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.
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.