The Rocinante’s Home-Coming, Part II – April 5, 2021

Hello, again. I know I said I’d make this post a lot sooner, but, as usual, other things got in the way.

When we left off, I had been preparing to drive my newly purchased, 1993 Chevy G20 van, home from St. Thomas, Ontario, after taking the train up to collect her from my friend’s place. We had just discovered that the brakes weren’t working, making her undriveable.

I stood there in the parking lot, befuddled, as we wracked our brains trying to figure out what could have caused the brakes to fail so spectacularly.

Looking around, we discovered a trail of fat splatter marks outlining the dual patterns that we had driven the Rocii (I’ve named my van the Rocinante, for reasons I explained in my last post) around the block in. She had been leaking brake fluid the entire time she was moving. The spots were heavier where we applied the brakes; every time I’d pushed the pedal down, more fluid squirted out onto the pavement. Somehow at least one of the brake lines had been damaged.

We checked the reservoir of brake fluid under the hood and it was extremely low. Brake fluid had likely been draining all night as it sat, drip by drip, and then the brief drives had emptied most of the remainder.

I’m no mechanic, but as an avid DIY’er, I can usually handle even some pretty complex auto repairs. I did change the water pump in my PT Cruiser last November (well, with some much appreciated help), a notoriously labour-intensive job. I’ve changed brake-pads and rotors often enough, but brake lines are a different story, and beyond my skill set.

I found myself at a loss as to what to do next. Thankfully, my friend had a plan.

They currently have a boarder living with them, a mutual friend that is coincidentally a well regarded auto-mechanic. When his boarder got home from work he’d be happy to take a look at the van and see what could be done, if I could wait that long. I laughed. What else could I do? Where could I have gone? I had expected to drive the Rocii home and had made no contingency plan if I couldn’t. Until I figured out an alternate means of getting back, or somehow managed to get the van repaired at least enough to safely drive it, I was stuck in St. Thomas.

I fired off a terse but civil message to the original seller to see if he had any idea what may have happened to the brakes. I didn’t want to think badly of him, as he had seemed a kindly old man. He had claimed to be a retired mechanic, so I thought he might have a good guess as to the problem. I was a bit pissed, and admittedly a bit embarrassed, as at that point I thought I might have gotten taken for a bit of a ride with my purchase.

His best guess was that since the van had been sitting for quite a while, the brake-lines going to the rear wheels may have degraded to where enough pressure may have split them. He’d replaced the brake-lines in the front, but hadn’t gotten around to doing the rear. He said he was familiar with my friend, the mechanic, and assured me that it would be an easy enough fix for him, just a matter of swapping out the few old lines for new ones.

I wanted to rip into the old man, accuse him of cheating me, and at least demand some of my money back or to have him pay for the repairs, but I knew all of that would likely be more trouble than it was worth. I had signed the receipt, buying it “as is”, I’d paid cash, and had accepted delivery. I’d even already registered it with the province. Even if I could make a case, it would likely not net me much and take forever to get resolved. Besides, the cost of the van wasn’t a great amount to begin with, so I wouldn’t get much anyway, except the hassle and red tape. I left things with the seller as they were, lest I do or say anything that I might later regret.

My friend was also temporarily off of work, so me hanging around wasn’t an inconvenience. He had plans to meet up with another of his friends for a pint at a local brew pub, so he asked me to tag along, thinking I could probably use a drink. I agreed. After all, what else was I going to do?

Because of Covid restrictions, only ten patrons were allowed inside a restaurant or bar at that time, but up to twenty-five on an outside patio. The pub had a small patio, set up with two heaters to try and hold back the chill. St. Thomas is a couple of hours north of Windsor, and while the weather was bright and sunny, it was a few degrees colder than it was back home.

There were already a handful of people at the pub, so we opted for the patio, despite the chilly weather. I had dressed anticipating that I would be either on a train or in a van, not having drinks outside in February, but I made the best of it.

The beer was good, but I was understandably down, and I since I didn’t want to affect everyone else’s mood with my troubles, I mostly stayed quiet. Before too long, we had gone from being the only people out on the patio to being surrounded by at least a dozen other people, many of which my friend knew. That made it easier for me to keep to the background, and not harsh anyone else’s fun.

I’d made plans with another of my friends for that evening back home, but with the way things were working out, I thought it best to message them and cancel. I’d be welcome to stay the night in St. Thomas if needed, but I hadn’t brought my insulin with me, so I was anxious to find a way home if possible. Worst case, I could catch the evening train back if my mechanic friend was quick in diagnosing the issue, and I could beg a ride back to the train station in time.

