When our family grew to four we realized, or perhaps were just subtlety brainwashed by media, that we needed a larger family style vehicle. In stereotypical fashion we purchased a mini-van- A Gold Chrysler Town and Country. It wasn’t spectacular or remarkable in anyway on the day we bought it slightly used, and it would remain that way throughout its existence in our home.
It was a gold van with three rows of seats, decent storage, and surprisingly mediocre fuel efficiency. It had a factory tape-deck/Cd player that we never upgraded. A mini-van will do nothing for your street-cred, rep, or make you look cooler in any way. Ever. They are vehicles designed with one purpose, store as much stuff and people as possible, in relative comfort. This was also my wife’s vehicle, so it meant I would only need to be inside it by choice, or during family travel. It became pretty evident to me early on that while this van would not be “cool” or “fun” in any way, it would function quite well as a travel vehicle for me when I went out on photography expeditions, and although it was truly a less than awesome vehicle I do have several interesting memories of this gold van.
The first real photography adventure I took in 2008 was to the American Southwest. It was an eight to ten day sojourn to shoot such popular places as the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Havasu Falls, and a few other iconic locations. It was right at the point in life where I decided, “I’m going to be a professional photographer, no matter what the cost.” In order to better my portfolio I knew I needed to expand my range of images and a trip to the southwest seemed to me the ideal location with which to begin. At this juncture in my career, I made exactly zero dollars from photography, so in order to maximize cost, I opted to bring the van and sleep within its golden walls for the duration of the trip.
Most of the trip was quite uneventful in terms of the van and my experience inside of it. I would roll into a campground, and sleep inside of it. I had removed both rows of back seating, so a mattress and bed area could be laid out inside, and I could sleep.
In addition to being quite unremarkable, this van was also a temperamental b***h. On certain instances it would decide to go into security lockdown mode and just stop working. It decided to do this to me on a few different occasions. The worst was while in Grand Canyon National Park.
I had completed a really full day of photography that began with a 3am hike down to a vantage point about 2/3 of the way in the canyon with a friend of mine. This grueling hike had come only the day after another grueling hike out of a different section of the canyon from a visit to the neon blue waters of Havasu Falls. I had eaten a good dinner, and was ready to get into the van for a full night of restful sleep. I had spent a long and relatively warm day hiking, so I consumed quite a lot of water. When I returned to my camp, I had celebrated two full days of hiking with a couple cold beers. My fluid intake was high that day. When I retired to sleep that night, I knew there was a good possibility that at some juncture during the evening, I would need to wake and make pee-pee. Even knowing that, I really tried to postpone the even as long as I could, as it gets cold in Grand Canyon during the night. While it would get in the low 90s and upper 80s during the day, it was not uncommon for the temperatures to drop into the low 20s at night.
Around one in the morning, I could no longer wait. I had tried to no avail to snuggle deeper into my warm bed, and push aside the urge, but the bladder was full and needed to clear space. I would have to leave the warmth of my cocoon and pee.
I was camping in a normal campground. It was dark so I didn’t need to go walk all the way to the restroom to pee. I could simply exit the van and relieve myself on a nearby tree. I slept nearly fully dressed, for warmth, so the process of preparing to leave the van wasn’t difficult, I simply slid on my boots, unlocked the sliding door, and exited. To preserve the warmth I’d generated inside the van, I slid the door closed behind me. This was where the van rebelled on me.
Somehow our van had gone into security mode when I lay down to sleep, and locked up all the doors. When I had exited the vehicle, I of course, unlocked the door. This was not recognized by HAL the van’s internal monitoring system. Rather than alerting me right when I unlocked the door, it waited until I was mid piss before unleashing a torrent of flashing lights, and blaring horns.
“I’m being stolen! ALERT! ALERT! Listen to my horrendously loud horn, and see my flashing lights”
There’s nothing quite as comforting as being snuck up on by your vans faulty security system while pissing. Of course I almost piss on my legs when the horn starts blasting. I don’t HAVE my keys with me, as I’m not really expecting this…I first need to coax myself to FINISH peeing, so I can get back into the van and find my keys, which of course, I had haphazardly tossed somewhere in the abyss of space I had cleared by removing both rows of seating. Thankfully I had not latched the door or I’m sure HAL would’ve locked me out completely.
