Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Maiden Voyage

...or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dod

There had been a wicked storm the night before. Arik and I had both been awakened in the early morning hours by the booming thunder. It was just after 6 am and we were drinking coffee in the kitchen. It would be a long day.

The entire day was scheduled: Pack my Bonneville (rest her soul); drive the one and a half hours to ottawa, IL; pay for the second half of the money for the Transvan; get the title and registration taken care of; drop the RV off at the mechanic; then drive the seven hours to Grayling, MI where it would sit till I moved home and could work on it.

Colin and Arik agreed to come along for the ride to Ottawa and would then drive my car back to Chicago. Thanks guys.

We roused Colin and I headed out to get my car. It was parked a ways down Montrose Ave. next to Graceland cemetery because I had driven around the night before picking up supplies for the RV's maiden voyage and wasn't finished until every car in the city had settled in for the night.

With a guitar case in each hand I walked the few blocks west to my car. As I crossed Broadway near Mr. Salsa, I looked down the road to see that the previous nights storm had caused more than just thunder. The strong winds had toppled a large tree, and like a giant skeleton hand it reached out of the cemetery grasping across the street.

I quickened my pace.

As I neared where my car was parked I could see the city workers there to clean up the mess with their large blue truck. There was also a local news van, complete with camera man and reporter, and a few passersby as well. “No,” we each told the reporter, “I don't want to do an interview.”

It was then that I saw that my car had just barely escaped death's wooden grasp (oh, but for how long?). A single car length was all that separated me from the freedom of the open road and the timber-limbed grasp of that fallen tree..

After asking the city workers to move their truck the plan was back on track. I pulled up in front of the apartment and the three of us loaded my car with the few things that would fit while maintaining a certain level of comfort in the back seat for colin.

The trip to Ottawa was fairly uneventful, except for the hiccups in the car's acceleration (more foreshadowing). I knew the way, Nikki and I had been there just two weeks before when we first saw the RV, took it for a test drive, had a mechanic take a look at it, and paid for half the cost.

The RV, a 1981 Dodge van transformed into a home-on-wheels just larger than a conversion van, delightfully called a Transvan, was found, like all casual encounters, on Craigslist. I had been searching for a truck that could haul the camper I thought we could possibly borrow from Dave. All I found were 100,000+ mile work trucks.

But in my search I came across a page featuring a small thumbnail photo of the van. And like a revelation, it hit me. It was perfect. I immediately called Nikki. I'd found it. The chariot to carry us west and beyond. We scheduled a time to drive out and see the ride that Saturday.

Nikki and I reviewed the used car checklist on our way over, testing each other on the things that were most important and had to be checked. And finally, after 90 minutes on the road, there it sat.

It was time for the test drive, and with a few pumps of the gas pedal she fired up. It was low on gas, you could tell as it jerked along the road. Long story short: the battery died at the gas station; the brake on the front driver's side tire stuck, causing the tire to smoke as we drove; but the mechanic who looked at it assured us the engine looked good. In fact, while we were inside getting a quote on the initial work needed before driving it home, one of the mechanics gave our host his number and told him if we didn't buy it, to give him a call.

So there we were, pulled over on the side of the road, each clutching our half of the first payment. And, flaunting youth and recklessness in the face of reason, we went for it.

It was now two weeks later, time to pay the rest of the cash (the total being half of what the current owner initially asked), and then drive it to Michigan.

We pulled in to the driveway where it rested. I filled the tank with the gas I brought in the spare jug. We opened the hood to give a quick inspection, and when it closed the 'ge' in 'Dodge' fell down. Both Colin and Arik gave a chuckle.

The two of them followed me in my car as I drove the van to the mechanic to get started on the preliminary work. After a short side adventure involving three inept DMV workers, a frantic hunt for the van's previous owner, and a trip to the Currency Exchange, I had the temporary registration in hand and the brand new title would be in the mail. Now I just had to wait for the mechanic to finish the job.

