Why I’m sleeping on top of a Jeep in Wyoming

“Was your Dad going to hike the CDT this year, if not for the pandemic?”

This is what Stephanie asked me, innocently enough, after dinner on June 10th. Whatever prompted her question is lost to everything that came after, but this is where the story begins for me.

I wasn’t sure. But it made me wonder whether his having a hiking partner might be a motivator. I was near the end of my monthslong landscaping projects, and this seemed like a good alternative to finding a job.

So I texted him the idea and he seemed intrigued. But the following night we spoke on the phone and he decided that the risk of contracting the coronavirus (at his age) was just too great. So no hike. At the time I was secretly relieved because when I first proposed the idea, I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around the reality of leaving Stephanie for months at a time, of forsaking the comfort of our backyard gardens and nightly barbecues and dips in the pool.

But the next day Stephanie and I went for a hike, and a variation on the idea popped into my head. On the phone, Dad had seemed concerned about how he and I would get to and from the trail (particularly at the beginning and end, but also in between) without taking some form of public transit (i.e., trains, planes, buses, and hitches) with their requisite risk of exposure. So I thought why not just rent an RV? Instead of hiking with him, I’d be his mobile hotel room and resupply depot, all wrapped into one. So I called him again. He wasn’t enthused about the RV part (because he wouldn’t really appreciate the “hotel room” luxury, day-to-day) but wondered instead whether I might be willing to transform our Jeep into a vehicle that would serve the same purpose. It took a moment for me to alter the mental image I had proposed, but I could clearly see how our Jeep would be a far better vehicle than an RV for reaching him at remote points along the trail.

So we’d arrived at an idea that neither of us could find an obvious or immediate flaw with. However there’s another key ingredient to this whole endeavor that cannot be understated: Stephanie’s support. The idea of my leaving her for so many weeks had also come as a shock, but as she was beginning to anticipate her upcoming physical therapy clinical internship, the idea of my absence started to look like a blessing in disguise. It would give her the space to process the intense 9-week experience without also juggling the quotidian demands and distractions of living with someone. And so she not only accepted the idea, she strongly encouraged it. In fact it was Stephanie who dictated the start of the trip. Her clinicals were set to begin on Monday, July 6th, so regardless of when Dad and I began our CDT adventure, I had to leave Fresno by Sunday, July 5th, so that the emotional stress of my departure would not overlap with the anxiety of her first few days (not to mention the potential for Covid cross-contamination).

The speed with which we went from idea to implementation was head-spinning. By June 14th I had sketched out a plan for getting from Fresno to Austin to Wyoming (where Dad wanted to start hiking), as well as a revised resupply schedule based on his original 2016 plans. By June 16th, we were effectively committed, and given my departure date, I had only 3 weeks to prepare. I didn’t have any time to hyperoptimize, I only had time to act. The text message record between me and Dad during that time makes for pretty exhilarating reading. The following paragraph is a summary of what transpired.

During the first week, I ordered a 35L Dometic Cooler/Fridge as well as their 40Ah Portable Lithium Battery, inspired by The Ultimate Overland Solar-Power Setup. I ordered an Autohome Columbus Variant rooftop tent, size small, which Stephanie and I were able to pick up in Santa Cruz on June 18th. I ordered two 5-gallon/20-liter military-spec jerry cans for water storage, as well as enough Aquamira to treat 60 gallons of water, if necessary. We needed to keep our various electronic devices charged (smartphones, inReaches, portable batteries, and my laptop), so I got various adapters and cables for those. I ordered a 30-foot tow strap from Factor 55 in case I got stuck, someone else got stuck, or I had to move a tree off of a road to get through. I remember how euphoric chairs felt after several days of backpacking on the Arizona Trail, so I ordered two REI Camp X Chairs and a GSI Camp Table. I wanted to be able to cook fresh, non-dehydrated meals for myself and for Dad when we met up, so I got a single-burner Coleman propane stove to use with an 11″ cast-iron griddle. I should mention that in the middle of all this, my brother, whose original wedding in April was canceled due to the pandemic, was married to Lizette in a small ceremony in Austin on June 20th, which sadly I was not able to attend. By week 2, I started to build a cabinet for the back of the Jeep to organize the space to accommodate some plastic bin “drawers”, the fridge, and additional bins for all of Dad’s resupply food and replacement gear. I ordered a 100-watt solar panel from Renogy to mount on the rooftop tent, but accidentally ordered a solar extension cable that was too short, so I had to order another at a time when many sources would not have stock until after my departure. It was going to be a nail-biter. I built a solar shower out of 4″ PVC pipe, a project which took an entire day just to track down all the various fittings I needed. But by the end of the second week, the cabinet was finished and the solar shower was built, painted black, and mounted on the Jeep with custom fabricated brackets. It wasn’t until the 3rd week that I mounted the solar panel on top of the rooftop tent (using 3M’s VHB double-sided tape and corrugated plastic) and then mounted the rooftop tent on top of the Jeep with the help of a neighbor to hoist it up. I got a 2-gallon bucket and plunger to use as our washing machine, and I created custom sunshades out of Reflectix, corrugated plastic, and Scotch’s Extremely Strong Fasteners for the Jeep’s tailgate and rear side windows. Finally on July 2nd, the new, longer solar extension cable arrived. I had to manually add an Anderson Connector to plug it into the Dometic battery, and then I was able to confirm for the first time that the solar panel to battery to fridge setup worked—3 days before departure!