Remember I’m in a full campground. It’s one in the morning. Many people are sleeping. I’m in panic mode now to get the van to stop screaming at me, and avoid having the entirety of the campground hate my very existence for destroying their peaceful nights’ slumber.
I can’t find the keys. This process is admittedly more difficult given the loud noise and circumstances.
I finally accidently kick them as I’m scraping around the van, and quickly grab them and attempt to power down HAL. This is old-school technology. There simply isn’t a one-touch fix to this dilemma. I first try to shut all the doors, and unlock the door correctly with the key.
Not the answer.
I try to start the vehicle. Hey fawker, I have the key….SEEE…let’s stop the yelling.
The van won’t start, HAL has put into effect KILL mode. F**K YOU HAL!
My mind is not functioning well at this point. I’m tired and I can’t for the life of me fathom why the van won’t or is not cooperating with what seems like perfectly reasonable attempts to silence its fury.
I try yelling at it, which of course is futile. “F**K YOU VAN!!! SHUT THE F**K UP!!!”
I can literally see 4 or 5 other tents near me. Lights are coming on in their tents. S**t is about to go down soon if I can’t get this van to stop with its nonsensical b******t.
I try to lock and unlock it again only from a different side…and for whatever reason. THIS works. After at least three or four minutes of solid horn it finally, FINALLY silences itself and I’m able to crawl back inside and hide…because at this point I’m not sleeping, I strictly hiding, and hoping that nobody comes with lit torches and pitchforks to kill me.
The next morning I wake and several angry campers glare menacingly my direction, wishing for my death I’m certain.
I LOATHED that van after that and never was fully able to relax while sleeping in it for fear that it would rebel…and it did too, several other times. Mostly it was in parking lots after returning from getting groceries. One other notable time was in the middle of the night on a family vacation. We had pulled into a sleepy little motel late at night…kids asleep in the back, I had put it in shut down mode to go check the hotel for a room…and apparently the van thought it was an opportune time to ruin my s**t.
Kids are awake and grumpy, wife is not happy and requesting very sternly that I make it STOP, lights in the motel are coming on, it was awkward, and of course it required a different combination of starting attempts, and locking and unlocking before it would shut up.
That was one of the finer memories of that gold hunk of s**t.
Then there was the time my youngest son, still in a car seat at the time, decided to projectile vomit while on highway 299 on the way to the coast. It was horrendous, and went everywhere. Better yet once we had him cleaned off and back in his seat, the whole van smelled like rotten cat food for the entire remaining two hours of the drive…and after the trip it had plenty of time to set up nice, and smelled even worse on the drive home.
Baby puke was not the worst smell that the van had ever encountered though. Believe me there was worse. Let me tell you…
I had gone on a winter photography trip with my friend Roberto as well as both of my golden retrievers. The first portion of the trip was great, and even though we almost got HAL stuck on a snowy road we shouldn’t have been driving on in the first place, and slept huddled with the dogs as temperatures tinkered in the single digits, the photography was good and the adventure was worth it.
As our trip progresses the weather stopped being cooperative and things got real. On our last night home we were planning a stop at Crater Lake to make a final sunrise shoot, but the snow was coming down, and the road was beginning to ice up badly. Of course I had not brought any tire chains. Once we realized that the weather and subsequently lower temperatures would not be favorable for us we decided to forego the morning shoot and simply find a hotel to sleep. In rural Oregon in the middle of the night, during inclement weather, this proved to be not easy and everywhere we saw was already filled with travelers who had the same idea, only had it much earlier in the evening.
Seeing as there was no way to get a hotel, we opted for the next option. Push on farther to a point where the elevation was lower, and the temperatures would be at least warm enough to make another night in the van livable. It was late but we figured that if we could make it over the mountain pass and back down to Interstate-5 we would be able to stop somewhere near the Rogue River gorge, and not only be at lower elevation, but also in a location that might warrant us taking some photos in the morning…because, after all, that was the purpose of the whole trip.
The pass was rather steep and quite icy. Just driving was a white knuckled and very anxiety ridden endeavor. I didn’t want to use the brakes too much for fear I would lose traction and slide over the edge of the mountain. I didn’t want to turn too sharply either for similar fear. It was a very slow and strenuous process. I kept the van in low gear as much as possible to prevent it from gaining too much speed on the downhill portions, and although it never got easy, I found as comfortable of a routine as possible while navigating the frigid, icy roadways. Rob and I joked as much as possible to lighten the tension, and for a bit all seemed manageable. Until the skunk.