Arik and Colin left after lunch leaving me to roam the town while I waited for the van to get out of the shop. I spent most of my time in the town's center square. It was a park with a large statue of Abraham Lincoln in the middle, commemorating the first major debate of his presidential campaign, the topic of which focused on one line in the Declaration of Independence: “ that all men are created equal.” Lincoln argued that the slaves should be freed, while his opponent thought it was a matter best left to the states. Thousands of people filled the town, and Lincoln was carried away on the shoulders of the crowd after winning the contest.

Just after 4 o clock the van was finished and I was on the road. It had taken longer than I had anticipated, but I was glad to finally be on my way.

It was a hot day, very hot, and walking around town all day I had drawn a pretty decent bead. But the van, without air conditioning, was even hotter, and within a few miles I was fairly soaked through with sweat. So when traffic slowed to a stop just south of Chicago, I was, to say the least, perturbed.

The single line of cars curved around the bend and disappeared in the distance. But my anger was assuaged by the spectacle that held me up. A semi had jack-knifed and slid into the rear of another semi, tearing a gash along it's side and spilling it contents across the road. It was a produce truck, and cabbage was strewn everywhere, the cleanup crew had swept it aside and placed cones around the carnage. When we cleared it traffic picked up and I was back up to speed again. And then it started to rain.

It wasn't heavy at first, just a sprinkle, but when I hit the button for the windshield wipers nothing happened. Damn checklist.

Before long I was hunched over the wheel, white-knuckled and squinting through the drops on the windshield. When the wind picked up the wiper's lifeless limbs would flop from one side to the other. I had already pulled over a few times when the going got too rough, but I was making it.

After an extended stay on the side of the road through a particularly rough patch of storm I decided it would be best to wait it out at a rest stop instead of on the side of the road. As the downpour lulled I pulled back onto the expressway and pushed ahead. The falling rain grew lighter and my courage increased, I pressed the van harder, getting up to around 55 mph. That's when I hit the first puddle.

Water splashed up, completely obscuring the windshield. The van hydroplaned back and forth across the road. Luckily, I was fairly alone on this current stretch. The windshield cleared and I rested a little easier. I unclenched my butt cheeks and settled back into the seat Then I hit the second puddle. This one was bigger and deeper than the first. The van slid back and forth and when I could finally see again I was on the other side of the road. That's when the engine cut off and I lost the power steering, it was all I could do to wrestle the van to the side of the road, the left hand side, as it coasted to a dead stop. I was no more that 30 yards from the puddle, and dusk was settling in.

The rain continued to pour as I watched headlights through the rearview mirror swerve back and forth across the road as the speeding cars blasted through the ever deepening lake in the middle of the expressway. I called AAA, hoping to get a tow truck to haul me out of there. The operator told me that the road commission was closing the road and would not allow a tow truck through. But I watched as line after line of cars barreled down down the road behind me. The kind operator put me on hold as she called the police to send someone out.

As I waited for what seemed an eternity, I attempted to restart the engine. It was close. Almost turning over. Wanting to rumble back to life and charge ahead, but it was soaked.

I sat and watched as a minivan lost all control and swerved into the area between the two halves of the expressway to avoid my rig. Needless to say, I did not feel safe.

As I prepared my self for the rearending which could end our adventure before it even began, I knew, in my heart of hearts, this was not the end. I would make it home. This was manifest destiny, dammit. I could not be stopped. We could not be stopped. I tried the ignition once more to no avail.

Finally the cop arrived. He threw out a few flares but the cars still flew by, striking the wall of water and dangerously sliding across the plane of water. Several other cars had pulled over to the side in the road ahead.

I was soaked with sweat and rain.

Finally the van rumbled to life, I held the gas down to warm the engine, burn off the last few droplets of water. I just hoped the cop wouldn't notice any lights that might be out in the rear. Finally, I pulled onto the road and continued on my trip home.

By the time I made it in it was after 2 am. I was sore all over, damp and stinking, but I made it. There was a lot of work to do yet, but if the van's maiden voyage was any indication of the adventure ahead, it would be anything but ordinary.

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