Getting The Van

March 12th

I sit down in the plane seat, and insert my headphones. They're the in-ear kind that form an airtight seal, which reduces the ambient noise level drastically, but also makes every footfall resound with a deep thud in my skull. These headphones are impractical for walks and exercise, but for sitting, they are perfect.

The iPod queues up Pete Namlook's 60-minute ambient piece titled "Autumn". It's too bizarre to call 'New Age', and too unstructured to call 'Music', but other labels are even less appropriate. If you've ever gripped the end of a metal slinky between your teeth and twanged it, that alien sound that you don't hear anywhere else, is the core of this piece. Airports and plane flights are bizarre and they deserve a bizarre soundtrack.

Though I have the row to myself, the seats are too restrictive for me to take advantage of the space. After the takeoff from San Jose, which I spend glued to the window like always, I push my seat back and try to nap for a while. It doesn't work.

I've only managed five hours of sleep the last night, which is not a big deal since I'll be flying to Texas, where it will be two hours later than my body expects. If I want, I can check in at a nice hotel and turn in early. But only if the van purchase goes smoothly, of course.

I have a cashier's check for three thousand dollars in my wallet. That's the remaining balance on the van I'm buying. The man selling it has promised to pick me up from the airport in Dallas, and take me to the van for inspection. If I accept it, I give him the check. If I don't, he gives me back my deposit of $1400.

Yes, conducting this kind of business is risky. The transactions go fast, and few of them are reversible. The first question people asked me was, "Why are you going to Texas to buy a van, when you could get one in California and avoid a lot of hassle?" Easy. Because a used van, of any calibre, in almost any part of California, whether it's from an individual or a dealership, costs more money. Thousands more. And more on top of that, if it costs so much I have to finance it.

I'm not a genius when it comes to cars, but I know a few things. I know how a good engine is supposed to sound, and how a transmission should feel. I also have access to some good friends, who can advise me if something makes me suspicious. So I'm flying to Dallas to purchase a 1997 Ford E-350 extended-body cargo van for $4500 cash. Retired fleet vehicle. Purchase it there, drive it back to California. A road trip adventure!

Couldn't I go 1/4 the distance up to Oregon and get a price almost as good? One word for that: Snow. Park a vehicle in snow for six years and the bottom rusts out. I'm not in the mood to visit a dozen dealerships or drive all over residential neighborhoods, only to find the bottom of every car is flaked part-way off. Instead I'm going where snow is a lot less common.

It's not easy finding an extended-body windowless cargo van, with double-doors on the side instead of a slider, not too old but not too expensive. It wasn't easy deciding that I needed one in the first place. I've been watching the used-vehicle listings for camper vans for almost a year, biding my time to get a good sample of what's around. I obsessed over which components a camper van really needs, then obsessed over how they should be arranged in a floor-plan, then obsessed over the cost effectiveness of buying one new, buying one used, or buying a van and having it converted from scratch. Finally I settled on a conversion from scratch because I could get exactly the layout I wanted, and spend very little money. The van I'm flying out to retrieve matches my template exactly.

At least, I hope it does ... My plane ticket is one way. If the van truly sucks I can always take a train or a bus back I suppose, but I feel confident that I've got an honest seller. I'll meet him face-to-face in about five hours.

In the meantime, all I can do is enjoy the flight. The mountains below me are stunning. Thousands of feet directly beneath the plane, a tiny road snakes through the snow-covered wilderness. I try to imagine driving along that spider-thread road, at the speed of this jet. I can't comprehend it.

The mountain peaks abruptly end as the plane descends into a broad, flat valley. My flight schedule listed a stop in Denver, Colorado, so I assume that Denver is the city below. It looks more spread out, and less forested, than I imagined. A cluster of tall buildings, what I assume is downtown Denver, sticks up incongruously from the plain like the Emerald City of Oz. I gaze at it until the plane bounces onto the runway.

Everyone else leaves, to stretch their legs or catch a different flight. I still can't sleep, so I stare out the window some more. A luggage-train glides into view like a giant centipede, across the wedge of hot gray cement in my field of vision. A young woman in sturdy work clothes is perched at the console, with one heavy boot planted casually on the dashboard. Her coarse purple shirt is unbuttoned at the collar. Her smiling face is turned up to the sun. She flicks the steering wheel with one hand, and the luggage train coasts up to a conveyor belt that's been lowered from the bowels of the plane. The train stops, and she sets the brake, runs both hands up through her tousled brown hair, and lets her arms fall limp on the seat. She's taking a nap.

I stare at her for a while, wishing that I could be out there in the sun. Just another day of driving around on the tarmac. Actually, what I would really like, is her job for a few weeks. I have to get out of the house, and out of the office. It's probably why I'm making this journey.

Another woman drives up in a centipede vehicle with empty compartments, and the two women converse for a while. A man wearing thick gloves walks into view from beneath the plane, and pulls a lever on the conveyor belt. As items roll down from inside the cargo bay, he stacks them into piles on the ground. Both women dismount their centipedes to help. Then the man throws the conveyor belt into reverse, and they all unload luggage from the racks of the full centipede and feed it into the plane.

While this is happening, two men arrive in a gigantic fuel truck. They draw an alarmingly thin hose from a coil on one side, and attach it to the plane. Then an oversized forklift growls up to the front of the plane, and lifts a big metal box up to match the height of the crew area. One side of the plane wall folds up, and a door opens on the box, revealing a man wearing a kitchen smock, and fussing over two long rows of metal canisters.

This man walks to the opening of his box and presses a button, and a thick ramp extrudes from it like a tongue and locks onto the side of the plane. He then grabs a wheeled dolly-cart, and kicks the rim under the stack of metal canisters closest to the door. He yanks the cart back on it's wheels, pushes it out over the ramp, and deposits the canisters inside the plane. The crew begins securing the canisters in place with hooks and netting while the man fetches another stack. As they're rearranged I observe that the canisters are full of ice, food, and soft drinks.

The "chef" finishes his delivery, retracts the ramp, and closes his doors. The forklift slowly lowers him back to ground level as the crew seals the side of the plane. The operators of the fuel truck detach their hose, leap onto their vehicle, and drive away. The two women finish loading the piles of luggage into the previously empty centipede, talk and smile a bit more, and drive out of view, in opposite directions. The conveyor belt slides back into the plane.

I lean back in my seat, thinking. Having a job programming computers really does make one miss physical activity. I don't see how my job satisfaction could ever be any higher than that of the brown-haired woman, taking a nap on top of her luggage train, in the crisp sun of early Colorado spring. If only I could put the manual labor back into the equation. Maybe I should hook an electric bike up to my laptop power supply.

