As some of you already know, around this time last year I stripped the stock Mark III graphics off my van and began the very slow process of getting the body back in shape. (For those who missed it, you can read all the gritty details here.)

I didn’t get much else done last year. Blame it on the psychological trauma of last year’s Lost run… or maybe the fact that I spent half a year (and most of my money) making a crazy movie instead. Not to mention that, thanks to a particularly relentless winter here in New York City, my van spent several months buried under two feet of plowed snow.

In any case, once the warm weather kicked back in this year, I decided it was time to finally address some of the van’s more glaring problems. Chief among them were the holes in the fiberglass hood.

holes

A brief history of fiberglass: Originally invented as a skin-torture device during World War II, it later gained acceptance in the world of aircraft and boats. In the automotive world, its first large-scale use was in a worthless and largely forgotten project called the Chevrolet Corvette.

fiberglass

Since then, fiberglass has become a mainstay in the world of radical custom auto bodies. And, apparently, in the hoods of not-so-radical ’90s conversion vans.

Not a conversion van.

Not a conversion van.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of working with this miracle substance, here’s a beginner’s guide to performing your own on-the-street fiberglass repairs.

What You’ll Need:

1 Can of Fiberglass Resin, with liquid hardener.
1 Sheet of Fiberglass Matting
1 Box of latex gloves
1 Respirator
A bunch of plastic cups
A bunch of stirrers, for mixing (I used plastic knives)
A bunch of disposable paintbrushes

Instructions:

1. Mix the resin and hardener together in a cup.

2. Using a throwaway paintbrush, smear the resulting goop all over the area to be repaired.

3. Quickly rush to mop up the extra goop, which is now running like pancake syrup down the front of your vehicle and threatening to solidify forever in little droplets all over your prized chrome grille.

4. Cut small sheets of fiberglass matting and layer them over the damaged area, being careful to brush the resin into the glass until the whole thing is a nasty, sticky, prickly mess.

5. Once the initial mess has hardened (You’ll know because your fingers will start sticking to each other, and that paintbrush that you left in the cup will now be standing straight up for all time), add another nasty, sticky, prickly layer.

5. Oh yeah: Unless you enjoy spending the rest of the year scratching at yourself, you should have put on the gloves first.

6. Did I mention you should have worn long sleeves too?

7. Also: The resin is super-toxic, so you probably should have put on the respirator too, unless you want to end up… what was I talking about?

After a few layers, and lots of fast-paced emergency wiping, the result was a very ugly-looking—but rock-hard—repair where the holes used to be.

20140511_114654

 

Next time I’ll remember to mask the surrounding areas before I start pouring resin, and try to go a little thinner with the matting. But otherwise it’s a solid patch.

Now, it just needs a whole lotta sanding…

 

… I finally got all my photos of 2011’s 39th National Truck-In up online.

A few of my favorites:

Ashlie

DSC01990

Check out the whole set on my Flickr page.

I’ll say this about the 2013 Lost Memorial Day Weekend van run: It wasn’t boring.

The annual gathering, thrown by Concerned Vanners just outside the upstate town of Greenwich, New York, is traditionally one of the most-attended—and wildest—events of the season.

This was my third trip to Lost. My original plan was to bring along a flock of “puppies” (first-time vanners) and let them experience, finally, what I’m always going on about. One by one, they dropped out at the last minute. And in retrospect, I’m glad they all did. This ended up being one of the coldest, wettest weekends that I’ve voluntarily spent outdoors, and I’m grateful that I didn’t have to inflict it on anyone else. I would hate for their virgin run to be spent wrapped in damp layers and huddled, shivering under fairground shelters. Which is exactly how I spent most of the first two days of the event.

Leon in the Rain

This year’s unofficial costume theme was “Poncho”.

Like most people who attended, I’d spent all week following the weather forecast, and I knew it was going to rain. Big deal, I thought. So we’d spend a little more time partying under the fairground shelters, and a little less time baking in the sun. Besides, I’d be sleeping inside my dry, cozy van anyway. And if it got real bad, we’d all just strip off our wet clothes and go play in the mud, like all the filthy music-festival kids do, right?

Well, what I (and most of my fellow vanners) hadn’t counted on was how cold it would get. I made the 4-hour drive up Friday afternoon, in steady, mild rain the whole way. But as I got farther north, temperatures dropped into the 50s, and the wind kicked in hard enough to knock my high-top around a few times. By the time I arrived at the fairground, most of the attendees were battened down inside their vans, or fighting to secure their canopies against the wind.

50-degree weather may not sound too brutal, but I can assure you that, combined with wind and a whole lot of water—and no heated buildings to escape into—it gets old real quick. Particularly if all you packed was a couple hoodies and a pair of jeans. I spent the first two days dressed in every possible layer I had: two T-shirts, a thermal shirt, both hoodies, doubled-up socks, and my trusty 99-cent-store rain poncho. The act of beer drinking became a mixed blessing: There was nothing else to do, but the cans quickly made our hands cold. (One resourceful vanner solved this problem by walking around wearing oven mitts as gloves.) My trusty sleeping bag saved me from the 40-degree temperatures the first night, but I still had to wear all my clothes. I braved it as long as I could, but by the end of the second day, I drove the ten miles to the nearest shopping center, with the van’s heat on full-blast all the way, to buy long underwear and drink coffee in a Denny’s until my feet thawed.

