Archive for July 2013

Lightening the Load

We had a fairly short yet incredibly beautiful drive down from our bush camp in Bighorn National Forest to the sleepy town of Worland, Wyoming, where we’d arranged to meet Witt’s parents (Henry and Kathy) for the great “unloading” of our bicycles and related gear.  The morning (at over ~8000 ft elevation) was crisp and cold.  By the time we arrived in Worland it was almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit!

We weren’t expecting to see Henry and Kathy until later in the afternoon as they had quite a distance to drive, so you can imagine our excitement when we learned that Worland has a brand-new, state-of-the-art aquatics center!  For a sum of $12 the three of us got the privilege of playing and cooling off in one of the best pool areas that we’ve ever seen!  It had a huge slide, excellent kids pool, a lap pool, diving area, hot tub and even an outdoor splash park.  It was wonderful and we were in heaven!

We met up with Henry and Kathy at the Comfort Inn and soon after our happy greetings were exchanged we headed our for dinner on the town.  There weren’t exactly an abundance of dining options but the receptionist at the hotel had recommended a place called Rumors, so that’s where we went.  The decor was a little dated, but they had a respectable selection of microbrews on tap and that tied us over nicely until our dinner arrived.

After dinner we transferred our bikes, racks, helmets, shoes, tools, plus a bunch of other odds and ends from the Sparksmobile to Henry & Kathy’s Jeep Cherokee while Quinn rode his bike around the hotel parking lot. We topped off the evening by doing a load of laundry and then we all snuggled into our beds in the hotel room that Witt’s folks graciously shared with us.

In the morning we shared breakfast together at the hotel, and then parted ways — Henry and Kathy were on the hunt for a coffee shop and we were headed to Yellowstone!

As we headed out of town, we could already tell the difference the lighter load made in the van’s performance.  There was much less roll back and forth on curves and turns and the suspension handled the bumps in the road much better than before.  We immediately felt assured that unloading the bikes was the right decision.  Thank you Henry and Kathy!!

We drove north to Cody and then decided to head for the northeastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park in an effort to avoid the weekend crowds.  The scenery along the way was positively breathtaking and well worth the detour.

Since the campsites were full by the time we arrived we opted to camp in a National Forest campground just outside the park (and on the edge of Montana).  Bear warnings were everywhere but fortunately we didn’t see any while camping.  We even tempted fate a bit by cooking our salmon dinner over our campfire.  It was a beautiful and quiet campsite!

Today we drove back into the park and saw lots of bison, elk, pronghorn and osprey along the way.  We even arrived early enough at Mammoth Hot Springs to secure a campsite for the night.  We took a short hike to a waterfall together and then spent the afternoon lazing by a stream while Quinn playing in the water.


Mmmm. Lunch!





Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming

What a difference a few days make! We are on the way to getting some fixes together for each of the various issues that have risen with our camping set-up.

Yesterday the fantastically friendly and capable folks at the McKie Ford dealership in Rapid City, SD, replaced the motor in our passenger window and one hour later we were on our way!


Devil’s tower national monument

We have not been able to get our expensive diesel stove to work correctly. Since we’ve been told that the only people that could fix it properly are either in Germany or in Northern California, we made decision to just buy a propane camping stove to tide us over until later this year when we plan to drive through Northern California on our way to Mexico.

It’s true that the manufacturers don’t recommend using propane inside of a camper, but since just about every RV has a propane stove in it, we believe that it comes down to having proper venting. Our precautions are to open lots of windows, turn on our Fantastic Fan ventilation system, and make sure that our carbon monoxide detector is working.


The $100 solution

Tomorrow we are meeting up with Witt’s parents to offload our bikes and related gear. We figure that will reduce our load by about 100 lbs (most of which is stored higher the center of gravity of our van) so we expect that’ll get us closer to the max gross vehicle weight (GVW) and maybe we’ll see an improvement in gas mileage too!

We will be sad to lose the use of our bikes, but when we take all factors into consideration (including what a pain it is to open the back of the van when we have our bikes on the rack) we know that it’s the right decision.

So we now have a fix (or workaround) for all of our current van issues. We also have a plan for bug screens for our side and back doors. We have some of the materials already and Witt’s parents are bringing up some more for us (via stops at Hobby Lobby and the Bass Pro Shop).

Our next stop: Yellowstone National Park!


The first bush camp of our trip


Our campsite was filled with these wild lupines









I love bush camping!!


Ironing out the glitches

We’ve always known that this first leg of our trip would serve as a shakedown of our van set-up and all of it’s fancy systems. In fact, it is turning it to be exactly that already.

The shakedown has already involved some tweaks to the way our stuff is organized in the van. While much can be planned in advance, sometimes it takes nothing short of actually to living in your vehicle on a daily basis to realize which items need to be more accessible and others less so.

In addition to these kinds of minor adjustments, we have come across some larger issues that need to be addressed before we head further north. The first is that our expensive, diesel cooktop doesn’t work on a consistent basis. We’ve now tested it in various conditions and it’s really only worked once or twice (and even then not all that well).

Witt has been pouring over the user manual and communicating with several experts trying to figure out what the issue is and how to fix it. Fortunately we also have our hardy dual-fuel stove with us — the one that reliably cooked our meals during our Africa trip — so we haven’t gone hungry. But having already dealt with some stormy nights, we can see that having an indoor option is not something we can do without for long.

