Utah Spring Break
Just knowing its there gives me a sense of security, of comfort, kind of like knowing you’ve a got a chunk of money in the bank set aside for an emergency. For me, albeit in a warped manner, it symbolizes freedom, independence, and expression. I’m not referring to Utah here, although I could and the analogy would fit. More on Utah later in the tale. No, my “wooby” is a 1974 Volkswagen Type 2 camper otherwise known to our friends and family as Thevan, and as if its not already apparent I might as well disclose right off the bat that my family’s relationship with this automobile is irrational, more so than the average American’s irrational relationship with their automobile. We accept that Thevan could be considered impractical, a decaying 40 year old conglomeration of antique German (and now Japanese) steel, but we do not treat it as such. We purchased her from a fly-by-night used car lot in Flagstaff, AZ as a wedding present to ourselves at the turn of the century. Being a self taught shadetree mechanic, I have endeavored to keeps Thevan alive. Its a disease I inherited from my father. He used to fly my mom and I around the southwest in antique aircraft made of cotton fabric and pine trees and he has owned and sold more cars, boats, and motorcycles than anyone I have known….hundreds. (a peek into the legacy of Gary Canode but it wont be the last time he gets blamed for the crazy adventures I have only begun writing about. ) Thevan is a full fledged member of our family and I would have a hard time deciding who to abandon by the side of the road, Thevan or our dog (Never mind the bizarre theoretical circumstances that might force me to make such a decision.). Thevan is our second car and is, in the parlance of antique and exotic automobiles, a “daily driver”. Over the past winter however Thevan sat immobile, literally frozen to the street in front of our house in Paonia, Colorado. It had remained there since the explosion of the previous November.
The plan for Spring Break 2014 was simple: thaw and resurrect Thevan into a discernibly driveable state, assure my family of this condition, and venture into the cell phone and asphalt free portion of the last state to have been translated to maps in the continental United States….for a week. I’m speaking of Utah here again, south central to be somewhat accurate. It was a romantic and classic itinerary emulating the fabulous vacations of my childhood. Never mind my son Edan was 4 and had yet to be drafted into the epic adventures and tribulations that revolve around a trip in a vintage Volkswagen. Never mind that he was complaining of stomach pain the morning of our departure. And never mind that April weather in the hinterlands of Utah is notoriously dicey, veering from snowstorm, to searing heat, to Sahara style dust storms, and gully washing rain all within the span of time it takes for the sun to rise and set. The courtship with my wife consisted of similar shenanigans and I had been daydreaming of repeating and reliving these trips with wistful gusto since the reality of fatherhood and family life slapped me upside the head 4 years prior.
By the time the winter of 2013-14 started rearing its ugly head, presenting us with one of the coldest Western Colorado December’s on record, Thevan had begun exhibiting a serious new character flaw. My take on it was that she was rejecting the Subaru engine I had stuffed into her rear end. All summer Thevan had merrily whisked us to far reaching and exotic and tepid southwestern locales, Fossil Springs and Grand falls in Arizona, Lost Lake via Kebler Pass and Crested Butte in Colorado, Mexican Hat and the San Juan River in Utah. The new engine seemed to run great BUT only if it was warm outside. She was as happy as a clam above 50 degree F. But once the Colorado cold began settling in to her bones not only would she not budge but she sounded as if she was entering a self destruct sequence, much like the temper tantrums involving ice cream I had experienced from time to time from my 4 year old son Edan…. or that head spinning scene from The Exorcist.
