In the driver's seat: An adventure in car camping
Any worries about spending a day and a half on the road evaporated, for me, at the point where I-90 westbound meets up with I-5.
Quite unexpectedly, there stood the entire reason for my 2,500-km road trip, in living shades of grey: Safeco Field — Mecca for a few thousand fellow baseball fans whose pilgrimage would bring them in just one more day to the opening of a three-game series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners.
Roughly 90 minutes from Calgary by direct flight, Seattle is closer than Toronto for Western Canadians, making Safeco Field a viable option for devoted Jays fans fulfilling an urge to steep themselves in live baseball rather than mutter invectives at their TV screens.
It’s also a really nice drive.
The single most attractive aspect of going by car and camping en route is the absolute freedom to choose a route, set a schedule, and then change them at will.
No getting up at 4 a.m. to drive to the airport for a 9 a.m. flight.
No searching out a reasonably priced and safe place to park your car for the next four or five days.
No getting numb bum while sitting in an airport, waiting to board.
No spilling your coffee onto your boarding pass as you try to juggle your wallet, your carry-on and your camera bag.
No jamming into a wide-body sardine can between a sumo wrestler and a nervous first-timer while skimming over the tops of fluffy clouds and wondering how things look, way down on the ground.
The opportunity to take a drive through some of the most beautiful landscapes in this part of the world is as good a reason as any to choose the slower and moderately less expensive mode of travel, with the most basic necessities of life packed along.
It turned out that the tent, the camping table and the camping chair were not necessary.
The only role they filled was to take up space in the trunk of the car, impeding access to more vital items, like food and drinks.
With apologies to all of those roadhouses strategically placed along the route, I packed a plastic flip-top box with non-perishable food and the basic implements for cooking meals and making coffee on a single-burner butane stove.
The Chevy Hotel’s massive trunk still had plenty of room left for a suitcase, a couple of four-litre jugs of water, a sleeping bag, blanket and pillow, a shopping bag for camp fuel and stuff that wouldn’t fit in the kitchen box, a cooler for beer, milk, butter, steaks and wieners, a camera pack, a tripod and an axe.
Nothing says “woman travelling alone” like a backseat jammed with stuff.
The passenger cabin of the Chevy Hotel was free of clutter, excluding a set of maps stuffed into one of the seat compartments and a little stuffed horse that makes galloping sounds and whinnies when you squeeze its hoof.
I fired up the car at 7:36 on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 3, and headed south from our place near Leslieville, planning to stop for gas at Cremona and then carry on through Banff, Cranbrook and Yahk, with no particular plans for when and where to spend the night.
It was a God-almighty-would-you-look-at-that kind of a day, bright and sunny, not too hot, with one postcard after another revealing itself as the Impala galloped through the foothills and into the Rocky Mountains.
Gas at Cremona was seven cents cheaper than Cochrane and there was still plenty in the tank when I refueled at Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, late in the afternoon.
Now well past the halfway point, the time had come to think about getting some supper and bedding down for the night.
Besides having the will and the patience to drive long distances, a dedicated car camper must also be willing to accept the consequences of failing to preplan, including pre-booking a campsite. But how do you book when you don’t know where you’re going to stop?
A number of years ago, the United States government built a road straight across a lake it had created with the construction of a power dam. At the far side of Lake Pond Orielle was a sign: Springy Point Campground, three miles.
What’s another five km on a journey that’s more than 1,200?
I gave Whinny’s hoof a little squeeze and turned off the highway.
Jackie, the campground attendant, must have seen something in my face when she told me that they had just given up their last site. I asked her if she knew of any other sites along the way. Jackie looked at me, she looked at her husband, Charlie, and then she said, “You drove how far? Well, we do have this one spot. ...”
By 5:30 p.m., the Chevy Hotel was parked at a site normally reserved for staff but not in use on this night. There was a picnic table, firepit and running water right at the site. A few steps away was a shower building rimmed on two sides with big stainless steel sinks, installed solely for washing dishes.
Licence plates on most of the vehicles were from Alberta and Saskatchewan, including one big RV with a Roughriders flag hanging from the front window.
