Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wheels Of Fury; My Life In Vans

   When we were planning on moving to Portland, Eli and I both considered selling our cars on the East Coast and starting fresh in the Northwest.  The West Coast is the land of forgotten cars of yesteryear, well made troopers that never succumbed to rot as they were never exposed to salted roads.  Well I'd grown comfortable in my 2002 Chevy Astro MEDIUM sized van (rather than a minivan), with it's soothing white exterior and power everything inside.  Sure it was small and the fuel economy wasn't so great.  It wasn't so bad either.
    In the weeks prior to our move as we researched our transport options and reserved our moving truck and trailer, we learned that the Astro’s weight exceeded the maximum load for the flat bed auto trailer.  Paired with the conclusion that nobody was calling about Eli’s truck, the compact American pickup with two wheel drive, in January in Maine, we had to consider selling my van.   A no rust all wheel drive van was much more likely to pique a buyer’s interest.
   So it was, I sold the Astro to the first people who came to look at it, for a price that made my heart sink.  The buyer agreed to allow us to use it for one final week, a tour de force that began in Lowell, on New Year’s Eve, to perform raucous noise one last time with friends.  We drove a loop out to Schenectady to see our families.  Then up through Vermont to see some good friends.    Then back through New Hampshire, where I signed the van over to the new owner and left it there.
   The Astro had been my 6th van.  My first was a 1969 Ford Club Wagon in faded baby blue.  My friend and band mate Doug and I found that one on Craigslist while searching for a van to transport our band down the coast to California to play some shows.  We bought it from the son of the original owners.  He  had grown up traveling on family vacations in it.  We were about to show the van the rock and roll lifestyle.  We called it ‘Ole Blue’.
   The Club Wagon had manual steering and no power brakes, it was as simple as a van could be.  We threw a couch in the back and loaded our band's equipment behind it and toured clear across the country that way.  We'd pull Ole Blue up to venues where the headlining band had parked their rented new model van and scoff at the pampered tour they were on.  We couldn't be prouder.  There is no reason why a 30 year old van should have been able to accomplish what we asked of it.  But it always got us to where we were going.  Occasionally a few days late.
   On our return from the East Cast something happened that made an audible noise somewhere in Illinois.   By the time we had gotten within 30 miles of the Mississippi River, the rear wheel was making horrendous noise and smoking.  We pulled over.  Doug called for roadside assistance and a half an hour later a large man in a tow truck came to our aid.  Our driver went by the name Hoss.  I did not make that up.  We packed into his truck, myself in the front seat.  Searching through Hoss’ CD collection we found ourselves on common ground discussing the demise of the band Metallica after their original bass player Cliff Burton died while on tour.  Hoss drove us to Quincy, Illinois on the Mississippi River.  He worked for a small service station that was closed until Monday, 48 hours away.  That began our weekend adventure in Quincy.   That’s a story for another time.
   We made it back home to Portland but eventually trusty Ole Blue was losing power and making some strange noises.  It seemed as if the cylinders didn’t hold good compression any longer although the van still worked.  We ended up selling it to future roadie Matt Limo for $50.
   Our second band van was a 1986 Ford Clubwagon that Limo nicknamed 'Brown Town'.  You can imagine that unappetizing two tone pairing of blah brown that floated around in the 1980's.  It was a slug of a van and moved like a fishing trawler on the highway.  We did a solid coast to coast tour in Brown Town and it wasn't so bad until we were crossing Wyoming and had some bad vapor lock issues with the engine stuttering as we rolled along at 70mph.  We got to spend a few days in Sharidan, WY waiting to pass the weekend that time.  Monday morning we called a repair shop and described what the problem was.  The mechanic instructed Doug to go to a store and purchase the spring clamp type of clothes line clips.  On Monday morning we drove our bag of clothes line clips to the service shop and the mechanic looked under the hood.  He said there wasn’t much he could improve but we should try placing one of the clothes pins on the fuel line just before the carburetor.   It seemed crazy and we assumed we were being messed with.  But the clothes pins were far cheaper than a repair bill. So we tried it.  I have to say that I have never had problems with vapor lock in a vehicle since.  After that detour we made it the rest of the way back to Oregon in Brown Town without another problem.  I think Doug sold that van soon after that trip was behind us.
   My next van was another 1969 Ford, this one a white E350 one ton.  I bought it from the niece of the original owner.  Her uncle been a scuba diver and had driven all over the continent in the van to explore under water worlds.  He had outfitted the van with a bed, table, even a toilet in the back corner.  All his handy work was constructed out of painted plywood and press board with a salvage collection of mismatched hardware.  I pulled it all out which took a solid weekend. 
