We got the trailer. We went to Yellowstone. And now we are home.
If only it was that simple.
The funding finally arrived on a Mon. to pay the seller of the travel trailer (also known as a caravan to some of you). But the seller was out of town until Saturday. We had various problems and delays equipping the van (our tow vehicle) for this 10-day trip. Todd got his flu shot on Friday and spent the next 48 hours having an immune response (chills/fever). Finally, on Sunday, we crossed the Columbia River to get the trailer in Washington. Transaction completed, shaking of hands, a few words of advice and we hitched up. As we pulled out of the driveway, it was then that I realized the scope of what we had just done. Driving the narrow (oh, so narrow) winding road along the river back toward Oregon, I could feel just how looming and large that trailer was behind us. Going through the tunnel, then over the steep incline on the bridge back into Oregon, I shuddered at the thought of following the Lewis & Clark trail on our way to Wyoming.
There was no turning back now. On Monday, we had the transmission serviced on the van, obtained insurance for the trailer and got it registered with the state. We spent part of Monday and all day Tuesday cleaning the trailer and packing for the trip. Amazingly, we headed out on Wednesday, September 23rd, taking the highway that goes through the mountains headed toward Portland. My son, Alec, shouted, "Yellowstone or Bust!" Little did he know. 1-1/2 hours into the drive, we started seeing steam pouring out from under the hood. Todd pulled over to the side. We were in the middle of nowhere, about 1/2 hour from Portland. Cell phone service was sketchy but we talked with our travel club (AAA) to arrange to be towed. They didn't know where to send us. So I called an RV store I knew in the nearest big town (Hillsboro) and they recommended a radiator repair shop. Todd kept stopping to fill the radiator with water and we limped into Hillsboro. They said it could be fixed by the next day and offered to let us park next to the building, even allowing us to use their electricity. I was in tears. This was not the way I pictured starting our trip. But it was really the best option. However, at about 6:15 pm, the manager knocked on our door of the trailer and said we were good to go. What an angel! He stayed late so we could get on our way. This was only the beginning of us seeing God's hand at work on this trip.
We stayed at a campground in Portland. It had been an extremely hot and exhausting day and we were so thankful to finally stop for the night. Our first night was interesting because no one knew where anything was or how things worked in the trailer (there had been no time for a tutorial) and sleeping was difficult as no one was used to the shaking of the trailer everytime someone rolled over in bed. Carmen was especially whiny, a bad habit that we became used to every night of the trip.
The next day was awesome. A beautiful drive along the Columbia river, through the Gorge and on up into Washington's lower tip, staying along the Snake river where it meets the Clearwater, right at the Idaho border. This would become our favorite campground where we biked a bit until Chad's tire sprung a leak. Then we headed out on Highway 12 which is known as a long and winding road. We were basically following the Lewis & Clark Trail and stopped to read a lot of historic signs along the way. We had to stop 4 times due to road construction but it gave us time to hop out and explore the Lochsa river. Then we started to climb. It got steeper and steeper, on Lolo Pass. Alec and Todd started to see smoke coming from under the van. It got pretty thick. We pulled over and saw something leaking under the van, where it was hitting hot metal and causing the smoke. Since we were near the top of the pass, Todd decided to keep going until we found a better place to pull over. As the van slowly lurched to the top, I yelled to the kids, "Pray!" Amazingly, there was a huge parking lot and visitor center, waiting for us to pull in. I yelled to the kids to get out of the van, as smoke was everywhere. We ran. But Todd said it wasn't going to blow up or anything, it was just the transmission leaking. We went into the visitor center where they let us use their phone (again, NO cell phone service) and we arranged for a tow vehicle from AAA in Missoula, Montana (the nearest town down the other side of the pass, we were still in Idaho). The park rangers were so, so kind and helpful to us and our kids. God put us right where we needed to be. We needed transmission fluid but they didn't have any. Then a delivery man pulled up (it was about 4:30 pm) and came in. I jokingly asked if we could hitch a ride with him. Then I had a thought, "Hey, do you have any transmission fluid in your truck?" He said no, sorry, and went into another room. Then he came out and said his next stop was a ranger station that had a store - perhaps they had some. I gave him $20 (all I had) and teased that if he didn't return, it would be on his conscience (he laughed but I just knew he'd be back). We waited while the rangers closed up the center and Todd finally got through to AAA. Amazingly, the tow truck arrived, followed by the delivery man who handed Todd the transmission fluid and our change. I ran out in time to grab his hand and thank him profusely for helping. I could have cried (I think I did). May God bless that delivery man for coming to our rescue. God put him there just at the right time. We filled the transmission and the tow truck driver followed us all the way to Missoula, right up to the campground (where I had already called as soon as we got cell phone reception.) Tow truck man waved goodbye and we parked and set up camp for the night. Another late night but at least we were where we should be. The rangers in Idaho had called a transmission repair for us and Todd had arranged for us to take the van in on Monday (this was late Friday, of course, everything was closed.) Saturday, we spent doing laundry and resting. It was hot and windy in Missoula but it was my first time in Montana so I was a little stoked. I haven't been in a new state since I was 12, which makes 39 states I have set foot in. There was, however, a fire to the northeast (in Helena) and we could actually see a red glow. This would not be the only fire we encountered and with the wind, it was a little unnerving. The kids played a little mini golf at the campground and Todd made some decisions. If we waited until the van was repaired, we would run out of time to go to Yellowstone. So I started making calls, booking a hotel room just outside of Yellowstone and reserving a rental van. If we couldn't camp in Yellowstone, at least we could go there. Sunday, we got the rental van, packed our stuff in plastic trash bags and left the van at the repair shop. Yellowstone, here we come!
