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On a sunny day in June, 2020, I applied some eyeliner with a trembling hand. I ran a brush through hair that was greying at an alarming rate, since I hadn’t been to a salon in months. I even put on lipstick before remembering I needed to wear a mask. I swiped on some extra mascara instead and hurried out the door.
My boyfriend of four years had recently broken up with me. Reeling and dazed, I was back on the market. But this time, I was looking to fill a need that no man could satisfy.
A few weeks earlier, I’d been talking to a friend, bemoaning the breakup and the lack of foreign travel in my future. Then she made a statement that had a profound effect on my life.
“You know what you should do?” she said, knowing I needed an adventure to distract me. “You should buy a camper van.”
Suddenly my mood shifted. An image of me zipping down a coastal highway in a funky sky-blue van flashed before me. I’d actually wanted a camper van for years. I loved to camp but was tired of pitching my tent in the wet northwest weather. I also had happy adolescent memories of chugging along misty Highway 1 in northern California with my best friend and her mom, singing along to Air Supply on the eight-track player in their 1968 VW van.
If I had a camper van, not only could I camp in more comfort, I could visit far-flung friends and family while staying socially distanced. I could hit the road for the summer, taking my remote job with me, but leaving my broken heart in the rear-view mirror!
Which explains why – mask on, mascara applied – I was on a date with Hillary, a coppery-haired, friendly millennial, and her converted van, a 2007 Chevy E-150.
“Hello!” I said, waving at her from six feet away. She was standing next to a vehicle so enormous I doubted my ability to drive it without causing mass destruction. “It’s … uh … big!” I said, trying to sound upbeat.
She opened the doors and my heart flip-flopped. Inside was a queen-sized bed, a wood-burning stove and luminous wood panelling. I fell for Big White right then (for that was her name), despite the 157,000 miles on her odometer.
Later, I raved about Big White’s gorgeous interior to my designated “van advisor.” But he steered me away from it because of the high mileage and steep price tag. “Keep looking,” he said.
I felt like I was back in the dating game, way back when I was searching for a man and not a van, and my best friend pronounced someone I fancied a loser.
I kept looking.
What followed was a whirlwind month of dating vans and their owners. In rapid succession, I met Brian and Muffintop (a rare Airstream B190), and Craig and Goldie (a Chevy Express with retro gold stripes).
Brian was selling Muffintop because he was about to get married. Goldie had her own Instagram page that featured sexy snaps of her on scenic highways. But Craig and his wife were moving to a new city and planning to upgrade to a bigger van.
All these owners, though, were clearly attached to their vehicles and looking for the “right person” to buy them.
I, in turn, always desperately wanted to be that “right person.” If I couldn’t be the right person for my ex anymore, couldn’t I at least be “the one” for a cute camper van, even if it had too many miles on it or got terrible gas mileage?
“You can do better,” was always the advice from my van advisor.
Still, I enjoyed the social outlet that these van dates gave me. I met new people, saw new neighborhoods and slipped for a moment into other people’s lives and dreams during those masked test drives.
Then, to my surprise and delight, I met Mo.
Mo was a converted 2011 Ford Transit Connect, easy to drive and good on gas, and this style already had my van advisor’s preapproval.
Mo’s owner was Keath, a lanky and affable young rock-climber who’d converted her himself. When I saw his lightweight and elegant work – a bed, pine and cedar woodwork, electricity – tears sprang to my eyes.
This was the van.
Within days of buying Mo, I was prepping for a road trip to visit my family in northern California. On the day of my trip, I thought I would feel triumphant about my inaugural voyage. But while packing, my thoughts kept turning to my ex.
It felt wrong that he wasn’t with me. Most of the trips I’d taken in the last four years had been with him. Like other guys before him, he’d at first been enchanted by my thirst for travel and exploration. Then bit by bit, he got sick of it.
If he’d been with me getting ready for this road trip, he would have been rolling his eyes at my mountains of stuff, saying things like, “You know I’m going to be the one who’s going to be carrying all these heavy bags around, right?” Then he’d probably spend the first day of the trip not speaking to me.
Still, I missed him so much.
By the time I climbed behind the wheel, I was more than two hours behind schedule. I was sweaty, exhausted and emotionally spent before my eight-hour drive had even begun. Then I caught sight of my neighbour. He was labouring over a pit in his front yard, eyeing me enviously.
“Have a great trip!” he said, waving.
To him, I was living the dream. He couldn’t see that next to me on the passenger seat was my big, bleeding broken heart – the one I’d hoped to leave behind. Instead, he saw only an unencumbered free spirit ready to hit the open road.
I waved back, attempting a carefree smile.
And then I drove.
Since then, I’ve put thousands of miles on Mo – who’s always adventure-ready – and driven that coastal highway as I imagined. There have been minor mishaps, like the time my pug Millie fell out of the van, and the time we had to flee a wildfire. With every jaunt, though, the three of us become a more streamlined team.
Mo is still her original white colour, but one day, I hope to paint her sky-blue.
Rebecca Agiewich lives in Seattle.
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