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Glacier National Park

I Quit My Job for a More Adventurous Life. Then My Car Broke Down.

The journey that forever changed me started with paprika and stalled in an obscure Montana town.

I don’t remember what exactly planted the idea in my head that we should quit our jobs, put our furniture in storage and travel North America in our 1998 Subaru Legacy but the moment we decided to do it is ingrained in my brain. It was, incidentally, also the moment I discovered paprika. Two kids, barely 21 years old, sitting in a booth at a fancy-to-us restaurant (because, big life decisions are better made somewhere that feels important), poking suspiciously at a dish dusted in red powder.

It was January and our apartment lease ended on June 30. My boyfriend, Topher, and I looked at each other over the table and confirmed yes, we were going to do this. It was the most adventurous decision we’d ever made.

It had been only a year since I’d graduated college, but I already knew that spending my days reviewing insurance policies wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I set a photo of Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, as my screensaver, the mountain-ringed lake with red canoes resting on the shore acting as my guiding light. That would be our first destination.

Today living out of a van is normal. But back then, #vanlife was just starting to take off. We figured, if you could do it in a van, you could do it in a Subaru: #subarulife.

Sleeping in the Subaru
Sleeping in the Subaru (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

Our friends and family thought we were crazy as we spent the spring saving up money, taking the seats out of the Legacy and building a platform to sleep on. When the day finally came to leave, we took everything we owned to a storage unit. Exhausted, we fell into the guest bed at my parent’s house in Denver. We were officially living on the road.

We lingered the next day in the driveway, organizing and reorganizing our home on wheels, nervous to leave the only life either of us had ever known. Finally, we hit the road, Subway sandwiches tucked into the cooler and our shepherd mix McKenzie panting in excitement, our wheels pointed north towards Canada.

Settling into life on the road was awkward at first. We wanted to stretch our meager savings as far as it would go, so we opted to dispersed camp on public lands versus staying in campgrounds. While one of us drove, the other would study the paper map, navigating to the big swaths of green that indicated national forests. Our afternoons were spent bumping down dirt roads, looking for a place to set up for the night. If we were lucky, there’d be a good spot to pitch the tent and we could sleep comfortably. If we weren’t, we’d unload everything from the car and sleep squished together in the back. I think my boyfriend and dog preferred the tent, but I loved the nights spent in the car, where I could fall asleep looking through the windows at the stars and watch dawn spread over the landscape from my sleeping bag, McKenzie curled up on my feet.

Dispersed camping near Yellowstone
Dispersed camping near Yellowstone (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

We drove through Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, stopping to watch geysers erupt and bison cross the road. While it wasn’t easy, I was starting to feel like we’d figured life on the road. That was, until somewhere in Montana when the temperature gauge started to climb.

If the Subaru was a human, it would have been old enough to vote. We’d bought it the previous year for $3,200 and though it had been a champ so far, it was bound to have some old car quirks. We kept our eye on the gauge and bought more coolant, continuing north.

When we entered Glacier National Park, it was a misty and moody day. The overheating problem had gotten progressively worse. While the airflow at highway speeds seemed to be cooling the car, the temperature would start climbing towards red as soon as we slowed down. When we hit the national park with its 25 mph speed limit, the car wasn’t happy. We drove through thick forests, distracted by the views with one eye on the thermostat. Within 20 minutes, we had to pull over and shut off the engine. My boyfriend poked around under the hood for a while before we walked through the trees to the shores of Lake McDonald.

When the view opened up, it was immense. Mist-shrouded mountains guarded a stunning lake with a beach of multi-colored rocks. We didn’t say it aloud, but I know we were both thinking that the responsible thing to do would be to get back to the highway, but this was why we had left our old lives–to see things we’d never seen before.

Once the car cooled down, we headed up the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. As we climbed, the temperature plummeted to near freezing and the car cooperated. Sheer drop-offs lined the edge of the road and waterfalls tumbled down the mountainsides. Clouds hugged the peaks. Near the summit of Logan Pass, we saw two mountain goats. We felt like we’d driven into another world.

Carpets of wildflowers spread out before us as the car descended down the eastern side of the road. A feral mother horse and her foal crossed the road in front of us. And then the car’s temperature started climbing again. The magic bubble burst.