And now that I’m done bitching about the weather…  For those of us who did show up and stick around, the parties on Friday and Saturday night were both great. And while this was certainly the least-inviting run I’d been to, in terms of people being out and about, it also ended up being one of my most social. A guy named John—a New Jersey-based, 30-plus-year-veteran of the van scene, and the owner of a squeaky-clean baby-blue old Dodge—knew me from a few past runs and invited me to park alongside him and his friends, including Loraine, owner of the legendary Plum Loco van, and a great couple from the Bronx—only my second time ever meeting fellow vanners from within the New York City limits.

Campsite

Our lovely campsite.

Between all of them (and a whole lot of hand-freezing beer), I got to hear a lot of great first-hand accounts of the “glory days” of the late ’70s. Here are a couple new things I learned:

  •  It used to be much more common for van clubs to hold Road Rallies, in which a group of vans would show up at a predetermined spot, be given a map, and embark on a spontaneous race, following a carefully marked course. These often also included scavenger-hunt elements, such as finding a list of specific items, or gathering playing cards from specific locations and seeing who ended up with the best hand.
  • When van clubs were larger (and, one assumes, more physically active), the members would traditionally park in a circle, with all their side doors facing inward. Often, a volleyball net would be erected in the center of the circle, and the different clubs would play each other. In general, clubs used to engage in a lot more games against each other. And, by all accounts, the competition between clubs was fierce.
  • Some vanners are really serious about their brand of beer. I mean really serious. As in, they will leave the relative warmth of a shelter and walk back to their campsite, in the freezing rain, to get more Budweiser, rather than stay and drink a free Coors Light. If you want to start an argument among a bunch of vanners, just bring up makes of vans… or brands of beer.

Speaking of alcohol… Without betraying the secrets of my fellow vanners, I would like to say a few words about Bucket.

First of all, it’s never the bucket. Or a bucket. Or bucket of something. It’s always just Bucket. Bucket is the container that holds the drink, but it is also the drink itself. And the thing you drink from. One does not, under any circumstances, dip a cup into Bucket, or otherwise attempt to pour Bucket into another receptacle. If you are with a group of vanners, and someone passes you Bucket, you either politely decline and pass it on, or you lift Bucket to your mouth and you drink as much as possible. You don’t sip at it. You don’t stand around and bogart it. And for god’s sake, you don’t ever ask what’s in it. It’s Bucket. You drink it, or you don’t.

The exact recipe for Bucket varies slightly from club to club, and is usually a fiercely guarded secret. I can tell you this: It’s always a large wooden bucket, usually cut from the bottom of a barrel. And it usually involves lemons, sugar, a shit-ton of whiskey, sometimes another liquor, and a lot of ice. And like the best concoctions, it goes down dangerously smooth, but will leave you wrecked, in the best possible way.

Anyway, as I mentioned, what the weekend lacked in daytime activity, it made up for with its nighttime parties. (Thanks, in no small part, to an abundance of Bucket.)

Friday night’s wine-and-cheese party, while technically involving both those things, was (thankfully) not nearly as fancy as it sounds. Cold, wet, and sick of being cooped up all day, we all crowded into the relative warmth of the main fairground building, our spirits lifted, in no small part, by the presence of Pennsylvania’s Performance Inc. Van Club and their infamous “Black Box”—a gleaming black trailer fitted with a stereo system and a fully operational keg-tap beer dispensary, handing out free beer to anyone who wanted it.

Thanks to John and his friends, I got to meet a lot of people who I’d seen at past runs but never got a chance to talk to. Chief among them was Anthony Desio, another New York-area guy, originally from Queens and now living in Long Island, whose tan Chevy “2 Natural” I had seen at several previous runs. Anthony’s the kind of guy who looks like he could crush me with a wave of his big toe, but talks like he’s got a heart of gold, and we commiserated for a minute on the “challenges” of parking a van on the streets of New York. I also got to see my van-run pals Liz and Brian, out of Rhode Island, who introduced me to tons more wacky old-timers and, as usual, had me laughing so hard I nearly fell over. (The Black Box may have had something to do with that as well.)

Saturday’s Show-n-Shine, which usually takes place out in the hot sun, got moved inside one of the buildings. At this point, after nearly three years of attending runs, I’ve started to see a lot of the same entries. That’s not a complaint—they’re still awesome to look at, and it’s nice to know that so many vans (and their owners) are still active. One notable new entry, though, was Machina, a sliver space-age beauty with a ton of sick custom body mods:

Machina

Photo by Superbeast.

Machina

Photo by Superbeast.

You can see my photos of the event here. And check out Superbeast’s pics of the show over at Showvans.com.

Later that night, feeling refreshed (or at least thawed out) after my trip into town, I headed back over the main building to check out the obligatory cover band. All I’ll say about the band is that most of the partygoers seemed frustrated that the show was a little heavy on the “progressive” side, and a little light on the “rock”. Plus, because of the band’s self-important light show, the place was in near-darkness most of the time, making it hard for most people to even know if their friends were there. Then again, vanners love to complain, so maybe the band was just making it easy for them.

