What I Learned on the Road
From our new Teen Librarian, Meg!
A year ago, I was stuck in Sallisaw, Oklahoma living in the parking lot of a mechanic’s shop with a blown transmission. That’s pretty close to the end of the story I’m going to tell you though, Reader, so let me rewind a bit.
A nomadic life in a tiny house (some kind of camper, RV, or converted van / bus) bouncing around between National Parks, wild places, eccentric towns, and interesting cities is just about the most glorious adventure I can think of. It was, and continues to be, a dream of mine. So, last year, I bought an ‘86 Toyota Camper and I tried it for 2 months. I left Cape Cod in mid-January and took a southern-ish route to the West Coast (through Tennessee, Arkansas, Northern Texas, Arizona and New Mexico). I visited lots of great towns, and several National and State Parks along the way (including Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches National Park and Joshua Tree). When I got to the San Diego area, I took a hard right and headed North on beautiful, coast-hugging Route 1. I went all the way to Seattle and then I turned around and went back down more or less the way I had come. When I was back in Southern California, I began the journey home, but as I previously mentioned, only got as far as Oklahoma.
It sounds really romantic – the cross-country trip. Just me and my dog, who (of course) rides shotgun. And, in some ways, it was. I drove through the Redwoods in Northern California, I saw a psychic in Sedona, Arizona. I went to the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum in Seattle, Washington. I rescued a puppy. I did some real backcountry camping on Federal land a few times. I was absolutely alone in the desert and it was wonderful. (Of course, the camper got stuck in some deep sand once or twice, but I’ve been stuck in snow many times growing up in the North East and it’s almost the same thing, so I was able to get myself out of those particular sand traps.)
The idyllic perception many people have of life on the road is constantly reinforced by the ubiquitous, carefully staged Instagram photos flooding the Internet. It seems so beautifully simple – just an incredible road to another ideal camping spot after another. These photos are a lie, however, and they drive me crazy. (I’m sure you can imagine the types of photos I mean: Posed next to a spotless vintage VW bus, there will be a beautiful young woman with clean, perfectly styled hair and makeup. Next to her, there’s a huge potted cactus with white string lights on it and blankets and pillows strewn on the ground around a delightful-looking picnic. There’s probably also a steer skull hanging on the side of the van, because of course there is. First of all, where did you plug in your hair dryer? That 6-foot cactus fits in your VW van huh? And all those clean, oversized floor pillows too? Amazing. The truth is, there is no way that person actually lives in that van, and I’m sure if the photographer panned right, we’d see the props department and make-up team that put this little tableau together.)
In fact, the camper life/ van life is much more trying than those staged photos on Instagram would lead you to believe. A lot of it is hard, and not at all glamorous. I broke down – more than once, I got lost, I cried – more than once, a semi-truck backed into me and put a hole in the back of the camper at 2AM while I was sleeping at a truck stop. I went a long time between showers and usually used truck stop showers or national/ state park showers. My heat didn’t work, and many nights, especially in the beginning, it was so cold water would freeze solid inside the camper.
Of course, I’m not at all sorry I did it. I learned a lot – about Toyota engines, about myself, and about truck stop showers (which, in case you are curious, are WAY nicer than you’d think, and really not creepy at all.) I know exactly what it feels like when I am about to blow a tire, and I know how to change it once I do. I can check and change the oil, transmission fluid, coolant, and power steering fluid. I know what it sounds like when the starter isn’t working and how to find it behind the engine and bang it with a wrench (that’s seriously what you do) to get it to function again.
In any case, back in Sallisaw, nearing the end of my adventure, I was coming to terms with the fact that the incredibly rare transmission I needed was going to take time to find, and even more time to ship and even more time to install. So, after two weeks of living in the parking lot, I took my (now 2) dogs, rented a van for way too much money, packed as much as I could in it, and got myself home.
It felt like defeat. It felt like everyone who said I’d never make it across the country in an ‘86 Breaking-Bad-looking camper (and that I was stupid to try) was right. When I got home, a lot of people told me to cut my losses and leave it there. But, I think I also learned that our dreams are our own. And they don’t have to make sense to anyone else.
So, a couple months later, when the camper was fixed, I flew back to Oklahoma, picked it up, and finally drove it back to Cape Cod.
It’s running great now and I’ve just finished gutting a large portion of the interior to update and improve the style and functionality of the furniture. I love this project of a camper, and I’m glad that I made the (admittedly financially irresponsible) decision to rescue it from Oklahoma, because this is my dream, and it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.