It’s odd to sit down and write again, more than a month and a half since my last post. Much has happened and we have covered a lot of ground (together in the van and separately), ticking off destinations that included Baja, Norway, Finland, Singapore, Indonesia and now the High Eastern Sierras of California. The experiences were numerous and those stories will come, but for now, I’m feeling a pull to recall the time during which we didn’t move very much at all. This time of frequent halting occurred in early March when forward momentum was stopped three times over the course of a week due to acts of god, worn vehicle parts and Neil Young. Well, Neil didn’t actually halt us himself, but he was there, eye contact was made and his name scores well with SEO so he receives top billing
(This is a lengthy blog post in three parts. If you prefer the Cliff Notes version of this tale, the over arching theme is that break downs are a part of van life, particularly if your van is a used vehicle edging towards 175,000 miles. They are inconvenient and sometimes expensive, but once enough time has passed to properly reflect on the situation, often humorous. Celebrity sightings help, as do healthy doses of mechanical aptitude and intimate knowledge of the inner workings of automobiles – thanks Remy. Also, AAA is your good friend, even when you are annoyed with her.)
Part 1 – March 9
The sun was still high in the sky as we cruised along Highway 80 through Nevada and marveled at the impressive ridge lines of what few know to be the most mountainous state in the Lower 48.* Earlier in the day we had departed Jackson Hole, WY, wrapping up three solid months spent in pursuit of snow and cold. We were bound for sunshine and surf in Baja, Mexico, by way of San Francisco, and were making excellent time. Dinner with Remy’s parents that evening seemed likely.
Just after we crested Donner Pass and entered California, the van suddenly started to feel very difficult to steer. Additional dash lights illuminated – beyond the several phantom warning lights that glow permanently – and Remy quickly ascertained that a bad thing had happened. Our power steering had gone out, a somewhat terrifying realization when your 8,000 lb. vehicle is hurtling downhill at 70 mph, and I was very glad to not be in the driver’s seat as we bailed off the highway at the Sugar Bowl exit. Remy laboriously steered Moby towards the first parking lot large enough to accommodate our giant van, which was now sporting an even more terrible turning radius than usual. Outside of the Summit Bar & Grill, a shredded Serpentine Belt dashed all hope of making it to San Francisco for dinner. We were quite stuck and in need of a tow.
The first call to AAA was fairly fruitless, though it at least put us on their radar. Our position in the middle of nowhere, just over 200 miles from our destination combined our large vehicle size deemed us a ‘special cases’ tow job. The job couldn’t be assigned until the two local tow companies opened for business the following morning, and at that point, we would still have to wait and see if a large enough truck was available. Furthermore, the AAA rep and I had a bit of a disagreement over whether a Sprinter Van was a box truck and therefore excluded from my membership towing benefits. (I may have asked the representative if we were playing a game of ‘alternative facts’ in keeping with the political times. Sarcasm in this vein was probably a mistake.)
Hoping to hatch a plan B, score some cheap bar food and nurse our disappointment over an IPA, we entered the bar only to learn that the power had gone out. None of the taps worked and the kitchen had closed early. It simply was not our night.
Part 2 – March 10 & 11
As the sun was beginning to set somewhere west of Sacramento, I walked Max down Milk Farm road to investigate the baby lambs that were boldly approaching the barbed wire fence separating pasture from road. About an hour earlier, cruising west on I-80 in my newly acquired rental car, I passed the unmistakeable sight of a conjoined large white van and large yellow tow truck pulled over on the side of the highway, prompting me to make a 180° turn at the next exit. The radiator on the tow truck that was hauling Moby to San Francisco (actually the third tow truck to assist us this day – more about that later) had blown a hose. The truck, with Moby jacked up behind it, was immobile and the two non-working vehicles now combined to occupy about 50 ft of road side in California farm country. We were stuck once again, almost 24 hours after our initial break down and only about 100 miles closer to our destination. But this time, we had an unexpected exit strategy in the form of the rental car.
