travelog 119

Farewell, Our PocoLoco

4500 kilometers (2800 miles) in one week at an average speed of 80 km/h (50 mph). That's how far it is from Guadalajara, Jalisco (Mexico) to Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada) and that's how fast, or better how slow our Unimog runs if you're looking for a comfortable ride. Our pan was to get it over with as fast and painless as possible but we soon realized that a few breathers, voluntary and imposed, were not that bad.

The following is an account of our last trip with PocoLoco. The Unimog had served us reliably as a rolling hotel for many years but this year we finally sold it to a huge Unimog enthusiast in Canada. On the way north we came through many familiar looking areas, enjoyed one last time American RV sites, once again met incredibly helpful people, patiently answered the same questions over and over again, and for days felt like Japanese tourists who visit Europe in five days to pretend afterwards having seen all of Europe.

Before we could start our long trip north though, we had to get a permit from the Mexican authorities first that would allow us to drive the vehicle to the US border. Mexican laws had changed to the effect that foreigners with a permanent residency permit were not allowed anymore to drive/own vehicles with foreign license plates that were once temporarily imported. It was pretty time consuming and complicated to apply for the papers but finally we held the correct permit in hand. Sure enough nobody wanted to see these papers on our trip through Mexico but if we did not have had them we would certainly have run into troubles.

We started the trip on a Saturday. From Guadalajara to Ciudad Juarez we drove as much as possible on toll roads and stayed the nights at large gas stations where we were in good company of other truck drivers. After two and a half days we reached the border to El Paso, Texas, where the border crossing was extremely easy compared to other times. Still on the Mexican side the temporary import permit for the Unimog was cancelled and the sticker removed from the windshield. Once our passports were checked on the US side the truck was thoroughly inspected. Soon a group of border agents had assembled and everybody wanted to have a look at the inside of PocoLoco. We also had to answer the standard questions of "how many miles per gallon", etc., pp. In town, Gertrud and Ad were already expecting us and had the guest room ready. This made it easy to spontaneously decide to enjoy a day of rest at their place.

On Wednesday morning we left El Paso. On a more or less deserted freeway we drove through Las Cruces in New Mexico on towards Albuquerque. We were unable to see much of the landscape because of fierce winds blowing sand and dust clouds. At big freeway exits there were always signs for the corresponding gas stations, hotels, and restaurants. At one of those exits we decided to have lunch at Wendy's. Of course we didn't want to have unhealthy hamburgers but instead opted for very healthy salads that nowadays are offered in most fast food places. Our two salads came in plastic bowls, were ridiculously small, below average tasty, and above average expensive, or had we simply grown too used to Mexican prices? In any case the decision to stop at supermarkets and buy bread, cheese, sugar snap peas, and fruits for a picknick was quickly taken. The last time we came through Albuquerque was 13 years ago. Then we had even stopped and spent a few days to visit the old downtown and more. It looked like the town had grown quite a bit in the meantime and we were glad to be able to drive through it on the freeway with the rest of the heavy traffic. Then we followed Interstate 40 west through barren rolling hills. Soon we passed several Indian reservations that were easily recognizable from the freeway by their huge casinos. Every exit was lined with countless souvenir shops. Already in 2001 we had wondered how the Indians around here produced all the genuine Indian jewellery, the authentic woven carpets, baskets, kachina dolls, and mokassins. If back then it really had been the Indians, now the kitsch certainly is made in China.

In Gallup we had enough for the day and parked on the Safeway parking lot which was populated with strange looking people. It didn't take long for a young man to approach us and ask for money to buy diapers for his baby daughters, money he would surely pay back the next morning. Soon after it was an older man admiring and asking many questions about PocoLoco until he finally inquired about a contribution to his dinner. It was a cold night at 2000 m (6560 ft). The next morning we had expensive coffee at Starbucks and Internet. With the morning coffee we learned quickly too: Starbucks was generally way too expensive but at large gas stations one could find freshly brewed coffee to affordable prices even in the afternoon.

When Martin started the Unimog early in the morning it was impossible to get air pressure and air was escaping somewhere around the break pedal. Fortunately we had a cell phone and called the closest Love's truck stop with garage. The friendly man on the phone inquired several times about our truck and we always assured him that once on the Safeway parking lot he would not have problems finding our truck. Less than half an hour later a mechanic appeared and when Martin started the Unimog everything was suddenly as usual. For safety reasons we drove to the Love's truck stop where the mechanics explained again that during the cold night a little bit of condensation in the break line had frozen and that's why the valve could not open correctly. Of course we should have known that ourselves but for a long time we had not been travelling in really cold areas anymore. The guys at the mechanics shop didn't want anything for their efforts, not even the Swiss chocolate we didn't have with us. They just laughed it off and said they were too big anyway.