I ponder this while the seats around me fill up with passengers again. A young black girl, about fourteen, stows her luggage and sits down next to me. She says hello, then resumes reading an R. L. Stine novel pressed open over one leg. Something about an evil amusement park, I think.

I attempt to sleep for the entire flight into Texas, and only manage a light doze.

When I arrive, I feel refreshed by the overcast weather. I claim my luggage, then dial my van contact on my cellphone. This is it -- if he's a crook and his operation is a front, then he won't answer, and he won't be here at the airport. He'll just sit tight wherever he is, keeping my 1400 dollars. Right here, my plans could either go perfectly, or go straight into the ground.

He answers on the second ring. He's waiting just outside the gate in a large truck, which he describes to me. In a few minutes I've tossed my suitcase in the back, and am shaking his hand for the first time.

We swap stories about vans we've owned in the past, and about the fleet vehicle business, and about travel. He strikes me as an overworked, but honest man. He's also got a lot of useful knowledge. As we drive, he explains to me that I can tell how old the tires in a Ford truck are by feeling the steering wheel as I drive. If it's wiggling just a little bit when I hold it on the lower right, then the right-side drive tire needs attention. Likewise for the left. And if the steering wheel is wiggling when I hold it at the top, both tires need replacing.

He says he could feel that wiggling when he test-drove the van that he's selling to me, and that's why he wanted two new drive tires put on it. However he didn't have the time to get the tires, so the ones on my van are still old. He offers to ride with me to a tire place, if one is still open, or to phone his credit card in to any place along the road if I decide to get new tires installed later.

(As an aside, he was true to his word. I received a check for the full cost of two tires shortly after faxing him the invoice when I got home. Good man.)

Our first stop is the business headquarters, where the van is parked out front. I walk around the van, seeing it directly for the first time. It's even bigger than the pictures online had shown. In fact, compared to the Honda Accord I usually drive, this vehicle is gigantic. I could fit a Honda Accord inside it. And probably haul it around town.

My seller reaches into his pocket, for the keys to his office. They're missing. He shakes his head in disbelief. For him, it's been "one of those days". "The experience with every buyer is different", he says. "They all have different schedules and different needs. Things can get pretty messy, and especially during evening pickups, it seems like something new goes wrong every time."

He calls his wife, who agrees to bring him a second set of keys. He then says he's going to zip around the corner and grab a soda, and offers me one. I accept, and as he drives off, I take a bunch of pictures of the van, and then unwrap some of the food supply that is the bulk of my luggage. When you're on the road and you're a vegan, you've got to think ahead. It crosses my mind that he may never return -- that I've been left in the driveway of an unrelated business by a con-man who likes to thoroughly confuse his victims -- but the idea refuses to make sense, so I decide to hang out and see what happens next.

My new friend returns, and we chat animatedly about vacation trips and truck maintenance. I offer encouragement, and some advice about working on the internet. I describe my plans to convert the van and go driving through Alaska, and he expresses a similar desire to travel around the country. The rest of his family has caught the travel bug as well, for example his relative in South America.

"You know, he's a teacher down there, and one day he wrote us asking to send him all the little gadgets and doodads we could, so he could show them to his students and teach them about science and physics. Well, they thought he was a magician or something. They'd never seen silly-putty for example. And the adults, they were amazed too."

"So it turned into this game for us, we were trying to find all the neatest things to send him. And don't get me wrong, I mean, I love this country and all. We make some amazing things. But you know, we also make an awful lot of weird useless stuff, like slinkies, and glow-in-the-dark toys, and puzzles, and Rubik's cubes ... they'd never seen any of this stuff before."

It's an interesting story, and it also triggers a thought in my head ... if I were hearing this story from someone in California, would they, too, voice a disclaimer affirming their love of this country? Am I hearing this disclaimer because I'm in Texas ... or because I'm talking to a good salesman?

I shrug inwardly. It's probably because I'm hearing this story from a salesman. An inexperienced tourist would come here expecting to find great shows of patriotism -- Don't Mess With Texas! -- and thus find evidence of it in every little detail. But the popular west-coast vision of Texans, as a bunch of well-armed flag-waving homophobes, is just as overblown as the popular vision of west-coasters, as a bunch of soulless thugs and creepy flaming queens. ... Though I've met my fair share.

There's an attitude that a community has, and then there's an attitude that a community projects. If you don't live in that community, all that concerns you is the attitude it projects into yours. And looking at the west-coast from outside, I have to admit, I can understand why people would be irritated by the ideas projected from Hollywood, San Francisco, and Seattle. For example -- why would a community of gay Texans be impressed by San Francisco's Gay Pride Parade? A very public, highly televised demonstration of high camp would only serve to set their integration into southern society back, years at a time.

Travel always puts interesting ideas in my head. I'm pondering all this with one arm leaning over the window of my salesman's Ford 4x4, while he sits inside the cab sorting paperwork and telling stories. I hear the sound of an approaching engine, and realize I've been staring into space for the last minute.

Another truck pulls into the driveway, behind my salesman's. His wife has arrived with the keys. It's good to finally be inside, and now that we have access to an office, we finish the paperwork around a desk. One of the papers I receive is a copy of the repair order for the van's transmission. Both the transmission and the torque converter were rebuilt less than a month ago -- one of the selling points of this van, to me.

I get the keys to the van, and start it up, and listen to the engine. It sounds quite robust, and has a fairly smooth idle. Needs an oil change though. I unfold my laptop in the passenger seat and stick my GPS receiver dongle to the inside wall of the cab, then plug in the USB cable that hangs down. My position appears on the screen of the laptop, within a map of the Dallas area.

We complete our transaction and talk a bit more. I hop into the van and start it up. The salesman heads for his truck. I reach for the seatbelt, pull it down, and notice for the first time that the seatbelt buckle is entirely missing.

The salesman looks at the seat, then brings a hand to his forehead as though it has suddenly begun to ache. "I must apologize, you know, my inspectors were supposed to notice exactly this sort of thing long before you got here." Luckily he has a mechanic on call. In less than ten minutes the mechanic arrives, in a third truck. In another twenty minutes he has attached a belt-buckle assembly taken from a similar van in the back lot.

While they're testing that, they also test the brake lights and signals. Sure enough, one of the rear lamps is too dim. My salesman explains it, like so: "Fleet vehicles are often used only during the day, so to save money when a lamp fails, a mechanic will grab any old bulb and stick it in the socket. A colored bulb in a taillight will be just as dim as a regular bulb during the day, but at night it will be useless. You'll wanna check for that. My inspectors were supposed to catch this too, but apparently they didn't, so we're fixing it now."

