All I could see were cops. They were littered behind me, haphazardly parked along the edge of the busy highway and up into the ditch. Like bees, pissed off, swarming and ready to sting. I couldn’t help but smile. As I watched the K9 unit sniffing around the tires of my car, hunting for God knows what.
A curveball from life was being hurled at me from a world class pitcher. Whether I was going to strike out was yet to be seen. Looking to my co-pilot, Caz, I couldn’t help but wonder how we got here in the first place…
Caz, a big smiling Floridian with a hippy heart and dreadlocks who’s always up for an adventure crossed my path a few years back in Alaska were we hit off right away. Was now on his way down to the lower 48 for a change of scenery. His destination was a summer resort tucked away in the mountains of Wyoming, perched upon the shores of the pristine sparkling waters of Jackson. A captivating paradise where skipping rocks and drinking lake – chilled beers is a common occurrence. While you take in the VIP view of the three towering snowcapped Tetons.
Welcome to Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.
Purchasing Our New RV
After making the 3,000-mile journey down from Alaska, Caz & I reunited while planning out our next adventure over beers and bonfires. Through one dumb decision after another, we ended up buying a half-crippled retro RV for more money than we should have. It was one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” sort of things, and we were keen to make the most of it. Even if it meant a 400-mile detour to pick it up in Colorado. Before setting our sights on chasing powder, in Lake Tahoe – 1,000 miles away – for the upcoming ski season.
Good ‘ol Caz wasted miles of opportunity between Wyoming and Colorado to take in a manual transmission lesson with my 1987 VW Jetta named Ernie. Who has more personality than a homeless hippy on acid. I don’t know about you, but I name all my vehicles. And since our beat-up motorhome reminded me of a wavy hair, bell bottom wearing hippy from the 80s we named our Class A RV, Sherman. It just seemed fitting. Sherman, while old, was equipped with all the comforts of home: breakfast nook, shower, comfy beds and let’s not forget, the bladder of a drunk 12-year-old just pissing away fuel. Yep, that was our Sherman. Run down, weathered with personality but it was home.
So there we were in a random neighborhood in Loveland, CO doing…what exactly? Teaching my 28-year-old Alaskan friend how to drive a stick shift. After a few comical hours of grinding Ernie’s gears, Caz felt confident enough to wander West in our makeshift caravan.
The Freedom of RV Life
Out of Fort Collins –Poudre Canyon Rd meanders through the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest delivering 105 miles of towering elevated canyon walls on one side and the sometimes raging, sometimes steady flowing Cache la Poudre River on the other. With a backdrop of snowcapped mountain beauty.
What should have been a picturesque simple drive turned out to be anything but. With no license, and equipped with only a two-hour crash course in manual transmissions, Caz was struggling to make it out of Loveland, CO. Every stoplight triggered a silent prayer to any god that would listen, but they weren’t taking our calls that day. Successfully stalling out in the middle of every intersection forced me into games like where’s Waldo? Or parking roulette! Not the kind of treasure hunts you want to engage in while driving a 40-foot battering ram you’ve owned for less than 3 hours. In a moment of “not giving a fuck” I starting using Sherman as a mobile roadblock. Allowing Caz & Ernie to swoop on through those logistical booby traps. It’s so much easier ignoring pesky traffic laws and blocking intersections in a vehicle not registered to you.
Eventually, we stumbled out of stoplight country and onto Poudre Canyon Rd. Having survived the incessant and deserving honking horns of our past we began our inaugural journey into “RV Life” by of course…. backing up into a guardrail and blocking traffic for another good 20 minutes. A lot of blind spots in a 40ft RV I tell ya.
Before big trucks with flashing lights and uniformed men with badges came to our rescue, I was able to move our half-crippled Sherman out of the way. Freeing a backlogged mob of annoyed drivers who shot angry glares, a few middle fingers and a couple of curse words fired in our direction. And, rightly so!
Free RV Camping
Behind schedule, but thankful we weren’t arrested (and still alive), we found a makeshift campsite to call home for the night. In the middle of nowhere, steps from the cascading Cache la Poudre River surrounded by mountains, and best of all it was free. The exact reasons why we went looking for an RV in the first place. The freedom to roam with all of your possessions, and the ability to call claim to any waterfront property or breathtaking landscape you might stumble upon.
