“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!!! Get some water now!” I screamed at my daughter as I looked at the small flame under the hood of my 2003 Volkswagen camper. I ran to the driver’s seat to grab a water bottle and returned to a larger flame that had multiplied into three locations. The “set the van on fire” incident was one of many memorable highlights in this beautiful relationship. I’ve been reflecting on this memories now that the van has taken her last trip with our family this month.
Stepping back in time, I first met this beautiful 2003 VW Eurovan in the fall of 2019. It was love at first sight. She was sleek silver-gray and reminded me of the grace and agility of a regal elephant. As I drove her for the first time, I was strong and powerful from my elevated perch above the road. As I learned her secrets— easy transformation into a sleeper home, efficient storage under the seats, swiveling chairs and a mini dining room— I could envision seamlessly folding her into my life and having my family become more with her in it.
1. First forays into camping and road trips
I’ve always valued adventure, exploration and travel. Throughout my life, much of this travel has been by plane to explore new global destinations. Having grown up in large cities and with Asian parents who couldn’t imagine wanting to sleep outdoors, I was first introduced to camping in college. During my sophomore spring break, I took a delightful week-long road trip with four other women. My first time sleeping outdoors was in the depths of backcountry camping across Zion and Joshua Tree. I fell in love with sisterhood, road trips, and freedom.
Fast forward some decades and I had regularly integrated car camping into my family life with two city-born girls. It was the opportunity to live outdoors, slow down and appreciate a simpler life. We would spend our time cooking, hiking, swimming; and this allowed my girls the independence to take solo bike excursions. It was something we did and enjoyed as a family of four. Fast forward some years, and one weekend soon after my then-husband moved out of our house, I realized with horror that we had committed to camping plans with my youngest daughter’s classmates. We decided to go, and I enrolled both girls into owning their places in making this adventure work for our new family-of-three. That weekend, I learned that as a solo adult with two little people, I could install our roof rack & carrier, pack all our gear into a car, set up a tent, cook, and even find moments of relaxation through the sheer work of solo parenting.
2. Freedom and Expansion
Through the months post-divorce, we healed. We found new rituals in a different version of family. I explored more of what it meant to expand into myself after having been part of a couple for so long. After months of questing, I left my corporate job. Soon after, as part of going deeper in my coaching journey, I felt a tug and a yearning for spontaneity, freedom, and adventure. And all those feelings wrapped themselves into my heart and came into being with the wild dream that I wanted a Volkswagen camper van. As things felt uncertain with my work and my relationships, I became convinced that the one thing I knew for certain in 2020, is that I was going to take my kids back to Burning Man, and we needed a vehicle to call our home. The universe continues to laugh at my certainty and planning.
Yet I planned on, spending many hours on craigslist dreaming of adventure. I am not a patient person. When I get an idea or a dream into my head, I make it happen as quickly as possible. This van was an impulsive instantiation of the dream, a restless explorer that matched my heart.
3. The Naming of the Van
The naming of things is an important ritual. It signifies a portentous beginning and hopes and dreams wrapped up in the thing. From my professional history as a brand strategist, having been responsible for running naming workshops for many companies and products, I figured this would be easy. Rather than being a dictator as the sole stakeholder, I created the unique design constraint that all three of us — my two girls and I— would have veto power over the name.
We had a broad variety of options, and had a a giant sticky note that all visitors to the house contributed to. Some favorites included:
- Silver Streak
- The Fat Limo
- Bouncy Bus
- Ellie the grey elephant
- Vanny McVan Face (inspired by this naming meme)
After several weeks, it was clear that we were not going to get to a universal consensus. Reluctantly, I acquiesced to the entreaties of my kids (note to self: it’s unwise to give 8 and 11 year olds veto rights) and our gorgeous adventure van was given the oh-so-original name of Vanny.
4. Snippets of Memory
… The first trip was a glorious exploration up to Napa Valley. I felt strong and invincible at the wheel of Vanny, elevated from my diminuative 5' 2" and merrily bouncing along with camping gear packed into the custom little boxes, all safe in their grooves. It felt like having a golden ticket — we pulled into Bothe Napa state park without a reservation and got a secret camping spot reserved for “pass-through” single night travelers self-contained within their vehicles…
… The next trip with kids involved hauling bikes and paddleboards in addition to all the camping gear up to a blissful weekend near Point Reyes. Vanny waited for us patiently as we glided over bat rays and jumping fish paddling through serene Tomales Bay…
… Driving vanpool on the first week of school, insulated as the driver in the front as 5 pre-teens behind me laugh and try to synchronize their phones to all simultaneously play the tik tok video in stereo…
… Vanny took us on multiple snow-boarding trips up to Lake Tahoe, hauling boards and gear for 6 people and making it up and over Echo Summit. She handled like a champ in the slippery ice…
… Vanny hauled surf boards and was with us the first time I paddled out at treacherous Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz where brave and foolhardy surfers take off right by the edge of a cliff…
… Vanny was whitespace and freedom. The ability to pick up and get out of town at a moment’s notice, self-contained and free, carrying our house on our back…
5. Ingenuity & Growth
I learned a lot about engines and maintenance, avidly following multiple online communities and DIY Youtube videos. I learned to buy a scantron to track the engine temperature and other diagnostics. I learned to pull out the battery and lug it into Autozone, obstinately refusing the men’s help to carry it, to charge for free. I felt competent and powerful, unafraid to ask all the mechanics and online fellow VW-lovers for help and advice.
