Our Lady of the Starship
A group of friends tackle a Vanagon repair armed with just a cell phone, some rudimentary tools and childhood poop stories.
Earlier this year, we met Mitch and Amy at Syncro Solstice in Moab Utah. They drove down from Seattle, WA to Moab, UT in their single stage paint, 14” wheel, bone stock 1.9L Vanagon Westfalia. Like a lot of these VW vans, their’s sounded like it was one small mole hill away from shutting down and never starting again. We introduced ourselves and felt an immediate connection. We had only just learned each other’s names and yet it seemed to us like we had a lot in common. Mitch is a thin built guy who looks every part the programmer minus the stereotypical glasses. I could see in his eyes that he’s a serious, thoughtful guy who is probably really damn good at Monopoly or maybe Settlers of Cataan. Quiet, fairly reserved, but serene, being around Mitch reminds my Anxiety that it needs to chill the fuck out. Amy, however, is quite the opposite. Talkative, funny, extroverted. A delightful riot, a victimless train wreck. She’s a pretty girl whose beauty becomes more evident the more you get to know her. It seems Mitchell deserves a good pat on the back for managing to hang on to his very own tornado. They make a fantastic couple, Mitch and Amy, but let’s get real, we like them mostly because they own a Westy. As Syncro Solstice wound down, we made sure to get their info so we could meet up with them when we passed through Washington.
Fast forward a few months to August. We’d been exploring around Washington since about mid June and had reached out to Mitch and Amy a few times since we’d arrived but had not yet been able to meet for one reason or another. But finally, on a Thursday night, we sat down for dinner together so we could plan a camping trip to explore, camp, talk, smoke, drink and generally have a most delightful time in Washington’s wilderness. I even brought our Washington map book which contains detailed maps of back roads, ORV trails, forest service roads, logging roads and so on, to the dinner table in anticipation of planning our adventure. During our planning session they raised some concerns about their van’s reliability and whether it was a good idea to drive her on the roads we were mapping out.
A few weeks earlier their van, known as Lady Starship, apparently had a gremlin in the motor. It seemed she would start just fine but after a little while of running at temperature, if she was shut off, she would not cut back on. They took a quick trip to the mechanic, a few swings of the hammer or whatever it is mechanics do and she was road worthy again. Only maybe the hammer swings may not have been delivered with enough authority.
Dinner ended, plans were made, we grabbed some ice cream from a passive aggressive and certainly overpaid dairy slinging hipster, we joked around a bit and said our goodbyes. The adventure was set: we’d take a dirt road out to Lake Mowich in Rainier National Park at sunrise on Saturday and set up camp by the glacial fed waters.
That morning, the sunrise poured through our van’s windows. With the blue hour tucked in for the day, my alarm jingled and I reluctantly threw my sheets off and began pre-flight checks to make ready the van’s departure. We wanted to get an early start to beat the crowds and get a good camping spot near the lake. 5:50am first call to meet up with Mitch and Amy at 6:30am, drive 2hrs to Rainier, make camp, go swimming, and get all wildernessy. That was the plan anyway.
We met up and set our course south and east. Starship was running just fine.
We met up and set our course south and east. Starship was running just fine. We even stopped to get fuel and she fired right back up without a hiccup. We laid rubber to road and drove back roads passing through small towns all along the way. Washington’s rural areas, like most rural areas in America, are, for us, a joy to drive through. There is always a certain sense of anticipation to them sort of like when someone tells you of a band you’ve never heard of and they pop in a cd (do those still exist?) and now you’re captive having to listen to whatever it is they’ve served up be it good or awful. What crazy store will you see? What’s the speed limit? What nutty slogan is blazoned on the community’s church bulletin board? Pawn shops are combined with ice cream parlors, someone else has opened a doll dress store, sleepy coffee shops advertise their cups of joe with flashing neon signs, tired, old tow truck shops sit in disrepair, used tire emporiums with tires stacked unreasonably high are the skyscrapers here, and antique stores filled with Antiques shopping for a piece of their past when life for them was simpler, slower. Lifted trucks house young redneck kids wearing Mossy Oak hats backwards, in the bed of the truck flagpoles flying a curious combination of the Confederate Battle Flag and the Flag of Northern Aggression. The sidewalks always have a displaced, fat Colonel Sanders wearing overalls and brown boots. And meth heads. Or maybe just people with really poor dental hygiene. I love these places. I grew up around these places. There is a certain charm here that big cities don’t have. Maybe its the lack of pretentiousness or maybe it’s that these people have been to the big city and said “no thanks” to becoming another rat in the race. The pace and values they embrace are exactly how they want them and the judgement and meddling of city going progressive-types can drink a hot cup of “fuck-off.” I’ve actually had discussions with people in cities like NYC and San Francisco who have traveled internationally but won’t travel across our country because they fear towns like these are filled with racist, gun toting, knuckle dragging flat earthers who want to turn city folk into beef jerky. Nonsense. These people are the salt of the earth. Some of them anyway.