After explaining my situation to my friend in Windsor, I got a text back that I wasn’t expecting. My friend offered to drive up and give me a ride back home. I protested that was too much to ask, but they insisted, saying they had nothing better to do now that our plans were canceled, and that they’d enjoy the ride.

I argued, assuring them I’d be fine. I couldn’t ask them to go to all that trouble, but they insisted, so reluctantly but secretly relieved, I accepted. It would be at least two hours before they would arrive, so I still had plenty of time to discuss options with my mechanic friend once he’d had a chance to check the van out.

Having sorted out my way back home, my spirits were a bit buoyed, so I had another beer. My companions noticed that my mood had improved, and were happy that I’d managed to work out a way home. When we knew our mechanic friend was on his way, we said our good-byes to the group, and made our way back to the ailing Rocinante.

Soon, our mechanic friend arrived in his work van, pretty much a workshop on wheels, and, still work grimy and smelling of diesel, he crawled under the Rocii to see what was what. Sure enough, he found that the brake-lines traveling to the rear tires and the ABS controller had degraded and burst. He echoed the seller, saying that it would be an easy enough repair, he had most of what he’d need in his work truck, but would need a day or two to gather up the remainder. Such issues were not uncommon for vehicles that sat, unused, for long stretches of time.

So, that was it then. I wouldn’t be driving the Rocinante home that day. I had little choice but to accept his much appreciated offer to do the work when he had time in the next few days. We made tentative plans for me to return the next Saturday, when he would likely have it finished. My temporary permit would still be valid, and I could drive her home then.

We passed the remaining time waiting for my other friend to arrive by talking about my plans for the van, what I would tackle first, and other trivial matters. Though the day had taken an unfortunate turn, it was again a pleasant visit with friends I hadn’t seen much since the COVID crisis began.

When my friend the taxi arrived, we spent a little more time visiting, as they too wanted some time to catch up. I was worn out, though, especially because of the lack of sleep the night before, and anxious to get home. Before leaving St. Thomas, I treated my friend to dinner as partial payment for the ride back.

The ride back was uneventful, but the company was pleasant, and soon enough I was back home, later than expected and with no van to show for my troubles.

After recounting the events of the day to my wife, I tried to raise my spirits with yet more beer, and some mindless YouTube binging, before heading off to bed, hoping the next day would be brighter.

I woke up the next morning a bit saddened at not having been able to bring the van home, but resigned and resolved not to let it drag me too far down. It was Saturday, and while I had planned to spend the remainder of my weekend working on the Rocinante, with that no longer being possible, I went back to work on building new cabinets for our upstairs bathroom. It was another sunny day, and warm enough that I didn’t need all three heaters running in my shop to work comfortably, so I settled in for some “Shop Therapy”.

I find that working on a project in my shop, my music playing loud above the din of the saws, a Zen-like experience. I lose myself in the details of whatever project I’m working on, shutting out the problems and worries of my “regular” life. Setting up for my cuts, machining my stock, or laying out my next task allows me the freedom to be contemplative, to still my mind. Hours sometimes pass like minutes, so engrossed do I get in my work.

It was creeping up on mid-afternoon when I found myself short of one item or another, I can’t recall right now, so a trip to the hardware store was necessary. That’s when I made a slightly vexing discovery. Reaching into my jacket pocket to pull out my car keys, I found another set; two plain metal keys on a single key-ring.

I stared at the small set of keys in my hand for a moment before I realized what they were. Just to be sure, I checked my actual set of keys, with my house key, work keys, and the keys to my cars on it. Sure enough, there were the twins to the odd set of keys.

In my eagerness to get home the day before, I forgot to leave one of the sets of keys to the van with my friend in St. Thomas. Our mechanic friend would have no way of getting into the van if he needed to.

This whole “buying a van” experience was becoming a farce.

I panicked at first, thinking I would have to waste another day driving back up to bring my friend the keys. On the off chance that the keys might not be necessary for my mechanic friend to make the repair, I began texting both of them frantically. While waiting for my friends to answer back, I realized that unless they’d planned to do the repairs that very day or the next, I could send the keys up to them by express courier. Doing so might cost a bit, but certainly not as much as gas for another trip up and back.

I fired off another text, asking my friends if they would need the keys right away, or could repairs wait a few days, and could he please send me his mailing address. In my haste to resolve this new problem, I had forgotten that my friend and his wife were going to be out looking at cars all day.

I felt bad disturbing them when I did remember their plans, especially after I had already been such a bother with the van purchase, but the courier would close at five, and wouldn’t be open the next day. If I had to ship the keys, I wanted them to get there as soon as possible.

I got back a short, but not impolite, reply, listing my friend’s address and assuring me my mechanic friend could wait for the keys, so off I went to ship them back up to St. Thomas.

