Disaster on Cuyama Peak: How I Nearly Destroyed My Van Alone in the Wilderness
My van gets a second chance, and I learn to give myself one.
There is no bravery in venturing to the wilderness solo in my current state. I am no longer suicidal like I was before, and this is progress, of course, but I am still self-destructive because I can't bring myself to care if something else takes me out. I smoke cigarettes because I know that they hurt me and I still cannot imagine a future where I live to forty years old, and I drive out where cell signal can’t reach and park rangers don’t drive for the same reasons; there's a thrill and the sights are incredible and the potential costs, when I have nothing to lose, feel minimal.
The way I introduce myself to others’ lives is marked by the same patterns. I intentionally pass through their lives rapidly, a fleeting moment of connection with the novelty of someone interesting and exciting in a life of repetition, the one promise that something more bold and exciting lies beyond the daily grind if we could just all grasp it. I try to be a meteor of social connection, fleeting, beautiful, and definitionally impermanent. But breaking my van, my home—and I mean really breaking it, as you'll see—has brought me to a new realization.
[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 ten; you can read parts one through nine here.]
This trip has been a flurry of hectic bouncing from literal peak to literal peak, as I drive down one mountain in the morning and ascend another in the evening. It’s a pace that is only accomplished by burning the candle at both ends, but when the lifetime of the candle is an afterthought, you might as well, right? I justify it because there is a story to be told larger than me, there has to be. It’s the only way I can square with the selfish impulses I’ve acted on, to throw away a career writing code that promised wealth and stability that I could spread to those around me, and instead trade all of that for an intentionally rickety lifestyle where I lived on the razor’s edge of survival and despair.
And I was doing well on the edge, admittedly. But then, after the incredible experience I had in Los Angeles, where everything seemed possible and the world seemed so much more open, I left. I had to continue northward, to the first in-person Radwood show in well over a year, up in the Bay Area. And because I am me, I drove to Cuyama Peak in the Los Padres National Forest, about thirty miles from the nearest town.
This was the hardest trail I had hit yet. As I raced up the mountain—the sun was setting, and my God, I did not want to drive this in the dark—I felt rocks smash against Marsha's subframes and differentials and meekly under-armored factory skid plates. I apologized profusely to her as I worked the wheel up the treacherous path, but I felt a compulsion to reach the top. Something was waiting for me up there. Ever since I saw my first mountain, I have felt the magnetism of the peak. I am drawn to finding higher ground because I want to accomplish anything at all that proves I am worthy, that the decisions I made were correct and not selfish.
So up I went, and I made it. The view was one of the most stunning I’ve ever witnessed. Panoramic expanses of mountain ranges in every direction, tens of miles out; it was the highest peak in the region and I stood above it all. In my joy, I wrote on a piece of scrap wood on the fire tower “Marsha and Tori made it here. We’ll keep making it.” I called my friend that night and told her that the drive down was going to be difficult, but even if something bad happened, I legitimately thought the view was worth it, and I had proved to myself I could accomplish whatever I wanted by making it to the peak.
But that’s the part of burning the candle at both ends that’s easy. If my van had gone off one of the many cliffs that lined the trail and my existence ended then and there, I’d be done, dusting my hands off and eternally unbothered by the legacy I’d leave. It’s a cop-out, but it’s a cop-out I fooled myself into thinking I was brave for looking in the eye and accepting.
I drove down without a single fear the next morning. It was tricky, but it was easier than the drive up last night had been, and the sense of hubris that had gripped me since Los Angeles overtook me. I confidently guided Marsha down, deftly dodging rocks left and right, hugging canyon walls to coax her over washed-out sections of trail, and generally feeling like a badass. I had tamed a mountain, and the first truly challenging one yet. My sense of worth, as warped as it is, was telling me that I was hot shit.
Pride cometh before the fall, and hubris cometh before the giant goddamn rock. Minutes later, I slammed something off a boulder I didn’t see. Marsha’s rear axle leaped into the air as the worst mechanical crunching sound I’d ever heard reverberated through the cabin. Did I break her, finally? She landed back on all four wheels and kept driving. No oil lamp illuminated on the dash. No trail of differential fluid behind me. Vicki, chill out a little.
