February 21, 2004 23:29 | Stories / Travel

The California Road Trip Fiasco

Sitting down for lunch on the last day of the ETech conference in San Diego, I pull out my mobile to find it is turned off. It's been off for at least two days. Damn. I have a hunch that Soli's been trying to reach me, as he said he'd meet me down here. The plans were vague and not confirmed. Turning it on, I find four messages from him, starting the previous afternoon and getting progressively nastier. The last one was left 30 minutes ago.

Soli had landed in San Diego the previous evening and had already picked up the VW van he had agreed to drive back up to Vancouver. He also had already managed to lose his wallet and have a new Visa card sent to him. I excuse myself to John, my lunch companion and new friend, and call Soli. He's ecstatic. He'll meet me at the hotel shortly.

After saying my goodbyes in the Hotel lobby, Soli and I take off on our journey. If we only knew...

Part One

A quick stop at a pier north of San Diego to catch the sunset, and off we head for Los Angeles. Chris and Raluca, old friends from Montreal, just moved to L.A. and were graciously hosting us for a night. The original directions were to take the 5 North to the 405, then get off at Sunset Boulevard.

Somewhere near county limits we hit a small amount of traffic. Slowly we inch forward until we come to a checkpoint of sorts. One row of cars ahead of us the entire backup is stopped. It is a checkpoint for illegal aliens. At this moment, 2 miles of backed up traffic is entirely held back by two or three Highway Patrolmen. An enormous amount of steel and potential thrust, held at bay by two raised hands. They are packing up for their evening's task. Within moments the way is opened and the column races ahead.

A short time later, we stop for fuel. Pulling into the gas station, I roll up my window and the handle stays in my hand. A sign of things to come? Checking the oil, Soli curses VW engineers for making the dipstick on this model so terribly hard to remove and replace. Attempting to pay with his new Visa, he is told the card is not yet activated. Hilarity ensues with the non-english speaking attendant. I pull out the cash. Done. Already slightly irritated by the dipstick and the attendant, Soli begins to wrestle with the gas cap which despite our best efforts neither of can put back on. We pull out with a wad of paper as a gas cap.

Raluca calls to tell us she and Chris are going to see a friend's band at the Viper room and we should meet them there, we'll be on the guestlist. Bonus! She gives me revised directions: forget the 405. Just stay on the 5 until Sunset, hang a left.

Soli, who is driving, says he thinks something may be wrong... the van doesn't seem to have as much power as it had. The gas cap maybe? A pressure issue of some sort? Hrm. We pull over on the narrow shoulder. I yank out the paper wad as Soli once again fiddles with the gas cap. No dice. Fack it, the Viper room awaits! We drive on.

There's L.A.! We're close now! ... There goes L.A.! We're past it! What the heck? Call to Raluca. They are at the club already, we are past Valencia. Too far, double back, catch the 405 from the north and call back. So we do that.

A little bit after merging to the 405 we hear a "bang!" Hrm... Soli says he thinks he hit something lying on the road. No big deal. Ok. I dial Raluca, to tell her we'll be there in ten minutes. As she reiterates final directions from the 405 to the Viper room, Soli lets out a yelp and pulls over violently, the van shaking and shuddering, almost flipping over itself as we hit the 3 inch deep drainage canal that passes as a shoulder on the 405. "What the hell are you doing!? And what's that smell... Oh... no..."

"Raluca... we just pulled over... one of our tires is shredded... Yeah. I'll call you back."

Formula One style, we whip out and locate everything we need. Wrench under my seat, jack under Soli's, spare under the front of the vehicle. Go go go. Seven minutes and we're back on the road. Viper room here we come!

"Hi Raluca. Yeah tire's fixed we're coming! Oh... Show's over? You'll be at the Red Rock Bar which is next door... ok... yeah... we'll be there in ten... See ya. Click" Daaaamn. Aw well. At least we made it. In one piece.

When we get to the bar, Raluca informs us that had we followed the original directions, we'd have been changing our tire in South Central L.A. I shudder and try not think of it.

A few drinks, some unwinding and a night in our host's living room. Perfect.

Part Two

After breakfast bagel sandwiches, Chris leads us to an area where we find a tire shop. Soli orders four new tires. We leave the van there and head to Venice Beach were we rent two bicycles and putz around for two hours.

