Girl Meets Van – Highway Bound from Canada to Mexico

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Camper van, 1978 Doge Van Guard, first vehicle purchase, home on wheels, traveling home
My partner in crime, Van Morrison

PRELUDE TO AN EPIC JOURNEY: CARAVAN (Moondance album) – Van Morrison 

The road begins in Kelowna, Canada

The first thing I will tell you about making the decision to buy a caravan and drive across two countries is that most people will attempt to convince you otherwise. You may invite further skepticism if your destination is the notoriously jeopardous Mexico. Or if you’re traveling alone. And you’re female. And a perpetually over-trusting, entirely oblivious space cadet.

The second thing I will tell you is that most of these people will wait until about a week before your chosen departure date to bestow upon you these opposing opinions; most of which, in all fairness, aren’t entirely illogical…

OPINION NUMERO UNO (I’m practicing my Spanish):

Don’t buy a vintage vehicle and expect it to live to see a 4,000 kilometer journey, unscathed.

I introduce to you, Van Morrison – a 1977 (78? It’s hazy) Dodge VanGuard whom I purchased for the impressive price of $1750.00 (CAD). It was nearly fourteen months ago, around the time when my will to live was about as strong as the Tim Horton’s coffee I was resentfully drinking, when the decision miraculously appeared before me.

It was like Moses and his ten commandments, only my mountain was the captivity of my native country of Canada and God was the recklessly impetuous voice inside my head; the same voice that usually tells me to get into a rickshaw with a complete stranger on my first day in New Delhi, or to accept a dinner invitation from a mysterious Iranian in Istanbul, inevitably resulting in a marriage proposal. Though flattered, I respectfully declined.

And like most far fetched ideas that enter the boundless abyss that is my mind, it stuck. Thanks to internet classifieds, I found myself face to face with my future travel partner. In the almost thirty years of my existence, I had yet to experience love at first sight thus emanating a warranted skepticism of its elusive existence. That is, until this very moment. He was old. He was disheveled. He had shag carpet. He was perfect. And like a ballin’ drug dealer, or, more accurately, the slave driven bartender that I was, I paid for my love in cold, hard cash.

1978 Dodge Van Guard, pre-renovations, out with the old, camper van
The innards of Van Morrison, pre-renovation

OPINION NUMERO DOS:

Do not wait a mere month before departing to insure, and begin to drive, said vintage vehicle and assume it’s going to work flawlessly and without fail.

I blame the infatuation that initially and so completely engulfed Van Morrison and myself for my declaring his ability to even start, enough of a factor to deem him a roadworthy purchase. Four blissful months inside a stagnant Van were interrupted by the gift of a license plate. Our honeymoon phase abruptly yielded to one of turbulent love-hate which would linger for the majority of our coming excursion.

You see, much like a metaphor for my general perspective on life, when it came to refurbishing Van Morrison, I put far too much emphasis on creature comforts and paid little to no attention to the vital mechanics of the thing. I gave him cheery, mandarin orange walls, a custom made daybed, and stacks of endless book shelves.

I constructed a most impressive outdoor shower, installed deadbolts on all the doors, installed a solar panel and inverter, resentfully replaced his shag with cherry wood floors (or the linoleum equivalent), but not once did I think to pop the hood.

DIY, camper van renovations, home improvement
Van Morrison’s DIY facelift
Female DIY, independent woman, camper van renovations, self-mechanic
Getting Van Morrison road ready

This neglect, and potential self sabotage, inevitably led to twice-weekly breakdowns and a rather avid alcohol dependency on the part of the driver. For any vehicle that is old enough to have been chaperone to the first Star Wars film will almost certainly be ridden with rust and decay, among other headache inducing shortcomings.

Should you bravely follow in my waffling footsteps, allow me first to paint a rather endearing picture of what you’re sure to endure. Weeks before take off, you may, in the pouring rain, watch as your windshield wipers literally fall from the windshield into a myriad of pieces. Ignorantly, you may try to persuade a practicing Muslim mechanic to fix the wiper motor outside of working hours with the promise of a case of ice cold beer. He will accept, and you will be left with a case of ice cold beer.

But you will learn what a valve cover gasket is and how to replace it. You will successfully execute a compression test, and even learn what spark plugs are; they’re nowhere near as kinky as one might hope. And further still, you will change your own oil, and, after refusing to hand over five hundred dollars for a replacement, even managed to MacGyver your very own handheld gas gauge, all while gaining an exorbitant feeling of unstoppable independence.

Van renovations, DIY, traveling house, camper van, home improvement
Finished product, home sweet home

OPINION NUMERO TRES:

Just don’t go.

This is mostly a quote from my mother. And my brother. And my other brother. And the Muslim mechanic. And a random woman at the gas station as I was leaving. And pretty much everyone who hears I am traveling from Canada to Mexico by myself and without a working firearm – that last tidbit courtesy of my southern neighbours, the infamous gunslingers we affectionately call Americans.

Thank the lord I have a rather keen inability to listen…

Dodge caravan, traveling caravan, roadtrip, Van Morrison
Every vehicle deserves its own name

STOP ONE: HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED (album) – BOB DYLAN

AKA SPRAGUE, WASHINGTON

If you google Sprague, you will discover that there are, in fact, seven towns across North America that share the privilege of such a name. This particular Sprague, the Sprague that now reigns as my first official stop on my wayfaring, is one that resides in the state of Washington, just south of Spokane. A town once boasting a population larger than Spokane, now stands at an astounding resident count of approximately three hundred and fifty.

Though this alleged fact was bestowed upon me by an entirely intoxicated local at the town’s one and only watering hole, thus rendering its legitimacy questionable at best. When I first entered the town, I immediately looked for Doc Brown. For there was no way I could have possibly stumbled across this time warped gem without the help of a DeLorean and the endearing naivety of a young Michael J Fox.