So Witt spent the morning re-routing the exhaust and venting for the stove, while parked in a parking garage in downtown Rapid City. On first testing, it seems to be working better – but we’ve thought that before! Only actually cooking a meal will prove it out. Wish us luck!

The second issue is that the passenger-side window motor appears to be on its way out. It’s been struggling for a few days and yesterday we almost weren’t able to get the window all the way back up. This is reminiscent of our Africa trip where our crank-driven passenger window broke in Mali and again in Angola, both times requiring some wrangling so I would have the ability to open my window (which when you don’t have air-conditioning — which we didn’t then — is a big deal).

We took the Sparksmobile to a local Ford dealership to have the window looked at. It’s definitely the window motor and they definitely didn’t have a replacement in stock anywhere in the area. So after spending a nice night near Lake Sheridan, we are now back at the Ford dealership waiting for the window motor to be replaced.

Another issue is that we’ve come to the conclusion that bringing our three bikes (and the supporting gear for them) along with us is proving to be more of a nuisance than a benefit. After some consideration of the prospect of either paying exorbitant fees to ship the bikes, racks, helmets, and tools back to Colorado or driving back to Colorado to drop all that gear off (and risk being late for our first volunteer job), we managed to convince Witt’s wonderful parents to meet up with us in a few days so they can take our bikes and gear back for us. Hip, hip hooray!

Rapid City, South Dakota

The last few days have been fun-filled and exciting for us! For starters, we met up with our Swiss friend, Urs, at a campsite in Badlands National Park.

Here’s some history and background: We’d originally met Urs in March 2004 in Libreville, Gabon, along with Elza, Krissy, Slade, and Vicky — all of whom we had the great pleasure of traveling with for several months through the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Namibia. The last time that we saw Urs was near Lusaka, Namibia, in October 2004 and he has been traveling (mostly) continuously since then. His trusty overland vehicle, a blue Pinzgauer (“The Pinzy”) is currently resting in Cambodia during Urs’ short jaunt to the States.

Urs and Elza in the Pinzy in Gabon way back in 2004

Urs and Elza in the Pinzy in Gabon way back in 2004

Urs, Jen, Witt and Quinn 8 years later

Urs, Jen, Witt and Quinn 8 years later







This meet-up was the reason that we’d taken the detour to South Dakota — and we are very glad we did! We had a blast catching up on the past ~9 years of our lives (and introducing Urs to Quinn!) and Badlands served as a beautiful backdrop for our animated conversations. We even got to see an impressive fireworks display for the local 4th of July celebration!

We also met a German family at the same campground — Tanja and Max along with their 2 small children, Carla (3) and Robert (18 months). We shared a really great hike with them and the kids had a great time playing together. Amazingly, they are also on a trip of the Americas so we shared contact info with them and hope to meet up with them again soon.

After we said farewell to our friends, we headed for the Black Hills area of South Dakota. Yesterday we visited the South Dakota State Railroad Museum and took a round-trip steam train ride between Hill City and Keystone. Today we rented a tag-a-long bike for Quinn and went for a fantastic bike ride together on the Mickelson bike trail. Tonight we splurged (using Witt’s frequent-stay points) on a hotel that has an amazing water-park adjacent to it. We are having a blast!


Rain clouds on the horizon in Badlands National Park

Western meadowlark in Badlands

Western meadowlark in Badlands

Model train exhibit at the Hill City railroad museum

Model train exhibit at the Hill City railroad museum

More pictures…

Near Hot Springs, South Dakota

We’ve been on the move! After 2 nights of R&R (and many yummy home cooked meals) staying in Salida, CO, with Q’s grandparents (thank you, Henry & Kathy!) we drove north toward Summit County so we could see some of our mountain friends.

We camped in our friends’ driveways, ate their food and drank their libations (thank you David, Beth, Ed and Annette!). After briefly considering what it would be like to spend some extended amount of time mooching off each of our friends in succession until we wore out our welcome, we decided it was time to say farewell and officially begin our trip.

To be fair, we were also motivated by our new travel health insurance that only covers us if we are at least 100 miles from our home address. If that doesn’t give someone a kick in the you-know-what to get along with things, well then maybe nothing ever would.

So yesterday we drove to Laramie, WY, and camped in Medicine Bow National Forest. It was a really nice and quiet campsite, especially considering it was just a mile or two off the highway near the highest point (elevation-wise) on I-80.

Witt, Jen and Quinn sitting on a picnic table Camping in Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming

This morning we hung out at our campground for most of the morning. Witt went for a bike ride and then I participated in a teleconference for our new volunteer positions with (The Muskoka Foundation). They enlist travelers like ourselves to volunteer in one or more of the 100 or so communities that they maintain relationships with worldwide.

We are carving out our own little niche by also teaming with The Foundation for Learning Equality (FLE) to deploy the high-quality educational videos and exercises to these communities via their KA Lite product. You can learn more about their mission (and ours) in this TEDx video given by Jamie Alexandre of FLE.

After a long afternoon of driving we are now near Hot Springs, SD. We are taking a bit of a detour from our originally-planned route so we could meet a good friend who we haven’t seen since we traveled with him 8 years ago during our Africa trip. He’s in the States now and we are excited to see him for the 4th of July weekend.

Van with shower curtain Shower night at the Sparks Van