Narrative Travel Stories: Frozen Tents in Alaska, My Travel Van Catching Fire, and More

Update: This article is a collection of several narrative articles that were previously published as separate blog posts. These are fun and interesting travel stories which were written for the sake of entertainment (aka, old-school travel blogging!), rather than for providing specific travel tips or advice.

Lost Luggage and Frozen Tents: Lessons in Perseverance From Alaska

That paranoid feeling I often get when I approach the baggage carousel – Oh no, what if my bag never shows up? – was finally realized on my flight to Anchorage, when United Airlines lost the pack with all my camping supplies.

My friend and I waited and waited, yet our garish orange pack never arrived. We spoke with the lady at the United baggage counter, who assured us it must have just missed the flight and would probably arrive on the next one, scheduled for just after midnight.

She offered to drive it up to Talkeetna, a couple hours away, where we were staying in a hostel for the night. Though it was an inconvenience, I figured all would be forgiven if the bag showed up in the morning.

Except it didn’t. And since we were scheduled to camp in Denali National Park that day, we needed to replace our entire inventory of camping equipment in a hurry. Gone was our tent, sleeping bags, first aid kit, camelbak, flashlights… pretty much all of the gear we had spent months finding and purchasing online.

fred meyer sleeping bags tents

We had to drive 90 minutes back to Wasilla, the nearest town with real stores. So we got up super early (starting a pattern of operating on minimal sleep that would become the theme of the entire week) and began the journey. I assumed we’d have to buy everything at Target, but we also discovered a Fred Meyer and a Sports Authority there.

We couldn’t afford to blow our budget, so we decided to buy the cheapest supplies we could find, no matter how crappy they were. (United had offered to provide a small level of reimbursement, but that wouldn’t come until much later.)

With limited time, we embarked on a whirlwind shopping spree, which still makes me smile. I dropped him off at the Target and Sports Authority, conveniently located next to each other, and drove over to Fred Meyer. We each set off with a grocery list of important items and frantically exchanged texts about the prices of each.

fred meyer alaska sleeping bags

At Fred Meyer we found sleeping bags on sale for $15. Score! They were 40 degree bags, which was fine for this particular week in Alaska. We also found a tent on sale for $27. It was obviously not a quality brand, but as long as it provided shelter, it would do the trick.

At Target, we spotted little micro travel pillows in the bargain bin for $2.50 each. We picked up $3 flashlights, though it turned out those were totally unnecessary since at this time of year, it stays semi-light all night long.

We also had to buy a new pack. Properly replacing my 65L bag was out of the question, but Target came through with a $35 duffel bag with straps that could turn it into a somewhat comfortable pack facsimile. Ultimately, we got everything in less than 20 minutes for around $100 (luckily, there’s no sales tax in Alaska) and felt proud for salvaging our camping trip.

All of these supplies for less than a benjamin!

tent
As travel stories go, this one was a success.

In Denali, we received more lessons in perseverance. As I feared, the budget tent leaked when it rained. We had a towel to mop up the dampness, so it was tolerable. The following night, we camped out in the backcountry, without realizing the area we selected had a higher elevation (around 4000 feet) than most of the spots along the main road (around 4000 feet.)

At night, the wind rocked our tent like we were on Mt. Everest, and a brutal chill took over. While curled up inside the sleeping bags, we stayed surprisingly warm, but when I woke and tried to unzip the door flap, I realized it was stuck.

The zipper was frozen shut.

It had apparently gotten down into the low 30s overnight. The ground had frosted and the rain droplets on the tent had iced over. Yikes. But we made it through. And now we get to tell the story about surviving freezing temperatures camping in the Denali backcountry, in a spot that happened to be right on the other side of a hill where we spotted a grizzly bear just an hour before pitching the tent. Fighting through the adversity led to a rewarding experience.

(More on the camping adventure next week. And more on the lost baggage situation – at the moment, United still has no clue where my bag is.)

