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Travelling in a Van Across the US

Despite not featuring on many travel itineraries, the midwest is a place in which it is well worth taking the time to break down.

My van is my lifeline. “Pearl” is not only my transportation, she is also my bedroom, my kitchen, my protection from the elements and my mental security. Fortunately, she can be relied upon-most of the time. In Fort Dodge, Iowa, though, she apparently has had enough. She breaks down on a Saturday, in a snowstorm. I’m cold. Repair shops won’t open until Monday. It could be miserable but it isn’t.

Let me explain. Fortunately Pearl has the sense to break down near a hotel, so I check in and explain my situation to the desk clerk. She immediately corrals two employees to push my van into the parking lot. Next she sends me down to the hotel bar. The bartender, a friend of hers, knows a guy who works on cars. If nothing else, she says, he will give me a drink.

By the time I drop my bags in the room and reach the bar, Tom, the bartender, already has a call in to Larry, the mechanic. Larry agrees to meet me the next day (Sunday!) to look at Pearl. Amazed at the hospitality of the staff and relieved that I don’t have to spend the night freezing, I sit down to chat with Tom. Turns out he’s actually an aspiring actor. No, he tells me, he’s not currently acting. Instead he’s waiting for his big break. Too bad I’m not a famous director, he laments. Then I could discover him.

Tom smokes six or seven cigarettes as he tells me about growing up in Fort Dodge. In the middle of a strange state, in a strange town, I feel safe and comfortable. The desk clerk went out of her way to help me, the bartender trusts me enough to share his stories, and tomorrow the mechanic will arrive to fix Pearl. That night I sleep well.

Sure enough, at noon Sunday Larry arrives with his wife and toolbox. It takes him less than an hour to diagnose and fix the problem-a broken fuel pump. In that time, his wife, Marilynn, and I become fast friends. As a mom, she worries about me traveling alone. I tell her that with people like her, Larry and Tom, I am far from alone. In fact, meeting people like them seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I tell Marilynn about the morning I spent in Sudbury, Ontario, with a retired couple named Betty and Wayne. On their invitation, I had joined them for dinner-and camped in their backyard. The next morning we sat for hours in their kitchen, chatting over tea. They had lived in Sudbury all their lives-Wayne working in the nickel mines and Betty taking care of the kids.

I finish telling Marilynn about Betty and Wayne just as Larry finishes installing the new fuel pump. He doesn’t want any money. I argue that I need to pay him, if only to keep my promise to Betty. And I elaborate.

As I left Betty’s kitchen in Sudbury, I apologized because a mere thank-you seemed inadequate. Betty told me to just “keep the chain of love unbroken,” as the country western song says. So I tell Larry he needs to take my money. He agrees on one condition: that he and Marilynn can come back later that evening to chat. We make plans to meet at eight.That night, I hear a knock. It’s Larry and Marilynn, my old friends. I heat water in the room’s coffeepot and serve tea in Styrofoam cups. We talk for an hour. Larry, a long-time mechanic, has just gone into business for himself. He’s trying to build a clientele based on honesty and efficiency. I say that if I ever need a mechanic in Iowa again, he’s the guy I’ll call.

Again, I am happy. In a generic hotel, in a Midwestern town, I feel at home. I trust Larry and Marilynn, and they trust me. I’m fortunate to call them friends.

This journey has allowed me the opportunity to stumble upon such situations over and over. I am continually amazed by the kindness of strangers and am excited each day at the prospect of more of the same. Hopefully, I will be able to keep the chain of love unbroken, even add a link or two of my own.

Sarah Eustis

Sarah Eustis grew up and in Maine. After college, she left that beautiful but cold state for a teaching position in New Mexico. There, she spent four years feeding her addiction to green chilli and developing a fondness for Volkswagen Vans.