Monday, November 28, 2011

Vanagon Seat Belt Installation/Upgrade: Part I

A few weeks ago, I predicted that my next Vanagon project would be the installation of shoulder belts (three-point retracting seat belts) in the rear. I completed the rear passenger side over the long holiday weekend and I'm very pleased with the results.

All Vanagons, 1980-1991, are equipped with a factory-threaded hole to mount the seat belt reel, so no drilling of the frame or welding is required. The hole, however, is hidden behind the rear paneling/upholstery.

the new retracting seat belt reel mounted on the rear panel
Remove the three small screws that hold the rear panel to the wall of the van. Peel back the edge of the panel and locate the mounting hole for the reel, which in my vehicle was occupied by a plastic screw/cap. Remove that screw. Note the location of the hole (you can measure, or just eye it, as I did) and mark where you plan to drill through the upholstery panel. Using a 3/4" or larger bit, drill through the panel to access the factory-threaded mounting hole.

The reel comes with the installation bolt and a spacer. Remove the spacer from the bolt, place it behind the upholstery/panel, and then feed the bolt through the reel, then the panel, then the spacer, and finally into the threaded hole. In other words, the panel is sandwiched between the reel and the spacer. Use a ratchet to tighten down the bolt, but before applying the final turns (to 40-50lbs of pressure), orient the reel to face the rear seat at 90 degrees. That's it for the reel. Secure the panel with the three small screws.

new lap portion of the belt mounted with
the original bolt
Next, lift up the bench seat to gain better access the mounting point of the old lap belt. The hardest part of the whole project is the removal of this mounting bolt from the original male seat belt anchor point (not because it's physically hard to turn, but because it's extremely difficult to reach with hands and tools). I briefly contemplated removing the whole bench, but finally found a way to contort my hands and fingers to apply the ratchet. Remove the bolt and set it aside.

Discard the old seat belt or keep it as a memory of your less safe travels. Mine was secured with an overhand knot! My friends' excitement for traveling in the Vanagon was always taken down a notch when they saw that particular "safety" feature. Using that same bolt, thread it through the mounting hardware of  your new belt, make sure there are no twists in the belt webbing, and tighten down the bolt in that same factory-threaded hole. Congratulations!  You just upgraded your seat belt!

These new seat belts use the same female piece, so as long as that third anchor point and seat belt hardware are in fine condition, safer travels lie ahead for your family and friends.

Part II will detail the installation of the driver's side rear three-point retracting seat belt, a process that will involve cutting through the cabinetry of my Westfalia.

To be continued...

Ample justification for an upgrade?
Feeling secure and satisfied

Thursday, November 17, 2011

For $70,000: "Old New" Bus, or "New Old" Vanagon?

photo credit: MotorTrend
Both Automobile and MotorTrend magazines reported this week on the return of Volkswagen's T2 "Bay Window" Bus to the European market. These are not restorations, they are new Buses rolling off the factory line in Brazil. This has been going on for years, and occasionally a vehicle was privately shipped up to Europe, but now for the first time since the Buses were discontinued in 1979, Volkswagen's official Dutch distributor is creating a new European Bus market.

The 2012 Kombi has an updated dash panel, a 1.4 L water-cooled engine, a radiator up front, and some new interior and exterior accessory options, but it's otherwise identical to the German-built models of the 1970's. The price? 45,000-56,000 Euros, or the equivalent of $62,000-$77,000. Yikes. As the articles point out, with that price tag and the unlikelihood that these Buses would ever pass US emissions standards, we won't be seeing these cruising the California coast any time soon.

photo credit: MotorTrend
That hefty price tag got me wondering whether I'd really want one of these "Old New" Buses even if they were available to the US market (and I had that kind of cash!). For the money, I think I would much prefer what I'll call a "New Old" Vanagon, restored, and more importantly, updated. Take, for example, this 1991 Vanagon Full Camper that GoWesty recently sold for $61,000. Among the many updates and add-ons too numerous to list, it sports a new 2.5 L engine, solar powered auxiliary battery system, modern kitchen, modern cooling, modern exhaust, modern suspension, 16" wheels, and so much more.

