Dead Vibes and a Dead Alternator: My JDM Toyota Van Meets Some Fear and Loathing in the Desert
An homage to a hero requires true chaos.
One of my biggest inspirations as a writer is Hunter S. Thompson. The melding of self and event and the narrative structure he found in the pure chaos of his life appeals to me greatly. Though things like casual peyote use are generally frowned upon at most modern media companies, I wanted to include a little "gonzo" in this expansive van trip of mine.
If I had to point to a single foundational text for how I view cars, it would have to be "The Song of the Sausage Creature," Thompson’s review of a Ducati 900SS, which is less an assessment of the motorcycle than an interrogation of the culture that created such an insane factory-built cafe racer. It’s a masterpiece, and so like any creative inspired by a muse, I hoped to pay him homage on this trip—a simple gesture of thanks to someone whose writing had meant so much to me as I found my voice.
[Editor's note: Writer Victoria Scott is taking off to travel the country this summer and explore car culture in a JDM 1995 Toyota Hiace, and we'll be chronicling her adventures through a series on The Drive called The Vanscontinental Express. It's natural to yearn for the open road at a moment when it feels like the world is waking up from a yearlong daze. But as a trans woman looking for her place in the world, Victoria's journey is anything but your average road trip. This is part seven; you can read parts one through six here.]
And his most famous work is definitely Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I re-read shortly before I took this trip and used as creative fuel to push me to do something I was terrified to do. What better proof of being a writer who will use the human experience to weave tales to thrill readers than actually experiencing things that scare you? I planned to visit Las Vegas and write an homage to him, this time about the death of the American Dream for my own generation, wondering what I could discover from the lights and casinos and visions of wealth the city is famed for.
However, that is not gonzo journalism because it has a plan. A true homage to him would be a horrible series of events lined up in such a way that I must find meaning in it or go completely insane. And I am driving a 26-year-old Toyota van through the desert completely alone in one of the worst heat waves the West has ever seen, so while nothing I describe was intended to happen, it was also probably inevitable.
Hour 14: 8,024 feet, Mount Lemmon Recreational Highway
Something, of course, went wrong.
The van barely started five minutes ago. All of my battery backups and my battery backup-backups were uncharged. My phone sat at nine percent, also unwilling to charge; did I blow the 12-volt cigarette lighter fuse earlier and not realize it? The dash was still at Christmas-tree status; the glow from the warning lights was brighter than my speedo. I was not waiting around in the thin air and dirt roads surrounding the peak of Mount Lemmon to find out what the hell happened. I’d only been up here a few hours, but it was time to get to civilization.
I was smoking a cigarette with the windows up to take the edge off without burning down the city when I realized the ashtray light was getting a bit hard to see. The speedo cut out to match the tachometer. Hmm. Those warning lights definitely meant something. That was a puzzle for tomorrow’s Victoria to figure out, though, after a night in a hotel and some strong coffee. Future Vicki is usually screwed and past Vicki is usually an idiot, but current Vicki is here to vibe, and Sabino Canyon Road with some house music blasting through the Walmart head unit is a vibe.
But tomorrow’s Victoria never had to diagnose anything. The last clue of the puzzle fell into place as soon as I started to relax. Leaning gently on the brakes as I turned into another hairpin, one set of fingers trembling over the ashtray as I worked the wheel with the other set. Slowly, through the 90-degree corner, the headlights dimmed. Ah, yes. The alternator.
Hour 0: Gila National Forest, New Mexico
I woke up late. A night of stargazing under the most beautiful skies I’ve ever seen in my life had meant a fairly sleepless night (albeit one of the best of my life) and I had a seven-mile dirt road trek down a few thousand feet of mountain to NM Route 90. I booked it down the mountainside, having realized in hundreds of miles of driving washboarded National Forest roads that the best way to get over them was to floor it and let the suspension think everything was actually level. This lead to some fantastic moments of momentum conservation that the all-wheel-drive setup on my trusty Hiace, Marsha, was all too happy to pull me out of and fling me into the next straight.
Route 90 was a scenic drive, with the bushes and vegetation of the high desert finally giving way to honest-to-God cacti and vast, flat stretches of sand where my GPS would tell me it was 10 miles to the next town, but I already could see it as a lone oasis of gas stations and houses on the horizon. It was remote and gorgeous, and it was a good sight to remind me of how alone and how fragile every desert traveler truly is.