On we drove, chapel after chapel, barn after barn, blurring past our windows. The smell of cow shit filling our noses. Over the walkie talkie I asked Mitch and Amy if I could join them in their van so I could do a bit of filming from a different perspective. They oblige and we pull over. I began to place Go Pro suction mounts to the body of their van. The whole thing was taking a bit longer than I had planned so I asked the drivers of the vans to cut the motors. At last I had finished mounting the Go Pros and it was time to shove off. I hit record and Jessica fired up our van. Mitch turned the key, Lady Starship whinnied and neighed. Nothing. I asked Mitch whether he pumped the gas. He did. He turned the key again. Nothing. Amy’s head was in her hands, a small explosion seemed to be bubbling beneath her disbelief. Mitch just sat looking out the window. Camping photos of these Westies are plentiful on the internet. Truth be told, that’s only half the story.
We went around back of Lady Starship and stood staring at her dirty engine. I imagine the look we had on our faces is the same look all dogs get when you first shut the kennel door on them as if to say “What the hell is this?” I pulled out my phone and thanks to the modern miracle of the internet and Verizon’s excellent coverage, I set about to search Google for answers to what may ail Lady Starship. Somewhere in a dark office filled with computer screens and coffee mugs, an NSA spook can tell you exactly how I happened upon the webpage that contained the correct steps to take to get the van running again. Step one: Check the spark plugs for soot or damage. Are they worn down? Mitch pulls out the first spark plug. Sooty as hell. Maybe that’s the problem? He pulls out the second one. Even worse and drenched in fuel. Maybe we need new spark plugs? Time to pull up the phone again and look for an auto parts store. Once again, the magical Internet showed us that less than five minutes down the road there was a NAPA auto parts. Modern life and its attendant conveniences are hard to beat.
We jumped in our van, headed to NAPA and got the new spark plugs we were after. Inside of 20 minutes we’re back at Lady Starship ready to show this bitch we mean business. The new plugs are installed, Mitch turns her over, she coughs, mumbles, farts and fires up. Success! He shut her off and then tries to restart her to see if our fix really worked. Dead again. How the, what the, FUCKING FUCK! I make a phone call to a friend who knows about these vans and he tells me ”Check the cap and rotor. You may not be getting good contact because it’s sooty.” The cap and rotor are checked and it turns out the rotor is in fact sooty. I clean it off. Mitch sits in his captain’s chair, Amy crosses her fingers, I say an atheists prayer. Starship mumbles, grumbles, burps. Nothing. “Again Mitch!” We cross our fingers harder, we kneel at the altar of the Van Gods. She burps and moans and farts again. She grunts, huffs and puffs. The sound is what I imagine a chili dog eating contest sounds like. And with a final cough and sneeze Our Lady of the Starship comes alive! With that unpleasantness out of the way, our adventure can now continue apace.
