I recently read a good book by Rinker Buck, a journalist who set out to cross the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon pulled by a mule team – in 2012. In it, he recounts how the original pioneers embarked in overloaded wagons, with poorly trained animals, and unrealistic expectations of how much ground they could cover. Enterprising locals took advantage of the situation, collecting and reselling once-prized possessions discarded on the trailside by the thousands of people attempting the difficult journey.
As we head into another summer trip, I’m reminded of the lessons of last year’s 9,000 mile trek. All the stuff we brought – books, pillows, 5 lb. hand weights, the infamous lamp. The day before we left, the van was packed and looking organized. But the last-minute additions suddenly created a mound of loose items that shifted during transit and had to be moved constantly. A similar thing happened as we set out for our camping trip this spring: the last minute blankets and pillows, the beach toys, the scooters, a soccer ball all piled up.
As I begin to write this, we’re two weeks from leaving, and I feel a bit like those pioneers. No, we don’t face the threat of dysentery, but we have an unfamiliar vehicle, a quirky Eurovan Westfalia, that I’ll be learning about as we go. We’re determined to have it packed early so that we aren’t tossing stuff out on the “backroads of paradise” (also the title of a great book by our friend Cathy Salustri).
I’m driving the Westy a lot around town, in hopes that any lurking issues will be revealed before we leave, and not in Cairo, Georgia (pronounced “Kay-Row”, by the way). I’ve spent a fair amount of time triaging small issues on both of our vehicles. I’ve got a new tail light coming from Amazon to replace the cracked one. I’m pleased to report that on a 96 degree day in St. Pete, the AC kept us cool in Memorial Day traffic. And I just made a spreadsheet of four years worth of service records.
When Monica and I got married, I wasn’t a very “handy” person when it came to repairs and home improvement. I wasn’t completely useless – I could change a flat tire in ten minutes. When we bought a house with a lot of older appliances, I got some on-the-job training. Out of necessity I learned to fix issues with ovens, washers, dryers, water heaters and ice makers (I’m cursed to a life of malfunctioning ice makers).
I developed a mild obsession with not calling repairmen. On some cosmic level, these machines became more cooperative with me. When we bought the Westfalia, I think that somehow the Dodge could feel its presence. I could almost hear it say, “I carried you 9,000 miles across the country. In one day I descended into Death Valley and then climbed to nearly 10,000 feet. And you repay me by bringing home this German relic?” The Dodge decided to pay us back for our insensitivity. On a Sunday trip to Busch Gardens theme park I put the window down to pay for parking and it made a terrible noise. The window then refused to go up. It could sense the giant thunderstorm approaching, ready to dump 3 inches of rain on the driver’s seat. We covered the window with a sheet of plastic (because we carry that sort of stuff around) and we enjoyed a day in the park.
Not to be outdone by Disney’s Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge – Busch Gardens is proud to announce the opening of Blade Runner Land. The storm shut down every ride in the park, causing most of the roller-coaster riding crowd to go home. We had the park to ourselves the rest of the day.
We got up close and personal with a hyena and the rest of the animals came out after the rain. I’m not allowed to ride roller coasters (“pregnant women and people with medical conditions” includes me). Note: the “Sand Serpent” is in the area with rides for small children.
Undaunted, I opened the door panel and began tinkering. The motor laughed at me when I sprayed it with WD-40. I took pictures so that I’d remember how it looked before I took it apart.
As I called the repair shop to get a sense of the cost of the repair, I had a crazy idea. What if I just ordered the part and did the repair myself?
I found the part for $57 and waited for Amazon two-day delivery like a child on Christmas morning. The repair was complete at in just an hour and fifteen minutes. (Helped by my 3 hour ‘orientation’ two days prior.) The window works like it did the day it rolled off the show room floor.
If I can fix this, what can’t I fix?
Don’t answer that.
The very next morning was when the locks on the Westfalia went haywire. Up. Down.
Up. Down. They put the funk in function.
If I cut the wrong wire, we all die. I felt like an astronaut stranded on Apollo 13 when I successfully located and unclipped the wiring harness. The Westy now has perfectly functioning, manual door locks! Cost to live like cave men: $0. Time spent fixing the problem: 7 minutes. Time spent gloating to friends and writing about it: 1 hour.
In the special Westfalia “Sahara” edition, rain water is collected and stored inside the doors! Finding no drains, I put a couple in.
For $22 and one hour of my time, I laid down a peel-and-stick faux wood floor that is durable and easy to sweep. I used a plastic reconditioner on the vinyl to bring it back to life a little.
As we prepare to leave, the scope of our trip keeps getting bigger. The word “Maine” is getting thrown around a lot. I don’t know if we’ll make it that far. I hope we see far more states than German mechanics. Like the pioneers, we’ll roll with it and hopefully avoid the fate of the Donner Party.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at email@example.com. Monica is a marathoner, baker, freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.