There is no temperature gauge. That broke several thousand desert miles ago. But you can smell trouble coming, wisps of radiator fluid sliding in the draft in front of the engine shed. Then you know it’s time to stop. That doesn’t happen often. The 318 likes to run hot, but mountain climbing with a 12,000-pound RV on your back will eventually cause any small block engine to overheat.
I start looking for a place to stop. There is nothing. The left side of the road is a steep cut of rock, quartzite, phyllite and limestone exposed by dynamite. To the east, as far as I can see, the bare, rocky foothills of the White Mountains bubble and make their way toward a desert valley floor, dusty and brown. Clusters of creosote and sagebrush can be seen here and there, occasionally punctuated by splashes of yellow rabbit brush. It is a barren but beautiful landscape. Without excerpt. But whatever, we haven’t seen another car in at least an hour’s drive. We’re on Highway 168 somewhere in Eastern California, between the Nevada ghost town where we camped last night and the top of the White Mountains.
So I stop in the middle of the road.
When the engine stops, silence falls. No wind. no birds Do not speak. All we – my wife, three children and I – hear is the faint hiss of steam escaping from the radiator cap and then a faint gurgle of coolant in the engine. It’s October, but I’m glad I had the presence of mind to stop in the shade; the desert sun casts a harsh light on the road. After a minute, my wife turns to the kids and says, “Do you want to walk around and see if we can find some fossils?”
As a child of the 70’s I spent a lot of time on the side of the road next to broken down vehicles. Vehicles from back then did that. The 1967 Volkswagen hatchback that got us home safely from the hospital after I was born has been replaced with a mustard-yellow 1976 VW Dasher that routinely drives me near Yuma, Arizona, on the way from my childhood home in Los Angeles grandparents’ house in Tucson was overheated. To this day, my father curses that car. There was also a 1969 Ford F-150 pickup that was reliable until you flipped a camper on its back and attempted to climb over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Knowing how to repair a car used to be more of a necessity. Nowadays it is often, if not a luxury, an affair of the heart.
My father gave me this F-150. I wanted to work on it but the truth is I was intimidated. What if I break something beyond repair? What if I just couldn’t hack it? I was a computer programmer back then. Basically, fixing code isn’t all that different from fixing an engine. But a computer will tell you what’s wrong with your code. An engine – at least an older one – doesn’t do that. If you are working on an older vehicle, You are the calculator. And I was one without software.
This made it hard to know where to start, so I didn’t. Instead, I helped more knowledgeable friends with their cars. I’ve found that solving mechanical problems gives me a kind of satisfaction that digital ones don’t have. One weekend I helped a friend bleed his car’s brakes by pressing the pedal while he was under the chassis turning the bleed screws. As we worked I could feel the resistance building, a tactile feedback I loved. I was hooked. I wanted to learn how to repair engines, but I knew I needed a project of my own to do it—one with more stakes than the F-150.
In June 2015, my wife and I bought a 1969 Dodge Travco motor home that was just celebrating its 50th birthday at the time. My kids called it the bus. Which was appropriate. When they say RV, most people picture something on par with our old Dodge. To call it a camper is to say that a Stradivarius is a violin. The Travco is a 27-foot fiberglass vessel filled with beauty and joy. It’s a light 1960s turquoise and white with sweeping curves and rounded windows. It’s bold in a sea of beige modern RVs. The Travco was cool enough to be featured in Playboy magazine, back when that was a sign of cool. Johnny Cash had one. So did James Dean and John Wayne.
We didn’t just buy it so I could have a project. We bought it to make our full time home. We were sick of the suburbs and wanted our kids to see the United States to get a better sense of the place they were born. I didn’t want them to read about the deserts and mountains and forests, I wanted them to be in them. I wanted them to know the difference between the South where they were born, the Midwest, the West and the Northeast. I wanted them to also know the frustration and joy of continuing down the path through their own sweat and effort. Out of a confused confidence born of stubbornness and ideals, I wanted them to know that anything worth fixing can be fixed and anything that can’t be fixed isn’t worth to have it. But as I sat on Highway 168 in the heat of the California sun that afternoon, the bus felt more like a giant check written by my ego that my fiddly fingers and tools couldn’t cash.
https://www.wired.com/story/vintage-van-home-repair-way-of-life/ When a Vintage RV Is Your Home, Repair Is a Way of Life