1991 Vanagon Camper from GoWesty
As I've said before, I couldn't care less about maintaining OEM authenticity. If there's a better product or replacement part on the market than the original part designed over 20 years ago, that's what I want in my Vanagon. If I ever trip over a pile of $60,000, I'm looking to GoWesty, not Brazil, for my next VW camper.

Monday, November 7, 2011

New Hirschmann Vanagon Antenna Installation

The original Vanagon antenna was damaged when we purchased the van, crimped half-way down the mast. This didn't impact the reception, but I learned a few weeks ago that it did affect the retractability. Before pulling into the car wash, I attempted to push down the antenna, and down it went, straight to the ground via the wheel well. Because of the crimp, the downward pressure snapped the antenna below the base.

I looked to GoWesty for a quality replacement and purchased their OEM Hirschmann, fully-retractable antenna with a stainless steel mast and chrome base, a fair price at $19.95. According to GoWesty, "these are the real deal, the very same part that came on your van from the factory. Heavy duty construction built to last years!" I hope so. The first one lasted over 20 years, so that's a good sign.

Installation is easy:
  • Remove the grill by releasing each of the five plastic "screws." One half-turn with a flat-head screwdriver does the trick.
  • Remove the driver's side headlight assembly (four small phillips-head screws).
  • Remove the nut from the base of the antenna (adjustable wrench works well).
  • Remove the old antenna from below via the hole in the headlight cavity.
  • Cut the old antenna wire at the base and hold onto it tightly.
  • Securely tape the end of the new antenna wire to the old, cut wire.
  • Remove the ashtray assembly from the dash, revealing the back of the radio.
  • Unplug the old antenna wire from the back of the radio (if you can't get at it, you may have to pull out the radio a bit).
  • Carefully pull the old wire out through the dash hole until you reach the new wire that you attached with the tape.
  • Remove the tape (This was the hardest part! I was terrified of losing the wire deep in the dash and used a lot of duct tape to secure it.). Plug the new antenna wire into the radio.
  • Feed the new antenna up through the antenna hole, orient the new antenna base, and tighten the nut.
  • Re-install the headlight assembly and grill.
  • Enjoy radio reception!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

One Year VANiversary!

Much better than a pot of gold!
It feels as though we've owned our Westy for a lifetime, but it has only been one year since we brought her home from central Maine. 12,000 miles later, 9,000 of which we racked up during our cross-country summer road trip, our lovely Vanagon is still running strong. The odometer just rolled over the 186,000 mile mark. Miraculously, the engine has not required a bit of work since we've owned it, and we're still averaging a consistent 20mpg. That's not to say the van hasn't needed work--I've invested many hours myself and many dollars with the mechanic--but all in all it hasn't been the nightmarish money pit that deep down I feared it might be.

Parker the dog was the first addition to our family, Ruby the Vanagon was the second, and coming along shortly will be a baby boy (we're still working on a name). We'll need to invest in some safety upgrades, the first of which will probably be GoWesty's three-point shoulder belts on the bench seat.  This will allow for safer installation of an infant car seat, as well as added security and peace of mind for our adult passengers. At the moment, one of the lap seat belts is secured to the buckle with an overhand knot.  It's about time to fix that.

Friday, October 14, 2011

VW Day / Transporterfest, Brookline, MA

We enjoyed an unseasonably warm and sunny fall day at the VW Day / Transporterfest, held on the grounds of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, MA. This was the first time we’d ever been to a car show, let alone participated in one. I can’t say that we had the nicest or most interesting Vanagon on the lot, but it was certainly not the ugliest. Our tile floor, clean and spacious interior, and sparkling paint job got some nice compliments.

Wild creations and creative transformations intermingled with classics restored to immaculate, original condition. One memorable VW was a 70s Bug converted into a flatbed truck that hauled around a mini-Bug go-kart. There was only one "Thing" at the event; hopefully he took home the prize in that category. Gorgeous camper interiors were around every corner. Stylish Karmann Ghias occupied the center of the lawn, surrounded by Bugs, Buses, Transporters, and Dune Buggies in all directions.