Relieved to finally be out of the driver seat, we began to set up camp. By stacking rocks in the shallow river until barely breaking the surface of the bubbling current to hold my patented floating fire upon. Little did we know, the adventure hadn’t even begun. Dragging our chairs into the middle of the river, dangling our feet in the cool waters, sipping river chilled beers around our dancing floating fire. We had, at least for the moment, cracked the code to ultimate freedom. Reliving the days’ turbulent events, we enjoyed a laugh as we listened to the gurgling river wash away the day. A brisk September night unveiled twinkling stars above and apprehensive wolves on the far shoreline unsure of what to make of their new neighbors. Our own little utopia.
Recharged after a restful night in Sherman’s warm embrace and no longer flustered by the absurdity of our turbulent journey we prepped to continue west. Deciding to cut down on expenses and eradicate the roots of our frustration of fueling two vehicles from a bankroll that couldn’t sustain this, we rented a car dolly. Allowing us to haul Ernie behind Sherman, strung together like two irritating peas in a pod.
Unpredictable RV Life
And then it happened!
I was jarred from my sleep, shooting up in bed, heart racing.
Clank! Clank! Clank! Clank!
Unaware Sherman had been burning oil from the moment we took ownership. We were now sitting on the side of the road with an engine that sounded like a muffled jackhammer staring in disbelief with no mechanic skills. Unloading Ernie from the car dolly to explore the area in search of a miracle was our only play. Already late in the day outside of normal business hours this amounted to commuting back and forth a half dozen times between Sherman and the nearest truck stop. Throwing up Hail Mary’s of automotive fluids to save our injured engine. Which of course didn’t work, but it said on the $4 bottle it extends the life of your engine. Lies I tell you. Lies.
Deflated we limped Sherman back to the refuge of the truck stop in Wells. With hopes of finding someone to repair our vessel of freedom. Our attempts at courting mechanics to take pity on us amounted to $7,000 estimates, and $3,000 tows. Far more money than we had access too.
Marinating in desperation, we entertained the idea of calling Wells, NV home. Until we could afford to fix our broken buddy. Aside from kidnapping tourists, which I admit, wasn’t the greatest of ideas, but when life hands you a lemon you make lemonade right? There wasn’t a lot of choices for making money.
If you’ve never had the…pleasure of visiting Wells, just close your eyes and envision a town where progress goes to die. Add a little creepy ambiance with a sense of eerie dread and you’ve got Wells, NV.
Persistence Is The Key To Success
In a gambling mood fueled by desperation, we attempted a journey across the mountains of Nevada, at 10mph in poor ‘ol Sherman. 64 miles later after shooting a metal rod through the hood and unleashing a black mushroom cloud. Likely seen for miles as it puffed into the air. Sherman was killed in action.
Stubborn. Relentless. Desperate, even. With no other plays, we spent the next few hours unloading Sherman and stuffing Ernie. Windows down, sunroof opened, we said farewell to Sherman as we drove away.
Four hours into our solemn drive towards Tahoe we started passing squad cars posted up in the median. One after another. After another. Until the last one pulled out and began to follow us. Hiding in my blind spot, watching us like a hawk watches a mouse. I wasn’t in the mood for a chaperone so I got off the highway at the next exit. I guess that looked suspicious (who makes an exit off a freeway that goes nowhere?) because the cop was just waiting for us back at the ramp.
Nevada’s Biggest Bullies
“You ready to get pulled over?” I asked my Alaskan friend.
Ten feet onto the freeway he decided to come up on me again. I didn’t even wait for his circus lights; just pulled over, forcing him to reverse to get back behind me. I was humble. Legal. Wearing a seat belt. Even had insurance. This was going to be a quick 20-minute inconvenience at most, I thought. Boy was I wrong.
When he came to the passenger window and led with, “I can smell weed. How much have you guys had to smoke today”?
I wasn’t in the fucking mood at all, knowing full well I hadn’t broken the law.
“NO, you don’t!” I shot back, giving up any pretense of politeness.
“I can smell a strong odor of marijuana coming from this car.”