Cabinet with plastic bin drawers, cooler, and additional plastic bin storage
Cabinet with plastic bin drawers, cooler, and additional plastic bin storage
Platform with additional plastic bin storage and one of the jerry cans
Platform with additional plastic bin storage and one of the jerry cans

During all this, Dad focused on training hikes, backpacking gear, and meetup/resupply logistics. The latter of which required a complete rethinking of the standard thru-hiking cadence he had developed on the PCT in 2014 and the AT in 2019. Normally, resupplies occur every 4-6 days, and require getting to a town or post office, sometimes at great distance via a serendipitous hitch, or worse, a long road-walk. Instead of traditional in-town stops, I’d be bringing the resupply to him, which meant we needed to plot out points along the trail that I could reach via Jeep. Based on an analysis of access points thanks to the CDT Coalition’s Interactive Map, combined with his projected average of hiking 15 miles-per-day, he created a plan where we’d meet up every 2-3 days, or every 30-45 trail miles, starting at South Pass, WY (because it’s a relatively flat/gradual stretch while he regains his trail legs) and heading southbound to a remote spring south of Cuba, NM (because that’s where he got off trail due to illness in 2016 after hiking northbound from the Mexican border) for a total of 1,104.9 miles over 74 days.

Rooftop tent and solar shower mounted
Almost ready to hit the road

On Sunday, July 5th, I left Fresno and made it to Blythe, CA, just before the Arizona border, when the Jeep’s radiator effectively “exploded”. I spent the night in a truck stop parking lot, and the next morning took the Jeep to a mechanic who replaced the radiator. I got back on the road, stopped to pee after an hour, and discovered that the Jeep was still leaking copious amounts of coolant. So I drove another hour to the closest Jeep dealer in Phoenix, and they determined that I’d need to leave the Jeep with them overnight so they could further replace the water pump and thermostat. So much for avoiding unnecessary exposure during my trip to Austin! The next morning they ran into trouble reassembling the whole shebang, and during their second attempt, punctured the brand new radiator. So much for getting to Austin in 3 days! They replaced the radiator at no charge, and finally I was back on the road, making it to Lordsburg, NM that evening, still 11 hours from Austin, but without leaking a drop of coolant. Though I’d only planned to drive about 8 hours a day, there was no sense in camping 3 hours from a bed, so the next day I pushed on and made it to my parent’s house a little after 10pm on July 8th.

Setting up for the evening at a rest stop in Lordsburg, NM
Setting up for the evening at a rest stop in Lordsburg, NM

Dad and I spent the next two days in Austin pulling together all the things we needed for the trip to Wyoming and beyond, and then trying to pack it all into the bins I brought. Miraculously everything fit, with pockets of room to spare. On July 11th, we departed Austin, planning to stop just over 9 hours north at a campground in the Rita Blanca National Grassland. We made it, and made dinner, and everything was going swimmingly until a violent thunderstorm came through. We took shelter in the Jeep while it blew over, but the lingering gusts of wind were too much for Dad’s tent, so he opted to cowboy camp with the Jeep as a windbreak. He didn’t sleep well. Though we’d originally planned to break the trip into two-and-a-half driving days, with just over 10 hours to South Pass, WY, we decided to complete the trip in two days.

Cheers in Rita Blanca National Grassland
Cheers in Rita Blanca National Grassland (before the storm hit)

The start of the hike was simply a point where the CDT crossed WY-28, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so I just pulled off the highway when we arrived, and began to make camp and prep for Dad’s departure the next morning, Monday, July 13th. We said our goodbyes that night as he planned to take off sometime around 5am. That night it got very cold, and I didn’t have my sleeping bag in the rooftop tent, so consequently I didn’t sleep well. I heard Dad stirring the next morning, but I just tried to get back to sleep. When I got up about an hour later, I stayed in the tent, sipping my tea and plotting out what I’d be doing before we met up in 3 days. Around 9am I heard footsteps coming from the north, and started to get out of the tent to say hi when I heard Dad call out my name. He had accidentally hiked northbound for 5 miles before realizing he was going the wrong direction. Which meant he’d already hiked a staggering 10 miles over 4 hours that morning without making any forward progress on the day’s 15-mile goal. The night before, exhausted by the drive, and our various chores, neither of us had confirmed which way he was supposed to head out in the morning. He was kicking himself, but at the same time, relieved that I was still there, so he could gulp down 2 cold sodas. Then I accompanied him for a few hundred feet, southbound, and he was off.

Dad, now Tartan, departs South Pass, heading southbound
Dad, now “Tartan”, departs South Pass, heading southbound

5 Comments

Kathleen Watt

Even having lived a bit of this with you, it still is an amazing start to this venture!

Claudine

Wow. What a crazy start to adventure! Sounds on-brand for 2020, though…

Cassidy

Really quite incredible! Love your blog and wishing you Both all the best. Can’t wait to read updates.

steven

dude, what an gnarly start! cheers to some new guts inside la jeep, and to your dads southbound adventure!

Mike

Whoa! What a start to this adventure! I guess one bright side of the Jeep breaking down early is that you weren’t in the middle of nowhere…looking forward to more updates!

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