Freshly waxed and buffed split-window buses restored to original glory were parked adjacent to their 50-year-old brethren, whose rusty patinas invoked a history of countless adventures.

I must admit, we were a bit jealous of the Vanagons with various engine conversions. The Westy parked in front of us, owned by a VW mechanic from NY, was equipped with a beautiful Subaru engine from a late-model Forester. Next to us, the Syncro from Lein’s Auto in nearby Somerville, MA was running a Passat VR6. Another boasted a VW TDI. There were a couple Zetec conversions too. We don’t have the time or money for an engine upgrade any time soon, but the dream is very much alive.
The auto museum itself had an amazingly diverse collection of cars, from the earliest electric “horseless carriages” to a $450,000 Mercedes SLR McLaren. I also enjoyed their collections of vintage bicycles, which included an assortment of the dangerous high wheeling Penny-farthings and a later generation of bicycle known as “Boneshakers.” With a wrought-iron frame and wooden wheels encased in wrought-iron “tires,” it's pretty clear where the direct-drive boneshaker gets its name.

If you’re in the area, the museum and the surrounding Larz Anderson Park are definitely worth a visit. Dog-friendly!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Vanagon Road Trip Amenities: Auxiliary Battery and Power Inverter

I want to mention a few items that have made our Vanagon road-tripping, particularly on long distance, multi-day/multi-week trips, much easier. The first is the Power Bright 1100 Watt Inverter that I installed early this summer before our big cross-country voyage. I'm running the intverter from a new auxiliary battery that I added at that same time, using GoWesty's very helpful Auxiliary Battery Wiring Kit. This kit made wiring of the second battery and rerouting of the radio, cigarette lighter/12V DC, and interior lights from the main to the new battery a breeze.

A note about pricing: While I certainly took GoWesty's advice on what specific power inverter and battery to choose, like other products (see my center console review), I found them much cheaper elsewhere. GW asks $134 plus $44 shipping (!) for the Power Patrol SLA1161 battery. I bought it at a local Interstate Battery dealer for $81. The same goes for the inverter. GW sells it for $95 plus shipping, I bought for $70 with free shipping.

I installed the battery under the driver's seat and decided to mount the inverter against that battery box, where it inconspicuously lives below the rear-facing jumpseat. This required drilling holes through the box to mount the inverter and run the #6 gauge wire (purchased at West Marine) from the aux battery to the inverter. The manufacturer says that the inverter should be mounted horizontally, but I've had no issues with it in the vertical position.  The digital LED display can be switched to read either remaining battery voltage or the wattage of whatever device(s) you're running.  It's great having that battery meter at no additional charge.

I'm not going to say much about the wiring of the new battery, because GoWesty really does a fantastic job of describing the process in the detailed instructions that come with the wiring kit.

I enthusiastically recommend all of these products.  Whether you're simply charging a laptop or whipping up frozen margaritas with your road trip blender, this combination will meet your power needs.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Bus

I recently learned of an upcoming documentary film called The Bus. Based on the excellent trailer and teaser reels, it looks like filmmaker Damon Ristau does a wonderful job revealing the cultural, sentimental, social, and mythical realms of this internationally loved vehicle.

"The Bus" Road Teaser from Damon Ristau on Vimeo.

"The Bus" Trailer from Damon Ristau on Vimeo.

I'll keep my fingers crossed for a nearby screening. The Somerville Theater or the Coolidge Corner Theater come to mind as perfect venues, and I get the sense that their ownership/management is of the type that would really enjoy this film.