While this is happening, I ask for a tape measure, which the salesman produces from a pocket of his jeans. He holds one end, and I walk to the other end of the van, unrolling the tape. The van is 18 feet long from bumper to bumper. I over-estimated the length required on the Alaskan ferries by almost five feet. I wonder if it's too late to ask for a partial reimbursement?

The mechanic tests a few other parts of the electrical system, then voices his approval to the salesman. I shake the mechanic's hand. "You know, they say a good mechanic is hard to find, but they must be wrong because you came right over!" He laughs, and drives off in his truck. Next I shake hands with the salesman and his wife, agree to call them if I have any concerns, and drive the van out onto the road.

This vehicle is even bigger than the Ford Aerostar I used to drive. Plus it has no rearview mirror, and no windows at all in the cargo area. It's a good thing the salesman insisted on helping me adjust the side mirrors before I left, because I really do need them.

I turn south, deciding to take the quicker southern route instead of the slower, but shorter, northern route. Let's see how far I get before I feel tired. But first, I should fill up on gas.

I pull in at a Chevron, and after some head-scratching, I locate the gas tank cover. I'm still getting used to the idea that I own this gigantic vehicle. Gas is a full 70 cents cheaper per gallon here than in my home town. I watch the counter tick up, as almost 20 gallons of fuel pours into the side of the van. It's going to cost a lot to fill this thing up in California.

I drive it out onto the road, and find a freeway onramp. Onramps work a little differently in Texas. There's almost always a frontage road that runs next to the highway, and a ramp connecting the road to the highway at irregular intervals. Around the ramp is a strange 1.5-way configuration of stop-signs, so that people going onto the freeway, or barreling down off it, do not have to stop, and everyone else does.

I puzzle my way up one of these ramps, and step on the gas. The first thing I notice is that the rattling noise of the shelving in the back of the van becomes absolutely incredible. I can barely hear myself yelling over it. It sounds like 200 pounds of cookware falling down an endless flight of stairs. I have got to find a place to discard this shelving, as quickly as possible, or it's just going to drive me bonkers.

In fifteen minutes I find another gas station, and buy an adjustable wrench and a pair of pliers from their meager display rack. I climb into the rear of the van and try turning the bolt on the inside of the nearest cabinet. It turns and turns, but doesn't get any looser. I was afraid of this. The bolts are secured with nuts, placed on the underside of the van. I'm going to need a second wrench, and some way to lock it in place, so I can unscrew the opposing nut with the first wrench. At least one wrench has to be a socket-wrench, too, or the operation will take forever to complete. Where am I going to get a socket-wrench at this hour? I've got to think of something, because there's no way I'm going to survive 1800 miles of that racket.

I decide my best bet is to find a gas station with a larger shop. It's close to 10:00pm, and I don't know what else would be open this late. With the van back on the freeway, the brain-rattling noise convinces me that I have to take more direct action. I pull of at the next gas station, and dig around in the van until I find a bolt that resembles the ones in the floor. I show the bolt to the woman in the station's booth, and ask, "Where can I get the tools to unscrew a whole bunch of these, at this time of night?"

"There's a Wal-Mart just a few miles down the road, you could try them."

"Really? They'd be open this late?"

"Oh, they're open 'till midnight I think."

She gives me directions, and I pull on to the frontage road. I drive along it for about half a mile before realizing that it's not an onramp, and unless I make a left turn I'll never actually get on the freeway. Of course, a police car pulls off a side road and tails me for a mile. I tool along at 50 and sing They Might Be Giants a-cappella, very loud, until the officer gets bored and turns down a different road.

The Wal-Mart is still open, and busy. Even a neighborhood dog is trotting across the street to hang out there, ahead of me at the intersection. The bemused looking greeter at the store entrance points me to the tool department. After I make sure nobody is looking, I pry the sockets from each of the socket sets and look for a fit. The ten-dollar one matches. I purchase that, a gallon of water, and a bag of grapes from a stand by the register.

There are two sets of shelves to remove. The set on the driver's side is longer, and partially bolted to the security cage that divides the van. The cage is supposed to have an access door, but some zealous mechanic has sealed it by driving a steel screw right through the lip of the door frame. The knob is locked for good measure, and I don't have a key. All this dead weight has got to go.

The shelves are held upright by bolts in the walls. These have real sockets, which are part of the frame of the van, however the shelves have vibrated with such force that the sockets have exploded, or torn out sharp ribbons of metal around themselves. Once the shelves broke free, they began to swing back, hammering at the walls with each bump in the road. For the intense beating that the walls endured, they actually look alright. This metal must be incredibly hard. All the chipped paint will be covered by insulation and paneling later on, of course.

I unscrew the few bolts that remain in the walls, and drop them on a shelf. The rest of the bolts are in the floor. I'm going to have to secure each bolt in place with one wrench, and then get under the van and remove the nut from the other end. This ought to be fun.

While gripping a bolt the adjustable wrench lays flat on its side. If I line it up against a vertical surface, like the inside wall of a shelf, it will press back on the bolt while I turn it the opposite way from below. I pick the bolt nearest the door for my first attempt, set the wrench around it, scoot under the van on my back, and carefully slide the socket wrench in place.

When I turn, the wrench up in the cargo area pops off the bolt. I need something to hold it in place. So I climb back inside and rest the tire iron on top of the wrench. Then it's back under the van, for another turn. The wrench still pops off. I try again. Same deal. Dirt and grease cover my hands. I pull the jack out from the ribbing of the wall, and balance that on the tire iron. I turn the socket wrench very hard, and get no movement, except when the wrench above leaps away, scattering everything. I recover a stout chunk of steel pipe from the garbage on the shelves, and add it to the stack. Back on the ground, I turn the socket wrench as hard as I can. The stack flies apart.

Now it begins to rain. Long droplets like spider threads fall silently over the parking lot, which is still busy with customers. Nobody is surprised to see a guy working under a car. My back gets wet from lying on the ground, and my pants get filthy from kneeling in the van. After wasting an entire hour trying to loosen that first bolt, I decide to skip it and try another. If the next is equally as hard, I may have to give up on the whole operation.

The second bolt starts turning immediately. When I pull off the socket wrench to see my progress, the nut falls right off and hits me in my surprised face. I hurl it away. When I move the wrench apparatus to the third bolt, that one turns easily too. I remove seven bolts, one right after the other, in half an hour. That damn first bolt!

Finally I can't find any more, except for the ones that hold the cage panels in. I'm leaving the cage alone for now. I have no choice but to attempt the nasty bolt again. Just as before, It slips off every time with enough force to fling the wrench around the inside of the van. Finally, at long last, I get it locked in just the right position. Turning the socket wrench two clicks at a time, with exhausting effort, I get the bolt unscrewed. Then I smash it on the end with the wrench, driving it up through the van floor so I can pull it out, and hurl it angrily against the wire cage.