The plan: Stop off in Lordsburg for some diesel and a shower, and then head back north, into Arizona, hopefully for a night in the Petrified Forest and sightseeing at the Grand Canyon before I ended up in Los Angeles.
Hour 14:15: 7,800 feet, Mount Lemmon Recreational Highway
The vibe was dead. The house music I’d been blasting to the entire mountainside cut out as the speakers no longer got enough power to vibrate. I extinguished my cigarette in the now-invisible ashtray, rolled down the window, and told myself to focus. Marsha’s headlights grew dimmer. My cluster was nearly nonfunctional.
There were no street lamps for another, what, 4,000 feet? I tried to do mental math and remember how far above sea level the city of Tucson is, but all I knew was that it was dark and it was going to stay dark for quite a while.
Hour 3: Lordsburg, New Mexico
I looked down at my cluster and saw the dreaded Christmas tree. A Christmas tree on your dash, for those unfamiliar with the term, is unfortunately not a sign of gift-giving and familial love; it’s when every damn warning light your car has decided to shine at once. And my dash was impressive with the sheer variety it offered on display: oil too hot, transmission too hot, coolant overflow tank empty; even the timing-belt replacement interval light was on.
I parked at a Love’s, checked the oil and the coolant overflow, and that I did not simultaneously have this many problems. Time for a shower; this is normally where I would have a panic attack, but I was determined to prove to myself that I was no longer the anxious little boy I was last time I was alone. I was a calm, collected woman. I averted a mental crisis and decided I would determine a course and set sail for it, no matter what that would be.
Hour 14:30: 7,500 feet, Mount Lemmon Recreational Highway
The calm, collected woman at the wheel of her slowly dying Hiace had two choices. Park here in any of these various canyon road pull-offs and make this van future Vicki’s problem, leaving her to sort out the uncharged phone and lack of cell signal and dead alternator, or spare her and get to the bottom. The headlights were growing dimmer every time I hit the brakes. At this hour, mountain traffic was sparse. If I shut the van off and waited for someone to drive by, hoping to follow them down, the battery would have run completely flat and my emergency jump pack was not going to cut it the whole way down after cranking the massive-bore, 3.0-liter, four-cylinder diesel again.
There was one other option, though.
Ahead of me was a Toyota Tundra with headlights that shone like the sun. I could see him on the other side of the canyons as I’d head around hairpins, but he had actually put distance on me since I began my descent. I do love a good tough race, though, and I realized my best hope was to catch the Tundra in the hopes of limping to the bottom following his lights.
Hour 5: Bowlin, Arizona, Interstate 10
After letting the van cool off and witnessing the Christmas tree flicker in and out back in Lordsburg, I employed a very optimistic version of Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation was the answer. When I’d been off-roading in the past week, I had probably gotten some dust in the gauge wiring. The van cranked and started up fine. The coolant level was satisfactory, the oil was definitely healthy, and the gauges otherwise looked perfect.
I settled on a compromise, one that would still get me closer to Los Angeles but also reduce the chances of me dying alone in the desert: I’d skip the rural state routes today and hop I-10 to Tucson. If anything went wrong, I’d have cell signal and could get a tow truck easily. The city was both populous and surrounded by National Forests, so if everything went well I could sleep in the mountains again. If it didn’t, I’d have many more options than the single repair shop in the sleepy town of Lordsburg.
Hour 14:45: 6,000 feet, Mount Lemmon Recreational Highway
I would love to tell you how the hell I caught up to that Tundra. The turbodiesel was working so hard to turn the alternator at this point that accelerating in straightaways was mostly gravitational in nature, so the only way to catch the pickup ahead of me was to simply conserve momentum. I remember making the decision to catch him, and focusing very hard. The next thing I remember was bearing down so hard on his taillights he pulled onto the shoulder to let me overtake, and I slammed on the brakes and explained I needed to tail him down. He happily agreed to help; he seemed to feel the same fragility of life in the desert I had hours ago in Lordsburg, and his anger at my speeding rapidly dissipated into eagerness to help me.
