So, I did it.
All that whining and waxing philosophic about buying a cargo-can, outfitting it as a “Traveler” Wagon, and seeing the country, a-la Steinbeck in “Travels with Charley”, finally drove me to manifest the stupidity of that particular dream.
A bit over a week ago, I purchased a well-worn (ha!), 1993 Chevrolet G20 Conversion Van. She’s an old, painted-whore of an example of her time – the rich oak trim and plush green Velvet-like interior can no longer hide the ravages of age. It doesn’t take a very close inspection to see the rust beginning to take hold and peeking out from behind slip-shod attempts at hiding it.
The once luxurious interior is now stained in places, the oak trim’s varnish worn. Some of the many buttons and switches for her electrified gizmos no longer work, or have been cannibalized and jerry-rigged to other purposes. But, after a small but troubling brake issue was dealt with, and the proper-sized battery installed, she rode the highway like a cruise ship on a be-calmed sea, her 350 V8 purring like a not-quite-tamed tiger.
For those of you who are new, or who only come here rarely, I should give a bit of a refresher as to what I’m referring, so we can all be on the same page.
About six months ago, during a particularly low point in my efforts to combat Covid-Fatigue and the lurking depression it brings, I had taken to spending the idle time I was finding myself with, due to lock-downs, border closures and parts shortages, by sitting in my office binging on YouTube videos, usually while un-showered and still wearing sleep clothes. I had tons of other things I could have been doing – should have been doing – not the least of which was writing.
On one of those dismal pre-winter days, as the temperature inched lower and the Covid death counts clicked higher, I stumbled across a video by a fellow named “Foresty Forest.”
Forest (real name Simon) was an ex-factory worker who had decided to move into his built-out mini-van, and travel the country hiking up mountains and cooking delicious-looking meals inside his converted mom-wagon. He is likable, has a wit and charm about him, and takes great pictures of the trails he hikes and the mountains he summits. His minivan reminded me of the claustrophobic interior of a Soyuz or Apollo capsule, his own personal space-ship, kitted out with roof-top solar panels, vent fans, a dry-air diesel heater, induction cook-top and his trusty crock-pot.
I found his videos fascinating, addictive and I became envious of the freedom he had found with his hyper-minimalist lifestyle.
YouTube began suggesting other similar channels, as the almighty algorithm does, which brought another fellow to my attention. His name was Chrome Valdez, a former radio/club/wedding Dj based out of Vancouver, living in his similarly converted but much larger Ford Econoline Van, with his bulldog Cruze.
Chrome had gotten into what he called “Van-Life” for strictly financial reasons – he found himself drowning in debt. To ever have any hope of paying his debts down, he sold almost everything he had, gave up his chic high-rise, downtown condo and moved into his work van.
When I caught up with Chrome, he had been living the Van-Life for three years, had tricked out the interior of his formerly empty van into a nice living space, and had crossed from one end of Canada to the other while amassing a following of nearly one-hundred and fifty thousand YouTube subscribers.
Though Chrome doesn’t hike and isn’t as physically active as Forest is, I found his videos compelling. He doles out tips and advice to anyone interested in Van-Life, and travels to picturesque Canadian towns, camping at magnificent natural spaces.
These two modern nomads led me to still others, of course, some notable, some forgettable. I was also exposed to the other side of #Vanlife, where beautiful, young people travel in their seventy-thousand dollar, high-top Sprinter van conversions, complete with heated tile floors and built-in hot water showers. They tour the world in their rigs, para-sailing off the coast of Australia, or surfing the beaches of South America, chronicling their fabulous lives on Instagram or Snapchat or Tic-Tok.
I much prefer what I’ve come to call the “Real” Van-Life – real people living much less glamorous lives, not Instagram perfect, but adventurous none-the-less.
So, I bought a van.
Before you ask, no, I’m not selling off my possessions and moving into my van to live down by the river. My #Vanlife adventure, if it ever gets underway, will be decidedly “Part-Time”.
A few years ago, I came to the realization that I’ve seen much more of other countries than I’ve seen of my own, which I’m kind of ashamed of. At the wheel of my rusty but trusty conveyance, I hope to rectify that, taking extended weekend, or week-or-two long trips to see what I can of my adopted country. I owe it that, and payment is overdue.
I had missed out on several other vans leading up to this one – they’d usually be sold out from under me, my inquiry messages not returned. I had just lost out on one the day before, when an ad for a 1993 Chevy G20 conversion van popped up on Facebook Marketplace.
I was on the last few days of a three-week layoff, feeling depressed about losing out on another van. It was mid-morning on a beautiful but chilly Thursday, when I contacted the seller.
The van was in St. Thomas, a small city a bit under a two-hour’s drive away, and the hometown of my best friend (the one who threw me the virtual birthday party a few weeks ago). I worked out a time to head up to check out the van, and I asked the seller if he’d wait before showing it to anyone else.
