Kate and I are cruising down highway 191 headed back to Indian Creek after getting rained out of Castle Valley.
We had been planning on climbing the North Face of Castleton and Fine Jade, two excellent (and challenging) climbs, but the weather decided otherwise.
Indian Creek, the place I fell in love with climbing and with the desert, is full to the brim with good friends, fires for us to sit around and warm food for us to munch on after a long and disappointing day. We are both excited and relieved to be going back to the Creek.
For me, it feels like going home.
She’s driving the van on the one and a half hour drive along a remote stretch of highway through the Utah desert. I’m staring out the window watching the sun setting on the red cliffs in the distance. The sky is a pale pink and yellow and I let my eyes unfocus as the landscape blurs together.
“What is happening?” Kate’s voice pulls me out of my daydream.
She’s holding a La Croix in one hand and stepping repeatedly on the gas pedal. She’s confused and trying to accelerate, but we just keep going slower.
“Ah shit, sometimes it does this. I really hope it’s not the transmission.” I tell her to pull over on the side of the road so I can take a look under the hood. My van has lost power before on one occasion. The first time I was able to fix the problem myself by replacing the upper intercooler hose. There had been a crack in it and because of the way Sprinters are made, they go into ‘limp mode’ when they think something is catastrophically wrong with them and lose power. You can still drive them, but nothing faster than 30 mph.
Kate pulls the van onto the side of the highway. The grey gravel crunches on my all terrain tires as she slows to a crawl and then stops. There are semi trucks hurtling by on our left and the wind is picking up. Rain clouds in the distance signal the bad weather we had just escaped in Castle Valley, I cross my fingers and hope it won’t make it out here.
The sun has set but we still have the overcast grey light of dusk to see by. As I pull up the hood I check my phone. No service.
“Ok, last time this happened it was the intercooler hose and I fixed it with duct tape until I could order the new part.”
I poke around for a few minutes, headlamp flashing under hoses, checking connection points and trying to spot unexplained leaks. I don’t know much about cars, but I can tell when something is torn or broken.
“I can’t see anything wrong!” I shout to Kate over the sound of passing cars and wind. “Lets get the van to the top of this hill and see if we can trouble shoot once we get some service!”
Kate nods and we start the van no problem. Once out on the road, hazard lights flashing, we can’t get the van to go faster than 45 mph. And for some reason there is freezing cold air coming out of the vents that I can’t turn off.
We limp along the highway for a few minutes, Kate is staring at her phone, almost willing service into existence.
“Come on… Please get signal… just a bit…”
“STOP!” She shouts and waves her phone. Our invocation of cell service has worked, we pull over on the side of the road again and I begin frantically googling.
As I’m searching for a possible solution I begin creating a mental checklist in my brain.
It could be the air filter. Sweet. I know how to clean that.
It could be bottom half of the intercooler hose. Lucky thing. I have that part in the back of the van.
It could be the turbo resonator? What ever that is…
I check forum after forum and they all say the same thing; It could be a million different things. I just have to start working my way down this list until I can figure it out.
The nearest mechanic is 60 miles away, and the nearest one who will work on a Mercedes is about 150 miles away.
“What do you want to do?” Kate looks at me over her phone. She’s wearing a blue beanie and a green sweater, her hands are wrapped around her phone, just peaking out of the sleeves of her jacket. It’s late, I’m cold, she’s cold, it’s going to be completely dark soon, it’s probably going to rain and if we keep driving out to Indian Creek we won’t have any service or a way of getting back to town if my van is really broken.
I sigh heavily and rub my temples while I think about my options.
1. Limp back to Moab, find a side of the road for us to sleep on, and call a mechanic or a tow in the morning.
2. Limp back to Indian Creek, meet up with all of our friends, try to fix the van myself with the tools I have, and go climbing until the parts arrive in the mail.
“Dude, lets just go back to the Creek.”
Kate smiles at me.
The drive back takes 3 hours instead of the regular 1 and some change. Hazard lights flashing, cars passing us on the left, the sun setting, and the damn heater won’t work for some reason. The cold desert night seeps in through the vents and we are shivering within minutes. We grab our puffy jackets and Kate pulls my sleeping bag over her lower half to fend off the cold air blasting through the vents.
It’s pitch black by the time we arrive at our campsite in the Creek.
“Well, there are worse places to be broken down.” I say to Kate before we head off to bed. “Plus, I’m pretty sure I know what’s wrong with the van. It’s going to be ok.”
My optimism is forced, but it’s my only option and I fall asleep that night feeling hopeful if not a bit delusional.
The next few days is a matter of running through my mental check list.
