Spring has come but there are still piles of snow around and freezing temperatures at night. The roads are still lousy with sand and salt. In the garage is a humped gray ghost that smells slightly of peppermint, from the several jars of strategically-placed essential oils that I distributed to ward off mice. Every now and then I lift up her skirt to reveal a Ruby Red fender or the polished dome of a hub cap. The time is coming. But not just yet.
In another garage, twenty miles away, sits another gray ghost, this one in the shape of a loaf of bread. We made it here just fine, in the end of September, after 1,251 miles of driving. Unsure what sort of weather autumn would bring — or more precisely, when the weather would come — I saw no point in registering and insuring Stella in her new home state, only to put her into winter hibernation shortly thereafter. So I proceeded to fix the things we broke, changed the oil, tuned up the engine, did a thorough wash and wax, filled the tank, poured in a few ounces of stabilizer, and drove her down the turnpike to the rented garage space I’d found. There, I pulled the battery, threw a cover over her, and I haven’t seen her since.
The time is coming for her too. Last week I set up the insurance, and registered her with a vanity tag. “STELLA” was taken; “STELLA 72” was one too many digits. But I did get “72 WESTY”, which is pretty darn cool. So, soon. But not yet.
On the last Friday of October I left for a work trip, and would not return home until late Tuesday night. Since May we had been working with a real estate agent to find a place. We had toured several. All had their faults. In the one case in which we had made an offer, we were summarily outbid. Ours was an offer a bit higher than I was comfortable with but it was still a crushing defeat. It was a really cool old house — to say nothing of the large, detached, two-car garage shop, with a wood stove. Quickly we learned that we would have to pay a lot more for a lot less. Quickly we learned that we would have to move quickly. We were buyers in a sellers market.
The voicemail was waiting when the wheels touched down in Baltimore. There was a new listing, my wife said. It looked promising. I could check it out on my app. There was to be an open house on Sunday, she said, and offers would be accepted until Tuesday at five. We had discussed the possibility — or probability, as the Big Things usually seem to occur when I’m elsewhere — that she might have to make the decision alone. While not ideal, I said that it would be better this way than the other way around. I was interested in a Garage Mahal with a somewhat functional house; she was interested in a nice house in a nice neighborhood.
When I returned to Maine we were under contract.
The 1,251 miles were distributed over five days of driving. Heading north out of Asheville and into the Blue Ridge Mountains, I downshifted into third as we climbed, holding our breath — she, embarrassed by the nuisance we were making of ourselves in the slow lane; me, with one eyeball glued to the oil light, worrying about the air-cooled flat-four overheating. There were some grades, deep in the Alleghenies, which called for second gear, both for enough torque to pull the overloaded Westy, but also to take the hairpin curves in a somewhat upright fashion. All the while I could picture the little engine back there, in its cramped compartment, working furiously to propel our Wonderbread-shaped antique upwards, glowing, steaming, slinging hot oil, working itself into an angry red glow until, until . . .. But it never overheated. Not even close.
We learned what it’s like to camp in a VW Bus. We have been married for twenty-four years, and sometimes when stressed we snip at each other, bitterly, like an elderly couple. Yet we found ourselves, for the most part, comfortable in camp.
Over the course of 1,251 miles the list of mechanical issues was, thankfully, short and minor: One broken interior sliding door handle. One fussy lock, passenger door. One loose turn signal stalk. And once, at a noisy rest area on I-81 somewhere in Pennsylvania, I turned the key, the appropriate dash lights came on but nothing happened.
I checked to make sure my hearing aids were on.
(Yes, at 48, there’s that now to deal with. Get over it.)
“Uh, is the engine running?” I said.
“No,” she said.
I tried again. Still nothing.
Long before we set out, I had spent hours on http://www.thesamba.com, attempting to put together a manageable, sensible list of tools and spares to carry on board. The opinions, as you might imagine, are widely varied. Some carry a spare, well, everything, short of an engine block; others suggest naught but a smile, a cell phone, and a AAA card. Knowing that my S.O. would draw the line somewhere short of a roadside clutch job (though a clutch cable made the cut), I planned accordingly. A smile is a tall order, but aside from the cell phone (and, I admit, my AAA card), I did manage to assemble a reasonable collection of tools and spares. But the most valuable asset, then and forevermore, was my newfound sense of aplomb.
I muttered to myself for a moment or two, thinking. Then I put the gear shift in third (or at least, in the vicinity where I estimated third might live), released the parking brake, got out of the car, and tried to push the Bus backwards. I could see her through the windshield. After all these years I still wonder what she’s thinking sometimes. She is not a poker player. But she should be. The look was somewhere between benevolent tolerance and mild amusement. Her look did not change when I climbed back in, turned the key, and old Stella roared (or the VW equivalent thereof) back to life.
“That is all,” I said.
It never did that again, but I suspect it will, someday. And I’ll be ready.
