We've driven Wesley, our 1985 VW Westphalia camper van, over 5,400 miles from Alexandria, Virginia, to our current spot in San Augustinillo, Mexico, in Oaxaca state, with plans to drive at least that much more to reach our hoped for destination somewhere in South America. We owe most of those miles to Alaric Hernandez and his team of two mechanics, Wendell and Larry, operating out of Alaric's home garage in Oakton, Virginia. Despite how that may sound, these guys are well respected on VW forums for knowing exactly what they are doing, at least mechanically,
When we purchased the van in September 2014 from a guy living outside Baltimore, he disclosed a leaking power steering rack, which is something that I might have discovered on my own, even if he had kept his mouth shut. Plus, his nickname for the van was the Leaky, Squeaky, Funmobile, so we had a pretty good hint we weren't driving a new BMW off the lot.
I'm not a mechanic, but for a week or two after we bought Wesley I entertained thoughts of becoming one so that I would be able to haul out my tool box and fix any problem that came up while we were off the beaten track in Mexico. But then I realized that even if I was a mechanic, I wouldn't be installing new front end tie rods on my back in the sand while the family frolicked in the surf and sipped cold coconut water waiting for me to wipe my hands and say "All done; let's go." I'd hire a real mechanic with a lug wrench and a hydraulic lift.
I think it's actually worked out better that I don't have a mechanic's ear because some of the pings, leaks, and stalls don't really require things to be taken apart to fathom an explanation so long as the next time I turn the ignition key, the engine turns over and coughs to life. And, knock on wood, through all of the inexplicable knocks, drips, and hesitations, the engine has sputtered to a start every time I've turned the key - except for the one time when the engine battery lost power and we had to jump start it - but even I was able to diagnose and resolve that problem without a mechanic certification. So, on the one hand, we've been lucky we haven't run into any serious engine problems because I'm more qualified to figure out complex tax problems and not whether the car won't start because a piston is not firing. On the other hand, we owe Alaric and his team props and a great deal of thanks for all of the time and work they put into Wesley's engine, which basically involved a top end engine rebuild, new front and rear shocks, control arm bushings, CV joints, clutch, and a transmission re-calibration so that we would have more power in lower gears, which has come in pretty handy already before we even sniffed those Colombian coffee beans. With all our focus on whether we could drive this thing through the Andes Mountains, which we know are pretty tall, we overlooked the fact that Mexico, as far as we can tell based on our experience, was built at the top of a pretty tall mountain chain itself - the Sierra Madre.
Regarding our electrical system, we owe some measure of thanks, perhaps 15 degrees, to Corbin RV in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and particularly to Chris, for installing our two 40-watt solar panels, and hinging them above the cab so we can tilt them to different angles to maximize their suntan, and for the refrigerator stand that he built so we didn't lose floor space to store our stinky shoes. Unfortunately, some of the components used, like the insufficient gauge of wire which could have caught fire and exploded our gas tank, were not up to industry standard, and the battery used was not capable of keeping the 42-quart refrigerator cold, which is home to our milk, water, and yogurt, and our several strips of LED lights turned on, so within a week of being on the road, the whole set-up had blown out.
Bill, the owner of Mobile RV Repair in Atlanta, really saved our solar arses, so we dance a little jig for him every day. After Corbin's set-up failed we miraculously found Bill online as we drove into Atlanta's sprawling suburbs and he made a house call to R's cousins' place where we were staying to suggest a new battery to buy that would keep everything cool, and then installed it, and then rewired the whole shebang. We've been pretty good with keeping things chill and on the brightside since. Though every time we are parked for a few days the battery will lose its full charge overnight when the sun isn't blazing on it so the temperature reading on the fridge may indicate 50 degrees or higher in the morning, but it feels cooler than that inside so we still drink the milk and don't blame that for any of the gastrointestinal problems we've had.