My hands are a mess, so I rinse them under the water jug. I walk inside the Wal-Mart to use their bathroom. There I give my hands and face a thorough washing, relishing the warm water. The greeter by the door nods at me like an old friend as I exit.

The payphone just outside the doors is ringing. I look around, but don't see anyone else, so I mosey over to it and answer, "Yeeeeeessss??"

An adult southern woman's voice crackles into my ear. "Oh, ahm sorry, ah must have the wrong number."

"Nooo problem!" I say, with gusto.

The woman pauses, then says "Would you mand telling me what phone this is?"

"Why, it's the phone outside of a Wal-Mart!"

"Oh hey, um, could you do me a really big favor? Do you see a big green truck parked anywhere in that parking lot? With a big toolbox on it?"

"Hmmmmm." I scout around for a while. "Nope, plenty of trucks here, ma'am, but none of them green."

"Oh... Oh well, thanks very much for your help anyway."

"Nooo problem!"

Weeks later, I tell the story to Sherrila, and she clues me in. The wife is checking up on her man, because he was either paged from that number, or she saw that number on the caller ID. He was probably headed to the Wal-Mart to meet his "hoochie", and she wanted to know if he was getting it on in his work truck.

... Or it might just be a missed call. Who can tell? I jump back in the van. For a second I fear I've drained the battery, powering the cab light and the laptop, so it's a relief to hear the engine chugging away. Now I've got to find a place to dump these shelves. Perhaps in the back of this very same Wal-Mart. As I'm rounding the first corner of the building, the dog I saw earlier comes running out of the open-air section of the garden department. My little partner in crime.

The perimeter of the store is watched by security cameras, fixed to the tops of the walls. I notice, however, that there's a spot just beyond the loading bays that is stacked high with empty containers and recyclables, obscuring the view of the camera across the alcove. The camera directly above is facing down along the back of the store, instead of below. This looks like a blind spot.

If they can haul all these metal containers away, they shouldn't have too much trouble hauling some metal shelves away at the same time. I decide to leave them here. (Now, if any investigating Wal-Mart representative reads this, be aware that my means are not as restricted now, as they were at the time. If you inherited any inconvenient costs from my shelving deposit, and think it's worth it to track me down, then by all means ... Send a picture of the shelves where you took them, and bill me for the disposal. I'll cover it!)

I wish that I had my leather welding gloves for this process. The metal is not sharp, but the shelves are heavy, and some of the holes are raw from the erosion of endless rattling. I could cut my fingers anywhere along these. A foot at a time, I pull the largest shelf out by one end, then yank the other end off the edge of the bumper. It drops to the pavement with a loud bang, and makes an ear-piercing wail as I drag it over to the fence by the metal boxes, out of the way.

That takes care of the large set. Now for the small set, on the right side. I leap back into the van, grab hold of the shelves, and give a stout yank to move them along. They bob forward merrily, but stay rooted to their spot on the van floor. I try a few more pulls, wondering if there's just something really heavy in the drawers, but no, something else is securing them. I let go and get down on all fours, then brush at the debris and caked rust along the inside rim of the bottom compartment. Well hell, there's another bolt here. More work to do.

I set my wrench-pipe-jack apparatus on the bolt, and get under the van and start turning merrily with the socket wrench. The bolt turns very easily. My mind wanders. Suddenly I realize that I've been turning for five minutes. I pull the wrench off and look at the nut. It's in the same place. Did the wrench on top come off at the start?

I climb back in and re-seat the apparatus. Looks fine to me. I get down under the van and begin turning with the socket wrench. Same effect. What gives?

It takes me way too long to realize that there are, in fact, two bolts. I had the apparatus on one, and was turning the other. Cursing under my breath, I find the first bolt. At least it comes off easily.

Now this second one - the one I've already turned uselessly for five minutes. No wonder I didn't see it. The head of the bolt is in a narrow gap between a bottom shelf and the floor of the van. To even get the wrench in, I have to bend the gap wider with the tire iron. This turns out to be a mistake because the metal around the bolt bows upward, following the expansion of the gap. Now the wrench has a hard time staying on.

I place the wrench-jack-pipe combination as best I can, and creep under my vehicle. It's raining heavily now, and the flannel jacket and t-shirt are soaked through on my back. Dirt and bits of rust fall into my face as I grapple with the socket wrench. On the first turn, the apparatus clatters inside the van, and my setup is ruined.

Twelve times, I prostrate myself on the wet pavement under the van, and turn the wrench handle very carefully. Twelve times, the wrench up inside pops off the bolt. I turn the handle at the very limit of my strength, but the bolt doesn't loosen. Angry, muttering under my breath, I step inside the van and push the shelves over. They bend at the point where the final bolt is, and smash to the floor. I lift them back up, and knock them over again. I kick them. Then, I notice the tire iron.

So I beat the shit out of the shelves with the tire iron. I have to rest a few times, but eventually I distort the metal so much that the shelves tear off, leaving just a scrap around the bolt. Not really caring about noise any more, I fling the shelves out into the parking lot, then drag them quickly over to the first set. I should probably leave soon.

I jump into the rear of the van to survey my work, slip, and almost fall over. There's a mess of steel components scattered across the floor. Screws, washers, bolts, phalanges, alligator clips, fasteners, snips of wire, mounting plates, and weird metal widgets I can't identify. They must have come pouring out when I knocked over the cabinets. I kick a few piles out through the rear doors, and then kick those piles to the side of the building so other people don't get their tires chewed up. The eBay ad should have said, "Van! Comes with free hardware store in back!" I wash my hands under the water jug again, and then drive out of the Wal-Mart, to the freeway beyond.

The rattle is almost eliminated -- the difference, I think, is almost worth the effort. Almost. I'm dead tired and it's very late even in my own time zone. The cage separating the cab from the rest of the van still rattles, especially at high speed, but removing it would mean unscrewing five more bolts from underneath, as well as countless others from the interior, and I don't need that kind of stress. All I need now is a place to sleep.

I drive for about an hour like this before the next town creeps onto the GPS map. The main street is an L-shape tacked on to the side of the highway, and I creep about a mile down it before encountering a lonely, and ugly, motel.

I ring the night bell and a dark man with a middle-eastern accent buzzes me into the crude lobby. He's sitting behind a desk and a glass enclosure that divides the room in half. When I ask him for a little extra time checking out -- since I'm coming in at 4:30AM -- he allows me one additional hour, and then asks, "Where you heading?"

"Santa Cruz, California." I say.

"Long way from home."


"Beautiful country out there, in California. I want to visit sometime."

"You should."

