S2:E6 – Making a List and Checking it…Later

Three Wind River, WY stories told by way of the things we saved to Google when back in cell range: from terrifying cows to windstorms to running out of water on a hike, we bumbled through a few misadventures, then double checked to see how we could do it better next time. And the eight things we think about on a daily basis that are second nature when you live in a building.

This episode was written, recorded, edited, and produced by Lisa McNamara, with additional recording and editing by Paul Olson. Music by Michael Kobrin from Pixabay.

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Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia

Transcript:

This is Road Tripping in America, a podcast about life on the road. I’m Lisa and this is Paul.

We’re exploring the US in a pickup truck with a camper – we named our setup The Bobs.

If you daydream about long-term travel or overlanding or #vanlife – or maybe you’re already on your own adventure – join us for some entertainment from the road. We’re in search of off-the-beaten-path adventures and new experiences after a year and a half of standing still.

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Today: three Wind River adventure stories told by way of the things we saved to Google when back in cell range: from terrifying cows to windstorms to running out of water on a hike, we bumbled through a few misadventures, then double checked to see how we could do it better next time. Followed by the eight things we think about on a daily basis that are second nature when you live in a building.

This is series two, episode six: Making a list and checking it…later.

This episode was recorded in Death Valley National Park – yeah, our podcast timeline is obviously a little behind our current location!

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“It’s bad – really bad,” I said to Paul, holding my phone out to him with my eyes squeezed shut so I wouldn’t be able to see the reaction on his face that would confirm just how bad it really was.

I had done this routine so many times before – loudly dropping my phone, stooping down to pick it up, embarrassed and clumsy, and finding that it was fine. But this time it was not fine – this time the screen had shattered into a million little pieces. I tried to wake the phone up, gently tapping phone CPR on the splintered screen, but blobs of color just smeared around the screen. I tried to wake the phone up a few times throughout the day, and first the screen flickered, then streaked, then dimmed, and finally went dark.

Then I remembered how dependent I am on my phone for a couple basic things. I had no idea what time it was or where I was or how to get where I was going. That really wasn’t so bad – it was like when we were in Germany for a 24 hour layover once and my phone didn’t work and I didn’t know the language and I was able to just let go and feel really free. The altbier helped then too, for sure.

The worst part of my phone’s destruction was the multiple times that I grabbed for it to take a photo, never remembering until my hand was on its way into the precarious pocket that had caused my phone to take its fatal dive that the phone wasn’t there and the picture couldn’t be taken. I take a lot of pics. I went through some withdrawal pains, asking Paul to take photos for me. And then I actually teared up when I went to bed and couldn’t do my pre-bed crossword puzzle that night. But thanks to Paul and magic, the screen was replaced and I was back to stroking its now screen-protector covered face a short 24 hours later.

But before I smashed my screen to pieces, I was already used to not having cell service most of the time, and that’s been fine. Like we talked about last time, we gulp the internet down when we have it and don’t miss it too much when we don’t. Except for one thing that’s hard to live without – Google.

As soon as I’m out of cell range, I realize how much I rely on internet search. Random things come up in conversation and there’s no way to look them up; there’s no way to answer essential questions. So I keep a list of things I want to search when I am back in reach of the internet. I think if I was alive back before internet search was a thing, I’d have kept a list of things to look up in the encyclopedia the next time I went to the library, too. I’m just a curious person.

The list is essential, because when we get back in cell range, the pings and news stories and Instagram notifications are so distracting that I tend to forget what I want to search. So I keep a list, and recently, going back through it, I realized how closely the things I saved to ask Google tracked with the misadventures of our time in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. So here are three short stories from our Wind River adventures, told by way of the things I saved to ask Google later.

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Search number one: How do you scare away cows?

Any user of National Forest or Bureau of Land Management lands knows that cows just come with the territory. I’m sure we all have a story or two of spooking cows on a trail, taking a detour to skirt a herd, or choosing a different trail to avoid the hassle. Piles of incomprehensibly large and seemingly indestructible cow poop are everywhere on public land, even land that has been closed to grazing for years. Cows create herd paths that confuse and mislead hikers. But ranchers are allowed to graze cows (and sheep and whatever) on public lands, so we must begrudgingly share the trail with the cows and accept that they’re allowed to be there too.