We had a beautiful drive through Montana - my goodness, it's big! Mile after mile of burnished hills and valleys. It seemed to take forever, going through Butte and nearly getting to Bozeman. We turned south then and headed toward the North entrance of Yellowstone. We walked into the Super 8 that our travel club had arranged for us and, of course, they didn't have our reservation. I wasn't surprise at all, it seemed that nothing would go smoothly on this trip but things did work out and they apologized for the inconvenience (it was actually their mistake, for once!) We got a big corner room that overlooked the parking lot and the sun set over the hills just beyond. I asked the front desk for a dinner recommendation and we ate at a pretty good Italian restaurant. To me, vacations are made up of little moments and that night, as everyone else was asleep and I was just getting into bed, I heard some motorcycles zooming into the parking lot. Three way-too happy guys headed toward the hotel when one of them shouted, "Viva Las Vegas!" It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. This became my mantra for the rest of the trip. The next morning, I saw these same guys in the parking lot and couldn't help but shout, "Viva Las Vegas!" Todd was stunned and the men looked a little sheepish. I explained that I'd had a good laugh at that one and asked if they had a good time. "Oh, yeah!" came the reply and they went on. Todd said, "What was all that about?" I said I'd explain later. Anyway, both nights at the hotel, we heard the mating call of a bull elk outside the window (I was glad to be on the 2nd floor). Quite a noise, especially at 2:00 am. We saw the female in the morning, right outside. Cool.
We spent two terrific days in Yellowstone, exploring the northern half. We could not get to Old Faithful (the most reliable and huge geyser) because of road construction to the east and a fire blocking the road to the west. This fire was near where we had made reservations to camp, near the lake, so it is obvious God didn't want us to go there. Amazing how you see things clearer on reflection. The smoke from this fire covered the east side of the park but it was far enough away not to cause danger where we were. However, we had to make a 120 mile detour on Tuesday just to get to Old Faithful, a must-see. It was worth it but, oh, so much driving. At least we had a reliable van and nothing to tow. We saw so much wildlife, nearly everything on Chad's list. Todd had his new baby, a digital camera, and would regularly hop out of the van to take photos whenever the opportunity came. We'd see people lined up on the side of the road and knew there was something to see. Remarkably there were few people at the park so we had a lot of it to ourselves.
On Monday, we spent a lot of time walking around hot springs and such and I was looking for a particular one, with a hole in the bottom in the shape of a bear. This was special to me because the last time I was here I was 6 and with my own family. They had teased me that a bear had fallen into the spring and I believed them. When I saw that hot spring, I was excited. But then I started to cry ... and cry. I didn't want to leave. Memories of my Dad, knowing he had stood here with me and my family, it just kind of overwhelmed me (PMS didn't help my mood, either). Todd and the kids moved on, leaving me there all alone. All alone. It was quite a moment. Just me, in Yellowstone, with my memories. I will not forget it.
So, after enjoying all we could in Yellowstone, we had to head back late on Tuesday for Missoula. Now, I have always scoffed at minivans equipped with DVD players for the kids. I mean, WE survived traveling without these things as kids so who needs them? However, we bought a DVD of Yellowstone and thought, what the heck! It was late, so we let the kids watch as we drove and then they all went to sleep. Don't knock it until you try it, right?!
We'd had awesome weather in Yellowstone but on Wednesday, we knew a storm was moving in, complete with snow. We headed out of Missoula (with our van and trailer), back to the campground on the Washington/Idaho border (Clarkston/Lewiston). We took a different route, to avoid the snow we had seen on the pass that morning. This route was beautiful but at one point, we began climbing, and climbing. It was awfully hard on the van and Todd was pensive. Just as we were thinking we couldn't get much higher, we came out onto an enormous expanse, like a great canyon. It looked down on Moscow, Idaho, and it was beautiful but the grade going down was going to do a number on our brakes. I think I held my breath and prayed harder than ever. Everyone was silent. I was so glad to reach the bottom. The brakes were a bit warm but we made it.
We stayed two nights at the Clarkston, WA, campground, biking and hanging out. Friday, we headed for home, holding our breath with every incline. There seemed to be a lot of inclines and we didn't know if the van would be o.k. By this time, we didn't trust it (at least, I didn't). Going through the Columbia Gorge, we encountered a head wind that lasted about 80 miles. Todd fought that wind the whole way, poor guy. It beat us around a bit. Then, after Portland, there are at least 4 passes to deal with, along the Columbia River. But we made it. It has taken us two full days to recover. Even today, (Monday), everyone is still a bit shell-shocked by our trip. We had a lot of good times but way too many tense and stressful times. The kids held up well. And we saw our faith tested and strengthened by looking for God to provide and protect. On our last night camping, I needed just one more quarter to finish my laundry. The office was closed so I took my coins and began praying for an angel with a quarter. It was dark but I started walking around the campground and finally saw a couple walking. I knew I had found my angel. I asked if they would exchange my coins for a quarter. The husband obliged and even asked if I needed more. I said, "No thank you but I was praying for an angel and you're it!" So many times I was able to share with the kids how God provided for us. It would have been nice to have had a smooth, trouble-free vacation but life's not like that. We have to be thankful for what we are given and look for the good in people, places and life in general. And that's what this trip did. Definitely.