Where I sat in back of Quin’s new van, it was at least 115 degrees, but it was hard to tell if the heat was coming off the sun or the engine. It was time for the day’s fourth emergency pull over as we attempted to cross Nevada in a record setting heat wave. We were running low on water, cell service, and daylight. I popped open the back hatch to get a cross breeze, but there was nothing out there but hot air glistening off the endless stretch of open road.
I had flown into California a few days earlier to join Quin on the virgin voyage of his 1987 Toyota spaceship. The plan was to meet in Yosemite, cruise over to Utah, and then north through Idaho, and Washington. The day before the trip Quin called to explain the van had been overheating, but ignorance is bliss, and I brushed it off as the overcautious misgivings of a new van parent. It was too late to change plans anyway – I’d taken the time off work, my flight was purchased, and I’d just finished reading “On The Road.” As far as I was concerned, the train had left the station.
We just needed to hit the road and everything would work itself out—it always does—right? Plus, what’s a little car trouble here and there? In the trouble lies the tales; It’s all part of the adventure.
After a couple nights backcountry camping in Yosemite we headed for the Eastern Sierras in search of hot springs. The heat outside was increasing with every mile. I stuck my head out the window for some air. It was hot outside, but even hotter inside. The van didn’t have AC, and Quin insisted that the best way to keep the van from overheating was to blast the heat. With no proof to the contrary I was forced to comply. After all, despite some pretty significant elevation gains, the van was running smoothly – except for those two times the battery died on the way out of the park.
After the Eastern Sierras it was off to Zion. And that’s were trouble first reared its ugly head, and van life lost its glamor. As we rolled into the park the heat gage shot into the red zone. I didn’t understand. We were treating the engine like a new born baby – feeding it water every couple of hours, taking frequent breaks to let it rest, even blasting the heat to keep it cool at the expense of our own comfort. But as I was slowly learning, sometimes there’s just nothing you can do to appease an angry engine. We parked the van outside the park and hopped on the shuttle. Perhaps the van just needed a little rest and relaxation. There’s was plenty to do while we waited!
I laid motionless on the van’s makeshift bed, in a futile attempt to stay cool, my brain racing with plan B’s. Outside Quin struggled to explain our location to the AAA operator—between a rock and hard place in the middle of nowhere. It was clear we were stuck unless we found a new car. My optimism faded into the reality that our only other option was parked in Seattle.
During the two hour tow to Las Vegas we hatched a new, less “van life” version of the road trip I’d imagined. I flew back to Seattle that night to fetch my car, while Quin spent the next few days in sin city tending to his van. A week later I drove my car down to Salt Lake City, and Quin and I set off to finish what we had started.
The second half of the road trip went off without a hitch. We met up with friends, hiked, backpacked, camped, and saw so many beautiful alpine lakes I lost count. But looking back, my memories from the first half of the trip shine just as brightly. There is something about adversity that brings people together, and forms the catalyst for collaboration and creativity. At the time, I remember feeling like all those hours spent on the side of the road were a waste of time. Now I know they shaped the lens through which I viewed the rest of the trip.
The lows in travel, just like in life, help us appreciate the highs. Without them, it’s easy to take little successes for granted and eventually fail to notice them at all. While the easy road might sound more appealing, I’ve learned that it can also be monotonous. There’s little to gain, and even less to be learned by coasting along in cruse control. The best laid plans can and will fall apart from time to time. But that doesn’t mean we have to. The trick is to learn to expect the unexpected and embrace the lessons that inevitably come out of adversity.
Sweltering for days in a broken down van isn’t fun, but I wouldn’t change a thing about that virgin voyage. In the end it wasn’t the story about a failure to launch. It was just a road trip that took a few unexpected turns.