with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Journal: December 18, 1996 – Friday the 13th The Journey Begins

The following is a draft of chapter one of our book, Home is Where Lorelle Is about what started as a one year life on the road experience that turned into almost 16 years living on the road traveling across the planet.

“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do — especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

Journal: Friday the 13th
Junction City, Oregon
December 18, 1996

From the tightening in his eyes and the droop of his shoulders as he grew smaller in the truck’s side view mirror, I could tell he now knew the truth. We weren’t coming back.

After 18 months of hard work and preparation, we were not coming back. Not for a long time. As I crept further down the street, feeling the weight of the trailer tugging me backwards towards the old man standing in the middle of the road, I tried to resist a last glance behind.

I couldn’t.

The realization hit him hard. My heart broke and hardened as he started to shake, his hand still out stretched where I had grasped it through the open window as the truck rolled past. In the pale winter light of late afternoon, I could see the shine of tears on his face. I wanted to stop, to run back to assure him. Really, you’ll be okay without me. It will be fine. You’ll be fine. You can do this. You don’t need me. You never really needed me.

But I’d be lying. He always needed me, needed someone to be there for him, to be strong for him and against him. To fight for him and against him. I’d been his heroine and mental punching bag for 30 years. I was done.

The stronger side of me won this fight. I kept moving the truck forward, leaning forward with the effort to drag the trailer down the road before me, leaving my father behind me.

I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel. Every moment leading up to this one had been a struggle. Nothing came easy. Even today, everything was just too complicated, too many obstacles thrown in the path of our life on the road. Vowing to leave well before noon, here I was, crawling through the afternoon rush hour traffic of Snohomish County toward Seattle along Interstate 5. One slow moving, giant truck and trailer heading out of town among commuters heading home.

I wasn’t heading home for work. I wasn’t heading home. I was heading for a new life. A life on the road.

December 13, 1996. Friday the thirteenth.

Was this an omen? If I were a superstitious person, I’d be worried about leaving everything I’d ever known and trusted behind forever on such a traditionally ominous day? Is this a sign from the gods that we must be crazy? Or a prophecy predicting that if we could survive hitting the road on a Friday the thirteenth, the rest of the trip would be a breeze?

Little did I realize that the former was our destiny.

The winter evening’s freezing temperatures turned to ice, slowing traffic down even more than I was as I suffered the honks of cars passing the lumbering trailer through my childhood city home of Everett, Washington.

A couple eagles and hawks sat on the top of fence posts along I-5 as it crossed the Slough, the strange mix of salt and mountain fresh water where the Snohomish River system and Port Gardner Bay and the Puget Sound mixed together. In my mind they waved me on my way, already missing me a regular traveler along this street of highway since the 1970s. Normally, the familiar twists and turns and mud flats of the slough along and under the interstate would relax me as I sat in backed up traffic, but the tension was too great, the stress almost unbearable.

This was it. We were finally on the road. A turtle. Home on our backs. The open road.

Damn, this was harder than I thought.

I let the physical and mental strain of driving such a big rig fill my head. I went through the list of things to constantly think about when driving a truck and trailer, as taught to us by an expert truck hauler and RVer.

Don’t think about anything but what you’re doing. Concentrate on the traffic. Think ahead down the road. Be prepared for the lane to end two miles up ahead. Give yourself plenty of time, plenty of room. Find a wide break in the lane next to you. Watch out for the idiot cutting in front. Doesn’t he know that the weight of the trailer behind this truck increases the time to come to a stop. Brent’s not here to do the calculation for the weight plus speed equals stopping distance for me so I just comfort myself with curses under my breath and ease off the gas to let the driver think he’s safe from me. For the moment.

We were ready to leave. Brent and I said our goodbyes over the past year to friends and family. At least I was ready. Brent was still mentally chained to his 8-5 job with Boeing. For four years we’d planned this down to the finest detail, revised the plan, changed details, then changed them some more as we realized we needed more flexibility in our schedule to give us a chance to enjoy the process and not race from place to place across North America for the next year. Our goal was to be in the perfect nature place at the perfect time to photograph the perfect nature scenes. Seasons and nature do not pay attention to maps nor convenience to two 30-somethings traveling around in a 30 foot fifth wheel trailer, maps, cameras, and computers in hand.