I wanted the space.    One of my favorite details was a Tourista 1974 sticker in the rear window from a long ago visit to Mexico.  I named that van Great White.  The van had potential but it needed some work.  A few months of driving it had reduced the steering to a vague concept. I got good at spinning the steering wheel with one hand, letting it turn two full rotations before catching up to the linkage to make the turn at which point I would grab hold of the steering wheel again and make the turn.  Lending that van to the uninitiated was out of the question.
   I learned a lot of mechanical diagnosis and repair on that van.  In the first year I replaced the alternator, master cylinder, water pump, spark plugs and wires as well as the regular oil changes with quality synthetic oil.
   It had not occurred to me to invest in new tires though.  Me and my band mates had a terrifying experience in Great White once when returning on I 5 northbound from a West Coast tour.  Coming around a turn on Interstate 5 in Southern Oregon, one of the retread tires came apart.   The van instantly went into fish-tailing out of control.  Seconds later the other rear tire came apart.  By luck there was an up hill off ramp was right there when we needed it.  I managed to get the van under control and up the off ramp.   The couch in the back holding three of us travelers came right up against the front seats, pushed by over 1,000 lbs. of music gear behind it.   I quickly learned about quality tires and factory seats that bolt to the ground.
   Then a year later something I could have never imagined happened.  The day prior to Thanksgiving 2006 I drove the van to work.  I parked 3 blocks away in the neighborhood behind the bike shop.  At 8pm I clocked out and walked up the hill to where I had parked.  Only there was no van there.  This was not something I could comprehend right away.  It seemed impossible that the van would have moved against my will while I worked just 3 blocks away.  I walked around the corner, around the block, thinking maybe I had forgotten where I had parked at the beginning of the day.  But it was really gone.  
   A few days later I received a call from the police that my van had been found.  They reported that it was drivable and sitting in a tow lot about 15 miles away from my apartment.  I rode my bike out to the lot on 82nd Avenue in Clackamas.   When I arrived I found my van, the Mighty Great White.   The rear bumper was folded outward in half at a 90 degree angle, sticking out like a comical appendage pointing behind the van at nothing.  The driver side fender had been crushed into the wheel well and the tire was flat.  Obviously the van was not drivable.  My belongings that had been inside were gone, save for a few cassette tapes.  The thieves also left some cheap Chinese tools, a pocket knife, car jack, some screw drivers. 
   In the tow lot office I was told I owed $75 storage and $100 for towing.  I couldn’t believe after all that had happened, after the police officer lying to me over the phone about the condition the van was found in, that I would have to then pay a bill and facilitate the removal of this no longer useful vehicle.  I suggested to the office that I could simply walk away and they could keep the van.  I was told I would still have to pay and a collections agency would hunt me down for payment for each day as long as the van sat on the lot.  So I was out a van and $175.  I called Triple A and waited for a wrecker to bring me and what was left of my van back to my apartment.  The flat bed brought us home and put my van down on the street outside my apartment.  I looked in the phone book and found a auto salvage that would pick up the van and give me $40 cash for it.  And that was the end of it.  I watched as my beloved Great White van departed for the car graveyard on the back of a flatbed.
   Around that time I had plans to transition out of bicycle repair into the craft of tile setting.  My friend set me up with a good tile setter ready to apprentice somebody.  I had spoken with him once or twice on the phone.  Our arrangement was that after Christmas he'd be ready to have me start and by that time I would need a truck.  So I borrowed some money and began the search for the next van.
    I was partial to those pre-1974 Fords.  But I couldn't find any in the area that interested me.   And with a deadline looming for needing such a vehicle it seemed time to branch out and try something different.  That's how I came to find Jonas.  Jonas was a 1992 Dodge B300 Maxi Van with a 360 V8 engine.  The Maxi Van had an additional 3' of cargo space that stuck out behind the rear wheel wells and tinted "privacy" windows all around.  A friend drove me to take a look at the van on Christmas eve.  There were no seats inside, just a low sleeping platform that was supported 12 inches above the floor, a few bolted in tool cabinets and a small safe the previous owner had installed.  The cargo space was endless.   I had never looked closely at these immense vans let alone driven one.  But it drove smooth, with a surprising command of tight corners.   I parted with my cash and drove home in a new van.
   A few weeks after buying Jonas I went to the task of pulling out the platform and tool boxes.  That's when I finally investigated the small safe.  It was unlocked and the door had been swinging open and slamming shut as I drove those first few weeks.  But I had never taken a close look at the safe until that day.   Inside I found a case of 9mm rounds, adding to the mystery of the life the van had lived with the previous owner.