There would be plenty of other hurdles during the week that I haven’t even mentioned yet, like locking our keys in the car hundreds of miles from the nearest locksmith. But Alaska is supposed to be rugged and tough, so perhaps it’s fitting that we encountered all sorts of obstacles. The important thing was that we never let them stand in the way of having an epic adventure.

Travel Stories #2: When My Travel Van Was Set on Fire and Destroyed

travel stories - van on fire

Last December, I was walking home, preparing for a flight out of town that evening, when I looked over at my van and saw one of the doors slightly ajar. Nothing else looked wrong, until I walked over and discovered that the entire inside of the van had been burned to a crisp. Many of the windows had been blown out. The hood had been forced open by flames.

It’s very strange trying to comprehend the fact that someone has set your vehicle on fire and destroyed it overnight. It took a while to set in. It was a bizarre smell of burnt wires and metal. The vehicle and everything in it was ruined.

This was the view of the front seat.

van interior

And just like that, the “Magic Van” that had taken me to all 48 lower states was gone.

Getting over losing my van

Oddly, I wasn’t broken up about losing my travel van. That’s because a few months earlier, it had been stolen, and even though it was recovered a day later, it was never the same. I know my vehicles like a mother knows her child, and I could tell something just didn’t feel right. Something in the engine was off. It felt like it was going to stall every time I stopped at a red light.

Because of that, I no longer trusted this vehicle to take me anywhere beyond the city limits, so I had already resigned myself to getting rid of it. The fire just sped up the process – and saved me lots of money in car insurance, to be honest.

I didn’t lose a whole lot of material things inside the van. The biggest item was a set of old golf clubs, which I miss, but I rarely get to play anyway.

towing van - funny travel stories

Also, the police did not bother to investigate either the car theft or the fire. The cop said he was marking the fire down as an “accident,” as if the van decided to set itself on fire at 3 in the morning. Had I been more clear-headed, I would have protested. But really, it didn’t matter. As noted earlier, I needed to be rid of the vehicle one way or another, so I let it go.

The tow truck driver speculated it had been mistaken for a gang vehicle. In any case, if you’re looking to steal or blow up a car, come to Chicago- the police won’t even attempt to apprehend you!

Moving forward without a vehicle

I still have not replaced the vehicle. In Chicago, you can easily get around by foot and by bike. I do want to replace it with another vehicle, perhaps (cringe) an SUV. I know, they guzzle gas, but I need a vehicle I can sleep in.

Actually, my dream would be either a VW van or a super old-school mini Tioga. That will take many more months of plugging away at the freelance writing gig, but it will all be worth it to drive around in one of those!

After the travel van was set on fire and destroyed, I thought it was an appropriate time for a photo retrospective, to think back on all the good times we had.

One of my favorite van trips was to the Badlands of South Dakota, where we saw the crazy rock formations and got to see prairie dogs and bighorn sheep up close.

badlands vehicle - narrative travel stories

We went to the highest point in the Badlands to check out the scenery.

badlands view

Then we headed over to Crazy Horse, the giant monument that may never be finished.

van crazy horse

Nearby Custer State Park allowed us to feed the wild burros right through the windows.

begging burros

An artsy winter shot of me behind the big old wheel.

travel stories - van pic

The van settled in nicely in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans.

new orleans parking

The first stop on my ’09 summer road trip – Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, where I saw Cheat Summit Fort, a former Civil War grave site.

van west virginia

My first (failed) attempt at a cool standing-on-the-roof celebration pic. Somewhere in New Mexico.

van new mexico

My successful attempt a couple weeks later in Arizona. Much cooler!

narrative travel story - van arizona

Another rocky Arizona shot. The van enjoyed mountainous scenery.

arizona vehicle road trip

The view from the inside. Taken in a quiet Michigan campground, October 2009.

travel van from inside

Outside Carlsbad Caverns.

