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Our Cunning Plan

Dave and I have often thought of this adventure as the fruition of a four year old “cunning plan” (Black Adder fans can probably hear Edmund & Baldrick chortling). An elaborate, convoluted, and multi-part scheme that flaunts believability in its potential for success. The plan gets its start in a love story.

Traveling from a west coast duty station to a new job in the east, by chance we passed through Jackson Hole Wyoming, and Grand Teton National Park, and fell in love. For over twenty years, we have been returning, for longer and longer stays, often dragging friends along to introduce them to the home of our hearts.

Four years ago we declared that we *must* find a way to stay here — retirement was coming! After spending an afternoon with a real estate agent and driving around various neighborhoods, we know property is not the answer. On our many visits we have struck up conversations with rangers, concessionaires, and park volunteers. We had the answer all along! In return for working for one of the national parks or approved vendors, employer provided housing is part of the agreement. Reluctant to return to dorm life, an RV is the answer.

Step One. Find an RV. Dave begins the search at the source — because Google Knows All. He breaks out a spreadsheet to compare the top rated RV brands with the best dealers in the country. Airstream lays at that intersection. We visit RV shows and lurk on You Tube channels such as Long Long Honeymoon and AStreamin Life to learn as much as we can. Thinking, rethinking, and re-rethinking. One December evening a fortune cookie at a local restaurant reads “Don’t put off until tomorrow what can be enjoyed today.” It is a sign! Are we going to talk, or do?! By the end of the week we have a brand new tow vehicle — a shiny red pickup truck. Now for the trailer! We attend an Airstream Rally, without a trailer, to test the waters. Before the rally is over, we drive to Canada and buy a one year old, gently used, thirty foot Airstream. This past year we give her a good long test over 9,000 miles and almost 5 months. So far, so good!

Step Two. Get a job. Almost as soon as we return from our Big Trip in December, we begin the back-and-forth process of applying and interviewing for a “Volunteer in the Park” position in Grand Teton National Park. In February we were offered positions and in March, as you know the world froze. Our Airstream was in Canada with our dealer, for a few post-trip improvements. We made a mad dash north, and returned with our home-away-from-home as the borders closed behind us — just in case we can work in the park after all. In early June we get the call — the headquarters staff still needs help to manage the work load of even a partially reopened park.

Seven days to pack, and six days to cross. Without being closer than six feet to anyone. After making masks and scouring stores for hand sanitizer, this trip is more challenging from the unexpected mechanical issues than from the efforts to avoid contact with people. A fleet gas card and towing your own dining hall with facilities makes that part a breeze! Dave recently read a Keep Your Daydream quote to the effect that the RVing lifestyle is really just problem solving in really pretty places. Turns out, it is a more prophetic observation than I could have imagined!

Although we did not know it, the first clue that this would be an unusual trip started about ten miles from home as we merged onto I-80 in Pennsylvania. The Check Engine light came on.

Dave as the driver began scanning the instrument panels for anything out of normal operating parameters. It all looked fine. I dug out the operator manual. To our surprise, check engine on a pickup is worried about emissions. Since the light was not flashing, it was not a crisis. Bad fuel was listed as a possible cause. After three refueling stops and one day, the light went out. Hoorah!

our Harvest Host campsite for the night

For our over night stops, we decided to avail ourselves of a wonderful program called Harvest Hosts. A modest annual membership allows us access to farms, wineries, museums, and other attractions as a place to boondock (camp without power/water/sewer) for one night. It works especially well when you are in travel mode, and not staying to explore an area. Generally, as a guest, we try to avail ourselves of their business. Our first night is a winery in Ohio, and we arrive just as their afternoon concert winds down. Dinner is from the Smashdawg food truck. Normally not a hot dog fan, I find that I quite enjoyed mine buried under crushed pineapple, bacon, and red onion. With a glass of wine of course. Our campsite is in the field, on the edge of the rows of budding grape vines.

On Monday night we stop at another winery on the Indiana / Iowa border. Business is slow and we have the back pergola covered patio to ourselves, but for another couple twenty feet away. Dinner is a wonderful flight of wines and a savory cheese board. It was hard to choose a wine to bring aboard the Airstream, with so many delicious offerings. But we settled on chocolate infused dessert wine. Camp was on the edge of a parking lot under some trees. What it gave up in ambiance it repaid with a level spot and straightforward egress.

Tuesday and Wednesday are the days that just don’t quit throwing things at us. We stop for the night at a campground to take advantage of topping off water and dumping waste tanks. Being Nebraska, we anticipated very flat and level sites. Well, that was not the case here. We could get the trailer on a relatively flat part of the pull-through site, but the truck was at a down angle, which is bad news for our hitch — or at least our current understanding of it. Skipping the engineering discussion, I can tell you I had a heart-stopping moment as Dave started to pull away — the hitch hung up nearly pulling the trailer off the supports. He stopped just in time. Backing up to re-hitch, it almost shoved the trailer off the supports in the other direction!. After two hours of working with the office staff, we finally ended up in a site that was level enough to unhitch. All this trouble was new to us! A lot of the other trailers in this camp were fifth wheels — maybe that configuration is more immune to the conditions we were battling.

