Settling In


The Westy emerged from the garage. We bolted the exhaust to the engine, added oil and coolant, hooked up the battery, and started her up. She belched exhaust. We screwed the oxygen sensor into the gaping hole in her exhaust and started her again. She sputtered and gave a rumble, but she was working much too hard at an idle. Something was off.



Vanagon guru Scott stopped by in the morning to take a look. He didn’t like what he heard. He pulled out the throttle body, adjusted it, and put it back. He revved the engine. There was a distant knocking as the engine fired faster. I imagined a loose nut knocking around inside or something more bizarre: my ring? a tooth?—I hadn’t lost either. The timing was off; we couldn’t drive down the street without stalling.

Scott told us to pack but we picked up on his hesitation. We didn’t pack. I went for a run up Mount Sentinel with a friend and decided that despite all the hours on my back beneath the Westy, I’d be ok if Scott told us we shouldn’t take her. We’d take the Subaru. We’d make a bed out of plywood and make do. Paige reluctantly agreed. We couldn’t let our expectations rule the day.


Scott tweaked the timing. The mysterious knocking stopped. We circled the block a few times with Scott muttering, “I like it.” He gave us the go ahead. We packed in all we would need for two months on the road. Cross-country skis, mountain bikes, bathing suits,  a pint-sized green succulent and the 1200 page Bentley repair manual all attached to the van in some way. We left Missoula at dark.  We motored past Phillipsburg to our first camp spot on the banks of Flint Creek.

We jumped into learning how to navigate a very limited space with someone you love. Patiently. Impatience doesn’t last long in such tight quarters. It’s liable to blow the roof off. So we practice patience.

We cranked the propane heater. We dove into the Jack Tales. Jack the witty Virginian; Jack the lazy giant-killer.



We set off in a light snow that follows us, falling from the clouds or blowing on the wind.

We turn down the stark Madison Valley—mountain, valley, mountain—fence lines in right angles to the road headed straight up the rise of land until they hit the steep ridges and gullies that make them irrelevant. Pillowed drifts on the north slope of every coulee.  With the headwind we can’t drive faster than 50mph on flat ground. The sun remains on a tired errand to break the clouds.

At Quake Lake winter is in full. Grey trunks poking from the water reminded us that this used to be a mountain valley with a river meandering below. In 1959 one of the largest earthquakes we’ve recorded in the Rockies (7.5) brought the mountain down on a full campground and plugged the river.

We pull into West Yellowstone at dusk. We ski in falling snow.  It’s too cold for the Westy to start… We’ll need to get some heat to that engine block…


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