But the rock did a solid job; one more dip in the road and its handiwork was fully revealed. The van was clearly and horrifically broken, the sound of metal on rock clanging through the still air as I fruitlessly tried to surge her forward. She wouldn't go. This was a different feeling than back in Tucson, where I had an obvious escape route; this trail was remote, the failure immediate and potentially catastrophic. At the top of the mountain, chained to the long-abandoned fire tower, there was a notebook in a metal lockbox. The last person to have been here biked up to the peak in mid-June. It was now early July. Marsha had to get down; there was no help coming.
The damage was apparent when I stepped out to investigate. With an assist from good old iron oxide, I had smashed the frame and broken a critical suspension component. The worst rust on the van was mostly relegated to one place: the driver side trailing arm front bracket, mounted to the unibody. The design, I’ve since learned, is horrifically bad, more or less doomed to trap dirt, moisture, salt and any other corrosive agent within it. That bracket murders many Hiaces long before the drivetrain is near its final breaths. Marsha had succumbed to the same problem, and now my trailing arm was embedded an inch deep in the dirt. That's what was stopping the van from moving.
Despite this, I had no fear. This is what I signed up for. The nearest human being was probably fifteen miles away; If I could survive, this was going to be on me, and I relished the challenge. I still had signal so I called a friend, self-destructive impulses not quite that crippling, and told them my dilemma. If I didn’t call back by about 5:00 pm, maybe send up a park ranger. I’d be fine until then. I didn’t have any ratchet straps, or rope, or anything at all structurally strong enough to bind a control arm to a frame, but I’d think of something. I would fix this.
And think of something I did. I am, as I hope is clear by now, very adventurous. When I wrote about Second Puberty, there was an unspoken part of the journey that I was afraid to mention out loud, lest I scare off my readership. Since transition, I have had many incredible experiences where I felt I could finally enjoy the sensation of being intimate because my body finally does not disgust me. It is truly the most truly adolescent part of Second Puberty, but it's also something I want to explore in a way I never dared the first time. Because I am so far removed from any traditional idea of love or relationships or stability, I packed a suitcase explicitly for Fun Adult Stuff.
The suitcase is a small airplane carry-on. I jokingly dubbed it the Suitcase of Sin. I won’t bore or titillate you with details of exactly what it contains, but it does hold a lot of cuffs. When all you have is a broken trailing arm, everything looks like a ratchet strap. So I grabbed an engine hoist chain—which I will assure you was solely there for non-engine-hoist reasons—and a padlock and some handcuffs, and got to work raising the trailing arm out of the dirt so I could make it down the mountain. And it seemed to work. The way the suspension geometry pushed weight on the various chains and padlocks was unclear to me, but after a quick and successful test run of about 50 feet, I decided this was my best shot.
All I had to do was make a quick stop halfway down to add some leg irons to the kinky repair job. From there, the remainder of the 12 miles down Cuyama (and I’m ashamed to admit the rest of the 15 miles to a gas station where I could send a tow truck) went so smoothly you could forget that my van was held together with literal bondage toys. Thank God I had the hard kinks and sprung for the good stuff. A few hours later, the tow truck deposited Marsha at World Famous 4x4 in Burbank, a renowned off-road shop my editor-in-chief found for me that relishes a challenge. He picked me up in his 1988 K5 Blazer—you saw it here yesterday, cruising in the LA River—and I crashed at his house for a few days while the shop tried to figure out if the van was fixable.
Radwood was rapidly approaching and I still had a completely destroyed vehicle, one I had no knowledge or skills to fix myself. But Los Angeles’ hubris infected me once again. Yeah. They’d fix it. I was unbothered; sure, it sucks it broke, but I would figure it out! I’m the lady that defeated Cuyama Peak in a van held together with shackles. Radwood was the next big event on my itinerary after the Mercedes speech. It was the only other hard date I had to make. I’d get there.