As we step through our morning departure checklist, our tire monitoring system alerts us that one of the tires has only sixteen pounds of pressure. It should have 60! The compressor we carry let us fill it up — but as we search for places available to repair the tire, it was clear no one was located close. It appeared to be a problem with the valve stem and not a slow leak. We found a repair person could come to camp, paid for another night per park rules, and moved to yet another (our 4th!) site to wait. Fortunately we had the perfect piece of equipment to facilitate getting the flat up in the air, surprising and impressing the repairman. He replaced the valve, and we were back on the road by 1330.

One exit down the road, and the truck hood pops loose. We are terrified to ask What Next?

truck hood unlatched

The delay in getting on the road means we need to cut the miles short and find a new place to stop for the night. In Dave’s version of heaven, we will spend the night at a rail yard!

You’ll be surprised to know we are camped next to the largest rail yard in the world!

The Golden Spike Tower is a great observation deck for surveying the non stop activity across over 100 tracks. Open air and enclosed platforms are maned with well informed docents, eager to share explanations, facts, and stories about the yard, operations, and crew life.

Multi-mile long trains are pushed up a ramp, called The Hump, where the cars are detached so gravity and switches can guide them to a new track to build a new train. It reminded me a bit of the Japanese marble game of Pachinko.

it was fascinating to watch the sorting procedure — the sorter using a remote control box & joy stick hung at his waist
Union Pacific’s Bailey Rail Yard — trains as far as the eye can see
camped under the observation deck at The Golden Spike
trains to the left of us, corn fields to the right, and storms moving across the plains
Early morning is met with soft fish breezes on our Harvest Host farm

Back on schedule, we stop for the night in eastern Wyoming, at a Harvest Host farm. We have a lovely spot under some shade trees. And old dog that wants to play and beg for rubs and kisses. In the waning light we wander the farm a bit, visit the horses, and speculate on uses for some vintage bits of farm history.

We don’t have the chance to ask our hosts about this wagon, but a quick internet search reveals that this style “gypsy wagon” was used by western sheep herders in Wyoming and Montana beginning about 1884. Apparently folks buy them at ranch and farm sales to refurbish and use as guest rooms, writing caves, or just quiet escapes.

It is our final day of driving! We pass through the Wind River Reservation — gorgeous river as always. One of the compounds (not just a cabin because it also has its own chapel) has a ranch arch over the drive entrance announcing it is the domain of “Papa & Nana,” as opposed to Lazy J or Rocking Z, etc.

fellow Airstreamer east bound in Wyoming

Dubois’ tourist schtick is oversized figures. From jackalopes, to moose, trout, and cattle skulls, sculptors have been imaginative and busy. This fine fellow is showing visitors the proper attire for visiting shops.

Our first glimpse of the Tetons! — It never gets old!

We have arrived at the perfect time of year for wild flowers. The steep hillsides close to the continental divide dazzle with a kaleidoscope of yellow, green, white, and blue flowers. In the shade, snow remains deep in shy drifts.

We stop at the historical site of Cunningham Cabin within Grand Teton National Park for lunch and to make arrangements to meet our new supervisor.

Cunningham Cabin
not a bad view from Cunningham Cabin
ranch horses having a mid-day nibble
Grand Teton peak is a gorgeous backdrop for a few ranch horses

This is the first time I have seen the ranch horses in this area of the park. I could have stayed longer to take advantage of the horses and backdrop, but we have an appointment to keep!

our office for the next few months
a new way of life for everyone

At park headquarters we meet Michelle, our supervisor, and a couple of other folks lending a hand checking in the new volunteers. We will be wearing uniforms modeled after that worn by rangers, but without the iconic flat hat. I have quite a load of laundry to do before our first day on the front desk. The plan for now is that we are there to help the headquarters staff: manning the reception desk, handling mail, running errands, and very importantly managing the Lost & Found by fielding requests, logging items turned in, and hopefully reuniting owners with their lost items.

We will do what we can to make things easier for the rangers, seasonal staff, and volunteers to do their jobs making the park safe and enjoyable for the visitors and wildlife.

For now, we are settling in to camp. We have a wonderful campsite, close to the laundry building.  Slowly we are meeting neighbors: Karen & Walt, the Penn State alumns in the Airstream; Ryan the firefighter and Jennifer who has already seen bear #399; and Meghan from the oil fields working in the custodial department this season.

Tomorrow will be laundry day, as well as heading into town for groceries. Monday is orientation and with luck renting a mail box at the post office in Moose. Tuesday is our first day ‘in the office,’ despite many of the employees teleworking!

There is something to be said for staying in a place longer than for a two week vacation. Some of our favorite memories of the Grand Tetons are more than stunning vistas and improbable encounters with wildlife. We’ve loved getting to know some of the local residents in town from shop keepers to artists and school teachers. Dave and I are both looking forward to giving something back to the park we have loved visiting for so many years, and making friends among our coworkers and fellow campers. And maybe, just a little bit, living like a local.

this male Mountain Bluebird perched over the campsite to watch us set up
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