   Jonas was a great van who ran like a tank despite one low compression cylinder.  The van was used for one band excursion down to California.  The van would outlast the band this time, which fell apart soon after that trip.
   Then it came time to depart from the beloved snow capped mountains and vast rivers of the Northwest.  I outfitted Jonas with 10 ply tires and packed all my belongings into the back and drove from Portland to Southern Maine, a trip that I dragged out for about 9 days.  That makes it sound as if it were smooth sailing the entire trip which is not quite true.  I had a shop do a pre-trip check up and everything was supposed to be in fine working order.  Only 20 miles later, when all my belongings had been packed in the back, the morning I was going to leave my old life behind, I turned the key in the ignition and the 'check engine' light came on.  What could I do?  I was ready to go!  Months of loosely laid plans were coming to fruition.  Momentum had already been established.  And so I drove onto the freeway and crossed my fingers.   It wasn’t long before I noticed that something didn’t seem right, as if the van wanted to stall as we made our way.  The check engine light seemed so bright, unavoidably staring me down from the dashboard as I drove.
   On the second day the van was having problems holding a charge and stalled out a few times on the road.  I was driving east through Oregon passing small, lonely outposts.  At one remote exit I managed to find an auto parts store.  The clerk was willing to help me verify that I needed to replace my battery.  I put the new battery in and got back on the road.  The countryside was beautiful through the rolling farmland of northeast Oregon.  I tried to ignore the still beaming ‘Check Engine’ light and enjoy my adventure.
   That evening when it was almost dark the van was limping through the town of Clarkston  on highway 12.  Over the bridge into Lewiston, Idaho, the van died.  I had enough momentum to make it across the bridge and over to a traffic island.  From there, I called triple A.  I was towed to a repair shop up on the hill above the Snake River.   It was there in that lot I slept stretched out in the back of the van, in an 18" strip I had intentionally left open for sleeping.
    The following morning I awoke and there were already mechanics bustling about getting their days started.   I tried to pretty myself up as best as I could under the circumstances and hopped out of the van.  I was told one of the mechanics could take a look at my van in a few hours.  So I left the keys and ventured out on my bicycle to find breakfast.   It took most of the day for them to get to the van and diagnose what the problem was.   I spent the time rolling around town on my bike, seeing the sites of a small two story river port town.
   When I returned the mechanic that diagnosed the problem told me that the main computer board had fried.  It could no longer regulate voltage between the alternator and the battery.  The $400 part would have to get on a truck in Spokane and wouldn't make it to Lewiston until the following Monday morning.  That meant spending the next day, Sunday, rolling around town some more, killing time.
   Monday came and so did the new computer board.  One of the mechanics plugged it in and I was back on the road by 10am; no more ‘Check Engine’ light.  The disappointment of having to spend $400 of my moving budget quickly gave way to my relief to be driving East again, with the most anticipated part of the trip -Idaho and Montana - right in front of me.  That was the most trouble I really had with that van.  Other than that it trucked the rest of the way across the country without a hitch.  I calculated my fuel economy and found I was regularly getting 15 miles to the gallon even with the cargo space piled to the brim with all my prized possessions.
   Jonas remained my transportation once we got to Maine.   We made it through the winter with 280 lbs. of sand tubes in the back over the rear axle.  The sand resolved the problem of all that empty space over the drive wheels causing the rear end to slip around on icy roads.  I now refer to the use of sand bags for extra traction as New England four wheel drive. 
   The following spring I was going to have to register the van in Maine which is a different proposition than it is in Oregon.  With a cracked windshield and missing tailpipe,  I was going to have to invest some money into Jonas to keep it on the road.  Around that time my father offered to give me my grandfather's 1992 Chrysler New Yorker Mark V, a real luxury Grandpa mobile.  I decided to sell Jonas to a friend for $500.  He had the tailpipe and the windshield fixed and he's still using that van now 5 years later.
   The Chrysler New Yorker was a true pleasure to drive.  In all my years captaining vans, I had forgotten what a full size American made car could feel like.  The car wasn’t gigantic like a Cadillac, but it floated down the road like one.   It had a good factory stereo cassette deck with a balance and fader joystick control, leather interior,  power seats, and factory spoked hub caps with a special key required to remove them.
   My father had named that car White Cloud, following a tradition he had begun of naming his cars after famous or fictitious Native Americans.  Eli and I had some great adventures driving that car around the Northeast.