The courier wouldn’t send shipment until two days later, on the Monday, so the earliest the keys could be at my friend’s place would be Tuesday. I again debated driving them back up anyway, but a quick text exchange with my friends reassured me that there was no big rush. The van would be most likely be ready by Saturday. I paid the twenty dollars and sent the keys off, hoping there wouldn’t be anymore hiccups.

Not for the last time, I was regretting buying the van, and imposing on all my friends as I’d had for the last few days.

On Sundays, I like going out on small hikes of about ninety minutes or so at one of the few green spaces we have left in or near the city. To get anywhere I could go for a real, substantial hike, I’d have to drive an hour or more, so I make due with what’s available. After “The Key Incident”, I decided instead to take a walk along our riverfront. Windsor lies directly across from Detroit, Michigan, with the Detroit River separating both the cities and their respective countries.

The waterway and it’s opposing shores are frequently the butt of jokes and subjects of ridicule, mostly surrounding crime and pollution. Most times the Detroit River is brown with silt and muck, the bottom near the shore too clouded by murk to see. With the reduced industry and traffic during the pandemic, however, both the air and the water have had a chance to recover and clear up to a surprising degree.

I had taken a walk along the riverside a couple of weeks before, shortly after a heavy snow fall, and was surprised at how clean and pretty it had looked. This time, with most of the snow gone and much of the river ice melted, it seemed even cleaner. It had been another clear and sunny morning, but at the riverfront the clouds hung low in the sky, hiding the top halves of the skyscrapers across the river. The water was calm and smooth as a mirror, dotted by small ice floes lazily sliding west towards the Ambassador Bridge. The fog and low clouds gave the area a maritime feel, you could almost convince yourself that you were somewhere on the east coast, all that was missing was the smell of sea-salt in the air.

I can’t say that I can ever remember the water being so clear. Going out on the few small docks or walkways jutting out into the river, I was surprised at how far out you could still see the river bottom. The riverfront, the site of many city-funded improvements over the last several years, wasn’t as busy as usual, and the lack of other strollers added to the eeriness and other-worldliness.

Through the remainder of the week, I tried to keep busy, to keep my mind off of the van and it’s troubles. I hated having imposed on my friends the way I’d had to, but I didn’t see that I had much choice. I could have had it towed to a garage and had another mechanic do the repairs, but that would have cost quite a bit, and I would risk offending my mechanic friend, who had promised he’d get to it soon.

I hated being a pest, but by the time the Thursday rolled around, I felt that I had at least better check in and see if things were still good for the upcoming Saturday. I had contacted my friend a couple of days before, to make sure he’d gotten the keys, and to ask if he could check on the van to make sure it hadn’t been ticketed or messed with.

I had been under the impression that things were all sorted for Saturday, but there must have been a bit of a miscommunication. I asked if my friend would be able to pick me up from the train station again, but he said he’d already had plans, and no one could give me a definite answer on whether or not the van would be ready by then.

On the Friday, I tried again to get some more concrete feedback, wanting to know if I should book a train ticket, find an alternate way back up, or cancel my plans and come up on the Sunday instead. I attempted to contact my mechanic friend, but after a few hours of not getting a reply, I tried my friend in St. Thomas again.

Apparently, I had contacted him at an inconvenient time. He was a bit annoyed, which I can understand. None of us had foreseen that things would have turned out the way they had. I, however, was growing frustrated with the lack of definite answers, so we were both a bit terse with each other over text, never an ideal medium to convey feelings through. Both of us were anxious to get the van out of St. Thomas, each obviously for our own reasons.

Not wanting to further impose on my friend, I begged another ride from the friend who had come to pick me up the week before, promising gas money, and lunch and dinner on me if they would do me yet another favor. They agreed.

We made our way back up to St. Thomas in the early afternoon on Saturday. It was a pleasant ride, with pleasant company, and though I felt extremely guilty for having bothered my friend, having taken up their entire day to chauffeur me up and then nursemaid me home, they assured me it wasn’t’ a problem. They said they hadn’t any other plans. None the less, I was extremely appreciative.

We arrived in St. Thomas in the early afternoon, and though my van wasn’t completely ready to go, my mechanic friend soon had things in order. I stood around as an extra body to help by occasionally pumping the brake pedal to ensure there were no leaks, and to bleed the lines, but otherwise I was superfluous.

After a quick drive to test her out and fill up the tank, my mechanic friend pronounced the job done. I was extremely grateful, and to show my appreciation, besides paying for the repair , I left him and my other friend three full mason jars of some of the “product” I had grown in my greenhouse for them to share and enjoy. Before we left, my friend who had car sat for me and I had a bit of a reconciliation. I’m hoping we left things on good terms and that the small aggravations of that week haven’t damaged our friendship, but at this point it’s hard to tell.

