Early March, Anchorage, Alaska. It’s cold and dark, but we have a warm glow in our souls lighting our way as we drive our newly purchased VW Eurovan across town to its new home. We’re starting to get excited for our big fall road trip, and the van is a key piece of the puzzle. The love affair lasts exactly one week, until Abby runs out of gas. The tank is still supposed to be half full. The gas mileage turns out to be drastically less than advertised – 8 mpg instead of 20. As the weeks pass by, we discover more hidden treasures. There’s a hole in the windshield washer fluid reservoir. The blower motor has been replaced by a hack, and is ducktaped in place, hidden behind the dash. The interior ceiling fabric falls off revealing that the pop-top is actually an add-on – it wasn’t made that way but modified later. The list grows longer. It turns out we bought a piece-of-shit (POS) van from a lying POS on craiglist. Abby breaks into tears.
Late July, Anchorage, Alaska. It’s Day 1 of our trip. The morning dawns cold and dreary. It’s been raining in Alaska nonstop since May but we’re embarking on our epic journey! Our summer of glory has turned out to be full of aborted trips through wet tundra, but it’s still been a good time. Now it’s time to move on, and we’re excited. The open road is ahead of us, and we leave Anchorage with a nervous anticipation of what lies ahead. The van has been repaired, tuned up, and pimped out. He has been hopefully christened Skookum.
6 hours later we stop for a last slug of cheap gas before crossing into Canada. Our newly tuned-up Skookum, fresh from the garage and his pre-roadtrip checkup, refuses to restart. We enlist our passengers, a couple of French hitchhikers who have been rained out of Denali, to help push start the van, and park on an incline at subsequent stops all the way to Whitehorse. We limp into the Superstore parking lot and debate our options. Our mechanic in Anchorage pulls through over the phone, and with some poking and prodding (and a few bangs and clangs thrown in for good measure), I find a loose connection on the starter and fix the problem. Click and Clack would be proud. My mechanic skills are improving at an unsustainably exponential rate. Surely the curve will flatten soon? Abby starts scowling, a permanent furrow developing in her beautiful brow.
Late August, Big Sky, Montana. We’re on our way to a Michael Franti concert at Big Sky, toiling our way up the mountain through the hot summer air. The faint smell of gas appears shortly outside of Bozeman and gets gradually stronger over the next few hours. It eventually becomes unbearable, so I pull over and get out to check the gas tank. The smell is immediately overpowering. I hear a strange bubbling noise coming from the tank, and can see fumes billowing out. The gas cap fairly blows off when I loosen it, and gas starts spurting out. The fuel is literally boiling in the tank.
We try to make the best of it by running a 5k the morning of the concert, winning resort gift certificates by beating a half dozen severely hungover ski resort employees who haven’t slept since leaving the bar the night before. We score some guest passes to the resort spa with our sob story, and drown our sorrows with the winnings as afternoon thunderstorms threaten to cancel the concert. We stare silently into the storm clouds, the reality of what being a VW van owner really entails hammering home like so many raindrops.
The clouds miraculously pass, the sun comes out, and then it’s time for FRANTI! We get down, and the world is happy once more. The next morning, we limp slowly to Abby’s sister’s house in Salt Lake City, Utah. We stop every hour to prevent the van from getting too hot. Abby spends the entire time with her hand on the seatlbelt release, ready to eject at a moment’s notice. She is developing a distinct nervous tick.
Early September, Salt Lake City, Utah. We leave Skookum with John and Shannon’s mechanic, a gruff semi-retired character who restores vintage race cars and POS VWs. I rumble in to the parking lot and park Skookum between an early model Porsche 911 and a Lamborghini. The mechanic takes apart the gas tank, traces the gas line and vents the whole system. He comes up with nothing but charges us $400. Abby has begun to stutter.
Late October, Corvallis, Oregon. After spending a few days visiting our good friends Chris and Leanne, we pack up and head south, towards Ashland. Half an hour down I-5, the storm that is dumping more than 6 inches of rain along the Oregon Coast and flooding cities up and down the western seaboard threatens to rip Skookum’s pop-top right off. We pull over to debate our options, and decide a skylight will not add to the van’s value. We turn around and limp back to Corvallis, surprising the Cusacks when we show back up at their door. Along the way, we remark on the interesting new grinding sound coming from underneath Abby’s seat. We end up needing “nothing more” than an exhaust hanger replaced, but the mechanic remarks casually that the vehicle “really needs some work”. We thank him, and head north. Abby is an unresponsive, limpid puddle in the back seat, staring vacantly into space, a steady trickle of drool escaping the left corner of her mouth.
Late November, Vancouver, B.C. Skookum gets posted on craigslist in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. A potential buyer emerges who takes him to a mechanic where he is told that under no circumstances should he buy the van. The list of recommended repairs is long and sordid, and only 75% accurate. We fly to Hawaii. Abby bursts into song.
Skookum is still for sale.