Anyway, one thing led to another, a special Jameson Bucket was passed, and before I knew it I ended up being invited into the inner sanctum of the one and only Loonie Tune Truckers— considered by many in the know to be one of the most hard-partying clubs around. All I can say is that their hospitality was truly exceptional (Corned beef sandwiches? Thanks, Loonie Tune!) and, by my foggy count, it ended up being a five-Bucket night.

Like a lot of people there, I packed things up on Sunday and headed out a day early. Of course that’s when the sun finally came out, accompanied by a lot of vampire jokes, and we placed some bets on who would be the first person to bitch about the sunshine. I was bummed that the weekend hadn’t turned out to be the wild outdoor adventure we’d all expected. But all the hardcores who showed up anyway, just to see their friends and say they got through it, definitely made it a weekend to remember.

Big thanks to everyone who showed up that weekend and, in their own various ways, made everybody else feel a little bit warmer inside.

See photos of Lost Memorial Day Weekend 2013

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been nearly 3 years since I wrote about my trip to the 38th National Truck-In—my first run as a bona fide van owner.

Since then, I’ve been to four more van runs—once to Lost Memorial Day Weekend in upstate New York, twice to Summerset in Gratz, Pennsylvania, and a full-on multi-day road trip to the 39th National Truck-In in Old Washington, Ohio.

My partner in vanning, Ashlie, on the way to her first run.

Some, like the Nationals, were massive events, crammed full of outlandish vans and even crazier people. Others were much smaller, more local affairs. In every case, I had a great time and met some amazing new people. Now, when I show up at a run, I know there will be at least a few people that I know there, and a lot more vehicles that I’ve come to recognize. The old-timers talk about van runs like they’re family reunions, and it really is true. You start to see some of the same people, check in on them, find out what they’ve done to their vehicles, and what new toys they’ve acquired. You find out who is new to the scene and—unfortunately—sometimes you find out who has fallen sick or died. But despite the occasional heartbreak, there’s always a real sense of community, of running away for a little while to reconnect with the other, more relaxing, secret life we all enjoy together.

So what’s the problem?

As a vanner, absolutely nothing.

But as a blogger… sometimes it’s just hard to keep up with it all.

Everything that makes me love the vanning lifestyle—the driving, the relaxation, the parties, and yes, the enormous amounts of alcohol—also makes me terrible at writing about it. When I’m at a run, I like to feel like I’m leaving my day-to-day world behind. I like to turn off my phone, cover up the clock on the dashboard, and let myself get caught up in the slow, lazy, sometimes half-assed dimension that is “vanner time”.  All my usual obligations disappear, and I lose myself in the flow of the event… even if that just means passing out and napping in the back on Saturday afternoon.

It’s a great feeling— but not the kind of mindset makes me want to stop and document every single thing that happens.  Add to that the gallons of beer and blender drinks (and whatever the hell goes into that bucket) that I ingest in the course of a long vanning weekend and, well, let’s just say that sometimes my powers of recollection get a little bit fuzzy.

Lunch

Yeah, I know. There are much worse problems to have. But all that said, I’m going to document more of my van-related experiences on here—if for no other reason than to keep Beth from “Don’t Come Knockin'” on my good side.

In the coming months, I’ll try to share some random anecdotes and photos from past runs, as I remember them.

And, going forward, as I head out to my third Lost Memorial Day run this weekend, I’ll attempt to post something about it. Even if it’s just a few blurry photos and some nonsense scrawled on an empty beer case.

See you at Lost!

I love my van. But I’ve never been in love with the way it looks. With its plain-white paint job and ’90s-era green-and-teal Mark III factory graphics, it’s always looked more like Grandpa’s RV, and less like anything resembling a badass street machine.

So far, I’ve lived with the less-than-killer appearance, because everything else about it was just too good a deal to pass up.  But now that I’ve officially decided to make it a “project” van, I figured it was time to beef up the looks a little.

In my dreams.

In my dreams.

In a perfect world, I would rush out and have the van’s body professionally stripped, smoothed, and drenched in 15 coats of purple metal flake. But in reality, even if I had the $2,000 – $5,000 to spend on pro bodywork and paint, the fact remains that I park my van on the streets of Brooklyn each night. It’s not a bad neighborhood, and I’ve been fairly lucky so far. But that doesn’t mean that tomorrow some moron won’t lose control and skid right into the side of all my hopes and dreams. Whatever improvements I make to her, I still have to be ready to walk outside and expect the worst.

With all that in mind, I’ve decided on a compromise: I’m going to remove all the existing vinyl graphics and pinstriping, deal with any necessary body repairs, and then restore it to its original Glacier White paint job, using aerosol touch-up paint and clear coat. Once that’s done, I’ll think about installing some kind of new graphics— hopefully something more “classic car” and less “Days Inn bedspread”. It won’t be show quality, but if I take my time and do it right, I just may end up with a decent “20-footer”. (In other words, a paint job that looks great… from over 20 feet away.)

And as with all of my do-it-yourself van activities, the work will all have to be done curbside, on the streets of New York City. Just to keep things interesting.

The first, very big step was to get the vinyl graphics off. Luckily, 3M makes a tool specifically designed for that: the Stripe Off Wheel.

stripe-off_wheel

Stock photo. Totally not my van. Or my hands.

