When a Vintage RV Is Your Home, Repair Is a Way of Life

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There’s no temperature gauge. That broke a number of thousand desert miles in the past. But you possibly can odor hassle coming, whiffs of radiator fluid slipping within the draft on the entrance of the engine doghouse. That’s when you already know it is time to cease. This does not occur usually. The 318 likes to run scorching, however climbing mountains with a 12,000-pound RV in your again will finally make any small block engine overheat.

I begin in search of a place to drag over. There’s nothing. The left facet of the street is a sheer reduce of rock, quartzite, phyllite, and limestone laid naked by dynamite. To the east, so far as I can see, the barren rocky foothills of the White Mountains bubble and scrape their approach towards a desert valley flooring, dust-swept and brown. Dotted right here and there are clumps of creosote and sagebrush, interrupted often by splashes of yellow rabbitbrush. It’s a stark however stunning panorama. Without a pullout. But it does not matter, we have not seen one other automotive in not less than an hour of driving. We are on Highway 168 someplace in Eastern California, between the Nevada ghost city the place we camped final night time and the highest of the White Mountains. 

So I cease proper within the center of the street.

The writer behind the wheel of his 1969 Dodge Travco.

Photograph: Briana Vargas

When the engine shuts off a quiet descends. No wind. No birds. No speaking. We—my spouse, three kids, and me—simply take heed to the faint hissing of steam escaping the radiator cap, after which a light gurgle of coolant within the engine. It’s October, however I’m glad I had the presence of thoughts to cease within the shade; the desert solar casts a harsh gentle on the street. After a minute my spouse turns to the children and says, “You want to walk around and see if we can find some fossils?” 

As a child of the ’70s, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the side of the road next to broken-down vehicles. This is what vehicles of those days did. The 1967 Volkswagen fastback, which managed to get us home safely from the hospital after I was born, was replaced by a 1976 mustard-yellow VW Dasher that routinely overheated near Yuma, Arizona, on its way from my childhood home in Los Angeles to my grandparents’ house in Tucson. To this day my father curses that car. There was also a 1969 Ford F-150 pickup that was reliable until you stuck a camper on its back and tried to climb over the Sierra Nevada mountains. It used to be more of a necessity to know how to fix a car. These days it is often, if not a luxury, a labor of love. 

My father handed that F-150 down to me. I wanted to work on it, but the truth is I was intimidated. What if I broke something irreparable? What if I just couldn’t hack it? I was a computer programmer then. In principle, fixing code is not so different from fixing an engine. But a computer will tell you what is wrong with your code. An engine—at least an older one—doesn’t do that. When you work on an older vehicle, you are the computer. And I was one with no software.

That made it hard to know where to start, and so I didn’t. Instead I helped more knowledgeable friends with their cars. In the process I discovered that, for me, solving mechanical problems brought a kind of satisfaction that digital ones did not. One weekend I was helping a friend bleed the brakes on his car, pumping the pedal while he was under the chassis turning the bleeder screws. As we worked I could feel the resistance building, a tactile feedback that I loved. I was hooked. I wanted to learn how to repair engines, but to do that I knew I needed a project of my own—one with higher stakes than the F-150.

In June 2015, my wife and I bought a 1969 Dodge Travco, a motor home that, at the time, was just shy of its 50th birthday. My kids called it the bus. Which was apt. When you say “motor home,” most individuals image one thing that appears nothing like our previous Dodge. To name it an RV is to say a Stradivarius is a violin. The Travco is a 27-foot-long fiberglass container of magnificence and pleasure. It’s vibrant Nineteen Sixties turquoise and white with sweeping curves and rounded home windows. It is daring in a sea of beige modern RVs. The Travco was cool enough that it was once featured in Playboy magazine, back when that was a marker of cool. Johnny Cash had one. So did James Dean and John Wayne.

We didn’t purchase it solely so I’d have a venture. We purchased it to make it our full-time residence. We had been drained of the suburbs, and we wished our youngsters to see the United States, to have a higher sense of the place they had been born. I didn’t need them to learn in regards to the deserts and mountains and forests, I wished them to be in them. I wished them to know the distinction between the South, the place they had been born, the Midwest, the West, the Northeast. I wished them to additionally know the frustration and the enjoyment of persevering with down the street by your personal sweat and energy. Out of a muddled sense of self-reliance born of stubbornness and beliefs, I wished them to know that something value fixing will be fastened, and something that may’t be fastened is not value having. But sitting there within the warmth of the California solar on Highway 168 that afternoon, the bus felt extra like a big test my ego had written that my fumbling fingers and instruments couldn’t money.

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