My Many Lovers on the Road: Living the Van life When It Was Just Plain Ol' Dirtbag Climber Roadtripping
I have had many lovers on the road. All of them had a heart like a wheel, rubber boots made for walkin’. Several treated me badly—left me on a gravel shoulder, broke and out of luck. But others have loved me good, carried my load, taken me for amazing rides, and left me a better human for the time we spent together.
I’m talking Rigs. Rides. Outfits. I had them before it was called van life—when it was just called dirtbagging—or roadtripping. They’ve taken me to climbing areas all over the world.
Besides compulsive anthropomorphizing, I also tend to zoomorphize and have found that my best and favorite vehicles often come to me in my dreams as their true form. They somehow pick their gender, too. There are so many vehicles I can’t count them on my fingers and have to add a few prehensile toes, but, after having just parked my latest and greatest rig for the winter (The Beast), I need to do a little chronicling.
The list starts with ‘Old Blue’, a 1967 Volvo 122e, which was my first ride (dad’s side of the divorce), and the ‘Green Machine’ Volvo 244 (mom’s side). Then a red Mazda 808 (male, raccoon), which led me faithfully through my undergrad at the University of Minnesota, and whose heart and lungs beat a steady cadence as it carried me weekly to climbing at Taylor’s Falls—and all the way to the junkyard, where its rusting frame found its final rest.
I drove a blue-gray Toyota Celica in North Carolina to Moore’s Wall and Sauratown and New River Gorge (female, flying squirrel). And in Frankfurt, Germany, a 1976 sky blue Renault F6 with ‘FUD’ on the license plate (Elmer Fudd). The F6 was used at the time in France as a postal truck, and my F6 delivered me to Val di Melo in Italy, and the Frankenjura, and Pfalz and Fontainbleau. I built a wooden sleeping platform that popped apart and became a table so that I could sleep inside, ganz gemutlich, or breakfast wherever I found myself. It blew its clutch plate and I had to sell it for the cost of a tow before I moved away from Frankfurt.
In Australia I bought a deep blue, four door Ford Falcon (falcon, obviously, and male) with right side drive, and drove it with Austrian climbing partners through the center of the continent, then along the coast all around one side. I sold it after 3 months for the price I’d purchased it for, making it, functionally, a free rental.
There were vehicles my friends owned but which I spent massive time in, like my old friend Heinzl’s rotting Datsun B210 hatchback, and later his Westphalia Vanagon. It had all the mechanical problems that Vanagons are famous for, but its almost-vertical windshield made it all worth it: in the Vanagon, you’re so close to the glass it’s like it isn’t there, and you’re just flying over the road.
Then there was a 1982 gopher-colored Subaru GL 2 wheel/4 wheel that took me to Idaho and Wyoming (female, but not really an animal) and the red 1985 Toyota pick-me-up that took me everywhere else. It was gender non-conforming and I imagined it to be part dog, part mule, and part tame-wolverine. It carried loads three times heavier than it should have (including a full size slide in camper), as well my very heavy heart after a very difficult breakup. I would rub its dashboard whenever we got through something hairy, like bad snow, or a steep hill in the mountains. It was invincible to weather and old age but finally was killed by a large tree, which crushed its mighty engine compartment while it was parked next to the St. Croix river.
There are more: a 1987 5-speed manual gray VW Vanagon (male, squirrel), a 1993 VW Eurovan weekender which rusted apart. Then a 1993 VW camper I purchased sight-unseen and flew to San Diego to pick up (it was white, like the whale, but I imagined it to be a genderless albino dolphin). Plus there was a series of daily drivers sandwiched between the vans (Subaru Outback, 1982 Mercedes 300 Diesel station wagon, 1986 Mercedes 300E). That one was not animal at all, but contained the spirit of Heinzl’s deceased father. Right now we have an underpowered purple Mazda 5 that has hauled the family for 11 years, a 2002 Subaru Forester, and, for vanning it, The Beast.
The Beast is a low-mileage 1996 Dodge Ram 1500 with a Sportsmobile pop-top and no kitchen to get funky, and no fridge or ice box to mess with. It’s got room for days and sleeps four and I can easily parallel park it on the streets of Minneapolis or ride it deep into the Wyoming outback. Its simplicity is beautiful but its driving cockpit is angled strangely and can put my sacroiliac out of whack if I’m not careful—which is why I was able to buy it for $6,000 from its previous, 6’4’’ owner, who had to bend his wiry frame like a paperclip to fit behind the wheel.
The Beast, which sports several ‘Superluckycats’ for protection, is masculine, for sure, and has something of the Japanese movie monster in it, like Gamera, the giant Turtle thing. It also reminds people of the A-Team—like Mr. T is about to explode out of it. Maybe it is not an animal at all, though. It’s perhaps the reification of the idea that freedom can be contained in an object. And that the road is a path both literal and metaphorical.
But freedom is limited, and roads have ends, and Minnesota winters are hard on old rigs, so I just delivered The Beast to salt-free storage land. This season it’s parked on some family property about 20 miles outside of Minneapolis—right in the same spot I stored my slide-in camper for years.
