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.
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.
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:
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.