The upcoming VW Day/Transporterfest (Sunday 10/9) at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, MA would be a great event to promote the film and do some east coast fundraising. Maybe Mr. Ristau and his Firewater Film Company will send me some publicity schwag (and a screener, so I know what I'm talking about!) to display at the festival...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Road Trip: Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Home

We woke and left Blackwater Falls, West Virgina with no destination in mind. I steered us northeast as Amanda pored over the maps and finally we decided on Lancaster, PA and the nearby Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Five hours later, we arrived and tormented ourselves with a sweltering driving tour of the city in yet another afternoon of 95-degree heat and debilitating humidity. We briefly found comfort in the shade of a Lancaster park and delicious Vietnamese take-out.

From Lancaster we turned southeast, deep into the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish farmlands, but far from the tour buses and commercial sprawl of PA Route 30. We traveled through beautiful, traditional communities where we, in our VW monstrosity, not the dozens of families passing by in horse-drawn buggies, were subject to stares. I saw young girls in long dresses and bonnets happily hoop rolling in the dusty driveway of their farmhouse. Women plowed the fields with teams of horses pulling equipment that one might otherwise encounter in a museum of American colonial life. For a moment, we felt as if we'd been transported to the distant past.

But the scorching sun brought us back to the present and we knew that it was time to move on. We resumed the journey not knowing where we'd stop next, but again, as if lost in a desert, we found ourselves desperately seeking water. The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, some 130 miles away on the New Jersey/Pennsylvania line, seemed an obvious choice.

After reaching the general vicinity, we pushed further to New Jersey's Worthington State Forest where we planned to camp for the night. Before settling in at the campground, we found an access point to the Deleware River and savored a cleansing, cooling, swim.

Feeling renewed, we entered the gates of the park for what would have been the last overnight of this four-week voyage. For reasons we can't explain, of the countless state, federal and private campgrounds we had visited, this was the first and only that did not allow dogs. With no alternative camping plans, and no desire to spend the last night of our trip sleeping at a New Jersey Walmart, we decided that it was finally time to end this epic adventure. By 3:00am, with 9,000 new miles on the Vanagon, we were once again enjoying the comforts of home, sweet, sweet home. It has never felt so good.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Road Trip: Thomas, West Virginia and Blackwater Falls

When you cross the state border, the sign reads "Welcome to Wild and Wonderful West Virginia."  We couldn't agree more.  It's a beautiful state full of lush forests and mountains cut by many rivers and dotted with lakes. For us, Blackwater Falls was just a point on the map as we steamed towards it from Kentucky.  We knew nothing about the campground, surrounding National Recreation Area, or nearby towns, but were pleasantly surprised by them all.

As we passed through the tiny town of Thomas, we spotted another Vanagon camper parked in front of Hannah Lee's Station, a gas station turned restaurant/bar.  We knew the campground wasn't far, and with nothing but rain in our forecast, we stopped to meet the fellow Vanagon owner and have a drink.  Jeff was reallly happy with the $1 PBRs, and we learned that the other Westy enthusiast was an itinerant masseuse. We also discovered that The Purple Fiddle, the venue next door, had live music later that night.

After chatting with the bar owner for a bit, we left to find our campsite, whipped up some sandwiches for dinner,and returned to Thomas for an evening of hip Americana/Bluegrass from the Starline Drive band. The band rotated through stage positions and instruments including the banjo, fiddle, guitar, Dobro, upright bass, and mandolin.  It was a talented, passionate quartet, comprised of two brothers, wife and college friend.  And the space was a great small-town gem.

The next day we rose early to check out the falls that give the area its name.  It was an easy hike down and while the falls were far from remote, we didn't see another soul at that early hour and it felt like a private viewing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Road Trip: Kentucky, Not as Planned

Escaping the heat and making friends
at a Lexington, KY fountain.
We patiently waited for the freshest wild salmon in Seattle, the tenderest BBQ in St. Louis, and Kentucky was to be my mecca for Bourbon. At 9:45am we left the St. Louis area for the 5-hour drive straight to the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. We were making excellent time and the GPS indicated that we'd arrive with at least 15 minutes to spare before the final, 3:00pm Sunday tour and tasting. Excellent timing, that is, until we crossed into the Eastern time zone and suddenly it was already 3pm with 45 minutes left in the drive. This was a very sad, very serious miscalculation that I'll never again repeat.

