Twilight’s golden glow was evaporating, sucking away the vast sightlines and vistas from Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. Darkness in the Mountain West descends quickly and feels especially heavy as the Rockies loom unseen. We were returning to Yellowstone for a brief second visit on a second-ditch wolf-spotting effort. Unsuccessful again, we focused our hunt on something more familiar: bathrooms.
I parked Madge the Van next to a Park Service outhouse, alongside a charismatic Subaru Brat pickup. Mustard yellow with California plates. Its driver was a late-30s hippy-by-any-definition: dreadlocks, a pink sleeveless, and Birkenstocks. Spotting Madge, he exclaimed while flashing a peace sign: “YOOOOO! Rad van, brother!” Appreciating his approval, I gave him a thumbs-up as he fired up the Brat and disappeared in a fading serpentine of taillights.
Stereotyping has proven to be a funny thing over the past four months. At every turn, Madge’s mug attracts attention. Peace signs from hippies past and present, thumbs up from fellow van dwellers, and smiles from true vagabonds and drifters. We also get our fare share of leers from impatient drivers and condescending glares from vacationing families from the suburbs in rental SUVs. I do suppose we look the part: I’ll admit my beard is a bit untamed, and both Angie and I have settled into a consistent wardrobe of durable flannel shirts and flip flops.
While living out of our vehicle has provided invaluable, life-changing lessons about consumption, patience, and priorities—to name a mere few—Angie and I never set out on this adventure seeking to change who were are. We didn’t embark on this trip to “find ourselves” or to [name your free spirit-inspired platitude]. Really, we just craved an adventure. Something different and challenging. We saw an opportunity to pursue an experience out of the ordinary and grabbed ahold.
Man, wouldn’t the Brat-driving-hippy and the condescending vacationing family alike be surprised to see us six months ago: a Washington, DC-dwelling, government job-working, couple, often cheerfully teased for our seemingly perfect All-American looks? How would each of them have acknowledged us then?
My parents—ever supportive and brimming with enthusiasm—joined us for a few days on the road as we explored the iconic scenery of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Sharing a taste of our life on the road, together we trekked canyons, sat awestruck in the mist of geysers, prepared dinner while watching herds of bison, and enjoyed the surreal romance of waking up each morning to a new view of America. We also shared in the surprised looks of strangers, confused now to see two adults and a set of parents emerge from a Volkswagen van.
Angie, Madge, and I followed the trail of the Brat-driving-hippy’s fading taillights east out of Yellowstone into the heavy Wyoming darkness. Raging wildfires in Montana forced us to about-face south, chasing the yellowing aspen trees towards the mountains of Colorado. In ten miles or so, we would find a dark empty clearing off the road to make camp for the night. The next morning’s light would strip away the heavy cover of darkness, revealing towering mountains, gorgeous lime green aspens, and cows grazing around the van. Indeed, to this campsite—like much about life on the road—there was more than meets the eye.