The Lion's Rear

2019 Westfalia Vanagon Trip


[2019-09-22 Sun 11:31]

Previously: Plan: Camper Van in September.

I just got back from a week on the road, camping in a 1985 VW Westfalia van named Elwha. I had a really wonderful experience which I documented in a twitter thread since it's easier and lower bandwidth than posting to this site for now. I'm recapturing that here.

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Day 1: Drive to La Push

I picked up the van Friday morning and loaded up. Drive up to Edmonds, across to Kingston on the ferry, and then a drive over to Port Angeles for lunch. I went to Port Angeles with my cousin back in April, we had a great time, and I sort of fell in love with the place. The Olympic peninsula is beautiful and I am still of the opinion that if I stay in the northwest, it'll be in Port Angeles. The San Juan fault's eventual super-earthquake is the only thing that gives me pause.

There were a lot of maple trees along the highway that just this week started turning golden and red. It was really beautiful and still fairly temperate. Wet, though. Stopped at Lake Crescent, a deep clear alpine lake, talked with some folks and just sort of sat and soaked it in.

I wanted to stop and make tea here, but this was when I learned that the travel set that I had left out to bring was still … sitting on my living room floor. The french press that the rental company had stocked is great for coffee but it smelled exclusively of coffee, even with only boiling water in it. So I did this trip without access to tea, though I could have bought a tea pot from the grocery in Port Angeles.

I stayed the night on a private campground outside of La Push, WA hosted by a couple who live in Port Angeles but teach at the school in Quillayute. Good folks. Didn't see much of them in the evening, I cooked my first meal on the camp stove and went to bed early after failing to get a fire going in the rain.

Day 2: Drive to Lake Quinalt

I woke up and showered early, the last shower I'd get for a few days. The host couple had breakfast going for me and the other camper, a fellow from the east coast who had recently left his job in tech, moved out of New York City, and in to a new profession.

Been seeing a lot of us doing that lately. We've got work to do.

We pulled his SUV out of the mud that it had sunk in to overnight, and I hit the road an hour later with a full belly, and some good conversation around how to improve food security by automating small gardens. All said and done, I headed towards Lake Quinalt, with some stops along the way.

First stop was the national park in the Hoh Rain Forest, where I walked their trails, watched the Hoh river flow by, and listen to water drip and birds chirp.

From the Hoh Rain Forest, I drove to Lake Quinalt, stopping at some of the beaches along the way, but otherwise just sort of enjoying the speed of the van and the speed of the day, settling in to the trip.

Lake Quinalt is another glacial lake, tucked between Mt Olympus to the north and some other mountains to the south, carved out by ice over tens of thousands of years. Deep, clear, quiet. When I got there the clouds were low enough that the mountains were hidden. I hiked a bit along the lake, where there are a bunch of privately owned cabins built along the lake, with private boat ramps. Weird thing, to be in someone's back yard, but weirder for them to be in that place.

That night, I got a fire going and had some chicken sausages, and read until it was too dark to see.

Day 3: Drive to Centralia

In the morning, I put up camp pretty quickly, and went down to the shore to do some fishing. I hadn't fished in a decade, and wasn't expecting to catch anything, but mostly I just wanted to cast a line and watch it.

It was raining, I kept casting over logs, I had to cut my line twice. I spent the last half hour untangling line. You know, fishing. Trout fishing is largely catch-and-release here, and so even if I caught anything it'd be going back in to the water.

Got supplies in Abderdeen, got out of Aberdeen, and made it to Centralia, to another private campground, situated in the middle of 90 acres of private land.

It was another nice, quiet, relaxing night. Not being able to hear road traffic, or planes, or neighbors is really a great thing, and it was a good chance to clear my head, even if I didn't make it too far out of camp.

Day 4: Drive to Lake Easton

Night 4 was supposed to be the night where I "roughed it," camping entirely back country on some forest road that takes a half hour to find a turn around on. It was, however, the longest part of the drive.

Avoiding the city on this part of the route was nearly impossible. Avoiding the interstate was impossible.

