FRESH START

After our false start on August 3, Tom at Motormania suggested installing an electric fuel pump, moving it to a less hot place than atop the engine, and some other changes. When he was finished, I took the van for a three-hour test drive. I was careful to stay within a mile of the garage, which is on a busy highway, lest I incur yet another tow job. At the end, I declared victory over fuel vaporization, a goal devoutly pursued by generations of owners of certain old cars.

Ann and I drafted a new itinerary, canceled reservations all over the west, packed (again), and .performed a ritual washing of the chariot. The occasion called for a priestly blessing like when the shrimp boats leave port at the start of a new season, but I didn’t get around to it.

As we were eating all the perishables in the traditional last meal before a long absence, Tom phoned to say he had put two quarts of motor oil outside the door of Motormania for us to pick up on our way out of town. “I wouldn’t want you to leave without it.” It was a variety of oil that was especially suited to old VW vans. “And be sure to check the oil every day.” He, like Ann and I, understood that we were not just going on a long vacation, but somehow, we’re off on a voyage of discovery or a quest, even though we don’t know what we’re seeking. It’s a fine mystery.

On Friday, we went to bed early to be ready for a 4:00 a.m. alarm so we could get on the road before the day got too hot. It was a grownup’s version of the night before Christmas.

At midmorning, we passed the spot where we’d broken down a week earlier and observed with relief that the oil temperature was holding at a little under 220. It began to feel like the glorious expedition was really going to happen. Even in the grimness of west Texas, it started to feel good. The van was running well, and it provided a constant entree to strangers, often people who, from their appearance and ours, seemed unlikely to be anyone with whom we’d have pleasant, open, unreserved passing chats. Several asked to take photographs of the van. Approaching a stop for gas or a break was something we came to anticipate eagerly. What personal Age of Aquarius stories would we hear next? I may start wearing a wire and recording them.

Its social gift notwithstanding, a 1971 VW Westphalia has limited utility as a road vehicle, no matter how many improvements it has undergone. It’s hardly a match for steep climbs, elevation, hot weather, or wind, especially when two or more occur at once. And, duh, there are lots of mountains between Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Not only that, just about everywhere we’ve been so far has been hot, often unseasonably so. We revised our itinerary after several days of these particular challenges and did some backtracking and found that the cross wind in eastern Colorado and the head wind – “45 mph +” on the warning signs along I 80 in Wyoming – are only marginally less challenging than mountains. Not to overstate the case, but by comparison, that Odysseus guy had it easy.

I’ve spent a good deal of time during these days gazing out the window at arid expanses of creosote bushes and sagebrush and dusty tracks that lead off to the horizon with no discernible sign of human life at the end and mountain ranges looming just ahead and red rock country that, without the paved highway beneath the van, must surely have been impassable, and wondering how E. B. White made it across the country in a Model T or the early settlers in covered wagons.

It’s a consciousness-raising experience (to use a buzz phrase that was around when the van was new), this traveling about in a four-wheeled myth.