My flophouse room costs 37 dollars, which he charges to my card. The key he hands me doesn't open the lock, so I ring the night bell and get another one. When I fling open the door I get smacked by a huge block of odor, so strong I can almost see it pushing out into the parking lot like runaway dough from an oven. A pink oozy room-shaped blob of deodorant and cigarette smoke. The environment is bad, but I feel strangely comfortable in it. It's private and it's got a bed, and I won't be staying here long.

I dump my unsorted luggage on the sloping floor. It's bitterly cold, so I wander into the bathroom to start a hot shower. The whole room seems to be carved from the inside of a gigantic cube of fixative and plaster, with many layers like rings in a tree. I anticipate every fixture coming off in my hand and thumping to the floor, but remarkably, none do.

I use up all the hot water, which doesn't take very long, and then dash for the bed while the heat is still in me. The sheets are disappointingly thin, so I pile all my laundry on top of them to help insulate myself. Then I eat ravenously from the food Sherrila packed me, and call her on the phone to wish her goodnight. The heat spreads into the mattress, then creeps out into the air -- I can feel myself getting cold already. I bundle all the blankets tighter and listen to my Terry Pratchett audiobook, determined to get at least some sleep.

March 13

I dream I'm directing the next hit movie. My stars are crowded around a desk, facing a camera, saying goodbye to the audience in their final scene. Courtney Love, wearing a loose wife-beater shirt, turns to the side and faces Paul Newman. She sticks her elbows out, folding her arms up so she can insert her hands into the sides of her shirt. Hands under her shirt, she palms her breasts and bounces them around, weaving back and forth so they face everyone. "Give it up for my boobies.", she orders us. "Love my boobies!"

Then, she walks out of the studio. Pauly Shore says something funny, and everyone grins. I make a "tchssshh" noise, indicating a cymbal-crash to punchline his joke. The actual sound will be dubbed in later.

I get up from my chair. "That's a wrap," I shout. "Thanks everyone." I, too, walk out of the studio.

Outside on the street, I catch up with Courtney and kiss her. Everyone is staring at me. Why? Oh yeah, I remember. It's because I'm Kurt Cobain.

Courtney and I have a talk about our relationship, and decide it won't work out. To get as much distance as possible between her and myself, I jump through a magic mirror at the end of the block, and find myself in a densely forested valley, between steep hillsides. The foliage is tangled and alien.

I look around, and spot a Japanese schoolgirl. She's walking up the valley. More schoolgirls thread out of the woods and fall in step behind her. Each is holding a bow with one arm, and a single arrow in the other closed fist, like religious artifacts. They are marching to war.

I make an "inspirational" speech about war, addressing them all as they march by. "Most of you will not come back. War can be scary, yes. But it can also be fascinating. Since you may not have the lifetime you imagined before you left, now is your chance to pour into the next few days a whole lifetime's worth of anger, thievery, brutality, aggression, and bitterness. Hold nothing back. Pursue your enemy until your bodies cannot move."

Yeah, very "inspirational". I wake up hunched over in the bed, with very cold toes. The pile of laundry and blankets was just not thick enough. I haven't slept well, but I know I won't be getting back to sleep.

I shower to warm up, using all the hot water again. While sorting items into my backpack and suitcase, I notice that I haven't excreted since I left Santa Cruz. My body has decided to hold on to every scrap of solid food I ingest. I wonder why?

In daylight, I snap a few pictures of my surroundings, to remember the worst motel I've ever stayed in. I snack on grapes and browse the desperate terrain, rattling down the main street towards highway 20, and then drive, drive, drive.

Around noon I stop in a random town and search for a tire station. The Ford dealership on the hill looks promising, but the manager tells me that they don't have the equipment to put tires on wheels. They just sell entire wheels. He directs me to the Main Street, running north towards the 'business loop' of the highway. He claims I'll find at least three tire stores along that route.

The first store is closed. The second has a sign in the window, reading "For Sale by Owner", and is also closed. The third, a Firestone at the end of the block where the road meets the business loop, has been boarded up, and has old tires stacked in front of the swinging door.

Oh well. I turn left onto the business road. At the edge of town I pass by a pair of ragged truck dealerships. The vehicles are parked on uncut grass, high enough to brush the wheel wells. I spot an extended body Dodge van, and make a U-turn. Now's my chance to compare the extended-body Ford with its Dodge counterpart. It's already too late since I've made my purchase, but I'd still like to know. I meander into the lot and park, trying to line up the noses.

The Dodge van always seemed so much longer to me. Now that I have the two side-by-side, I see that the Dodge actually is a few inches longer than the Ford, but in every other respect is a smaller vehicle. A dumpster is resting in the yard of the adjacent house, and I stand on it for an ariel shot, holding the camera up over my head.

Two more hills beyond, still lumbering over the frontage road that business 20 has become, I spot a remarkable house on my right. When I pull onto the side road, I find myself in the parking lot for a tattoo parlor. This building, too, looks remarkable. It's exactly the sort of thing that you'd find in Texas - a precise combination of architecture, decoration, and product - that you would never find in, say, Oregon. Including the tin shack built on one wall, the patchwork house on the other wall, the full-size rusty satellite dish in the side yard of the house, and the junked car out front. Right down to the two dogs barking in the yard, the little one and the big one, and their humorous warning signs.

The Texas landscape is littered with abandoned structures, and an even greater number of abandoned cars. With so much open space to fill, people are in less of a hurry to demolish the things that their ancestors built. Why waste the effort, when one can build on empty land, and besides, the old buildings will just fall down by themselves eventually.

This leaning shanty of an abandoned building was somebody's fine new house a long time ago. The creek that is now running partially under it probably worked it's way over from across the broad valley, a season at a time. It must have been very aggravating to the family. From what I can decipher in the ruins, they must have been able to watch the river sneak closer as they sat at the dinner table.

I snap a few pictures, letting the camera do the work. To my surprise, I hear the gravel hiss behind me, and another car pulls up to mine. Is this the owner of the property, come to shoo me away?

A man jumps out. He's about my age, and is holding a digital camera. He notices the one in my hands. I laugh out loud. He says, "Looks like you and I had the same idea!"

I can't believe it. I stop for a picture on a frontage road in the middle of nowhere, for five minutes, and out pops this guy doing the same thing. This must be a very popular house. While he takes his pictures, he explains that he's going to submit them to the website for the Jones Soda Company, and perhaps they'll get voted onto the label of a new flavor of soda. "Unless," he shrugs, "you get to them first."

"That's OK, you go ahead and post 'em." I ask him for his email address, and snap his picture. As I merge onto Highway 20, I am still shaking my head at the coincidence.

