(first posted 2/13/2013. Updated with a new ending 2/3/2018)
At eight-thirty on the morning of February 12, 1971, two weeks after turning eighteen, I sat on a wooded hillside looking down on the large back storage lot at Towson Ford. Instead of going to Towson High that morning, I had walked here to retrieve my Boy Scout backpack, which I had packed and then stashed under a bush the night before. I was about to leave everything behind today: family, friends, school, job…something out there was calling me and I was going to heed the call. I had planned to hitchhike after picking up my paycheck when the dealership opened at nine–and then, as I sat there looking at all those new 1971 Fords, an idea popped into my head, one that undoubtedly changed the trajectory of my life.
Why not just take one of them and drive…all the way to California?
I had an after-school job at Towson Ford, in the new-car prep department, that gave me access to the large wall-mounted cabinet in the hall that held the keys for every new car. Given the vast inventory, I figured it would be weeks–more likely, months–before my ride would be noticed as missing. By then I’d be sitting on a sunny beach with my new California girl, the 1971 Ford parked nearby.
It was a scary thought, and one that brought on a familiar surge of hormones. I’d shoplifted a bit, and the adrenaline rush was often more satisfying than whatever stupid object I’d lifted. I’d taken my parents’ and other cars cars out repeatedly before I had my license, and the previous summer I’d repeatedly “borrowed” one of the dealership’s 1970 LTD rental cars on weekends.
But this was seriously stepping up the game, as a felony with likely prison time. I had pushed aside the thought numerous times, but it wouldn’t stay away. I went through this same yo-yo process just the day before, when I decided to leave home without telling anyone, and yet here I was with my backpack; hey, decisions aren’t all that hard if you don’t allow yourself to think too much (or at all) about the unknowns. And my barely eighteen-year-old brain was well versed in that (non)-process.
As I sat there imagining driving across the country, I looked down at the storage lot, where every model and color of Ford’s 1971 lineup was well represented. I’d driven them all, so which one would it be? It certainly wasn’t going to be a Galaxie or LTD. Or a Torino. Needless to say, the Maverick also didn’t make the first cut.
Then my eyes fell on the fire-engine red Mach 1 with the 351 HO glistening down there in the morning sun. I knew it well, having driven it back from the body shop that just the week before, a drive I extended considerably via winding back roads. It was a beast, and it even had the four-speed, too. As I had wrestled with it through the tight esses and barreled down the straights, its exhausts bellowing, I had imagined myself riding off into the sunset, forever.
Needless to say, it was very tempting. Like so many car-crazy kids, I had dreams of becoming a famous automotive writer at Car and Driver. Wouldn’t this be a brilliant way to start out, creating the fodder for my first story to send to them? “Gone In 30 Seconds”.
Or just how I raped and pillaged my way across the country in a stolen Mach 1? They’d hire me on the spot, right?
Well, I actually did harbor that dream rather intensely, but it seemed utterly unattainable then; what did I really know about cars? Or life? Or what to write about them? Or how to take the first step towards actually attaining such a dream? School? I already knew more about cars than any college prof, or at least I thought so.
I didn’t have a clue about how to become an automotive journalist–or better yet, an auto industry executive–in order to head off the rapidly-escalating Broughamization of Detroit. All my pot smoking and LSD-taking hadn’t exactly done much for my career planning. My dreams then were utterly amorphous, or about the next girl I would meet, or how the world needed to be re-invented from scratch, or how I was going to sit in the redwoods in California and gain enlightenment. Anyway, muscle cars weren’t really all that cool with the hippie crowd I was hanging out with at school. Radical politics and a Mustang Mach 1, even a red one, just didn’t mix all that well.
Perhaps surprisingly, there actually was some practical calculus (a subject I’d failed) in my mind about which car to swipe: I may not have been giving a lot of thought as to what would actually happen if I did get caught, but I was thinking about how to improve the odds of that not happening. And the red Mach 1 was way too conspicuous, both in its absence and being behind the wheel of one without license plates.