The seller said he’d already had a few inquiries, but agreed to hold off on making any sales until I got there. I was glad to hear that as I didn’t relish wasting a four-hour round trip. Just to be safe, I messaged my friend, also temporarily off work, and asked him to go and take a look at the van for me. The seller lived just down the road, and this way he could let me know if the drive up was worth it. I could always turn around and try and salvage a few hours if he told me it’d be a bust.
My wife had just gotten home from work, and after explaining the situation to her, I asked if she’d like to tag along for the ride, and to perhaps talk some sense into me. She was game, and eager to see our friends again, so off we went.
Forty-five minutes from St. Thomas, I got a message from my friend. We had pulled into a service area off the highway for a bathroom break, so I could answer. He assured me that the trip was worth the trouble, that I would indeed want the van. He described it as all kinds of kitschy goodness, with a real “shaggin’ waggin” vibe to it.
In hindsight, I should have tried to curb my enthusiasm a little. I don’t regret buying the van, but I think if I had remained a bit cooler of head, I may have worked out a better deal.
We got back on the road and before we knew it, we were face to face with what would become the Rocinante. The seller, a retired mechanic, was genial enough and showed me around all of the small, “jerry-rigged” modifications made to the old girl. There were more than a few. She started up well, though, the low growl of her Chevy 350 sounding smooth and well-cared for. In my eagerness, and fear of missing out on yet another van, I bought her on the spot for the asking price, rust spots, jerry-rigged work-arounds, blemishes and all.
I probably could have talked the price down significantly had I tamped down my eagerness, but the price was nothing astronomical. It’s the cheapest I’ve ever paid for a vehicle. Though I do think I may have overpaid, I know more than a few people who’ve spent as much or more on their mid-range gaming computers.
Regardless, I paid the man his money, and made arrangements to leave the van at my friend’s place until I could come back up and drive her home.
The seller agreed to drive the van to my friend’s house, where he could remove his license plates, if I could drive him back. I agreed. The van drove smoothly, at least from my vantage point in the passenger’s seat, and gave no hint of any problems. There were no portents of what was to happen the next day.
Happy with my new purchase, we then made plans with my friend and his wife to have a celebratory dinner at a little bistro in town before we headed back home. On the way to dinner, I stopped and had a spare set of keys cut to leave with my friend.
Dinner was excellent as was the company. It had been so long since we’d had a chance to go out with friends because of the Covid restrictions that the evening wore a sheen of “special occasion” significance.
Now, a few notes about the Van’s name.
While I was deep-diving into #Van-life for all of those months, it became apparent that many – not all, but many – Van-Lifers, especially the YouTube set, bestowed interesting and sometimes silly names on their “Van-Homes”. Originally I had thought to name my van “Serenity”, after the spacecraft in the TV show “Firefly”. That would give the van a cachet of sci-fi “geek” cred. I could see myself as being a bit of a low-rent Captain Mal, plowing the lane-ways’ of the asphalt ‘verse in my “always on the verge of breaking down” starship.
I thought better of the name once I bought the van. I still wanted it to have a hint of sci-fi cred, but seeing it’s age and state of repair, another, more appropriate name came to mind – Rocinante.
You may be familiar with the name from “The Expanse” science fiction book series and TV. Show. It’s the name of a Martian ship of war that was “salvaged” by the story’s main heroes, and figures prominently in their adventures. That gives the van it’s geek cred, but the significance goes back much further, and has deep literary roots, which I also thought appropriate.
In the 1605 novel “Don Quixote” by Miguel De Cervantes, the titular character’s horse, awkward, past it’s prime and engaged in a task beyond it’s capacities, is named Rocinante. Seeing the van and knowing the purpose I wanted to put it to, was another reason I found the name synergistically appropriate. Quixote’s horse is meant to be a caricature of him, also awkward, past his prime and engaged in a task beyond his capabilities. Again, very appropriate.
There is one other famous conveyance which also shares the name of The Man From La Mancha’s nag. In 1959, John Steinbeck, famed writer of such works as “Of Mice and Men”, “The Pearl”, and of course, “The Grapes of Wrath”, among others, set out on a cross-country road trip of the United States, which he chronicled in his book “Travels with Charley: In Search of America.’ Probably attracted to it for the same reasons as I, he named the Pickup Truck/Camper that he’d had special-built for the trip Rocinante.
Now, I do not in any way claim, or even ever hope to claim, that there exists anything but the most coincidental and extremely trivial similarities between myself and an author of such accomplishment and renown as John Steinbeck. Yes, I want to travel the country in a camper-van, and yes, I want to be a “Writer”, and yes, I also named my van “Rocinante”, but I have no illusions as to the level of talent, or lack-thereof, that I possess.