On a normal two lane road we now drove through the Navajo Indian reservation north to Shiprock. On our left we saw interesting rock formations and Monument Valley in Arizon was in fact very close but unfortunately we didn't have the time for a sightseeing detour. From Shiprock we continued to Cortez in Colorado and then northwest to Monticello in Utah. On the horizon snowy mountain ranges were visible for most of the stretch. In Monticello we turned towards Moab and came through familiar areas: Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Even from the moving PocoLoco we were able to shoot a few nice pictures of red rocks and snowy peaks. Early in the afternoon we reached Moab where we had stayed 16 years ago. The road still led through the center of the small town but every free area was now converted to camping places or built over with hotels and souvenir shops. Through spectacularly beautiful landscapes we came to Green River where we finally reached a big freeway, Interstate 70, again. We decided to try the short cut that was obviously used by the railroad and the whole heavy traffic to Salt Lake City. This road was marked as a small road on our ancient AAA map but now turned out to be a downright freeway. We made it to Price where we decided to stay in a campground with a hot shower. A mere $35 plus tax was the cost of it. 1998 it was around $25. For the $35 we got a narrow space with electricity and water, a rotting table with bench, WiFi Internet, and a hot shower in the bathroom. Somehow the camping romance soon vanished with those prices and we wondered how the many retired couples and families with kids in their huge RV's were paying for all that. Today we had certainly travelled in competition to the Japanese: we had managed to drive through New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah in one day and even took photos of Monument Valley, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, although some of the pictures were completely out of focus.

The next morning we tortured the truck up Price Canyon and to the 2300 m (7550 ft) Soldier Summit. Of course the road went straight down the mountain again on the other side to reach the flats south of Provo and Salt Lake City. At the mouth of the canyon it must be really windy because there was a small windpark installed with huge windmills. We passed Salt Lake City on a six lane road with a lot of traffic and still were the slowest. By now we had worked out a routine: while Martin was driving I was preparing sandwiches in the back of the truck. At large rest areas we stopped to change drivers and use the restrooms. These rest areas were more like rest oasis next to the freeway with WiFi Internet, clean restrooms, tables and benches, and signs explaining the natural beauty of the area. North of Salt Lake City we turned onto Interstate 84 and drove northwest into Idaho. The landscape was more or less boring, barren hills, endless fields, an empty freeway, and some snowy mountains on the horizon. The only attraction was the Snake River which we crossed several times. Other highlights on American roads were trucks with trailers that were covered with huge American flags and painted with patriotic lettering. The number one slogan was: "God bless America, our troops, and especially our snipers". We ended the day in Mountain Home, Idaho, where we found another WalMart as in most bigger cities along the road. We stocked up on groceries and also bought Martin's birthday cake: a Chocolate Lovers Cheesecake Sampler. After we had checked all the oil and other fluid levels on the truck Martin discovered a deep cut in the flank of one of the rear tires. Since the cut opened for about 1.5 cm we decided to have it checked by an expert the next day.

Martin's birthday started with chocolate cheesecake and coffee on the parking lot of Les Schwab, the largest tire dealer in northwestern US. The tire was inspected and the people said that they wouldn't drive on under any circumstances because the tire would heat up on the road and the cut would widen which could lead to a disaster. Since our plan was to get the Unimog in one piece to Canada and sell it, we decided to look for a new tire of the same type. Coincidentally the young man in charge was a huge Unimog fan and did everything imaginable to help us out as quickly as possible. This was especially difficult because it was Saturday morning and nothing much would be happening over the weekend. We had a Michelin tire waiting for us in Everett near Seattle which could have been sent down to Mountain Home but this would most likely not have happened over the weekend. Finally our Unimog fan located two new tires near Portland, Oregon, and organized their transport at once. These tires were put on a truck on Saturday morning and transported to Bend, Oregon. On Sunday they were then transferred onto a Les Schwab truck and Monday morning at 8AM they were sitting in front of our tire place in Mountain Home, Idaho. The transport of these two huge tires cost us unbelievably cheap $30.

