I’ve never believed in naming cars. “Poodles” my friend Dana would gush, patting the dashboard of her green Rav4. “Go Squirrel Go!” my college beau would shout, goading of his little gray Datsun over some wash-out road.
Such pet names made my eyes roll-for I was sure that in this era of global warming, these dirty, stinking, polluting, hunks-of-metal did not deserve our love. Because despite their convenience, a car was a concession, not a comrade. Love was just not a politically correct emotion to have.
But ever since my mechanic, Bow, delivered the news last week, I’ve been gripped by sadness. I dropped my van off at his auto shop after it’d started overheating and waited out the afternoon in a nearby café. Then the call came in: Chris, it’s Bow. It has a blown head gasket.”
I knew all too well what that meant. It meant it was too expensive to fix. It meant the end of the road for my car. It also meant the end of an era.
The van had entered by life during a particularly rough autumn; a long relationship had ended, my 14-year old dog had died, my downtown apartment was bought out from under me, and I’d just quit a job. Unable to endure this clutter of losses, I opted for escape: I’d live my dream of being a vagabond-on-the-road. I crumpled the eviction notice on my door, and bought a Toyota Previa. It was the perfect travel rig: all-wheel drive, reliable, and just big enough to live in.
I’ve never been good with a hammer, but fueled by this new vision, my angst turned into industry. I unscrewed the back seats and set about building a bed. When it was finished, it folded into a couch, with plenty of room for storage underneath.
My mom was surprisingly supportive, one day ushering me into IKEA for sheets, pillows, rugs, shelves, and decorations. She even spent an afternoon helping remodel my van, outfitting it with a leopard print bedspread, red velvet pillows, yellow LED lights, and a posh rug. I knew right then that she was the best mom in the world.
Within a week I had the lifestyle down and was touring the western U.S. I drove through the redrock canyons of southern Utah, tracked down hotsprings in northern Nevada, and criss-crossed Colorado. I drove down the entirely of the California coast and then back up, cruising along the east side of the Sierras. I tooled around San Francisco, camped at the best paragliding spots, and parked at the base of the Tetons, where I woke each morning to million dollar views. I unlocked the secrets of the West—the crepe café in Shoshone, the best camp spots near Deadhorse Point, and the off-trail petroglyphs. Mom rooted me on from her bank desk the whole time, signing-off each email: “With Love, hobo-mom.”
My van now sits inert in the driveway, a remarkable 238,000 miles on the odometer. My stuffed monkey dangles from the hanger hook, and crisp sage leaves from the Alvord desert curl on the dashboard. The ashtray hangs open, full of pretty seashells from some coastal sojourn. Looking at my van’s wide windshield, its mud-splattered doors, I am reminded of how many adventures we shared.
Within its cozy confines, I wrote essays, read books, and watched movies. I had passionate arguments, made love, and slept whole nights with all four doors flung open, inviting in the night breeze and the sound of crickets. While the miles ticked by on far-flung desert highways, I experienced the entire emotional gamut from loneliness to zeal. I felt lost and found and lost again. My van symbolized both rootedness and mobility, and seemed to contain everything in the entire universe. Friends marveled. Have any mustard? Got it. Playing cards? Yes. Origami paper? Sure. Lime squeezer? Of course.
Looking at it now, I see that my van is larger than the sum of its parts–greater than its four-tires, its steering wheel, and windshield wipers. It is greater than its blown head gasket. No doubt it’s been a blight on the planet (it got a lackluster 20 mpg) but it’s also been the realization of a dream, and has embodied my independence. It carried me away just when I needed it to and brought me back again. I was too proud to name it then, too ashamed to let on, but now as I move through the world on foot, unsure of just where to go next, I’m calling it for what it was: home.