Butterflies dance in my belly from fear, excitement, or a mixture of both. The asphalt ends abruptly twenty feet ahead. I wait for the tell-tale squeak of soft sand meeting rubber then reach down, pulling the transfer case lever into 4H.
I got this, I whisper to no one in particular, the 4WD light glows amber.
It seems like forever since we were on the road, on an adventure with nowhere to be. The last several times our bow was pointed toward unknown territory we’ve run into issues. Luckily, none of them have stopped us but they’ve held us up, made us question our rig, our income, our sanity.
It would be a lie to claim we never considered giving up, haven’t consider selling Darlene and the camper for something else. Every job has been mandated by malfunction and until recently we have not been able to keep our feet under us.
We have been working and only venturing close to work for the past several months, eagerly yearning the open road, satiating the desire with short side trips to Big Sur. The open road whispers our name still.
The past several weeks have been amazing. Our time in San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita has given our life a reboot when needed the most.
Three months ago I post a plea for help on WanderTheWest. We need a place to work on our rig, somewhere level, safe to stay for a few days, with someone nearby who knows what they’re doing in case I screw up! We have little to offer monetarily, but in return we can do household chores, help with a project, yard work, whatever we can do to help you in return.
Nobody responds. I repost. A week goes by. Another. A few if you were closer…or good luckcomments, but nothing substantial. A month later as I prepare to do the work in a parking lot, an email. Hi – saw your post on WTW. If you need anything when you’re near San Luis Obispo let me know. Truck or fabrication help. Or just to grab a beer. – Aaron
But not for two months. First we have a bit more work to tie up. Then Beth flies back to Atlanta to visit family, leaving Alfie and I to wander the Santa Cruz area in our mobile bachelor pad, anxiously awaiting her return.
Beth returns and we make a detour North to the Marin highlands and then East towards Sacramento, destination: the Four Wheel Camper warehouse in Woodlawn CA.
We spend a few days in FWC’s parking lot, visit old friends, make new ones. We persuade ourselves to purchase new clear vinyl windows (hey, ours had shrunk and would blow open!), a swivel table (we didn’t have any flat prep area!) and a boot for between the cab and camper (no more road noise!). Suddenly the camper feels fresh, more live-able, more useful, more like home.
We arrive in Santa Margarita just after dusk on a Friday. Aaron and his family greet us and take us in as though they’ve always known us. Without pause we are invited to the local pub and imbibe a tad few too many brews, waking up the next morning in unaccustomed heat with pounding heads. Is this real life, did this really happen? Sheepishly we peek out the windows to confirm we are in a stranger’s driveway.
Week one blurs by – I spend all day slowly cutting out the old clear vinyl and glue the new windows in place. Measure once, twice, three, four times before I cut. We go to a tamale festival that has sold out of tamales, return home and stare at the stars through our new windows.
The following day I tip-toe around working on the transmission. Instead I research for the thousandth time how to properly adjust the bands, how to replace the governor solenoid and sensor. I got this becomes my mantra. Beth works on her jewelry inventory and I waste time on WTW and Facebook.
Day three I tear into the transmission. I’m terrified. I readjust the bands twice each, double checking that they are in spec. Of course I don’t have all the tools I need, but luckily Aaron does. He sits in his garage drinking a beer and cheering me on. I got a cold one here with your name on it when you finish. You got this. And I do.
Meanwhile Beth is making a killing – Aaron’s wife, Jasmine, has become her makeshift manager and is promoting her wares around town. Left and right Beth gets requests for necklaces and earrings. She can barely keep up with the demand.
Day four. Might as well replace the heater core while we’re here, right? It’d be nice to have heat again. I hitch a ride to Napa, buy a new core and return home to research what I’m about to do. The job looks terrifying and so we go to the pub instead
Friday and it’s now or never – rain will be here tomorrow. I start early, I know this will be an all-day job. Pulling the dash away from the truck is terrifyingly easy. It is even easier considering under the custom cover, our original dash has crumbled away – a classic 2nd generation Dodge Ram problem. Removing the heater core is a different story. I abnormally contort my arm between razor sharp edges of jagged dash to unscrew screws in impossible locations. I do my best to squeeze the old busted core from it’s retainer and break both the arms off in the process. Hmm, probably why the old one busted. Can’t do that to the new one. I enlist the help of Aaron once more, and by some amazing lift and shift I am able to, without stress or duress, install the new core. Success!
The weekend is cold and wet. Beth and I work online – she updates her website with inventory and I upload stock photography. Between the rain we take a hike and I solder in a wire harness for a differential lock on Aaron’s 4Runner as per his request. I breath a sigh of relief when everything works later that afternoon.
Week two and Aaron employs me to help with his construction crew. Might as well earn some money for your travels while you’re here! He and I make plans to build a cubbie for the camper, and he does his best to convince Beth on trading our tiny Engel fridge for his much larger, but blemished Dometic. I’m sold immediately on the added space, Beth doesn’t easily embrace such changes.
Thursday we spend the day building the new cubbie. Rather, I watch in awe and amazement as Aaron expertly crafts the cabinet with minimal input from myself. I make simple cuts, clamp boards together and take measurements. We check the fit three times, every time the cubbie looks better. The last board is put in place and I spend the evening sanding, coating and staining.
Friday my new gauges for the truck arrive and I spend the entire day soldering connections, drilling holes, and routing wire. I convince Beth and myself that we should have had these from the get-go. With them I can monitor vital components of the truck – the transmission temperature, the exhaust gas temperature, and the boost pressure. If anything begins to flutter or overheat, I will know about it before irreparable damage occurs and be able to rest. Or I’ll worry and watch the gauges. Only time will tell.
Over the weekend the cabinet is installed. It looks glorious. Beth is irritated at the change in our living quarters. We hike, relax, and eat pizza, our job here is done. We have accomplished more than we ever imagined.
As we prepare to leave on Monday, Beth takes one last look at Aaron’s fridge. Maybe we should trade she says hours before our departure to Pismo Beach. Aaron’s eyes light up – I’ve learned by now that working on new projects are a passion of his. Instead of packing I tear the camper apart, removing my shoddy job of retaining our Engel fridge with two-by-fours and installing this behemoth with beautiful strips of wood and angle-iron. Now we can keep more groceries cold! More leafy greens! Room for meat! A place to put beer! Hooray!
Somehow we manage to rearrange the entire corner of the camper, reposition a factory cabinet and repack within a few hours. How, I don’t know.
Leaving Santa Margarita we feel a pang of sadness. This town, the people here we’ve met, and this family in particular have become close to us. They have welcomed the two of us, making Beth and me feel at home. Part of us doesn’t want to leave. Secretly we’ve both looked for places to rent in town.
Now we have everywhere to be, anywhere to go. At least for the next couple months. For the first time in what feels like forever our destinations are not dictated by repairs or work. Instead we have a list of hot springs, roadside curiosities, friends to visit, hikes, and adventures saved in our phones and jotted down in notebooks.
I glance over to my new pillar gauges: I have 5 pounds of boost, the transmission is at 140ºF and exhaust temps are at 800ºF. All systems are GO!
We tear onto Pismo beach, the four wheel drive engaging flawlessly and the aired-down tires float through the soft sand. The butterflies in my stomach settle. Any worry I had is gone, the excitement has transitioned to focused concentration on the current moment. The memories of driving on the beach growing up on Ocracoke take control of my actions and I follow the well-worn ruts of others, noting the irony of living a lifestyle defined by doing the opposite with our life choices. Beth points to a place up near the dunes, over there. That’s where I want to stay tonight.
And so we do.