Wyoming in a Westy

I emerged from the Denver Airport balancing two cups of $4 Caribou coffee in my arms and scanning the passenger pickup area for a 1991 Volkswagen Westfalia. Having very little idea of what one might look like, I spotted a high-topped vehicle parked a little way down the line and headed toward it.

It was an ambulance.

Flashing my best kind smile, I approached a guy on a bench and asked to borrow his phone.

“I’m coming down to the parking garage now,” Laura said. “Whose phone is this?”

“Uh, a stranger’s,” I replied, smiling again at the guy. I returned his phone and chatted with him until Laura’s cobalt Westy chugged into the line of cars.

Laura came bouncing out in her sun dress and took her iced coffee off my hands. We hadn’t seen each other in a year, but it felt like picking up where we’d left off. She peeled open the sliding door to reveal all the essentials that a Vanagon provides: a spacious living area, currently cluttered with suitcases, two guitars, and a slew of camping gear I was to learn about on the trip.

The passenger seat required a great heave to get up into, but once there, it offered a pretty superior view to all the small cars dotting the pick-up area.

“There’s no air conditioner,” Laura explained, cranking the window open. I did the same. As we pulled out, the stranger waved from his bench and shouted, “Awesome van!”

It was the first of many compliments we would get on our ride.

A Quick Note on Vanagons

There is a vibrant Westy sub-culture, especially out west where living conditions for the van are best. Loads of people buy old VW Westfalias and clean them up, replace their engines, and take them on camping road trips. Much like jeeps, there’s a definite air of admiration from other Westy drivers and average travelers you meet. It’s a great way to spark conversation, and it’s a low maintenance form of camping.

Going Out West

From the Denver Airport, we hit the road north to Wyoming. Today’s goal was to get to a town called Buffalo, a historical little place that Laura stumbled across on a list of beautiful towns in Wyoming.

“It’s a 5-hour drive,” she told me as we cruised along the highway, Colorado’s peaky mountains spearing the clear sky. “But the Vanagon only does about 70, so it’s a little slower.”

That didn’t bother me. There was so much to see! My only experience with the American west was playing Oregon Trail in elementary school. And unless Laura or I were to die from dysentery or have to dismantle the van to ford a river, I imagined it would be much different.

Over the first few hours, I learned that the van was named Loretta and that Laura had gone out partying with Ryan the night before and was functioning on extremely limited sleep.

“I think maybe 3.5 hours,” she told me, yawning.

As far as planning went, our trip itinerary looked something like this:

  1. Drive to Buffalo, Wyoming.
  2. Drive to some other places, but definitely someplace in Montana. Probably Bozeman.
  3. Play music.

We would camp in the Vanagon, though neither of us had researched any camp sites in Buffalo.

“I’m sure we can find something,” Laura said optimistically, sipping her iced Americano. “We don’t need RV hookups. We can basically park this anywhere and sleep.”

With that, we flew by the seat of our pants north into Wyoming.

Wyoming: Hot, Flat, and Red

Crossing the border into Wyoming, I expected a scene out of Great Adventure’s Wild West theme park.

I imagined herds of buffalo roaming the plains, skeletons of conestoga wagons scattered along the roadside, maybe a tumbleweed or two.

Instead, we saw miles of red plains and red rocks and Martian landscape that stretched endlessly beneath a scorching sun. By the time we rolled into Cheyenne for lunch, my right arm was sunburned from hanging out the window.

We dined on sandwiches and onion rings at a hip restaurant blaring “California Sun” over the radio before hitting the road again.

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The plan was this: arrive in Buffalo, go to a grocery store to buy stuff to cook in the van, get a campsite, and get straight to sleep.

Driving long, straight roads through Wyoming in the heat is sleep-inducing. About two hours out of Buffalo, we were both squirming in sweat-soaked seats and desperate for something cold. I used Laura’s phone to search nearby swimming holes and found one at the clumsy-sounding Edness Kimball Wilkins State Park, an hour out of Buffalo and apparently very little-known.

We pulled off the interstate and down a dirt road to the entrance.

“That’s $6 to enter,” said the ranger. “Cash only.”

Neither of us had thought to take out cash, so we dug through our purses and managed to scrap together $4.50. We kept digging, but the woman tired of us.

“Just go on in,” she said, mumbling something about a slush fund.

Once in the park, we spotted the swimming hole, which was really a large pond crowded with families on floats. We changed into our bathing suits and waded in beneath a shady tree. The water looked murky and stagnant, but cold. Laura bravely dove beneath the wobbling surface while I shivered beside her.

To our right, a shirtless man tossed some kind of food into the water and caught critters with a small fish tank net. It wasn’t the most thrilling place to swim, but clambering back up into the van for the last hour or so into Buffalo felt a little less sweaty.

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