And along the way, there was the day that I set Vanny on fire. I had a dead battery and in the time of Covid-19 was unwilling to interact with AAA. I pulled up my Mazda3, popped open the two hoods, and armed with Youtube and jumper cables prepared to connect the cars.
I mutter to myself “Red to red. Black to black? Or is it black to ground? Hmm…”
“Oh shit, there’s sparks flying.” I google “should sparks fly when you jump start a car” Phew… OK sparks flying are normal.
Alright, the moment of truth. I start the Mazda3, so far so good. I start Vanny and she starts up immediately. The kids cheer from the sidewalk.
Then to my horror, one little flame flares up under the hood. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!!! Sariya get some water!” As the flames get bigger and multiple into three, I feel a strange sense of calm as we empty water bottles onto the fire and it slowly dies down.
A lesson: it’s red to red and black to black. Not black to ground. Oh… and “ground” does not mean any piece of exposed metal that you see under the hood. Connecting “ground” to the exposed metal controlling my windshield wiper system was not a good idea. Though setting something on fire is still kinda cool.
I learned that I had managed to set my car on fire, and everything was still OK. Kids were healthy, and only a minor bill later, the wipers and rest of the electrical system were restored.
6. The Summer of COVID-19
Vanny gave us freedom this summer. We could pull up to our favorite restaurant, get take-out, and eat inside Vanny on real plates & silverware while parked on a cliff overlooking the Pacific.
As things slowly opened up, it felt safer to travel with Vanny and sleep in the uninfected air of our cocoon as we returned to camping. We started to head out of town every other weekend, feeling the pull of the open road after many months of shelter-in-place.
And then there was the day that Vanny died.
We were headed to our friend’s house in Lake Tahoe. Vanny was fresh from the shop, made road-worthy with a new suspension system, control rods, and a clean engine & transmission inspection.
As we headed out of Sacramento on the 80, each of us enveloped in our own music and happy to be headed out of town, I noticed that the air conditioning seemed to be malfunctioning. As I fiddled with the controls, there was an ear-splitting alarm blare from the dash— massive overheating, which had caused the air conditioner to shut down. We pulled off the freeway into a residential street, listened to the furious hum of the radiator fans, and watched the white smoke billow from under the hood. We waited and waited. As the engine cooled down I went knocking from door to door begging for some water as we’d already emptied all the contents of our bottles into the near-empty coolant tank. Coached by multiple mechanics, I managed to revive her and stutter along under 50mph over Donner Pass to an unbelievably kind VW mechanic in Truckee who stayed open to 8:30pm to wait for us.
The verdict: blown head-gasket, meaning that the engine had overheated so drastically that coolant had leaked into the engine. The radiator fans meant to cool down the engines had completely melted from the heat. There was damage to the radiator, engine, and transmission. The damage was so utter and complete, that the expense of resurrection would cost many times more than the value of the car.
That was the day that Vanny died.
7. The Lessons of Vanny
As I grieve my adventure van, I hold these lessons to remember the freedom and patience that she taught us.
- Being weird is a labor of love. The community of Volkswagen enthusiasts is a tight do-it-yourself (DIY) group that has masochistic treasure-hunter tendencies to seek out original parts & find ingenuous ways around lack of manufacturer parts. Through it all, is a fierce loyalty, passion and commitment to the cult of VW. And a sense of belonging that we’re all in this crazy mission of driving classic cars together. We love it because it’s weird.
- Slow down to speed up. I tend to be a speed freak. This happens in business, in surfing / snowboarding, and in how I drive. Vanny has been a continual reminder to slow down, take a break to give her engine some space, and continually monitor my temperature diagnostics (hopefully before something blows up). She’s the perfect metaphor for how I aspire to live my life.
- Remember the feeling of freedom. My adventure van was a symbol and a literal path to freedom & adventure. That feeling continue to live within me and my family as core values.
Rest in peace Vanny. I take pleasure in the fact that you will be re-born into another dubgirl’s van rebuild and will eventually fly on the open road again. Eventually, maybe, we will be ready to welcome another van into our lives. Until then, freedom and adventure will live elsewhere.