Friday, March 6, 2020

The Golden Road To Samarkand

It isn't a boat or a home afloat but Webb Chiles asked me if I would consider naming it - I who don't name vehicles - Gannet 2 after his world girdling Moore 24, the original GANNET. Sure I thought to myself as it is a kind of home afloat even if it rides on wheels and is propelled not by sails but by an engine. There it sat in front of the office of Custom Coach Creations waiting for us to sign papers to take ownership of this brand new Golden Van. 
When I got the call last week from Lois who owns the custom van business with her husband Bob, that our special order gold colored Promaster 3500 had finally arrived from the factory I had the feeling things were getting very real.  The idea of moving into a mobile retirement from our comfortable canal side Keys home has never been far from my mind. I grew up in a world that didn't much seem to want me so it was easy to take off leaving my family and everything I knew behind. I don't know if nomadism is a gene or a cultivated trait but whatever it is I have found it enormously difficult to sit still. My father's irritation with me at 17 sent me to Italy from his proper life in London, away from his side of the fractured family to the world my mother had left for me. It took several years of agonizing but in the end I abandoned my family's three hundred year old roots in central Italy as easy as climbing on my motorcycle and not looking back. In 1998 I convinced my wife to dump our lovely beachside home in Santa Cruz a couple of blocks from Pleasure Point, one of the great surf spots on the California Coast and off we took on a sailboat with dogs to Key West a two year trip via Panama. Now the time is drawing near to dump one more great place to live and to start looking away. Why? I don't know. It's just my nature.
There is work to be done to convert the interior into a living space but the good people at the shop have been doing this for some time and they know what to do and how to do it. We spent a few hours in the world headquarters of Custom Coach Creations in their DeLand office with Bob and manager RJ. They have a computer design program to create the interior we want with the amenities with which we would like to live.  The notion of living comfortably in a  small space may seem like a contradiction but once you get past the question of space and how much you actually use, the greatest complaint most van travelers voice is that of discomfort and boredom on bad weather days. No matter how big your house you can only sit in one chair and eat one meal at a time and read one book and invite so many friends round for dinner. All possible in the Golden Van.
We took that warning to heart, of bad weather day boredom, so in this age of miniaturization we determined to make the interior of our van capable of offering space to live while awake, while asleep and even to offer separate spaces when one is up and the other is not. To that end the front seats swivel to offer seating with fold up tables, the back of the van has plans for two couches that convert at the push of a button to a queen sized bed and the all electric kitchen will have storage and appliances to match those we use at home now.
Television, Internet, sound system and quality lighting is all easy to install, relatively in this age of electronic reliability and with a large battery bank air conditioning and heat, fans windows and mosquito netting will enable we hope an indoor/outdoor life to take advantage of weather and scenery. At the same time on those days when we crave silence and stillness, when we miss home and friends and things familiar we will be able to close the doors, draw the curtains and surround ourselves with what we know and like to remind us of home, to allow us to recharge our travel batteries inside our heads. It's a lot to ask of  a small space and of ourselves so all plans are tentative of course. We have allowed ourselves two years to test our resolve and the systems before retirement starts and doors to the Keys close behind us. 
Bob the boss in the cap and RJ his plant manager spent an afternoon talking details with us in the office discussing everything from color schemes and types of wood to electrical needs, placement of the toilet and shower compartment and size of the water tank - as big as possible which may mean 40 gallons of fresh water if Bob can weasel the space under the passenger side couch. Below you see the proposed rear of the van with RJ pointing out the back rest we asked for to allow us to stretch out sitting up facing forward on those previously mentioned rainy boring days.
The build will be everything we had hoped for and will give us some change out of one hundred thousand dollars but not much. As a bill it seems enormous, as the cost of a home it seems modest, but whichever way you look at it we are going to have to work a good few hours to pay off the loan. My wife of course has a plan and all effort will be directed to clearing the bill as we have no other debts or obligations. It is the final step of the twenty year scheme she concocted to secure our old age with retirement plans lo those many years ago when we took off from California and sailed to Key West. She was pissed she had worked almost till 40 and had not had a law firm that believed in pension plans to boost her own savings. Key West was going to be different she promised. I have held up my end of the bargain with almost 16 years of city employment under my belt and she has worked for the state building her own defined benefit plan. All well and good but I am ready to get rolling.
So much effort to get a professionally built van. What does Bob know about taking my money, really hard earned I might add, and turning it into a nice place to live and travel? He's done it a few times prior to this golden van. There was a van next to mine (mine! eek!) in the first stages of its three month transformation:
