My fondness for vans can be traced back to early childhood. My father kept a ’72 Chevy in our Hop House and I used it as a fort on rainy days. It wasn’t your typical van. The back was open with two side benches. Orange shag carpeting covered the floor and seats. Wooden panels were plastered to the walls and posters stapled upon them. The busty Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders smiled behind the driver’s seat in their blue and silver uniforms. There was also a black light and a couple of velvety posters to accompany it. A graduation tassel from 1977 swung back and forth on the rear view mirror. Books and National Geographic magazines were stacked in crates. Playing in my father’s van felt like exploring the world in a time machine.
Impressively, my father had bought the van before he could drive. At age eleven he’d started collecting articles from Hot Rod Magazine and kept them in a 2″ binder. Because of his dedication, organization and commitment, his father allowed the purchase a year before his sixteenth birthday. Dennis Utter, an older friend of my father’s, drove it from the buyer to Cherry Valley, NY. For the next year, my father worked on the van and transformed it into a piece of art, from the outer paint job to side pipes. The binder certainly payed off.
Stories about the van were legendary. There were plenty of times I’d overheard adult conversations about, “That time in Tom’s van.” My dad and his friends would laugh and I’d image a rowdy crew of teenagers in the 70s with long hair and short shorts packed in the back listening to rock and roll music and headed to the nearest backwoods party. When I turned 15, I told my father I wanted to fix up the van and get it back on the road. He agreed and the van that had been in storage since 1980 slowly came back to life. That summer, I took on extra jobs, starting my mornings at 7 am on my grandparents farm picking vegetables. Then my grandmother would drop me off in Cherry Valley around 9 am to be a swim instructor at Clark’s gym. When I got back in the late afternoon, I’d either go back to the farm or serve ice cream at Banana Dan’s. The nights I closed at the ice cream shop, I’d lean against the counter and watch headlights flash up and down Route 20. The next summer, I’d be able to drive and the van would be done. I envisioned myself in the driver’s seat, picking up my friends and rolling into parties as the sun set, just like my father had done. Then when I graduated high school, I would drive it cross country and camp besides the Pacific Ocean. These were my wishful thoughts while I scrubbed down the surfaces and counted my tips.
Over the next year, my father and I replaced the tires, brake lines, fuel lines and engine. I bought tiger print seat covers and upgraded the sound system. The van was ready. On the maiden voyage, I sat besides my father and watched how he worked the stick shift and clutch. We opened the windows and maxed out the sound system with Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Cliche, maybe. Perfect, yes. As we cruised along on the country roads he’d frequented as a teenager, he smiled and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. This was my father’s van. It belonged on the backstreets of Cherry Valley. I humbly bowed out and settled for runner up. I wasn’t meant to be in the driver’s seat of this van.
This spring, I bought my own van. A silver Dodge Caravan without any bells and whistles. I took out the middle row of seat and folded in the back row, threw in all my ground pads, sleeping bags, and road maps. I strung up prayer flags and LED lights. Easter Sunday, my husband and I drove to Cherry Valley and slept in the back. We watched Everest off the hard drive and saw the moon rise. This summer, we’ll road trip to the west coast and climb along the way. It’s the life I began to envision when I was a child reading National Geographic in my father’s ’72 Chevy. For a van that hasn’t traveled much further than Cherry Valley within my life time, it has inspired me to go around the world. I look forward to the warm summer days in which the windows will be open, my hand riding the breeze and prayer flags fluttering… just like in my father’s van.