1980s Cars, Dark Forests and Human Connection: My JDM Van Journey Goes Northwest
A destination beckons for some blissful time off the accelerator pedal.
Not long after my fruitless mountain hike in the most remote regions of Nevada, I had to book it out of the state I loved so much to head to San Francisco. I had once again over-promised to someone, and not allowed myself the time I needed to make the trip; the last time this had happened (with this same friend) I almost permanently damaged our relationship because I wasn’t able to make our plans work due to my own chaotic scheduling, and I was determined not to let it happen again.
As I blasted through California's Tahoe National Forest—still jaw-droppingly gorgeous despite the haze of the wildfires—I wondered to myself: On a trip with no set deadlines, why do I spend so much time sprinting over mountains and through deserts to make it places? I have perhaps the most fortunate life circumstances possible to allow for unimaginably relaxed travel. I can write from anywhere on Earth. My deadlines are usually flexible and my editors are always understanding, and diesel is (relatively) cheap. And yet, here I was, desert receding into my rearview a mere four days after I drove into it to find peace, long before I had fully undone any of the damage that my breakdown in Los Angeles had imparted on me.
[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 14; you can read parts one through thirteen here.]
It certainly wasn’t my friend’s fault I had overpromised twice now; I have had that tendency for the entire trip. More often than not, I pack my calendar with events and friends and cities and sights, and then in the stretches where I have Marsha’s tachometer flirting dangerously with 3,000 rpm for hours on end, or all I’d like is a nap and I cannot have one because I have back-to-back-to-back plans, I wonder exactly why I’ve put myself here. I have diagnosed this fault of mine since the very beginning of my trip, and yet I struggle to correct it, like a check engine light that steadfastly refuses to respond to maintenance.
After visiting my friend in San Francisco for a long night crammed with activities and fast cars, I planned another visit, but one with a decidedly different vibe.
In the hills of Marin lives my friend who helped me find sanity again after my psychotic break. They were nearby and on the way to my eventual destination—Seattle, Washington—for Radwood PNW—and I just wanted to see them again under happier, more stable circumstances. The last time we had talked, I was still on the precipice of a mental breakdown; now, despite racing across the width of California as fast as my diesel would let me, I was much more relaxed.
We didn’t do all that much for the first few days, and it was nice. I wrote. My friend organized their apartment and showed me a bit around the Marin area, which is stunningly beautiful. On the day before I left, we hiked together. We carried water and a few cameras with us, with no real plans on how far we would make it. My friend knew that there was a beautiful and rare forest a few miles above us, and they wanted to share it with me, but unlike my usual ventures, there were no specific peaks earmarked or challenging distances to cover; it was just for fun.
What ensued was a 12-hour adventure. Our intended destination a few short miles up was only the start; we began our evening watching the sunset over one of the only pygmy Sargent’s Cypress forests on Earth, staring into the mountains nestled in the distance, holding each other as we watched the sun go down, cuddling and taking photos of each other intermittently (the above image was something we took just for ourselves; I was so happy with how it came out my friend said I could use it for my story).
We continued on even after the sunset; we both fed off each other’s energy, mutually agreeing that despite the beauty we had already seen we couldn’t end an afternoon this lovely yet. We hiked onward, eventually finding one of the tallest mountains in the area around 10:30 p.m., just in time to watch the fog roll off the ocean from the summit. We could see over the dense cloud layer as it rolled over the lights of San Francisco miles in the distance, and we watched as it flowed like a liquid around and through hilltops, slowly consuming more and more of the world around us until we were left on the only clear-skied island in a sea of mist.
I realized that had been the most beautiful sight I had ever been able to see with someone. So much of my trip has been flitting into someone’s life, showing them what I can from my own experiences, and pushing onward alone again. I take pictures because I love the art of photography, for sure, but also because I want to capture a moment I spend in solitude and share it with anyone who's willing to look at the shots I take.
And yet here I was, sitting with a person I cared deeply about, who wanted to show me this. When I took these pictures of the fog, it was for us to remember this incredible night. We hiked for ourselves and we kept going for each other, and it made this vista more meaningful than any of the others I had witnessed since the first mountains I climbed back in New Mexico.
We kissed on that mountaintop. This was one of the few visits with someone where I had offered my companion nothing and stayed with for more than the briefest window, and they still cared about me and we loved each other. In that moment, I felt like my presence was enough. Something in me changed that night; I felt like the missing pieces that I have desperately been trying to put back together from the original breakup that sent me on this nomadic path had clicked into place. My guilt about existence and trying to justify my continued presence in peoples’ lives lifted. I left the next morning. I promised my friend I would return someday. I meant it.
I had one more intense journey left: to race up the coast of California to Seattle in just two days and make sure I could get to Radwood in time. Being me, I took the scenic route along Highway 1, despite its low speed limits and meandering coastal hairpins; I couldn’t miss out on the views and the photos. After one final 18-hour day of driving, and I made it to Seattle at 1:30 a.m., just in time for Radwood, Marsha and all.
And the event? Simply great, as all Radwoods are.
I met a lot of people and I got to show off my beloved van, so it was a success for me. But more remarkable was that afterward I finally just… stopped. For the next few weeks, I stayed with friends in Bellingham who had a spare room, and I slept a lot. I wrote some fiction, which I don’t usually allow myself to work on, since it doesn’t advance my career or land me bylines. I went on some dates and allowed myself companionship. I checked out a few cars and forests and mountains but I left the Pacific Northwest knowing there was vastly more to do—photos to take, parks to explore, friends to meet, sights to see—but I just finally had leaned off the accelerator, because I knew I would eventually return, and I’d do more later.
And really, the entirety of how I have approached this trip came into focus once I finally was able to slow down. I have traveled and lived as though every day is my last for four months. Every possible option along the way has been a mandatory detour: something I need to see now, lest I never be able to see it. The fragility of life through COVID combined with the looming dread I would wake up one morning and realize I couldn't "make it" as a writer, shifted my mentality to a state where I couldn’t slow down.
As much as I want to continue on living, I still had difficulty imagining that this life—not only as myself, but as a writer talking about the things I enjoy—would actually continue. I had spent all of my life until this spring assuming that I would never get to do any of this. I truly expected to sit in a fabric-covered box writing out software no one would ever care about until the day I died or retired. And so I was rushing to make sure I could cram as much into this moment, this gift, as humanly possible.
But now it has been four months on the road, and eight as a writer. I can handle life on the road, and even if I had to end my trip tomorrow, I know that I will take more journeys like this again. I love to travel too much to think this will be the one ambitious trip I embark on in my life. The work has kept flowing in even with my absurdly unpredictable schedule, and I think that I will be able to make it as a writer, as has been my hope for years of my life.
And most critically, in my mind, every day is not my last. The future that seemed so nebulous when I first departed is still uncertain—I have to decide where I would like to live, what my relationships will look like, what writing I will put most focus into—but it is a future, and I can live like there will be one.
I am back in the desert, this time for work, to cover the Rebelle Rally that just wrapped up, and when I head back north, I will take my time. If I see a dirt road that intrigues me, I will take it. And eventually, I’ll end up back in a place with the people I care about, and we can take some journeys together.
You can follow Victoria's journey in real time on Twitter here. Got a tip? Send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.