Earlier in the day, when the tow truck finally arrived about 19 hours after we first phoned AAA, our rejoicing was cut short by the realization that our chariot of salvation only had room for one. One of us (and Max) would get to ride for three hours with the tow truck driver, a man of few words who smoked Swisher Sweets, sported a phlegmy cough and favored conservative talk radio. And one of us would…find their own way home? I was perplexed. Hitch hiking did not seem viable. And had not I made it clear that we were two people and one dog, traveling 200 miles in one direction?
This led to a series of phone calls with various AAA representatives, over the course of which I learned a few things. These bits of wisdom have been itemized for your convenience. 1.) AAA is responsible for transporting the vehicle only, not people. 2.) My Premier Membership entitled me to a 1-day car rental, but not a one-way car rental. That would be at my own expense. 3.) AAA only works with Hertz, and the closest Hertz at the Truckee Airport was out of vehicles. 4.) Never underestimate the ineptitude of customer service. When the tenth AAA agent who I spoke with finally claimed to have confirmed a rental car at a different Hertz location and sent me a confirmation number and invoice, we followed up directly with the local branch only to learn that they did not have any vehicles available.
Eventually, we wizened up to the charade and booked our own rental car directly with Enterprise in Grass Valley. Despite the hoops jumped through to obtain said rental car (which involved a ride from yet another, different tow truck, waiting at random crossroads and an eventual pick-up by Enterprise) I was happy to have possession of it upon encountering Moby, Remy and a different (frustrated and embarrassed) tow truck driver from Sacramento along the side of the road. It turned out that Driver # 1 did not care (understandably) to drive all of the way to the Bay and pawned Moby off on another company in Sacramento. This new man, Driver # 2, was apologetic and we felt a shared empathy for his situation, compounded by even more vehicle mass. How, we wanted to know, was he going to move two giant and inoperable vehicles?
Tow Truck Driver 2: “I’m going to wait until 2:00 AM, come back with one of my giant trucks that tows semis, and tow both of them.”
Us: “At the same time, like a vehicular version of ‘human centipede?'”
Tow Truck Driver 2: “Yes.”
Us: “That’s ridiculous. Please send us a photo!”
The evidence of this massive union, executed under the cover of night is found below. I cannot fathom how the driver managed to turn this thing.
And thus, eventually, Moby made it back to San Francisco the following day, on March 11, pulled by what was now the 5th tow truck used to escort us and our vehicle back to San Francisco. Three days, five tow trucks, one rental car. The silver lining in all of this? With all of the theatrics and shortcomings of AAA’s roadside assistance with this tow, no one seemed to remember to charge us for the extra 20+ miles of towing that weren’t covered under my membership. And upon examining the fine print of my policy a few days later while in search of evidence to make a case for rental car reimbursement to AAA’s customer service department, I learned that Sprinter Vans and box trucks alike are specifically excluded from towing benefits under Washington State Premier Membership. Happily, I deleted my strongly worded email and paid the $37 to upgrade my membership to Premier RV.
Part 3 – March 15
The Hollister clothing company, promoter of the surfer-prep style that played second fiddle to Abercrombie & Fitch during my high school years, was selling a lie. I know this because I have now spent more time in Hollister than I ever cared to; there is no surf scene. In fact, there is no surf as the town is located quite inland, surrounded by BLM land and free ranging cattle.
BLM land means free camping, hard to come by in much of California, and this is what drew us to the outskirts of Hollister on the evening of March 14 while finally en route to Baja. Over a few days in the Bay, from the ‘home base’ of Remy’s parents’ driveway in Portola Valley, Moby was outfitted with a new Serpentine Belt, a new water filter, running water! (our water tank was frozen solid for most of the winter), two new solar panels and a fresh oil change. The dirt of winter was washed away, Remy mounted his slickly designed exterior longboard rack and we transformed our van from winter ski mobile to summer surf machine. Though Hollister is only 75 miles south of Portola Valley, we were giddy to get back in the van and begin the next leg of our adventure, and thus hit the road late on March 14, planning to get as far as the first free spot to camp.
