My JDM Van and I Went to the Brink and Came Back Stronger Than Ever
Featuring Marsha’s triumphant return—stronger at the breaks, unable to be killed, ready to keep on rolling.
As many have noticed, I have been quiet for quite a while. It turns out that a road trip story without my trusty Toyota Hiace, Marsha, is not much of a road trip story, and I had been without her for two months after shattering her undercarriage on a rock on Cuyama Peak. I spent the time trying to stay occupied in Los Angeles, writing and reviewing cars, while I anxiously awaited her complicated repairs to be completed.
The pause was a difficult one for me, which is why updates were sparse and my stories that did come out were somber. I spent most of the time I wasn’t couch-crashing or trying futilely to escape the gravitational pull of Los Angeles squatting in a house in the middle of a remodel. I had permission to be there thanks to a gracious and patient friend who lives very close by, and who helped me through my mental exhaustion as the loneliness seeped in and meaning left me in a city of chaos. It was not homelessness; no one would arrest me, and many of the institutional challenges that the homeless of this city face I was exempt from, but it still was admittedly difficult. There was no running water or appliances. I used a porta-potty for the restroom and a bottle of water or my friend’s bathroom to shave and brush my teeth, just like I did in the wilderness, except in a multimillion-dollar shell of a house in the Hollywood hills; the irony of Los Angeles is not lost on me. And similar to Marsha's initial prognosis, I faced what felt like complete failure, my narrative shattered and my hope fading.
[Editor's note: Writer Victoria Scott is taking off to travel the country this year 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 12; you can read parts one through eleven here.]
I was torn at various points throughout the forced pause in my journey on how I should proceed. The wait for the repairs was originally supposed to be much shorter, but as the shop—World Famous 4x4 in Burbank—encountered more and more challenges with excising Marsha’s cancerous rust, the timeframe kept stretching. At first it would be a few weeks; then the CNC machinist they contracted made an error in the new brackets, then complications with their installation pushed things out even further. At every unforeseen delay, I considered going back to Houston and giving up on the journey until later; I was tired of a lack of autonomy, my lack of a home, and having to continually rely on my friends to keep me going as my exhaustion heightened. It was disheartening, but I so desperately wanted to continue. Why? The forced break felt like failure enough; to go home would feel like complete abandonment of the very mission that gave me purpose.
Finally, I was forced to confront my single-minded obsession with continuing my journey when despair set in. That feeling was helped along not just by the admittedly absurd juxtaposition of the Hollywood sign and Bentleys littered outside the gutted house I was using for shelter, but by the weight of everything collapsing around me. As I burned away the summer days writing or sitting inside the empty home, some of my friends became sick or unhoused, the skies were darkened with soot from the wildfires raging throughout California, and every morning I would wake up, open my phone, and face bleaker and more alarming headlines about some imminent collapse of the climate or politics or the economy. I was sitting still and powerless as I watched everything fall apart.
That’s nothing new, of course - the country has been like this since my very first memories as a child. 9/11, like it is for many millennials, is one of the first events of national importance I remember. I was six. Ever since then we have faced an ever-accelerating downward spiral of polarization, escalation, and the Fear. I fled my home for two natural disasters in the span of a year because of the deteriorating climate of the Gulf Coast, while I didn’t—couldn't—come out at my old job because of the political climate of the previous administration. The underlying mechanism of the Fear may be ever-changing, but it still grips us, and we all are told we are powerless to fight it, because the mechanisms that cause it are vastly outside of our control and our individual actions are meaningless in the face of massive systemic problems.
But finally, as I plummeted to the depths of despair (helped along by medication woes, as my prescriptions ran out from being stuck for so long) and was forced to confront my darkest thoughts as I grappled with my self-imposed sense of failure, I had the realization that this trip has become, for now, the source of my meaning. The Vanscontinental Express is both my offering of gratitude to the friends that have shown kindness and love to me in a period before I can fully pay their good deeds forward, and a whole-hearted rebuttal to a world that refuses to let me be free of the Fear and insists that I am inconsequential and purposeless. This is how I face the Fear. This is how I have been able to feel free of the Fear for the first time in my life. I wanted to drive forth into the unknown again and prove that not only could I defeat it, but I could bring joy and inspiration to others by doing so. And so this road trip through the West in a little Toyota van has become my solace in a world that has been on fire my whole life, and my reassurance that someday I can help my friends extinguish the inferno and we can have the futures we deserve.
Armed with the realization of why the trip had become so wrapped in my psyche, at last I made arrangements to leave Los Angeles without Marsha in early September and be with friends. I wanted to give myself the comfort and kindness I had not let myself feel since I broke Marsha, and return to my voyage through the West reinvigorated. The world, my friends, the journey—they could wait for Marsha and I to be ready again, and they would understand.
And then World Famous 4x4 called the next day. Marsha was done, her shattered undercarriage fully repaired just as I had gently reassembled my fragile psyche.
As I write this, we have at long last been reunited. World Famous encountered problem after problem caused by the ravages of age on her rust-mottled underbelly and seized bolts, but they still resurrected her from a near-certain death and managed to save our trip together. The sheared unibody horns are stronger than they ever could have been from the factory thanks to reinforced CNC machined replacements welded directly to her undercarriage. A two-inch-lift kit has replaced the tired, leaking struts. She stands taller and prouder than she ever has, and although I did not enjoy being stuck in Los Angeles for as long as I was, I feel like I, too, am proud to have waited for her, and for the first time in months the open road is calling us, and I find my purpose renewed.
A quote that stuck with me through my times of despair was one from Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms. A fatalistically pessimistic Henry muses: "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
The intent of the quote is to say that no one good survives; Hemingway was famously very depressed. But the inverse of his statement that finally became clear to me is that the very good and the very gentle and the very brave will be stronger at the broken places. If the world does not kill us, we will be more resilient than we could have imagined. Marsha sure is; she has the most reinforced trailing arm brackets of any Hiace on the planet and ground clearance that could make a Wrangler blush. As far as myself—I am not very good, very gentle, or very brave, but I want to be, and I think this strength will help me reach it. I am excited to see what comes next for us both, and in a world gripped with anxiety about what will happen next, that feels like a victory already.
I am typing this from a Starbucks thirty miles from Temecula, finally free of Los Angeles; with Marsha restored and my own motivations clearer than ever, we hit the open road immediately and it has been a true joy. From here, the plan is vague outside a burning desire to get the hell out of southern California, but I want to keep going until one of us needs a break, and then I will allow us to have it. In the meantime, we will enjoy our times of strength together.
You can follow Victoria's journey in real time on Twitter here. Got a tip? Send us a note: email@example.com
MORE TO READ
Pressing Pause on Van Life, and Homesick for a Broken Toyota Hiace
Homesickness sets in after two months on the road, but not for the life I left behind in Texas.
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.