After weeks of preparation and fixing the van, on the 3rd of July, we finally hit the road.
First destination: Norman, Oklahoma! We took off in the early morning from Lakewood, CO direction Kansas. On the road, we saw only infinite fields and cows, interrupted with small towns at times. Almost no trees and lots of wind made our life a bit harder as the aerodynamics of Valentino aka Stan the Van is not the best. For the first miles, we felt like driving a car in an amusement park, swinging from the right to the left. Each time the wind would blow or other cars would overtake us, the air channel would change. Moreover, the steering wheel of our almost 30 years old van turned to be very sensitive and responding to every little movement. We simply could not keep the van steady in the middle of the lane. A whole new experience of driving, but so much fun at the same time. Luckily by now we got the driving technique and are able to maneuver like pros.
As you maybe read in the previous post we do not have a working AC while driving. This made this trip in a 36 degrees Celsius sunny day quite challenging and sweaty. (During the first week on road we invested in a cooler, a water spray bottle and a fan which made our driving time more pleasant).
Just after we crossed the border from Kansas to Oklahoma, the landscape changed to more green. It also got full of windmill and pumpjack fields. Unfortunately, the strong side winds didn’t stop.
After 12 hours driving in the sun and sweat, we arrived safely in Norman, OK, where we visited Ivan’s schoolmate Cesar and his lovely family Nicole, Axelle, and Max. That same night, we went to pick up our stuff from the parked van and suddenly we see lights behind us: a police car. It turned out that the neighbors called worried about this suspicious van parked in their nice neighborhood. Yes, our van didn’t fit this part of town. We explained to the policeman that we were visiting and staying in the house across the street, so it wasn’t a problem. The conclusion is that it is hard to oversee our lovely Vanper Valentino aka Stan the Van 😉 and it becomes a suspicious object when surrounded by new, polished, and expensive cars.
The time in Oklahoma was full of first-time experiences. Cesar took us to a garage jiu-jitsu training with his colleagues where Ivan tried it for the 1st time. We also got to know plenty of games with Cesar’s son Max (4 years old), who is a master in Mario Kart and a couple of other games. Another day we also tried a virtual reality game that was lots of fun. We also spent the 4th of July, US Independence Day, there with a family BBQ. It the evening we took a walk to watch the fireworks from around the town. Each direction we looked to, there was another fireworks show. Americans love fireworks, we heard that they also spend lots of money on them each year for the 4th of July.
We also took a day trip to Turner Falls Park that is located 1 hour from Norman. It is a really nice place, nevertheless, full of people who go there to picnic and BBQ.
As our fresh water pump stopped working just before our departure from Colorado, we got to get that fixed in Oklahoma. We ordered a water pump, replaced it and it ended up working great, yeah!! Last evening in Oklahoma we spend touring between the local bars of Norman with Cesar. Now we know that the bars there close at 2:00 am and you won’t find an open bar at later hours. So if you go out, you better start early ;).
First Night: Nightmare in Cypress Spur Forest Route 311.
On the 7th of July, we took off from Norman, OK towards New Orleans, LA. We planned to stop on a free camping near a town called Alexandria. So we passed through Texas into Louisiana and since it started to get late and dark we decided to stop earlier than we originally planned. We found this nearer campground on the internet, but it was in a forest further away from the highway. At this point, something pretty common in these situations started happening: as we got more tired, it got darker and stormier; eerie!
Near the interstate highway exit, the storm went from bad to ridiculous. Olga was driving and she could barely see 10m in front of her through the pitch black night and pouring rain. On top of that were the blinding, strobe-like lightning of the storm. We took the exit to a minor road and made our way to the Kisatchie National Forest. It was here where I told Olga “It’s exactly like this that most scary movies start”. About 5 miles into the forest we took a right into a dirt road and continued it until reaching the camp about 30 min after exiting the interstate. It was glorious! Imagine a thick forest where every other tree was cut to make room for campers. There was an information board at the entrance, not a single soul, and completely dark. The storm was still pouring like laughing at us. We parked the vanper, turned off the lights, and at that moment we felt cold chills. This is when I reminded Olga of Rule #1 when RV camping: If you do not have a good feeling about the spot, go somewhere else.
I took over the driving, and head off to another camp a couple of miles away. 1/2 a mile into the dirt road was where chance took its final laugh at us. The vanper lost power and stalled. We looked at each other with the same thought: “this cannot be happening!”. Tried to start the van, -nothing. Tried adding gasoline from the generator tank, -nothing. “Let’s call the tow insurance!” No coverage. “Olga, I am sorry we have to sleep it out here tonight, and tomorrow we will figure out something”. The rain slowed but hadn’t stopped. We took a small pause to calm down and both agreed that sleeping there was the best option. One bar of network would sporadically reach our phones, so I managed to send our current location to my uncle Jose and that was it. No other text or explanations.
We fixed our bed for our first night in the vanper. No better moment to inaugurate our new bed! We went to bed while the raindrops were still making a loud kind-of-radio noise in the roof, but about an hour later it finally stopped. Not to the best or worse, since the rain noise was replaced by crickets, cicadas, and other forest noises. Not long afterward Olga: “Ivan, Ivan! there is someone outside with a flashlight in the forest!” I opened my eyes, looked through the other window and indeed saw bright flashes of light. Half asleep I made a quick assessment of the situation and finally told Olga: “calm down they are only fireflies”. We managed to fall asleep thinking what could be wrong with our dear Stan the Van.
First Tow: Natchitoches on the day of the Lord
Next morning it was cloudy with a nice cool temperature and no rain. we tried to start the van again, but nothing changed; it still didn’t start. So we were walking around looking for coverage and managed to reach the insurance company. After a 45 min talk, trying to explain our position to the lady on the line we got to know that there is no partner towing company that could pick us up on Sunday nearby. So we had to pay for the towing but luckily we will get reimbursed for that. Nevertheless, although we got towed to a town nearby called Natchitoches (pronounced: NAK-ə-təsh), LA. there was no repair shop working on Sunday so we had to wait one day at the parking of the garage until Monday morning. Of course, our van calls attention so it did not take long until the police showed up and checked what were we doing there. As a matter of fact, was very hard for us to understand local people talking due to their southern accent. Natchitoches was an unforgettable experience. On Monday morning the van got repaired and by noon we were on the road again towards New Orleans. The ignition coil was replaced.
We stopped in New Orleans to eat and visit. We parked the van near the French Quarter, walked to French Market and ate there the typical Cajun Jambalaya. We visited Bourbon street and heard jazz bands playing in local bars between the table dances and restaurants. Had a quick walk along the Mississippi River and took off direction Florida.
We drove through Mississippi and Alabama and reached the Florida Welcome Center and rest area of the I10. We spent the night and recovered for the next day drive.
Week 4 of the trip and the first week on the road was truly full of adventures and surprises. We saw a lot, lived a lot and learn a lot.