Big Purchase / by Ray Phung

Approaching the wild fire raging at Glacier National Park

I think its safe to say that the majority of climbers and/or adventurers out there have contemplated purchasing an adventure vehicle of some sorts, a mode of transportation to take you and all your gear to the ends of the Earth, in marginal conditions, and perhaps even provide some temporary shelter. McKinley also seemed down to travel and live temporarily in an adventure vehicle of some sorts (which of course is the true sign of finding "the one").  After several frigid trips to Bishop last year (read more here!), I began cruising Craigslist, searching for an adventure vehicle of our very own.

There are so many options out there.  VW Eurovan or Westfalia.  Truck with a trundled camper.  Cargo van.  Actual RV's or Airstreams.  Honda Element with a pop-top.  It's quite overwhelming, but I was able to narrow down the selections through specific criteria:

  • Reliability - being stranded on the side of the road is not conducive to adventure
  • Space to live for several weeks, or longer -  you never know when an earthquake or zombie apocalypse creates this scenario
  • Built in kitchen - especially to escape the elements when one cooks
  • Good MPG - Not surprisingly, this eliminates several options.  

In the end, we began looking at newer model VW Eurovans, Honda Elements with a pop-top, and Sprinter vans.  The Eurovan models seemed like a good choice, though the latest model manufactured was in 2003, and ones made in the 2000's fetch an even high price tag ($25,000+).  Add in added maintenance cost because they are VW's.  And space-wise, it might feel a little cramped after more than a week or so.  The latter fact also rang true for the Elements.  

At this point, we began searching for affordable Sprinter vans.  When Daimler Motors bought Chrysler, these vehicles began arriving in the US from Europe.  Sprinters were originally Mercedes built, but are rebranded as Dodge or Freightliner when they were imported.   However on the inside, they still have Mercedes engines, bodies, and parts (reliability!).  Additionally, they have high top models (space!), run on diesel engines (resulting in higher MPG).  In hindsight, the choice was always clear.  

So the search began.  Since the early 2000's, Sprinters were being used as cargo and passenger vehicles for various construction, electrician, delivery, shuttle, etc. companies, and sometimes you can find fleet vehicles that have been well-maintained.  But finding the perfect one was the right size, with low mileage, no body damage, with windows, and at an affordable price was indeed challenging.  We contacted folks off Craigslist and some dealers, but came up empty handed.  

I think started looking on eBay.  I have never purchased a vehicle via eBay before, and the thought of bidding on one, site unseen, conditions unknown, was nerve-racking, if not a bit foolish.  But I saw the perfect one.  2006 model, 140 inch wheel base, high top, under 200,000 miles, and $4000 cheaper than any Sprinter I looked at too date.  And the cherry - it was in a nice blue color.  Most Sprinters are a boring white, so the color was extra appealing.  The wild card, however, was the vehicle's current home:  Philadelphia, PA.  In my mind, i reasoned that even with a one-way ticket and driving the vehicle home, it would still be cheaper than what i could find on the West Coast.  And hopefully any damage it might have I could fix.  

Finally picking up the van in Philly

Finally picking up the van in Philly

So I did it.  I put a bid down and crossed my fingers.

Next thing I knew, i was on a flight to Philadelphia, to pick up this van I have never seen before, and drive it across the country.  I think all of my friends and coworkers thought i was crazy.  And I began to believe they were right.  

I was lucky - my good buddy Adam (www.contentunknown.com) happened to be in his hometown in New Jersey and was getting ready to drive back across the country to California himself.  He was able to take me to meet the seller in Philly and agreed to caravan with me while i took the van to it's new home.  

Overall, the van seemed to run great.  The body was another story.  Upon inspecting the vehicle, I saw the paint bubbling in several spots, a sign of rust forming beneath the paint.  I finally realize why they call it the rust belt.  Rust.  It's grown to be a cancer that has infiltrated my psyche.  But more on this in another post.  

Title now in hand, Adam and i began our trek across the country.  After a day of travel through some boring parts of the country (sorry Pennsylvania and Ohio), we stopped at my college alma mater, the University of Michigan.  We decided that we would travel through the Upper Peninsula and take the northern route through northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, and eventually get to Glacier National Park.  Neither of us had been to the UP of Michigan, and Glacier has long been on both of our tick lists.  

Parallel parked on the mean streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan

Parallel parked on the mean streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan

Just crossed over the Mackinac Bridge in the UP

Just crossed over the Mackinac Bridge in the UP

While in the UP, we spend a lovely mosquito infested night near Lake Superior, saw Pictured Rocks, and experienced a pasty.  We then trekked across some more fly-over states and eventually ended up at the eastern entrance of Glacier.  Barreling down the highway, we noticed a big plume of smoke across the sky.  As we neared the park entrance, a forest fire had broken out on the shores of Saint Mary Lake just an hour before.  The road through the park was blocked off.  We went up to an overlook and snapped some pictures of the smoke and fire obstructing our path.  

Checking out the views in Glacier National Park

Checking out the views in Glacier National Park

We decided to take an alternative route outside of the park to the western park entrance. The next day we drive through the park up to the summit of Logan Pass, where the road was then blocked because of the fire.  Adam decided to stay at the park another day, so at this point, we parted ways.  The rest of the trip went through the panhandle of Idaho, which was my first time visiting as well, and I finally made it home after about 4 days of driving.

As for the van, the trip went fairly well.  The only hiccups began happening when driving through North Dakota.  The fast speed limits made the turbo charger kick on several times, especially when travelling uphill or passing vehicles.  And each time the turbo charger kicked on, the van would enter into "Limp Home Mode," meaning the vehicle would go into lock-down mode and only allow acceleration up to 60 mph and nothing past 3rd gear.  Not good when the speed limit was 80.  The computer would reset itself once you stop and restart the engine.  Once going through a pass in Idaho, the engine computer entered LHM but would not reset without clearing the error codes with a code reader.  I crept into a tiny town 60 miles outside Coeur d'alene, which had no automotive store and then I had to travel another 20 mile up the interstate to another town where I found a NAPA auto parts who reset it for me.    By changing my driving style, i was able to avoid using the turbocharger the rest of the trip.

Crack in the Turbo Charger hose

Crack in the Turbo Charger hose

When i finally got home, I figured out the problem was coming from a giant crack in a hose that feeds into the turbo charger.  When the turbo charger kicks on, more air is fed into the engine.  The crack in the hose caused the air pressure to drop, and the vehicles computer senses this and go into lockdown mode.  $100 for a new pipe, and i was good to go.  Luckily the eBay seller reimbursed me for this part.  

Now the van was home, I began a new chapter in cleaning out, fixing, and building out this van into the ultimate adventure vehicle.  The remaining parts of this blog section will hopefully chronicle the journey, the headaches, and the accomplishments.  Enjoy!