “What the hell are we going to do?” I Wondered. “We can’t even afford a tow into to town. What if the motor is toast? How the hell are we going to get home? Is this seriously how this ends?” We ate in near silence at the small, sagging fold out table in the van. Pushing food around on our plates, lost in thought, we hardly looked up. Neither one of us could bear to see the despair written on the others face. “I gotta try it again…I don’t know why, but I can’t keep sitting here doing nothing. I just gotta try it one more time.” I told her. I sat back down in the drivers seat and stared through the windshield at the fixed and all-to-familiar scene. I slipped the key into the ignition and turned it as far it would go. Immediately I could tell something was different. It was cranking slow, but it felt stronger somehow, more determined than ever to rise from the dead. I intermittently pumped the gas pedal while continuing to pin the starter. Each pump produced an aggressive cough as Bullwinkle expelled a plume of white exhaust smoke. “Easy…EASY! CAREFUL!” Aimee shouted. The same technique had flooded the engine a dozen times earlier, but I wasn’t letting up. The smell of gas infiltrated our nostrils, but the motor kept turning. Our bodies moved in sync with the rhythmic shakes of the 32-year-old machine, accelerating with each successive revolution. Just when it seemed like the starter couldn’t take any more the van exploded back to life with a cacophonous roar! I slammed the gas peddle to floor giving it no opportunity to sputter out and die. “Shit! What do we do!?! Grab everything, we have to go NOW!”
Aimee reached for a trash bag and corralled our dirty plates and cook-wear into it like a frantic jewelry thief empting a display case into her knapsack. I was rolling before the door was even shut. We sputtered past the camp host and hastily explained that we had to leave immediately despite our reservation being for two more days. “Good luck, you two. We hope you sort this out and come back, were routing for you.” He said comfortingly. “Me too!” I shouted back, but I had my doubts. We strained our eyes across the valley as dusk descended on our retreat to West Yellowstone. In our hearts we knew this would be the end of our time in the park for the season, and we’d only just arrived. Our desperate attempt to soak in the inky landscape was betrayed by the tears welling up in our eyes. Our plan was to make it to town, where we would be within walking distance of an auto parts store. It wasn’t much, but it seemed like a glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. “Just don’t stop” we thought, “Not until we reach the park boundary.”
We made it to West Yellowstone around 10pm. We found a relatively discreet parking spot on the edge of town, and turned the van off, for what we assumed could be the last time. We wandered around aimlessly for an hour in search of huckleberry ice cream sandwiches to calm our shaken nerves. We managed to find some at a grocery store 5 minutes before they closed, and ate them in the van while watching a movie on my cell phone and pretended we were somewhere else with far fewer worries. We spent the next two days walking back and forth to the parts store fiddling with the van doing basic tune up procedures. We managed to get the van started a handful of times, but it was obvious from driving it around the block that things weren’t right; it was running worse than we’d every seen it. We knew we couldn’t stay parked on the street in West Yellowstone forever, so we decided to try and shoot for Bozeman where we had family, and at least an option for alternate transportation should it come to that. Bozeman was only a couple hours away, and we figured that if we could get the van started in the morning, with a little luck and lot of determination we could point it in the right direction and make a dash for it. That plan turned out to be successful, and we limped our way into our cousin’s Brad and Rita’s driveway the following day. From there we started making phone calls to local shops, hoping by some miracle a set of more experienced eyes would spot an obvious fix. All the trusted VW mechanics were booked for a month solid, many of which had a handful of Vanagons ahead of ours. With a little expert groveling Aimee managed to convince a different shop (with relatively good reviews) to squeeze us in first. We were due at our bi-annual family reunion in a few days, so we left Bullwinkle in Bozeman for the week, and caught a ride to McCall, Idaho with Brad, Rita, and their 1-year-old son Henry.
Idaho was nothing short of breathtaking, and we did our best to stay optimistic as we sat on pins and needles anticipating a phone call with bad news. We did a number of early morning hikes into alpine lakes to fish for westslope cuttys, and enjoyed the company of family in the evenings. After 4 days, we finally got the call, and our worst fears were realized. “We ran a compression test…” said a blunt young mans voice on the other end of the line. “To be honest we don’t know how you drove it here. I hate to say it, but this motors days are done.” After some more detailed explanation and consideration of our options we hung up and let the reality of our situation sink in. Bullwinkle wasn’t going anywhere. We’d maintained hoped that the mechanic would have us up and running again so we could drive back into Yellowstone and pick up where we left off, but that fantasy had just gone up in smoke. Our options were as follows: A) Rebuild our motor, B) Buy a new motor C) Rent a trailer to drive Bullwinkle back East, or D) Say screw it and drive as far as we could make it. The van seemed to perform best at highway speeds, anyway. Maybe we’d get lucky if we didn’t push it too hard up any hills. Unfortunately for us we couldn’t afford options A, B, or C, so the writing was clearly on the wall; we were going to make a run at it.
In an attempt to postpone the inevitable, and take care of some unfinished travel plans my uncle Bob made us an incredibly generous offer. He’d loan us his spare vehicle, a 1998 Ford Expedition, so we could return to Yellowstone for a week before shipping ourselves eastward. Sleeping on folded down SUV seats with all our belongings crammed along our sides would be a major adjustment from what we’d grown accustomed to in our Westy, but we were incredibly grateful for the opportunity. For the time being the stress of the van was behind us as we loaded up the Expedition and took off for the park via paradise valley. It wasn’t the adventure we’d planned for, but it was the one we got. As I look back on it now, I wouldn’t change it for the world.