It’s basically a big, heavy rubber eraser that fits on the end of a power drill. In theory, it quickly rubs vinyl stripes and graphics right off, without doing any damage to the paint. In actual practice, it’s a tiny bit more complicated. While it technically didn’t take any paint off, there were quite a few areas where it left some distinctive yellow smudges on the finish. I’m not sure if that was residue from the wheel itself, or maybe a result of the clear coat being heated up. Either way, I highly recommend this wheel— as long as you understand that you may have to end up doing some further refinishing when it’s done.

On a gorgeous, sunny Saturday in May, I parked in front of my building,  ran a heavy-duty extension cord out my second-story window, and hooked up the drill. Six hours later, I had the van completely stripped. I then went back with some 1000-grit sandpaper and #0000 steel wool and scrubbed off all the residue where the graphics had been (a result, I’m guessing, of 18 years’ worth of subtle dirt against the vinyl). There were a couple areas near the bottom of my passenger-side doors where the paint was already pebbled and cracked (the same place, probably not coincidentally, where the rust seems to be worst), and some of it came up with the wheel. With my hands sore from a day of drill-handling, and the sun fading, I threw a pre-emptive coat of primer on the rough spots, and called it a day.

Before...

Before…

... and after.

… and after.

It’s gonna need a lot more fine-sanding, and possibly some bondo, before the body is 100% clean. But the graphics were a huge step toward the final goal. And I think that, without all the stripes in the way, the body lines actually look a lot more sleek.

Next step: Sandpaper… and a whole lot of patience.

It’s been over two years since my last post on here. There are a lot of reasons I’ve fallen behind. But the main one is that my band, Uncle Leon and the Alibis, put out a new album at the end of last year. I’m really happy with the result, but the recording, mixing, and subsequent self-promotion did a good job of eating up my life for a while.

The good news is, the van is still running. She’s been through a lot of unglamorous—but very necessary—repairs. In the summer of 2011, one of her brake lines rusted through, up near the master cylinder, and I had to have the whole thing replaced. (Of course it happened the week before a big trip, but we managed to get on the road with only one day lost.) I learned that brake lines are incredibly simple parts… that require some very tricky access and a hell of a lot of custom bending. The final bill was $15 in parts… and $1000 in labor. Ouch.

Chiltons

Then, last spring, I took her in for her yearly inspection. She’d been running pretty sluggish, and louder than usual, so I was pretty sure there was a hole in the exhaust somewhere. Sure enough, the mechanic called and told me that the entire exhaust system, from the catalytic converter back, looked “like swiss cheese”. Once again, I whipped out the credit card and grabbed my ankles.

After that, I decided that this van is officially a restoration project. I’d already been told that, with less than 115,000 miles on the odometer, the motor should be good for a while (he says, knocking very loudly on wood.) The problem now is keeping all the little things from wearing out—particularly since, underneath, this is very much a Northeastern van. (For those of you lucky enough not to know what that means: Up here in the cold, nasty North, we’ve got a thing called rust. It’s exacerbated by salt, which gets poured all over the roads when it snows in the winter. Rust is everywhere, and it sucks. There’s a reason that, in the classified ads, you will see the phrase “California” or “Southern” car, usually accompanied by a much higher asking price.) On the other hand, I now have an all-new exhaust and a half-new brake system, which means two less major things I’ll have to worry about for a while. I also put four brand-new tires on last year—a gift from my girlfriend Ashlie (who, perhaps not coincidentally, I am now engaged to). And I finally replaced my smashed stock plastic grille with an aftermarket aluminum billet one.

grille

The next big step will be to tackle the cosmetics of the body. In particular, removing the cheesy stock Mark III graphics, which I’ve never liked. And slowly tackling the many, many tiny nicks, scratches, and rust spots that have gathered over the years. I’ll be devoting separate posts to both these activities very soon.

So, just when I think there’s nothing new to report, this randomly rolls up right in front of my workplace.

Wow.

It’s that time of year.

It’s winter in Brooklyn, and not much to report. As you can probably guess from the picture, I’m not exactly looking for excuses to crawl under the van this time of year.

Just hoping she starts every week, and dreaming about Van Nationals in July.

Click here to view all photos of the 38th National Truck-In.

Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was just my own dumb luck. Or maybe the all-seeing airbrushed wizard-gods of custom vandom were smiling down on me this summer.  In any case, I have to wonder if it was more than coincidence that in this, my first year of van ownership, the 38th Annual National Truck-In was held just four hours away from my house, in Greenwich, New York. Needless to say, I was there.

The history of the van convention is as old as vanning itself. Once vanners realized that there were other groovy freaks rolling around in similar—and similarly tricked-out—vehicles, it didn’t take long for them to start getting together on long weekends, converging on campgrounds to show off their paint jobs, swap conversion tips, camp out in their vans, and generally party like their lives depended on it.  (And, to hear many vanners tell it, they do.) Vanners call these events “runs”.  Runs can be of any size, and held anywhere, though for pretty obvious reasons they tend to happen in more remote, camping-friendly places. They’re usually hosted by one or more local vanning clubs, whose members handle all the dirty organizational details, from securing the site and selling tickets, to printing T-shirts, to making sure that the trash gets picked up and that special events happen (more or less) on time.

