A victim of the van

They say I’m too young for a mid-life crisis. But for some reason, as I stood there admiring her metallic-avocado paint job and the graceful curves of her exterior, something called out to me. Despite the impracticality and frivolity of it all, I knew I had to have her.

Immediately, my mind flashed forward. I envisioned myself behind the green pleather-wrapped wheel, the wind blowing through my fuzzy dice, Journey blasting on the eight-track, the vast countryside reflecting in my mirrored Cat-eyes. There was nothing standing between me and countless dirt-bag ski weekends, Baja beach vacations and whitewater surf safaris, except a slightly cracked windshield and maybe a new alternator. OK, so the tires were bald, the paneling was rotting, the skylight leaked, the ashtray was overflowing with old butts and the shag carpet was something out of a sci-fi horror flick. But these could all be fixed.

And so what if it had served as a halfway house for the local stray cat population – a member of which had secured a final resting place beneath the tailpipe? Sure, some may have taken the dead cat as an omen, but I preferred to view is as a sign of good fortune. After all, the cat could have chosen any old hunk of rusting metal to die under, but it chose this one, a safe harbor where it could enjoy the hereafter in peace, not to mention exceptional style.

Besides, beneath all the hairballs, dead felines, disintegrating upholstery and discarded Marlboro reds, I knew that hulking can of Detroit steel had miles of possibilities.

Don’t stop believing, I told myself.

I glanced over to my recently betrothed, whose glazed eyes revealed he also was in a similar trance, likely enjoying flashbacks to the metallic avocado’s glory days, as well as his own. His family had bought the 1975 Dodge Tradesman before he was even old enough to appreciate its true party potential. Back then, it served as family adventure mobile, steadfastly navigating countless ski excursions into the Sierra Nevada, rear-wheel drive be damned. As to what sort of extracurriculars she saw in later years, I can only guess. Those dilapidated particle-boarded walls were adhering devoutly to the “what happens in the van, stays in the van” oath. I was assured, however, that the back seat (which, in traditional van fashion doubled as a bed) never received an official “christening,” despite what I’m sure were repeated attempts.

But now, not only was the van not rocking, she wasn’t rolling, either. Instead, she sat, dry docked, in a California driveway, weeds up to her bumper – a scene unbefitting a once and future queen of the road.

So we anted up $500, and after a little jury-rigging, four used tires and 1,200 miles later, she was all ours. Of course, this was only a drop in the bucket in what it ultimately took to bring her back up to speed. And on a few occasions, particularly when a late-night towing incident went terrible awry, our faith did waver and we prayed for an angel of mercy to pimp our ride. But in the end, we were forced to pimp ourselves. And now, five years later, I am proud to report that the hard work has paid off. We are the owners of a true conversion van that would make B.A. Baracas as enviously green as its re-upholstered back seat and Armour-alled dash.

I know, perhaps at this stage of my life, my time and money would be better spent on mini vans than Mystery Machines. After all, I should be looking for a vehicle that accommodates kids instead of one that looks as if it preys upon them. There are no safety measures to speak of other than sheer mass, and you can forget about airbags. The engine routinely vapor locks, and anything more than a trace of snow requires chaining up. When parked, the neighbors are constantly suspicious, and on the road, it practically begs to be pulled over and searched. In short, there’s no real rational reason to own it – we don’t even smoke pot.

But as anyone who has ever had one can tell you, midlife crises are not about rational thinking. They are about throwing caution and conventional wisdom to the wind in search of rekindling one’s youth. And what better way to fly in the face of maturity than in the driver’s seat of a vintage piece of Americana, that even to this day, still happens to be the envy of every high school parking lot in the nation?

Never mind that vans can haul more gear than a sport utility vehicle, have more partying capacity than a stretch limo and use less gas than an RV. Or that every rock and roll band worth its weight in gold records got its start in one. Or that they’ve been immortalized by everyone from Neil Young to Jeff Spiccoli.

Hell, if you’re down on your luck, you can even live in one … down by the river.

But the real reason I wanted a van was much more simplistic. Yes, there is the rad factor, but there’s also the fad factor, or more precisely lack thereof. The van sports no power locks, doors or windows; no On-Star; no GPS; no bun warmers; and no in-dash entertainment center (OK, I will admit there are cup holders – but they’re built into a wooden console.) If someone gets car sick, you hose out the rubber floor. If the engine breaks, anyone with more than a fourth-grade education can fix it with a paper clip, piece of chewing gum and dental floss. Then there’s the exterior that is so damn ugly it 1) acts as a theft deterrent (either crooks are too scared to go inside or they figure there’s nothing in there worth stealing); and 2) you never have to worry about body damage or even washing it for that matter.

In an era of Hummers, Rovers and Escalades, the bare bones van is refreshingly pure, a classic that harkens back to a time when macramé, long hair and bell bottoms (the originals) were in style. A time when Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Walker ruled the scene (OK, I know the ’70s also were responsible for disco and pet rocks, but just go with me here.). It was a simpler era, when all one needed to roll with the times could be packed into the back of a metallic avocado. And as we all know, they don’t make ’em like that anymore.

– Missy Votel



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