So before winter really set in and froze my workshop floor (the decayed and excruciating asphalt of Dorris Ave in Paonia.) I set out to rid Thevan of these demons once and for all. I had dedicated large portions of the past year pouring over internet forums and tinkering with the vast universe of wiring and electronic sensors that now were a part of Thevan’s newly transplanted, computerized, and fuel injected Subaru motor. Short of taking it apart and reconstructing the engine I had resorted to the dart method of solving problems. A technical explanation of the last “hail mary” procedure that resulted in the “Explosion” is not pertinent to this story. What is worth mentioning is an unknown amount of raw gasoline had found its way into one of the more volatile portions of the engine and as soon as I turned the key, simultaneously crossing my fingers like I had done hundreds of times prior, Thevan let forth a neighborhood shattering eruption of hellfire. The concussion was not unlike that of a high powered hunting rife or the notorious oversize firecracker known as the M80. Instinctively I ducked believing someone had actually fired a weapon close by. Surely there was no way such violence could have originated from our funloving VW . That is until I opened the hatch and realized that her muffler had blown up…like a cherry bomb in a tin can. The aftermath resembled the faces of Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner after one of their many explosive volleys on one another. 5 minutes later Paonia’s police chief made an appearance relaying that my “neighbor” (The variety that calls the police rather than actually being neighborly) nearly a quarter mile away was shoeing one of his horses during the cataclysm and… well …was not very happy with me or Thevan. With this “official” complaint, I closed the hatch (hood) on Thevan and walked away in disgust and defeat. For the rest of the winter I pretended she did not exist as snow and ice encased her carcass. Over the winter I felt mild vindication that she got what was coming to her.
With the greening of Kentucky blue grass in our yard in Paonia and the mild teasings of warmth that come with March in the Rocky Mountains, so too came a thawing of my heart and a bit of forgiveness of Thevan’s violent fit of last fall. Forecasts for the canyon country of Utah and the Chihuahuan deserts of Arizona were occasionally reporting temperatures topping 75 degrees. Thus my wanderlust and intense desire to escape winter on the Colorado plateau had me crawling back to Thevan, our escape pod for such expeditions. The inanimate hulk of Thevan was patiently waiting where I had left her, the last traces of ice dripping off the roof.
I won’t lie. I was desperate for a solution to get Thevan back on the road and off on a fabulous family road trip. I was convinced it was a simple fix, albeit a potential needle in the haystack of fixes. One scheme involved borrowing a pickup truck, renting a trailer, and hauling Thevan to my father-in-law’s import auto garage 600 miles south in Tucson. There are a mere handful of mechanics beside myself I trust enough to lay their hands on my VW and Mic at Micro Imports is one of them. He had helped me rebuild and improve previous engines on Thevan once, twice, three times before. But once I go my ducks in a row it became apparent that this trip was far too expensive and extravagant for the likes of Thevan. (I have my limits.) There had to be another way. And so like I have done countless other times I began just removing things from the engine, a sensor here, a wire there. I swapped wires. I squirted starting fluid. I hit things with a hammer. I blurted expletives, lots of them, and continued in this manner until finally, I shit you not, I removed one wire, a wire which “experts” claim you ARE NOT supposed to remove….and just like that the demons left Thevan and it happily sprang to life.
I was ecstatic. Only my wife really knows how ecstatic I really was for I had taken this dilemma, a conundrum involving a mere automobile and taken it to heart. I took it personally. And now the clouds parted and I was rewarded. Visions of the red cliffs of Canyon Country filling the massive windshield of Thevan danced in my head, hell maybe even a trip to the Pacific coast was in order! There’s something almost intangible about watching the lanscape go by from inside a VW Bus. Its a bit iconic. Again the irrationality I mentioned before comes to mind. My heart swelled with the cracking of the code. Thevan was back in the game and at that moment in time all was right with my world.
Preparations for the Utah voyage began immediately. We would explore the vast swath of people-less desert between Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the last frontier of the continental U.S.. Thevan had traversed this swath of wilderness some years prior with mixed results. Flashbacks of me pushing my VW off the Halls Crossing Ferry on Lake Powell, of scrounging in the corners of Thevan’s “spare parts” compartment, (the household equivalent to the junkdrawer) hoping to find the raw materials required to “Macgyver” my analog ignition system back to life. Personal oaths to never travel this seldom maintained backcountry route again if only Thevan would deliver us to Napa Autoparts in Blanding. Quickly though I deleted those “goodtimes” from my conscience and began preparing for 6 days of extended “dispersed camping” with my wife, my 4 year old son, and my good fer nothing dog. I filled the 8 gallon water tank, compiled the radial tire patch kit, topped off engine fluids, loaded enough tools and spare parts for a minor engine overhaul, camp chairs, toys for Edan, “medication” for mom and dad, camera equipment, down comforter, and whatever other frivolous and luxurious items were needed for a voyage of this magnitude. This was where Thevan shined in its ability to deliver a good time. It is part hotel suite, part child’s playhouse, and part hippie relic. Crammed within its spacious 564 cubic feet is a sink with running water, 2 burner stove, refrigerator, furnace, 80 watt solar panel, low consumption fluorescent and LED lighting, 2 “sound systems”, and various ingenious modular tables, chairs, beds, cabinets, and last but not least a roll out awning that renders our “front porch”. I equate the level of accouterments to multi-day river rafting where one can cram just about whatever the hell one desires to make the journey “successful” as long as you don’t mind sharing your space with it.
