Editor's note: First Person is an occasional series of stories by Star Tribune readers and staff members about their outdoors adventures.
My love of travel to the American West traces back to weekend trips to Big Marine. The weekly Cabin Country feature in the Star Tribune's Outdoors Weekend section reminds me of an age when my family would go on trips to my godparents’ cabin there. That was 50 years ago, and the area has now become an outer suburb of the Twin Cities.
I look back on those times with fond memories, but the allure of that lifestyle faded as I began to take long road trips in the 1970s. This was far different from Minnesota, and I reveled in the western mountains and beaches I found. I was fortunate to find a wife who shared that vision. Sandy and I had a long love affair with the road, with all the sites and people you would meet. It was in our blood and we continued with that sort of vacationing through the years.
We bought a Volkswagen Vanagon in 1984, our first rolling vacation home. In reality, it was more like a base camp for the backpacking and mountain climbing we did in that era. We eventually named her Bertha, a good German name for a German van. Bertha took us on nine long trips, mostly to the Pacific Northwest and Canadian Rockies. The most noteworthy was on the other side of the continent when in 1993 we drove the Trans-Labrador Highway of Nova Scotia. This was 500 miles of gravel road through utter wilderness. There was one 150-mile section where we didn’t dare drive faster that 15 miles per hour because of large chunks of Canadian Shield bedrock that stuck up from the roadbed. It remains the roughest road we’ve experienced, but it holds a special place in our memories for that exact reason.
Bertha was 10 years and 178,000 miles old by the time we finished that trip. The wear and tear of the road took a toll. It was difficult to let go of her, but we knew it was time.
Time for No. 2
We bought a VW Eurovan in 1994 and immediately began calling her Bertha 2 (and quickly shortened that to Bertha). By then we were done with trips to the western states, so we vacationed elsewhere. This Bertha took us to Alaska in 1996, 1998 and 2002, with long diversions into the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. The Alaska Highway was fully paved by then, but we still managed to drive around 2,000 miles of gravel road. The greatest triumph of Bertha 2 came in 1998 with a 980-mile round trip from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, and back. The first 20 miles north of Fairbanks were paved while the rest was gravel, often so rough you wondered why you were driving it in the first place. Still, it was the trip of a lifetime. We were able say that we dipped our toes in the Arctic Ocean.
That second Bertha had a long, productive life: 20 years and 228,000 miles. Our final trip to Alaska in 2002 was her last venture because I just wasn’t sure she could manage a trip of that scope. At the same time, we turned our attention overseas for several long road trips in Australia and another in New Zealand. The choice of vehicle for those trips was a Toyota HiAce camper van with a manual transmission. It was during the first trip in 2005 that my wife dubbed the van “Wooly Roo,” a name that stuck for the subsequent ventures. We traveled to Broome in western Australia — a whole continent away from Sydney where most tourists go. When the dust settled, I’m pretty sure we drove 7,000 miles between those three trips. That might seem obsessive to some people but it proved to us that we weren’t done with that style of vacationing.
Time for upgrade
That made it all the more difficult when we returned home because we just weren’t sure what our second Bertha could handle.
Still, we managed jaunts to northern Minnesota in her declining years, including her second trip around Lake Superior. I finally junked her in Virginia, Minn., late in summer 2014. Our 30 years of VW vans was over, primarily because Volkswagen no longer marketed new vans in the United States. Several years of procrastination ensued before we agreed with a company named Sportsmobile to buy a new 2016 Mercedes Sprinter cargo van and upgrade it to an RV.
The new van was ready in July 2017. Our first experience was a 700-mile drive home from Indiana. We’ve only had time for a couple of short trips to northern Minnesota, but the thrill of the road has returned. We broke tradition and named this new van Priscilla, a bit of an offhand tribute to an old Australian movie.
So what comes next? Bertha 2 took us on at least 10 trips to San Antonio for spring break, and I can guarantee that will be what happens at the start of April 2018. After that, who knows?
We stopped at a restaurant in Alberta on the way home from Alaska in 2002. As we were seated, they put down paper place mats that were maps of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. They showed a dotted line along the McKenzie River to describe a proposed road. I made a prophetic comment to Sandy that we wouldn’t return to the north until either that road was completed or I retired.
As it happened, my retirement came first in 2016. But there was the matter of waiting for the new van. I’m not ready to concede we’ll make the trip to Alaska next summer, but I do wish the Canadians would complete that road so I could drive it all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
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