The granddaddy of all runs is the National Truck-In (a.k.a. “Nationals”, a.k.a. “Nats”). This is the annual nationwide van run, and tends to be the largest van-related event of the year. At its legendary peak in the early ‘70s, the Truck-In brought in a reported 4,000 vans. These days, the van count is closer to 600, but the spirit is just as big, and the people who uphold it are just as willing to get down and have a good time.

I like to think that it was with a little bit of this original spirit in mind that I mustered up the guts (and gas money) to get myself on the road to the 38th Annual Nats. And while the gods of location may have been on my side, the gods of weather certainly were not. The forecast for the weekend was temperatures of 100 degrees, followed by thunderstorms. The prospect of parking my van in the middle of some field to voluntarily endure those extremes for four days straight was less than thrilling. But if I was going to be a real vanner, I told myself, I was going to make it to this event, crappy weather be damned.

As I rolled through the town of Greenwich, toward the fairgrounds, the 38th National Truck-In revealed itself to me, a glorious cluster of chrome and metal-flake paint shimmering in the sunburnt grass, beckoning from the highway like some combustion-fueled lost city of gold. Before I even made it to the entrance road, I had already caught sight of a dozen truly badass vans, tucked every which way into a haphazard, Technicolor city of tents, canopies, blankets, and flickering beach towels.

“Vans and Panel Trucks ONLY Beyond This Point”, the sign at the front gate read. And sure enough, off to the side was a separate parking lot, reserved for any vehicle that didn’t fit the description—cars, motorcycles, and a few motor homes. The vehicle restriction may seem harsh to outsiders, but the logic behind it is simple genius: Anyone who enters the event is, by the very definition of the vehicle they arrived in, a vanner—and, it is assumed, will behave by a certain unwritten code of respect toward other vanners. This may sound like a bunch of idealistic bullshit, until you spend a few days there and realize that, within the confines of the event, no one locks their van or even bothers to shut its doors. Food and drink get left on picnic tables and go untouched (unless you count the flies). Camping equipment, suitcases, and even tool boxes sit out in the open undisturbed, for days at a time. Coming from a place like New York City, it truly was another world for me. As one vanner put it, “When you’re here, there’s just certain shit you know you won’t have to worry about.”

In keeping with the generally libertine spirit of the thing, there were no assigned spots either. “Just drive around until you find a place where you think you’ll get along with somebody,” the guy at the admissions gate told me. I arrived on a Thursday, and some people had been there for as long as a week before me. Most of the various van clubs had already shown up and arranged themselves into elaborate circle encampments, or staked out coveted shade spots against the fairground’s many livestock-stable buildings. (Empty, I should point out, of any livestock.) I found a spot on the fringe of the event, next to a beautifully preserved early-70s Dodge done in vintage hippie love-bead style, and a few hundred feet from a bunch of much younger guys with a giant tent blaring Led Zepellin, and set up camp.

As predicted, the weather was at 100 degrees and climbing when I got there. My first priority was to get some kind of shade built for myself, as soon as possible. This should have been easy, thanks to the brand new camping canopy I had purchased just for the occasion. However, there were three things I hadn’t taken into account: (1) I had put up canopies before, but never all by myself; (2) I forgot that, instead of actual stakes, new camping equipment comes with spindly little aluminum rods that are only slightly more sturdy than paper clips, and stand up to the touch of a hammer about as well; and (3) the canopy I bought was a total piece of shit. And oh yeah—just as I began to set up, the wind kicked in. The result, for the next two hours or so, was me, already sweaty and sunburnt in the blazing hot sun, running back and forth in an unintentionally hilarious Charlie Chaplin routine in which, just as I’d get one corner of the canopy halfway secured, the other would shoot dramatically into the air, then collapse. Just to add to the comedy, when I finally tightened the rope lines (for all you non-canopy-erectors, this is a standard part of the routine, and shouldn’t be anything particularly extreme), the canopy literally tore apart at the seams. Luckily I had a roll of duct tape—though I was more than a little pissed that I had to use it on a canopy that was less than a day old.

I’ll spare you the rest of the details of my setup—suffice it to say that, if you’re going to attempt a trip like this, always bring sunscreen, and make sure you have about 200 more feet of extension cord than you think you’ll need. I also learned that, if you’re going to be parking your van out in the middle of a 100-degree field, you really can’t have too much shade. This was obviously common knowledge to my more experienced neighbors around me—beside the standard reflective windshield screen, they kept every window draped in sheets and blankets. Some erected separate canopies just for their vans, and a few actually mounted full-sized household air conditioners out their van windows. (“Those people are all from Florida,” an Ohio native would later tell me, with gleeful disdain.)

My humble campsite.

Once my camp was more or less situated, I set out to explore the scene.

If you’re familiar with my previous (and only other) trip to a van run, then you already know the kind of drunk, debauched antics I got up to. (And if you don’t, you can read all about it here. ) Blame it on the extreme heat, or on me showing up alone, or maybe just the fact that (gasp!) eleven years have gone by since then, but as it turned out, this event would end up being much less about my own intoxication and much, much more about the vans.