carlsbad caverns

My awesome friend Robin joined me at a campground in Northern Massachusetts.

vandwelling chevy g20

I love cemeteries and so did the van. We were fascinated by this small cemetery in the western Texas desert.

texas montvale cemetery

Drivers in Los Angeles park really close.

van park - travel stories

Looking back at the Pacific Ocean on Highway 1 on the California coast, a popular route for the San Diego to Seattle drive up the Pacific coast.

pacific coast drive

The van didn’t have a CD player, but it did have a good old fashioned cassette deck, which I put to great use by finding tapes in thrift stores.

tape deck chevy g20

Bison! Right outside my window in Yellowstone National Park. Seeing these beasts was one of my coolest travel stories.

yellowstone bison

The amount of insect road kill on the front of the van got pretty crazy at times.

insect roadkill

At 11,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.

van rocky mountains

The van from above, parked in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.

van pilsen

Parked next to the metal picnic table I slept on in Death Valley.

furnace creek death valley

Thanks for all the memories, Magic Van!

vandwelling vehicle

Travel Stories #3: Five Observations About Boston That Surprised Me

Boston is my July Featured Travel Destination, which is appropriate considering that today is the 4th of July and Boston was the scene of many of the important events that led to the founding of our nation.

I can’t wait to go back to Boston. Not for the sports, of course – the Red Sox and Patriots are part of the evil empire. But for the culture, the history and the nightlife.

Before my visit, I knew a lot about American history, such as Bunker Hill and Granary Cemetery. But otherwise, I didn’t know a ton of interesting facts about Boston. Here are five surprising things I learned about Boston during my visit.

1. The roundabouts are freakin’ scary

I’d never seen a roundabout until I went to New England. Unlike every other part of the country, which has civilized stoplights and stop signs at four-way intersections, Boston and surrounding areas prefer to use roundabouts. In these weird junctions, traffic arrives from all directions and drivers speed out into the intersections like maniacs.

These things remind me of the days before traffic signs and rules of the road. It’s damn near anarchy out there! If you’re driving in Boston, beware of these things.

2.They don’t make a big deal about where the Boston Tea Party took place

This was a shocker, because it was one of the spots I most wanted to visit. I’m rarely in awe of people or things, but one thing I am in awe of is history. Standing at the exact spot of such a famous patriotic event, one I read about endlessly in middle school history class, would really be an overwhelming experience.

I think there’s one historic marker, but it’s hard to find and there’s no other signage of the event. I would expect them to make a much bigger deal about this. Evidently, there is a museum, but it’s been closed for years.

boston tea party site

3. The trains don’t run all night

Come on, Boston. If Chicago can run a few train and bus lines 24 hours, surely you guys can. I wanted to go out and explore a few select neighborhoods and perhaps engage in some nightlife with a choice beverage or two, but we had to leave the bars before midnight to catch the last train back to where we were staying. Lame!

boston transit map

4. Jamaica Plain is where I want to be

I found myself enjoying Jamaica Plain, a revitalized neighborhood with lots of green space, pubs, cafes and other places of interest. I don’t find areas where I feel at home in every city (New Orleans comes to mind), so I appreciated finding such a location in Boston.

5. Newbury Comics really is the best multimedia store around

I’d read about Newbury Comics before going to Boston, and it sure did live up to its reputation. This monstrous store had aisles and aisles of every form of media, from music to movies to tv to video games, plus clothing, stickers, keychains and other novelty items. While I do indeed heart bacon, I ended up purchasing a much more rock & roll sticker – one that depicted the Velvet Underground’s first album cover, as drawn by Andy Warhol.

interesting facts about boston

Boston is a great place to start a cross-country road trip on U.S. Route 20, if you’re up for an adventure! Do you know any fun facts about Boston, or were you surprised about anything in the city?

Do you have any interesting travel stories to share?