Early on March 15, in need of diesel, we rolled into the Tres Piños County Store, a quaint spot with an old-school, two-pump gas station that is exactly 10 miles south of Hollister. We fueled up, paid inside, inserted the key and turned. The engine would not turn over. The starter casing had cracked. Remy lay under the car, muttered curse words and occasionally jutted out a greasy hand to request tools as Max regarded us warily with feline-like judgement. It was clear that he was losing confidence in the ability of his humans’ to execute simple human tasks, like operating a vehicle.
It was during this moment, while Max was full of disdain and I was on the phone with Advanced Auto Parts in San Jose, that a large, metallic convertible silently pulled in next to our white whale. The chrome hub cabs said ‘LincVolt’ and an older man with dark glasses, a scowl and formidable mutton chops slouched out from behind the wheel and disappeared into the breakfast cafe next door, male companion in tow.
Remy: “I think that was Neil Young.”
Kirsten: “No way. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
Remy: “No seriously, he has a house nearby and that is a really expensive car. Look up a photo, I’m positive that was him.”
Wikipedia verified Neil’s distinctive facial features and a quick LincVolt search also provided further evidence, including at least one account of Mr. Young also breaking down in his million dollar hybrid baby. A kindred soul with shared experiences! With hours to kill before a new starter casing would arrive in Hollister, we decided to follow him into the cafe and have second breakfast.
Nothing cool happened in the cafe. We sat as close as we could without being awkward and tried to nonchalantly read the local paper while also carefully observing the events at our neighbors’ table. Neil ordered orange juice. At one point he dropped his napkin on the floor and seemed not to notice it for several minutes. Neil asked his nervous waitress where the bathroom was. On his way back to the table, he paused near Remy’s seat, hips at the same level as Remy’s head, and removed his glasses to clean them. In this moment we made eye contact and I smiled too widely. His companion paid the bill. They shuffled away, breakfast only half-finished.
The waitress came to our table, a ball of twitchy excitement, to verify our shared but fleeting celebrity encounter. Neil and his LincVolt slipped silently away and we were left with the remains of our breakfast tacos and our heavy van that needed to be pushed out of the way as it was still occupying half of the available pumps at the Tres Piños County Store. Strains of “Keep On Rocking in the Free World” floated out of the auto garage next door. The presence of a rock icon had not gone unnoticed.
Later in the day, after we rode our bikes to Hollister to collect the new part, discovered that they had sent a returned core part in the 1 PM shipment from San Jose, killed time in a Christian coffee shop for five hours until the 6 PM shipment arrived with the correct part, and biked back to Tres Piños, Remy lay under the van once again and replaced the broken starter casing in under five minutes. Max was feeling more amicable, anticipating dinner and pleased that he got to tag along for our bike ride in Remy’s backpack. The whole sky turned pink with the most intense sunset of our trip to date and I pondered how, much in the same way that Seinfeld was a “show about nothing”, sometimes a whole day or a whole week of “nothing” makes for the most ridiculous retellings.
What We’re Reading, What We’re Listening To:
Remy revisited Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, most appropriate for our stage in life. I tore through Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehishi Coates. Can’t recommend this enough.
We both really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” which was a recommendation from my brother. The three part series on the inequality of education in America was excellent and the offered definition of privilege as “having a safety net, having second chances,” seemed to be one of the most accurate and poignant that I’ve encountered to date. When one breaks down three times in the expanse of a week while dabbling in the frivolous experiment of #vanlife and can still keep rolling uncontested, one is privileged indeed.
*Credit to Travis Burke for illuminating this fact for me. It should be obvious though; the name Nevada literally means “snow covered.”