Broken in Bighorn
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Broken in Bighorn

Sunday morning I woke up at 3:00 AM in a Walmart parking lot in Cody, Wyoming. “Am I moving too fast?” I pondered. “Should I slow down and enjoy this trip a little more? Or am I going to slow? Will I make it home to Indiana in time?” I tossed and turned, fretting over the decision I’d have to make later that day. Push for a long haul and get out of Wyoming, or lollygag a bit, take side roads, and slow life down.

The indecisiveness wouldn’t let me slip back to sleep, so just after 5:00 AM I kicked out of my sleeping bag, made the bed, and started the JetBoil for coffee. If I wasn’t going to sleep, I may as well hit the road and watch the sunrise over Wyoming.

I had been on the road for an hour and the sun was still low enough to keep my eyes squinting ahead when I passed a sign that read “Dinosaur Tracks – Next Right“. Dinosaur tracks? On a no name gravel road? In the middle of nowhere? Perfect.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Dinosaur Track
A real life dinosaur track…or so I’m told.

I turned and rambled through the open plains, alone in Wyoming BLM land, enjoying the scenery, and eventually walking over a washboard slab of rock, trying to spot the faint tracks of some prehistoric animal. The dinosaur tracks were cool, but getting my tires off the pavement, away from the civilized highway, and across bumpy dirt roads was even better.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Wyoming BLM Land
Gettin’ Tantor’s feet dirty

I returned to the main route and Tantor chugged as we began climbing the steep grade into the Bighorn National Forest. The road curved through deep cut canyons, exposing incredible views. I approached Shell Falls to find the National Forest facility closed. No problem, just beyond the gate I saw a pickup truck parked on a patch of dirt on the side of the road and pulled in behind it.

I walked around the paved trail taking photos of the waterfall and met Dave and Sue, the couple from the truck. They were from Montana, but Sue was raised in Santa Barbara, small world! I hiked alone back to my van, not knowing that the chance encounter and brief conversation we shared would greatly impact the rest of my adventure.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Bighorn MountainsI turned Tantor onto the highway and started climbing again. I was jamming some John Butler Trio, looking across the vast expanse of the canyon, and arching to see the bottom of the steep cliff just outside my passenger window. Then, I felt a pop.

My foot hit the floorboard and the gas pedal stayed flat, but the van motor idled. I pumped a few times, but it was futile, there was nothing happening. My accelerator pedal was no longer connected to the engine. This is not good anytime, but driving up a steep mountain grade on a 2 lane highway with a guardrail for a shoulder and a steep canyon wall behind it meant this could get dangerous, fast.

The van continued climbing with inertia, but it would only last so long. I spotted a turnoff shoulder ahead and willed Tantor to keep moving. My wheels slowed to a crawl, I turned the front tires into the turnout, but the rear end protruded across the highway. Uh oh.

I pulled the parking break, killed the engine, and raced across the highway to find a few rocks to chock the wheels and make sure Tantor didn’t start rolling back downhill. I grabbed my cell phone, no service. I jostled the throttle peddle again, nothing. To make myself feel somewhat productive, I grabbed my Volkswagen mechanic book and leafed through pages, trying to figure out what to do next. I had recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the book suddenly became more real as I looked at the broken down van through the eyes of a mechanic, albeit, a very untrained one. I knew that whatever just happened was very mechanical, and I should be able to find the cause to the problem. Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken the time beforehand to really get to know the inner workings of Tantor, so I was stumped.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Van Service Tools
A lot of tools…if I just knew how to use them.

A few cars passed, and then a truck that I recognized slowed and pulled over. Dave and Sue climbed out and walked over to see me. The first thing on the agenda was to get my van safely off the highway. They had a tow strap, so we latched it to my van and their truck and we inched forward until Tantor was outside the white line.

I talked with them briefly about the problem, we discussed the accelerator cable and ultimately decided that even if I could locate the problem, I probably wouldn’t have the parts to fix it. The better idea was to get the van off the mountain and have a mechanic look it over. They said they were heading east and could drive me ahead to find a place with cell phone reception. Dave cleared a space and I climbed into the truck.

We drove, and drove, and drove, but my cell phone never picked up any reception. Finally, 15 mountain miles later, we reached the Elk View Inn. I met Jay, the manager at the front desk, and he let me use the lodge’s landline phone to contact AAA and schedule a tow truck.

While on the line with the AAA operator we searched for a Volkswagen mechanic in Wyoming. I had used previously to find mechanics who would work on vintage Volkswagens, and this time when I typed in “Wyoming” only 1 shop in the entire state showed up. It happened to be in Buffalo, WY, exactly 99 miles from where my van broke down, just 1 mile shy of going over my free 100 mile tow that I received with my AAA membership.

