Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 24, 2004. Vanagon or Prius? Prius or Vanagon?

I came back to the US to be reminded that Matilda was having some problems when I left Ė losing power at high speeds. Thatís intermittent, and every time I tried to get her to a repair place, it would go away. But it was quickly compounded by additional problems. My fuel pump started to whistle. The gurus on the Vanagon list said it was probably just the fuel filter, but replacing it didnít help. Then, in a fit of risk-aversion about the fact that my inspection expires in November and I wouldnít be in Virginia by then to get her reinspected, I took her in for an early inspection. The mechanic flunked her because there was a pinhole in one headlight letting in water, and told me I wasnít permitted to repair her, I had to get a new headlight.

I lost it. For twenty four hours I agonized about whether it made any sense for me to be traveling the USA in an unreliable cult vehicle whose owner should be an experienced mechanic. Running errands around Arlington in my Prius, I daydreamed about how nice it would be to head out in a small new car with air conditioning, great gas mileage, and peace of mind. Why, I wondered, was I saddling myself with this vehicle that worried me all the time, where there was always something wrong, something about to go wrong, or the fear of something going wrong, when I could be in a comfortable, cool, quiet, reliable car?

I changed my mind every twenty minutes or so. Get the new headlight and continue to take my chances on Matilda? Or park Matilda in my garage and repack into the Prius, leaving my kayak behind to save space, buying a tent big enough to work in, a Coleman stove, and a portable table and chair?

I considered the tradeoffs. Matilda is comfy to hang out in, sheís cozy, she feels like a home. Sheís unreliable and hot and not so comfy to drive. When I settle in to a campground itís hard to leave for the day because packing up is such a nuisance. Raising the poptop with the kayak on the roof takes two people. And she might break down any time. But she comes with a community of people who welcome newcomers and help them and form a network of people all over the country whom I could get to know.

My Prius is small, Iíd have less storage and no home to live in. If I filled her with things, how much would I have to leave behind that I can carry in Matilda? Iíd have to stay in a tent every night, rain or shine, warm or cold. But once I had that big tent I could settle into it, set up my table and chair inside, hang some good battery-operated lights, and work on my computer in the comfort of my portable room. I could cook without worrying about smells. I could drive away from my campsite and explore for the day without packing up. And what does it mean to feel I have a community, simply because of the vehicle I drive?

I posted to the Vanagon list and the Vanagon fulltimers list explaining my dilemma. The answers were interesting. Some people said, in essence, "it sounds like youíve made an important realization that you donít want to spend your energy to be a mechanic, you can handle the logistics of camping, and youíd be happier with the peace of mind that your Prius would provide. Donít feel pressured to stay with the VW." That seemed reassuring. With that thought in mind I could be comfortable choosing the Prius.

Others said, in essence, "you never seemed to want to deal with the Vanagon, you belong in your Prius." That bothered me. Though that may seem just the same as the previous response, I heard it as "you werenít supposed to be part of the Vanagon community, you never were up to it." It made me determined to stay with Matilda lest I feel pushed out. And it made me feel I was giving up something I had decided to do, without any compelling reason other than a damaged headlight.

Others sent practical advice. They told me how to fix the headlight, how to hide the fact that it had been fixed, and that I had to go to a different inspector instead of the first one even though Iíd blow the $15 Iíd paid for the inspection. But I was afraid Iíd get caught, I wouldnít be able to repair it myself, all kinds of things.

And then some seemed to say "Vanagons and the Vanagon world are a wonderful thing, donít give up and leave it!" That response made me uncertain. I realized that the Vanagon world was a big part of why I wanted to stay with Matilda. But did that make sense? Thereís a world of people who think hybrid cars are the coolest thing since sliced bread too, perhaps if I headed out in my car instead of my van Iíd find that community.

And of course the practical level-headed side of me said, "Joy, you are making a mountain out of a molehill, just get over it. It doesnít matter which vehicle you travel in, just make a decision and move along." That was a bit reassuring too, even though it came from me, not from the folks whose opinions I had sought. In fact, if it had come from them I probably would have felt kind of dumb for making a big deal about the decision.

I decided to put off the decision by ordering the headlight the next morning, so Iíd have it in time for a reinspection, and then deciding once Iíd fixed the van. But the next morning before ordering the headlight I headed out to the driveway with my Bentley and my screwdriver, disassembled the headlight, drained the water out, put it in front of the fan to dry, went out to buy silicone and superglue, and fixed the pinhole. I never really made a decision, just woke up ready to act. A day later I took Matilda over to a different garage, where they were puzzled as to why I hadnít gone back to the first place but gave me my inspection sticker and sent me on my way.

So here I am still in Matilda. When I posted my success in the reinspection I got a few cheery emails saying ďgood for you! See, you can learn to do at least some mechanical things if you decide to go ahead with it.Ē Which I never really doubted Ė I just doubted whether I wanted to put my mind to it. I still have doubts. Specialization of labor is a good thing, and Iím never going to develop the mechanical skill of the folks on the Vanagon list. Iím not sure it makes any sense for me to try. On the other hand, I suppose that any additions to my knowledge are worthwhile. Itís not about becoming a great mechanic, itís about becoming a better mechanic.

And I also realize that the knowledge will be incremental. Before I took off the grill on the front of the car I didnít know there were flat screws that turn 90 degrees to be removed instead of unscrewing. Thatís trivial, so trivial that no one would bother to mention it Ė but when I see them again they wonít be new to me. Now I know that headlight bulbs snap in, they donít screw in, and that the wires connecting them can hang out of the socket. Now I know how to adjust the headlights so they point in the right direction, and I know about the bits of plastic Ė missing on Matilda, courtesy of my previous owner (or P.O. as the Vanagon list calls them) Ė that attach the headlights so they can be adjusted. Every time I do another repair, however trivial, Iíll pick up more, and it will all accumulate. So I will come to be a better mechanic if I keep at it. And it is better than spending hundreds to replace something that I could repair with a touch of superglue.

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