I don’t like cows, and I’m scared of them too. The way they stare at you with their big, dumb, vacant eyes, how their moos are sometimes so loud and hoarse it sounds like someone screaming in the woods, how they casually amble their thousand pound bodies at you (just curious, that’s all), how they kick up their back legs when you try to ease your car around their stubborn roadblocks.

A lot of dispersed camping is in grazing areas. It’s rare to find a spot that isn’t also actively being grazed by cows. And twice now, we’ve been woken up in the morning by a cow or two nudging the Bobs, trying to reach a tasty morsel of grass just underneath. They shake our truck like it’s just a nuisance pebble they’re trying to kick out of a shoe. We’ve swung around a corner on our mountain bikes and come face to face with a line of startled cows, everyone skidding to a stop. We’ve tried to skirt a herd, only to have an aggressive cow run at or alongside us. If we’re heading out on a trail and we see a herd, we might just give up and find somewhere else to hike or bike. But if we’re out there and coming back in, there’s no choice – we have to find a way by them.

In the car, beeping the horn seems to work, but not always. It’s kinda obnoxious to our fellow campers too, and some cows don’t seem to mind it. Ringing my bell on my bike works – sometimes but not always. Sternly or nicely talking to them doesn’t seem to ever do a thing. I try to think of them as sacred beings that should be respected, like their cow brothers and sisters are in some religions, but then I know they can see my guilty conscious, that I just had a hamburger yesterday, and I’m not being sincere. So that doesn’t work either.

So I know I need to deal with cows, but I also need to know – is there anything that cows are scared of? Is there anything I can do to feel like I can compete with a thousand pound beast?

And Google said…punch a cow in the nose if it’s charging you (and you’re in punching range, I guess). If they’re still a ways away and charging, you can squeal or yell in a high-pitched tone while moving towards them, waving your arms or a long stick to make yourself look bigger. Though there’s not a good consensus on this one because some people think loud noises might make the cows go even wilder. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to do any of these things, just like I’m never going to overcome a mountain lion with my 2” pocket knife, but I do feel strangely better armed with this bit o’ knowledge.

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Search number two: how you do close a pop-up camper in a windstorm?

I had been asleep for about an hour when I started dreaming that I was on a boat in the middle of a storm. Waves were crashing over and around the boat, generating sprays of foam and green roiling waters, like you see in a Renaissance painting. I woke up and sat straight up, as nauseous as if I were below deck on a boat. But it wasn’t a dream – the Bobs were violently shaking, and bursts of rain were hitting the side of the camper, making a sound as if they were splashing on the deck of a boat. What was going on?

We were camped at a dispersed camping area near the Torrey Creek Trailhead an hour and a half northwest of Lander, WY. Earlier that day, we had done a nice hike to a lake I had visited with my family as a kid. I remembered it as one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, the place where I discovered or realized my insatiable urge to always see what’s around the next corner, and I had wanted to bring Paul there for years.

Dispersed camping areas are basically parking lots – not campgrounds, not free-range dispersed camping spots that tend to be more private. Designated dispersed areas are often found in places that have been, or that have the potential to be, loved to death. Besides us and the Bobs, the camp area was also occupied by two retired couples who were camping together.

We knew the weather was going to shift – that’s why we had hurried up and done the hike that day rather than waiting for the smoky skies to clear. But the forecast didn’t have anything really concerning in it – just that some light rain was supposed to pass through in the night, but that winds were supposed to stay calm and it would be cold and rainy in the morning.

We, and the two couples, were parked cross-wise to the canyon, along the bottom of a picturesque lake near a stream. So what the dispersed camping area lacked in privacy it made up for in scenery. There was a smoky but nice sunset and then everyone hunkered down for the night. And then at some time around 11:30pm, the wind started.

Sitting up in bed, I was really freaked out. When we’re up on the sleeping platform, we’re cantilevered over the cab of the truck, putting about 300 pounds at the top of the camper mass. I was worried that our weight was making our center of gravity too high, worried that we would topple over. I decided that I was going to scramble down to the seating area of the camper, to lower our center of gravity and to put on my anti-nausea bracelet, because I was seriously about to puke.

The wind was making such an eerie noise – you could hear it rushing down the canyon behind us, then hitting the trees at the edge of the camp area, so there was time to brace before a gust whacked the side of the camper, then rushing through the trees along the edge of the lake. It felt like a solid thing, like a wave. Along with the wind came gusts of rain that sprayed the western side of the camper like an uneven car wash. One of the other couples got up and moved their truck alongside their camper, to block some of the wind. The other couple had left their truck parked like that before they went to bed. We didn’t have that option though.