Bob doesn't care what make or model of vehicle you want transformed. He'll do a Promaster by Dodge (his preferred for it's broad interior) or a Mercedes or a Ford Transit which are taller and thinner and don't allow for beds set across the body thus using more interior volume. A lot of people are surprised we deliberately rejected diesel as a motive source of power. Unlike marine engines which are largely unregulated in the US, road diesel engines suffer from anti pollution requirements that make them expensive to run and fiddly to maintain even though they deliver a couple more miles to the gallon over the road. New diesel products for instance are increasing the proportion of biodiesel at the pumps which make refueling even more complicated. for Sprinter engines that don't take 20% biofuel mixtures. Going to Latin America is even worse as low sulphur diesel is still relatively scarce in South America. Gasoline is easy and ubiquitous.
Bob builds mobile offices for doctors and vets, he's built specialized vans for transporting anything you can think dream it up he'll build it. Most recently? He put in a fireplace after some investigation of the risks he said. That took some convincing to persuade him it was safe modification. Most of his Promaster conversions are white as they are factory ready almost immediately but we wanted something a little different and were in no hurry to get a van delivered. This is only the second such golden van he has converted. I actually wanted maroon but Herself nixed that on the grounds red would absorb heat.  Gold was a compromise.
I am not entirely comfortable discussing these strange plans like this with nothing to show for them. I much prefer to do the thing first and then report back but my life is headed in this direction and as much as I gird my loins to get used to spending weekends learning to stealth camp and boondock, to overcome my reticence at sleeping on the streets in a glorified car for heaven's sake! I feel obliged to be honest about our plans. And as we have seen  recently it's all very well to make plans but we are in our 60s and things can easily go wrong. Yet I know we both are really tired of sitting still, my wife and I are both nomads at heart and we are ready to ditch being responsible after nearly two decades. The motorcycle wreck that nearly killed me was a wake up call and I spent a lot of the three months in the hospital trying to figure how to make the best use of whatever time remains. As odd as this may seem it is deeply thought out and well considered as end of life preparations go.
We talked at some great length after I came out of the hospital and we both of us figured that a journey, an undertaking, an exploration was how we both want to end our travel filled lives. There are places we both want to see and we want to drive  there with our own home. Silly? I suppose you could say that. Presumptuous? Not at all, we both know how to evaluate risk and reward and we both know how wrong things can go. If we lose our mobility or some other problem arises we will do what we can and go where we can. We make no promises except to do our best. Right now our best is to create a mobile home and hope that politics, climate change, our own health and our pension plans stay in an orbit that will allow us to fulfill the dream. I am not still in a. wheelchair so that's one good thing.
Fear is the thing that holds us all back and when Layne and I talk to others of driving South America and further afield we are viewed not with the enthusiasm we would like to share, but as idiots taking unpardonable liberties. I accept that, but I also know that travel just drags along your limitations and shortcomings behind you; you don't shake them loose by moving away. And if you are timid and fearful in the environment you know and live every day you will not enjoy the road where new and different and unaccustomed are the order of each and every day. For my part I would rather be scared and worried seeking out trouble rather than letting it creep up on me in the old familiar places and ways. Rusty has always shown a surprising degree of curiosity and willingness to explore so I trust he will enjoy the ride. He will certainly enjoy the cooler temperatures near the Arctic Circle and in the High Andes.
And you might be surprised how welcoming and fun the road can also be. Some of our tightest friendships were forged while sailing in lonely places with people of very different backgrounds we would never meet in normal suburban life. After the journey I am confident the future will reveal itself to the people we are become. I am hoping it will be a boat in a marina in Key West with the van as our escape pod parked close by ashore.
Summer vacation this year is supposed to be a three week shake up cruise in the finished van, coronavirus be damned. That will be the next step and the first real test of this long drawn out preparation for our  retirement plan. Fingers crossed and I have been studying the Atlas of the Great Silk Road, our way home I hope. 

The Golden Road to Samarkand

Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
 When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
 Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone;
 By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
 We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Open the gate, O watchman of the night!
 Ho, travellers, I open. For what land
Leave you the dim-moon city of delight?
MERCHANTS (with a shout):
 We take the Golden Road to Samarkand!
(The Caravan passes through the gate)
THE WATCHMAN (consoling the women):
What would ye, ladies? It was ever thus.
 Men are unwise and curiously planned.
They have their dreams, and do not think of us.
VOICES OF THE CARAVAN (in the distance singing):
 We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.