It’s not the air filter. I’ve cleaned it, shaken it out and replaced it with no change.
It’s not the intercooler hose. I took the grill off my van, removed the headlight and replaced the hose. After holding my breath and turning the key in the ignition I was disappointed to see the check engine light was still on and the van still couldn’t make it past 45 mph.
The nice thing about living in a van is that when you break down, it’s really not that bad. You just kind of have to live in the place you broke down in for a while. My water tanks are filled, I have unlimited energy from my solar panels, my cabinets are full of food and my bed still works.
I spent my days alternatively getting rides into town to do more research, and getting rides to the crags while I waited for car parts to arrive.
After a long and difficult few days of trying to get the turbo resonator out of my van and then replaced with a fully aluminum piece, I had to make a choice.
It had been 2 weeks since my van had broken down. I had done as much as I could with minimal expense. Even purchasing a code reader, new allen keys, and replacing 3 different components of my van; the air filter, lower intercooler hose, and the turbo resonator.
The next thing on the list wasn’t going to be cheap to fix. I was stabbing around in the dark, trying to understand the different components of my van. It might be a small computer part in my engine, but that was going to cost me $300 out of pocket… it could be my EGR valve, but there was no way I was going to be able to fix that in the desert with nothing but a few allen keys and a socket wrench.
I got a ride 20 minutes down the road where the cell signal starts to kick in and made a phone call.
I kicked at the asphalt under my work boots and rubbed my grease covered hands on my jeans.
“Hey! Yeah... Hi. How are you? Good? I’m glad to hear it.”
There were beer cans and bits of broken class thrown into the ditch on the side of the road. I wandered over as I held the phone to the side of my head with my shoulder and picked the pieces up to put into my pocket.
Leave no trace guys, come on.
“I’m good.” I start pacing up and down the highway, absently scanning for trash.
“I mean I’m fine. I’m not really good… Yeah… My van broke down in the Creek… Yeah… I’m actually on the side of the road right now… Yeah.. Tito gave me a ride… I’m ok. I’m not hurt or stranded or anything…Yes I’m safe, I have good people around me… I’m-no I haven’t told Mom yet… No… I wanted to talk to you first…Listen I was wondering if you could get me triple A?”
No one is an island. Being independent is great, but you have to know when to ask for help.
My Dad said he would look into the 150+ mile tow that it would take to get me to Grand Junction from where I was. I had called around in the last 2 weeks and tried to find a mechanic that would work on Sprinters in my area. After being told twice to “never bring that van near my shop”, I found a shop that would take me: MacDaddy Motorwoxs.
It would take a few days for the triple A to kick in, and the shop was closed on the weekends, so I was looking at another week of waiting in the Creek before I could get towed.
I held my hand up to shade my eyes and glanced out at the horizon.
Fine by me. Looks like the weathers clearing up.
I had enough friends in the Creek that I could get food and water from town on a regular basis, and I was in my favorite place in the world, not too bad for being broken down for close to a month, eh?
The morning that the tow finally arrived it was grey and cold. It was sprinkling lightly and wind was gusting through the cottonwoods as I limped my van out of creek pasture campground. 6am and barely anyone was awake. I waved farewell to the vaguely human shaped forms that were beginning to emerge from their tents and vehicles.
I sighed and turned on my hazard lights as I rolled onto the black asphalt of highway 211 headed towards 191 and hopefully an answer to my van troubles. Freezing cold air blasted me through my vents.
Please, just don’t be a new transmission.
I thought as I crawled passed cow pastures and watched their large black and brown bodies shrink slowly into the distance. I arrived at the junction between 211 and 191, the place where I got good cell service and had a flat space to park my van on while I settled in and waited for a tow. The nice lady on the phone said they would be 7 or 8 hours until they could come get me.
I sighed again and said fine.
What choice do I have?
The rain kept threatening to break on my windshield as I sat in my front seat and passed the time by writing, playing the ukulele and reading. The droplets of rain would start tentatively, and then peter out, then pick up again slightly, and then go back to cloudy overcast. It made for a quiet day, and the time passed slowly but pleasantly in the drivers seat.
When rescue finally did come, it was in the form of a round older gentleman named Jim. He had a kind face and mischievous boyish eyes. He told me he was the retired Sherif of Moab. He told me he was Mormon. That he had 22 grandkids and had started working for the tow company to help pay for his grandsons college tuition in Phoenix. He told me he used to wear a cowboy hat and boots every day. And how he had been in the war. I never thought to ask which one. He told me he had been married to the same woman for 50 years and that he still loved her. He told me about one time when he got stuck in a tree hunting and a bear had come around the base looking for food. I asked him if he had been scared, but he said no. He’d had a gun after all. The bear didn’t stand a chance.
