Leaving Wanship, Utah, we packed our Ford Transit CV1 CamperVan custom outfitted by ModVans, a family-owned Oxnard start-up. The ModVan, called Vinny Von Van had officially become a member of our extended family. And Vinny was truly the best possible kind of relative: easygoing, dependable and possessing zero chance of getting or transmitting COVID-19.
Perhaps even more importantly, Vinny’s kitchenette, facilities and comfort allowed changes of course as the weather or mood changed. This added to our blissful sense of freedom following COVID’s protracted lockdown.
The perils of pretty puppies
The pandemic was not kind to my pooches. Though not COVID-related, my beloved 11-year-old rescue suddenly died during the lockdown’s first week. Then during its final week my 16-year-old rescue had to be put down. I was doggone despondent.
Intending to start driving north to Idaho, an acquaintance recently texted that a friend’s Labrador had puppies the month prior in picturesque Sandy, Utah. A sports enthusiasts’ mecca, Sandy is 10 miles from Alta ski resort and 11 from Snowbird. Summertime means great hiking with numerous trails and more than 30 parks. Vinny hightailed it eastward.
Perhaps it’s Utah’s water, but this Labrador had a huge litter — 10 healthy, snow-white, clear-eyed pups. Sitting in the bedroom-sized crate with all 10 crawling on us under canine mom’s watchful eyes, I fell deeply, doggedly in love.
When weaned, one will be coming home to California, though I ignored the suggestion to name her Pandora. While Hermes made the first woman Pandora lovely, I knew this pooch wouldn’t be treacherous. Besides, it sounded too close to pandemic and I needed no reminders.
Beautiful Bear Lake
Having already driven about five hours, I decided to spend the night at Bear Lake, a 109-square mile, natural freshwater lake. Its 48 shoreline miles are divided equally between Utah and Idaho. Much like Canada’s Lake Louise, Bear Lake is resplendently turquoise blue, owing to its high limestone content.
Tiny Garden City on Bear Lake’s Utah side has just one four-way stop sign. That was convenient making me notice several stands selling fresh raspberry milkshakes. Since fruit is one of the four basic food groups, not only was it worth a try, having one should be mandated while in northeastern Utah.
Following an early dinner I prepared by the sunny lakeshore, Vinny brought us to Bear Lake Venture Park, a RV-park with full hook-ups, Wi-fi, fire-pits, playground and a small petting zoo.
After hooking up Vinny, we went for a walk on the calm, tree-lined property and communed with the owner’s baby goats, lambs, ponies and calves. I found fellow RV-goers extremely friendly, slept well and while my husband still doesn’t believe me, I thoroughly enjoyed it. www.bearlakeventure.com
One final tip: No trip to the Beehive State would be complete without visiting an Iceberg Drive Inn. With seven diners in Utah, Iceberg makes the best, hand-breaded onion rings on planet earth and a Nutella milkshake that had me swooning. I was thrilled to learn there are six California locations!
Southeast Idaho, Jackson Hole and Grand Tetons National Park
Driving through bucolic areas of Southeastern Idaho, it was confusingly European. First, small town Paris, population 473, home to the 1,400-seat Romanesque Tabernacle completed in 1888 and designed by Brigham Young’s son, Joseph. Onward to Bern, population 135, then Geneva, population 92.
Montpellier has 2,500 residents and the Butch Cassidy Museum at the Bank of Montpellier. Restored to the 1890’s-era, this first chartered Idaho bank was robbed by Butch and pals on August 19, 1896. The original bank vault is a good photo op, or if traveling mid-August, one can bear witness to a robbery reenactment.
Endless miles of velvety draped jade-green hills followed. Just after Alpine, Wyoming, we caught our first glimpses of rafters on the rushing Snake River, the Columbia River’s largest tributary.
Pleasant, walkable Jackson Hole is fused with a healthy dose of Wild West kitsch, shops and restaurants. Driving on to Grand Tetons National Park, we alighted at South Jenny Lake, hiking nearly eight strenuous miles to Inspiration Point and back under blue skies. The north star was the massive, snow-capped mountains, but Jenny Lake’s pristine waters and thunderous rhythm of rushing waterfalls was our music with a crescendo of towering pines and lemon-yellow wildflowers.
Seeing about 150 other hikers that day, sadly few were masked. The other peril is bears, both blacks and grizzlies. As some of the most popular trails pass through bear habitat, consider carrying Bear Spray and learning how to use it — before it becomes necessary.
At Wilson, five miles outside Jackson, we checked into the Fireside Resort. On a bucolic, tree-lined property, Fireside has 23 modular, pre-fabricated, small homes manufactured by uber-cool WheelHaus. These modern, light-filled, spotless cabins have equipped stainless kitchenettes, patios and firepits and are local motif decorated. Wheelhaus’ Wedge sleeps four and Caboose sleeps six. Comfort, uniqueness and friendly staff made this one of my favorite lodgings in two weeks of road-tripping. www.firesidejacksonhole.com
Yielding for geysers at Yellowstone National Park
One could easily spend several days at Yellowstone. However we were nearing the end of our journey and only had two, both of which were spent hiking. At Lewis Lake, we hiked just over eight miles, seeing only a few others on this easy, pretty trail.
Our final day was spent at trails near Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s most famous geyser discovered in 1870 by the Washburn Expedition. Erupting about 20 times a day — with a 90-percent prediction rate accuracy — Old Faithful expels between 3,700 and 8,400 gallons of water. Temperatures range from 204 degrees Fahrenheit to 350 spouting from 90 seconds to nearly five minutes.
As access to this section is so easy with nearby parking lots, restrooms and picnic areas, it had a Disneyland feel to it, even during the COVID-era. And few were donning masks despite the big crowds. Not to diminish its magnificence but following the lockdown and road trip’s abundant peace and quiet, the crowds were dizzyingly claustrophobic.
We immediately left instead opting to hike six easy miles seeing the lesser known, though equally impressive geysers, such as Riverside, which gave a grandiose show lasting several minutes. Along the way, several enormous bison grazed or relaxed. Some of the pools were also impressive, especially Morning Glory with its intense blue waters created by bacteria. With over 1,000 miles of hiking trails, some are naturally through bear habitat. More visitors however have perished from drowning or thermal burns than bear attacks.
This road trip was fantastic for the memorable and unique experiences a ‘Great American Road Trip’ can provide in an outfitted ModVan CamperVan. It’s also an opportunity to connect/reconnect with nature and loved ones. In my case, as my daughter would soon be commencing her lengthy physician residency program, it was probably the last time we would ever have this much time together.
Also, while I may have the beating heart of a pioneering car chick, the truth is I have the sassy soul of an urbanist. I turned trustworthy Vinny Von Van towards the highway for the long trek home, hoping to find another Iceberg Drive Inn on the way.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com