Regarding the interior, our friend Rod Waller made the slider door closet modifications in the hatch area that allow us to access important things like our Trader Joe's blistered peanut supply, oil rags, and swimsuits, without leaving bed, if we happen to be sleeping in the van, which we are doing less of than we thought we would, but that's because it's a lot hotter than we thought it would be. Rod also built the shelves in the cabinet that used to house the stock refrigerator which we removed and have sitting in my father-in-law's shed and will sell for cheap if anyone needs a gas-powered refrigerator that won't keep anything colder than 10 degrees below ambient temperature. We also installed a cork floor using free floor tiles R found on Craigslist.
We camped, by which I mean we slept in the van or in a tent, six nights in September and we had five free nights of lodging at our friend Sean and Mittie's place in San Miguel de Allende. We expected to camp more, otherwise we might have purchased a different vehicle. The other September nights we ended up in a hotel room and that mostly has to do, R tells me, with the heat. While I will admit it is really hot when the sun is up and Wesley doesn't cool down inside as much as the night outside may cool down, this is a delicate balance I have to tread because if I were to have my druthers (meaning if it was just me on this trip), we would just sweat it out in the van and save the $50 per night that our hotel rooms have been averaging. In this case, however, that would just about guarantee that everyone would leave me and I would spend that $50 on beer anyway, so then I would be a lonely, drunk, old man, instead of a cranky, half-drunk, old man who doesn't like to spend beer money on hotel rooms. Instead of making a fuss publicly about the hotel rooms, however, I keep my mouth shut most of the time and pull out the Visa and this is why I am padrissimo, which means something like awesome, but which I translate as meaning awesome father.
Wesley also has eyelashes on its headlights that were given to us by R's best friend Kristin at our going away party and were applied before I could protest, but which a lot of people, including border patrol and municipal authorities, seem to really like as we cruise slowly through Mexico. Of course, they don't know that we've given the van a guy's name - which is unusual in itself - so they don't think it is weird. But the eyelashes do raise questions for those in the know about us naming the van Wesley regarding just what the hell is going on so I'd like to offer some explanation now.
One of our favorite family movies is "The Princess Bride" and the protagonist in the movie is a young man named Westley who believes in "true love". Throughout the movie, Westley overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including being mostly dead resulting in paralysis, to ultimately be with the one he loves and who loves him. He knew what he wanted and he went for it and it worked out.
Now, I'm not saying that we thought all of this through when we gave the van the name that we did - we just thought it was a funny movie - but as I've had some time to think on this trip, the name of the van has come to symbolize something to me that is more than male or female.
The name Wesley is representative of an idea that you should not let someone else's view of what your life should look like define the path that you take because if you do, you may not end up in a place where you are happy to be. You may be unfulfilled and wonder what might have been if you had followed up on the thoughts that filled your daydreams. Maybe some of those ideas really aren't something to be pursued - Sienna Miller wouldn't really give me her number if I spilled a glass of water on her by "accident" as I walked past her table at a chic LA eatery after having stalked her the week before to find her favorite haunts - but maybe some are, even in some small measure. Who knows if they will work out and maybe you realize you would be happier doing exactly what you were doing, but we owed it to ourselves to find out.
What R and I discussed a lot before we left on this trip and have discussed even more now that we are living it, is that it is not too late to pick ourselves up, brush the accumulated dust off our shoulders, scratch our heads, and figure out what to do next rather than having what is supposed to happen next dictate what it is we do next. Does that make sense?
Put it this way: we both always liked the experience of traveling to other countries and seeing how life gets on there. Rather than send the kids to school for another year, go to work to pay down the mortgage and save for some time in the future when we could travel, which is what we were told we are supposed to do, we chose to not send the kids to school for the year, not go to work to pay down the mortgage, and not save a stinking penny for the future, and travel now. Wesley is our non-gender specific vehicle that has allowed us to test run our daydreams, and we are dragging the kids along with us.