The day of departure arrived much too soon and with classic timing my son Edan was complaining of abdominal distress. He was very excited to go and his spirits were high, so we made the call continued our rush to get out the door by 10am. This was the self imposed deadline I set to reach the Capitol Reef National Park campground, 265 miles west, at a languid pace. It was a glorious day after a blustery week of crappy “spring” (snow) weather in Colorado. According to the weather guys it was warm temps and high pressure forecast for the rest of the week of spring break. I believed I had done my homework but spring is prime time in the Utah Canyon Country. Most National Parks actually advertise on their websites to ARRIVE at their campgrounds by 9 am to increase ones chance of securing a spot. But Capitol Reef with its extreme remote location in my estimation did not have the rockstar status as say Zion or Arches, so I figured arriving by 3pm would be a safe bet on a Monday.
I despise developed campgrounds of any and all sort. As a kid I loved them. My parents always allowed me to take my bicycle on our family trips and I had a ball cruising the loops, racing down the trails, looking for other kids to play a round of miniature golf with. It was more a social experience played out in the great outdoors. My parents always did the campground thing but as I “matured” my tastes changed and I now preferred to be alone when out and about in nature. My wife Amy is the same way. I was doing this for my son. I knew he too would love to meet up with other families and rage around the campground high on smores. It was a way of easing him into family adventures in the Thevan. Admittedly I did feel out of practice, even apprehensive about this trip. Was I insane to persist in carrying out my desire of a week of Red Rock Country bliss in a 40 year old antique with my entire family? Journeying by myself is one thing, no one complains if the road gets too rough, the trip runs too long, or the trip just plain fails. Its an adventure and if a radiator hose blows or I get stuck in the sand in some wash somewhere, well that in the famous words of Clark Griswold is ” all part of the experience”.
Adventure travel is full of “unknowns”, some fabulous and blissful and some humbling and miserable . As such I won’t broadcast on the internet directions or instructions on how to find special places, especially the places that are near and dear to me personally. I travel with an actual paper map and enjoy fantasizing about the ultimate camp spot and make mental notes on places worth revisiting. Extrapolating from proximity to mountains, rivers, and canyons, I visualize what we may find at a particular destination and anticipate the “unveiling of place”. For our marriage’s sake I wanted to ensure trips like this became part of our routine once again. It was these types of experiences that framed our relationship with one another as well as the Southwest. My parents proved it could work as the filter of my childhood memories indicate. (Idealistic and rosy as they may be.) So we turned down the thermostat in the house, dumped a bag of food out for the cat, piled in Thevan and threw caution to the crisp April morning breeze.
Hotchkiss, Delta, Grand Junction (where we had to buy a pot at Goodwill to cook in because we forgot one) and 90$ worth of groceries later and Colorado was in the review mirror. Quick stop in Green River, Utah for the only gas in a long damn time. I always underestimate this stretch of I-70 that rockets west from the Colorado border. Mainly because I hate freeways more than campgrounds but also because I forget there is absolutely no human habitation for 100 miles. On a good day its a scenic meditative jaunt, a great way to shed civilization. On a bad day the wind howls across I-70 obscuring any scenery with red clouds of dust. Its a battle to just stay on the road while negotiating a gauntlet of triple trailer semis and and SUV’s toting 30 foot cigarette boats headed for Lake Powell . In a vehicle like Thevan wind can make for an arduous driving experience as many people refer to this particular model of Volkswagen as the “rolling breadbox”. Aerodynamics had little to do with the design of the VW bus. But this day’s journey across Utah however, was sublime. Thevan ran magnificently, purring like a kitten and at times I barely perceive the engine is actually on save for the quick response as I press my right foot down on the pedal to actually pass, yes pass, other vehicles. A warm faint breeze, barely any traffic on the freeway, a crystal clear day, the stark snow crusted sky islands of the La Sal mountains grow and shrink to the south. The Book Cliffs to the north follow I-70 for a piece. Hints of Arches National Park as well as Canyonlands in the distance. The Henry Mountains, the western flanks of which will ultimately be our daily companion during our stint in the region, grow to dominate the southern horizon as we approach.