Wildflowers in East Glacier
Wildflowers in East Glacier (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

We spent the better part of an hour riding in tense silence until Topher voiced our fears aloud. He didn’t think there was any way we were going to make it to Canada unless we replaced the radiator. It was a Friday night, and we were hundreds of miles from the nearest big city.

As soon as we hit a pocket of cell service, I Googled the auto parts store in Kalispell, Montana, a town of 22,000 at the time and two hours away. Miraculously, when I told them the make and model of our car, they had a radiator in stock for us. We put it on hold, limped the car to a campsite deep in a wildfire burn scar and waited for morning. We’d be installing the new radiator ourselves.

That night, the wind howled through the skeletons of charred trees. We’d set up the tent, but I chickened out at midnight and moved us all to the car, convinced I was hearing grizzly bear noises in the wind. The next morning, we were awoken by the sound of distant chainsaws. McKenzie’s hackles raised at the foreboding forest as I made coffee. We hightailed it to Kalispell.

Armed with a $10 set of sockets and a YouTube video, Topher went to work in the AutoZone parking lot. While he was handy, his experience working on cars was limited to oil changes and a few bigger projects, always with my dad to guide him. Now, we were at the mercy of the internet.

I carried our laundry down the street to a laundromat, running back and forth to swap loads as he worked on the car. The morning came and went.

An old man in a cowboy hat and an even older pick-up truck with two dogs in the bed pulled up next to us. He noted the half torn apart car and our Colorado plates. “You’re a long ways from home to have the car that taken apart,” he mused.

He peered over my boyfriend’s shoulder, giving him a few words of advice. He wasn’t the only one. The AutoZone employees came out to watch him work every few hours. Nearly everyone who came or went stopped by, offering advice, looking up videos on their own phones, offering what help they could.

Coming from a city where I’d once spent 45 minutes trying to flag down help on the highway for a broken axle, it was strange and kind of nice to feel the small town camaraderie.

It was mid-July in northern Montana, so the sun was still high in the sky, but evening was approaching and businesses were starting to close. The car remained in pieces in the parking lot. The next day was Sunday and if we couldn’t get the car put together before dark, we’d be spending two nights in whatever motel we could walk to, waiting for a shop to open on Monday morning.

Finally, covered in grease, my boyfriend turned the key in the ignition. The Subaru rumbled to life. McKenzie lifted her head from where she’d been sleeping in the passenger seat. We were back in business.

Exhausted and unwilling to return to the spooky forest, we slept in a pullout on the side of a state highway. The next morning, we were finally crossing into Canada.

The feelings of confidence from earlier in the trip had evaporated. The radiator saga had shook me and the border crossing was confusing and intense. We were ushered out of our car and into a building so quickly we forgot to roll up the windows. McKenzie leaned her whole upper body out of the car, barking at the border crossing agents as we watched from the waiting room. They left us in the small room for what felt like an eternity before we got brave enough to ask if we could go rescue our dog. They waved us through and suddenly, we were in Alberta.

We’d been so focused on the excitement of the trip that we hadn’t really done our research. As we drove through rural Canada, it occurred to me that I had no idea if we could dispersed camp up there the way we had in the U.S.

Finally, a gas station appeared in the distance. I repeatedly got a “card declined” message when I tried to pay at the pump, so I went inside. The attendant examined my credit card suspiciously.

“I don’t think we accept this card. I’ve never seen one of these before.”

It was a Discover, and the only credit card we had with us. My debit card didn’t work abroad. I paid for the tank of gas with the emergency $100 CAD we’d pulled out of the bank before we left and returned on the verge of tears.

We navigated to the nearest town and stopped at the ubiquitous Canadian donut shop, Tim Hortons. My boyfriend went in to get us a snack and I called my dad. Hearing his voice was the final straw, and I burst into tears.

We had no access to our money, no place to sleep, a dubious repair holding our car together and suddenly home felt like it was very far away. My dad let me cry and offered to book us a hotel room for the night, but somewhere in between the Shadowlands burn scar and the Canadian border, I think I’d already started to have a revelation.