And so I drove for about six straight hours, from Centralia, through Yelm, through Buckley, through Enumclaw, through to North Bend and Snoqualmie to avoid the city. A lot of idyllic country roads, a lot of 35 mph speed traps. It was pretty, though it wasn't clear enough to see Rainier.

As I got up Snoqualmie, though, I started to feel less well, ending up at a state campground in Lake Easton with what I knew was the beginning of a migraine. So I settled here at the campground, Lake Easton State Campground which was pretty enough, popped the camper top and pulled the blinds, asleep by 19:00 so that I wasn't up all night with a migraine.

I could hear the I-90 and every four hours a freight train roll through on the south side of the lake.

Day 5: Drive to Lake Chelan

But it was fine, and I woke up feeling largely okay.

Camping at parks like these is interesting. They don't really have the facilities to support more than a weekend camper, and so during the week they're sort of dead, which is nice. I didn't have anyone in the units near me until pretty late in the evening when a bunch of RVs pulled in, plugged in, and didn't make a lot of noise.

The drive from Lake Easton to Lake Chelan was nice.

More mountain passes, and long steep hills, but they were off-country highways and roads and no one was in a particular hurry to bully me in to slow-vehicle turnouts. After going over Blewett Pass the scenery started to shift, nearly immediately, to more dry scrub and exposed rock. In Wenatchee, I stopped at the Ohme gardens, a county managed park which started as a family's private garden. It's basically that, a garden built on the top of a hill, with a bunch of lawns and artificial ponds and whatnot. It's pretty, and well maintained, but it definitely felt artificial.

From Wenatchee, I drove up the west side of the Columbia River on US-97-Alt to Lake Chelan, yet another big deep lake carved out by glaciers. The town was cute and had a great feel to it, largely along the north shore of the lake, but built around the Chelan River which flows a short distance in to the Columbia. Fun place, had some nice coffee shops and restaurants, and is where a bunch of apple orchards and wineries are at.

My camp was a bit north of Lake Chelan, on a private farm with a couple of long-term RVs parked there. It was situated in a little canyon off the side of Columbia River valley, tucked away behind some large basalt rock outcrops, which we could pretty freely hike in to.

I tried to cook chilaquiles in the rain and it went, uh, poorly. Oil doesn't like being rained in, it turns out.

Day 6: Drive to the Skagit River

I woke up and got out the door pretty early, stopping in Lake Chelan for coffee and some groceries.

The Columbia River is truly beautiful. The region reminds me a lot of the highlands in Arizona, actually, even though they aren't particularly similar, geologically or biologically. The dryness might be the extent of it, and the exposed stone.

I fueled up in Pateros and about two minutes out side of town stopped by a pair of hitch hikers who were trying to skip the particularly wet and arduous part of the Pacific Crest Trail over Mt Glacier. They'd made it from Skykomish to Pateros the day before, stayed the night there and I was to be the final leg of their attempt to get back on trail. Chatted a bit on the drive, stopped in some spots to take photos, and left them at the top of the mountain at Rainy Pass where the PCT intersects with the highway. Hopefully the last couple days on the trail were good, one of the folks had been on it since April in California, having done nothing more than day hikes beforehand.

Oh and they introduced themselves with their fucking handles and I used my first name like some sort of lame-ass. It's not like I don't have handles to give people, I didn't know that hikers were of that cut of cloth.

I drove on, stopped at the Lake Diablo overlook to soak in that whole experience. The lake is colored by minerals that are stripped from the above the lake by glacial flow, giving it this crazy azure blue look you can see in one of the photos in the above tweet. While at the overlook, I asked the ranger stationed there for suggestions on where to stay that is a bit more secluded and more likely to see some wild, and I was suggested Goodell Creek Campground, which is a quick drive west of Newhalem, a small company-town owned by Seattle City Light to operate the hydro-electric dam complex that make up Ross Lake, Diablo Lake, and the headwaters of the Skagit river.

And so I camped about 100 yards from the Skagit, where there were salmon 10 feet off-shore hanging out, spawning, fighting the current.