It will hibernate there until spring, and then will get another six months of freedom. I pity the fool who messes with it during its slumber. Perhaps it will dream of its owner as a mechanism, like androids dream of electric sheep. What kind of tool would it imagine me to be? Something simple. Jumper cables. A socket wrench. Maybe a deadblow hammer.
I drove The Beast longer into the fall than normal because we have an exchange student living with us who has been using our Mazda 5 for her school carpool commute. I would have kept driving The Beast into winter, road salt and all, but I just scored a loaner from my stepfather--a red 1994 two-door Honda Civic DX with a blown out muffler and giant Quality Coaches logos on the side windows. I’m already starting to get some feelings for it. It’s a manual 5-speed and its rust belies its redline heart. It’s snappy. Loud. Tight. A kind of predator—but a small and scrappy one. Or a power woman of rock and roll. Maybe PJ Harvey.
I’m not quite sure its animal or human form, but I’ll sleep on it. I’m sure it’ll come to me.
With some rare exceptions, to be an older climber means to be an injured climber. It can mean having some seriously frustrating limitations and—to climb at all—it can mean accepting and working within those limitations.
For me, the limits are mostly around messed up elbows and forearms (no cartilage left on my left radial head, only half on the right, so they dislocate easily). I didn’t climb for years as I and a series of orthopedic surgeons tried to figure out what was going on.
But now I know what I have to do to keep things ‘healthy’, and like a sea otter (stay with me) who must spend many hours a day taking care of its fur to stay waterproof and buoyant, I am in almost constant body care mode to get what I can out of my beat up joints. I have to use a muscle roller on my forearms after every pitch if I’m at a crag or gym, and settle for stretching my forearms at the belays on longer routes. I even stretch my forearms on the steering wheel while driving to work. Then there’s shoulder PT, yoga, back PT, knee PT, etcetera.
The only time I have enough hours in the day to do my full body care routine is when I’m on an adventure trip—like the two-weeker I just took from Minnesota out to South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.
The trip was with an old friend (I’ll refer to him as ‘Heinz,” since this is my actual nickname for him). We’ve had a lot of trips together—and a lot of injuries. Heinz tore his meniscus on Strategic Defense in City of Rocks. I broke my thumb on El Matador, on Devil’s Tower. He blew out his forearms training on a campus board, I ruptured my disk at C6/C7 mountain biking, etcetera, ad nauseaum. The list goes on in the form of medical bills.
We knew we’d have to rein ourselves in. But the same old excitement was there when we started planning the trip, and it was there loading the van with climbing gear and bikes, and it was there swatting flies at the gas station in Murdo, S.D.
We slept in my pop-top Dodge Sportsmobile (superluckycatvan!) in a free climber’s camping area in Mt. Rushmore, and (as with most trips) talked to an assortment of hungry climbers and kooky travelers in the parking lot as we ate and stretched and organized our packs. We finally got out of there in late morning, and had a short walk to a climbing area called ‘The South Seas’.
Because of my crunchy elbows I can’t do any routes where I really have to be on my arms—that means no cranky pull-ups and no overhanging shenanigans. But if I can be on my feet, I’m golden. I like to think that on a 5.7 I’m splitting the difference between my arms climbing 5.3 and my feet climbing 5.11. And so the first route we jumped on, the bolted Second Hand Rose, in the Mt. Rushmore Needles, was an easy one.
The morning was perfect—the air maybe 70 degrees, the bright sky holding friendly, puffy, clouds. I hadn’t been on rock for many months, but pulling on my harness and shoes and tying into the rope felt like coming home. My mood grew calm but buoyant. And just touching the rock, easing into my climbing body, swapping feet on a small crystal, I felt that buoyancy swell. Man, do I love being on rock (I can’t write enough exclamation points after that). Having Heinz belay me was a natural as the climbing, and I felt his presence there as an anchor.
On top of the gorgeous route, which follows a chunky arête, I found myself looking out over the Needles and the highway below, and I realized that it felt a lot like it did after a ‘hard’ route 30 years ago.
I mean, the satisfaction of pushing limits and being wickedly strong weren’t there, but the feeling of delight, as Heinz started up the route after me, was as strong, if not stronger. And then I realized it wasn’t just delight, but joy—a joy infused with love. Love for the puffy clouds and for Heinz and for the privilege of even getting to be there. Even more amazing—and a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over—was that I could help the joy be there by simply opening myself up to it.
By the time Heinz reached me at the rappel chains, the feeling of joy had normalized a bit, to become a warm glow. But I was thinking about how, on this trip—as with any day on the planet, really—if I could accept the many limits, it was easy to let the joy in.
And if I did, then the joy—well, the joy could be unlimited.
My posts concern psychotherapy and mental health, mindfulness, the writing process, and adventure sports. I may also mention how much time I spend doing physical therapy for my many, many sports injuries. And biking. And maybe a little bit about camper vans.