Luckily we had some cell service, so we pulled up the radar app to see if the forecast had changed. We saw that we were right on the edge of the rain bands, but the wind forecast was still calm, under 10mph. The gusts we were feeling had to be more like 40-50mph though. We pulled up the wind contour layer and that finally showed what was going on. We were in a very narrow, very strong band of wind. To the south, in Lander, it was much worse. So next questions are – how long is it going to last, and is it going to get worse? But there was no way to know that. The camper top is rated for winds up to 70mph. While the whole vehicle was straining and bucking and bouncing, the seams of the camper top still felt taut, they didn’t feel like they were pulling or stretching or flapping. But what if it got worse?

After listening for a while and not feeling like things were getting any better, we decided to put the top down to protect the more delicate part of the camper and reduce our surface area. Or at least – to try to put the top down.

When opening or closing the top of the camper, you need to have at least one window open – otherwise the pressure differential from in to outside is so great that you can’t physically open or close the top. A bodybuilder couldn’t do it – it’s just not possible. We had a window corner open, and we opened another one too. We pulled all the bedding off the bed, slid in the extender, hooked up the bungee cords that help pull in the sides, then Paul took the front side of the top and I took the back side of the top and we tried to pull it down. But it wouldn’t go down. The pressure outside was too great; the open windows weren’t enough to allow the inside and outside to equalize with the wind whipping through.

I said we had cell service, so this is stretching the story concept a little bit. But we didn’t have the presence of mind to Google how to close the camper top in a windstorm, because we were doing everything we physically could to close the camper top in a windstorm.

Between gusts, we managed to get the back side of the top down and the front side of the top mostly down. I was using the majority of my weight to hold down the back and Paul was doing the same in the front. We realized that we couldn’t let go of the top to actually secure it, because as soon as one of us released the bar we were holding, the top would pop back up. So we sat there like that, pulling down the top, arms shaking from the effort, for 15 or 20 minutes. Not really talking, just sitting there miserably, trying to sense whether the gusts were lessening or worsening.

Paul’s side, with less room underneath, was slowly raising itself. We realized that our efforts were futile. We let go and let the top raise itself. We sat down on the banquette and just listened, still not talking much. I kept refreshing the wind contour map, since it was the only thing I could actually do. And I saw that the little band of wind was moving – it looked like we were getting to the tail end of it. Fifteen minutes later, the gusts were noticeably less intense and we put the bed back together and climbed back in. The whole ordeal lasted maybe an hour, but we learned that we couldn’t close the camper top in a windstorm using the regular methods. We needed to do some research – was it possible to close the top in those conditions, or was it better to just ride it out?

And Google said…basically if there’s a windstorm in the forecast, close your top before it hits. OK, that’s not really helpful. Another tip is to face your vehicle into the wind, so the wind isn’t hitting it broadside, like it was for us. We considered that but didn’t try it. It seems like a fine tip if the front of your camper is aerodynamic but the front pop-up part of Bob the camper isn’t used to getting blasted with wind any more than the side is. Another tip is to just sit there and ride it out and you’ll probably be fine. Did that. I think I might need to reach out to All Terrain Campers to get their thoughts on whether there’s anything better than that.

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Search number three: how long do you need to boil water before it’s safe to drink?

One of our biggest gear disappointments so far is the Sawyer Mini water filter. Paul impulse bought it, then looked at the reviews and found that it is generally reviled for being slow and difficult to use. Still, how bad could it be?

Life straw-type water filters are literal life savers. And on our 16.5 mile day hike to the Cirque of the Towers, we didn’t want to carry all the water we’d need for the day. We were going into a land of abundant lakes and fresh mountain streams, so what better time to use the Sawyer Mini? We’d carry half the water we needed and an empty Smart Water bottle for catching and filtering the rest. Paul had tested out the filter at camp and it seemed to work fine, so we felt confident in this plan. We also thought the hike was only 14 miles total. So a few things were slightly off.

About 7 miles in and still not to our destination of Jackass Pass, we were about through with our water. Right up ahead was a beautiful cold and bubbling mountain stream. Paul dipped the dirty water bottle in, screwed on the Sawyer Mini, squeezed and…nothing. No water came out. Paul squeezed harder, and the tiniest, saddest foamy dribble of water leaked out of the tip of the straw. We decided to press on to the top of the pass and worry about the rest of our water later.