Heading south from Sprague, WA towards MEXICO in a campervan named Van Morrison
The prairie outskirts of Sprague, WA

It was late, and dark, but the outlines of what buildings still stood on the vacant main strip boasted some serious 1930’s vibes. The first that caught my eye was Mary Queen of Heaven Roman Catholic Church. According to my less than sober source, we’ll call him Jim– self proclaimed veteran and important authoritative figure of the town– this church was once the hub of Catholic education. Popes, bishops, and those poor schmucks in between were all bred for the making in this gloriously juxtaposed, age old structure.

So called Jim and I were sat at Rae Lynn’s Tavern, a small, bare room, lit with neon beer signs, filled with but a single barmaid and three lonely patrons. As I sipped my patriotic Kokane, Jim walked me through the ins and outs of spritely Sprague; emphasis on the ins, as Jim is the owner of the one and only inn within Sprague.

This inn, he informed me, was in need of a good looking bartender, rather conveniently much like myself. It was no Middle Eastern proposal, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a moment of honest consideration. A town of less than four hundred, three dollar bottles of beer, and a promised position as one of only two barmaids in town. Not to mention Jim’s tempts of the hefty surplus of contracted tradesmen that often find themselves ported in darling Sprague.

Luckily, I wisely deemed my cheap Kokane haze responsible for this momentary lapse in judgement and opted to move on and set up camp. After politely declining to share a room in Jim’s inn with a kindly man named “Brian” (despite his assurance that the room came equipped with two beds), town representative Jim demanded his nephew escort me to my evening’s resting place, a place of Jim’s suggesting.

It was a small, isolated pull off area next to nothing but a lake and a distant train track; an ideal location, were I named Clarice, to be casually lured then skinned alive by a man infamously known as Buff Bill. I want to say Jim’s nephew’s name was Mike, but really, I had no clue.

Charming wall decor in the humble watering hole in Sprague, Washington. The first stop on the way to Mexico
The charming, yet seemingly necessary wall decor in the bathroom of Rae Lynn’s Tavern in Sprague, WA

In the black of night, I pulled Van Morrison close to the faint sound of softly rippling water, and sat under the stars, drinking bourbon, and listened to the gentle lull of passing trains. In this dreamlike state, hours could have passed and I’d not have known until, from complete silence came the foreboding rustling of bushes directly to my left.

Now, in my few, but fateful years on this earth, I’ve been followed home by both skunk and man. Let it be noted, the former is entirely more unnerving, and based on the excessive amount of highway flattened skunk corpses I’ve so far had to swerve around, entirely more plausible. Clutching to what could very well be my final glass of Jim Beam, I prayed an open call to whichever god(s) might answer:

Men (and/or women) of the ether,

Having not been wise enough to carry a hearty enough supply of tomato juice to see me through a rabid skunk attack, I humbly plead, if my ultimate demise is your will, I would much prefer to see myself skinned. Perhaps made into a jacket. Or a nice pair of boots. Knee high with a thick heel. Both fashionable and functional.

Sincerest regards,

Chels

But as the shadowy leaves parted, to my amusement, came the front end of a long, curved object attached to a faceless man struggling to maneuver it.

“Hello…”

“Good evening”

“…Are you going Kayaking?”

“I am”

I looked at my watch. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning.

“Right on.”

As I listened to the progressively distant dance of paddle to pond, I felt myself drift into a nature induced slumber, dreaming of a morning spent fishing, the wholesome aroma of fresh coffee bubbling on my portable barbecue mixed with the effervescent scent of pure, unadulterated freedom.

Cut to 5 AM. I’m startled awake, then nearly to death, by what can only be described as a scene out of District 9. Headlights flood into my windows from every direction. Engines roaring. Voices shouting. I’m surrounded. Completely disoriented, I open my door to dozens of men adorned in camouflage, guns in hand.

“Um… guys?”

“You’re blocking the boat launch.”

“The what now?”

“The boat launch. It’s hunting season.”

Perplexed, I looked around and saw several boats lined up on either side of Van Morrison; impatient men pacing at their sides.

“Well that’s weird. What kind of fish can you only fish during hunting season?”

Silence.

“Ducks.”

“Right.”

More silence.

“Well, I’m just gonna go ahead and uh, go then.”

Ten past five, and I’ve been cast away, forced to find sanctuary on the side of some road, hoping I’m not driven off by a ravenous neighbourhood dog, or a patriotic American exercising his right to carry recreational firearms.

Random road in Sprague, Washington where I was forced to camp after being booted from a lakeside hunting area
Last minute roadside slumber spot after being booted from my lakeside oasis (Sprague, WA)

At dawn, I am awakened, once again, by light flooding through my flowery curtained windows. Only now it’s by the gentle beam of sunlight. After managing three wrong turns on one single through road, I finally saw little Sprague disappear behind me. An endless strip of prairie fields were all that lay before me. But before braving southbound, I slowed to inspect a sign next to a small, desert like mound, a wire fence haphazardly enclosing it.

Small historic hill outside Sprague, Washington where locals once drank during prohibition
The infamous, though modest looking Whiskey Rock, Sprague Washington
Small historic hill outside Sprague, Washington where locals once drank during prohibition
A little brush with history en route

Whiskey Rock – a historic landmark where the many residents of Sprague would once, with relentless stealth, congregate over illegal alcohol consumption during prohibition. This was my clear sign from the god(s). Not only had they blessed me with the continued gift of fetor free and wholly intact flesh, they had lead me to the reassurance that this would not be the last of my beloved outdoor bourbon bliss. In fact, it was merely just the beginning…

 

Stay tuned for the next Baja bound installment…