At the hardware store, Brent shops for more trailer parts and bits, copyright Lorelle VanFossen 1996No matter how much we’d messed with the schedules, life had other plans. They’d sent the wrong generator and we had to replace it, adding four weeks delay to our schedule. Boeing decided not to agree to a year long sabbatical, so Brent worked up to the last minute to earn extra money, adding more time to the delay. Wiring needed to be done then redone on the generator once it arrived. The truck needed new headers and work on the engine that we hadn’t anticipated, adding another two weeks. The list of delays went on and on. We were now three months late leaving, heading into deep winter along the West Coast of the United States, and winter was definitely not in our original plans or even the revised plans.

Today was our first day on the road full-time, and already we were six hours behind schedule. The traffic building up around me was a clear sign that this number was going to grow.

Flashing lights ahead in the distance brought the traffic to a halt. I stepped on the brakes, feeling the slight thud of the fifth wheel trailer pushing against the hitch in the back of the truck. Nothing to do but wait as the traffic crawled past an accident or whatever drama lay ahead.

In the oncoming dusk, I could see Mt. Pilchuck on my left, its freshly dusted point a ghostly glimmer beyond Cavaleros Hill. Cavaleros is a steep vertical mountain foothill soaring up like a giant wave above the wetlands and flood area of the Snohomish River and Slough. In my mind I follow the raised trestle crossing straight across the green flats where cattle and horses grazed in summer and flood waters filled during most wet winters, slicing straight up to the top of the hill where the first home of my memory still stood, remodeled a dozen times across the decades, a compact three bedroom home built in the 1950s in the boxy shape of most homes of that time period. I swept beyond, up, over, and down to Lake Stevens and Lake Cassidy, the next home of my childhood.

I spent my active youth in the wilderness of the first growth forests, hardwood trees rising up from clear cut areas from the first loggers that sliced and diced up the heavily treed Cascade foothills, sluicing the logs down rivers, streams, and the Slough to Puget Sound, turning Port Gardner Bay into a giant raft. Local folklore tells of loggers walking from the waterfront of Everett or Marysville the four to five miles out to Hat Island across the logs. Hat Island is visible to my right as the truck moves slowly up the hill of the north end of Everett. The highway paralleled Steamboat Slough, along with I passed the remains of the paper mill that polluted the air, water, and ground for decades, but brought jobs and economy vitality to the “Pittsburgh of the West,” which locals called the “City of Smokestacks.” When I mentioned how bad the smell was coming from the mill one day, my college Economics professor slapped his hand on my desk. “That’s the smell of progress!” he shouted at me. “It’s the stink of money and jobs!”

The mills are mostly gone now, found to be environmentally and economically unfriendly to the area, replaced by Boeing as the economic driving force in the area. Gone, too, were the forests I played in, hiking and camping in a real wilderness adventure story filled with frequent encounters with bears, wolves, coyotes, elk, deer, raccoons, and even skunks as my playmates. These vast forests were almost gone, buried under subdivisions, shops, and factories. Clear cuts carve up a quilt in the landscape all the way up Pilchuck Mountain and deep into the North Cascade mountains beyond.

Few people realize they live in an exotic place until a tourist shows up and starts taking pictures of them. I’ve long known that where I grew up is considered exotic and adventurous by many. I lived a rare and special life out in the foothills of the mountains, almost a feral child in many ways, running wild, climbing trees, trudging through swamps, diving into any pool or “crik” of water I could find in the warm summers. Give me some sticks and vines and I could build a pretty impressive shelter or tree house and catch dinner out of the nearby stream once filled with salmon and fresh-water trout. Oh, for the days when we could drink right out of the streams and not worry about what was in it.