So, once again, I climbed into the driver’s seat of what I hoped was a drivable Rocinante and readied myself to pilot her home. I had asked my chauffeur friend to meet me at each of the two highway service areas on the way, in case I had any issues, and so that I could treat them to a meal. I was worried that if I did stop along the way, that the weak battery wouldn’t be able to get the engine started again. (That was one of the first things I did after I eventually got her home – the previous owner had put an underpowered battery in her that had barely enough amps to turn over the engine. The leads were also attached to the terminals using what appeared to be scrap bolts – I really hate unimaginative jerry-rigging.)

I own a Dodge mini-van and two other, smaller cars, so I’m not used to driving anything as big as the Rocii very often, but as I eased her out on to the road and out of town, I quickly got comfortable. Despite her age and condition, she was a smooth and easy ride. For the first half-hour or so I would occasionally test the brakes, while I knew it was safe to do so.

By the time I was pulling off at the first service center, I was confident that all would be well on the rest of the drive. Not that I didn’t trust my mechanic friend’s work, but with the issues I had the previous time I had tried to drive her home, I was understandably cautious.

My friend was waiting for me at the service area parking lot as they’d promised, so I treated them to a coffee, and then after a quick bathroom visit, I asked them to wait until I got the van started before leaving. It started up, though you could hear it straining. Once it got going it settled into a nice, strong rumble. The drive to the next service area was both uneventful and enjoyable. The van handled well, and the lazy-boy-like extra wide, though ugly, driver’s seat made for an exceptionally comfortable ride.

At the second service area, about forty-five minutes from home, we grabbed a bite. I told my friend that I should be fine the rest of the way, provided the van started up again, and once we were back on the road they wouldn’t need to nurse-maid me any longer. I had my phone on me and was close enough to home that I could call someone if I did need help.

Again, the van struggled to turn over, but once she got going again I was sure it would be smooth sailing the rest of the way home. It had been another beautiful day, and the temperature had gradually climbed up a few degrees the further I went. It always surprised me how much of a variance in weather there was between the thin-necked peninsula my city of Windsor was on, and the ever-widening wedge of land only two hours away.

As I passed the towering wind turbines that dotted both sides of the highway, I laughed at the irony of calling my van Rocinante. There I was, a modern day Don Quixote, riding my old horse, tilting at space-aged windmills.

The sun was just beginning to touch the horizon as I reached my exit. Despite the initial issues, the Rocinante had given me no problems on the drive. Once off the highway, I called home, hands-free of course, to let them know I was nearby and to make sure the driveway was clear. With four drivers and five cars, there was no guarantee there would be room for the Rocii when I got there, even in our rather large driveway. I could hear the slightest hint of relief in my wife’s voice when she heard I was safe and close.

Easing my way into city traffic, I became a bit paranoid again about the Rocii’s brakes, so I found myself slowing and braking much earlier than I needed to, probably annoying anyone behind me.

I entered my neighborhood just as the sky was becoming framed with sunset orange, and as I backed the comparatively giant Rocinante into her stall in my driveway, the garishly coloured sky turned a mundane moment into a highlighted memory.

Compared to my other cars, the Rocinante is a behemoth, and hard to miss when driving by my house. As I was about to walk into my house, I briefly wondered (worried?) what the neighbors might think when they saw it squatting in my driveway. Then I remembered that they likely thought me a bit weired already, so it probably wouldn’t phase them much. (I did once build a shed in my backyard in the shape of Doctor Who’s Tardis.)

So, there you have it, the long, and long-winded tale of how I finally gave in to the stupid temptation to join the #Vanlife community. I’ve been bothering my friends and family about this ridiculousness for months now, and I do appreciate and love them for their support and indulgence.

Now I have to make good on my professed plans to convert this “Conversion Van” into a true Camper Van/“Traveler’s Wagon”, while doing my best with the added work of repairing/restoring her. That may add to the amount of time before I’ll be able to take the Rocinante out on any trips, unfortunately.

I was hoping to have her all built out and ready to travel by late May. While that may still be possible, it will more likely be further into the summer before I can hit the road. I’ve already started on the bodywork, and on gutting the interior as the pics on my Instagram show (part_timenomad), but there is still lots of work to do.

I’ve promised myself that I won’t let this silliness take over my life and make me neglect other projects or responsibilities. I’m trying to keep to a planned schedule as far as working on the van goes.

Thank you for wasting a little bit of your time on me. I hope you found my story entertaining, as long and as trivial as it was, and I hope that you will continue to check in on me here, to see if I actually go through with all of these plans that I have for traveling and adventuring with the Rocinante, and with writing a proper novel.

Wishing you well, and hoping you’re thriving, not just surviving.

-Rob

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