“Hey, you smell that?” I asked.
“There’s a burning smell man! Something’s burning!” I yelled.
“Relax, it’s probably coming from the outside. Stop freaking out.” Ben tried to calm me.
I’ve never known myself to be an anxious person. I’ve always considered myself a happy-go-lucky kinda fellow, not afraid to make fun of myself, and not sweating the little stuff. That was before I started hanging out with people who speed through thick trees on steep slopes on snowboards, and before I drove into a thunderstorm in the high plains of Utah in a van containing everything I own, 100 miles from the nearest service shop, and 400 miles from the nearest specialist.
But Ben wasn’t thinking about all that when he asked me to stop freaking out. He’d been thinking about that time earlier in the day when we stopped by the Kayak rental shop in Page, Arizona to return our two kayaks. We’d spent the day paddling around Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, going around the Lone Rock and climbing the sandstones around Wahweap.
We unload the kayaks, small talk our way around the van with the storeowner who wants to learn more about Sierra. “Here, come check out the back.” I lead him around the passenger side towards the back, when I glance down. “Fuck.” Sierra has diarrhea: Green-tinted goo is leaking out of her back side. My first thought was that it must’ve been wiper fluid, what else is green in a car? A quick Google search revealed what it actually was: Coolant. Shit, that’s not good. Four days into the trip, this was the first problem I encountered with the van. It won’t be the last.
There’s an ironically beautiful reduction that happens when you encounter a car problem on the road. “Whelp, I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t know how to fix this.” Suddenly your priorities become very clear, and the options dwindle down and you know exactly what you need to do. It’s actually kind of nice, fate is in the driver’s seat. We ask the storeowner if there are auto shops he recommends nearby, he recommends Eagle Automotive. We call them up, they can take us, we breath a sigh of relief, turn Sierra on, drive her slowly monitoring the temperature gauge. It’s only a 2 mile drive and we get there in no time.
When we arrive, we encounter the shop owner, an older gentleman with a belly and a voice thickened with decades of heavy smoking, and a younger guy working as an understudy. As we pull in, we overhear the owner chastising the employee, explaining to him what “We’re overbooked means”. Phew, glad we got the right guy on the phone. We tell him our story and he takes us in. The employee who’s working on Sierra looks like a real rough kid. He’s got the goatee, the attitude, and the burly build. For ten minutes though, he was arguing with the shop owner: By hell or high-water, he will not go down into the pit to work on the car: There’s a spider there, and he’s mortified of spiders. He puts me on watch: “Listen man, keep an eye on that little fucker, if he moves, look where he’s going. I’m going to get a spray”. Five minute later he comes back with an industrial grade insect spray. “Hey man, there are two spiders now, they’re right over there.” He doubles down with fear, cautiously steps down the stairs one at a time, and proceeds to make it rain down on the two spiders a flood of anger, fear, and concentrated hatred of bug spray. If the spray didn’t kill them, they would’ve drowned in the pool of toxins, poor things. They were pretty big though, to be fair.
The guy working on the van turned out to be a fascinating character. Ben and I had been wondering how people manage to end up in places like Page, and why they stay. He casually informed us that he was a local felon and that it’s really hard to find jobs as a felon. We also informed us that he, as a half-Navajo, doesn’t really like the Navajo people and that the Navajo people themselves don’t like a lot of other tribes. He said they were pretentious and always acted like you owed them something. His broad generalizations of the Navajo people rung in my head throughout the trip as I criss-crossed through the Navajo Nation. Most of my interactions rubbed me the wrong way with them. In most of them, there was an emanating sense of apathy and lethargy as they dealt with us, whether we were buying a tour for Antelope Canyon, paying the entrance fee to Monument Valley, or just ordering lunch. As a victims of generalizations, I try to not to generalize, but what I describe was a common theme among most, though not all, of my interactions.
30 minutes of waiting later, the guy found the problem and managed to fix it: It was an old rubber cap on an old plastic hose that had frayed and eroded and was leaking badly because of the heat. They got it worked out and off we went, Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie playing through the stereo, on the road towards Moab where Ben had a flight to catch the next day.
Six hours later, we were 20 miles south of Moab, making good progress, we turn left at the Canyonlands National Park sight to get to the campsite for the night. For the past couple of hours, it had been raining, and it got late into the night. The closer we got to Moab, the harder the rain fell, the darker it got, and the closer the thunder got. When we turned left, the thunder was ahead of us. The more we drove, the more it became clear that we were driving head on into the heart of the storm. Vanagons are known to have weak headlights, so we couldn’t really tell what was happening too far ahead and around us. Every time the thunder clapped, the world was illuminated for a few milliseconds, just enough for us to see why it was called Canyonlands. Ahead of us was some of the most epic, majestic scenery I had ever seen. It was made more epic because of the dark, roar of the thunder, and the rain, but it was a humbling feeling. It was easy to miss the Open Range sign in that majesty, which accounted for the herd of cows sleeping by the side of the road. “WOAH LOOK OUT!” Ben yelled. I quickly turned, the glowing eyes staring at me, paralyzed with fear, I swerved left slightly, passing a the cow as its upper body wanted to turn away, but the paralyzed legs wouldn’t respond, so it stood there, taut, leaning right, looking right at me. Thankfully we were going about 30 at the time, and drove past the rest of the herd going 15.
Steinbeck had been contemplating the soul or America when the bad smell started. Ok, fine Ben, it’s coming from the outside. Two minutes later, the smell was persistent, and getting worse. “Shit man I’m not feeling good about it, I’m going to pull over.” We wait for the next pullout a few hundred feet ahead, pull over, turn the van on, my heart thumping and a lump in my throat: Smoke.
Ben rushes back to get the fire extinguisher, I get out of the van in the muddy, rain-filled ground trying to figure out where the smoke is coming from, can’t find it anywhere. That’s actually a good sign: The engine is in the back and there aren’t any flames. I get back inside, pop open the instrument cluster, and the smoke pours out. So that’s where it was. Once I let the smoke out, it stops, and things settle down. For the first time we have time to think. I pull out the shop manual for the van, and dumbly rummage through it, unable to comprehend anything I’m looking at.
We decide we can’t camp where we are both because of the rain and because of the location. We also decide that we need to get Ben into Moab so he can at least get a cab to the airport. Ok, let’s take stock. The smoke came out from the instrument cluster, so it’s not mechanical, nor is it the engine or the brakes. It must’ve been electrical. I turn the key, the engine starts. Let it idle, nothing happens. Ok, let’s try going forward. I try to turn the headlights on, nothing. The headlight switch is stuck, it won’t even turn. I try the turn signals, they work, I try the high beams, they work, but I can’t use the headlight switch. By this time, we had reasoned that because this was the first time we used the headlights, they must’ve overheated something in the instrument cluster and melted it.
We decided to drive into Moab, relying on the high beams. I try to click the high beams into the on position, and they don’t hold. Shit, I’m going to have to hold the level up for the next 25 miles. It’s fine, I think, we’ll be there shortly. What proceeded was the most terrifying 30 minutes of driving in my life. My middle finger kept getting tired and loose and the high beams would go off, leaving us driving 50mph in the dark for a split second in the rain. Trucks would pass and throw a shower of rain into us, smothering the high beams. I slow down, take it easy and safe, and roll into Moab, turn right into the Motel, make soup in the back, check into the smoking room, and call it a night. The cows were still there on the drive back.
Note: What we did was stupid in hindsight. We should’ve camped the night and not driven with the high beams. It was stupid and reckless.