Over a mile later, a little over 8 miles in and unsafely low on water, we had to stop short of our final destination. We were at the high point of the pass, we had an amazing view of the Cirque of the Towers, we had seen numerous beautiful lakes, streams, and vistas, but Lonesome Lake would evade us this time. It ultimately was just too big of a hike for us to tackle in a day.

We hurried back down to the beautiful stream and got serious about getting water. We needed at least 2 liters for the hike back and we needed two cups for our lunch. I got to work squeezing the first liter, mashing the bottle like it was a stress ball and I was managing a project that was over budget and behind schedule, while Paul started boiling two cups from the stream for lunch rather than taking the time to filter them. But we couldn’t remember how long we needed to boil water for it to be safe to consume. And we were really hungry and wanted to eat as soon as possible. I thought we should boil it for three minutes – that seemed like a good balance between long enough and not so long that we had to wait any longer than necessary to eat. We watched the pot while the water got to a rolling boil, set three minutes on the timer, then poured it into our lasagna Mountain House, waited ten minutes for everything to rehydrate while watching the package eagerly, along with a marmot and a pika, then dug in. And got horrible diarrhea thirty minutes later. NO! I’m just kidding. We were fine. But were we fine because we boiled the water long enough, or was that stream pristine enough that we could have drank straight from it with no issue?

And Google said…boil stream water for one minute or three minutes at higher elevations before it is safe to consume. We were definitely at a higher elevation at over 10,000 feet. I’m thankful that piece of knowledge stuck in a corner of my brain – or that I just guessed lucky. Or that the water was just that pristine. We’re tossing that Sawyer Mini though.

After the break, the things we think about every day.

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Welcome back. Living on the road for the second time, we’ve been reintroduced to the rhythms of road life that we had forgotten about. There are eight things that we think about on a daily or almost daily basis that are just a given when you live inside four walls (and under a roof).

The first and biggest thing is water. We’ve already talked about water a few times now, so it obviously is always on our minds. The human body can go three weeks without food but only three days without water. We need to have a regular source of drinking water, but we also need showers and laundry. We even think about water when it comes to food – Paul commented early on that rice is more efficient than pasta because rice sucks up the water and you get to eat it – pasta water needs to be dumped out.

Since developed campgrounds have proven both hard to get into and more expensive and crowded than we want, we’ve gotten creative. Many city parks have drinking water spigots, and we circle in on those like thirsty vultures. Some grocery stores have water jug refills for forty cents a gallon. Many rec centers, community pools, or community centers have inexpensive, basic showers. You can sometimes find more expensive and creepier showers at laundromats. And it’s always a treat to justify the cost of a hot springs visit for the shower you can get there. iOverlander has been very helpful in our search for water sources, whether for drinking or bathing, even more so than for their more popular purpose, free campsites. Forest service info centers are also a great source of helpful info for the rough camper. But we’re always thinking about water.

The second thing we think about on a frequent basis isn’t in second place in our thoughts, but because it’s so related to water, I’m putting it next – and that is quarters. We need quarters for showers, laundry, car washes. If you don’t live in a building with a shared laundry room or don’t have laundry in your place – when was the last time you thought about quarters? If you’re like me, you stopped using even cash years ago. The only place we used to get cash was the ATM at the Town Pump in Fort Collins (because the Town Pump used to be cash-only before the pandemic). I got cash from the Town Pump ATM in early March 2020 and that $80 lasted me almost a year and a half – even without the pandemic shutdown it probably would have stretched at least a few months.

We got a little cash infusion from selling a couple things before we moved (I prefer Venmo but some people showed up with a wad of twenties), so we only just recently needed to visit an ATM for the first time since the days before we thought about breathing in public. We need cash to get quarters and we need quarters constantly. Some showers take a ridiculous amount of quarters – like $6 worth per person. That’s 48 freaking quarters for two people for one shower each! Getting $20 in quarters out of a machine is like winning the jackpot at a casino, back when they used to shoot out coins instead of printing those little tickets. And we need to keep stocked up on quarters like coin jackpot winners because we need to be able to take advantage of any laundry opportunities we find – we can’t miss out on one just because we don’t have quarters that day and the laundromat’s coin machine is broken.