My vision for our trip to Canada had been hardcore days spent rock climbing at the crag or tackling long backcountry hikes. There was a list of places I wanted to check off, things I wanted to see and do. More than anything, I’d hoped to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. A month had passed and I was no closer to a revelation than I’d been in my parents’ driveway. It was less of an adventure and more of a quest, and I was starting to realize that I didn’t want to be King Arthur.

Of course, none of this came out coherently on the phone. It was just sobbing. But I think, in that sixth sense that fathers always have, he got it. A new suggestion was offered.

What if we changed up our itinerary? We had family in Washington and Oregon in case the car started acting up, and there were vast tracts of public lands for us to explore in the Pacific Northwest.

Topher returned with a greasy bag of donuts and we shared with the dog while discussing switching gears. We were both relieved when we decided to do it.

The U.S. Border Protection gave McKenzie a dog treat and waved us through without any drama. Our Canada adventure had lasted approximately six hours.

Mikaela and McKenzie on the Oregon Coast
Mikaela and McKenzie on the Oregon Coast (Photo: Topher Yanagihara)

We pulled up to the shores of Lake Koocanusa, Montana and posted up for several days. There were freezing cold dips in the lake, s’mores made over a campfire and millions of stars to look at every night. I felt something I’d yet to notice over the past weeks on the road: a sense of wonder.

Rejuvenated, we set off on a very different sort of adventure. There was no destination anymore, so we unfolded the map each day and picked our fate from there. We stopped in small towns for huckleberry milkshakes and bought our next reads at local bookstores. The hikes were thick and overgrown, trails that would disappear into nothingness, having been reclaimed by the flora. Because dogs weren’t allowed on national park trails, we stuck to the scenic viewpoints when we visited North Cascades, Olympic, Crater Lake and Redwoods national parks. In Washington, road-side fruit stands provided us with cherries and berries, and in Seattle we strolled Pikes Place Market and saw the Space Needle. In Oregon, there were cold beaches where we made breakfast overlooking the waves and waterfalls we stood under, laughing as the spray dotted our faces. Every town we drove through awakened a new sense of curiosity in me. I wanted to explore every place deeply, but also wanted to see what was around the next bend. The latter always won.

Topher and McKenzie at Tumalo Falls in Oregon
Topher and McKenzie at Tumalo Falls in Oregon (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

The further south we headed, the hotter it got. By the time we reached California, it was August and the temperatures often exceeded 100° F. The new radiator had helped some, but the car was still overheating.

One night, the temperature never got below 90° F. We walked McKenzie down to a lazily flowing river to swim and on the way back from her dip, she ran straight through a bush covered in burrs. The next hour was spent pulling hundreds of tiny stickers from her wet coat. When we finally started driving again, the temperature gauge began its now familiar climb.

McKenzie's fateful swim
McKenzie’s fateful swim (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

Stopped at a pulloff on Interstate 5, our hood up and Mount Shasta looming in the distance, we decided to call it quits just as quickly as we’d decided to start the adventure.

Once we made up our minds that we were going home, the thought was all-consuming. There was almost 2,000 miles between us and Denver, but we wanted to be there, now. We drove through the night in shifts, the stars glittering over the Nevada and Utah deserts. Twenty-eight hours later, we pulled into my parent’s driveway and fell back into the guest bed. It had been 40 days.

As we settled back into life in the real world, a sense of frustration crept up. Back at home, the initial feelings that drove me to leave put me back in quest mindset. I still had no idea what I wanted my life to look like, so I took another dead-end job. It felt like I hadn’t covered any ground, despite the odometer on the car showing 7,000 more miles. We’d literally just driven in a circle.

It would take years for me to realize the value of that trip. I let the need for accomplishment outweigh everything else. But somewhere, in the back of my mind, those memories took root and grew. Whether I noticed it or not, my mindset had shifted out there on the road and it showed. Topher and I started prioritizing adventures, even if it was in our own backyard. We explored more deeply and everytime we visited a place, our bucket list somehow grew tenfold. I started to realize my dreams and passions all swirled around the outdoors.

Now, I spend 40 hours a week living and breathing national parks for work. Topher’s now my husband and our weekends are spent on the trails or on the road to a place we’ve never been before. Some days, I still have to remind myself to stay in the moment, to let our explorations be adventures and not just quests. On those days, I remind myself of Glacier’s mist-shrouded peaks and tumbling waterfalls and take a deep breath.