I rode up with the Car Bibles crew, who graciously let me and my friend Laura (from all those months ago on the test run), stay with them. Laura had planned to join me on the road for a spell, and our time together was to start with Radwood; after popping in and out of cities, for the last few weeks, the plan was to hit the road again and resume the life I'd been living, with Laura as a guest. Van or no van, Radwood was incredible and a full story will be coming on what I saw there. But as the show wound down that weekend, I was forced to confront the fact that my frenetic pace had been forced to a grinding halt, the open road now a distant memory.
Laura and I were invited to crash with a friend in Oakland while I breathlessly awaited word on Marsha from World Famous 4x4. Immediately, I grappled with my guilt at intruding on my hostess' life like someone with no other options. No longer was I a meteor passing through with momentary brightness. I had crashed into the firmament of her living room through a combination of hubris and self-destructiveness. I did not need to feel bad, of course. She was wonderful to me. And she was uniquely positioned to understand the chaotic sequence of events that landed me in her home.
When she was younger, she rode a Vespa across America. She’d probably be dead if people didn’t help her and she hadn’t made the same realizations I am trying so desperately to force to sink in right now. Another overly ambitious and self-destructive trans woman has landed on her doorstep; this is her moment to pay it forward. She recognizes the meteorite in her living room and wants to help her. And she did. Not only did she keep me off the streets of Oakland, but she also gave me a living example of someone who survived a lack of self-preserving instinct and learned from it. I realized I needed to experience the same growth she had gone through.
But before I could try a little self-improvement, disaster knocked. I got a call from the shop. Their initial appraisal: Attempting to repair Marsha without an OEM bracket could further exacerbate structural weaknesses that might lead to worse breakdowns on future peaks. Even without off-roading, a suspension fix like this has to be completely dialed in, lest it let go at 70 mph on the highway. They recommended perhaps looking for another van; this one might be totaled.
I was devastated. It wasn't that I couldn't keep going. Mathematically, the finances would work to buy another van. I have a Honda Accord Aerodeck sitting back in Texas I could sell, and the part-out value of Marsha would surely get me to where I could afford another camper, and possibly even another Super Custom Hiace. But I had no desire to move on. Tori and Marsha made it to Cuyama Peak; this story is as much about my beloved van as it is about me, and I couldn't imagine enjoying the rest of my journey without my Hiace, that had shown me the desert and taken me up the towering mountains of the West without complaining.
I had wondered if I'd exhaust myself on the trip; I had stories in mind for when I had burnt out or injured myself or finally collapsed of pure fatigue and failed due to my human limits. I hadn't planned a story for Marsha needing to call it quits; I had such faith in her it never crossed my mind. I was rudderless for the first time since I left Texas.
But I didn't have to write that piece, and I am so, so thankful for that. I caught two more lucky breaks last week, helped once again by others who wanted this story to continue. Unable to give up the fight, World Famous 4x4 called in a CNC specialist for me to create a brand-new OEM style bracket from scratch and offered to install a lift kit to avoid future marriages of rock and frame. Marsha will live again—not only that, but the template will be used to fab new brackets for other Hiaces. I was euphoric.
In the meantime, my friend and fellow automotive writer Derek Powell loaned me his Audi Allroad as a Los Angeles runabout, and I've been driving around the mountains in San Bernardino with it, aimlessly driving up mountains because I missed doing it, trying to get back into the groove that was demolished when I thought I had destroyed my beloved van.
When Marsha returns from her mechanical surgeries, I will go back to Cuyama. For one, it'll be a fantastic test of my lift kit; I suspect the rocks that troubled me last time will be an afterthought on my next ascent. But more importantly, I want to make the same drive fully aware of the risk, and with a desire to have both of us come back down intact. Marsha's near-death experience made me realize I don't need to have one of my own to tell a good story or prove my worth to myself. Part of slowing down should be self-preservation, and I want to keep us both around. I have more to write, and she has more mountains to climb.
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