Sabrina Oesterle Dry Run

Montana Dry Run: Heartache, Climbing and a Campervan

It is late afternoon in Montana and it smells like earth and summer. Birds whistle and flies buzz. The sun and the PBR are taking their effect now as lazy sleepiness sets in. I slide down into my camping chair, legs and flip-flopped feet splayed out in front of me. I feel deeply content and comfortable. Not exactly feelings I have experienced much this year.

I arrived in Bozeman the day before after driving out from Seattle with my van, Sheila. I have owned Sheila for about 2 months and just recently finished converting her from an empty cargo van to a campervan – adding insulation, wood paneling, lights, a fan, a bed platform, and an old red wooden cabinet I bought off Craigslist.

So far, I have taken Sheila only on a few weekend trips to go climbing. This is our first week-long trip and a perfect opportunity for a dry run. In the fall, I will take off for my first ever solo road trip to go climbing around the Southwest for 3 months.

For years I have dreamt of getting a van and going on a road trip. But until recently, I didn’t see how I could make it a reality. I have a demanding career at a university that doesn’t allow me to leave for an extended period of time. The academic world is not like other industries where you can quit and find a similar job elsewhere. Leaving a well-paying, successful, and prestigious career is not an easy, or smart, choice, especially for a 47-year old woman with a mortgage. Over the last couple of years, I increasingly felt trapped by the security of the paycheck and career, unable to follow my yearning to get on the road and spend more time climbing and traveling. I had become depressed and quite dissatisfied.

Then, my life fell apart and everything changed. My boyfriend of 4-years, with whom I had shared my life and home, suddenly left me. The shock, grief and pain of a broken heart brought me to my knees and sent me on a reluctant and thoroughly difficult path of healing and self-discovery.

So far, this has involved mostly standard things like seeing a therapist, meditation, journaling, yoga, talking to friends, reading self-help books, joining a virtual “Inner Game Immersion” life coaching group, and going from eating almost nothing to living on ice cream and chips and salsa. But it also included some extremely-unlike-me “woo-woo” methods like breathwork, smudging, tarot cards, and aromatherapy. All of it has helped in different ways. I am still deeply wounded and my healing process is by far complete, but I am also the happiest and the most “me” I have been in a very long time.

I threw myself into climbing this year and I am experiencing my best season ever. After years of struggling with my anxious lead head that turned my climbing into a frustrating, infuriating love-hate relationship, I finally feel the joy, confidence, satisfaction and deep sense of reward that I envied in others. Now I feel excited, proud, and deeply alive when I set out to lead and top out on a climb. Climbing has turned into one of the best parts of my life this year. Sheila is the other.

Shortly after the breakup, I found out that my research money would end in a few months for an uncertain amount of time. Suddenly I was in a position I hadn’t considered before. A continued appointment at the university but no salary for the foreseeable future. A forced sabbatical of sorts. What an opportunity to make that long-held dream a reality! Buy that van and get on the road! Make lemonade, right? If I learned just one thing this year, it is that there is always something good that comes with the bad. Always.

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Back in Montana, there is still some time to go before the sun drops behind the mountains. The flies disappear for a moment and it goes quiet. I am glad I am alone. I am not sure if I have ever been this comfortable in a natural setting. For a long time, I just sit and look and take it all in, not interested in reading or journaling, and with no cell phone reception, there is no urge to surf social media. When the sun drops behind the mountain ridge to the west, it becomes even quieter. Except for the birds, still singing.

With both the side and back doors open, the wind blows through the van. I am warm and comfy under my blankets in my van bed. Is this healing? Although my thoughts still fly to my old life, I wonder what comes next. My curiosity feels new and good.

The next morning, I wake up to gorgeous sunshine and a glorious view of the mountains. Can life be any better than this? I had left the side and back doors open until the night’s chill found me. The thought of being woken by a curious bear’s nose nagged at me enough to get up and reluctantly close the doors.

After that, I slept deeply and contently. Now, my bladder urges me to get out from under the covers. I slide the side door open and prepare to step on the blue plastic milk crate that serves as my outside stepping stool. I step down, but just a little off center, and the crate tips to the right throwing me off balance. My arms and left leg swing wildly in a desperate attempt to catch myself, but I go down hard, tucking my right shoulder at the last minute before I fall and roll. Laying in the tall grass and flower meadow in front of the van, I rub my shoulder, laughing. I am a bit stunned but quite amused, and glad that no one was around to witness what just happened. “Well,” I think, “I guess it’s good to get this out of the way sooner rather than later!”

I make tea and take my favorite blue ceramic Joshua Tree cup for a little walk down the dirt road. The views are stunning, the weather perfect, no one in sight. I feel deeply content. Until my body tells me to rush back to the van to grab the toilet paper and the matches and head into the meadow. Even the simplicity of taking care of business out in nature makes me happy today.

Beautiful Montana
Beautiful Montana

As I drove into Montana, I found myself caught in the dizzying spin of cycling between joyful gratitude and crushing grief. First, I was moved to tears by the beauty of the Montana scenery and thankfulness to be on a trip in my own van. Then my cheering, woohooing, and happy tears turned, quite suddenly, into heavy sobs, yelling, and angrily hitting the steering wheel as I became aware of the flip-side of doing this on my own. Feeling very empowered just a second ago, I now realized that I was not going to share this experience with the man I thought I would spend my life with, possibly much of it in a van. We both dreamed of the same thing. He was supposed to be here with me, goddamnit! What the f***!

Crying and breathing heavily, a new thought began to dawn on me. Without the breakup I would not be here, driving in my van on a road trip to Montana. This was MY van, MY adventure, and MY dream, and I was fulfilling it. Life is so goddamn bittersweet!

Things I learned on my dry run to Montana:

  • Camping in the city is not very fun, especially when you don’t have a bathroom in the van.
  • I have to secure the drawers of the van cabinet with an elaborate improvised bungee system despite having to de-stick the drawers before leaving Seattle.
  • Maneuvering the van down deeply rutted dirt roads is scary and exhilarating – turns out, I am pretty good at that, even driving backward.
  • I need to add mosquito netting because those little buggers are evil.
  • An earthquake feels like someone is gently rocking the van.
  • Mice can hop into the van to eat your leftover PB&J and apple core.
  • Driving long-distances with only spotty radio reception leaves lots of room for my thoughts and emotions to run wild.


About the writer

Sabrina Oesterle lives and works in Seattle. Having spent the first half of her life in Germany, she has an unexplainable love for the desert, the American West, and Southern literature. She is a nerdy social scientist and researcher, unapologetically fond of spreadsheets. She inherited her love for travel and camper vans from her father, who took the family around Europe every summer. She dreams of the simple life somewhere out west and becoming a writer someday.

Follow Sabrina’s blog or catch up on her Instagram.

One comment

  1. Julie

    Great work Sabrina! Great to see there is life beyond TIGI 🙂


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