As we left town I saw a Sheriffs car pull up next to us, the man driving wore a badge and a cowboy hat and tipped it at our tow truck as we ambled by. Jim didn’t notice.
As we parted ways and he complimented my green eyes and then smiled like we shared an inside joke, I didn’t know what to say so I just laughed. I left the interaction feeling only slightly uncomfortable about his final comments, but rounded it up as an over all pleasant interaction.
I turned around and looked up at the sign on the building I was standing in front of.
What the hell kind of name is that?
Turns out the owner of the shop was from my home town. He recognized Santa Cruz as soon as I mentioned my zip code. He excitedly pulled out a newspaper from under the counter showing that he had played basketball in high school. He’d had a full ride scholarship to a good school, but hurt his leg and never got to go. The guy had a lisp and talked too fast. He had short black hair cropped tight to his head and wore large black rimmed glasses. He told me he would take a look at my van and call me back as soon as he knew something.
I told him I had nowhere to go, so he told me to wait outside. I sat on the curb and looked at my phone while MacDaddy Motorworx pulled the insides out of my home.
Time passed. Not slowly, not quickly. It just passed as I waited for strangers to tell me if my home was fixable or not.
“You’re gunna be mad at me.” The shop owner told me to follow him to the garage. I walked down the hallway and crossed my fingers.
Please don’t be the transmission.
“You need a new transmission.”
He walked me over to my van and showed me the transmission fluid on a dip stick. Black and crusty. I felt my heart drop into my stomach. They pulled off my drivers seat and showed me a computer part called the transmission control module (TCM), it was full of black fluid and dripping onto the mechanics hand.
“You also need a new transmission control module. I think this is what blew causing the transmission to fry.”
The young guy holding the transmission control module had red hair and tattoos on his hands, his ears were pierced with two large silver rings and he spoke without showing his teeth or looking me in the eye.
“We need to order a new transmission, it will probably be about a week until we can get one in.”
The total was going to be $3,400 for the new transmission, $700 for the transmission control module, plus labor at $100, plus a $135 warranty, plus transmission fluid and tax. Total Cost: $5,700.
Or all of the money I’d saved up over the last year.
They gave me a few minutes to gather my things from my van, they were closing soon and would definitely need to keep her in the shop overnight.
I grabbed my backpack and looked around my small home, trying to think about everything I would need.
How do you pack the essentials away in 10 minutes?
This was the first time I had ever had to leave the van on such short notice. My house was already paired down to the essentials, I needed everything in here! I grabbed my backpack from the back of my van and started trying to stuff everything I owned into it.
Computer. Camera. Socks. Underwear. Do I bring food? It’s going to go bad if I leave it… Bring the climbing gear for sure. Towel? Books? Running shoes? Ukulele? Journal?
That’s too much.
I had already organized a place to stay while waiting around in Grand Junction. Mike was driving out with his van and we would live out of his together until MacDaddy Motorworx gave me my house back.
As I walked out of the mechanics shop with everything I thought I would need stuffed into my blue backpack, I felt like I was leaving a part of me behind.
I felt alone.
I was in strange town, thousands of miles away from home, waiting for a friend to come find me on the side of the road, and at the mercy of a mechanic who had no loyalty to me or my van.
I turned and walked along the highway.
As cars passed me by I thought about how I might look to them. An unshowered single woman with a backpack obviously designed for travel and full of personal items. I walked towards a couple who were waiting at the crosswalk. They saw me and moved to the other side of the road. As I walked passed a McDonalds a man in a pickup truck whistled out of his window and offered me a ride. I looked at the ground and pretended not to hear him.
My phone was dying and my ride still hadn’t shown up.
Where is he?
I looked down at my phone. The red battery symbol showed I had less than 5% left.
That would be something, eh? No home, no phone, no money, no place to stay...
I tried to stay positive but panic was creeping steadily into my chest. I would be really screwed if I couldn't find a place to plug in my phone and contact Mike. I kept walking. Afraid to use my GPS in case it drained the battery I was determined to make it to the college campus I was sure I'd seen on the way here.
I looked down at my phone. 2%.
Please oh please don't die.
I arrived on campus, opened the tall heavy doors and found myself in some kind of student cafe/lounge. It was closed. There were metal bars slid down over the counter that malls use to keep people from breaking in and stealing their stuff. I didn't want to buy anything anyway. I just needed power.
I looked down at my phone. 1%.