   The fun lasted a year before the rust had taken it's final toll on it.  I had patched some body rot with sheet metal pop riveted to the fenders.   But it wasn't long until another suspension spring was going to give out and other costly problems were manifesting.  And so I began my search for the next van.  The year I spent driving White Cloud had spoiled me for comfortable interiors and better fuel economy.   I knew I wanted another van, but didn’t want to sacrifice my new penchant for luxury.  I decided to look into the Chevy Astro mid size van. 
   I researched years and options on the Chevy Astro until I decided on the details that were important to me.  Then the hunt was on.  I regularly went on Craigslist searching as far away as Connecticut for the right one.  Eventually one did turn up south of Boston on the way to Cape Cod.  It was a white all wheel drive 2002 model with less than 70,000 miles on it.  I traded in the Chrysler for a few hundred dollars, forked over thousands more, and drove the Astro home a few weeks later.  It was sweet.  I had never owned such a low mileage, young vehicle before. When early snows had most cars on the street sliding willy nilly across the roads, the Astro would just power through without any concern for road conditions.  I never worried about being on the road in that van. 
   As it turned out, when Eli and I decided to move to the Pacific Northwest, the Chevy Astro had to go. In hindsight I wish I had left it behind and flown back for it, taking it West on another adventure.  But it didn't happen that way.  Upon arriving in Portland, Oregon, we both relied on Eli's truck for the first 3 months if a vehicle was required.  Otherwise I revisited doing everything on a bicycle, which is another great way of life.  But after 3 months of saving up I began the familiar search for the next van, number 7.
   Instead of trying to buy another Astro I reverted to searching for another full size van.  The pre-74 Econoline was on the list of prospects. But in the end I settled on another 1992 Dodge van.  And eventually we were driving north to Olympia to buy 'The Creeper'.  The nickname was conceived by the votech students the van's owner would drive around to job sites and projects around Olympia.  The carpets, door trim and headliner had all been removed, exposing the naked inner truth of the van's anatomy; an iron box on wheels.  There were windows all around, tinted with the adhesive tint film, peeling at the corners.  The van's mascot was a hula bobble lady on the dashboard.  At high speeds, the vibration from the engine would send the ukulele playing hula girl into a violent pogo frenzy.  The Creeper was alright to drive for a while.  We did take it on a few far away adventures.  But it wasn't long before I felt as if I wasn't going to bond with this van as I had with previous vans.  We got along alright, but there was no spark.  And so I returned to Craigslist, mostly for entertainment.  But also to see if there might be a van more suited to my liking out there.
   Not long before this new search began, I found an ad for another 1992 Dodge.  This was a short wheel base B150 1/2 ton.  It's interior was burgundy plush with power locks and mirrors.  It held the stereo I coveted, what I had grown to love in the New Yorker, the factory cassette deck with joy stick balance/pan control.  There were so many similarities that I decided that this was the van version of my grandfather's New Yorker Mark V.  It was the van that I was meant to drive.  I met the seller at a cafe across the Columbia in Washington.  We negotiated a price that was more reasonable considering a cracked windshield and brakes needing service.  Again I handed over a large stack of bills and drove home in a new van.  The Creeper I left in the parking lot to return for later.
    Keeping with my father’s tradition of naming automobiles after various hues of water vapor, this new van, with it's half silver, half purple paint, could go by no other name than ‘Purple Haze’.
   Now we’re another year down the road.  The Purple Haze has taken us down some treacherous byways.  These days the stereo has an internal problem with the amplifier being sensitive to heat.  It will broadcast sound from cassette or radio for a few minutes before the engine's heat makes it's way to the dash board and then the radio goes silent.  During the recent cold snap I enjoyed the radio as it had been in the early days, the comforting meandering dialog of talk radio or analog cassette music coming through the speakers.  But now it's warmer and when I drive, the radio is silent.  Instead I focus on the less appealing sounds of a bearing running dry, spinning towards imminent seizure, at the center of one of the pulleys that the serpentine belt winds around at 1,000 rounds per minute.  Or the low drone of the transmission while maintaining highway speeds.  It's a good van. It's comfortable and easy to drive.  But I have gotten it stuck on a few occasions, something I'd never really experienced before.  Despite the new tires I invested in, the Purple Haze seems to have less traction than vans I had previously owned.  Once on a forest road far away from the pavement, on a steep grade where forward downward progress was thwarted by the vast number of downed trees, I spent a desperate hour trying everything I could think of to get the van turned around and headed back to the main forest road.  It was at panicked moments during that hour, that my thoughts turned back to the Astro, with it's all wheel drive, that could seemingly get out of any bind.  For a person whose curiosity often overpowers their reason, there is there is much praise and hallelujahs to be said for four wheel traction.   

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