My first hint at this came that evening. Until that point, most folks had been holed away, hiding from the sun. Now, slowly and a little behind schedule (this, I would learn, is how all events at Nationals start), some of the more choice vans rolled out of their spots and rumbled into line for the official parade through town. This was my first real glimpse of the level of show-quality custom jobs that come out for this event. Forget about newbies like me with our cookie-cutter storebought conversions—these people are the real deal, the kind of dudes (and, lest we forget, dude-ettes) who devote all their free time—and a good chunk of their finances—to creating a truly one-of-a-kind motor-vehicle masterpiece. This was their big moment to shine, and shine they did: Vintage Cragar mag rims glimmered in the dual glow of a magic-hour sunset and flickering yellow running lights. Scrappy little ‘60s Econolines rattled alongside late-model Sprinters. Wizards, spaceships, skeletons, and a harem’s worth of half-naked fantasy women beckoned to me from their airbrushed tableaus. Lowriders threatened to scrape the gravel, immaculate chop jobs bounced lazily on their hydraulics, and 4x4s towered on oversized tires. Most just cruised, the way vans do. Stereos were cranked, wheels were spun, and more than a few engines were revved. They were vehicles, in the way that, when we were eight years old, we all wished vehicles would be: loud, colorful, outrageous, and unapologetically badass.

Invigorated by this initial show of force, I ventured over to the sizable merchandise area. Like all the big main areas, it was housed in an open-sided pavilion building—the kind of structure that, during more conventional fairground events, probably houses the goat auctions. A large section of the building was devoted to the shirt-printing area, where a revolving multi-silkscreen station, manned by a couple of shaggy, very busy guys, attempted to keep up with the orders for custom 38th National Truck-In T-shirts.

Shirts are a big deal for vanners. Each van run has its own unique shirt printed up, and vanners collect and display them like trophies from a hunt. Indeed, one of the biggest raffle items of the weekend was a special quilt sewn together from vintage, time-softened van run T-shirts, the earliest dating back to 1972. And in the course of four days and nights, I never saw the guys in the shirt-printing area stop working.

If shirts are vanners’ trophies, then patches are their service ribbons—a visible, running history of the places they’ve been and, by suggestion, the shit they’ve seen. Every Truck-In has its official embroidered patch—always in the same red-white-and-blue United States shape—and many a vanner keeps a special vest or jacket around just to show off their patches. During the run, I saw more than a few hardcores walking around with 20 or even 30 patches on their jackets. For my part, I bought my first official Truck-In patch, to match the sticker and dashboard plate that came with the price of admission.

Of course, displayed alongside these hallowed items was a huge offering of, shall we say, less serious vanner accoutrements. All the usual witty slogans were present and accounted for, in both T-shirt and patch form. (“Instant Asshole. Just add alcohol”, etc.) There was also a pretty heavy selection of tie-dye clothing (not my thing, but whatever), and a wide array of general gearhead-themed stuff, including belt buckles, Hot Wheels vans, every possible manifestation of automotive logos, and lots of Rat Fink stuff (very much my thing). After a lot of painful deliberation, I settled on a “Make Mine Econoline” T-shirt, and a couple of classy patches: “2%” and “Bush Pilot”. I was really bummed that my girlfriend, who was out of the country at the time (no, really) couldn’t be there, so as consolation I bought her a patch that says, “Only a bitch like me could love a bastard like him.” (Here’s hoping you’ll be there to wear that one proudly beside me at next year’s run, baby.)

At dusk, the fairground filled with the gorgeous, smoky smell of outdoor cooking. The consensus, among all but the youngest and/or most alcoholic of the people I talked to, was that the day’s extreme heat—and the dehydration that came with it—made daytime drinking almost impossible. (Full disclosure: Earlier in the day, after my bout with the canopy, I ingested two tall-boys of Miller High Life and promptly passed out for two and a half hours, making me an unusually cheap date—had there been anyone there to date me—and also marking the first time that I officially slept in my van.) However, as night fell, more and more people came out from inside their hidey-holes, and the real party began.

A classic-rock cover band played in one of the main pavilion buildings. It was the first of three bands that weekend, and I won’t pretend to remember the band names. I will say that I thought the first night’s band was the best of the bunch; heavy on the Creedence and Steppenwolf, and light on the Rush.

I took stock of the crowd congregating in front of the band. From what I could tell, the majority of people there were couples, most of them married, quite a few with kids. There were a few pockets of people in their 20s—most notably the Next Generation Vanners, a recently formed club out of Seville, Ohio. (More about them later.) But by and large, most of the attendants seemed to be in their 50s or older—most likely veterans of vanning’s heyday in the ‘70s. I remembered the event program they’d given me when I signed in at the gate that morning, which, among other things, included a small “in memoriam” tribute to the well-known vanners who had died in the past year.  It got me thinking about everything that those people must have witnessed in their lives, and the fact that, to my knowledge, no one has ever put together a truly comprehensive, first-person history of the vanning subculture. At the risk of sounding morbid, I feel like somebody needs to get it all down before all these legendary characters start disappearing on us. Perhaps at next year’s Truck-In, a few interviews are in order…

Sometime in the early, early morning, I awoke to the sound of the rain pounding against the roof of my van. This was followed by the ghostly whisper of the wind… and then the hard slap of the canopy poles against my window.  I poked my head out the side door. Sure enough, half my canopy rig had come loose in the thunderstorm, and was smacking back and forth against the side of my van. I pulled on a pair of shorts and, armed only with a hammer and a lantern, stepped out into a total downpour. Somehow, half awake and fully soaked, I managed to hammer my pitiful stakes back in place again. Afterward, toweling myself off in the darkness of the van, rummaging through my bag for dry underwear, I muttered to myself, “Livin’ the dream.” And thus the official name of my van was born.