And there was always, after the first few miles of driving each day, the rented bowling shoe/rancid French-fry smell, due to the bad oil leak that I had fixed, but which left the exhaust soaked with it. I guess I had hoped the stink would burn off by the time we were half-way through Virginia. It didn’t. I have assured her that the otherwise perfectly functional exhaust system, heater boxes and all, will be replaced before she agrees to camp in it again. To be fair, although the days of the cabin filling with a smoky, oily haze are thankfully in the past, the residual smell was making me slightly ill, too.
This was not our only shared complaint. Routes that the smartphone claimed would be five hours ended up being more like nine. While I enjoy driving the old Bus — pleased with how well I (finally) got it to run, appreciating the experience of doing this thing in the twenty-first century, seeing that really, it is about the journey — I can see how, from a non-aficionado passenger’s perspective, the long hours in the original (!) seats can be tedious.
And man, they do call that compartment hung on the ceiling a “head banger” for good reason!
Still, I would take it about anywhere, for any length of time. I’m not sure my S.O. feels quite as enthusiastic about it. Long weekends may be the rule, at least when it’s the two of us. But I may be able to entice with Vermont or the Adirondacks. I may be able to tempt with Nova Scotia, or Prince Edward Island. We have a new reach here in Maine. A recalibrated sense of striking distance.
My sigh of relief after the closing was not due to the fact that there were no hitches or that we finally had our own home in Maine. It was because the roads were dry and still salt-free. I went back to the apartment, pulled the cover off of Rubylove, reconnected the battery, checked the oil and, with the turn of the key, took her for one last drive before winter really hit. And that is how that car became the first personal belonging I took to the house I will probably die in.
Our house is as ugly as sin. The front faces defiantly north, and therefore never sees direct daylight. The high school sports fields across the street give no quarter from frigid Canadian air masses. During our first bonafide “nor’easter” I glanced out the living room window to behold the awesome power of my first Maine blizzard; I noticed flakes of lead paint, faded and blue, lying in the fresh snow.
We owned the house for several weeks before moving in. We were to have the pros move the furnishings, but for everything else me and my Subaru shuttled endlessly between the apartment and the house, which were fortunately only a mile apart. I brought my old turntable over and spun vinyl while I spent days painting trim, doing minor electrical work, hanging shelving in closets. We had an electrician come in for some other things. We got estimates on redoing the bathroom. There were several snow events; the driveway is only slightly larger than a pool table but the berm that the city plows deposit at the end of it makes for a good hour’s worth of labor, at least. That the boiler, which seems to be original to the 80–year-old house, still works is a challenge to my atheist ways, but we got estimates for that too.
Two weeks before moving in we had a two-day thaw which melted most of the snowpack, followed by a hard and steady overnight rain. On the morning of the third day I went to the house and discovered an inch or so of water in one corner of our unfinished basement. It appeared to be seeping in behind the oil tank. Amongst our piles of belongings I located the wet-vac, and proceeded to clean up the mess.
Meanwhile, upstairs, a painter we had hired was re-finishing the kitchen cabinets.
“Does the fact that I have water in my basement make me a Mainer?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but you get credit for the wet-vac.”
Bean boots, check. Subaru, check. Wet-vac, check. What else?
The week before moving in we stopped by to admire the cabinets, with the painter just finishing up.
“Wow!” we both said, in stereo. “Looks great!” And it did. I have to pause to give my wife credit here, With everything else the long-neglected house needed, refinishing the almost-new cabinets would have been on my list of, well, never. But she assured me that exchanging the dark cherry finish with white would add much needed light. With the house facing north, the kitchen in back, and the house behind us taller than ours and close enough to hit with a paper airplane, I guess she had a point. I shrugged and said “whatever”. But now, seeing the results, I am convinced that my wife is a visionary. She was right.
For a moment I just stood there and admired both her judgement and the painter’s good work. It was late afternoon, dark already, and even with all the lights on there were unfamiliar shadows. So it took me a moment to comprehend something I saw, or thought I saw, on the ceiling, just above the dishwasher. As it came into focus, for a fleeting second I let myself believe that it was there already, or that it was a game the dim light and shadows were playing. But that wishful delusion soon passed. What it looked like, not to put too fine a point upon it, was a single, swollen, milky boob, growing right out of the plaster ceiling. And, I noticed, it was leaking.
“What’s that?” I said.
I was the first to notice it. The painter, in spite of having been in that exact room for hours, only now seemed to notice it. Either she had somehow caused the pasty white expanding boob in question, and was now knowing nothing, or it had just started.
Upstairs, above the kitchen, there is an odd little room. Even the neighbors I’ve met, the ones who have been in the neighborhood for a while, know about this room. In this room there is a window, a small built-in cabinet, and a claw-foot tub. That’s it. There is no radiator in there, nor an electrical outlet. From all appearances, it is original to the house. We call it “the bath tub room”, when we call it anything at all. It might see use at some point in the future but right now it’s just a weird little room with an identity crisis. And a leaky fixture. A fixture which, according to Those Who Know, was hooked up wrong in the very beginning, sometime during the later days of the Hoover administration. And for which parts are no longer available. Fortunately, though, the shut-off valves that rise from the floor behind the tub function as intended, so I managed to arrest any further damage on the spot.
Filed under: Later.