What in the hell a skunk was doing out in that cold, at that time of night, on that road is beyond me. Yeah, I know their nocturnal and s**t…but WHY on earth the little bastard was out on the ice is beyond me. I saw him immediately; A little black and white hockey puck slip sliding all over the ice. I could barely keep traction, but the skunk was having a hell of a time finding the grip to maneuver the road and cross the street for whatever the hell he was looking for over there. Of course, he chose a very steep downhill segment to make his move.
I can’t brake to avoid hitting him. If I slam the brakes, I’m going to spin out and we’re going to wreck, possibly die. I can’t swerve sharply to avoid him either…this will end with similar results. My ONLY course of action is to attempt to straddle him, and hope that I don’t hit him.
I bear down and slowly maneuver the van to try and place him right in the middle. I see his little black face, and then he’s vanished, out of sight. For a SPLIT second my heart feels joy. I did it. I straddled the little sucker…it’s only a split second though.
Ooops. I hit him with the back.
It was the back though. I’m optimistic…maybe because it was the back, his traumatized body wasn’t allowed to release any smell onto my car before he slid off the roadway and died.
I roll down the window and inhale.
“I don’t think he squirted dude!” I say to Rob. “I don’t smell anything…I think we got out of that.”
Rob rolls down his window and inhales cold night air. “Me neither…good job dude…”
Turns out skunk death is a smell that take a bit to materialize and catch up to you. It took a good forty more seconds before the odor finally tracked its way up the van and into the heating system. And OHMYGAWD when it did was it ever horrific.
Normal skunk odor is quite bad, but there is nothing quite like the smell of freshly killed skunk. It hits first in the back of your mouth right about the end, under your tongue. From the tongue it works its way up, internally, into the very corpuscles of your nasal reactors where it sits like a wet sack, marinating your senses. It’s one of the few smells you can truly, truly taste. Just horrible.
The van was now flooded with this all-encompassing odor. Rob and I wanted to spit, vomit, or do anything to remove it from the air, but it was going nowhere. Remember this too…I have two golden retrievers in the rear of the van, who, up until this point had been sleeping peacefully. The smell not only roused them, but also made them feel less than great, and they BOTH proceeded to vomit all over the back of the car.
The smell, if it could be worse, just got worse. We’re still driving on ice at this point, and there isn’t anything we can do to speed up the process to push us to a safe place to stop, where we can reassess, and remedy the situation. My female dog also, when she is stressed gives off a particularly foul odor that smells like a dying vagina.
Skunk-puke-rotten vag’ is NOT an aroma you’ll find at Bath and Body Works.
We suffered for another hour until we hit the Rogue River gorge, where parked and then clamored quickly out of the van. We removed the puke from the car, and thankfully none got on anything that actually mattered like sleeping gear or warm clothing. I believe some may have gotten on a shirt, which I promptly threw away.
The dogs, now happy to be removed from the van promptly went and puked more in the nearby foliage. We somehow decided to stick with the plan and spend the night in the van…which was as unpleasant as you can imagine. The smell never left even a little. The dogs were far more sensitive to it than Rob or I would wake often and then gag….KAAAAAHHHK…which always led to panic as we suspected another round of vomit was on the way.
We woke to miserable rain which soured any chance at making decent photographs, although we did make an attempt, if only to justify, even minimally, the pain we had endured the night before. We returned home and I’m certain my wife was less than thrilled. I know that it was months before it finally went back to its typical foul odor of dirty kid, and rotting pleather.
Another problem this van had was that it broke down often. There was a stretch of time where we went through about 3 transmission or radiator related issues in the span of about a year. Each one of these events set us back between $800-$1200. There’s nothing worse than paying money for a car that you hate so it can continue to run and be even more hated.
Eventually the constant fear of replacing something vital in the car forced our hand and we had to replace it. Two weeks before we were going to get rid of it, it overheated, and died again and needed towed home. Somehow we were able to get it rigged so it would run one more time and we spent that time driving it to the cash for parts lot where we sold it for almost nothing. At nearly 200K miles it had lasted almost a decade…and looked every bit of its age.
I’ll admit I wasn’t thrilled to add on another car payment, but watching that gold hunk of s**t get driven away for the last time was sweet.