April 1: Everything is packed and ready to begin what is supposed to be the opportunity and adventure of a lifetime. Between the excitement, butterflies, and an alarm set for 3:45am, I have barely slept a wink when the alarm clock sounds… And just like that, it’s time to get to the airport!
I land in Cleveland around 4pm local time and am delivered to a large building on the outskirts of the city where a highly-anticipated “state-of-the-art” Mercedes Sprinter camper conversion is waiting. This vehicle will be my home, office, and transport for the next 6 months, and is obviously a crucial component to the success of the Chief Exploration Officer campaign.
The first impression: nothing but amazement.
After getting a quick walkthrough of my new home, I am handed the keys and suddenly on my own. The first stop is Big Bend National Park, located in remote West Texas. A car going the speed limit would be there in about 27 hours without stops, but a large van being broadsided by the strong midwest winds that has to stop every 200 miles for fuel required 3 white-knuckle days of driving.
I arrive at the Big Bend National Park headquarters in the afternoon, already a bit sunburnt due to scouting a potential Milky Way composition along the way. The temperature outside is about 98 degrees, but it is 108 in the van as it has no windows nor any means of circulating air when stopped.
As instructed, my first priority when arriving to any park throughout the campaign is to speak with a predetermined point of contact for the National Park. I find my guy at the visitor friendly and we have a nice chat. He is friendly and helpful, and clearly has a deep love for Big Bend. We go over the rules of the park, his personal recommendations, and what my commercial permit allows me to shoot for Michelob ULTRA. I am exhausted and stressed from a long drive, but feeling good about being here.
After a bit of rest, I hop in the driver’s seat and attempt to start the drive to my first sunset location when I notice the van isn’t running right. The check engine light flicks on, confirming my concerns. As quick as I can, I get it turned around and drive back to the visitor center; the gas pedal stops responding with just enough momentum to coast into a parking space.
Day 1 in Big Bend: I am broken down in a 108 degree van at the visitor center.
It is truly lucky that I was able to get back to the visitor center in time. For one, there would have been nowhere to pull over where I was driving for sunset, which would have forced me to try and contact emergency towing. Two, the visitor center had bathrooms, drinking water, and most importantly, free Wi-Fi for visitors. Were it not for the complimentary guest Wi-Fi, I don’t know how I would have been able to get in touch with anyone as I had lost cell service long ago.
At this point in the story, it is important to mention that my proud mother had driven all the way out from Oregon to bring some supplies that I couldn’t fit in my checked bag and to be a “roadie” for the first few stops. We were set to meet in Big Bend in a few days, but the location was still TBD.
I emailed my dad so he could communicate with mom where I was, as she had cell service but no internet, while I had internet but no cell service.
My next calls were to Michelob ULTRA and the company that leased the van to find out what was going on and how we should respond.
2 days later: The van remains stranded in the parking lot.
Meanwhile, the temperatures continue to reach triple digits each day, and it is always 10 degrees hotter in the van.
While the van has a shower, the water tank had been left winterized upon pick-up and I had yet to get to a campsite to get clean water and flush the antifreeze. It is now nearly one week into the journey and I am saturated in dirt, sunscreen, and good ol’ natural stink, tired and stressed from an inauspicious beginning, and still without a single photo on the memory card.
I don’t think I have ever been as relieved to see my mom and that big goofy smile as I was that morning she arrived. The van was still stuck, but at least now we could explore the park together in her van and I was no longer completely alone out there.
For the first time, I was able to leave the parking lot and go explore a bit. We spent the evening in the Chisos Basin region of Big Bend, doing a few short hikes and just seeing what the park has to offer.
It turns out, it has plenty…