I have reached the point of my journey where it’s time to let go of my beloved van and let her cross the rainbow bridge.
I knew this day would come. I knew it when the van first entered my life with an odometer reading just shy of 200,000 miles. Despite being pleasantly surprised to have gotten five years together and pushing it to 246,296 miles, the news still hurts.
When I went home for the Christmas holiday last year, I took the van in to address some long-overdue repairs. It has had a consistent oil drip for as long as I’ve owned it, and every mechanic I visited across the American West pointed it out and explained the process of finding the source. The leak wasn’t too bad for the first four years, but it got worse over the summer. I thought I’d be proactive, finally get it repaired, and hopefully add a few more years to our journey together.
I’d given the garage a long list of things to check. I was prepared for a big expense and wanted to take care of as many repairs as possible again because I thought I was being proactive by addressing issues before they flared up and stranded me in a forest or desert.
I also knew the van is old, and it’s highly possible there could be a major underlying issue I wasn’t aware of. When I left the van with the mechanic, I told him that while I wasn’t ready to let it go yet, I also recognized we might be at the point of its life where it doesn’t make sense to make a lot of expensive repairs if it didn’t guarantee bettering or extending the life of the van.
When the garage finally called, ten days later, I was elated to discover all repairs were achievable and they were getting to work. A week later, it was ready to be picked up. I was in Texas then, so my parents picked it up for me. They hadn’t even made it home before my dad realized some of the things that were supposed to have been repaired were in fact not, so he U-turned and dropped the van off again. Later that day, it returned home, and everyone was overjoyed.
The invoice stated they’d found the oil leak, and replaced the main seal, rear seal, and oil pan, which resolved the issue. They also replaced the thermostat, the clock spring that controls the horn and cruise control, installed new tie rods and brake master cylinder, as well as two front wheel bearings. The bill was $3465.71, which is high, but under the “make or break” number I’d set in my mind.
The second trip to the garage, when Dad made the U-turn, was to replace the horn, which was an additional $88.31.
I only paid $3000 for the van in 2018, and while I have put a lot of money into it and completed several major (usually unexpected) repairs along the way, it has never felt like a lemon or money pit. It’s my home, and the repairs have always been lower than any brick-and-mortar home repairs would have been.
Christmas came and went, and I spent the week before New Year’s working on the van. I thoroughly cleaned the interior, upgraded the toilet, built a small slide out for it to sit on, rearranged everything, thinned out clothes, reorganized food jars and art storage – the whole nine yards. I wanted to spruce the van up a bit and give her a little facelift, so I installed brand new headlight, taillight, and turn signal assemblies, added a backup camera, bathed her, and resealed awning bolts. By the time I was done, she was gleaming like a brand-new van – at least in my eyes.
While cleaning, I noticed oil dripping beneath the van in all the areas it had always dripped. When you live in your van, you become intimately familiar with it. I frequently wriggle underneath to check on things, whether out in the forest or a busy parking lot, I have no qualms about sliding beneath the van to keep tabs on how well she’s running. Having just spent nearly $4000 on repairs, I was not pleased.
I drove a short 26-mile round trip into town for gas, then re-checked the leaks when I returned home. The underbelly of the van looked like an oil explosion. Far worse than it ever leaked before – oil coated absolutely everything, all the way back to my exhaust pipe.
So, the van returned to the garage, where it sat for another week – making a total of four weeks in the shop.
A call from the garage stated they had found the leak, replaced a gasket, and all was good. I had many questions – why hadn’t that gasket been found the first time? Wouldn’t a seasoned mechanic assume that if one gasket is bad on a 2001 vehicle with 245,000 miles, there’s a high probability that all gaskets might be bad? I was told they would clean the engine and run dye through everything that would allow easy identification of where the leaks were – had they actually done that?
That third trip to the garage set me back another $1153.26.
I left Oklahoma the day after I brought the van home. I was due to meet a friend in Scottsdale, AZ two days later, and that unexpected week return to the garage threw a literal wrench into my schedule. I drove the van home late Monday afternoon and spent the rest of the day and evening reloading my belongings, moving back in, and getting ready to depart the next morning.
