Me, Chuey, and John Bonham

A van dashboard with tiny disco ball and cassette tapes.

“Don’t forget the thing about the window,” Rich tells me as we say goodbye at the Minneapolis airport. “It’s really hard to get the window back up again if it slides down. Right now there’s cardboard jammed down in there to keep it up.”

“Oh yeah, the window…” I say unenthusiastically. Rich just got our van running again after several fallow years in the yard; when I land in Portland and pick the van up, it’ll be my first time behind the wheel in quite some time. Rich is rattling off a laundry list of potential problems.

“And don’t forget to check the lug nuts on the right front tire.”

“Lug nuts. Right.”

“And if the van stalls, which it probably will, don’t panic! Just turn the key and start it up again.”

“Don’t panic…” I repeat in mechanical tones. Then it hits me. “Wait what? I thought you told me the van was fixed!?”

Rich looks at me with a vaguely sheepish expression. “Well the van is fixed. It’s just a little problem with the, uh…”

“With the transmission?! A little problem with the transmission?” I screech. We both know there’s no such thing as a little problem with a transmission.

“No, no it’s not the transmission,” Rich hastens. “Just don’t panic,” he mutters in what he thinks is a soothing tone.

“Right,” I say, already resigned to my fate. My mind shifts gears from paranoid fantasies about mechanics to paranoid fantasies about TSA agents. I have a flight to catch.

The flight back to Oregon seems endless. Normally I’d be looking forward to getting off the pinche plane, but now I’m just dreading the next leg of the journey: a three hour drive home on remote country roads and me without a cell phone. A friend picks me up at the airport and delivers me to Chuey, who has been parked on a Portland street, patiently waiting during our train trip to Minneapolis. (Due to extremely convoluted travel plans, Rich dropped the newly fixed van off in Portland on his way to catch a train to Minneapolis. He’s still in Minnesota and I will be driving Chuey home to the Coast Range alone. Consequently, this will be my first trip in the van since the ECU went out two years ago during my first trip in the van since the transmission had gone out two years before that.)

I size Chuey up. The Ford Econoline looks like it spent the last four years under water. Which is sort of true, as Chuey did spend the last four years gathering moss in the rain-drenched Pacific Northwest. During that time the van has acquired a fluorescent green patina from either tiny moss or maybe some sort of super mold. I wonder how many rats are living in the manifold and how much wiring they’ve chewed through. However, the real question is this: after four years of sitting, followed by two days or running and ten more days of sitting, will the van actually start again?

For all my years on the road, for all my cross-country odysseys, for all the epic breakdowns and harrowing border crossings I’ve survived without a scratch, I am a nervous traveler, beset by gnawing anxieties. I am the sort of person who entertains paranoid fantasies that I will be strip-searched by TSA or detained for weeks in a border holding cell. It doesn’t matter that I’m never carrying anything illegal–These things happen, right? On a similar note, I tend to envision possible accidents or break-downs in lurid detail. They run in a loop in my mind as I grip the steering wheel with my hands in the 10 and 2 position and eye the speedometer with a grandmother’s vigilance.

The van starts up without a hitch and I wallow out into traffic. Come on, Chuey, don’t stall. I feel around on the dashboard until I find a Led Zeppelin cassette, which cheers me up immensely. Zeppelin reminds me of happier days, days before the transmission incident, days when one of my chief pleasures in life was driving around in Chuey, listening to Bonham drum solos and feeling like a bad ass because, really, vans rule.

The year we found the Zeppelin cassette at the yard sale, we listened to the tape all summer long because driving around in a big van listening to classic rock on summer afternoons felt perfect. Every time we tried to listen to something else, we’d end up popping the Zeppelin back in the tape deck because it just felt wrong not to be listening to Zeppelin in our van. Chuey seemed to radiate a happy van-ness when Zeppelin was blasting from the crappy speakers, and Zeppelin became a Chuey tradition. In fact, while Chuey lumbers down Burnside and  I remember those charmed days, a thought crosses my mind: did all the mechanical troubles start when we stopped listening to Zeppelin?

Just as I have this thought, Chuey stalls out. Luckily we’re at a red light. I turn the ignition and the van roars to life as the light goes green. Robert Plant wails. Good Chuey! Way to go man. I’ll tell you what: you get me back home without breaking down and we’ll listen to Zeppelin the whole way.

We hit the freeway to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”. The window that Rich has warned me about slides down with a thunk and I’m blasted with wind, but it doesn’t seem so bad: I said that’s when it’s callin’ me back home…

I stop at a gas station when I remember that the gas gauge doesn’t work. Dutifully, I hop out and check the lug nuts on the right front tire, as instructed. Next I struggle to pull up the window by reaching through a hole in the door, which no longer has an interior panel. I’m clawing at the fallen glass when a gas station attendant appears and looks at me questioningly.

“How much?” he asks in a thick Mexican accent.

“Fill ‘er up, I think,” I say, nervously ruffling through the scant bills in my wallet. “I’m not sure how hungry the van is gonna be,” I remark. He grins at me like he understands and I feel better. Five nail-biting moments later my wallet is $70 lighter. There goes the grocery money.

“Pretty hungry, after all” I say in English. But I’m thinking “Cabron! Tiene hambre.” The guy laughs as though he can hear my thoughts. With a parting wave, I shove cardboard from a torn kleenex box into the door to keep the window up, and I drive away, blasting “Dazed and Confused”.

A suspicious cop follows me for a hair-raising 2o minutes (during which I contemplate past adventures and become sure there is something illegal in the vehicle somewhere–beer caps under the seat from our last trip to the dump?) and then when the cop finally gets bored with my stringent respect for traffic laws, the van stalls out twice in Junction City and the window falls back down. But by that time I’m starting to relax: Page and Plant will get us home.

When “Ramble on” blasts out of the speakers for the third time, Chuey and I are taking the curves on Highway 36. I’m bored with the drive and I contemplate changing the tape or flipping on the news, but I know better.  My father taught  me the powers of prayer, duct tape, and superstition. There are rules: You never say bad things about a vehicle when you’re riding in it. You never comment on how well a vehicle is running. And for God’s sake, never break a promise to a van.

And though our health we drank a thousand times…it’s time to ramble on…


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  1. […] hooded sweatshirts and a quilt. This experience reinforced the wisdom of our most recent plan: park Chuey for the winter at a friend’s house in Sonoma County and rely on one of our old friends, the […]