Charlie drove by on his golf cart a couple of times, offering kind words and encouragement as I split up some firewood that, no matter how hard I tried, refused to light. He found me an armful of wood that was a little less punky and brought over a cup of coffee from his and Jackie’s place while I roasted a hot dog to supplement the small steak consumed earlier in the evening.
They came back later for some stimulating conversation about camping, hunting, horses and the general politeness of Canadians, leaving me well stoked with stories as I pulled out the sleeping bag for my next Important Lesson in Car Camping: Mummy-style sleeping bags are useless in the cramped quarters of a car, but they do give a good cushion against the seatbelt buckles. Thank God for that blanket.
Refreshed from a full night’s sleep, I hit the road after a breakfast of Lipton’s Sidekicks and fresh coffee. Somebody forgot the sugar.
The gas gauge had barely budged at Spokane, so I kept burning westward, keeping to the speed limit because it’s no fun visiting with State Troopers at the side of a desert highway when temperatures are reaching for 88F and it’s humid to boot.
Lunch was the second of the two steaks I had brought along, cooked on a picnic table under a shady tree at a roadside rest stop and washed down with a tepid can of de-alcoholized beer. Another memo to self: Soft-sided beer coolers are not effective in the desert and they leak when the ice melts.
Next time, get something that will do the job.
A hot shower in a real hotel was starting to look really good. Seattle was just a couple more hours away.
Getting home was decidedly less spectacular.
After letting the Chevy Hotel rest at the real hotel for a couple of nights, the jury were still out on which route to take. Ultimately, the wrong route was chosen, largely because of the previously mentioned lack of pre-planning.
Heading up from Cle Elum to Osoyoos looked good on the map — drive through kilometre after kilometre of forest, desert and orchards, and then cross the border at the southern tip of the Okanagan, smack in the middle of fruit season.
The supreme joy of a smooth border crossing was immediately scuttled by a traffic snarl just south of Osoyoos, with cars diverted through the fruit farms to get around a collision that had choked up both lanes on the main highway.
This was merely a taste of things to come, from which I affirm my long-held opinion that one should not travel into the Okanagan except to actually visit the Okanagan, and always have a camping site booked ahead.
Travel speeds varied from slow to dead slow, there were no sites available and signs at rest stops left dire warnings for those who would dare linger overnight.
Supper that night was a box of nectarines purchased from a fruit stand and eaten on the road.
The plan had been to catch the glory of Rogers Pass while driving through in the morning.
The reality was driving over the fog-blanketed summit at 1 a.m., sleeping amongst the trucks at a roadside turnout, paying $1.41 per litre for fuel in Golden and then driving into the Travel Alberta information centre at Field for breakfast.
I gave a quiet nod while making my coffee to a fellow car camper who was catching some zzzs in the front seat of his car. Ah, the joy of being a small person with a big car, rather than a tall person with a small car.
Next stop, Rocky Mountain House to refuel the car and then home, full of tales from the legions of blue-clad Jays fans who had swarmed the stands in Seattle.
1. Seattle is too interesting to see in one day. Most baseball series run over three. Next time, plan to stay for the whole series and catch the things you missed because time was short.
2. The Blue Jays usually head for Seattle on the August long weekend. Check the schedule as soon as it comes out and start booking. Flights, hotels and campsites are much cheaper when reserved well in advance. Gas for the drive cost about $225, roughly the same price as the airfare would have been before taxes, if booked in time. Booked later, airfare would have been closer to $400.
3. Going for a long drive is a great adventure. Use the backpacker’s rule. Figure out what you need to take along and then cut it by half. A credit card takes up a lot less space than a lot of unneeded junk, and there will be more room to bring things back.
4. The return route I didn’t take, through Abbotsford and Kamloops, may have been a better choice after all, providing the tank was filled in Washington.
5. Fuel in Idaho and Washington is a little cheaper than in Alberta. Across the states, prices ranged from $3.79 to $4 (US) per gallon, which worked out to a maximum of $1.09 (C) per litre.
About those Jays — they won the series, giving up only the last of the three games. Two out of three ain’t bad.