Yellow Pine upgrade, Part One: The bloodletting

  • When we arrived in Yellow Pine, our friends Jeff and Ann were helping Nickie and Merle build a log house. Nickie, above, sprays some of the logs with borate, a preservative.

Somebody going to emergency, somebody’s going to jail. – Don Henley

Well, no one got arrested, but by the time we left Yellow Pine, Idaho, a guy we don’t know was lying at home with more than 30 stitches in his hand, and our friend Ann had routed off the end of her pinky finger.

For such bloody events, the adventure started out happily enough, with Tom and I anticipating our first trip since March that would include an actual visit with friends, with the bonus of an upgrade for The Epic Van.

For many of the six years we’ve been traveling in The Epic Van, I’ve been saying I wanted to replace the electric convertible couch-bed in the back of the van with a permanent bed. After only a few months of travel, putting the bed away and remaking it each night, I said, “Screw that,” and we left it in place. We were more comfortable sitting in the bed, I didn’t like remaking it over and over and, if we didn’t have to store the bedding, something else, like clothes, could take its place. Also, the mechanism underneath took up about half of the back-door storage area.

So, I talked for years of what the Nichols family calls “beer talk” about replacing it, and last year, our camping friends Jeff and Ann called me on it. “Bring The Epic Van up to Yellow Pine and I’ll do it,” Jeff said.

Be very careful when offering your talent and skills around me, for I will remember.

August, we decided last year. We’d take a long loop up to the tiny Idaho town I’ve grown to love (Read more here and here  and here ), and we’ll let Jeff do his thing.

Then came March and Covid. We hunkered down. Then we took two-week, isolated, trips to Arizona campgrounds. Then we ventured to Utah and back. We worried that the August bed-replacement trek wouldn’t be safe.

We calculated the risk: Yellow Pine, population less than 50, sits on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, more than 35 miles up a one-lane dirt road. Isolation personified. But not quite. There is contact with the outside world. During the summer, tourists visit, including scores of motorcyclists riding the mountain roads. The town has two bars and a general store, although one bar currently has only outside seating. Residents do travel into Cascade and McCall to do errands. And family and friends come to town.

The town has no reported cases of Covid, and Jeff and Ann have been careful in their interactions. Ann, a nurse who used to work shifts at the hospital in nearby Cascade, is no longer working, and Jeff, who ran the fire, rescue and paramedic crews in the area has retired.

So we took a week to drive from Arizona to Yellow Pine, hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park and Great Basin National Park along the way, arriving to our first hugs of the pandemic. And we planned to spend two weeks in isolated wandering in Idaho and Utah before returning home to Arizona.

All good so far.

When we arrived, Jeff and Ann were helping Meryl and Nickie build a log cabin, and I quickly joined in applying insulating cushioned tape and wool to the logs before they were hoisted up and rolled into place. Meryl cut and carved all the logs, a technique called Swedish coping, and preconstructed the walls in McCall, then deconstructed them, loading the logs on a truck to bring to Yellow Pine.

This is the scene of the first bloodletting.

The day before I arrived, one of the men helping screw the logs into place ripped open his hand from one fingertip to the base of the palm on a nail jerry-rigged to hold a drill bit in place. Jeff saw what happened, asked him, “Are you OK?” his standard, initial query in an emergency to assess the patient’s mental state. The man said, “No,” and Jeff yelled, “Stop. Stop,” then gave the signal, hand slicing across his throat to shut down the site. The volunteer crew of about 10, about half of them Merle’s former colleagues in wildland firefighting, stopped everything, the man was bandaged and immediately driven down the mountain 2-to-3 hours to the hospital, where they stopped counting after putting 30 sutures into his hand.

Jeff instituted 10-minute safety meetings each morning, reiterating that everyone on site was the safety foreman. “You see something, you say something.” Everyone said they had seen the bent nail, thought it didn’t look right, but didn’t speak up.

By the time I arrived, the injured man was resting comfortably at home, embarrassed by the accident, facing monthslong recovery, and pissed that he couldn’t help finish the build.

The walls rose quickly, with shouts of “Log in the air” each time the boom raised another painstakingly crafted and numbered log overhead. One day I noticed a log precariously resting on the braces on the ground where we prepared the insulation. I said something and the log was reset so it wouldn’t drop on someone’s foot. I, too, am a safety forewoman.

In between construction days, Jeff began the upgrade of The Epic Van.

The project was easier and more complicated than we imagined. Taking out the couch required removing only four bolts. The replacement platform required some creative thinking, metal cutting, soldering, painting, plywood and a temporary mattress. All of which was accomplished by Jeff in his well-appointed shop. Read a detailed explanation of the upgrade in Part Two.