The next morning was abuzz with activity—or at least as “abuzz” as a bunch of vacationing vanners are going to let themselves be. The sun was out again, and hot as ever. I braved the long lines and questionable smells of the public showers, enjoyed the luscious novelty of outdoor bacon and eggs, and watched as, all around me, the owners of the more pimped-out vans hooked up their garden hoses, grabbed their bottles of Armor All, and prepared for the weekend’s biggest event: The Show ’n’ Shine.

The Show ’n’ Shine is the moment when—as the name might suggest—the showiest vans get to shine. Show vans are the truly immaculate, customized vehicles that are made to be shown off, rather than simply driven and slept in. And they’re the real reason to come to an event like the Truck-In. People devote their whole lives to building these vans, and it shows.

“Attention vanners,” the voice on the loudspeaker said. “If you are planning on entering the Show ’n ’Shine, you should already have been there.”

“Vanner time,” my new neighbor Doug laughed, still polishing his door handles.

One by one, the show vans crept their way over to an open meadow at the far side of the fairgrounds and began lining up. For judging purposes, many were arranged by sub-classification: panel trucks, ‘60s first-generation, 4x4s, and even a couple six-wheelers. I won’t even attempt to describe all the beautiful vans I saw there. But a few demand special mention: There was “Chop City” , a chopped-and-channeled flat gray Dodge with a black vinyl limousine roof. There was the “Dragon Slayer” , which features a combined total of four airbrushed wizards, plus a custom star-shaped portal around the bed. The standout among the ‘60s-era vans was “Odd”,  which I can only describe as a Dodge modified into an extreme convertible. There was a van decorated entirely with airbrushed scenes from the movie “The Neverending Story” , and two different Wizard of Oz-themed vans. Classic rock titles were a common theme; I counted a “Pearl” (Janis Joplin), “Eat a Peach” (The Allman Brothers), and two “Night Moves”.  One van, in a mindblowing meta-twist, featured a full-coverage mural of… other airbrushed vans.  There was even, dare I say it, a pretty cool minivan, done up with a spoiler and custom windowless back hatch. My personal favorite, though, was the “Bear’s Den”. On the outside, it’s a completely plain-looking, charcoal-gray van. Peek inside, however, and you discover that the entire interior is a log cabin, hand-built with real log pieces and complete with bearskin rug and a little flickering electric fireplace. Definitely one of the more original concepts I’ve ever seen.

Rather than try to elaborate any further, I suggest that you take a look at all the photos on my Flickr page.

The next day, the big event was the Burnout contest. For those of you who didn’t grow up around wannabe drag racers, a burnout is when the driver of a stationary vehicle, through a combination of flooring the accelerator and riding the brakes, spins his back wheels fast enough to create friction and make the tires heat up, resulting in huge clouds of white smoke. (I say “his” because I’ve never met a woman who seemed at all interested in doing this.) It’s the sort of thing that, at events like this, people pack into the bleachers to watch—and if you don’t understand that, well then you probably aren’t into any of the other stuff I’ve written about here either.

There were several fine entries in the burnout contest that day—and by “fine”, I mean completely loud and smoky and stinking like burnt rubber and otherwise reeking of guilty, destructive pleasure, much to the audience’s delight. But the standout of the day—the “burnout hero”, if you will—was a young man who goes by the name Homebrew, of Ohio’s Next Generation Vanners. (I told you they’d show up again.)

I knew Homebrew was serious when, before the event, I saw him switching out the back wheels on his red ’68 Dodge for a set of what I can only assume are his special burnout tires. When he got up to the burnout area, he lit a cigar and then rolled down all the windows on his van—a crazy move, even among hardcore burnout enthusiasts, since he was basically begging for his van to fill up with smoke. He pulled up to the line, gunned the engine, and let the tires spin. And spin. And keep spinning. Within seconds, the van was surrounded by thick white smoke. A few seconds later, the van was completely obscured. All you could hear was the sound of his engine, and the spinning tires. Then, there was a loud, sharp snap, followed by the unmistakable sound of an engine dying. Homebrew had killed his van. The smoke cleared a little, enough to see the van again, its driver stumbling out, looking like something straight out of a Cheech and Chong movie. And the crowd, as they say, went wild.

Here’s footage of the actual burnout:

There were other, decent burnouts. Then, when it was time to judge (based on the time-honored method of crowd noise), the vans were all lined up together. “What about the kid?” someone yelled. “Bring out the Dodge!” A few guys helped Homebrew push his dead van back up to the line, to an outburst of thunderous applause. It was official. He’d killed his van, but he’d won the contest.

