Love

The Volkswagen Van That Saved Us From Ourselves

Photo: Kholifur Rohman / Shutterstock
volkswagon van on beach

He introduced me to W— his newly-acquired Volkswagen van —on our first date. By then, she was already working her magic.

He had suggested a Saturday spring hike, to get to know each other. The day was grand — Colorado Aspen buds yellowy-green as they pulled the light through, distant alpine peaks dusted with bright white snow, the sky a uniform light blue. 

But W had other plans for us.

He called me just minutes before the planned meeting time.

“My van won’t start. Let’s bag the hike. Can you come pick me up?”

My heart sank. I found him on the corner of Spruce and Colombia, hands in pockets, staring blankly into a wide-open back-hatch at Ws engine. When I pulled up, he brightened and waved. 

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“I wish I knew what was wrong,” he said, turning sad again. “She won’t even turn over. But, let me show you around the rest of her.”

I was quick to see why he had fallen so hard. She was iconic — the quintessential hippy van, with a soft well-worn look. Her rear-view mirrors were rusted and earthy. Her exterior wore several different tones of pink paint. There was history there. 

Inside there was a mini kitchen and a bed in the back. I fantasized about living on the open road with her and Jon: independence, freedom, and love. 

I was impressed, and he could see it. 

“Let’s go get a bite,” he said, slamming the engine cover. “I’ll worry about this later.” 

We did. Afterward, he kissed me, shyly, through my open car window. Elation surged.

Jon and I had met somewhat scandalously just a few days prior when he had come to the clinic where I worked as a doctor.

He had needed someone to sew his arm up after a mountain bike tumble, and I was the provider in the ER that day.

I was struck by his cuteness from the get-go: unruly blonde hair, square serious facial features, and athletic shoulders. I knew it was a breach of ethics for a doctor to date a patient — even if only for a few minutes — but passion overrode reason from the start. After I referred him to a specialist, he asked for my number, and I readily (excitedly) complied.

Things took off like wildfire in a windstorm. The chemistry. His touch. I wondered if I’d finally found “the one”

He was a classical pianist—no matter that he hadn’t performed in years. I admired him because he had chosen to pursue his art, whereas I had gone the boring route of med school and a full-time job. Plus, there was a lot we had in common. 

He, too, was a lover of alpine terrain and a bit of a social pariah in uber-wealthy, jock-saturated Telluride. Our differences — like that I had financial security while he struggled to pay for a tow truck, or that he smoked a lot of weed when I didn’t even drink — I was certain could be overlooked. 

A few weeks in, we slept together the first time at his place, and I awoke feeling lovely, his warm body next to mine.

But he surprised me, piercing the love bubble, with a request for some “of that pain medicine” (i.e. Vicodin) that he had been given after his injury repair. Was he using me for my access to drugs?

“No!” I said, unhesitating. “I’m not your doctor anymore. We’re dating!” 

He looked instantly ashamed, and let it drop. And I regretted my strong response. By the time we got in the van to drive to my car, he had shut down, his hands gripping the steering wheel tightly, lips pursed.

As if sensing a prime opportunity, W took her next shot. Out of nowhere a repetitive, ear-splitting beeping sound began to come from some mysterious place on the passenger side, where I was sitting. 

Jon slammed on the brakes and began randomly hitting things. “What the f***,” he said, now smashing the dash with his palm. Miraculously it seemed to work. There was a second or two of blessed silence. He started driving, though, and the shrill noise resumed in full force. “F***,” he said again. “Slap it,” he said. 

“What? Me?”

“Yes, you! The dash! Slap the dash!” 

Without vigor, I complied, a few times, and I could see he was disappointed. 

The beeping persisted. 

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I rolled down the window. It didn’t help. A quarter-hour later, I was happy to get out of my car.

Jon told me later that the noise stopped right then, and never came back. I told him I thought we might be dealing with a love triangle. He laughed.

A month later, I was still smitten. Jon was too, I think, and generously agreed to take a week off from his bus-driving job and take me in W on a 10-day road trip to Northern California where I had two interviews for psychiatry residency scheduled.

We spent two nights in a hotel in San Francisco’s North Beach so that I could get clean and look professional.

For the first, I woke up early, and, still, Jon slept. So, I took a cab.