Fortunately for me, every college campus in America has more plugs than they know what to do with and a semi dark college campus cafe is the only other place in the world where no one will think twice about a 20 something with a backpack full of clothes.
I plugged my phone in and texted Mike. All would be well as soon as I could just lie down. It had been one hell of a day.
The next few days I routinely reminded myself to be grateful. I had enough money to pay for this, barely. I was safe.
This is all a part of the journey. Sometimes vans breakdown and you have to fix them. It builds character. It makes a good story.
My optimism felt like the only rational option. I couldn't cry about it. I wouldn't cry about it.
It's going to be ok. I got this. Money is just a thing. It's going to be ok.
I posted about my van troubles online and was overwhelmed by the response. Immediately several people reached out asking if I was accepting donations, unsure of how to respond I sent them my PayPal account.
“Aww that was sweet, someone wanted to help out with the van expenses.” I looked over at Mike who was driving, and showed him the message a complete stranger had sent me, along with $10.
“Huh no way? That was nice of them.”
We were driving through Grand Junction. The last few nights we had been sleeping on nearby BLM land and climbing at local crags. Today we were headed to the only REI in this half of the state to reorganize Mikes van and for me to get some work done. Time to shake down my list of contacts and see if anyone had anymore work for me.
A few minutes later my phone buzzed and someone else had sent me $5. Minutes later my phone buzzed again, this time $25 and a note that said, ‘Sending what I can! Good luck!’
My inbox was overflowing with requests for a donation page, people were commenting on all of my photos asking if I needed any help. Someone sent me their REI family and friends discount coupon with a note saying they couldn’t send money but they hoped this helped in some way.
I found myself in a strange new position.
I was touched by the kind words of complete strangers, and of course my own need for income made these donations much appreciated, but I felt guilty asking for money. The thought of setting up a donation page left a bad taste in my mouth; like biting down hard on a fork.
I posted a link to my PayPal account, put my phone down and tried not to look at what people were saying. Mike and I pulled into the REI parking lot. The knot in my stomach made me distracted and spacey. Mike gave up trying to talk to me.
I pulled out Mikes crash pad, shaped it into a couch, plugged in my headphones, slid on my glasses and opened my email.
It’s funny putting yourself out there. You can have 99 people showering you with praise and 1 person saying you’re a jerk, and you believe that 1 person.
The response to my request was overwhelming. In 72 hours I had made over $1,000 in donations. I was floored. The money wasn’t what touched me (although it helped, obviously), it was the notes people were sending along with $5, $10 and even $100 donations.
Things like, “Sorry I can’t do more.”, “Love your instagram feed, very inspiring! Greetings from Germany.”, “Keep climbing!”, and “Every little bit helps, hope you get back on the road! Do what you love and the rest will follow. Best of luck from the Emerald Isle.”
Of course there were people who hated the thought of me asking for help. And every time someone said, “I’m not giving you money to be on vacation all the time.” I cringed. I recognize people’s hard earned cash goes a lot of places and they owe me nothing, I didn’t want people thinking I was just trying to dupe them into paying for my lifestyle.
Especially since my online presence is meant to be a tool to help people be independent and do it themselves. The average person living a vanlife adventure doesn’t have thousands of people to help make her financial burdens easier.
In the end, the money helped, and I am grateful to everyone who donated. If you are reading this and you sent me a few bucks from you pocket, thank you.
The day I picked Lyra up from the mechanic it was overcast in Grand Junction.
I pushed open the front door to Mac Daddy Motorworx, the bell tinkling as I stepped over the threshold, walked in to greet the unsmiling mechanic who had showed me the Transmission Control Module a few days before. He still wouldn’t look me in the eyes, but he took my money, handed me my keys and told me to have a nice day.
She was parked outside. Her grey paint only slightly dimmed by the cloudy day. The feeling of putting my hand on the handle of the sliding door, heaving it sideways and hearing the comforting sound of metal scraping on metal as it swung open was bliss. The air inside was hot and stagnant from 6 days of neglect. My batteries were nearly dead, I had forgotten to take the trash out (whoops), but it felt like home and it was perfect.
She is perfect.
Mike and I caravanned back to Indian Creek slowly. I enjoyed the feeling of having the steering wheel under my hands again. My (admittedly) shitty pop music blasting from my speakers, the wide bug splattered windshield giving me a beautiful vista to look at as I drove. The sun was setting to my right. Still close enough to the horizon to make the world a yellow orange blur, low enough to blind me if I had been driving towards it, fortunately it was off to the side. This felt like putting on an old pair of favorite boots. It felt so right to be driving easily from Grand Junction back to my favorite place in the world.