It was quiet when I got there, the only other camp that was occupied was a couple of tents. As the sun set, more folks showed up, but it was quiet, and it was secluded, and the being able to see salmon building egg beds just off shore was really magical.

Day 7: Drive to Anacortes

A pretty unremarkable day, the drive off of the Cascades and back in to the Puget lowlands brought me back in to terrain I recognized, and roads I can locate on a map. Got in to Anacortes pretty early, and set up camp in Washington Park early enough to try my hand again at chilaquiles without the rain getting in the way. They were really good.

This was the first night I started to feel my creativity come back, I finally wrote some journal entries, I finally spent some time reading and writing in the van's guestbook, and I spent some time organizing my to-do lists and technical documents for the projects that I am going to embark on now. I walked down to the beach at the west end of the park, the beach water is much more brackish up there than it is at Golden Gardens.

I also played Eliza a bit, a visual novel which hits far too close to home for me, at times. Maybe I'll have something to say about it later.

I had a 20 minute conversation with the camp ranger, which sort of got to the point of him saying "ah it's great up here but it's getting so busy, folks need to stop moving up here" after I told him I'm from Arizona, and driving past for-rent and for-sale signs on everything from apartments in Port Angeles to commercial real estate in Centralia to giant McMansions south of Tacoma and in Chelan and Anacortes. Oh well.

Day 8: Drive Home

I woke up, I packed up, and I made final preparations to drive home. State Route 9 was the most reliable way to avoid the I-5 rather than go down Whidbey Island and wait for the Clinton/Mukilteo ferry. It was a good relaxing drive where I went through the last bit of the China History Podcast's History of Tea series.

All good things come to an end though, and eventually I landed in Bothell, and shortly found myself on Seattle city streets again. Nearly ran someone over while I was driving the van through the waterfront trying to get to SODO, but we made it back in one piece.


I spent some time thinking that I would have this …. breakthrough while I was out there. That I would be able to reconnect with a past that I've lost since I left Arizona and a place I "knew". I still don't know Seattle or Cascadia, but I am coming to respect and love it and understand it a bit more than I did and that is important to me.

Before my trip I picked up a copy of Roadside Geology of Washington, and at the end of each of my days I would read the section on the roads I traveled that day, and that I would travel the next day. It's a really interesting thing, thinking about geologic time scales. I've been stuck in this head space the last five or ten years, not able to look forward a decade, let alone a lifetime, and see anything before me. This has crystallized over the last few years in to simple climate grief, and was one of the things which is motivating my current re-contextualizing of my world. You sit in this valley, carved out so long ago that the scale of thinking about it is difficult. Then you think about the rock it was carved from and it's even more mind bogglingly long ago. Really puts a different perspective on the pit of depression I've spent the last decade in.

Near the end of the trip, I felt I was in a head space to have creative energy again, but that was short lived, and now I am back home again. I am sad that I didn't have more conversations with people, but thankful for the ones I did get to have. I'm disappointed that I didn't get to share my tea with anyone like I had day dreamed about, but there is always next time.

And my search for self continues, as I try to dip myself back in to the real world, and build relationships that don't require full-time employment to maintain. Working 8 hours a day with folks makes a social life essentially free, and I don't have such easy access to that, or the network I'd built for those 8 hours a day, and so I have been going nearly from first fundamentals on this. Not from scratch, of course, I still have people I am and wish to be close to, but I can't rely on happenstance maintaining that any more.

Lastly, consider a trip like this. It's not difficult, and two or three people can comfortably live in these vans for a week. Peace Vans take great care of their vans and their customers' vans in a full shop in SODO, and make sure it's equipped with everything you need but carbs and cooking oil. I'll definitely be taking trips with them in the future; they offer an off-season pass that lets you reserve for shorter periods than the 7 night minimum, and I might do that. I was using this trip as a chance to consider buying a van like this myself, but I don't know that I would, just given how much I struggled on the highways with it. The idea of running a little mobile tea house out of one is still really tempting, though…