The best, though, was yet to come. There was a lot of  speculation about what exactly had killed the van—and how exactly this kid was going to make the 500-mile trip back to Ohio the next day. Someone used a chain to tow the Dodge back to its campsite. Someone else started taking up a collection for him. A small crowd began gravitating toward the van. One guy was a professional mechanic. Two others were fellow first-generation Dodge owners. Somebody knew a junkyard in the area. Somebody else started talking about old Dodge rear ends, and how many bolts it takes to get them apart. I realized that, at that moment, I was probably looking at the single most knowledgeable gathering of ’68 Dodge van experts in America.

Homebrew, with his van and trophy.

It was late afternoon when they started working. And sure enough, before sundown, they had raised the money, gone to the junkyard, found a matching part, replaced the van’s entire rear end, and had it running perfectly by nightfall. All for no charge, without anyone even asking them to help, and with beer and smiles all around.

Because damn it, that’s just what vanners do.

I’d like to tell you that the first thing I did to my newly acquired van was to replace the  interior with purple shag carpet,  or to whip out the airbrush and cover both sides of the van with this:

And honestly, you’d probably enjoy this post more if I did.

The reality, though, is that before I can put any time or money into making this old girl look good, I’ve got to make sure she’s running strong. And that’s going to mean a lot of necessary but unglamorous repairs.  I realize that, for most people, this isn’t going to be the most fascinating stuff to read about. However, I’m including it all for the sake of completeness–and on the off chance that at some point, somebody out there with a similar predicament might just find it a little bit useful.

The first challenge was the rearview mirror. The previous owner removed it, because he felt that it obstructed his wide-open view during his long trips between New York and South Dakota. He was thoughtful enough to keep the mirror, though. And realizing that, in my reality, having one more way to see behind me in Brooklyn traffic was probably going to be a more pressing issue than missing the occasional stunning view, I decided to re-install the mirror.

I bought a special mirror-gluing kit, figured out where the center of my windshield was, cleaned everything, put the glue on both surfaces, and held it in place for a minute. When I took my hand away, voila–the mirror was mounted. Pleased with my handiwork, I reached up to adjust the newly restored rear view–and popped the mirror right off. Apparently you’re supposed to let the glue dry before you start messing with it like a dipshit. Oops. I made a note to go back to the auto parts store for more glue, and moved on.

Next up was a much bigger problem: The driver’s side seat adjustment lever didn’t work. You could move the seat, but only by crawling down, fishing around under the seat, and manually moving it. This wasn’t an issue for the previous owner, since, as the only guy who drove it, he just put the seat where he wanted it and then left it there. But as someone who was planning on taking the van on tour with my band–which would mean several guys of very different heights taking turns driving in the course of each day–I knew that routine wasn’t gonna fly.

I found the problem right away. Underneath the seat, there are two rails that the seat rides on. Each rail has a spring-loaded catch that holds the seat in place. The catches are connected by a cable, so that when you pull the seat-adjustment lever, both catches come free and you can slide the seat back and forth. The cable had snapped, making the whole lever-catch thing useless. All it needed was a new piece of cable. Simple enough, right?

Not so much. As with so many things automotive, the fix was easy.  But actually getting to it sucked. I had to get down in front of the seat, shove both hands into the space under it, and somehow thread a piece of wire through the holes on both catches. The only problem was, the space I had to shove my hands into was about half as high as my hands. After a good hour and a half of banged-up knuckles and twisted wrists, I got the whole mess to work. Good as new, though my hands would need a couple more days to recover.

The cable in question.

The last order of business was the spare tire. Being an uptight person, I thought it might be nice to make sure that the whole spare tire assembly was in good condition before I actually needed it. Better to find out here, in my neighborhood on a nice sunny day, than on the side of some muddy road in Indiana in the rain at midnight. But again, that’s just how I think.

This was my first experience with the whole under-the-body spare tire contraption. I don’t know if that’s just a Ford thing, but it’s pretty brilliant. Basically you stick the tire iron into a hole in the bumper, crank it like a screwdriver, and the tire magically descends on a little cable from beneath the van, like one of those awkward flying kids in a production of Peter Pan.  It turned out that the tire was fine, but the thingee (I’m pretty sure that’s not what it’s really called) that holds it in place was rusted onto the hub.  Unlike the seat, this was not a delicate fix. Nothing like the smell of WD-40 and a few whacks with a hammer to make a man feel like a man again.

One rusty-ass spare tire.

While squatting underneath the van, I noticed two more problems. (Ain’t that always the way?) One of the clamps that holds the exhaust pipe had rusted through. And the leaf springs on the rear wheels were starting to peel apart. Those would have to wait. I’d done three fixes, and it was Miller time.

Speaking of the manly arts, I should point out that, if you have a white van, and you plan on spending a hot day crawling around under it and getting all kinds of dirty, an elementary school is a great place to park in front of while you do it. The kids spend a lot of time staring at you. (Probably because, here in fancy Park Slope, Brooklyn, they’re not used to seeing guys in public doing manual labor. Or at least not white ones.) And when the parents see you all sweaty and grease-stained standing next to your open van, they all do that same move where they stare straight ahead while they gently take their kid by the shoulder and guide them to the other side of the sidewalk. Thanks, lady. Nice to meet you too.

Another satisfied van owner.

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