The third thing we think about on a daily basis is where to sleep. I mentioned this being a challenge a couple episodes ago when we were in a very busy part of Colorado in the prime summer vacation season, but it has gotten a lot easier since then. The bottom line is that, with our pop-up setup, we can’t stealth camp on a street or at a trailhead that’s posted no camping anymore, and I don’t like to do that anyway. We need to be sure we find a legit camping spot, with a few backup possibilities, before we rest for the night. Better yet if it’s free. This takes some research every day.

Fourthly is trash and recycling – or lack thereof for the latter. When you’re wild or dispersed camping, there are no trash bins. Gas stations are a no-brainer for discrete trash disposal, but sometimes we go a few days without needing or seeing one. In some parts of the country it’s super easy to toss your trash – Utah and Nevada have trash cans everywhere, acknowledging the basic fact that people generate trash and it’s better to give them a trash can to use than to have them toss it on the ground. Most nationally-affiliated parks have recycling bins too. Other places are tougher. Just like we’re always pinching our quarters, we’re also always on the lookout for a trash bin that isn’t posted with a scary no dumping fine.

Number five on the list of things we think about every day now is bugs. Not going to re-traumatize anyone with any gross bug facts today, and I am sure some people who live under a roof also think about bugs on a daily basis, and I know I won’t need to think of them soon when it’s cold enough at night to kill those little jerks, but…bugs. Are. Everywhere.

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Number six, and maybe the weirdest thing we think about on a daily basis is how level the ground is. When we park the Bobs at night, we need to be basically level – we can deal with a 2 degree max offset, side to side or front to back, before sleeping gets uncomfortable. Usually this is easy but we sometimes have some painstaking moments of moving the car ever so slightly in and out of dips or looking for flat rocks that are just the right height to drive up on to level us out. At least we don’t have a propane fueled fridge or anything else that requires the Bobs to be perfectly level. We knew we were too impatient for anything like that. And we haven’t broken down and bought leveling blocks yet. We don’t think we need them.

These next two are things that we would be thinking about even if we were still posted up in Fort Collins but that have a greater impact now that we are on the road.

Number seven is covid. Back in episode three of series one I mentioned how relieved I was that it seemed that, in our post-vaccinated lives, we didn’t have to think about covid anymore. Well, that did not age well, and fast. Way too soon, Lisa. While I’m less worried about getting sick myself and part of me wants to say, screw anyone who didn’t get vaccinated by choice, there are still the little defenseless kids and immunocompromised people and risk of further variants and now we’re back to having to think about covid again on a daily basis. And I am not happy about that.

We had maybe two nights where we went out to dinner and felt normal again since July. And now it’s back to feeling like we need to do Dominos pizza and a bottle of wine in the hotel room (preferably accessed by exterior entry door vs. common shared hallway). OK, that’s not a punishment for Paul, that’s a vacation. But one of the great pleasures of travel is eating and drinking in the local bars and restaurants. It’s where you meet people, where you get to ask them questions like what their favorite thing is to do there, or what they like best about this place. It’s where you get to try local delicacies like green chili cheeseburgers, fry sauce, or date bread, or whatever the server recommends. Where you get trail recommendations that are better than what you can find on the apps. We have no idea what we’re going to do in the winter and spring if this trend continues.

And finally, number eight is air quality. The smoke plumes and local wildfires have a big impact on where we go and what we do right now. After living next to the Cameron Peak fire in Fort Collins last year, when that now familiar scent combination of very hot sauna, pine potpourri, and, somehow, Swisher Sweets drifts in to our campsites, it brings back all those old fight or flight animal instincts that I just realized I had last year. Like the rain, we can’t really outrun the smoke. We just need to be aware of it and try to avoid the worst plumes. And just like covid, the smoke and wildfires have changed our trip trajectory – we’re going to skip visiting Oregon and most of California for now, since the fires and forest closures are impacting many of the areas we want to visit.

So these are the things we think about every day. They’re a little different than the old things – meeting times and deadlines and business travel. Reports and projections and PC load letter errors. Conference calls and annual reviews and office politics. I know which I prefer.

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Next time: Covid and Loathing in Las Vegas. What is Las Vegas like right now? Against our better instincts, we find out.

Until then, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com for more. If you are enjoying this podcast, please share it with a friend who’s also into travel, overlanding, or vanlife.

Thanks for listening!