The Journey Begins

Picture of van.

The Shitty Van

July 18, 2014
Day 0

My journey began at 3:00 p.m., when Caitlyn picked me up at my house in Madison, Wisconsin. I had spent all day and much of the previous night packing. Now that my stuff had been loaded into Caitlyn's “Shitty Van,” with its turn signal that didn't cancel, binary fan (off and hi) and doors that locked as soon as you opened them (an unintended feature), I could finally focus on the adventure to come. Caitlyn and I spent the next four hours picking up our other passengers, loading gear and strapping kayaks on top of her van. In the end, we were carrying five boats and five people. There were also a few extra bags aboard – for me, this was a one-way journey.

The plan was to drive overnight from Madison to Missoula, Montana, where we would make our final preparations for our five-day whitewater trip down the pristine Selway River, located in the Bitterroot National Forest in Idaho. Because of the river's protected location, there are no towns (or roads) along its shores, so we'll have to carry all of our food and camping gear with us. With the hot summer weather melting snow from the mountains and emptying water into the Selway, the river was running higher than we had expected. It would probably be a class IV run for us. I hadn't ever paddled anything so substantial, let alone on a self-contained trip, so I was a bit nervous. But with so many other things going on in my life, I hadn't had much time to think about the potential for a concussion, dislocated shoulder or scraped face, until now.

A few weeks ago, I drove to northern Wisconsin with my girlfriend Katie to join her family for an annual vacation at a cottage on Big Sand Lake. Between our many fishing trips, I made the last few edits of my first book, 1000 Days Between. I uploaded the final copy from the cottage and the book went live on Amazon a few days later. After taking five years to write this book, I was really happy with the results. I hope you are, too. Here's some more information.

But writing a book hadn't been occupying all of my time of late. About six months ago, Katie and I went to a job conference in Iowa, and she accepted a position as a kindergarten teacher in Bejing, China. At first, our upcoming move was just an abstract concept – even after buying our plane tickets and traveling to Chicago to pick up our visas, it didn't seem real. But when I spent all night packing my possessions and moving out of the house I had lived in for the past six years, it suddenly struck me that I really was about to embark on a grand adventure.

I went through a whirlwind of emotions during my final few weeks before leaving. There were many farewell gatherings, parties and lunches, where I bade farewell to my friends and family. Lately, friends in Madison had been making plans for the weeks ahead, when I would already be gone. Knowing that you're about to travel long-term is like being a dead man walking. But travelers wouldn't travel if the rewards didn't outweigh the risks, right? I had been in this position before: in the weeks leading up to my trip to Latin America, I often thought I never would come home. Eventually I returned, though it took over 1000 days. How long will this trip last?

With the Shitty Van loaded, we made one final loop around the city and hopped onto the freeway. It was supposed to take a whole day to drive to Missoula, but that would only be the beginning. After kayaking the Selway, I planned to continue my westward journey to Seattle, where I would meet up with Katie. From there, we would fly to China together.

I got one final glimpse of the capitol building from afar, then we drove west, into the countryside. The setting sun looked like planet Venus in the hazy midsummer sky. It was my final farewell to a city I've loved living in for the last six years.

Photos from Big Sand Lake and Minocqua

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