Sorted, Soli drops me off at Mimi's for the afternoon and picks me up again around 8pm. Seems sometime in the afternoon one of the fan belts started squeaking. No big deal. We meet Chris and Raluca for dinner, after which they invite us to stay a second night in their apartment, since by now it is late and we haven't made hotel arrangements and they are super cool. Excellent. We drop off the van in their garage and head of to the Chateau Montmartre (?) where two other Blizzarts regulars, Natasha and Jessica, are hanging out. Afterwards, we wander around Mulhulland Drive. Westmount, eat your heart out.

Returning the apartment garage, we notice the van is leaking coolant. Damn. We'll sort it out in the morning when we head off for our journey up the coast.

Part Three

Sure enough, the coolant hose at the front of the van has popped off. The theory is that when the tire guys put the spare back on, they nicked it off. No big deal, Soli fastens it back on. We refill the coolant and hit the 5 North. Ciao L.A.!

Half an hour out, an annoying alarm buzz starts sounding. This should have set off major alarms in our heads but for some reason it didn't (see disclaimer at end). We pull into a gas station and sure enough, that coolant hose popped off again. What the hell. The engine's in the back.. why is this hose even up here? Whatever, Soli fastens it up again, we refill and take off again.

Now, our plan was to hug the coast all the way up, but now, on the 5 North, we find ourselves a hundred miles from the coast. Dammit. I chart us the next road heading due West. An absolutely stunning detour drive along the 166 later we pull into Pismo Beach. That annoying buzz alarm hounded us the whole way but Soli figured out that by revving the engine he could make it go away for extended periods. As we hit town, down shifting into lower gears, the fan belt isn't squeaking anymore, it is outright screaming. Only at lower gears though. We push on. The 1 is ahead and our jouney awaits. On to Monterey!

Still no alarms in our heads. In hindsight, i have to wonder just what the hell WAS in our heads...

Unbeknownst to us, the 1 between San Simeon and Monterey is one of the most insane bits of road in the world. Hairpin turns, steep inclines, solid stone walls to the east, sheer cliff drops to the Pacific to west, with a narrow two lanes to negotiate.

It is dark and foggy and Soli does a valiant job keeping us alive. No shit falling rocks! Had we hit that boulder, there would be no more blog entries...

So, a screaming fan belt and a mysterious buzzing alarm, both coming and going seemingly at will, mysteriously.

At Big Sur, the dashboard lights up. All alert lights have come to life. SUV tailing us, nay, tailgating us. Sweet Jeebus. Soli swerves out into a driveway. The rear of the van is smoking. Not good.

Fan belt is gone. A fat trail of coolant greases the concrete behind us. Big Sur is within a mile... we have to try to get there. There must be a garage of at least a gas station. We make maybe a mile. We come to a stop in the driveway of some Resort/Inn.

Two employees from the resort drive by on their way out for the night. They give us the number to call the Inn. Ten minutes later a young guy shows up. Valet parking attendant. Talking to him he offers me a smoke and the understanding that we are in one of the most expensive and exclusive areas in all of California. The cheapest room at this particular place starts at $550, and even if we could afford it we'd be out of luck since the whole town is booked up due to Valentine's Day. This would be a recurring theme.

Five minutes later two Lexus SUV screech down the driveway. The manager and four other guys pop out. We can't leave the van where it is. It is blocking the sign. They push us ten feet to the side of road, to a non-existing shoulder. Soli has already called triple A. Tow truck is on it's way.

The stars are marvelously clear out here, aren't they Soli? Wow.
We laugh.

Flatbed tow truck arrives with a dolt of an operator. We stop twice to refasten the chains. I actually nod of as Soli, with white knucles, fears for both our lives as this arguably stoned hick barrelasses the rest of the way to Monterey.

Ah Monterey! I have visions of Steinbeck... Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat... The best laid pans Of Mice And Men, indeed!

Instead we find a garage who's lights, at 11:30 at night, are on like a beacon for idiots like ourselves...

"Tony" is quick to help us. Or try to anyways. Looks to be in his mid-forties, balding, hair sorter than mine except for in the back where he wears a salt and pepper ponytail, and some sort of a finely groomed goatee-slash-beard type of thing. Tattoos pick up on his forearms where the grease of being a mechanic trails off. He could have walked right out of Mad Max...

We figure all we need is a new fan belt and a clamp for the coolant hose. No problem. Let's see, ok how does this fan belt hook up to what. Ok this goes with that... but that... hrmph... is seized.. what is that? Must be the water pump. The water pump gear is seized... that's why the belt overheated and snapped. That's why the coolant overheated, expanded and cause the hose to burst off.

Can't get a water pump till morning fellas. Sorry. Let's go find you a motel.