By the time Paco and I arrived in Tatum, NM on Tuesday, it was already dark out. I parked at a municipal park, took him for a walk, and we both zonked out. The next morning, we were on the road before daybreak, so it wasn’t until our next stop for gas in Las Cruces, NM that I discovered the oil catastrophe.
The underbelly of the van was once again, completely covered with oil. It was everywhere and literally rained down onto the asphalt as I crouched staring in dismay. Oil had flown up the exterior passenger side of the van. My bike and bike rack were covered in oil. It was everywhere. It felt like I’d been sucker punched and had the wind knocked right out of me. The dipstick was bone dry, all the oil had been flung out as we drove. I called the garage in tears, asking what was happening. What had they missed? They didn’t provide any answers, or to be honest, any help or empathy whatsoever.
I added three quarts of oil and bought more for backup. I had seven more hours to drive to Scottsdale, so I drove along I-10 with a death grip on the steering wheel and knotted stomach, praying the engine wouldn’t seize or blow up along the way. Every 100 miles or so, I stopped to add more oil. It took five quarts of oil to get me the 389-mile drive from Las Cruces, NM to Scottsdale, AZ.
By the time I reached Scottsdale, I was a nervous wreck, but we were thankfully safe. I created a pad of cardboard boxes to park on so I wouldn’t rain oil onto my friend’s driveway and called a local garage the next day.
Once again, the van was in the shop, but I walked back to the house hopeful it was just another gasket repair. That is, after all, what the prior garage told me to have the new garage check. I anticipated another $2000, but that was fine because I’d hopefully get a couple more years out of the van and then we’d see where life had taken me by that point.
The Scottsdale garage called back the following day.
He started the call by saying my van was “the nicest 22-year-old van with 246,296 miles I have ever seen,” adding it was obvious I had taken great care of it. I clung to his words with hope, anticipating the next sentence would be good news, but it wasn’t.
The van had a blown head gasket, which is ultimately its death sentence.
Sure, they could spend 20+ hours of labor to remove it, clean everything up, machine the valves into “like new” status, and reinstall them, but putting all those “like new” parts back onto a 22-year-old motor with 246,296 miles would essentially overpower and kill it “within a matter of days.”
And yes, I could drop a new engine in it, but that would set me back $10,000-$14,000, even if we found a used motor, and that number just feels too high for a 2001 van that already has a lot of minor “quirks.” It’s a crap shoot, really. Sure, that’s still cheaper than buying a new van, but say I drop $12,000 into it now and everything is great, then a tree falls on it, or I get in a wreck, or something else happens to total the van, insurance would pay nowhere near that, and I’d be out of pocket all that money.
What hurts the most and is most frustrating is that the first garage completely missed the head gasket repair. I wouldn’t have spent $4,707.28 on all those repairs or the additional $200 on all the unnecessary cosmetic upgrades I added after the fact. All that money is essentially just gone, and while that might not sound like a high number to some people, $4,707.28 is a LOT of money to me. That’s nearly four months of living expenses.
Now I am in search of a new van. A new home for Paco and me to continue our adventures. I always knew this would be my “first” van, but it still hurts. Thankfully we’re in a safe place with access to a house, all the amenities brick and mortar homes offer, as well as amenities big cities offer. I’m within walking and biking distance from a whole slew of things, so we aren’t destitute or stranded. The weather here is pretty perfect, too, so no complaints there.
This is not the end of our van life, just a pause while we search for van 2.0.
I’ll keep you all updated on this new chapter of our journey and will do better at keeping this blog and my social media channels updated with where we are. There will definitely be another post where I wax poetic about my van and all we’ve done and seen together, but right now my mind is processing the cost of all these repairs, the cost of a new van, the stress – and excitement – of searching for a new van. Navigating how I’m going to build a new home while staying here, where at least I do thankfully have access to tools and a large driveway. Figuring out how what to transfer from my old van, and lots of other overwhelming decisions to be made.
I know the perfect van is out there waiting for me and will cross my path at exactly the right time.
Thank you for your continued support and if you read this far, thanks for reading about our tumultuous December! While I’m certainly sad about this change, I’m trying to keep my chin up and trust something better awaits. If there’s one thing I’ve learned again and again and again from my travels, it’s to trust the Universe and keep myself open to all the ways I can be surprised and delighted by its unexpected gifts.