Sunday, June 27, 2010
Mark and I went on a mini-road trip this weekend to Summer Lake in Eastern Oregon. It’s not a very popular spot—miles and miles of sagebrush and ponderosa pines until you reach this ancient flat place which was once a lake, 20,000 years ago, and has been slowing evaporating ever since. There’s a wildlife refuge there and we watched pelicans and avocets fly as The Ark rumbled down a dirt track with weeds growing up between the tracks. It’s wild, and empty, and beautiful, like much of our huge country. On the way home, I realized that The Ark and I have been cruising the back roads of the United States together for twenty years now.
I bought my van in 1990, when she was six years old. It was love at first sight. She came with a dent in the side, a leaking engine which needed some work, and wide open space in the back. She has a huge, truck like steering wheel and gear shift and, at the time, the driver sat above every other car on the road. (This was pre-SUV.) I grew up in a pick-up truck and my soul recognized this view of the world the moment I climbed in; I still had to learn to drive a standard, but a trip to Boston took care of that skill. She spent a week at Foreign Auto Works, where they rebuilt the engine and then I took her home to customize. We were going on a three month road trip across the country. It had been twenty years since I went with my parents and it was time.
I built a platform out of scrap wood that I found over by Strawberry Banke to sit over the engine and shoved an old double futon in. Flannel sheets and several blankets covered the bed. The space underneath became instant storage for valuables and things you don’t need every day (funnel for the anti-freeze, chains for icy roads, folding chairs and table…). The head of the futon rested on milk crates, which hold books, dishes and food—things you need all the time. I tied an old chest of drawers into the side for clothes and a work table. The Bakery donated a fish bucket for a dish pan, a small bucket – “You never know when you might need a bucket,” Anita warned—to hold bathroom supplies, and a mesh bag from fifty pounds of onions for laundry. My mother contributed a two burner Coleman Stove, which was stolen in San Francisco and replaced a few years later from a thrift shop in Seligman Arizona, along Route 66. I packed spices in film canisters (I’ve since replaced those!), oil, tamari, and yeast in jars, left tea in boxes. I made curtains, glued a ceramic rooster to the dash, copied my entire music collection onto cassette tapes, snagged a map of every state in the country from AAA and we were ready to go.
The Ark looks pretty much as she did twenty years ago. The futon has changed. I’ve added some decoration to the front dash. There are a few more dents and the cheap plastic bumper ends have fallen off. The paint is blistered where she was so close to a burning house one night that the whole neighborhood almost exploded. She got a new engine about 12 years ago and a transmission a year or so later. I have even fixed the heat, so it is not blasting on your feet while driving through the desert. That was a big improvement! But the engine still hums in the classic VW thrumming. She still drives like a truck. And I’m thinking, God willing and the creek don’t rise, that we are overdue for another cross country trip. Like John Steinbeck, I need to cross this country—in all of its glory and mind-numbing boredom (how much sagebrush can one state hold?) – to remember why I love the United States, even when I am appalled by its politics. I asked the Ark—she’s ready.