Friday, March 04, 2011

the little van that couldn't

We return the rental and pick up the van. The price tag is spectacular but considering the transmission had to be sent all the way to Oregon, rebuilt and returned, I guess it wasn't so bad. We definitely have mixed feelings about picking up the van. The rental car was sooo easy. Being able to go 80 miles an hour, all the buttons and gadgetry, hell, just driving a vehicle that wasn't going to break down was such a huge relief. The very heavy undertone of worry and anxiety was suddenly gone. It made us remember just how carefree we were on last year's trip. Our Southwest leg put a whopping eight thousand kilometres on the odometer, not a moment of which was wasted listening intently for strange noises, desperately trying to ignore the sounds we did hear, or scrambling to find a mechanic to diagnose and repair the cause.

Back at Austin Veedub, the kids found their regular spots in the TV room. They have proven themselves the most undemanding travellers. They haven't once complained about being stuck in a garage. They don't complain when we forget to feed them because we're lost in the stress of a breakdown. They jump in the car with a smile on their face, unfazed at the prospect of a twelve-hour drive. This trip certainly has made me appreciate our little team.

We say goodbye to Austin as we drive up the 35 toward Waco. Of course, there is a mechanical hiccup. What's a drive without a mechanical hiccup? After about twenty minutes we pull off to fill up and, when Wil turns the key in the ignition to start it back up, nothing happens. And I mean nothing. Not a click, not a hum, not a whirr. Wil puts his head in his hands in disbelief. Here we go again. At this point we don't know whether to shriek or laugh or cry. We use our last coins to call Darryl at Austin Veedub and explain what's up — what Wil suspects is an electrical connection problem. A very nice Mexican guy in a pickup helps us push the van across the lot and then ends up towing us to bump start the car when he and Henri and Wil and I can't get up enough speed. We drive back to Austin VeeDub. Mike, the mechanic, takes about a minute to find the problem. Soon enough, we're back on the road and saying goodbye to Austin, again! I keep thinking the big white bubble from The Prisoner is going to appear in the rear view mirror. But this time we actually manage to get away.

We make our way northeast, through more flat scrub, across the state. We opt for non-interstate, as our new transmission seems to have us topping out at 95 instead of 105. We spend our time probing every town we pass through for non-chain restaurants. We're getting pretty good at finding them. We head for the steeple and look for what is often the only other surviving business on Main Street. Strip malls are well-named — stripping towns of their uniqueness, their heart (physical and symbolic) and replacing them with a sprawling line of Denny's and Arbee's and Applebee's. We were so happy to find the Downtown CafĂ© in Thorndale. The place had the feel of a poorly-lit, carpeted church basement, with an entire wall covered by the largest television screen I've ever seen. Our waitress was a sweetheart and she cleared up a mystery that had been puzzling us since we first entered the state. "What exactly IS chicken-fried steak?" She looked at us in amazement. "Y'all don't know what chicken-fried steak is??! You're not from Texas, are you?" Not a lot of tourists in Thorndale. She explained that it's a steak hammered down to a sliver of meat, battered and deep-fried like deep-fried chicken. The technique is also used for the "chicken-fried chicken." The boys couldn't resist. Their meals came out on very large oval plates and the battered meat covered 3/4 of it. All of it was topped with white gravy. Tasty but stodge city. A serving a quarter the size would have sufficed.

We kept working our way northeast and, out of nowhere a line of trees sprung up, followed by another and another, which meant that Louisiana wasn't far off. Trees, lovely trees. I hadn't realized how much I had been missing the trees. And so many were in flower, sprigs of delicate lavender and pale pink blooms like hands reaching out from the mass of sleeping oaks, explosions of white flowers atop slender trunks, even the occasional magnolia, its blossoms so beautiful they look painted on their skeletal frames. In the ditches, clusters of hyacinths and sunny daffodils squeeze up through the grass. It's good for the soul to see spring even if it's only a trick — a teaser of where we'll be in a couple of months's time.We spend the night in Marshall and start the next day crossing out of Texas.

We get through Louisiana in short order. These southern states, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, are like fingers squeezed between Florida and Texas, as though they all got a miserly portion of the Gulf on condition that they take a long strip of swampland to the north. Leaving Louisiana, we all wonder at the mighty Mississippi. We drive through historic Vicksburg on the other side of the big, brown river and stop for lunch at Martin's in Midtown. We had a great soup and sandwich proving there IS good food to be had in this country, you just have to look hard for it. A group of older women, a grandmother and her friends are joined by the daughter and grandchildren at the next table. I am loving eavesdropping. The Mississippi accent is so strong, the kids and I find ourselves mimicking them unintentionally. When they ask for soup, the waitress jokes, pointing at our table, that "because of THEM there is none left for you!" They joke with us and eventually ask if we're the ones driving the van from Quebec. Yes, we say, all the while wishing we weren't. The grandmother, ignoring the job assigned her to chase the granddaughter around, talks to us fondly about Mexico as her daughter looks on in annoyance. As we're leaving, she says "Shore wuz nighs viztin with y'all."