When I got back Jon was angry. “I could have driven you, why didn’t you say goodbye?” I felt confused until he went on. “What are we doing? What are you doing with me? You’re going off to residency soon. Moving to California. Where do we fit in?” 

Ah, I thought. Here it was. He had a good point, too. “I don’t know where this will lead, but it feels so good — I just want to let things unfold naturally,” I answered.

His face fell; I felt something dark looming.

The next morning, we discovered W’s back door cracked open, the sheets on the bed’s foam pad disheveled, and a little pile of puke on Jon’s favorite jacket. It was easy to deduce that somehow, someone, likely homeless or intoxicated, had found their way in and used her for temporary shelter. 

I felt a giggle escape my lips, and he shot me a look. I stuffed it down. 

“You forgot to lock the back door?” he asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t think so.”

“Ugh,” he just sighed, and took a seat in the drivers’ seat, leaving the vomit back there to fester. I bit my tongue and found my place next to him in the front trying to figure out what to say next.

As we pulled out, I imagined W opening her side door last night while we slept and waving the unseen stranger in, one more pebble in our collective shoe.

Finally, the interviews were done, Jon’s jacket scrubbed clean, we both felt lighter again.

We had six days ahead, a shared love of nature, no plans, and W. I picked out a spot on the map near the coast, just north, with camping, and we drove. I had supplies to make us hot coffee and blueberry pancakes the next morning, hoping to welcome in tomorrow’s dawn amongst happily chirping birds.

When Jon tired of the curvy roads, I took over. He found his way to the back of the van to lie down, which soon filled with the stench of kind-bud and he grew quiet. 

I drove more. The sun set.

Somewhere around ten, I found the turn we needed for the elusive campground. The road was still paved but rutted, so I slowed.

The minutes ticked on. Big dark trees with gigantic stumps lurked like monsters, increasingly dense. It had been over an hour since we’d had signs of car-lights or towns or people. Just us three and the trees. Just a little farther, I thought. Jon snored and his Phish album began for the fourth time that day.

Then, suddenly, a shudder, a cough, and a jerk. W stopped, cold. 

In denial, I turned the key in the ignition a few times, pumping the gas. Nothing. Then I tried again. Nothing again. Then I stopped, not wanting to flood the engine. 

“Sh**” I breathed. “Sh**.” Jon snored again. Finally, gathering courage, I said, “Jon, I think we have a problem. Can you wake up?”

“Where are we?”

“Good question?” I answered. “The van’s dead.”

“Jesus, it’s like midnight,” he exclaimed looking at his watch. 

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Jon got in the driver’s seat, turned the key several times while I watched, and had no luck. 

“We’re blocking the road, and in the middle of nowhere,” he said next. “What are we going to do?” 

Again, a desire to giggle. This whole situation was so extreme it was ridiculous. Or maybe I, too, was stoned from the second-hand smoke. 

“I think W wants to break us up,” I blurted.

Jon was pissed, though, and in no mood for humor, making me pissed, then, too. It wasn’t like we were under any sort of threat or anything. Why was he turning it into such a big deal?

With effort, me steering, Jon pushing, we rolled her down the hill into a pullout, she a dead, silent, weight. I tried to make light of things, again, but Jon just sat on the edge of the van’s back sliding door and sighed, head in hands. Finally, at 2 AM both of us crashed, backs to one another, not touching.

A dark heavy silence filled the air on our drive home.

My pager went off periodically — patients of mine needed refills. And when it did, Jon’s irritation spiked too, visibly. He spent a lot of time in the back, in a Linus-like cloud of smoke.

“I think we should end this,” we both said, practically in unison, just days after our return to Telluride. After that, we switched to talking about superficial things, and, ultimately, parted amicably.

I often wonder if what happened with W was something like divine intervention.

During the dating years, I’d always been a terrible judge of who was best suited for me long-term and overly prone to love-drug-induced blindness.

At the time, I questioned W’s intentions, but now I like to think she had our best interests at heart: that it was her — not me, and not Jon — that saved the two of us from what might have been a much longer spell of low-grade agony and ambivalence.

For that, I thank her. 

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Claire Wilcox is a psychiatrist and writer living in the Southwest. She has written for Psychology Today, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and GoodRx and has authored a textbook entitled, “Food Addiction, Obesity, and Disorders of Overeating”.

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