Tony drives us up and down the strip, as well as over to the 400+ room Holiday Inn over in the nicer part of town. Would you believe that every hotel and motel in this dump is booked solid? We tried at least twenty. Valentine's Day. Ohhhh how we hate Valentine's Day now.

Tony's being really nice. A real mensch. Born again Christian style. Soli's being real chummy with him so Tony starts "opening up". Little tidbits, he is reluctant to share too much. Something of a past it seems. Just got off probation, he avoids the cops, driving across town to a second 7-11 when the first one had a patrol car parked in front of it. Nice. Soli asks if he's from here, if he likes it here. Born and raised, though the place has gone to the dogs last few years... Damn african americans (he used the less nice term...) and mexicans. "They come in here, 10 to a house, set up shop... I don't mind so much really except when I go to McDonald's and they don't understand my order." Soli and I probably thought the same thing at that moment: "Oh... crap..." Ask and ye shall receive, Soli. Stories of bitches who used him, buddies who totaled his cars... Ugh.

So, back to the van. Tony runs home and brings us blankets for the night. We lock ourselves in. I sleep. Soli, apparently, not so much.


As mentioned, Soli lost his wallet at San Diego Airport. All he has is his passport, a Gold Visa card and his cellphone (aside from his clothes, an IBM notebook, an iPod, a digital camera, a case of beer and a bottle of vodka). I am traveling with a wad of Benjamin Franklins and all my gear.

We are camped out behind a garage in what it turns out is the slums of Monterey. It is a wonder nothing happened...

Part Four

After feasting on Jack-In-The-Box breakfast McMuffins, Soli decides to go do laundry at the laundromat around the corner, while I wait for Tony to show up. I start reading Cory's new book.

Soli comes back half an hour later quite agitated. Seems there was some weirdness at the laundromat which culminated with Soli's cellphone falling into a full washing machine. No more cellphone for you, Soli. On the walk back he got yelled at by some scary looking dude in spanish.

Tony shows up with some bad news. No water pump until tomorrow. "Take us to the airport Tony", I say, "we're gonna rent a car. We'll leave the van here for a few days."

The rest of the journey to San Francisco goes smoothly, as we relax into the boat-like luxury of the Ford Taurus. The coast north of Santa Cruz is beautiful. Driving into San Francisco we hook up with Joi, Peter and Jonas at the Café de la Presse before checking into a Holiday Inn on North Van Ness.


Soli and I spent 2 nights (a day and a half) in San Francisco before I, honestly, rudely told him to take a hike. I had things to do and he really should get back to the van. Soli, my apologies, but it had to be done. ;)

In subsequent phone calls and comments left in previous entries here, Soli recounts how the rental car got a flat in Monterey before he could return it. How, never mind the water pump, the master cylinder was blown and he now had to rent a U-Haul to tow the van back down to San Diego (he was supposed to go back there anyways since the engine in the van was actually a new one and the mechanic had told him to drive 700 miles and bring it back for a final tweak...) How once there, he jumped on a bus to hit the beach one more time only for the bus to be hit by a car and having to wait 2 hours for the cops to make sure no one would sue. How he finally jumped on a plane to visit his sister in Arizona, which was also part of his original itinerary.

Soli, it was a blast, and I hope, no I pray, your bad luck has run out for a looong time.

Soli and I are NOT normally this stupid. We know cars well enough, and know better than to ignore alarms and loud noises. What happened to us was, bad luck aside, very much the fault of two overly excited boys, exulted by the scenery and the California dream. I also suspect Soli was somehow under the impression that I was in a mad rush to get to San Francisco, which I wasn't really. But he knows me well enough, and I him, that this misunderstanding is totally plausible, since by precedent he was not entirely wrong in thinking I may be.

Sometimes, when you are deep in shit, you don't smell it.


Une des meilleures entrées que tu as écrites ;) et dr√¥le en plus... quoique j'imagine qu'au moment pas dr√¥le du tout. :p

Great entry. Took me long enough to get to it, it's been bookmarked for 6 days but well worth the wait. Very funny :)

Wow, I cannot believe it got worse once you left us here in LA. Still great seeing you guys, where are the pics from our big night at the Chateau MARMONT?

Amazing story. I have a VW Westy too and have had numerous adventures on the side of the road with the coolant system, fuel system, electrical system and other parts. I'm sorry to hear that your van had to be towed back to your house. The only time I had to leave my van was when the transmission blew out up a dirt road about 50 miles from a town that had maybe 30 people in it.