No, I needed something that would encourage slow driving and be as invisible as possible. An encounter with a cop was going to ruin my plans mighty quick. It suddenly hit me: a van; as dull and plain as possible, and my new house on wheels. As long as I had it, I’d never want for a home again. And I knew exactly which one: a plain white short-wheelbase Econoline E-100 windowless van that had been sitting on the lot for months.
If I couldn’t make the great youth migration to California in a VW bus, this was the next best thing. I’d driven it once; it had the 240 six and three-on-the-tree. It would probably get 15-16, maybe 17 mpg, which was the low end of what was doable on my budget. With the last paycheck that I was about to pick up, I had some $125 to my name. Let’s see; about 3000 miles at 15 mpg…..200 gallons, at 35¢ a gallon…hmm…about…seventy bucks for gas. That left $55 for food and as a start in California. Shoulda’ saved more money, or sold my stereo equipment…maybe hitch hiking was a better choice after all.
Nine o’clock: Time to act, one way or another. My ears were buzzing, my lips were dry, my heart beat audible. I walked into the office, picked up my check, and as I walked back down the darkish hallway, I looked both ways; the place was dead. I took a deep breath, opened the cabinet, and quickly found the keys to the Econoline. I paused for a moment, the two dissenting voices in my head rose to a scream: DO IT! – DON’T! – DO IT! – DON’T! – DO IT!….
My feet were so shaking from nerves that I popped the clutch as I pulled into York Road, letting off a little chirp of rubber. Good thing I didn’t take the Mach 1 after all. I hopped on the Beltway that was just a few blocks away, and then hit I-70 West. For the first hour or so, I kept scanning the rear view mirrors for the flashing lights I was sure would appear. But they didn’t. By the time I headed over the Appalachians, my heart finally slowed down some. Somewhere in Ohio, I pulled into a town, stole some license plates, and bought an old mattress in a Salvation Army store. But I never really fully relaxed though…wasn’t the point of running away to get away from all the stress?
Four long days on the road, and with each state line, I relaxed a bit more. Once I got to Los Angeles, I didn’t stop until the freeway ran into the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. I pulled off, and savored my first view (and swim) in the Pacific. I’d made it, and then I bid adieu to Los Angeles forever; a few hours of the traffic and hustle was enough. So I made my way north, always along the coast. The Ford made a perfect home on wheels; I’d pick up odd jobs in little beach towns for food and gas money, and kept moving, never staying in one place for long.
In Big Sur, I found this skull on a hike. And that’s when I first had the idea to start decorating the Econoline with mementos I found along the way. And I’ve never stopped since. The Econoline became my living scrapbook, and every little piece of decoration has its own story to tell.
One of my many girlfriends during that first year hanging out on the coast had an anole lizard, which she kept in a little fish tank in the van. Mealy worms weren’t good enough for her beloved “Chamelio”, so it needed fresh flies. So one of our daily rituals was catching live flies with our bare hands, tossing them into the tank, and closing the screen cover quickly before the fly recovered and flew back out.
We would spend hours some days, hunting flies, with nothing better to do. And I got really good at it, sneaking up on them stealthily; watching Chamelio hunt them down in the cage and was our reward. Life is like that; whatever you spend your time and energy on, you get better at. Was there a possible career in live-fly catching?
Anyway, when Chamelio failed to start moving one morning after an unusually chilly night in the van, I decided to memorialize him with this plastic lizard. But if I tell the story of each artifact on and in the van, we’d be here for a very long time. Note that I said “the van”, not “my van”, because even after forty-two years, I still feel like it’s not quite truly mine, even if I did get some guys in a Bakersfield junkyard to “sanitize” my VIN plate so I could legally title and register it. Maybe that explains why I keep adding things to it; to cover it up, and make it seem more mine than not.