The first night in the house, it came as no surprise that the hot water in the shower lasted about as long as it took to get my hair lathered up. After that it was one hundred percent January-in-Maine water, straight from Sebago Lake. Even then I did not freak. I rinsed (quickly), dried off, and headed down to the basement.
I really like having an actual basement. It gets some heat from the boiler, so it’s even warm when it’s in the single digits outside. I plan on setting up some shop space down there. It’s like having an engine room for the house. I think any VW nut could relate.
I’m also fascinated with the steam heating system. I’ve already read books on the subject. This does not make me an expert. But I do appreciate the fact that somebody, almost one hundred years ago, built and installed a system that still functions to this day. Granted, no matter how much asbestos they sheathed it in, it’s still an inefficient dinosaur. I thought about asking the fuel oil company how much it would cost to simply park one of their trucks in my driveway until, like, April. We plan on keeping the steam radiators but swapping the old boiler for a gas-fired unit. But until then, I get to play with this olden thing and hope it doesn’t die in a dramatic fashion.
The hot water coil is piped to this system. We’re having a new hybrid-electric hot water tank installed soon, as a prelude to the boiler replacement. But fancying our showers warm in the interim, I searched for something meaningful. There is a low-water cutoff, an auto-feed unit, a little box with a dial (a pressuretrol, I presume), a few air vents here and there, some unreadable gauges and fragile-looking valves that I could not identify, and a whole tangle of copper and steel pipes. Some of the pipes lead to a dead-end, a second room off the basement that must have had, at one time, a separate hot water circuit for whatever reason. Others lead up into the house.
I traced one pipe to the hot water tap in the utility sink, just a few feet from the boiler. I turned the tap on full and let it run. In the meantime I felt the pipes in various places. It was very hot leaving the coil, but after one tiny little valve where a cold pipe joins in, the line to the sink was lukewarm, at best. The valve looked (to me) too small to be an aquastat; given its location, I wondered if it was a mix valve of some kind. Crouching, with my reading glasses and a headlamp, I could read the faded label on the valve: “Colder”, and “Warmer”, with arrows. “120F” one way, “160F” the other. Sure enough, a slight twist of the valve and all is well, the water is hot. And I mean HOT!
Which should work well until we get the new water tank in a couple of weeks. Or old rubber washers disintegrate, soldered joints break lose, the dishwasher feed line melts, and one of us ends up in the burn unit at Maine Med. Whichever comes first.
I bring all of this up because it occurs to me that wrenching on old Volkswagens has made me a better person. Or, at least, I’m still a moody, selfish, insecure, solipsistic a-hole. But now, I’m a better informed, more self-assured, more capable moody, selfish, insecure, solipsistic a-hole. I generally don’t freak anymore. I generally don’t lie awake nights. I realize — not just on a mental level, but at an emotional, existential one — that old shit breaks. And it can be fixed.
In this way, the first few nights in the house reminded me of those first experiences with my newly-rebuilt Beetle. It was hardly relaxing, those first days behind the wheel. Instead, I was white-knuckled, holding my breath, just waiting for something to go wrong. Every noise, whether real or imagined, was an impending disaster. It took some trust — both in the machine, as well as in my newfound skills — for that on-the-edge feeling to dissipate. Now, driving the Beetle is almost always fun.
I went through this with the Bus, too, but the time frame was compressed. I don’t know if it was the elevation, the oil reek, or the fact that I was holding my breath, but in the hour or two after leaving Asheville I was feeling a little light headed. But by the time we made New England and had hundreds of miles behind us, I was far more at ease.
Our house is in the city, on a postage-stamp lot, with an attached, one-car garage. While there physically might be room to expand the garage outward, my precursory assessment of the zoning laws leads me to suspect that I might be encroaching on the sidewalk (it’s a corner lot). A parking pad might be permitted, depending on how loosely one interprets the word “structure”. But I’m not sure. For this season, at least, I’ll be renting a lock-up only a mile away and resort to rotating my stock, much like I did before — drive/work on one VW, park the other off-site. In the wintertime, I’ll have to pick which one to have close at hand. It is not a question of love. I know already that next winter, if I have the choice, it will be the Bus, since there are projects I have in mind (dual carb upgrade and window rubber replacement, to name two things). But sometimes it will be the Beetle.
These are good choices to have to make, but they’re still choices.
In the meantime, pipes clang, valves hiss, floorboards creak.
What’s that noise?!?!
What will it take, really, to be a Mainer? What will it take to no longer be considered “from away”? What will it take to earn my Maine Man Card? Do I need to ice fish for smelt? Lose a lobster boat in a gale? Curate a convincing story of youthful summers spent picking potatoes in a township with a number instead of a name? Lose teeth in a drunken brawl on a wharf? Kill a moose with my car? With my grandfather’s Winchester? With a crow bar?
“Thirty-five years,” a fellow Mainer (demographically speaking) recently told me.
I’m not sure if he was serious, if this was some definitive answer, but I don’t plan to live that long. So the answer is: I will never be a real Mainer. I will always be from away. But at least I’ll pass from a place of my choosing.