“NO, you don’t. If you had said alcohol you might have had a chance. But we don’t even smoke cigarettes. There’s not even a lighter in this car. The windows & sunroof have been opened for over 300 miles. There is no way you smell weed coming from this car in even the craziest creative stretch of the imagination! Wanna try again?” I rattled back with clandestine rage & obvious annoyance.
“Sir, stay put.”
I was asked to step back to the rear of the vehicle, where I became even more of a smartass when he started asking what I thought were ludicrous questions. Rattling off sarcastic comments to define my level of cooperation & annoyance. In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t the smartest play to antagonize the situation but I just really didn’t care at the moment. There was nothing they could do to me because I had nothing illegal on me or about me.
Eventually, all 15 of them starting rummaging through the car with broken trunk latches & aftermarket toggle switches. Giving us a laugh when Ernie jolted forward almost running over officers. When one of them hit the toggle switch wired to the starter looking for secret drug compartments.
To pass the time, Caz threw rocks at a nearby fence post while I built sand castles alongside the highway. We weren’t nervous or concerned, and they knew it. We took in the setting sun of Nevada they continued rifling through bags. Even turning pockets inside out of our pants, shirts & shorts.
When they found my 3 different state ID’s and asked, “Why I didn’t mention them during the inquiry about my license?”
I simply replied, “Well, moron, it says right next to your thumb those are identification cards not to be used as a driver’s license.”
It took them a quick little huddle to realize I had done nothing wrong, but they continued on with the treasure-less hunt. By this point, they were desperate to vindicate themselves.
And they did. Sort of.
They dug up a glass pipe that had never been used, found inside a bag inside of another bag buried under clothes deep in the trunk with a fishing line and a treble hook attached to it.
The celebrations began.
“See I told you I smelled weed from this vehicle!” the original officer blurted out.
“Oh yeah, you smelled weed from a fishing lure that has no residue on it whatsoever because it’s never been used? Ok, ‘superhero!’ Just ‘cuz you want it to be something doesn’t actually mean it is,” I snapped back with a questioning belittling tone & piercing glare.
This led to another huddle, prompting another officer to chime in.
“This is paraphernalia and a jailable offense here in Nevada. We take Burning Man seriously!” (Did I mention it was 3 days before Burning Man, a “secret” drug-friendly festival that attracts attendees from around the world? A festival that we were quite unaware of at the time.)
“What?! A burning man? I never burnt a man! What are you fucking talking about?” I replied with disdain and flailing arms.
This grabbed the attention of officers still consumed in the engine compartment. Two more officers came rushing over from their squad cars, like a crowd of groupies looking for an autograph. I’d had enough of this circus. It was time to shit or get off the pot so to speak. We stood their bickering back and forth like an umpire and a baseball coach. Threats of jail time were met with threats of fabricating evidence and falsifying reports. Both falling on deaf ears while jousting for control of the situation. Before the finger pointing and character attacks morphed into a situation all of us would have regretted later, a calmer officer separated me from the huddle of hyenas. He could see the anger and pride driving me to let this unfold. I could see he was flustered at the entire situation, and looking for an acceptable “majority rules” solution.
In the end, a deal was struck. They take the pipe I wasn’t aware of, and we clean up their mess. What still amazes me to this day about the fiasco with Nevada’s finest bullies is that in their three hours of combing through the vehicle they never even opened the 3×3 fridge containing a bag of cash sitting in my back seat. To go from the overzealous power tripping authority abusing car raiding hall monitors of Nevada to the hint throwing hippy chick at the agriculture checkpoint on the border of California who didn’t care……was exactly what we needed when exiting Nevada.
Unknowingly more was on the horizon for us, we let a sense of relief creep in as we drove our jalopy around the neighborhoods of million dollar homes on the North side of Lake Tahoe. The GPS tried navigating us to a nearby National Forest campground to call home for the night, but after trespassing across the lawns of the wealthy we came across a sign for this elusive destination; that single-handily shattered our dreams. Overnight parking was prohibited. AS was drinking, camping, and starting fires. So much for our peaceful and relaxing evening. In the end, we stumbled upon a random campground. Fleeing early the next morning, like a regrettable one night stand, before anyone could come to collect fees.