We roll into Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef in reasonably good time by Volkswagen standards , a mere hour past my self imposed deadline of 3pm. This time however it wouldn’t have mattered if we had arrived hours ahead of time. The sign at the campgound entrance indicates “FULL”. We continue on anyway hoping that they just forgot to take down the sign. The camp hosts greet us like we are 1970′s version of the Joads on our way west to California looking for work, and for good reason. We DO look like the Joads. With antique bicycles to match our antique automobile coated in Sears Weatherbeater latex paint we stick out like a sore thumb in the campground full of shiny, 30 foot, quarter million dollar land yachts towing gleaming matching mini-SUV’s. “The campground was full by 11 today.”, state the campground hosts after they realize we are in fact not flashbacks from the Summer of Love. (Which they appear to have maybe missed on purpose) “Any other camp options nearby?” I ask. “Head out of the park in either direction and camp on the public land.” one man says with insistence. Secretly I am ecstatic but I can tell my 4 year old is not. We didn’t really prepare him for the possibility of NOT camping in the campground. There are children frolicking everywhere and the smell of burnt sugary gelatin fills the air. Cottonwoods have just begun leafing out in campground as well as the deeper recesses of the canyons of Capitol Reef and it is beautiful. I must admit Fruita campground is one of the nicer Park Service campgrounds I have seen, but I am glad to leave the hoards behind as we turn and head out of the campground the way we came in search of a peaceful tract of dirt beyond a Bureau of Land Management sign.
Within 20 minutes we are in the middle of nowhere, dead quiet, red rock desert bliss. The psychic energy (if you can dig it.) is absolutely nil. A couple hundred yards off *Censored* Road I spy some beautiful Hershey Kiss shaped pink sandstone with a somewhat hidden double track trail winding its way behind them. I dive onto the this well worn trail with Thevan and sneak behind the rocks to find…THE spot, and its empty. We had pulled it off! The site is protected by massive airplane hangar sized sandstone bedrock and gnarled healthy juniper trees with a perfect little fire pit that has been respectfully used and kept to a tidy circle. Edan and Amy are stoked, we couldn’t have planned this first camp site better. Off in the distance lies the northern sentry of the Henry mountains, Mt Ellen. This is the view from our “living room”. I encourage Edan to start climbing the smooth bell shaped sandstone monoliths that make up our new “neighborhood” by hoisting him up on one. He has a ball rolling his new toy monster truck from impossible heights of our rock jungle gym. Its a playground for us all and indeed it is the perfect remedy for our Colorado cabin fever blues. The night is just right for a fire and while the juniper smoke cleanses our skin and souls I watch the moon rise over the Henry mountains and experiment with time lapse photography long after Edan and Amy crash for the night.
As such victory was ours. The meat of the trip had just begun but my tale ends here. Thevan continues to tread miles like a Labrador retriever and provides us with yet another heaping helping of goodtimes and respite from the humdrum. Not once do I open my 55 pound box of tools for a roadside repair. The rest of the trip exploring Capitol Reef and Grand Staircase Escalante is dreamy and idyllic. I won’t and can’t mention specifics. You must figure those out for yourself. Although Edan’s stomach continued to trouble him mostly as a result of absolutely refusing to poop in a hole, Amy and I soak up the sleepy spring stillness, the absolute peace, and revel in our canyon voyage. Although it was a happy ending I don’t recommend it to anyone lightly. If everyone did it well than it wouldn’t be special. (And anyway when was the last time you saw even one vintage VW from the mid 70’s rolling the back country of Utah?) The tools and methods we employ are in no way a guarantee of success, in fact they invite disaster. Writer Poe Ballantine states in a interview in the Sun magazine, “Everyone gets smashed to bits. Getting smashed to bits gave me humility, gratitude, and the ability to love and appreciate. Its your best opportunity to grow.” Yup, that pretty much sums up owning a vintage Volkswagen.