The Snohomish Valley is flanked on one side by the majestic Cascade Mountains, and to the west, the dramatic and externally white glacier-coated mountains of the Olympics on the Washington state peninsula across the salt waters of Port Gardener Bay and Puget Sound. To the north is Mt. Baker close to the Canada border, a sleeping bear coated in snow year around. To the south, my favorite mountain in the world, Rainier, the ice cream cone that towers over downtown Seattle, another sleeping volcano. Past the well-lit port city of Everett, I could just make out the lights of a huge car ferry crossing Port Garden Bay towards Clinton on Whidbey Island. It was leaving Mukilteo, the Indian word for “happy camping ground”, where I spent my teenage years living on and in the cold waters of Puget Sound.

A childhood in the mountains, my teen years on the sea, thirty minutes apart, and the balance of my life in between the ancient volcanoes and mountains. Ups and downs. Highs and lows. Altitude and attitude. In the Pacific Northwest, ear-popping excursions are a part of everyday life, passing from sea level to eternally glacier covered mountains within a couple of hours. It seemed like my life had been ruled by snow reports on the mountains’ conditions (passable – not passable) and the rise and fall of the sea’s tides. Rain was just a part of our daily forecast, so it rarely impacted my life. It was expected.

As the traffic started to crawl forward again, I realized I was leaving more than my life behind, a part of me, I was also leaving my history.

My relatives had come to these mountains to work in the logging and fishing camps of Washington and Oregon. One grandfather had served in the military between World Wars one and two, eventually joining what would become the US Coast Guard. His son, my father, grew up in a light house in Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands. My great grandfather and grandfather were buried in the cemetery I would pass in a few minutes, Evergreen, an appropriate name for the lovely green, tree-shaded graveyard on the hillside of Everett over looking the Slough and the Cascade foothills to the east toward the old town of Monroe south of Cavaleros Hill, the resting place for the other side of my family, my mother’s mother and father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and many other relatives from her side of the family resting in the old cemetery. Most of these were born in Wisconsin, trading the misery of the Great Depression for hope in the logging, fishing and shipping and shipbuilding industries in the Seattle area. One member of that family married into the Chief Seattle family line, mixing our blood with the regions most prominent Native Americans. My family helped to create Snohomish County in many ways, molding the area with their jobs, lives, and families.

Torn between two cemeteries, a question that has plagued me most of my life is where will my remains be set? Everett’s Evergreen Cemetery or Monroe’s I.O.O.F historical cemetery. Park my ashes next to my mother’s family or my father’s? They’ve been divorced since I was twelve and even in death I imagine the two squabbling over my remains. Maybe I should make that decision sooner than later, I wonder, as I watch a line of traffic in the side view mirror behind me and the traffic backed up by the traffic accident ahead.

To my right, I just passed the bulky silhouette of General Hospital, the birth place of my father and caretaker of many childhood ills and traumas, as well as regular dramas with my father.

In a recent trip to the emergency room, my father took a long time to regain coherency and his speaking ability after another of his “spells.” The nurse checking him in for a few days stay to recover asked questions to test his mental state. Having been through this silly routine dozens of times, my father and I had a comedy routine for the stupid questions.

“Mr. West, do you know your name?”

My father and I rolled our eyes in unison. “Harargh Est.”

“What?” She turned to me. “I don’t understand.”

“Howard West.”

“Ah, yes, it says that on the chart here. Good. Now, Mr. West, do you know where you are?”

“Argh ah burned.”

“Mr. West, I don’t understand you. Could you repeat that?” She looked at me. My father pointed at me as well and made a grunting noise.

“He said, ‘Where I was born.’”

“So he’s confused. He clearly doesn’t know where he is. Hmmm.” She started to make a note on the form. I put my hand out to stop her.

“He knows exactly where he is. He was born in this hospital almost 70 years ago.”

“Oh my! I didn’t know the hospital even existed back then.” My father rolled his eyes again, a bit of drool slipping out of his mouth. I pulled a tissue from my pocket.

“Mr. West, are you having any pain? Can you tell me where your pain is?”