Hour 5:56: Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona
What kind of museum closes at 3 p.m. on a Saturday? The Pima Air and Space Museum had to have been recommended to me by at least a dozen different people; as soon as I realized it was off of I-10, I knew I had to go. I pulled into the lot at 2:56 p.m.; at any sane attraction, this would give me at least a few hours to walk among the giant decommissioned jets parked along the highway, shooting photos to my heart's content. But it was closing in four minutes and the cut-off for entry was 1:30 p.m. I should have ignored the warning lights that still glowed in my gauges—the van had been totally fine, after all, and if I’d gotten here earlier I’d have had a lovely bonus for an otherwise stressful and mostly monotonous day.
Hour 15:00: 3,300 feet, Mount Lemmon Recreational Highway
We had made it to the bottom. I tried not to be too rude and follow too closely to the Tundra that had become my savior, but his taillights were the sole glimmer of hope I had, and I clung to them. There was no sign my van was even running to an outside observer—turn signals, tail lights, even hazards had all now ceased to work. The headlights were all that still functioned, with a perfunctory suggestion of light that illuminated maybe 10 whole feet in front of me. I had cell signal back now at the base of the Catalina Mountains, where I wasn’t surrounded by gorgeous canyons, but my phone was down to six percent.
We stopped at a dark intersection, and I asked if I could tail him back to town—I found a single hotel on this road, my sole hope for rest and the clarity that comes with it. He’d be getting off in a few miles, he explained, but sure, he was happy to help me out further. I floored it as he gingerly accelerated away—the engine barely ran at this point—and tried to keep the van in the sole rev ranges it seemed to function normally at, which was harder to do than it sounds because of the dead gauge cluster.
Hour 8: Tucson, Arizona
After a few hours of glorious internet and cold A/C at a Starbucks, I had decided whatever was wrong with the van could wait until Los Angeles. I would proceed up the mountains to a spot my GPS map told me had cell signal, right near the tallest point surrounding the city. The air would be cool, the skies would be dark, and I could use some relaxation after the stress of the day.
My DC/AC inverter must have died out in New Mexico, though, because all of my devices were pretty much dead by now. No worries. There was a Best Buy along the way; I sprung for a nicer model of inverter, hoping it would be a bit more inured to the shocks of washboards and the dust of campsites, and plugged everything back in. I began to head up the mountain right at sunset.
What a glorious sight. I stopped every scenic overlook I could for photos, soaking in the pure beauty of the desert sun and the Catalina Mountains. It made up for the dull stretches of I-10 in spades; the road was amazing, and the sky was aflame. Some of the pictures I took on the drive up were among the best I’ve ever taken.
Hour 15:15: 2,700 feet, Mount Lemmon Recreational Highway
My savior in his gleaming Tundra was gone, pulled off to his destination. I waved as he turned right, terrified to stop and have the van finally die; all I can hope is he reads this and knows how truly grateful I am.
I had about a mile left to the hotel. There were more street lights now—not enough, but more. Normally, I avoid doing anything that could cause a confrontation with police, such as driving with absolutely no lights on at 11 p.m. in a city I’ve never visited on temporary tags from out of state, but I feared stopping more than I feared getting messed with by cops. A feat for me.
Hour 13: Butterfly Peak Natural Area
I’d made it up right at dusk. I chatted with a couple cuddling at the peak; I tried not to intrude, but they were friendly, and I did want to talk to someone after the gorgeous but solitary days spent in the wilderness of New Mexico. I was exhausted from the heat of the desert and the stress of the gauge cluster woes—plus, the moon was out, and I knew I’d want to wake up in the middle of the night to stargaze after it set. After we’d talked a while, we bid each other farewell, and I left for the comfort of the van, plugged my phone into my battery pack, and passed out.
Hour 15:30: 2,400 feet, Mount Lemmon Recreational Highway
The hotel was not far. I focused and hit all green lights—one was pretty yellow, I will admit, but I could not stop. The hotel was my salvation in the desert and I absolutely could not stop. Finally, Comfort Suites beckoned to me. Air conditioning, a shower, and most importantly, a chance to recoup my lost sanity awaited. I pulled into the parking lot and shut off the van, slumped against the wheel.
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