I knew she was dead when we opened her up and white smoke billowed out of the engine. If this was really the end, she was definitely going to take a piece of us with her.
Ben and I were driving north on Highway One toward Kaikoura, a small coastal town on the South Island of New Zealand, where we planned to spend the week surfing. Ben was driving and I was nestled next to him in the middle seat.
Our 1992 Toyota TownAce had been reinvented into a camper van years before we bought it. I named the van Willa the day I brought it home and it caught on right away. Willa was all white with a dented up bumper and she had a sliding door on her left side marked with a well-defined scar reaching almost two thirds of the way across her flank. Friends who rode in Willa over the past several months decorated her dashboard with colorful chalk drawings of suns, rainbows, and flowers.
We were about an hour and a half away from Kaikoura with Josiah Johnson’s voice blaring through the one working speaker. Ben had been driving for five hours already so he asked me to find somewhere to stop for lunch and a much-needed break.
When I asked Ben a little bit about what he remembers from this day, one thing he said was, “I remember you looking at the map and finding Gore Bay. You got really excited because it was right on the beach and the map said there was surfing. So even though it was fifteen miles off the road, I didn’t care.”
We had only been driving a few miles toward the Bay when Ben told me the van was overheating and pulled over as far as he could on the narrow road.
He turned the car off and just for a second we were silent. A lump introduced itself in my throat and in that moment we felt the weight of what just happened. The freedom Willa gave us over the last three months was probably going to be taken away.
We both got out to take a closer look at the engine, which lives under the front seat.
“I pulled off the cap to the coolant and it was bubbling,” Ben recalled. “Then I pulled off the cap to the radiator and smoke started to spill out. I knew right then this was a serious problem.”
While Ben was evaluating the damage, I escaped into the back of Willa. I searched the bags of groceries until I settled on the shortbread cookies and fresh strawberries. I ate my lunch on the bed and admired our little home for a few sweet minutes. Anybody who looked inside could tell right away we weren’t just traveling for the weekend.
We actually lived in the van.
The back of Willa had a full bed elevated on a wooden frame with storage underneath. There were three sections of storage containing most of our gear—things like carabiners, climbing ropes, ice axes, crampons, lawn chairs, tents, sleeping bags, pots, pans, clothes, shoes, and backpacks in no particular order.
On top of the bed, we had a comforter with pink, blue and yellow flowers on it, two pillows, two surfboards, maps, journals, books, computers, cameras, food, tooth brushes and a few too many sweatshirts. Damp towels and wetsuits draped over the front seats and occasionally dripped on the foot of the bed. Blue and green paisley curtains on the windows provided precious solitude from the world on days where we needed to get away. Broken fairy lights hung loosely on the ceiling frame. They never lit, but we left them there anyways because we liked how they looked.
When Ben finally pulled his head out from under the front seat, he joined me for some of my improvised “strawberry shortcake.”
I sat cross-legged on the bed and Ben stood outside facing me and leaned against the door. I could tell he didn’t find a solution to our problem.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too.”
We just kind of sat there in silence, almost grieving. We didn’t really want to chat about what might be wrong with Willa, knowing we didn’t have the money to fix her anyway. It seemed like we sat for a long time, until a man in a big truck stopped to let us know he didn’t appreciate us parking our van in the middle of the road. It was time for us to go.
When we got back into the cab and started driving, the needle on the temperature gauge immediately moved passed the “H.”
When I asked Ben about this moment he explained, “My plan was to just try to make it to the top of the hill but I kept thinking the pistons were going to seize or it was just going to stop working. I remember when you started talking to her and you cheered her on the whole way.”
We pulled into the first and only campground in Gore Bay, and a petite Kiwi woman dressed in a black sweatsuit greeted us. She took twenty dollars from us, told us not to shower more than ten minutes and hurried away to the next set of campers.
Our cell phone didn’t have service, so we walked down the road until we found a pay phone. I called the emergency number on my insurance card and arranged for a tow truck to come pick us up in the morning.
Once back at the campground, we got to work cleaning out Willa. We pulled out all of our belongings, took them away as if she did something bad and this was her punishment.
We piled everything on top of a tarp and began a long process of elimination. We knew we were eventually going to have to fit everything into two large backpacks and one duffel bag. Not all this shit was going fit in the rental car.
The surfboards, wetsuits and thrift store coffee mugs would have to go. So would the collection of spices, oils and hot sauce that made our cheap noodles taste so good. The green Coleman stove would be left on a picnic table for some other lucky travelers to come upon in a week or two. Our pillows, sheets and extra clothing would be left at the doorstep of a St. Vincent De Paul on our way out of town. Everything else would be thrown away.
“You were trying to throw everything away,” Ben told me. “You were kind of freaking out, throwing stuff into trash bags. I had to stop you from accidentally throwing away some important stuff, like our topo maps and the rug.”
So we kept our the topography maps and climbing guides that were covered with pencil markings of where we had gone and where we still wanted to go. Hopefully 50 years from now we can look at them and remember all of the hills and mountains we walked in.
The small colorful rug brought us back to the present moment if we ever got too caught up in the chaos of van life. We ate our meals on it every day. It made us feel like we were sitting down for an actual meal rather than eating on the go. I loved when we would park somewhere and break out the rug in the afternoon just for tea and coffee.
After the process of clean, pack, toss, repeat was over, we did the only thing that made sense to us.
We struggled into our damp wetsuits for the last time and ran down the sandy pathway across the beach and into the freezing southern Pacific. We surfed until the waves shrunk and sun met the horizon. We sat on top of our boards and watched as the sun said goodbye and the sky turned from blue to pink to purple. And then the light was gone.
Although we would see more sunsets as we readied ourselves for the journey home over the next week, there wouldn’t be one quite as meaningful.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photos: Courtesy of the author