The beached whale that was my father swung his hand out from under the pale blue sheets of the hospital bed, waving in my direction with more grunting noises. I leaned forward and wiped the saliva off his face.

“I don’t understand. Where is your pain?”

I sighed. My father and I had this routine down pat, as good as any Abbott and Costello routine. This was his moment to shine, but his temporarily impaired speech took the line away from him. It was my turn for the delivery.

“Me. He said it’s me. I’m the pain in his ass.”

The poor nurse practically choked and my father chortled himself into a coughing fit.

I am a well-trained daughter.

Up the hill to the right, across the city and a mile before the cemetery, my mother’s house stood, a peach colored tribute to modern architecture, featured in local magazines and newspapers for innovative interior design and architecture. How far she had come from a one room shack in the foothills below Mt. Pilchuck in the small town of Sunnyside, now incorporated into Marysville and lost to time and memory.

Right now my mother was packing. I’d called her before I left and reassured her again that we would make it to Tulsa by the time she arrived to join us for Christmas. She’d booked the flight months ago, long before all our delays, and now we had 10 days to drive 2,500 miles. Brent calculated that we needed to average 275 miles a day to meet her flight. We’d have to average 45 mph with this big rig driving a minimum of six hours a day, probably more, but we’d make it, hell or high water. Or snow, I thought as I watched a flake melt on the windshield. At the rate I was traveling, this would be another number that would need to be stretched across time.

The fog of memories dropped down on me faster than the cold night. I pushed through them and the dusk as the dense traffic finally eased as I passed the exit for the Boeing Highway, the route my husband took daily to work – no more a part of his life. He was my next destination, waiting for me with friends in Bothell, having driven my antique jeep there a few hours before. We were going to leave the Jeep with our friends to sell or repair, the last thing to deal with from our former life.

As the truck lugged the trailer up the hill towards their home, engine straining, Toshi snuggled up even closer to my side, burrowing in for warmth. The heater was on full but I appreciated needed his furry security as I debated the wisdom of making this steep incline. I knew we were overloaded, carrying a few bits of our furniture for family to store in Oklahoma. It had to make it. This steep hill was a good test to see if the truck and trailer had what it took to literally make the grade with the new improvements to the engine. It had to make it. I needed to pick up my best friend and get on the road to our new life. I was ready to sail on the highway of life. Cruise the scenic byways of North America. This one last thing and the road was ours.

It was time. Sure, we could have waited another few months for Spring and clearer roads and better weather conditions, but we were expected for Christmas with Brent’s family in Tulsa – and my mother’s arrival. A decision had to be made and I was the decider. I needed to get away from everything we’d said goodbye to repeatedly over the past six months of goodbyes. I was tired of the goodbyes. I wanted the hellos of the new life and new adventures before us.

As I turned into the dark street towards my friend’s home, I started to doubt my decision, reconsidering as the creaks and groans as the trailer strained the truck’s engines. The black ice I knew was out there threatened to stop our trip before we even got started. Do. Not do. Go. Not go. High. Low. Up. Down. A lifetime of choosing between extremes.

The lights were on in the front of the house. The truck and trailer shuttered to a stop blocking their driveway, and the neighbor’s driveway, gravel slipping slightly under the tires.

“You made it!” Brent shouted from the top of the driveway and raced to me as I slid out of the truck. He wrapped his arms around me. “I’m so glad you are here.”

I leaned into him with relief, the first moment of comfort all day. I wanted to crawl inside his skin, wrapped in his blanket of security.

The moment had come. It was now time to do the real leaving.

The Boyetts had been a part of our dream since its inception. As best friends and long time RVers, they’d guided and chided us along the journey to this moment. We’d talked and talked about hitting the road full-time, but it wasn’t until Jo kicked my proverbial butt to quit talking and finally start shopping that we found the truck and trailer behind us. The two of them pitched in through packing, sorting, garage sales, moving, more packing, more garage sales, even more packing, setting up the trailer, rebuilding the trailer, and all the details that brought us to this moment, standing in front of them, hugging them goodbye. Leaving them was harder than leaving family – they were family!

