Putting the VAN in Vancouver

Date: July 5 / Origin: Redmond, OR / Campsite: McMenamins Brewery in Vancouver, WA / Time in Westy: 6++ hours

It was with heavy hearts that we departed Redmond for the final destination of our road trip: Portland, Oregon.

I’ve only ever heard people speak of Portland with love and sparkling enthusiasm, so I was really looking forward to a night out in civilization with hip bars, cool breweries, and maybe tasty restaurant food.

We kicked off our final driving day with breakfast at Cottonwood Cafe in Sisters, Oregon, a perfect little wooden cafe with tiny tables and eggy specials. We fueled up on coffee and headed north toward Portland, stopping only to detour into Independence.

After all of our imaginings about the Oregon Trail, we were imagining Independence to be an old west frontier town, streets studded with discarded wagon wheels and conestoga canvas.

Not quite.

We followed signs for the museum, which was housed in a small church on a shady street corner in suburbia. Inside, we found dusty relics cluttered in no particular order with very few labels. It made me a little sad.

The museum was not so much a dedication to the Oregon Trail as it was an information hub for the city of Independence. However, the museum curator or volunteer was eager to tell us stories about some of the first pioneers to make it out west, particularly a young fiddle player who bought his freedom by fiddling outside of saloons.

It was worth stopping for that story.

The rest of our drive was absolutely roasting. Laura and I baked in the van. Even Chaska was panting heavily. My left arm and thigh were roasted red by sun coming through the window, and both of us felt sweaty and hangry.

We’d idealized Portland as our haven, a cool and awesome city that would welcome us with wide streets and chill vibes.

Portland welcomed us with dozens of interstate roadways, all choked with barely-moving traffic. Traffic sucks. Traffic sucks even more when you’ve spent the past week cruising down roads that don’t look as if they’ve seen another car in days.

When we finally found parking on a side street across from a Starbucks, we were both roadweary and a little grouchy.

I had to buy a pair of heels for a wedding, so I made my way down the street to a Payless. I can think of few things as gloomy as a Payless after the biggest store you’ve seen is called “General Store and Feed” and your feet have been slapping river rocks and not pavement. I hate cities.

Everything stunk. Car exhaust, construction cranes. The stink of afternoon heat trapped between the buildings and in my nostrils. Laura took the dogs to a food truck and got some Hawaiian food for lunch while I opted for a yogurt at Starbucks.

Back in the van, we wondered where we would camp.

I was relieved when she said, “This city is horrible. Let’s get out.”

The streets were narrow and jammed with cars, the sidewalks crammed with homeless. It was a sad and striking sight to see. We did, however, have 4G, and were able to locate an RV camp near the Columbia River. Unless we wanted to drive at least 2 hours in any direction to a national forest, this was our best bet. I had to be at the airport pretty early the next morning, so national forests were out of the question.

When we finally made it across town and to the RV park, our desperation increased. The RV park was unshaded; sun beat down on the metal roofs as we drove through the lot, gaping at the RVs.

“This is a home for some people. They live here all year long,” Laura mused as we passed little lawns, RVs with makeshift porches. It was a small village of metal and aluminum. It was hot.

Our fuses were short. We pulled down a shady side street with plenty of trees and quaint suburban houses, and started researching desperately on our phones.

“Stealth camping in Portland,” Laura read. “Churches. We could stay in a church parking lot.”

“I feel like there are probably a lot of homeless people who use the parking lots for their homes.”

Laura contacted friends in the area – we were supposed to stay with one of her friends originally, so we hadn’t come to Portland with no plan at all, but the friend had called that morning to say she was taking a trip to the coast instead – but no one had any idea of where we could park.

Accommodation was expensive in and around Portland. But there was a town across the river in Washington state, Vancouver, that looked a bit cheaper and perhaps somewhat less crowded.

We seemed to have good luck with brewery parking lots, so I searched for breweries near Vancouver. Nothing came up. I’m not sure how I found McMenamins, but I did. I called the number.

“Hi. My girlfriend and I are on a camping trip in our van and we’re trying to find a place to park the van for the night. Would we be able to park in your lot?”


“Hmm. I don’t think that’s a problem, but let me check.”

We crossed our fingers. Our opening statement had been crafted carefully: let them know we are two girls, that we have a place to sleep in, that we only want to park.

“Yeah, so we don’t tow here. And we wouldn’t call the cops or anything. But we can’t guarantee you won’t get broken into.”

“That’s totally fine.”

“Yeah, you can park here.”

There are not words to describe the joy we both felt. There was squealing. There was a visible slicing of tension.

We made it across the river in 7 minutes and found ourselves in a crowded parking lot, where we eased in between two cars right at the back. We said we’d move the van later to a shadier, quieter spot.


Inside, we drank cold beer and whiskey, which we’d both been craving, and enjoyed the air conditioner and some food. Relief was a welcome deluge.

Our plan for the evening was to curl up in the van and watch Dances With Wolves on Laura’s projector, but we couldn’t get the film all the way downloaded and the projector didn’t seem to work.

So we went to sleep.

A few beers is enough to make you forget your original plan, and oh what a thing to forget. We were parked near the loading area for the restaurant, which also happened to be located about 15 minutes from the airport.

From 11 – 2:30am, every 20-30 minutes or so, a plane would come in to land or take off, and the roar of it would shake the van. I’m not exaggerating. Imagine drifting off to sleep only to wake up to a little earthquake.

When the planes stopped, we both dozed off. Until the sound of voices woke us up again.

“Yeah, it’s easy to use Hot Schedules and request shift changes,” a man’s voice was saying. “As a manager, it’s easy to see who’s picking up, you know?”

And so commenced a 15 minute conversation about Hot Schedules that took me back to my waitressing days.

Car doors slammed, and they were on their way. I could feel sleep inches away.

“Wow, yeah, my daughter is along for the ride this morning!” came a loud, gravely voice at approximately 4am. “What do you do here?”

“I’m refilling the CO2. Been delivering it to restaurants since 2am,” replied a softer male voice.

“OH yeah, yeah that’s gonna be loud, OK, plug your ears!”

The hiss of CO2 filling a tank drowned out the man’s voice. When it was done, he kept talking.

“Yeah, people drink so much soda. You know every 30 minutes 5 liters of soda are drunk? Crazy right?”

This man talked so loudly and often that I wondered if he was actually in the van with us.

Also, none of the nearby conversations even mentioned the oddity of a VW van parked with the top popped. Totally normal in Vancouver, I guess.

When they finally left, around 4:30, I imagined I’d get some sleep. Finally.

But then the first flight of the morning took off, and that was that. We walked the dogs along the promenade and then went for breakfast, where I read the headline of a news article saying how a woman and her two dogs had been attacked by a bear in Idaho.

Go figure.

It’s never easy to say good-bye to Laura. I spend a good chunk of my year looking forward to our camping trip. Catching up with a best friend, losing 4G and going totally off the grid, getting muddy in nature and not having to shower. It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year.

But Portland airport was calling to take me to California for a wedding. New adventures awaited.

Until next year, Laura.


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