Dave and Sue headed east and Jay brewed me a cup of coffee. Jay was professionally certified in both coffee and beer, so we had no problem striking up a conversation. I sat in the restaurant of the Inn and ate lunch, killing time during my 2 hour wait for a tow truck.

Eventually, a John Deere green rig appeared in the parking lot and drove me 15 miles back to the sidelined van. We loaded Tantor onto the flatbed and started the 2 hour drive across the mountains to Buffalo.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Bighorn Tow
Saving Tantor from the Bighorn Mountains

This was my second long haul tow of the trip and I learned more about towing cars, being a snowplow driver, the history of the local area, and heard many funny stories. Tantor’s accelerator cable had snapped at 11:00 AM and shortly before 5:00 PM he was unloaded at the mechanic’s shop in Buffalo.

I thanked the driver and he headed home to spend his Sunday evening watching football. I was on my own. I pulled out my tools and disassembled the front end of the accelerator linkage cable box. Everything looked fine there, so I checked the back and saw that the cable was frayed and separated from the rear assembly. Well, at least I knew what was wrong, but I had no idea how to fix it.

I was setting my van up for the night when a car pulled into the parking lot. It was Sunday, so I was sure no one was working, but I wanted to introduce myself in case this was the shop’s owner. It turned out to be someone who was dropping off a vehicle for Monday morning, but they said “Oh, we are going to church with the owner right now, we’ll let him know you are here!” Small towns…I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad that the mechanic knew I was there, I planned to sleep in my van and hoped it wouldn’t be a problem.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Tow Buffalo
Home delivery…pun intended.

I pulled my bicycle off the rack, locked the van, and headed to the only place in town that had internet and was open on a Sunday evening, McDonald’s. I worked for several hours before riding back to the van and sleeping in the mechanic’s parking lot.

The next morning I was up bright and early but waited around for the shop to open. I checked Tantor into the lineup and rode back downtown to the only coffee shop in town to get some work done. Later in the day the mechanic called and said the accelerator linkage cable had broken, but that Volkswagen hadn’t made that part in 9 years, so he needed to do a custom fix and he’d have to do it the next day.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Accelerator Cable
The problem.

Time to get honest with him. “Is it okay if I sleep in my van in your parking lot?” He paused and said “Uhh, yeah, I guess that’s not a problem. But if you want to take a shower you’ll need to get a hotel room.” I said thank you and hung up, thinking about his statement. I had already looked at motel rooms in case I couldn’t stay in Tantor and there was no way that taking a shower would be worth $49. I’d rather be a little dirty, save money, and get back on the road the next day. I stayed in the coffee shop until it closed, then migrated back to McDonald’s to work until it closed too. I rode my bike back across town and spent another night in the mechanic’s parking lot, which was actually one of the quietest urban stealth camping spots I’ve had.

Chris Tarzan Clemens - Buffalo Shop
When your home is a van, and said van is broken down, then this is your home.

The next morning I worked in the coffee shop until the mechanic called and said Tantor was ready to go. I shut down my laptop and raced my bike back to the shop. I had logged quite a few hours of work while waiting in town and I was itching for the open road. As soon as the bike was mounted I paid my bill and we were off.

This breakdown in the Bighorn Mountains was a transformative experience for me. Or, better yet, it showed me how much I had changed over the last few weeks, months, and years. That first night alone, broken down, sleeping in some mechanic’s shop, hundreds of miles from anyone that I knew, I could have felt like a failure, triggering fear, self doubt, loneliness, and a longing for my former safe and stable life. But I didn’t feel any of those emotions, at all.

I laid there, thinking of my journey, thinking of the day, thinking of my stories, and a huge smile settled on my face. I had made it through another day, alive, living my dreams to the fullest. I had stared down danger, uncertainty, isolation, and embraced them. I had relied on the help of strangers, and in the process made some incredible friends. I laughed, thinking back to the moment on the highway when the accelerator cable snapped and I could do nothing but coast to a crawling halt along the side of a dangerous cliff. I remembered that I felt no fear, no panic, no stress. I took stock of my situation, turned on my flashers, and waited for life to unfold.

Something big inside me had changed. I no longer wanted safety, security, routine, and comfort. I wanted the unknown, the good and the bad, the adventure. I wanted to live life, not just endure it. I wanted to feel, experience, and be free. And that’s exactly what I was doing. Living Free.

One Comment

  1. I stumbled across your IG account and than you website. Really enjoyed reading your blog and I’m just sorry I missed you when you were in Arizona in June. I can relate to this post as my trip this past summer was filled with breakdowns. For some reason Halley, my 1986 Vanagon, decided to throw every challenge my way. Although this trip wasn’t the one I had planned, it was certainly an adventure and a wake up call to really learn how to work on the van myself. Keep on trekking!

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