Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To New Mexico

It once was asked, "what was the funny thing that happened on the way to New Mexico?" The answer is that there were actually several "funny" things that happened, if by "funny" one means, "bitterly miserable but happened a long time ago."

Sarah and I spent the summer between Sophomore and Junior years living in my home town of Charlottesville, VA. At the beginning of summer I bought an early '70s Volkswagen camper bus for $1000. It was remarkable. It drove like a school bus, and it still had all of the old camper equipment: the backseat that folded out into a bed, the little table, the sink, and the countless cabinets and cubbies. It was not perfect. It was rusting, and it broke down with some frequency, but I loved it.

My bus

And I had big plans for it. At the end of summer, I would take it on a giant road trip, from Charlottesville to Miami, dropping Sarah off at her parents, then up and over to New Orleans to see my grandparents and finally on to Santa Fe, NM (my first time out west) where I would be spending the fall semester.

Things didn't go precisely as planned.

Before departure:
We pack everything I own into the bus. Remarkably compact. Ship shape.

Charlottesville to Myrtle Beach:
We head south, smooth sailing.

Myrtle Beach:
Somehow we thought Myrtle Beach would be an interesting place to stop. It isn’t. We spend 3 hours fighting tourist traffic, looking for a campground with a vacancy. Finally we find one. We are briefly excited about our first night camping in the bus. Then, for unknown reasons, Sarah vomits all night.

Myrtle Beach to Miami:
We discover that the engine won't restart once stopped. Eventually it does start again, and I decide not to turn it off until we reach Miami. We refuel with the engine running in Jacksonville. We don't die.

I spend a pleasant time in Miami hanging out with Sarah before my departure. The bus spends an expensive time at the shop having its starter replaced.

Alligator Alley:
The bus dies 60 miles west of Miami in the middle of the Everglades. I walk half a mile down the road to a ranger's station, and call Triple-A. The agent on the phone requests my street address. I explain that I cannot provide a street address since I am in the middle of a swamp. The representative continues to insist. Words are exchanged. Finally, I provide a fabricated address based on approximating the city block equivalent of 60 miles. I return to the bus and wait for the tow truck to arrive.

Miami (again):
The bus revisits the mechanic.

Miami to New Orleans:
The bus dies at random intervals restarting each time after a long wait.

New Orleans:
I visit my grandparents. They express doubt as to the wisdom of my endeavor. I express dismay at their doubt.

New Orleans to East Texas:
Westward, ho! I see my first dead armadillo east of Shreveport. I finally enter Texas and am surprised that it’s not brown. In the late afternoon my engine makes a severe gasp and dies. It restarts after a particularly long wait but makes alarming churning noises. I erratically putter to nearest campground and spend the night.

On to Tyler:
In the morning I slowly drive the short distance to Tyler, Rose Capital of America, and stop at the first mechanic I find. The bad news: half of the engine has melted. The good news: there’s a Volkswagen junkyard 2 miles away. I drive to the junkyard, the owner offers me $200 dollars for my bus, and I accept.

Downtown Tyler:
The new owner allows me use of my crippled vehicle for the remainder of the day. I drive into downtown Tyler to make the necessary arrangements where I learn that in addition to not selling booze, apparently nowhere in Tyler sells boxes. After much puttering I find several boxes soaked in trash juice in a dumpster. I deliver my packed belongings to the Greyhound station and buy a ticket. I return the bus to its new owner, bid it farewell, and catch a ride back to the station.

While waiting for the Greyhound, I try to call Sarah and tell her of my misfortune but receive a message saying all lines are busy.

Tyler to Dallas:
That evening I travel to Dallas in a much larger but substantially less charming bus.

I spend the night in the station, graciously declining offers of crack from local entrepreneurs. Security does not permit me to lie down on the bench even though there are hundreds of empty seats. I try Sarah several more times, each time with the same message: no available phone lines.

In the morning I finally reach Sarah and, with some relief, tell her of my misfortune. However, she informs me that Hurricane Andrew has just hit Miami, and, while she acknowledges my misfortune, the epic destruction surrounding her is of greater immediate concern. I acknowledge the epic destruction surrounding her, but point out that she and her family experienced no damage personally, and, while my crisis is certainly much smaller on an absolute scale, it is having a pronounced negative impact directly on me. Mutual lack of understanding ensues. Words are exchanged.

Dallas to El Paso:
I head on to El Paso. Now it's daytime and warm. The bus is crowded. As we travel west the bus gets progressively hotter, and it soon becomes apparent that the air conditioning is not working. Rude comments are made to the deodorant-free German tourists. People begin aggressively yelling at the bus driver. The atmosphere becomes mutinous. Finally the driver relents.

We stop in a tiny central Texas town and wait two hours in a shadeless parking lot for a new bus to arrive. People smoke profusely. A small, Australian socialist befriends me.

The socialist

The new bus arrives, and we board. Our relief to be in air-conditioning is quickly forgotten when we are struck by the overwhelming stench of human feces. The bathroom, we are informed, has not been pumped.

The poo-bus

The socialist sits next to me. He talks a lot. The roughnecks nearby don't seem to share his enthusiasm for Che Guevara. I get nervous. The poo-smell becomes unbearable. Finally the driver opens the vents up top which lets some of the smell and all of the air-conditioning out. The stench, the heat, and the socialist persist all the way to El Paso.

El Paso:
Nothing bad happens.

El Paso to Santa Fe:
The sun sets. The drive is beautiful. Nothing bad happens.

Santa Fe:
I am deposited at 2:00 a.m. in the parking lot of the (as I learn) closed Greyhound station in an unfamiliar neighborhood of an unfamiliar city. After wandering aimlessly I find a motel. In the morning I return to the station to retrieve my boxes which have arrived on the morning bus. A taxi delivers my crappy boxes and me to school.

So there you have it. A boy has dreams. The dreams are crushed. We laugh. The end.


  1. Anonymous11:27 PM

    i am sorry but i laughed all the way through your story. it must have been awful at the time. again ... sorry. hahahahahahahahaha kphiker

  2. Anonymous8:34 AM

    A very accurate account except I take issue with the statement that my family was not personally affected by hurricane Andrew. We had no power for two weeks (remember August in Miami), stores were not open and we were eating canned beans for days, my mom's car had a large tree branch lodged in it, the screen that had previously screened in our pool was at the bottom of the pool along with other stange objects (including several frogs) and all the trees in the area were shredded and strewn all over our house and yard. Granted, our house was not blown away but it was not fun.

  3. Beans, branches, frogs, pestilence? Pshaw! Child's play!

    Yeah. Actually I'd forgotten about the branch in the car. And please let me make clear that the mutual lack of understanding was only a temporary phenomenon later corrected by abundant open and healthy communication. Sweetie-pie.

  4. Anonymous3:10 PM

    Thanks for posting "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to New Mexico". It was one of my requests when you posted choices back in your blog's infancy. When I read the story now it does seem funny. However, Tom and I remember vividly the night you called from Tyler saying that your beloved bus had died. Your story brought back all those sad feelings; we knew how much you loved that bus.

    Our friends from England were just here. After reading your blog I told them the story. Tom commented how resourceful you were and we all agreed. Then we told them stories of our VW bus in Kenya and how we killed the engine two times plus how I drowned the engine by driving it through the river at the wrong place. Oh well, lots of memories--good and sad--and lessons learned.

  5. I know I"m way late to this party, but I've been reading your back pages in a fit of insomnia, and "A small, Australian socialist befriends me" is right up there with the best sentences in the whole of English literature.

    Funnily enough, one of my better stories is roughly along the lines of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way Across Socialist Australia"...

  6. Wes, don't worry. It's never to late to join the "socialist" party (or, er, something like that). And I'm honored that you like my sentence so much. To honor these accolades, I think I'll have it tatooed on my left butt cheek.

    Also, "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way Across Socialist Australia" sounds like first rate bloggy-fodder. I'll be looking out for a post in the near future.