Down the road we travel, Mount Rainier’s glacier covered peak standing alone against the beautiful light of the North West lies ahead. Small towns disappear into thick forest, tall trees line the two lane tarmac, we cross over a one lane bridge that seems quite sketchy and spans a gorge some 200 feet below us. I don’t think there’s a single bridge I ever cross without wondering if this is my last bridge crossing. No matter the bridge’s upkeep, my irrationality fuels my imagination and creates small, intense wildfires of a scene involving a crumbling bridge and our van free falling onto the jagged rocks below. As evidenced by this writing, the bridge held fast as has been the case my whole life, and yet David Hume’s Problem of Induction manages to always light that wildfire at every bridge (or flight in an airplane or dip into the ocean or a trip on a boat). Soon the tarmac becomes a dirt road and we begin to climb. Jess and I closely monitor our
transmission and differential temperatures. We had recently installed gauges that display those temperatures because when we flushed our transmission, the fluid was dark and smelled slightly burnt, a good indication that we were running it too hot. Sure enough, the farther up the mountain we went on this 95° day, the higher our gauges climbed. We radio Team Starship that we need to pull over and let the transaxle cool. We pullover, I step out and have a piss, Jess goes about cleaning up some litter that some people who deserve to have their noses removed have left strewn about the road. After about 20 minutes it seems our transmission is cool enough to continue. We fire up our van and put it in gear. During our entire stop, Lady Starship has remained idling, sitting in park, mumbling and grumbling like a good VW should. Mitch puts her in first, she stalls. Through their back windscreen I can see Amy, head in hands shaking her head in disbelief. Mitch, calmly stairs out the front window. Neither Mitch or I or anyone feels like removing the deck lid and staring at the motor again, so we decide to leave Starship by the side of the road to cool off, and we climb in our van to head up the mountain towards our destination. We’re hoping we can still reserve a campground and we want to check out the lake. What we see instead is Disneyland. More than 200 cars lining the road, a full camp site, and people everywhere. We got up at 5:50 AM hoping to beat the crowds. Two breakdowns later and it’s 11 AM. “Surely,” we thought, “we’re still early.” How wrong we were. All this trouble to discover there is no camping available and a small horde of Seattleites had the same idea we did on the same day.
Back down the mountain we go. If we can get Lady Starship started, we’ll just head back to town and sit in some AC. Ninety-five degrees, breakdowns, dusty roads and a full campsite crawling with hikers, kids, and site-seers have taken the fight out of us for the day. Back at a cooled down and hopefully cooperative Lady Starship, Mitch assumes his captain’s position, turns the key and she just won’t start. Amy walks away to sit in our van, Jess makes us some food, and Mitch and I go about removing the spark plugs again. Surprisingly, the spark plugs are incredibly sooty and covered in gas again. Even though I’m no mechanic, at this point I can tell that the issue has something to do with Lady Starship running extremely rich but I have no idea how to go about fixing that. A hammer maybe? As Mitch begins to pull out each spark plug, I try to draw attention away from the misery of the heat and the dust by chatting with Amy about funny childhood stories, and we begin to regale each other with our best poop related shenanigans from our formative years. It’s quite a riot and soon the hot day and our roadside predicament are forgotten. Conversation and laughter replace heat and breakdowns and the day begins to be defined by those things in our lives where our shared experiences intersect. We talk about our religious upbringings, we talk about how we were each virgins before marriage, we talk about science and the environment, about logging practices, the love we have for our vans, how we met our spouses. Mitch sits in the driver’s seat. We turn our attention to talking about life and love. He has the keys in hand. Jess and I inquire about the Mormon beliefs Mitch and Amy once held. Mitch turns the key. They ask us about our previously held religious dogmas. Starship burps again, she groans, she does her start up ritual. She fires up and we set a course to Mitch and Amy’s home in downtown Seattle.
It’s remarkable our similarities. Their flat is laid out similarly to how we laid ours out in Austin. It’s like we’re looking in a mirror of sorts. IKEA furniture mixed with finds from other places. Beautiful, hand drawn art hangs on the wall. They have AC and a space where Jess and I can open our arms and even if briefly spin around while enjoying so much lovely, cool indoor space. John Muir and his ilk can go on all they want about how nature cleanses our spirits, but sometimes new friends, some pizza, marijuana, conversation and video games can be a sort of catharsis as well. Sitting in an apartment isn’t like staring at Yosemite Valley, it isn’t the Alpenglow of the Sierras at sunset, and it isn’t camping by a glacial lake at the foot of Mount Rainier. But it is part of being a modern human. And falling in love with more aspects of this crazy life than just the wild is part of seeking, accepting and enjoying the myriad of experiences one has when traveling.