And like all sticks-and-bricks remodeling projects, once you start, other things pop up. Jeff replaced the broken smoke detector, looked at the squeaky step, which he determined was a failing motor that will require a trip to the RV repair shop. When the couch was removed, I really wanted to take out the TV and VCR, which hung over my bed. We only rarely used them to watch Redbox videos in Walmart parking lots during our first couple of years. Now, they were really just in the way. So out they came, along with the speakers in the closet wall and under the couch/bed. This left a closet wall with several holes, so Ann began to craft one of her works of wooden art to cover the wall.

We chose several pieces of old local barn wood, and some rusted metal pieces, a doorknob and setting, a door pull with a globe on it, a symbol of our nomadic travels, a three-pronged hook and a vintage bottle opener. She sanded, burned, measured, cut and ruminated. Knot holes here, horse gnawed missing chunk here, carrying it back and forth from her wood shop to The Epic Van, making sure it fit.  We placed the metal pieces in one spot, then another until we loved the design. Then, a brainstorm. It should have a frame. More cutting. Then routing. And, in an instance, with just a small jump of the router on the barn wood, the tip of Ann’s finger was gone.

“Jeff,” she said, as she calmly walked onto the porch. “I’ve cut off the tip of my finger.” “Yea, sure,” Jeff said, laughing, because Ann often pranks him with conjured accidents. “No, really,” she said, holding up her gloved hand, the frayed end of the pinky finger dripping red. “She really did,” I croaked, trailing behind.

“Are you OK,” Jeff asked, immediately becoming serious and shifting into his paramedic persona. “Yes,” Ann said calmly. “Let me get my bag,” he said.

Jeff peeled off the glove and wrapped the gushing finger in super-clotting gauze, and together they discussed whether to make the drive to the hospital.

“There’s really nothing they can do,” they both said. “There’s nothing to stitch.” The part cut off was never found, and it was hard to see what was actually missing when all the blood was gushing out. They wrapped the gauze with tape, Ann took a painkiller and a short walk around the property to clear her head, and then she went back to work on the art piece.

The next day, we visited Big Creek, which sports a grass-runway airport and a beautiful hunting lodge, even farther up the river from Yellow Pine. We had meatloaf sandwiches on the porch of the lodge and I bought a birdhouse made of old wood, tin and perched on a rusty saw.

Later, Jeff and Ann carefully unwrapped the finger, ever so slowly clipping the tape, peeling layer after layer of the blood-soaked gauze, soaking and softening the last layer until it could be, somewhat-painfully, disengaged from the wound.

“It looks better than I thought,” both Jeff and I said. Only half the nail was missing, the gap was smaller than I thought, although still Grand Canyonesque, and it was no longer gushing blood. Ann took one look and was horrified.

“Don’t you think it might fill in?” I asked, channeling my Doogie Howser medical education. “Doesn’t that goo underneath your skin expand to fill in holes, like when they take out your appendix or other parts? And maybe most of the nailbed is still there.”

“Of course,” Jeff said, chuckling. “Or maybe now she can get the nine-finger discount at the nail salon.”

Jeff and Ann, working one handed, redressed the finger, she took more Advil, and we made huckleberry, rhubarb and strawberry crumble for the 10 people coming for dessert around the fire pit.

In our last two nights there, we were thrilled to see Steve and Sue, Teri and Chuck, Barry and Diana, Jennifer, Candy and Willie, Lorine and Nancy, even if we somewhat broke Covid distancing standards.

The final day, Ann had another epiphany. The barn-wood wall needed a pocket, a place to put my phone and some pens. We went back to work, added the pocket and Jeff drilled a hole in the ass of a metal mouse and attached it to the front in commemoration of the many four-footed friends I have killed in the name of mouse- and hanta-free van life.

We installed the completed bed platform and plywood base, put in the temporary camping cushions we would sleep on for the ride home, packed our hiking gear and camp chairs in the now-roomy storage area under the bed and closed the doors.

The day we left, the log trusses for the roof of the cabin had arrived and were being hoisted into place. Ann was stringing bead bracelets for Sue and Steve’s grandson Wyatt’s fifth birthday party to be held at the general store.

We camped our first night out at the South Fork of the Salmon River Campground, where smoke from nearby fires nestled around the van. We slept like babies on our new bed, I woke to see Ann’s beautiful barnwood creation, and I prayed to the goddess of art to puff out the tip of her finger and, if she’s feeling generous, give her a whole nail.


  1. Reply
    Nancy Warfield October 15, 2020

    it sounds like the Campskunk bed!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols October 19, 2020

      We talked to him about it a couple of times, but I didn’t see his finished product.

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