The Rest of Last Winter

A painfully long misadventure short, probably in two parts.

Never did finish writing up last year’s trip, things got real busy after we finally finished our wacky cross country odyssey and made it home to Pennsylvania. After we got back, I just didn’t want to think about moving anymore. But right now I’m sitting in a coffeebux in Inglewood, on our way to New Zealand again. So I should get caught up here. Anyway, back in January:

We finish the ride into New Orleans, with the most heinous head winds and grey shit weather. Past roofs caved in by the hurricane, a Vietnamese bakery with the parking lot packed, a tarnished red and gold buddhist temple. Shrimp po’ boy at a Popeye’s.

Find a room at a hostel a couple miles from downtown, and spend the next couple days doing tourist stuff- walk around, have some beer in the street, see a band with a killer saw player (the player killed it, the saw wasn’t a killer saw).

Still damp and cold, the Saints lose a heartbreaker of a playoff game. And the mood in town becomes very subdued. We’re outside when the game ends, and can hear a groan echo out of every little bar and house. Time to get out of here. I’d like to come back sometime, preferably when the weather is nice and hot and people are happy. But for now, enough.

I buy plane tickets to Vegas on Expedia, we beg a shop for bike boxes, roll and tape them to our handlebars and ride 10 miles to the airport.

I grab a High Life and one more bag of Zapp’s Voodoo chips. We sit on the levy, barges plow through thick Mississippi mud water. Sunset.

Sprint into the airport trying not to get smoothed by the fast swervey traffic. Unroll the boxes, pack the bikes, and I absently dump a full bottle of stove fuel off the landing of the departures gate. Immediately regret it. Shit, hope security didn’t see that. Pouring out explosives probably counts as terrorist stuff.

Set up camp on some uncomfortable pokey chairs and make a little fort with our bike boxes. Guy buffs along with a floor buffer. Shiny linoleum. Terminal lights dim. Put a bandana over my eyes.

3:00 am, time to fly. Austin airport- expensive tacos, “Keep Austin Weird” ticky tacky knickknacks.

Las Vegas, 55 degrees and sunny. So nice. While we were in the Austin airport, I found a 81 VW Rabbit truck while I was scrolling through Craigslist. A Caddy, if you’re into VWs (a play on Golf because it carries your stuff, get it? Harhar).

I was smitten- a enormously powerful 53 horse power diesel, five-speed, lived a desert life and had no rust. Made in the Westmoreland Plant, a handful of miles from my hometown. A chance to buy a rust free MK1! Maybe that’s not exciting to everyone, it is to me.

“It’s so cute!” said Colleen.

I texted the guy. “somebody came to see it this afternoon” he texted back

“Ok, well we’re flying in, let me know if you still have it, I’d like to come check it out,” I texted back.

We take a Lyft over to see the truck. I comment on the nice weather to the driver, who’s a German transplant. He says “It is hell here in the summer. Miserable. I hate it. You think it’s nice? It’s not. Ugly dead hills. Brown. Horrible.”

“Well it’s pretty nice today,” I say. Maybe he’d feel different about Vegas if he spent some time camping in the Deep South.

Drive the truck- it pulls hard to the left, won’t shift into fifth gear, and has a bent bumper and salvage title from being hit from behind at some point.

2226 miles from home, this is not a smart thing to buy.

But it’s so charming. Happy little face, teeny 13 inch tires, and snappy manual steering. It just makes me smile.

“Hey, would you take 100 bucks to hold it until tomorrow?” I ask.

“Sure. Yeah, I’ll do that,” he says. We shake on it, then Colleen and I walk three miles back to the Gold Spike.

The Gold Spike is 34 dollars a night because the Consumer Electronic Show was last week, which made this week the slowest of the year. It’s furnished with stuff that was nice at one time, probably bought second hand off one of the casinos on the strip. It’s a little beat looking now.

I’m hardly able to fall asleep. This is a bad idea. We buy this truck, we’ll have enough money to live on for another couple months. If things break, and I’m sure things will, it being a 40 year old Volkswagen, then the rest of this winter is going to be sponsored by Bank of America. If we’re gonna buy a car, we should just get something boring like a Camry. Or just keep riding.

The next morning, I send Sam, my mechanic friend and VW super-enthusiast, a bunch of pictures.

“Man, looks like a good little buggy,” Sam says. “Things you gotta know- don’t expect much more than 55 miles and hour, and man, if it’s below 20 degrees, forget it, she ain’t starting. And that’s a pretty ok price, but try to talk him down a little.”

Back at the truck, I talk the guy down a little, he says ok, I hand him the cash, and we sign the title on he hood. Colleen and I throw our bikes in the bed, and holy hell here we go.

First to Big-O tires.

“Could you guys align it, put the front tires on the back, then put some new tires on the front?”

“Usually on a truck you want your better tires on the back for traction. You want us to put the new ones back there?”

“No, it’s front wheel drive.”

“Front wheel drive pickup? I never heard of a front wheel drive pickup. You sure?”

“Yeah, positive.”

Walmart, buy 100 dollars worth of car camping gear- a propane stove, cheap comforter, big water jug. Pie pans for plates (77 cents each, score!)

I made an appointment to get the timing belt replaced on the Rabbit. We have a week to kill, so we drive out of town to Bootleg Canyon, spent a week riding excellent trails, and absolutely freezing at night sleeping in the bed of the truck. The desert sure does cool of after sunset- below 30 every night.

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This trip just got a lot more fun #camiónito

A post shared by Colleen O'Neil (@colleencolleen_) on

I read about how to adjust the shift linkage, and after about three hours screwing around under the car with the front tires parked up on some rocks, I get it. We can hit all five gears. Change the oil, air filter and alternator belt and I feel like we’re making progress.

Timing belt replacement day. We drop the truck in South Vegas by the Air Force Base, F-22s tear apart the sky.

Ride back toward downtown to hang out, under the freeway overpass I hear glass explode behind Colleen.

“Ah! What was that!” she yells.

A beer bottle. Somebody on the freeway chucked it out the window of their car and it smashed down about five feet behind her. Jesus. Vegas.

The timing belt job is expensive. So is the motor mount and ball joints we end up needing. Dwindling funds.

It takes two days to get an appointment at the DMV to get temporary in transit tags. Then we were finally out of Vegas, head for Colorado to get some license plates.

Ride Gooseberry Mesa half way, which is awesome, then head up into the mountains. It takes less than two tanks of gas to get to Glenwood Springs- 50 miles per gallon is pretty sweet, and we can cruise along at 70 miles an hour easy.

But it isn’t all groovy gravy in the cold snowy mountains- we discover that the little truck has no heat. What it does have is lots of airflow through gaps in the body panels. Especially around the gas pedal, which before long starts to make me feel like I’m standing on an icicle.

But wait, there’s more! We still gotta get to Cali so that we can be 2504 miles from home in a 37 year old truck with no cash and no heat. And maybe drive some shitty dirt roads around Sedona and break some stuff. And launch myself down a mountain pass on a skateboard, without knowing how to skateboard. Next time. Good times. Mmmhmm.

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Bounding over some mountain passes 🐰

A post shared by Colleen O'Neil (@colleencolleen_) on

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5 thoughts on “The Rest of Last Winter

    1. Thanks, has given me much joy and busted knuckles and stress and reasons to cry and joy again. Currently needs wheel bearings, happy I don’t have to think about it for a few months.

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