I certainly am no Steinbeck.
Anyway, that’s the meaning of the name. Now, let’s return to the story.
So, over a lovely dinner, my friend and I laid out the plan for the following day. I would come up on the train to the nearby city of London, Ontario, where he would pick me up. We would drive to the nearest Service Ontario office so I could register the vehicle, get plates, or at least a temporary permit, and drive her back to Windsor. Easy, peasy, right?
Not so much.
Before we left St. Thomas, I moved the van from where it had been parked to a spot a little more convenient and out of anyone’s way. I remember thinking that the brakes felt a bit soft, and commenting on that fact, but I just wrote it off as being a quirk of an older vehicle I wasn’t used to driving, and not a cause for concern.
We made our way back home after dinner, the plans for the following day all worked out. I booked my train ticket and asked my daughter to give me a lift to the train station in the morning.
I didn’t sleep well that night. It could have been the excitement of having finally bought a van, but it more likely had to do with some sub-conscious misgivings about the over-all safety of the van itself. My mind kept going back to the mushiness of the brakes, and whether or not the two-hour drive home on a major highway was really a good idea. I tried to reassure myself that everything would be OK, and that I was really worrying for nothing. It had seemed to drive fine from the seller’s house to my friend’s place, after all. If there had been anything wrong, surely it would have been evident then.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to relax and get at least some sleep. In the morning, my daughter drove her sleepy-eyed, yet excited Dad to the train station as she’d promised. It was another beautiful, but cold, late-February morning, which made the train ride pretty, though uneventful. Due to the Covid restrictions, we had to keep our face-masks on for the entire ride, unless eating or drinking, and we were sat only one to a row per side of the train.
I did my best to relax and enjoy the scenery. I even managed to sleep for twenty minutes or so, but I couldn’t shake the lingering feeling of worry I had. Soon enough, the train pulled into the London station and I met my friend, waiting for me in the parking lot. After the usual “Long time, no see” jokes, we decided to head to a local diner for a late breakfast/early lunch. Again, it was another very enjoyable meal, where, without our respective wives present, we felt free to engage in some “guy-talk”, the details of which I should probably spare you all.
After our meal, my friend was good enough to drive me around the city so I could deal with all of the paperwork I needed to take care of to get the Rocinante registered and temporarily plated, before we headed back to lovely St. Thomas.
The small city/big village of St. Thomas is only about a twenty minute drive from London, Ontario. It is a picturesque town, with many lovely 19th and early 20th century homes, and is famous for once having been a primary railway hub for the nation, hence it’s moniker as “The Railway City”.
By a train.
And then the residents cut up his carcass and ate him.
Anyway, in short order, I was back in front of The Good Ship Rocinante, ready and eager to pilot her home. My friend handed me the spare set of keys, we said our good-bye’s, and then he went into his house, and I into the driver’s seat of my new chariot.
With a little trepidation and a great deal of eagerness, I buckled myself in, put the key into the ignition, and started her up.
Only, she didn’t. Start, I mean.
No beeps, no clicks, no nothing. The battery, it seemed, had completely drained. Turns out, not being overly familiar with the instrument panel layout, I had left the lights on over-night. No worries, I thought, I’ll just get my friend to give me a jump, then I could be on my way.
My friend was gracious about it, though he did tease me a bit, but about ten minutes later, after we’d jumped her and let her run a bit to bring up the battery’s charge, we again said our good-bye’s. This time the van did manage to move, and I guided her from her parking spot onto the road proper.
Problem was, she did not want to stop. As I rolled through the first stop sign, even as the brake pedal hit the floor, I knew for certain that I hadn’t imagined the weakened braking power the night before, though it seemed even worse at that moment. Thankfully, my friend lives in a very quiet neighborhood, with minimal traffic, so I was able to gingerly circle the small block, avoid hitting anything, and put the van back into the spot it had formerly occupied.
Once I had her settled again, I called my friend once more, explaining to him what had happened. To make sure I wasn’t imagining things or being overly cautious, I asked him if he could try driving her. He agreed, and didn’t fare any better. I feared he was going to hop the curb of the parking lot we’d decided to settle her in and hit another car parked across the sidewalk when he tried to finally stop her, but thankfully she settled back on her wheels after my friend had white-knuckled her around the block as I had.
So, there I was, my way home undriveable as my friend now agreed, and without having made any contingency plans for such a situation. I was, at that moment, stranded in St. Thomas.
Don’t hate me too much, dear Reader, but I am going to leave you hanging here for a little bit. I think this blog post has gone on way too long to read in one sitting. I’ll continue the story in a later post. I promise I won’t make you wait too long.
Thank you for your patience, and for sticking with me this far. I do hope you’re all doing well, not just surviving in these strange times, but thriving.
(End of Part One)