Ran When Parked: My Van Is Broken, But I’m Still Moving Forward
What’s next for my trusty Toyota van and me?
Some of our longtime readers will recognize this 1995 Toyota Hiace. This is my van, my daily driver, and my former home that I christened Marsha. She was my steadfast companion through 13,000-odd miles of road trip sojourns last year that I chronicled on this very site in The Vanscontinental Express.
She is, unfortunately, broken. Again. But me? Not broken, and still on the move; in fact, this story is my last as a staff writer for The Drive.
How’d I Break Her Again?
Marsha, in the time since I picked up my kitty Burt and moved to Reno, Nevada after nearly six months of nomadic wandering through the western U.S., had become my daily driver. I admittedly still drove her like a side-by-side on weekends. As much as I’ve taken pains to foster my sense of self-preservation in the months following my self-destructive journey to Cuyama Peak, I still feel the pull of every mountaintop I’ve yet to summit.
And so, staying consistent with my previous form, a story where I break my beloved van must begin with a mountaintop. This is Nevada’s Fairview Peak. It is an 8,307-foot-tall mountain; with over 2,500 feet of prominence over its surrounding terrain, it dominates the entire landscape on US 50 from west of the real-world-Top Gun naval test range outside of Fallon, all the way east past the remote population-25 town of Middlegate.
Shortly after I moved to Reno (and the ennui of moving to a new city set in) I aimlessly headed down US 50 one night in search of dark skies. U.S. 50 hides Fairview Peak from unsuspecting travelers well; after a 20-mile straight stretch of perfectly flat plains outside of Fallon, I crested an unremarkable hill and on the other side was immediately confronted with the absolutely massive summit. From the minute I laid eyes upon it I became, frankly, obsessed with climbing it. A cursory search for trails told me despite the military bombing range west of the peak, the entire mountain itself was public land. Even better, a 4x4 trail goes straight to the top with little issue and I knew the view, with vast desert highlands in every direction around it, would be incredible.
I chose to be patient in the interest of responsible van-preservation. In the winter, the peak is covered in snow and incredibly difficult to traverse safely in a van; in the mid-summer, it’s dry at the top, but the scorching heat makes camping up there an uncomfortable proposition. I would simply wait for the right moment to climb the peak, but I had to climb it.
So I bided my time until the early summer, when the snow had melted but the lofty altitudes of the high Sierras hadn’t had a chance to cook in the sun for months. As luck would have it, as I tried to put down roots in Reno, I found someone whose company I loved who also shared my taste for adventure. We had planned to go hiking together, but I told them that I had a spot I’d been saving for an important journey. I’d be honored if they’d join me for a trip up.
They agreed to join me, and so for our third “official” date we packed Marsha chock-full of water, snacks, and just a little booze, and headed East to Fairview Peak.
The drive up was honestly pretty easy. Marsha got a little hot—that automatic-transmission-fluid temp light popped on a few times—but despite the steep grade and steeper cliffs, we made it to the peak without too much trouble. My gut impression was vindicated at the summit: the view was indeed incredible. We stargazed and listened to each other’s favorite songs and laughed and cried and it was all I could ask for.
The drive down, however, was a little bit harder. I hadn’t realized in my excitement as Marsha mountain-goated her way up the trail the day before that the grade was an average ten percent climb, with sections that verged on 20 percent. The windshield was nothing but cliffside and trail for an eternity as I descended, and I had her in low gear for five miles with my foot firmly planted on the brakes. As I used every tool at my disposal to slow her down lest she tumble off the side of the damn mountain, I had the suspension compressed fairly heavily from deceleration; a rock I straddled on the way up, I didn’t make it quite over on the way down. Thunk.
I didn’t even realize I’d broken anything until we hit U.S. 50 again and headed further East to Middlegate to fill up on diesel. She wouldn’t go into fourth gear; the poor 1KZ-TE turbodiesel heart was at critically high RPMs just trying to do 60 mph. I tried a variety of roadside tweaks and nothing worked and she was full of clean transmission fluid; I would need to drive slowly home with gears one through three. My soon-to-be partner was understanding, and we slowly drove home, limited to about 50 mph.
Later, I would realize I put a dent the size of a softball in her transmission pan; how she hadn’t burst all of her transmission fluid down the side of Fairview Peak, I don’t know. Once again, Marsha let me get somewhere safe, as she always has.
And this was months ago. Since then, I’ve taken her to a transmission specialist, sought the help of Aisin specialists, called my importer—none of it has yielded a definitive solution. It wasn’t a cracked solenoid; maybe the extended driving with a dented pan ruined one of the clutches? Maybe I fried the TCM. Perhaps I just need a rebuild; wait, what variant of the A340 exactly is in this van? Was it even sold on Toyotas here in the US? Oh, no one knows for sure.
She’s been sitting in my driveway collecting cobwebs; every potential fix is more expensive than the last, and that’s if I can even find anyone willing to work on her.
Life Goes On
So she’s sat. I haven’t driven her in months. I dealt with an initial burst of guilt and depression from breaking my beloved Hiace once again, of course. My life has taken strange fortuitous turn after strange fortuitous turn ever since I got this Toyota, and I initially believed that good luck had something to do with the van. Victoria without her van felt like some sort of half-zombie specter at first as a result; I was just a woman who’d severed her body from her soul, wandering the streets of Reno with glassy eyes and no purpose. I couldn’t be me without Marsha, right? She launched my career, and the stories we told together last year landed me a job as a staff writer here at The Drive.
But in the meantime, I’ve kept doing my best at my job here; that third date on Fairview Peak ended up blossoming into love that has made my lonely Nevada life happier than I could have ever imagined. I continued to tell stories that (hopefully) conveyed my love of car culture, and I continued to be someone that people wanted to be friends with. I drove into the desert with another Toyota, my partner’s gorgeous 1987 4Runner, and I created my first photobook. I’d proven to myself that while Marsha was gone, Victoria was not an apparition.
It’s all made me realize that I need a few more changes. I have deeply loved working with the team here, and it has been one of the greatest honors of my life to work with a staff this profoundly talented. I’ve told stories I’ll be proud of for the rest of my life. Hell, everyone at this site does incredible and important work. I took the job here because of that.
Despite this, I have made the difficult decision to move back to freelancing, where the pace is slower and the deadlines are more under my control. I’ve also chosen to try to build a life with the person I drove up Fairview Peak with. I am truly trying to embrace self-preservation—joy, even—in a way I never have before. Ultimately, this decision was entirely mine, and no one else’s.
When I bought Marsha, I was running away from a life I no longer wanted. The crumbling remains of an identity that was no longer me, and a love I no longer had, needed to recede into the rearview mirror so I could build something—someone—from the ashes. I am running towards something now. I want to keep writing and making art and climbing mountains for a very long time, and I think for the first time in my life, I might be able to do that.
Ultimately, I still haven’t decided if I will fix Marsha or not. It may be prohibitively expensive to try and chase down what ails her, or it could be impractical to attempt such intensive repairs on a Japanese van with no readily available parts. I may be forced to move on to whatever vehicle drives me into my next adventure. On the other hand, I still love the van that was my home and my heart for so many months through such a transformative time in my life, and I want to drive up more mountains with her, so I still want to try.
I have realized I will still be me and I will still get to drive up more mountains, Marsha or not.
To my readers: Thank you for reading my stories, and I dearly hope I’ll see you here again. Your support has meant the world to me. To my friends at The Drive: Thank you for everything. I’m a better person and a better writer because of you, and I’m certain I’ll be seeing you again.