Crushed, I thought I might find salvation at the Bluegrass Bourbon Bar in Lexington, KY. There, I'd at least be able to chat with a knowledgeable bartender, learn about some obscure makers, and enjoy a well-crafted Old Fashioned or Mint Julep. But the misfortunes continued when we discovered the bar, described as lively on weekends, was actually closed. Lexington was a ghost town at 4pm on Sunday. It was 95 degrees, nothing was open, no one was on the streets, and bourbon country seemed to have dried up for my arrival.

Ale 8-1 or "A Late One" soda.  Apparently a Kentucky classic.
I couldn't find refreshment in a glass, but we were determined to find it in a lake. The next stop was Twin Knobs Campground on Cave Run Lake in the Daniel Boone National Forest of eastern Kentucky. We parked the Van, who, by the way, we've named Ruby, and headed straight to the water, Parker leading the way. We plunged in without even bothering to change into swim suits. The evening swim helped wash away the whiskey sorrows of the afternoon and we enjoyed a relaxing night at the campsite.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Road Trip: St. Louis, MO

Our drive across Missouri was hot and sticky, but we pushed through knowing cool showers and air-conditioning awaited us at the home of Melissa and Jeff, friends who recently moved to the St. Louis area from Boston. Their two adorable and lively children, aged three and one, were excited to have new playmates, and Parker found a companion in Buffy the pug. He especially appreciated her full basket of chew toys, methodically taking each one out to play with until late that night. After an afternoon of singing, playing house, and getting my hair adorned in fancy clips, we all went out for some St. Louis BBQ. Unfortunately we left the camera at the house, which is why this post is so lite on images.

Thanks for the photo, Melissa! At least we have one!
Pappy's Smokehouse has been voted best BBQ in St. Louis for many years running, and it did not let us down. Jeff and I split and devoured a full rack of ribs, testing all three of the homemade sauces, and also enjoyed baked beans and sweet potato fries on the side. It was the perfect meal to cap off our string of peanut butter and jelly lunch days. From there we went for a stroll around “The Loop” neighborhood at Delmar Boulevard, a few blocks of hip shopping, eating, and entertainment. We found a place to park the double-wide stroller outside of Snarf's sandwich shop and refreshed ourselves with local Schlafly Summer Lager and Fitz's micro-brewed root beer.

After getting the low-down on the important baby-raising topics of diapers and strollers, Melissa led us on an excellent driving tour through Forest Park and around the zoo en route to our final destination, Ted Drewes in the Dutchtown district. Since 1929 this historic establishment has been serving frozen custard, the creamiest of ice-creams, and famous “Concretes," aptly named for their thickness. The long lines moved quickly and we were soon enjoying these blended treats sitting tailgate-style in the parking lot. With full bellies, we went back home to enjoy a blissful night of air-conditioning before the 95-degree haul into Kentucky the next day.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Road Trip: Kansas City, MO by way of Hays, KS

After living large at the Boulder Best Western, it was back to Walmart for the next two nights. The first stop was Hays, Kansas. After cooking up some couscous and Trader Joe's palak paneer in the parking lot, we set out to see what Hays had to offer. We weren't expecting much but were pleasantly surprised in a couple ways. A quick Yelp search suggestd a true gem in diner/brew pub combo of Gella's and Lb. Brewing Co. On the brewing end, they've garnered many international and domestic awards for their beers, and after sampling a few it was clear why. I started off with their seasonal summer ale, the Summer Fling. It was perfectly crisp and refreshing for that hot, sticky Kansas night. Later, I tried their multiple award-winning Oatmeal Stout to go with the chocolate mousse Amanda ordered for desert. Again, it was excellent.

Combo sandwich at Arthur Bryant's BBQ
The second surprise of Hays, Kansas was the wonderful couple we met at the brew pub bar. They hailed from Purdue-area Indiana, he a professor and she a former administrator, and were heading west for a week in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our Vanagon was the conversation starter and we learned that he'd owned two in his lifetime and had enjoyed many VW road trip adventures over the years. After wishing each other smooth travels, we headed back to the parking lot for another night of asphalt camping.

