June 15, 2012 by farbolino
Since I’ve only just begun this blog, I have a backlog of stories from over the past years. Flashback Friday will be dedicated to sharing stories from past travels. I thought maybe it would be appropriate to start with a story that really began my path of traveling.
Ten years ago, I decided to quit business school at the University of Arizona and take a road trip back east through the US to arrive back in NY. There was only one problem; I didn’t have a car.
After some online research, I arrived at the conclusion that the best course of action was to buy a VW Vanagon Westfalia. If your unfamiliar with these creatures, they are a newer; boxier version of the fabled VW bus, only with all the equipment you’d ever need for a cross country trip already built in. I also decided that the best place to buy one was on eBay.
After an intense bidding war with a man from Montana, I had won the auction for $2500.01; beating the man from Montana by a single penny. I had just purchased a 1980 Vanagon Westfalia with 163,000 miles (271,000 km) on it. Like the smart teenager I was, I decided to run a carfax AFTER I had purchased it; which revealed my new love to have 263,000 miles on it. After a talk with the owner, we agreed that $1800 would be a more agreeable price for a vehicle with such lofty mileage.
I then began my journey to pick up my new love in Los Angeles, a 488 mile drive through the desert from Tucson. I convinced a friend to make a mini road trip with me for the weekend before she had to be back on Tuesday to take some final exams. We cruised through the flat plains of dry dirt and Joshua trees at 110 mph and reached the outskirts of LA in record time. Then came the halting traffic associated with the highways there.
We picked up the van on our last day in LA after staying at a Best Western hotel for nearly free since my friend had a friend who worked for the chain. My friend was in a rush to make it back to Tucson before the rush hour traffic smothered LA For the night. She was an anxious about making it back in time to fit in some last minute studying. I told her to go on without me; that I would make it back to Tucson on my own after I had filled the van with gas.
By the time I had changed the oil, filled the tank with gas and prepared to make my way back, it was peak rush hour. I spent what felt like a couple hours rolling just a few miles. Perhaps an important side note was that the Vanagons were air cooled in their early years; meaning they had no radiator and could overheat quite easily in hot weather. I had been checking the temp gauge constantly, but everything was fine.
By 11 pm I had made it nearly half way back, when the van started to sputter. The tank had gas, the temp gauge under control; so what was going on? Luckily there was an exit within a mile. I pulled onto the offramp to check what was going on; but as soon as I came to the stop sign, the van sputtered violently to a halt. F*ck; I though. I went to the back of the van and opened the engine compartment only to let out a billow of smoke that smelled like burnt oil. F*ck f*ck; I thought.
Just at that moment a figure emerged out of the darkness from behind me and said something, although I wasn’t quite paying attention since he scared the shit out of me. What the hell was anyone doing walking around the middle of the night in a matching sweatsuit I thought.
“Smells like burnt oil” he said again.
Thanks Captain Obvious, I thought in my head. But then the more pressing questions came back into my head. Why was a man with a shaved head, and tattooed neck walking around at night with a sweatsuit on? He answered my question without me asking. He was going for a jog and was headed back to Blythe; the small city I had just stumbled into. He told me that if we could get the van running again, right next to his place was an auto mechanic who could take a look in the morning.
The van started, but needed constant gas to keep running. He hopped in with me and gave me directions to what seemed to be a secluded industrial section on the city. I hope I’m not about to be raped. We made it to a large gated property with a barbed wire fence and fierce barking dogs in the backround.
” Where are we?”
“This is where I live.”
He opened the gate and I drove through. He showed me where I could park. Right next to the van was a large, rusting storage container, which he proceeded to open. The surprise on my face to find a bed, TV, and clothes thrown over a chair must have been priceless. He then took off his shirt to reveal a plethora of tattoos and scars. If I wasn’t concerned before, I certainly was now. He started to tell me the stories of his tattoos and scars.
He had a large tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his chest which he got when he was only 13 years old. At that time he joined a gang in Tucson, which eventually led him down the path of jail time. He had a wife at some point, but for some reason she had stabbed him with a kitchen knife, which explained the scars he had. He told me many interesting stories about his life, his family, and everything else; but I honestly couldn’t list it all here in enough detail. For brevity, we can file them under interesting. He proceeded to make me some carne asada steak on the grill outside since I hadn’t eaten anything in hours. From what I remember, he was a damn good cook. We spent the rest of the night talking about life, books, music, etc. It was shocking how many things a 19 year old kid from New York who grew up in the suburbs could find with an ex convict in the Californian desert.
I woke up in the morning to him tapping on the window so we could check if the mechanic was open yet. Strangely there was no mechanic across the street. Perhaps he was mistaken. I had to resort to driving the van in the condition it was to another mechanic in town, so I said my thanks and warm goodbyes to the strange ex convict who lived in a storage container and headed out. As I said earlier, the van would stall without constant gas, so I had to beep and drive straight through red lights to make it there without stalling. I arrived at Brian Miller auto in a pile of smoke before the engine sputtered out.
The mechanic took a quick look, and said “Yep, you need a new motor.” I’m was no mechanical expert, but thought perhaps he should have taken a closer look to declare something so serious. The next logical step was to ask how much a new motor was going to cost. I knew such a proposition couldn’t be cheap. $3500 installed with a 60,000 mile warranty. Wow, I just paid $1800 for the damn thing, and now I was going to spend nearly double that to replace the motor. I told them I had to think about it, and decided to ask another mechanic in town what it would cost to replace the engine. With only 15,000 people in Blythe, my options were thin.
I walked to the only other mechanic in town who said he could find me a used engine for $1500, but he didn’t inspire confidence in me. He said something to the likes of “I can find you a low mileage engine, but they’re ALL low milage engines if you know what I mean!” and he started to laugh hysterically. In other words, you wouldn’t know how many miles the engine would have on it, since engines don’t have odometers placed directly on them. I wasn’t keen to the idea of spending $1500 and the same thing happening again.
I went back to Brian Miller and told them to do it. I had a friend flying in from NY in a few days to do the trip with me, and I needed it done fast. They said it would take 3-5 days to get the engine and instal it. Thinking that everything would be fine, except financially of course; I boarded a grey hound bus back to Tucson.
A few days later my friend came, and we waited for the van to be finished. I called them after 5 days since I hadn’t heard from them. I was simply told that the engine hadn’t arrived yet. “OK, so when will it be finished then?” I asked.
“We don’t know. We can’t start until we have an engine.” I was told.
The timid 19 year old I was, I simply said ok, and hung up the phone. I called every other day to check if the van was ready, with always the same response. My friend and I waited, and waited, and waited until the end of June when the lease on my apartment was up. We had no other choice but to fly back to NY and attempt the trip another time.
Finally 2 months later, after I had been working my summer job in NY for a while, I got a call on my cell phone from a unknown number. It was Brain Miller auto calling, and finally my chariot was ready. By that point I had calculated that it would cost way more then the $1800 I paid for the van to fly out there, pay for the gas to drive it back, and miss work the whole time I was gone. I decided it was best to swallow the massive loss of $1800 and buy another van on the east coast. In the future I would do it right though; no more air cooled engines, no more vans with 250,000 miles on them.
I learned a valuable lesson and in the next few months I did eventually buy another van, and I did a few trips across the United States with it, but thats for another Flashback Friday post. I hope you enjoyed this rambling journey of my first attempt at travel.