We made the goodbyes fast as night was upon us and the road beckoned.

On the Road: The Adventures Begins

Garage sale outside of our trailer in my father's front yard in Marysville, 1996 - copyright Lorelle VanFossenOur plan was simple. Or so we thought.

Leaving my father’s driveway, our residence for the past year, with a quick stop at Jo and Al’s, our plan was to head south down Interstate 5 to Camping World, a huge recreational vehicle store in Fife, near Tacoma. We would spend the night in the large parking lot, provided for such use, wake up early, pick up some much needed items for our trip, then drag the trailer back onto the interstate towards California. We predicated that the Siskiyou Mountains and Interstate 5 would be traveled enough to be safe for crossing now before the heavy snows of January arrived. We’d pass through California to Interstate 40, turning east toward Oklahoma, arriving a few days before my mother was to fly in from Seattle to spend Christmas with us and Brent’s family in Tulsa.

After the holidays, our plans took us to southern Texas for a nature photography conference in January, then onto Florida for the spring bird migration. From there it was a little fuzzy, but the plan is to spend the last part of the spring in Arizona then head back through Oklahoma to prepare for the summer traveling north to Alaska. Fall would bring us back down as the north froze to spend another Christmas with family in Oklahoma, and then…well, that would bring us to an end a year on the road. We’d only planned that far.

We’d charted our course in our new trailer parked outside my dad’s home, often working on it late into the night. We’d budgeted for gas, food, and emergencies, hoping to stretch the trip into the next year, exploring along the eastern seaboard and north into a part of Canada we’d never explored, maybe even up to Hudson Bay, or even further north? If money held, we could go anywhere and stay as long as we wanted.

For right now, Camping World was enough of a destination, and we were already behind schedule.

Leaving the Boyetts, traffic was light as we passed through Seattle towards Tacoma. That didn’t mean that the traveling was any easier.

Brent had taken over the driving and it was his turn to finally feel the weight of the trailer behind us. It’s a novel experience to be driving a one ton crew cab dually wheeled truck and over 12,000 pounds of 30 foot fifth wheel trailer behind you. Every change of lanes brought anxiety. Was the lane next to us really free of traffic? Did we have enough room to move over? Were we too close to the car in front of us? Did we have enough room to stop in time? Many drivers were frustrated with our lack of get up and go so they would dart in front of us, racing across our path, probably thinking they were getting out of our way but causing us no end of adrenaline rush for fear they wouldn’t make it out of our way in time or that they would slow down or stop without giving us time to do the same. Those caught in traffic with us often blamed us for the traffic, honking and waving their hands with rude gestures. By the time we arrived in Tacoma, our shoulders were up around our ears and poor Toshi was nervously pacing the stacks of stuff in the back seat.

Arriving at the store, we pulled into the long slots provided for RVs and slid out of the truck with relief. Our first place to call home for the night. Our first destination accomplished. We were now officially RVers, transients, living on the road.

Brent carried the wired black fuzz ball to the trailer. Toshi skipped the cat box and climbed right under the covers of the bed. Brent and I followed, completely exhausted. I don’t even think we remembered to brush our teeth, we were so weary.

Travel scorecard for day one? We’d traveled two hours and 60 miles from Marysville. If this was what life on the road was going to be like, it was going to be a long road.

Our First Full Day on the Road

We awoke early the next morning, long before the store opened. With quick showers in the trailer, we were refreshed and ready to start our life on the road.

I loved the thought of carrying your bathroom with you when you go. We were still “home.” I slept in “my” bed with husband and cat, got clothes from “my” closet, sat on “my” toilet, showered in “my” shower, and ate from “my” refrigerator. It wasn’t until we opened the door that we reality hit. While we were in our home, our home wasn’t “at home.” It’s a little Dorothy and Toto in the Wizard of Oz landing in Oz experience to open your door to find it has traveled over the rainbow. My home, different address.