Hays put us in striking distance of Kansas City, Missouri the next day. Our first stop was the Shawnee Mission Park, located a few miles south of town. The acres off-leash hiking and swimming opportunities were the major draws. There's a fee required for the official swimming beach on one side of the lake, but no fee required for the swimming area for dogs on the opposite side. I was perfectly happy joining Parker and the dozen other mutts. It was the same water!

Feeling slightly refreshed in the 93-degree heat, we drove into Kansas City to sample one of its iconic offerings: BBQ. Just as we'd waited until the pacific northwest to enjoy some sushi, we knew that KC and St. Louis would be the only sources for BBQ on this adventure. We simply wanted a small taste of the KC style in order to compare it to St. Louis's offerings, so we headed to the legendary Arthur Bryant's. Splitting one open-face sandwich, a combo of “burnt ends” and pulled pork, seemed like a reasonable approach. The “sandwich” turned out to be two heaping piles of slow-cooked, tender smoked goodness atop white bread, along with a side of beans and stack of pickles. It was a massive plateful and the two of us struggled to finish this single serving. Their variety of housemade sauces were equally delicious. Stuffed, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening exploring other areas of Kansas City, from the City Market and Riverfront to the Power and Light disctict, finally ending the night downtown at the Penn Valley dog park. We'll visit KC's fantastic museums and jazz scene on another trip (without Parker).

Satisfied with our city tour, we drove east to the 24-hour KC Walmart Supercenter.

Next stop: St. Louis

Friday, July 8, 2011

Road Trip: Boulder, Colorado

A craggy start to the hike.
We left the noisy, crowded parking lot of the Rock Springs, Wyoming Walmart for the active, healthy, energetic college town of Boulder, Colorado. Upon arrival we were greeted by a violent lightning storm, with loud cracks of thunder peeling slowly across the sky while we sat sweating in the van researching nearby camping locations for the night. Parker, of course, was frantically circling, panting, and leaving puddles of nervous drool in the back. With the oppressive heat, humidity and storms weighing on us, we abandoned all thoughts of frugal camping and decided to splurge on the luxuries of air conditioning, a real bed, and much needed showers at the local, dog-friendly Best Western.

After checking in the storms finally abated. When Parker found calming safety in the cramped space beneath the table in our room, Amanda and I left to explore the lively shops, pubs, and bistros of Boulder. We made a quick happy-hour stop at Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery where I downed a refreshing red ale and Amanda a tall glass of ice water. From there we visited Pearl Street Pub for a few tasty wings, lightly coated in their homemade BBQ sauce (and a couple more local CO brews for me). We finally ended the evening on the roof deck of the West End Tavern where we split a delicious burger sourced from a small, local, all-natural cattle farm along with a fresh salad and sweet potato fries. We've lived a mostly vegetarian existence on this trip, living out of the cooler on cereals, hummus, cheese, bread, veggies, fruit, pasta and PB&Js, so these occasional burgers and sushi platters have never tasted so good!

16-week bump on the Sanitas summit!
We slept late the next morning (until 8:30!) to fully take advantage of the cool comforts our room, picked at the hotel's free breakfast, and finally checked out around 10am. By 10:30 we'd reached the Flatirons on the outskirts of Boulder and the Mt. Sanitas trailhead. The 3.5 mile hike is a favorite of locals and their dogs, offering great views of the city and surrounding mountains from its rocky ridgeline and summit. This relatively short but invigorating trek was just what we needed before the start of what I imagine will be two terribly boring days across eastern Colorado and all of Kansas. But I'll try to keep an open mind. Maybe Kansas will surprise us.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Road Trip: Jackson, WY and the Grand Tetons

We left the Caribou-Targhee camground for Jackson, Wyoming in the early morning. There's nothing like swarms of mosquitoes to get you up and out of the campsite in record time! Justin recommended a great hike just outside of Jackson in the Gros Ventre Wilderness area, overlooking the jagged Teton range. One of the unique elements of this hike is that the trailhead begins at 8,000 ft, climbing steeply out of Jackson on rugged, winding, backcountry roads. Before taking the fork to the trail, we continued another two miles on Sheep Creek Road until it finally ended in snow at close to 9,000 ft.