Hours and hours later, I browse around the business section of a town, looking for a Sears, or some other large store that would put tires on the van. I pass an "Eddy's Mini Mart", and a burger joint built between two stone towers. An old White Castle restaurant, under new ownership. Molly's Burgers, or something. I pass a school with complex, sloping eaves and vertical woodwork, obviously built in the 'modern' style of the 1950's. All the urban chaos disorients me, and I stop at gas station to ask for directions.

299.4 miles, and 25.4 gallons, equals a horrifying 11 miles to the gallon. Okay, so I spent a lot of time between 80 and 90mph, which is very wasteful with an engine this size. But still. Damn.

The woman inside gives me good directions to a Wal-Mart across town, and I drive there, suddenly feeling tired. I'm still not used to the side mirrors in the van, either, though the miniature mirror I glued on yesterday does help.

I park at the Wal-Mart service station, and ask them to put four new tires onto the van. They have only one kind of tire in stock that will fit my wheels, so I pick that one. The 'Liberator', it's called. Whatever. I add an oil change and a new air filter to the bill, and have them print out two invoices, one for just the two front tires. That one will go to the seller of my van, back at Fleet Force USA.

While the tires are being swapped, I walk around the Wal-Mart with my iPod. The camera cases are promising, but all have serious flaws. I go outside, around the back of the tire center, and find a sunlit wall, and lean on it. I take my shoes off, letting the breeze run over my toes. The occupants of a nearby SUV give me an odd look, but I ignore them. I lie back for a nap with one sock folded under my head, listening to Pete Namlook's "Autumn", and gazing dreamily at the clouds far above the blank face of the wall.

I doze like this until the afternoon sun has moved on. The van service is complete, and I briefly consider just getting in and driving off, seeing as how they didn't even bother to take down my license plate number on the work order, but I recant and march inside.

With the van back in my possession, and daylight to work with, I decide it's time to get the rest of the useless metal unscrewed from the cargo area. This time the cement beneath the van is warm and dry, though still dirty. I undo the last nine bolts with relative ease, and pull the separating cage off. I've become efficient with the wrench, socket wrench, jack, screwdriver, and tire-iron combination. The cage and gates make a very satisfying musical racket as I hurl them into the rear. This place is too public to just dump them, but now they won't rattle, and that's all I really care about.

The van drives perfectly straight on the new tires, but I still don't trust the alignment. With the tires smooth though, I am now able to isolate the tremor sensation I was feeling last night. It shows up only when the transmission is under load, and when I'm going between 60 and 70 miles per hour. Dependable service indeed. Is this how a rebuilt transmission is supposed to act?

I drive on, leaving the large city, and cruise through a chain of progressively smaller towns. The 20-to-10 interchange is out in the middle of nowhere. The chain-link towns give way to a coarse distribution of trailer parks and farmhouses, nothing large enough for a name.

Anyone who drives around the trailer parks of Watsonville or Aptos, and exclaims "My word, what an eyesore!", should try driving around Texas for a while. Texas is splattered with wee ramshackle towns like bird crap splattered on hot asphalt. Some back yards are stacked so high with the shells of appliances and automobiles that you'd swear the residents were trying to farm them, or breed them like cattle. This is not so far from the truth - those that haven't melted entirely into the red soil act as animal dens, storage bins, trash cans, and the occasional chicken coop. After a while you come to expect them, as signs of civilization, the detritus of a pragmatic community spending decades trying to keep the water boiling and the wheels turning in the middle of a wasteland.

The standards are different here because the essential problems are different. When your car breaks down for the last time, where you gonna haul it? Even if you hauled it two hundred miles from here, you'd still be in basically the same place. If you lived on the coast it would be different. You couldn't just pitch your trash into the sea, for example, because the waves would spit it back out at you. (Or turn black and stinky, which is even less pleasant.) Hauling your junk elsewhere becomes the standard. We have to haul away cars, garbage, recycleables, building materials, brush, dirt ... even the dead. The new stuff comes off a boat in the harbor, and the old stuff goes inland.

I wonder how much of it ends up here.

I take a call from my beloved, and chat about my trip and her weekend so far. I eat some more of the delicious food she packed for me. Then I switch on Terry Pratchett's "Strata" audiobook, and drive, drive, drive.

By the time the book is over, I've driven far into the night. The distant sky, usually black, is flickering with the blows of a gigantic thunderstorm. There is no rain.

I stop in the town of Van Horn for the night. Before I pack up, I look at the GPS on the laptop and realize that I've picked a hotel at the exact southernmost point along my entire route. This is the closest I've been to Mexico.

This hotel is 15 bucks more expensive, and much more posh than the last. I draw the shower curtain and sit cross-legged in the tub, thinking about the day, and peeling an orange. The smell of orange almost burns in my nose, carried by the hot steam of the shower.

This world is teeming with people and opportunities. When I was younger I thought I understood this, but it was only a conceptual understanding. Now the understanding has weight, a presence around me like the pull of gravity from a billion planets. I'm passing so many cars on the road, so many houses, so many lives that I could get involved with. The irony is, they might as well be empty to me, since all I can think about is getting home, back to the tiny subset of people that I already know.

Part of me sees this as a weakness. It's my failure to live up to the standard of godhood that I aspired to when I was younger. I wanted to take over the world. And now, here it is. What happened to my desire to conquer it? Why aren't I obsessed over it's corruption or preservation? Am I somehow settling for less than I wanted? Less than I should? Has the world forced me to compromise?

No, I don't think there was force involved. But I did compromise. I compromised a lot of my own independence and toughness, by choice, so that I could learn to enjoy things that I used to consider weak and wasteful. Like dancing, romance, and crying in the arms of my beloved. I compromised my standards about people, so I could enjoy a variety of friendships. I compromised my black-and-white stance on religion. I dropped my obsession with video games. I've sabotaged relationships and projects. Scrapped plans. Betrayed my childhood ambitions. All by choice, when the world presented me with opportunities.

One could argue that I had no choice, but I believe that, as far as a mere human mortal can be capable of making a choice, I have made mine. Given that I aspire to nothing beyond human, I feel alright about this.

I rip the sheets off one twin bed and spread them across the other. Tonight I'll be warm enough. Sitting on the edge of the bed in a bleach-white hotel towel, I miss my beloved terribly. I call her on the phone, and from a thousand miles away, she sings me a song, and tells me stories. Yes, I have compromised -- I have decided to allow myself the luxury of missing her, of feeling lonely and needful for this moment, so I can feel the kindness in her voice, and experience the simple one-to-one radiance of our human love. If I betray manhood or godhood by this, then so be it.

My beloved croons me to sleep, and the phone slides from my hand.