We decided to unhook the truck from the trailer and drive the truck to find breakfast, celebrating our first day away from home. I put the locks on the trailer tires while Brent prepared the trailer to disconnect from the fifth wheel hitch in the back of the truck bed. He flick the electric switch for the trailer front legs to descend and support the front of the trailer. One did. The other didn’t.

This was a bit of a problem. The trailer couldn’t stand on three legs very long, especially overloaded.

“Just a small glitch,” Brent assured me, though he was really talking to himself. He bent down and wedged himself between the truck and trailer to start investigating.

A fifth wheel trailer is shaped like an “L” tipped over ninety degrees. Wheels support the bottom part of the letter and the legs descend from the top of the letter’s front edge to keep it level. The narrow length represents our bedroom, the part of the trailer that extends over the back of the truck when hitched. With about 18 inches distance between the back of the truck and the trailer’s lower front side, Brent managed to open the storage compartment there where the generator is installed and the guts of the trailer leg motor, leaning in backwards and twisting up inside the compartment.

Nothing. Everything looked fine. He checked the batteries, the wires, everything, but couldn’t tell what was preventing the leg from dropping. After an hour of poking and prodding, my stomach growling, his body a contorted pretzel in the small area, he decided the problem was the switch. Camping World was just opening so off I went to get a new switch and pick up the odds and ends we needed for the trip.

An hour later, the new switch made no difference. The truck was still attached and the trailer stood on three legs, mocking us.

Brent is an engineer, structural and electrical. He attacks every problem like an engineer, methodically inspecting and testing each piece and part. Such inspections are not on the clock. They take ages as he must thoroughly diagnose the problem.

I couldn’t go in the trailer as it shook too much from my movement. I sat in the truck for a while and read, finishing several magazines I’d brought to keep me busy for weeks of driving. I’d taken Toshi for a walk, attracting the normal stares by people unfamiliar with a cat on a leash. There was little I could do but watch and be supportive, and keep shopping at Camping World.

Crap! I realized that in the confusion of leaving home yesterday, I’d forgotten to give a large plastic cargo box to Jo and Al. It was still sitting on the roof of our truck. They wanted it and we didn’t really need it. It’d been overlooked in the fuss of the night before. Well, maybe we got stuck here for a reason.

Since Brent now had most of the gears disassembled in the leg housing, it looked like we were going to be here a while longer.

I called Al from a pay phone outside of Camping World. He laughed when he heard my voice. “Where are you now?”

“An hour and half from home. We’re at Camping World.” His laugh nearly broke my ear drum.

He agreed to come down that afternoon and pick up the box. “You’ll still be there?”

“We’e going no where fast,” I assured him, describing our inability to separate the truck from the trailer.

By lunch, I had exhausted myself wandering the aisles of Camping World, once a magical haven for RVers, campers, and me to explore, playing with all the gadgets and gizmos available today to help us survive in the wilderness with ease. Now, it was boring. I’d seen it all in the first two hours.

Brent was still pretzeling himself in the generator compartment with no success. I urged him out with a bribe of lunch. We unhooked our new bicycles off the back of the trailer and rode to a nearby fast food joint for some much needed food.

We tried to sound positive as we munched away at our burgers, pushing it hard to reassure each other with fake enthusiasm. It was our first full day on the road of our exciting adventure living full-time on the road, and we were stuck in the parking lot at Camping World. Not much you can do with that one.

After more time spent fiddling with the mechanism, Brent decided to just replace the leg motor, an expensive alternative. We didn’t know what else to do. By the time he changed the motor and got the trailer legs working, evening was upon us. Al showed up with hugs and laughter at our predicament. Less than 24 hours away from our friend, it was wonderful to see him. He laughed with us about our problems, understanding completely. He’d been through this plenty of times. We loaded up the box into his vehicle and said our goodbyes one more time.

We put the tools away and once again crawled into “our” bed after visiting “our” bathroom now standing outside of Camping World in Fife, Washington.

Where would be sleeping tomorrow night, I wondered?

Tomorrow, we would hit the road, finally off on our adventure of living on the road.

Revised August 19, 2013

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