A couple's travel story to 11 Western states, traveling 16,000 miles in 11 months.
Story and photos by Sue and Eric Hansen, Corvallis, Oregon
It all started in 2004, when I almost stepped on a bull moose in Grand Teton National Park. While Eric and our yellow Lab, Millie, slept in the back of our canopied pickup truck, I felt nature calling and crawled out to use the public restroom. Unbeknownst to me, a bull moose had bedded down just 15 feet away. I walked right past without seeing him!
How could I miss an 800-pound animal with massive antlers in the early morning light? Easy. I have extremely poor eyesight and forgot to put on my glasses.
This too-close-for-comfort encounter made me realize it was time to quit truck camping and buy a trailer with a bathroom.
Since purchasing our 19-foot Pioneer trailer, we had longed to take a year off to travel. We finally did it in 2009, after the Lord called home our dear friend Phil Bauer at the age of 45. Though Phil battled pulmonary hypertension, thyroid cancer and diabetes for two years, he never lost his love for life, telling us to live each day as if it were the last cookie in the bag,
savoring every bite.
Our departure date was Aug. 2. Our friend Moe Soriano and his family rented our house for a year. Pulling out of our driveway in Corvallis, the burdens of everyday life suddenly lifted from our shoulders. We had the freedom to go where we wanted.
Friends bet on how long we would last in the trailer before we killed each other. All but one said less than a month—and that lone optimist, who had faith in our 34-year marriage, gave us nine months, 22 days and 10 hours.
Well, we surpassed their expectations by making it 11 months, traveling 16,000 miles along the back roads of 11 Western states.
Our first stop was Steens Mountain in the southeast corner of Oregon. While dry camping in 100-degree heat, the first night of our trailer trek turned into mosquito mayhem as swarms of bloodthirsty insects found a way in through our screen door. I sat up all night sweating and swatting. Even a cool morning shower didn’t help: I just had to share it with more mosquitoes. I finally broke down and cried from the heat, exhaustion and bites.
But triumphs follow trials. After leaving Steens Mountain, we discovered tiny Fields, Oregon, where Eric treated me to a “World Famous Hamburger and Milkshake” inside the historic Fields Station.
Refreshed, we drove north through Washington and Idaho on our way to Montana, where we planned to spend autumn. We checked out the Palouse Falls, the site of a tiny state park in Washington. The falls are an oasis in the dry Columbia Plateau and home to a few rattlesnakes (the caretaker said only one person had been bitten that summer). Though I’m afraid of snakes, Eric and I hiked the upper and lower falls. No snakes crossed our paths, but I hyperventilated anyway.
In Montana, we camped in Bannack State Park along gurgling Grasshopper Creek, where gold was discovered in 1862. We explored the restored ghost town of Bannack, walking along creaky boardwalks, exploring the Methodist Church, Hotel Meade, Skinner Saloon and the log “mansion” of the first territorial governor. I could swear I heard the voices of pioneers floating on the gentle breeze.
Wildlife welcomed us in West Yellowstone at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, which is home to several grizzly bears and gray wolves raised in captivity. Here the public is educated about these misunderstood animals and their place in a healthy ecosystem. We were humbled by these powerful predators.
I was also humbled when crossing paths with another bull moose at the same campground where I almost stepped on one. This time I had my glasses on and spotted the moose standing outside the Pioneer’s door, blocking my entrance. Once again I was forced to use the campground restroom. Déjà vu.
When the first snow fell, we left for warmer weather and the red rock country of southern Utah. Natural Bridges National Monument left us starstruck. Wrapped in blankets and seated in camp chairs, we felt as though we could almost touch the heavenly stars illuminating the high desert night.
Natural Bridges gets its name from three sandstone bridges: Kachina, Owachomo and Sipapu. Trails lead visitors down to each. The Sipapu Bridge has several wooden ladders
attached to cliff walls. Since I hate heights, Eric forced me to do this hike. He insists it was “coaxing.” Needless to say, I hyperventilated (again) and had to be rescued.
We did encounter the usual mishaps, including dead batteries, flat tires and the occasional medical emergency. I fell out of the trailer in southern Arizona and thought I had broken a few toes. But we ruled out a doctor visit because there was too much left to explore.
Nothing kept us from enjoying the ancient ruins of cliff dwellers on Navajo land in Arizona, thousands of petroglyphs in New Mexico or the spectacle of California’s peninsular desert bighorn rams butting open barrel cacti.
We met special people along the way, like Lee Grimes, who built the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis, Washington, so our soldiers—from the Revolutionary War to Iraq—will never be forgotten.
I’ll always remember the young Paiute man who danced for us at Pipe Spring National Monument in northern Arizona. And then there was the time Ron and Judy parked their motor home alongside our Pioneer near Borrego Springs, California, and Judy shared with us that she was battling a rare cancer. Her angelic face reminded me of Phil.
Our journey taught us that each day is a gift. God created a beautiful world to embrace, and we did. One mile at a time.