March 14

My dreams are a clash of game culture, hanging out with old friends, and reconciling past love interests. I am simultaneously designing and living within a role-playing game about magic. Sometimes I'm looking at wireframe schematics of temples, tracing secret passages to see how they affect gameplay. Sometimes I'm relaxing on the stone slabs of the temple, surrounded by people I grew up with, having long philosophical discussions.

An ex-girlfriend with long blond hair walks by, part of a crowd I do not know. I recognize her, though she looks older, perhaps how she would look in the present. Her eyes flick towards me. She knows I am here, but she pretends I am a stranger. She is hoping I'll play along, and ignore her. This feeds my suspicion that in the intervening years she has become embarrassed at how she acted when we were together. She's too proud to apologize, especially in front of her "peers", so instead I am a possible threat.

Though my intimacy with her has been replaced by a far greater intimacy with my beloved, some paradoxical core of me wishes to reclaim hers anyway. However, I also know that the feelings of trust and kindness that supposedly motivate me have curdled on the inside, like an egg forgotten by its mother hen. Now her mere presence sets me on edge, not because of what she might say, but what I might say to her. I like that we parted amicably. In the dream, I make small talk, scrutinizing her face, eventually just staring at her. I feel like yelling. I realize that yes, I have become a threat.

I wake up, sweep every scrap of my presence out of the hotel room, and roll onto the highway. I've got a whole lot of ground to cover and very little weekend time remaining. Once again I pine for the cruise-control widgets that I enjoyed so much in the Aerostar.

The cloud cover has broken up, and the dry air is pleasantly cool. Perhaps the desert ground has not had enough time to absorb heat. Riding so high on the road, I feel a greater kinship with the truckers than I do with the minivans that scurry around me. I scroll around on the iPod and realize that Muslimgauze is the perfect soundtrack for endless red rock. The playlist is over six hours long.

A few hours outside of town, our lanes are compressed to one lane, and then shunted over to a divided section in the opposite half of the highway. The lanes that used to be ours are covered with a grid of rebar, the skeleton of a new surface. After a few miles the grid devolves to uncut rebar lying across the old road in stacks. A few miles more, and that peters out, leaving the old highway empty to the horizon. Twenty minutes later we are finally given our own lanes back. The entire time, I don't see a single worker. Not even a construction vehicle.

These highways must be vital to large parts of Texas. It must also be very costly to bring all the materials out here, and then bus the workers to and from the site. I try to imagine what would happen if a section of this interstate were destroyed. Would Texans be alarmed? How much of their survival depends on the continuous input of the trucking industry?

I picture a Texan cruising along in his big truck, and suddenly driving into a big hole blasted in the road. He crawls out, gets on his cellphone, and pretty soon another truck comes by to pick him up. Along comes another Texan, who also drives his truck into the hole. The scenario repeats itself. Pretty soon the hole is filled with smashed up trucks, over which other Texans are casually driving. Problem solved.

El Paso is a colorful town, in the literal sense. All the buildings are painted in cheerful pastels, each color different. If the paint goes on darker, the sun turns it pastel eventually. The cumulative effect from a distance is a pointillist assault on your eyes. At least the desert winds eliminate the smog out here. I roll up and down the hills on the highway, craning my neck at all the roadsigns, architectural accidents, and industrial piping. A thousand competing designers have created utter chaos, like children thrashing in a swimming pool.

Civilization has arrived. If I wasn't sure before, the sight of a "Hummer" cruising laconically in the fast lane, festooned with chrome dingbats, confirms my suspicion. I ride a good foot higher than the cab of the hummer, and can look down into it. I consider making a bumper sticker saying, "Hummers are for pansies" and planting it on my bumper. Later when I suggest it to Sherrila, she grins and replies, "That's an insult. To pansies. Of the flower and the human variety."

I pass acres and acres of RVs for sale, most of them brand-new. Every city of respectable size in Texas has an RV dealership, to go along with the truck dealerships and the Wal-Mart. All the dealerships are ready with cheap financing. It must seem like a small step, to go from a house that was brought in by trailer, or actually is a trailer, to a house with the wheels built-in. I reflect on my own situation. Most people buy a vehicle, to travel beyond Texas. I traveled into Texas to buy a vehicle, and now I'm leaving as quickly as possible. Some kind of pattern here?

It must be the geography. Most of Texas is the same. Most of Texas is flat. All of Texas' neighboring states seem to have more interesting landmarks and attractions. The New Orleans culture. The Native American presence in New Mexico. Well that's not entirely true -- the exception I suppose, is Oklahoma, which may be even more boring than Texas. Texas has a Mexican influence that Oklahoma doesn't register.

And it's not like California's version of Mexican influence -- where 'latino culture' sticks out, as a self-contained force within a greater community. In California we bandy around terms like "illegal alien" and "immigrant". We think we can spot them on the street. In Texas, the cowboy hat, the boots, the surname, the courtesy, even the accent and the religion, aren't meaningful identifiers. Could still be a Texan, could still be a Mexican, could be both. Walk around town for ten minutes, trying to guess who's who, and this becomes obvious.

"No," I think to myself, "I don't want a bumper sticker about Hummers. I want one in big block letters that just gets right to the point and says, 'USE YOUR BRAIN'."

If I sat around in coffee shops every day for a year, all over Texas, I wonder if I'd ever overhear what I heard in Venice Beach during my short stay in Los Angeles. ... A bunch of white high schoolers bragging about their last drive into "TJ", how drunk they got, who they screwed, what they stole, and where they slept. Teenagers are teenagers, yes. Mormon kids in Utah probably have conversations like that about Reno. But the attitudes are an amusing contrast. I mull this over, as I head out of El Paso, and over the Texas border to New Mexico.

The first thing I encounter in New Mexico is a prison compound. The big signs reading "DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS" emphasize the point. Beyond the prison, I experience an odd looping effect in reality. I pass fifteen billboards, evenly spaced, each imploring me to halt and shop at the impending Native American Trading Post. After the fifteen billboards, I pass an off-ramp, terminating at a wide, flat building and a gas station. The highway continues quietly for a while, and then the same thing happens again. Fifteen billboards. Off ramp. Wide flat building. This happens three times.

The first time I see the store, I want to stop and find Sherrila something. Just before exiting, I decide against it. I don't want to bring her trinkets when she's still trying so hard to unburden herself of the ones we shipped from Florida. The second time I pass the shop, I make that decision all over again. The third time, I'm too disoriented to think about it. Instead I consider switching the iPod from "Muslimgauze" to "The Outer Limits Soundtrack", but then the terrain becomes crowded with hills and rocks, breaking the cycle.