Eventually, I worked my way up the coast to the Redwood Empire, in northern Humboldt County. One perfect sunny spring day in May of 1972, while walking through Redwood Park in Arcata, I met a sweet young lass with dark hair who was sitting on a tall giant redwood stump reading a book. She looked like something out of a fantasy painting, sitting up there cross-legged holding her book.
We started talking and I climbed up there with her, we really hit it off. We both loved the outdoors, walking on the beach, pickling wild berries, and camping in the van. She was always reading; the classics, novels, mysteries. She’d read them aloud while I drove; I learned more about literature and life than I ever did in High School English.
After she graduated from high school a few weeks later, we traveled up the coast to Oregon, including a few days hanging out in and around Eugene. We dreamed aloud about having an old house with a big garden with kids and chickens running around in it someday.
The next day, we were sitting on a driftwood log on the beach when she suddenly turned towards me, looked me straight in the eyes for what seemed like forever, and asked how how I came to have such a new van. Our eyes were locked like they had been so often; I couldn’t lie to her and told her the story. After another long pause, her eyes started to lose focus and cloud over, and she turned away to face the crashing surf. She never looked me in the eyes again.
After losing Stephanie, I never felt I could really be totally honest or tell the story of how I got this van. So I started hanging out with women that didn’t care so much about the truth, and more about just having a good time, usually in the back of the van. And there were plenty of those; I started adding a pebble to the engine cover and dash for each one; you want me to go count them all?
Let’s just say they haven’t had to move from the engine cover very often over these many years, as the 240 six is a durable lump, and it lasted almost 300k miles before I had to rebuild it. And now I’m closing in on a half-million miles.
I eventually did end up in Eugene, like so many others of our “tribe”. I was always good at fixing things and building stuff, and became a Jack-of-all-trades. Helped folks build yurts in the woods; lived for awhile in a commune out near Mapleton, painted houses (and always used some of the paint on my van) fixed old cars, helped friends convert old buses into rolling homes, built structures at the Country Fair, became a Dead Head, grew some weed…you name it, I’ve done it.
Except settle down, that is. I’ve never had a long relationship or lived in one spot for more than six months or so; I always get antsy, and have to move on; it’s as if I’m still looking in the rear view mirror expecting to see flashing lights.
A couple of weeks ago, I was out at the coast picking huckleberries along the Tahkenich Dunes Trail. As I came around a bend in the trail, I saw a woman also picking huckleberries. As she turned to look at me, I bolted out “Stephanie?” She looked me in the eyes and said “Paul!” She was sweeter and cuter than ever.
We headed out to the beach and walked along the edge of the crashing surf, just like we had done so many times before. She told me about how she was recently divorced from some guy in LA in the tv business, and how she had finally decided to move to Eugene, like we had talked about doing some 45 years earlier. She was looking to start life over after having raised three kids and lived in LA for a lot longer than she ever wanted to. And she told me how much she loved it in Oregon, with all the fresh air, and the mountains and beaches both nearby.
It was so wonderful; it was as if that 45 year interval had never happened. We spent hours on the beach, and finally headed back with a magical golden sunset over our shoulders. She told me all about her house and garden, and said I needed to come and see it.
When we got to the parking lot, there were only two vehicles left; a white Acura station wagon and my van. When Stephanie took that in, half-way across the lot, she stopped in her tracks and turned to me: “What? You’re still driving that van you stole? You should have gotten rid of that damn thing decades ago.”
She turned away, walked straight to her car, got in, and drove off, a bit briskly at that. I heard the Acura’s twin exhausts snarling a bit as she pulled into Hwy 1, and soon saw the white Acura’s flashing silhouette heading north between the gaps of the big spruce trees. I stood there looking at my van, and then did what I should have done that fateful day back in 1971 when I also stood looking at it in the Towson Ford back storage lot: I turned away, walked out to the highway, stood on the shoulder and put out my thumb.