Lake Tahoe & All Its Riddled Glory
At this point, only a single hour of highway stood between us and our Heavenly Ski resort, but I kept mulling through options to rescue Sherman. After spending $4,000 I wanted to live in my RV in Tahoe, and I’ll admit it: I missed the big guy.
Most people at this point would have found the abort button — and rightly so! But I’m not most people. To have any success at a rescue mission we needed a superhero. Digging deep in the memory banks I knew just where to find one.
Off To Rescue Are Beloved RV
Without a physical license, proof of insurance or even a damage deposit at $75/day with unlimited miles. I was now in possession of a 1 ton dually from Home Depot who was about to make a guest star appearance in this ongoing shit show adventure of ours. Armed with a plan, finally, we were heading back into Nevada.
Caz would captain Sherman, and I would tow them with a cheap rope over the mountains of Nevada. Simple enough, and even started out pretty smoothly. Until Sherman’s fat ass started breaking ropes. Then the battery died. Which meant Caz had no power steering, lights or one truly crucial component – BRAKES! Never, dawned on us to jump charge the battery. And instead of dragging Sherman to the next exit so we had comfy beds to sleep in we bought beer and slept in Mr. Home Depot truck. One dumb decision after another was the theme to this reality series.
With a fresh hangover & crink in the neck, our pilgrimage west began again. Never dawned on us to jump charge the battery still, so with no brakes Sherman was like a cannibalistic battering ram slamming into the Home Depot truck every time I let off the gas or down a slope. This was Caz’s braking system to slow his gravity induced downhill roll. Don’t worry I got revenge every time the rope got tight delivering a healthy dose of whiplash to my counterpart. Annoyed with the constant collisions between a deadstick RV & the one-ton we eventually started putting the truck behind Sherman on steep grades. That way the truck could just rappel him down the mountain, no slamming collision required. So much easier than simply charging a battery right?
If that rope had broke I’m not sure what Caz could have done with NO brakes, lights or power steering. Thankfully & finally we made it to Tahoe with only a dented bumper & a seized engine. We returned the superhero back to Home Depot and parked Sherman in a vacant lot behind Whiskey Dick’s for a month. Wasn’t long before we had rats, bums and the police come calling.
One Dumb Decision After Another
Prompting us to find a new permanent residence for good ol’ Sherman. Settling on an abandoned parking lot that was buckling from trees growing through it on the backside of a golf course. We hired the 1 ton for another round and dragged ol’ Sherman from the vacant lot between Whiskey Dick’s and a wedding chapel to his new home on the golf course. When we returned from dropping off the one-ton we arrived to a scene of squad cars, fire trucks and even ambulances. One of the neighbors must have called when we launched our 40-foot battering ram RV across the waffled parking lot breaking off the muffler and holding tanks before crashing into an 8-foot tall ant hill. No way were we going to stop and claim responsibility for the riddle they were trying to solve.
Surrounded by cops, Sherman must have felt abandoned and scared out of his mind, but there was nothing we could do if we wanted to stay out of jail. Circling the area for hours, we waited for an opening to grab our possessions. Around 3 am, with no sign of police, and our chests bursting with adrenaline, we attempted a 2nd rescue mission.
Confident the police were hiding in the bushes, waiting to spring their trap, we crawled across the greens like Navy SEALS on a secret mission. No words were exchanged as we swiftly unloaded our belongings in the dark of night, hiding them under a nearby tree. Before anyone could thwart our mission we retreated back to the car. We crept Ernie down back roads toward our retro fully crippled RV. Making half a dozen laps around the area looking for squad cars (or anything else out of place) before finally agreeing that the coast was clear. In a handful of tense moments, we loaded Ernie to the brim, said farewell to Sherman, and raced out of there like a NASCAR driver at Daytona. Watching Sherman fade into the darkness of our rearview mirror.
Our persistence became a sacrificial offering to the snow gods who dumped copious amounts of light fluffy snow over the next 5 months. Where others might have given up we were just a couple delusional adventure seeking ski bums who found what they were looking for. Tell me about your RV tales in the comments below, send me an email or post a link I would love to read about it.