This rocky terrain continues for hours. And hours. I switch to an audiobook called "A Fatal Glass of Beer". While the hapless detective in the book pursues a bizarre identity theft case with his trusty midget sidekick and legendary actor W.C. Fields, the monotony of New Mexico becomes the monotony of lower Arizona. When my cellphone is not stuck in 'ROAM', I chat with the few people whose numbers I've embedded in it. I want to call my sister and wish her a happy birthday, but the only number I have is incorrect. I ask Sherrila to do some research about adding cruise control to a Ford van - how it's done, what it costs.

I stop for gas in Phoenix, where the air smells horrible, worse than Los Angeles. I ask the attendant if it's always this bad, and he says yes, but it gets better at the north end of the city because of the gentle upward slope in the terrain.

On I go, turning left to stay with highway 10. I take a break from "A Fatal Glass of Beer" to hear the end of "The Bourne Supremacy", a book I started two years ago but never finished. I've found that intimate relationships cut into one's reading time considerably. I have no regrets of course, but the observation interests me. We swap things in and out of our lives, like parts in a motor, depending on where we want to go. Some parts just don't fit together, and you have to choose.

As I begin the long ride down into the LA basin, I notice a sharp increase in rude drivers. A half-dozen trucks, some towing trailers, bob and weave their way through the traffic, flashing their headlights and tailgating anyone in their way. Each one is painted with neon flame decals and the legend "A&R RACING".

This van only cost me 4500 bucks, and it's more than large enough to drive one of these assholes right off the road, hopefully into a dune, or maybe a rock wall. Perhaps I'd get a big gash down the side, even wreck my vehicle ... but the impact would probably kill the other guy ... wouldn't that be worth it, just to see his asshole face bashed right the hell into his steering wheel, his shiny flame-colored truck cab splattered with bloody pulp whose twitchy right foot will never press a gas pedal again.

Sure, I know it's a cutthroat world. Wherever there's technology, you'll find irresponsible young men waving their dicks around in it. The trouble starts when they endanger the lives of people who do not want to be involved. That has always bothered me. That, and the stupid flame decals. If you've got fire coming out of your engine, you're a bad mechanic, not a bad-ass.

Whatever. I return to my audiobook. I'm trying not to think about where I'll be driving for the next few hours. Label me as you will, but this conviction is solid: I hate the LA basin. I've given it multiple chances to show me something redeeming, and each time it's disappointed me. Perhaps tonight I'll find something different? I decide to watch carefully.

I stop for gas at a Chevron, right around the city of Coachella. As I exit the van, I look across the block at a Shell station, and see a truck with "A&R RACING" painted on. I can't seem to get away from these jerks. I slide my card, and begin filling the van. Between Phoenix and here, gas has become 25 cents more expensive per gallon.

Outside the mini mart, the attendant is taking a cigarette break. He's leaning against the brick wall, with one foot flat against it. His wrist is resting on the bent knee, and he flicks the ash off his cigarette by snapping it with the end of his thumbnail. On his head is a beat up cap, with the Playboy logo sewn into it.

I walk up to the side of the mini mart, to investigate a cloud of moths beneath the sodium light. Each one is large, a body about as thick as an acorn, and intricately marked. I scoop my hand under a specimen clinging to the rough wall, and it climbs jerkily onto my finger. It's a pretty thing. I rotate my finger under the station lights, and then flick my wrist. The moth flutters away, then turns in a meandering arc, back to its companions at the wall.

Thinking about moths and moth markings, I walk about five feet, to the door of the mini mart. A different man is standing there now. He's in his mid-to-late 30's, about my height. His head was probably shaved a month ago, and is now in that fuzzy stage. He has two gold earrings crimped into one earlobe. Dangling from his hand are a pair of short leather straps, each one ending at a collar, around tiny, jittering, almost hamster-sized chihuahuas.

He grins at me. Friendly enough. He glances back at the wall of moths, and asks, "Giant grasshoppers?"

I look at him like he is a space alien, so great is my surprise. All I can think in the moment is, "This 35 year old man with the earrings and the doggies doesn't know the difference between a moth and a grasshopper." Perhaps I was setting myself up for disappointment. Perhaps that's why I am so stunned now.

I shake my head, and say, "No", without elaborating. It's all I can manage. To his credit, some grasshoppers do have a flying stage, so maybe I was being too judgmental.

Inside the store, the man with the Playboy hat is selling two drippy ice-cream cones to a heavy woman with over-styled hair. I go to the bathroom to wash my face, muttering about stupid city people who can't be bothered to go and look at bugs on a wall, and other impolite and unfair things. Back at the counter I get a cup of soda, dosing up on caffeine for the rest of the drive. Above the counter is a sign advertising greasy food from an in-house restaurant called "Boondoggles". Burgers, shakes, ice cream.

Boondoggle. Verb. "To do useless, wasteful, or trivial work." How appropriate, for a menu where every item is a dairy product. Yes, I know, get off your soapbox. Okay.

I get back in the van, and try to find the freeway. The onramp eludes me, and I accidentally drive down the frontage road. Back in California now, and I still can't get the hang of this onramp business. I pass by the gaudy doors of a casino on the left. Immediately to my right is an RV park. A few men driving golf carts zip across my path, carrying senior citizens to and from the Casino doors. While I wait at a crowded stop sign, an old man in long underwear leads a poodle onto the grass embankment, three feet from the cars. The poodle craps on the grass, then turns over and writhes on it, while the old man stands impassively.

I stop for fifteen minutes in the LA basin and this is what I see. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

Finally I find the freeway, and ride it all the way to the Grapevine, and over. I put the van in neutral for the cruise out of the hills, and find that the transmission responds exactly like the Aerostar did. If you want to leave overdrive, punch the gas until the van downshifts for you, then turn off overdrive. If you want to go back, just turn overdrive back on, and don't move your foot at all. If you want to enter neutral, shift in first, then take your foot off the gas afterwards. If you want to leave neutral, rest your foot very lightly on the gas, shift back into drive, then resume your normal pressure. I put the Aerostar through a lot of punishment until my friend Andy taught me all that.

Anyway, on I go. Hours and more hours pass. I get about halfway through "A Fatal Glass Of Beer". The rest of the drive is uneventful, and I manage to arrive in Santa Cruz just before dawn. When I stop the iPod, W. C. Fields has unmasked the villain who stole his money, and is now being shot at by a second villain from the bushes.

Now that the van is back home, I've got to register it, have my friend inspect it, and begin the conversion process. But that can wait until after a nice long sleep. And hey, I finally go to the bathroom!

I collapse into bed next to my beloved.

Postscript: Man, I get some funny looks driving a van around Santa Cruz with Texas plates on it. People scrutinize me, like they're looking for tattoo or the sign around my neck reading "hick". There's got to be some way to have fun with this. -g

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