A couple hours after purchasing my van in Texas, I began to hear a squeaking coming from the engine. What I did next only makes sense if you understand that how I deal with a problem depends entirely on how whoever I’m with is dealing with the problem. If they’re crying, I’m a pillar of strength. If they’re chill, I’m crying. If I’m alone, I’m pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
I was 700 miles away from home and very much alone as the engine sound grew louder. I pulled into the nearest establishment, a Walmart. I bought a crisp salad and a cold popsicle. I called Geico and got car insurance (yikes, I should have done that earlier). I got gas and pumped all four tires to their optimum pressure. I rechecked the oil. I made some more calls. I read a bit of War and Peace. I browsed Walmart’s fabric department, brainstorming a design scheme for the van’s interior.
Then I realized the sun would set in two hours. It was time to face the problem at hand. The squeaking seemed to suggest a belt issue, which made no sense, because the belts looked great. But what do I know. The way my first car, the $400 Volvo, eventually died was a broken timing belt that made the engine seize. I needed a second opinion. But it was a Friday, and all the local mechanics had closed shop hours ago. I decided to go to a mechanic first thing in the morning. Problem was, the only repair shop that was open on Saturday was more than an hour away, right next to another Walmart.
I turned up the radio to drown out the squeaking and proceeded to the Walmart by the mechanic at 10 miles below speed limit. Every radio station played country. As I turned into the parking lot beside the mechanic’s shop, a cowgirl sang, “Doesn’t matter where you’re from, whether you drive a truck or shoot a shotgun.” The seller had agreed to leave his old Texas tags on the van for my drive home, and I was thankful.
The next morning, I arrived at the mechanic’s shop shining with sweat. I’d spent the night on the cargo floor of the van. The temperature never dipped below a humid 88. To all of you who have endured my complaining about the strong Colorado summer sun these past five years, I’m sorry, I take it back, I just remembered that everywhere else (except maybe the West coast?) is worse.
As it turned out, the squeaking sound wasn’t a big deal. The problem wasn’t with the belt but the belt tensioner, which set me back $170. The mechanic said the rest of the van looked good.
I was proud of my van again! He and I drove out of Texas. In northern New Mexico, we encountered a brewing storm. Big, billowy clouds. Lightning flashes. Bright oranges and blues. I pulled over to the side of the road and ran in the wind until the rain began. The big globs of rain suggested imminent hail, but I didn’t care; my van came pre-hail-damaged for my peace of mind.
I drove until 11pm, when I pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot in Raton, NM, and fell asleep before removing my seat belt. Two hours later, I woke up to the sound of mating cats and realized I was too cold to fall back asleep. I’d gained a lot of elevation during that day’s drive and was now at a chilly 6,600 feet. I drove to the only open gas station in town and asked if they sold blankets or sweatshirts. “We have hot coffee,” the cashier said. I bought the coffee and forged on to Colorado, remembering from a previous road trip that I’d lose substantial elevation in about an hour.
Except I never made it to Colorado because, just outside Raton, a deer ran in front of me as I was accelerating to 70 mph. I hit the deer, totaled my new van, and cracked my skull. That’s about six inches from the truth. The deer did run in front of me. I slammed down hard on the brakes. Just as I began to accept that I really was going to slam into a 200-pound body, the van stopped no more than half a foot from the animal’s belly, which was slowly expanding with what appeared to be a deep, relaxed breath. The deer looked at me (or, more likely, the van’s headlights). I made out her individual eyelashes so that later I could say I was that close. I asked her if she understood how close we’d just come to death, which, in case she didn’t know, meant ceasing to exist forever. She ran away into the woods, where she ate a berry, drank from a puddle trapped in a fallen log, and fucked. That’s what I say.
After the deer, I proceeded slowly. Once I lost elevation, I pulled into a rest stop, where I slept soundly, awaking only once, to a screaming child in the SUV next to me. The feeling of a car accident I’d been in as a kid suddenly came back to me. Flying forward into the windshield, clutching an open marker that I’d been coloring with, wondering if the marker would leave a blue mark on the glass (it would, but the adults wouldn’t care about the glass).
In the morning, the squeaking from the engine started up again. I didn’t care anymore. I just drove the rest of the way home, where Mike appeared with a sunburn and wet swim trunks. I’d been worried about him going whitewater rafting that morning—he’s not a strong swimmer—but here he was, back from the river, alive and happy. Everything at home was exactly as I’d left it three days ago, except now I had a van.