Van life inspiration from the open road

Interstate 95 in Norwalk, Connecticut at 3:15 a.m. may not seem the best place in the world to blow a radiator hose in a 1985 VW camper. But it turned out to be the best possible one.

I had just filled up with gas and pulled out onto the highway when the hose gave way. Coolant spewed all over the hot exhaust pipes, leaving a fog-machine-like cloud pouring out behind me. My adrenaline kicked in and I navigated the old, rugged bus through an exit ramp into the awaiting arms of a 24-7 McDonalds parking lot.

There wasn’t much to do other than walk up to the drive-thru to tell them my predicament and request they not tow me while I grabbed some sleep. If they allowed me that favor, I could sort through my options with a clearer head.

When the sun came up, I heated some coffee water on my van’s kitchen stove and got myself acquainted with my new surroundings. It was Sunday and there was a Home Depot two hundred yards down the road. “Good start” I thought. “Maybe the plumbing department has what I need to get back on the road.”

I settled on two kinds of tape, including one that was “waterproof”, and some washing machine hose clamps.

Back at my van, I spent most of the day on the repairs. On the second attempt, I removed the hoses and wrapped the bejeezus out of them. By 3:30, my work passed the “standing still” test. Not a drop of water leaked out. Time for a road test. I made it less than a mile. This time the customers of the Stop ’n Shop were treated to my traveling fog show. I retreated to the Walmart parking lot near where my adventure had started, slid into an empty slot and called it a night.

The Turning Point

Tuesday, October 7, 2019, would be one of the most uplifting days of my life. It didn’t start out that way. I Uber-ed to an auto parts store where the guy behind the counter seemed more interested in taking my money and getting rid of me than living up to the promise of the company’s national ad campaign as the champions of DIY car repairers. He wasn’t about to invest any time in helping me.

At first it didn’t seem like the guy behind the parts counter of the Ford dealership across the street was going to either. But somewhere along the continuum between him saying, “We don’t touch Volkswagens” and me saying, “I’m stuck in a Walmart parking lot with a blown radiator hose and need to get back to Maine”, a friendship began to take root.

All I can say is that this gentleman was a saint. He rooted around the shop until he found a section of pipe that at least gave me some chance of getting down the road a piece. 

“I hope this helps”, he said as he handed it over the parts counter. “No charge.”

Back at the Walmart, I rolled my sleeves up to begin round three of surgery. I cut the reclaimed pipe from McMahon Ford in two and replaced the rotted sections from the van with them. The only problem was connecting them to the existing pieces. The splice would be the weak point. I did the best I could, then headed north. This time I made it 20 miles. The issue was the pressure inside the system. Even with the radiator cap loosened, it was too much. The fog machine was back. I began wondering how long my stay in Connecticut would be.

I pulled into a Staples parking lot and weighed my fate, which lately seemed affixed to the largest names in retail America — Ford, Walmart, Stop ’n Shop and Staples among them. Now it was Lexus’s turn. There was a dealership with a parts annex across the street. When I told Peter from the parts department about my dilemma, he replied, “This is your lucky day. I used to be a Volkswagen mechanic!”

Peter crossed the street with me to look at the problem. 

“The issue is always getting parts”, he said, something I knew too well. Actually, it wasn’t that I couldn’t get them — they are easily obtained online — it’s that there weren’t any within less than a few days away.

After inspecting my work, he said, “I think you’ve done a pretty good job. My advice is to keep the cap loose, stop every 20 miles or so and pour more water in.” With that, I shook Peter’s hand, thanked him profusely and let him get back to work.

As I turned to put the engine cover back on, I begin to get the feeling I was being watched. I glanced behind me to discover I was right. There was a gentleman standing eight feet behind me under the bright afternoon sun with his arms akimbo. A sensational grin pronounced what I took to be amusement.

“Can I help with something?”, I asked.

“No.”, he said. “I’m here to help you.

I walked out into the sun to meet my new friend, George. 

“I know a guy who’s been running a garage for thirty years. His shop is about a mile from here. I guarantee he’ll have you back on the road in under an hour. Follow me.”

I’m still shaking my head about what happened next. George was right. His friend wasn’t thrilled we’d showed up on his doorstep (who could blame him with several employees already elbow deep in projects), but he certainly knew what to do.

“Problem with these”, he said, as he looked at the hoses, “is that they reduce from 2 1/2” to 2 1/4”. Everyone these days runs straight pipes. Let me see what I’ve got out back. If I don’t have what we need, I can go to the plumbing department of the Home Depot across the street and buy what we need to make something.”

Two minutes later, he walked out of the garage bays with a piece of hose and announced, “This is from a Dodge Dakota. Looks like the perfect fit.”

Some people are just amazing at that stuff. My dad was one of them. My gene pool drove past that exit and picked up a chromosome from wordsmith-land instead. I was simply thrilled and amazed that these friends came into my midst when I needed them most. 

As he tightened down the clamps, he pronounced that I should be all set now.

“Wow. I’m overwhelmed. What do I owe you?”, I asked.

“Don’t worry about it. No charge. Just do something for someone else sometime.”

As I waited for the light to turn green so I could turn back onto the northbound lane of Route One, I drew my right sleeve across my face to wipe away tears of gratitude. 

Some people claim I have the most incredible luck. They are blown away at how often angels appear amidst fogs of despair to help me make my way down life’s road. I prefer to believe something else. That there is a lot of good left in this world and the more you’re willing to see it, you’re more apt to find it.