Mike and I pulled up to a side-of-the-road camping spot for the night and I fell sleep for the first time in 6 days on my own sheets with my own pillow under my head. The door was cracked and the last thing I saw before I fell gratefully asleep was just a sliver of the starry night sky.
It was a lazy morning, maybe 11:30am a few days later when my van suddenly lost power again.
Mike and I had been driving out towards Second Meat Wall. A climbing area in Indian Creek to meet some of our friends when my van suddenly lost power. Same issue as before. I pushed and pushed on the gas, tried to throw it into reverse, but no power. I panicked and turned my van off.
Then I turned her back on again.
The van accelerated smoothly.
“What the FUCK.”
My mind was racing.
What is this? Is it something else? Something new? The radiator perhaps? Was the transmission installed badly? What if it was a deeper issue and the transmission hadn't even been the root of the problem? I can't get towed out of here again, I'm out of triple A miles.
Mike was sitting next to me looking anxious. I was silent. Hands on my temples, staring into the dashboard but not really seeing it, imagining every worst case scenario.
“I don’t know if I can do this.” I said. “I can’t be out here with no money, no cell service, and possibly a broken van that I can’t get towed out of here if it breaks down again.”
I put my head in my hands and leaned up against the steering wheel.
“I need to go home.”
Home is a challenging word for me. Technically I am home. #HomeIsWhereYouParkIt and all that. However, I have always referred to Santa Cruz as 'home'. It's where I was born, it's where my family lives. My first memories are of sand and waves and the redwoods. The feeling of pine needles on my bare feet and the scrape of wet sand against my tiny fingertips. The smell of the ocean flips a switch in my brain that means 'safe' like no other scent.
There is no real reason I need to get back to Santa Cruz. I could limp back to Grand Junction, argue with the mechanic there until I'm satisfied, work remotely from coffee shops and libraries, my work is remote so I don't need to be anywhere. But in my heart and in my bones I feel the need to be back in Santa Cruz.
The drive is long. But it's always the same, and that's comforting to me.
The landscape changes from brick red walls shooting up out of the ground like cathedrals, to massive yellow splotchy waves of sandstone that flow off into the horizon for what seems like forever. Canyons rise up around me and then fall away, roads incline and the colors change again to a dusty brown, small yellow shrubs defiantly growing in the vast emptiness of the Nevada desert. Then suddenly grey granite outcroppings show up on either side of the road, the green grass growing between boulders seems like an excessive display of life after so much desert. I wind through the mountains and am surrounded by deep green pine trees, the cold held under their branches makes me shiver. I turn the A/C off for the first time in 10 hours. The road turns downwards again and I roll my windows down. I escape out from under the canopy of trees and for the first time, I can smell the sea.
I don't know if people who didn't grow up with the ocean can smell it out here, but I can. It's still at least 50 miles away but I know it's there.
I pull into my Mom's driveway after dark. She knows I'm coming and is waiting on the curb to give me a hug and pull me inside to force care on me. I resist half heartedly and accept tea and a hot pack for my shoulders.
We catch up briefly but I insist I need sleep. She ushers me outside with another hug and a kiss, telling me I'm welcome to park in her driveway for as long as I want, and I know she means it. I close my sliding door and pass out on my bed almost immediately.
Turns out the transmission I bought from MacDaddy Motorworx was bad out of the box.
It's not necessarily their fault. Jasper Engines is the company who supplied the crappy transmission. After a few half assed attempts to fix the transmission with my local mechanic, Jasper Engines tells me they will send me a new transmission and they're going to pay for the labor.
Turns out the second transmission they sent me was bad out of the box.
After a few days of driving the replacement transmission I was accelerating up a hill and then completely lost power. Back to the mechanic I went, and Jasper Engines sent me a third and (hopefully) final transmission. They paid for the parts and the labor and the fluid.
Now that I'm driving on my third transmission I feel hesitant to push my van too hard. I am afraid that if I accelerate too quickly that I will end up breaking this transmission and have to get another one. If that happens I am definitely asking for my money back.
In summary: shit happens. My transmission went while I was over 150 miles away from the nearest mechanic that would work on it. I had no cell service at the time and when I finally got it fixed I drained my savings. At one point I had barely $1,000 left in my bank account. Many people have urged me to sell my van, make it someone else's problem, but I could never do that. The peace and happiness that this van brings me is too great to put a number on. I would gladly put this much money and more back into my van to preserve the lifestyle that I live right now.
All I have is my van, my climbing gear, my computer and my positive attitude, I don't need anything else.
But seriously never buy a transmission from Jasper Engines.