Mississippi is flat. You'd be hard pressed to find a hill worth a toboggan in this state. No lack of swamp tho'. Giant blue herons wade in the flooded woods by the road, white herons swoop overhead, armadillos and possum lie squished in the ditch. I suspect the interstate system is single-handedly keeping the crow population fed.

Well into Alabama, we pull off the highway and suddenly there's a new sound. A grinding noise coming from the wheel that fell off in Chiapas. Uh oh. That familiar sinking feeling kicks in. We decide to ignore it and check it out in the morning. We do tours of the local garages and find the one that opens earliest. We watch the mechanics stride purposefully around the shop. They look suspiciously alike. The guy at the desk tells us they're twins. Identical twin mechanics working in the same garage... One of them gets the wheel off and tells us it was a little adjustment problem (the drum came off another van in Chiapas so this is not news). He pops it back into shape and off we go.

We decide that we just can't take the tension of waiting for another, inevitable failure. Dragging out the return home over several days would be torturous. We decide to just go for it, pull an all-nighter and get home a couple of days early, despite the fact that we have no house to go to or winter clothes to dress in. After supper, the beds go down and everyone tucks in. Wil and I take turns driving a tank a piece, keeping a close eye on the revs and the temperature so as not to stress it unduly. The van is driving like a dream. The brake pops out again but we decide to ignore it, braking as little as possible until we get home. Wil got us from Alabama to Tennessee and into Virginia, I kept on into West Virginia, Maryland and into Pennsylvania. After my shift, I managed to sleep through most of Pennsylvania and into New Jersey and woke up as Wil's turn was almost up. I pulled on some clothes and headed to the front of the van as he was pulling off the highway. His usually warm "welcome back to the front seat" never comes. He's hunched over the steering wheel, clutching it, white-knuckled. The van is moving slowly. Too slowly. He pulls over on the side of the exit ramp. Still half asleep I ask him what's up. Are we out of fuel? No, the motor just died. When he tries to turn it over he doesn't like how it sounds. As usual, I'm clueless and try not to badger him with questions as he struggles to put together mechanical clues that I don't understand. When he finally answers he says "It sounds like there's no compression (the kiss of death for a diesel engine). It sounds like we blew the head of the motor." I have a million more questions but the little I do know tells me we are not getting home in the van and I try to keep quiet as I watch Wil come to terms with this reality. Fuck this. This sucks.

Henri wakes up and, bless his heart, he tries to comfort us with words of encouragement and praise. The girls are mercifully sound asleep up top. Henri and I bundle up in the little winter clothes we have and head out to find someone to tow us as the sun is starting to come up. Wil waits in the van with the girls. A nice woman gives us a lift to a nearby (relative term when one is on foot) garage. The very kind but unhelpful attendant provides us with the Yellow Pages. When I comment on the cold in Spanish, he asks us about why I speak it. When I explain he tells us that he is Mexican. When we ask him where he's from he says, drumroll please... Puebla. It had to be. We race back through the bracing cold, trying to beat the tow truck to the van but when we get there the van isn't. We scan around and a guy in a pickup driving by tells me "Your husband is over there." pointing at the flashing lights. We run over and find that the New Jersey highway patrol has gotten to Wil first and pulled him up to a nearby hotel (where Henri and I were headed before the kind driver redirected us to the garage). After a little thought (not easy to manage after such little sleep) we realized just how pointless and undesirable was the notion of finding yet another VW diesel mechanic in yet another town we didn't know, followed by being trapped in said town. Morrisville seemed like a nice place but home is just too close.We got a room at the hotel, Wil kick started his brain and spent the next hour on the phone reaching out to friends to try to get us and the van home.

The kids stayed absolutely quiet for two hours as Wil and I slept, then we went out for some lunch and to pick up a rental car. We went back to the hotel for a little rest and waited for our knights in shining armour. Cedric and Rebecca turned up a few hours later in their truck with a flatbed trailer. When we thanked them they turned it around, in classic style, making us feel like there was little they'd rather do than go on a sixteen-hour road trip on a work day. Our SOS calls were answered with moral support from Phil, a fearless rescue squad in Cedric & Rebecca, a flatbed trailer from Roger, a place to stay (our house still being in someone else's hands) thanks to PK, and Dave, our welcoming committee, who is warming up the house and filling the fridge with groceries.

This trip has been more than intense, managing to combine some moments of pure joy with, without a doubt, the darkest moments of my whole life. Hand-wringing worry and debilitating anxiety have never really been a part of my existence but I certainly experienced them on this trip. And I hope I never have to again. I come away from this adventure so proud of our family and our ability to have a good time when things are falling apart around us. And despite our run of bad luck, how can I feel anything but lucky when we are blessed with such incredible friends.