Sleep In The Dirt

The Little Van that Could (and still does)

Essays From the Field

This dilemma seemed dire. Broken down in the middle of the road, one day before embarking on a 4,000+ mile journey. Horns honked, geezers shouted, and finally, two cowgirls that I am forever indebted with gratitude showed mercy on me in Salmon, Idaho. “You ok, hon?” one inquired, whipping her braid in a way I imagined only cowgirls in Marlboro ads do. “I’m good, but would y’all mind helping me push?” About that time, a policeman arrived to tell me “People are CALLING. You’re blocking the road!” I bit my tongue, and the cowgirls and I got to work, putting an end to the town’s drama of the day by pushing Casper the Astrovan to the side of the street.  

A couple hours later, Braden and I pulled into the mechanic’s lot just as the hammock strap we were using to tow Casper snapped. “Maybe this is a bad omen?” I muttered with nervous laughter. The mechanic was sure he could fix it, but it would take a few days. “Do you think it’s a bad idea to drive this thing all the way to Alaska?” I asked him. He paused, perhaps noticing the stroke of concern on my face, and smiled. “Naw, you kids are gonna be just fine.” 

Casper is a 23-year-old Astrovan that made his debut back in 2014 when Braden’s previous vehicle expired. He was acquired at the meager exchange of 800 bucks and a few gift cards to a thai restaurant in Grand Junction. Casper bears the qualities of that brave, hearty kid; the dirtiest one on the playground, covered in bug bites and scratches, wearing a shirt with holes and spaghetti perma-stains – but, man is he having fun! To pick one vehicle in the whole world whose endearing qualities I would choose to possess, it’d certainly be Casper. He’s my spirit animal, my Little Van that Could (and Still Does).  

Casper has toted us thousands of miles cross country and beyond, from buttery smooth highways to rutty backcountry roads you wouldn’t wish your worst enemy travel. He has delivered us down a whirling visual voyage of the Baja, Mexico peninsula, where his “amortiguadores” were replaced on the side of a desert road while we waited and gorged on fish tacos and cervezas.  He has greeted us at trailheads with fresh A/C (wait, just kidding!) and provisions when our tired legs couldn’t bear to walk another mile. He’s frustratingly required the repair of more than one flat tire at the riverside, and even spent a night taking up four parking spaces in front of a crematorium, when his radiator aborted in the middle of downtown Las Vegas.  

It seemed unfair to entertain a road trip without Casper. What’s another 4,000 miles? He couldn’t go out like this. With turmoil behind us and a new fuel pump installed, we loaded him up, making him feel extra homey with a goat skin rug and a pale blue cooler.  Without much thought, similar to Ma and Pa Kettle on their first journey out of the woods, we were headed to Alaska!  

For over two months, we ventured from Salmon, Idaho to Haines, Alaska, and back. The heart of British Columbia and the Yukon contain long stretches of road cutting through enormous swaths of wilderness. The kind of wild that only occurs when a land has escaped the throws of massive settlement and civilization. We’d occasionally catch a glimpse of a mama grizzly with her cubs wandering beside the highway, or a little grey fox moving in the shadows of late evening dusk. Wild, wild country.  

There’s a pulse, a tingle, to venturing somewhere new every day. It exhilarates us, but it also exhausts us. The constant movement of figuring out where to go, what to do. After each adventure, I found respite in returning to Casper, sitting proud, welcoming us back to the comforts of familiarity. 

As generous and adventure-willing as Casper may be, there are some experiences he just simply can’t provide. Twilight stars sparkling like a swarm of fireflies, or a moon smiling so bright you’re forced to apply moonscreen. A river beckoning you to purify your ears next to it, or a mountain dressed in winter whites luring you in for a nippy, soul-satisfying tent session. I’d need more than 25 sets of fingers and toes to count the slumber parties we’ve had in our backseat van quarters. But truth be told: Casper simply can’t hold a candle to a good nylon ripstop barrier being the only separation between myself and the 14-billion-year-old universe out there.  

One of these days, perhaps I’ll saw a gargantuan hole in Casper’s roof to create a purer Astrovan wilderness experience.  Until then, I’ll just keep hoping he’ll forgive me for my intense love affair with sleeping in the dirt in a cozy snuggle bag instead of his backseat. 

Plenty of time we had to sing along to one of the thirty songs we downloaded, or reflect back on the past year—all the victories, the downfalls, the fears, the celebrations. The many miles we drove sparked thoughts of family, aspirations, encounters awaiting upon our return. A road trip of that caliber forces you to consider the past and envision the future, hopefully with some positive growth appearing somewhere in the midst.  

As the odometer turned to 239,932 miles, we safely returned to our launch point. Just as we’re getting older and always adjusting to new changes, Casper is too. Opening the back door requires a jiggle dance, he wobbles down the road in a way that necessitates having both hands on the steering wheel at all times. He’s always low on oil, and there’s a steady stream of hot air that blows from under the console. I’m not sure how many more miles he has left. At the end of the day, it’s just a van. But, beyond the bug slime on the windshield, the Yukon dirt that’ll take fifteen pressure washes to remove, and the check engine light that finally burned out, I am forever grateful for the learning I’ve acquired simply from rolling down the road within our good ol’ Casper 

About the Author: Claire Cripps may be a traveling nurse by day, but more important, she’s an A+ adventurer, photographer, mother of Ernie-the-Yellow-Lab, dweller of Tiangong the Airstream, and a fantastic story teller. She and partner Braden Gunem travel all over the world in pursuit of stories of exploration and the quirky secondary narratives that almost always accompany them. You can follow Claire on Instagram @eclairecripps

Photos: Braden Gunem @bradengunem

Comments (3)

3 responses

  1. Ace

    Long live the adventures in us all an the memories that Casper has taken you to. Keep on moving because there is so much left to do.


  2. Mark

    Casper Astrovan is still a baby! My Casper GMC Safari (same thing!) 1995 has 302,559 miles on him and yes these guys need a fuel pump somewhere at 200,000 mi.! Sometimes a fuel pressure regulator too a $13 part but hard to get to. Go Caspers! Mine only goes to work but my other Casper is a white Suzuki Sidekick that goes anywhere the front bumper will clear and Big Agnes is my bikepacking tent. Cheers!

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