This small detour brought us to a breathtaking view of the Grand Teton mountains and an exciting wildlife encounter. Before turning the van around, Jeff got out to stretch his legs and enjoy the landscape. Just before the dense treeline, he stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of loud rustling and scratching from behind a tree no more than 15 ft away. A shaft of morning light revealed the thick brown coat and bulk of a grizzly. I had never seen Jeff look so scared as he said, “It's a grizzly!” He hopped back in and maneuvered us through the muddy, deeply rutted road down to the start of the hike, with heartbeats elevated before we even hit the trail.

Parker rolled over to enjoy some cold snow on his bare belly.
In a typical July, we'd have no trouble summiting the rocky Jackson peak, a ten mile round trip hike. But with the late winter and incredible snowfall this year, the feat would have required winter mountaineering gear. We decided to go as far as Goodwin Lake and still found that the last half mile was entirely buried in many feet of snow. Even though Parker couldn't swim in the still frozen lake, the bountiful snow was a good tradeoff.

Following more of Justin's recommendations, we returned to Jackson to enjoy some of its Western charm. Jeff sipped a local brew at the Cowboy Bar, straddling one of the saddles they use in lieu of bar stools.

We'd worked up an appetite and grabbed a late lunch at the Snake River Brewing Company before venturing into Grand Teton National Park. By this point, the weather was turning foul and dark thunder clouds were quickly making their way from Jackson along the Teton range. With storms nearing, we cut the driving tour short and decided to forgo camping in the park. We instead put in another few hours of evening driving in order to have more time at our next destination, Boulder, Colorado.

Double rainbows arced across the horizon for much of the drive.

Road Trip: Craters of the Moon and Idaho Camping

We left Mt. Hood to put in a few hours of evening driving across Oregon. We pushed east as far as Pendleton and rolled into the Walmart Supercenter for the second parking lot overnight of our trip. Our first Walmart camping experience was in Bozeman, Montanta overlooking the stunning National Forest just outside of town. The Pendelton Walmart was adjacent to the Pendelton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. Locations aside, why do we and other road trippers occasionally spend the night at Walmart? They are free; overnight parking/RVing is allowed, so you don't have to worry about police or security rapping on the window at 3am; they close late and open early (with some operating 24 hours), so their services and facilities are almost always available when you need them; and, of course, you can find them coast to coast.

Amanda's best mosquito defense efforts.
We set out from Pendelton by 7am for a very long journey into and across southern Idaho. The one highlight of this otherwise grueling, punishingly hot stretch was Craters of the Moon. President Calvin Coolidge established the National Monument in 1924 to preserve this “weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself.” It is indeed very peculiar, a lava-scape of black rubble, extinct volcanic cones, bat-filled caves, and dark, twisting monoliths. The 7-mile park loop—filled with plenty of pull-offs, short hikes, and vantage points—was just what we needed to break up the high-mileage day.

At 7:30pm on July 4, we pulled into the Falls Campground in Swan Valley, Idaho, part of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The camp is located on a beautiful branch of the Snake River. Hungry and excited to finally be out of the Vanagon, we celebrated with our most elaborate campsite dinner yet. We added garlic olive oil to the bottled pesto we'd been carrying to create a delicious sauce for the fusilli. While the pasta boiled, we grilled some sun-dried tomato chicken sausages. We then chopped up the sausages and added them, the garlic pesto sauce, and some fresh mozzarella to the pasta to create an incredibly satisfying fireside meal. This paradise, complete with exotic sunset, was tainted only by the vicious onslaught of mosquitoes as nightfall approaced. They eventually drove us back into the van to enjoy some reading (and beers!).

Fireworks could be heard in the distance, sending Parker into a few fits of nervous pacing and trembling, but this remote location was the best we could do for him.