20 thoughts on “Narrative Travel Stories: Frozen Tents in Alaska, My Travel Van Catching Fire, and More”

  1. Great Quest Travel

    Wow! That was a crazy story. It is wonderful that you could make the most of your experiences despite the unexpected turn of events. So often people just can not cope with unexpected or negative events, but you have proven that just because something bad happens, you can still have an amazing vacation experience.

  2. Incredibly resourceful. I used to travel with my tent and sleeping bag in another suitcase. And one other time the tent was frozen on the inside and I headed south and into a hotel – its cold sleeping outside at 30 degrees unless prepared.

    I would have been devastated. Glad you salvaged your trip and your fun

  3. I am loving your Alaska posts. All that stuff for under $100?! NICE!!! No sales tax? I’m stocking up on *something* (don’t know what yet) when I get there next month, score! I don’t have a sleeping bag and will probably borrow my friends, but good to know they are cheap as chips, just in case. I love it when places make things that you’ll actually need in the location a decent price instead of gouging you, because they can.

    1. Most supplies in Alaska are very expensive, so this was kind of a fluke. Make sure to buy everything you need at the big department stores in the big cities.

    1. Usually I wouldn’t even try to camp if it’s going to be that cold. I was expecting upper 40s in Alaska.

  4. Hey Scott, I feel your pain. I’ve come to the conclusion that United is the absolute worst airline on the face of the earth. I had a similar thing happen to me recently — they lost my luggage on an 8-day trip to Mexico, lied to me for the first couple of days and said it would arrive on the next flight, then finally admitted they didn’t have any idea where it was. It never showed up; I had to buy new clothing, and new luggage for the return trip and believe it or not — they lost my new bag on the return trip!!! Both bags — the one they originally lost and the new one they subsequently lost — showed up the day after I returned home. I filled out a claim form for reimbursement, but still haven’t received a check. There’s no way I’ll ever fly United again unless there is no other choice!

    1. Wow, what a miserable experience! I didn’t have a good impression of United already (I only went with them this time because flights to Alaska are expensive and I had to choose the cheapest.) I’m not sure I will travel with them again.

    1. We even went under-budget in some other areas to make up for the $100 we spent here, so it worked it ok.

  5. I DREAD the day my luggage does not appear on that carousel. My precious clothes, shoes and makeup would not be nearly as easy to replace as your camping supplies! But it sounds like you made the best of things and it worked out OK. I wouldn’t be surprised if some baggage handler is having a very nice camping trip with your stuff!

    1. Luckily, our clothes were in our carry-ons, so at least we didn’t have the hassle of creating a new wardrobe!

  6. What a sinking feeling it is to lose your luggage especially when you are on a trip like this. But its great that you made it through and I almost felt that chilly wind smacking me in the face when I read about it!!!
    Waiting for the adventures to continue.
    Have a wonderful weekend Scott:)

  7. Suffice it to say that this made me want to give the two of you a hug.

    Not only do you have some great stories (and I don’t even know how the rest of your trip went), but those are the things that test a relationship. So next time you are fighting about something stupid and small, you can remind one another that you survived Alaska.

    1. Thanks for the support. You’re right, it is a good test of compatibility to go through something like this. Considering that our last argument was over margarine(!), this helps put things into perspective.

  8. Wow, talk about travel mishaps! Love that you didn’t let it get in your way of having an epic adventure! How fast and cheap you handled the luggage crisis is pretty remarkable. I hope you have a photos of the frozen zipper and the ice on your tent, sounds like a (thus far) once-in-a-lifetime experience. I know this might not make sense, but this post makes me want to go to Alaska! OK, so just the word Alaska makes me want to go to Alaska, but your post reinforces it despite the challenges! Winter wonderland in summer is my kind of joy 🙂

    Oh yeah, and since you asked, I had to go through 3 suitcases in a 9 week trip, because they kept getting torn. Fortunately, the contents of the suitcases stayed safe. I hope United uncovers the mystery of your luggage soon!

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