There were not that many places to stay the night near Les Schwab in Mountain Home. There was a KOA campground for $38 plus tax. Just across the street from the tire place we discovered the Hilander Motel which had good reviews on the Internet. A personal visit confirmed the positive reviews and for $42 plus tax we got a room with a huge bed, table and chairs, a flat screen TV, WiFi Internet, fridge and microwave, and a bathroom with a tub. In the morning there was hot coffee and greasy donuts in the lobby. Also, the center of town was easily reached on foot from the motel. In the afternoon we visited a small farmers and flea market where one could even buy semiautomatic weapons on presentation of an identification. Then there was a Cinco de Mayo party in the city park where we admired the many fat people, rednecks, extremely fair skinned, tall and blonde people, the friends of the NRA (National Rifle Association, the American gun fools), and many more. There was not much more going on otherwise at this Mexican fiesta. After having seen too much advertisement on TV a salami pizza ad was on the screen. According to our Internet research there was a Pizza Hut just around the corner. We ordered a salami pizza online and later picked it up on foot. The pizza was accompanied by a bottle of Syrah from the Snake River Valley. On Sunday we walked through town bundled up in our warm fleece jackets passing run-down houses and neglected gardens. A constant cold wind seemed to be blowing through Mountain Home. Many times the flora seemed familiar: Peonies and lilacs and other bushes that flowered in spring in Switzerland. Late in the afternoon we were then sitting outside of Kurley's Sports Bar & Grill for local beer on the tap, hamburgers and French fries.

At 8AM sharp we stood in front of Les Schwab where the new tires were already waiting for us. We left the bad tire behind, put the old rear tire on the roof as a spare, mounted the two new tires, and were riding along Interstate 84 towards Boise at 10:30AM. Near Ontario we reached Oregon. Then we changed onto Interstate 82 and crossed the Columbia River into Washington. Somehow we had had the illusion that past Salt Lake City we would not have to cross real mountains anymore but our way through Oregon and Washington led either over rolling hills or over one mountain pass after another where we certainly had magnificent views onto the countryside. The landscape was now much greener and lusher but we also came through many rain storms. The drive through the Yakima Valley with its vineyards and apple and cherry plantations was another highlight of the day. Because it was a long day we tried to find a WalMart in Ellensburg but, surprisingly, there was none. We drove up and down the main street through town and finally ended up at a restaurant where we had hamburgers, French fries and local beer on tap again. There was a huge truck stop and gas station at the freeway exit where we parked between all the other trucks. Such places were great because they were right on the freeway and one could use the restrooms and get hot coffee in the morning but the parking was always very well lit and the refrigerated trucks let their units run all night long which didn't make for quiet nights.

On Tuesday we had to cross over the Snowqualmie Pass, the last mountain pass on the trip. Up there snow was still covering the ground just next to the freeway. Repeatedly we came through rain storms and saw beautiful rainbows inbetween. Coming down on the western side of the pass traffic grew heavier and we came into the morning commuter traffic of Greater Seattle. Since we were anyway the slowest ones we didn't care that much as long as we were moving forward. We made a coffee stop in Everett at the tire place that originally had a tire ready for us. When we had called them with the news that we didn't need the tire anymore, Caleb asked us to stop by with the Unimog so that he could see the truck up close and not just on our website. The whole company was enthusiastic about our visit and we talked about our trips and future plans without the Unimog. Then we drove north close to the Pacific coast. We decided on the easiest border crossing near Blaine where we had to wait in line for a little while. The Canadian agent asked many questions about PocoLoco, stamped our passports, and sent us on our way without a thorough inspection. Near Vancouver the roads became noticeably narrower and traffic heavier. Without problems we found the way to New Westminster where we were invited at Karen and Leigh's place, a brother of the new Unimog owner Lindsay. The couple lived in a neighborhood with steep streets, beautiful flower gardens and century old houses.

This evening our arrival and three birthdays were celebrated. Martin's on May 3rd, Karen and Leigh's between May 4-6. The weather didn't play along so we sat inside around the cooking island, savoured good wine, talked about our adventures on the road, and enjoyed a delicious dinner. The next days passed with introductions into the peculiarities and technical details of PocoLoco. Lindsay lived in another, more Asian, part of town but lent us his car so that we could drive back and forth. Spare parts and tools were unpacked, checked, and catalogued, and in doing so we discovered some items that we had no idea that we even owned. Of course we also got a tour through Lindsay's Mitsubishi Fuso with a camper unit that was built decades ago by the predecessor of Unicat. Lindsay's Vietnamese friends treated us one night to Vietnamese cuisine where even the spring rolls were home made. Otherwise we cooked together with Karen and Leigh and decimated their excellently stocked wine cellar of many bottles. After the first two days of rain the sun came out and we enjoyed dinners with fleece jackets on the terrace. We spent only one day as tourists in downtown Vancouver where we remembered many corners of the city that we had visited years ago. We still very much liked the city situated on the Pacific with views onto snowy mountains. As soon as Lindsay didn't have any burning questions about the truck anymore, business matters were taken care of, and the Unimog had new Canadian license plates, we bought our train tickets for the trip south but this is another story for the next travelog.

April 2014

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen