Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Get in the Bus

Hola amigos. What's going down up in your neck of the woods? I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but we've been driving in the fast lane, running on empty, and looking for an off-ramp. First off, we drove back up to Eugene, Oregon after the family wedding in Sacramento, CA and the big Election Day party in Nevada City, CA.

Next day, we were on the road early eating up the miles and blasting some tasty tunes. Sure, we were going back to Eugene. Sure we'd seen all these roads before. But after a year of seeing nothing but unfamiliar places, driving familiar roads was sort of nice. The nice didn't last long, though. No sooner did we pull into town when the bus went all haywire.

The other morning we got in the bus to do some errands. The sun was bright and warm. The sky was blue, not a single cloud in the sky. The bus started just fine and we drove all around town doing our thing. That is until our last stop. When I went to start the bus, I discovered that I couldn't twist the ignition key. With a lot of jiggling and a little sleight of hand I got it to work. But then we got home and I shut it off. And here, amigos, is where our troubles began.

Now old Van Man here ain't an expert mechanic or anything but he does know his way around a monkey wrench, and he does know when something is wrong. If you can't turn the ignition key you can't turn on your bus. And if you can't start your bus you aren't going anywhere. So I pulled out my trusty VW bus manual and read through the chapter dealing with ignition stuff. Then I got online and found even more info. And then I got to work and called an expert. In this case, the expert was a friend of a friend who rides around town on his bicycle with a tow-trailer making housecalls on sick old VWs. Welcome to Eugene.

After some fussing and sussing and power tool rustling, my traveling mechanic had the lock guts out. I could start the bus, hotwire style, no key needed. Now, this old bus of ours may be a highly-modified contraption. It has its eccentricities. But it is also a thing of elegant utility. So I did the right thing and drove to a full-serivce VW mechanic and had a keyed ignition reinstalled.

At this point, the Van Man is feeling pretty good about himself. We've been all over America in our bus. We've driven over 25,000 miles so far. Sure, we've had a few problems--but if you want a '71 VW microbus to treat you good, you got to treat it good. We might have been knocked down, but hadn't been knocked out.

Then came the famous rains of the Pacific Northwest. And with the rains came a flat tire. For the record this is the third flat we've had this trip. We were in a giant parking lot, so we didn't have to deal with dodging traffic or panic stopping or any of that. I calmly busted out the jack and swapped out the spare. No problemo. But when I went around town, looking for a fix, I spied this giant rainbow-colored trail following behind me wherever I went. Normally, a rainbow following a microbus around Eugene, Oregon is no big deal. But this kind of rainbow--the oily kind, all spewing and spattering; the kind that's so big and dirty that everyone shoots you dirty looks--was some serious trouble.

Back at the mechanic's garage I got the bad news--blown gaskets and seals. Sometimes a problem is as simple as that. And sometimes you got to figure things happen for a reason. Here we were, in our home town--a town where there's a microbus parked on almost every corner; the only town in America where I know these mechanics and they know me and this bus. If it hadn't been for the rains I might never have known the size of the oil leaks until it was too late. A few days later, those old nagging oil leaks were fixed.

I've got to be honest with you. I took one look at the repair bill and almost fainted. Then I remembered driving through the wild wastelands of the desert southwest--Indian country at that--totally alone. Nothing but sand and rocks and sun and a never-ending ribbon of road ahead of us and behind us. Then, I imagined the oil pressure light starting to blink... And I paid right up.

But the problems didn't end there. I was driving around the next day and discovered that I had a hard time shifing gears. It quickly went from hard to horrible. It got so bad that I had to shut off the engine--using my new ignition key--at stoplights to shift into first. I tell you, it's hard to treat your bus good when it's treating you bad. I managed to nurse the bus home and I immedately called Big R., the only mechianc I really trust (besides Miles at the No Name Garage, that is). Like Rasputin to the Romanovs, he diagnosed the problem by wire and told me the clutch was burning out. I didn't want to believe him, but the very next time Diane and I got back in the bus and my clutch foot shot down to the floor and nothing happened, I believed.

Stuck in second gear and driving without a clutch, Diane and I somehow managed to beeline it back to the garage without stopping.

And there it sits. Big R. was right, the clutch indeed had burned out.

It's tough to write a travel blog when you can't travel anywhere. After a new clutch disk and pressure plate, that'll change. And just because we don't have our trusty yellow microbus to push us around right now doesn't mean our style's been cramped in any way. We've been getting around just fine. All we had to do was get into another sort of bus.

And we'll drink to that...

... because we know there's nothing else that can possibly go wrong with our bus now.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Family Wedding Party

A wedding party is an act of love. It takes the bounty of two families and mixes it with the groom’s heart and bride’s soul. What’s more, throwing this sort of party and inviting family members and friends to participate is a simple pleasure that all can enjoy. And what about the fancy clothes? They are functional (given the circumstances), and they make this old road-weary microbus-truckin’ man feel ... special. Plus I can carry my wallet in a jacket pocket. Classy.

I’d like to thank and congratulate Jamie and Joaquin Rodriguez. Jamie is one of Diane’s nieces; and now "Keen" is her newest nephew. We made plans to attend Jamie and Keen’s wedding about the time we hit the road way back in March. But that was the extent of our planning. We just had to be in Sacramento, CA on November, 1, 2008, dressed and ready. And so we were. From Eugene, OR it was a straight shot down trusty I-5. It's not much of a drive, and it's not fast: 8 hours in a modern vehicle, 10 hours by microbus. But we managed to get to town the day before the wedding--just in time for a costume drama of an entirely different color...

Halloween! Oh, the horror!

Ironman, a.k.a., Kyle and Transformer Bumblebee, a.k.a. Ryan are the sons of Skeletor, a.k.a. Carl. I'm proud to say that both Ironman and Bumblebee call us Aunt Diane and Uncle Mike.

But these weren't the only members of Diane's family we saw before the Big Event. I could write about each of these families separately, but this is a family gathering. Diane's family is family to me. They are distinct individuals all but, just as importantly, are all together, too. So allow me to introduce the family:

Jack and Donna

Carl and Margo

Chuck and Katie

Yours and Yours Truly

The Meyers family -- Haley, Eric, Jonna *
*Missing in action are Mike and Alex... they were braving the rain to fetch the family car.

... and now, Jamie and Keen.
And what about the Big Event itself? First off, it was big...

... and the families hosted an event that was as fun and as generous as they are.

We loved it!

Thank you Jamie and Keen for a wonderful evening. We were so glad you invited us to share it with you. Diane and I would also like to thank Jack and Donna for their warm hospitality and their big guest bedroom. Thanks also to Carl and Margo for the giant cowboy breakfast the next morning (and for the many nights we've stayed over in years' past).

And, finally, we must also thank Chuck and Katie and Jessie for so generously opening up their home to us, long after the party was over.

Yes we can.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Home at Tony's Place

After skedaddling down the northern Oregon coast, we looped east and landed in the inland empire of the Willamette Valley and our adoptive hometown of Eugene, OR. But we didn’t return to Eugene to go home—this trip is not yet from finished. Rather, we returned to Eugene for another reason altogether. We had returned to visit Tony.

After almost a year on the road in this great land, Diane and I have ranged far and wide. We have seen marvels of nature. We have enjoyed the vibe of America’s greatest cities. We have been grateful guests of gracious hosts. And though just the two of us ride in the bus, we’ve actually had a third traveler with us the entire way: Diane’s son, Tony.

Tony is Diane’s only child. Tony is never far from Diane’s thoughts. He is her truest love and the love of her life--they talk on the phone nearly every day. You cannot know Diane without knowing Tony; and you cannot love Diane without also loving Tony. I have known Tony since he was twelve years old, and over these many years I have had the great fortune and profound pleasure to watch and help him grow up. And as I love Diane and have grown to love her more—for love is an ever-changing experience that grows and matures—so I also love Tony.

Tony is a rare individual. He was born completely blind. Through several operations as a baby he gained some vision, though he remains legally blind. This limitation might not be obvious to you the first time you meet him. To understand how he sees, imagine seeing the world with a crinkled piece of wax paper placed over eyes. Imagine looking through this wax paper using only one eye, while looking over the bridge of your nose. Not only will you have a difficult time seeing anything, but you won’t have any depth perception. Imagine getting around your home, preparing dinner or doing laundry or mowing the lawn. Imagine trying to find your bus stop, going to church and school and work. Imagine yourself traveling the world. Finally, imagine yourself surrounded by friends and family—people who love you. Imagine these things successfully and you have a sense of what it means to walk in Tony’s shoes.

Tony currently works as a courtesy clerk for a large grocery chain. He is on his feet all day, sometimes outside for hours in the cold Oregon rain, and though he comes home tired he does not complain. He simply gets the job done, day in and day out. He is also ambitious, and he tries his best to get through night school classes and to earn promotions at work. He expects and desires more for himself than what he has today; and I admire his industry, his determination, and his uncommonly gracious personal touch.

Suffice it to say that the days we spent at Tony’s place were among the most enjoyable of this road trip. Days of work were followed with nights of family dinners, both at home and out and about at some of our favorite eating places around town. It was the sort of family homecoming that all road-weary travelers dream about.

But, like I said, this road trip is far from finished. We had a family wedding to attend in Sacramento, CA. So we loaded up and hit the road for what would be a solid 10-hour drive. We didn’t bid Tony a farewell so much as we bid him a hearty "see-you-later"—we would see him soon enough when we picked him up at the Sacramento airport the next day.

And as we drove south, with the beauty of Oregon in its fall glory all around, it occurred to me that all of us amount to more than an assemblage of our physical attributes and limitations. If a boy is a person who is motivated by self-interest who needs constant supervision, then a man is the measure of the quality of his own desires and the manner in which he makes them manifest. And over the time we’ve been gone, where we left behind a boy we returned to find a man.