Problems, problems. A 21 year old van is bound to have some. But we’ve been lucky. 30,000 miles in 15 months might not sound like a lot, especially to someone who commutes long distances or drives for a living. But just for a little comparison, in our vanlife so far we’ve covered the equivalent of Scotland’s famous North Coast route, the NC500, 60 and a half times, or from Irelands northernmost tip to its southernmost point 100 trips over. Dixie has also suffered in other ways that standard commercial vans don’t usually, the cruel and unusual punishment of having two fairly clumsy humans living inside her, cooking every breakfast, sleeping every night and all the scruffy little things that happen in between. If you’ve been following along on our journey, you’ll know one thing we are great at is putting things off. Therefore servicing the old house has been put on the longest finger we have between us…. until now. With the threat of the yearly road worthiness test hanging over us, we set off to find two things: a D.O.E. (a commercial vehicle test is similiar to an N.C.T. for cars but carried out at a different place) test centre NOT in the greater Dublin area and a great (and patient) mechanic willing to help two van-dwellers in their time of need.
And so we identified Sligo as potentially a good place to take (and probably fail) the test. Why? Many reasons, firstly we already knew where the testing centre is. And we knew of at least 10 good parkups with great facilities nearby should we need (and as luck would have it, we did) Dublin centres are so much busier and therefore far less accommodating. But we were miles away from Sligo at the time, still in Dublin in fact, with a couple of things to take care of before we could take off again, and it seemed as if even the mere mention of spending a few days with a mechanic sent Dixie spiralling into an existential engine funk that in the end cost us more in time and money that we had hoped.
One day we woke to a flat battery. As it happened to be a beautiful autumn day and Dixie was perfectly parked, poised peacefully by a lovely little lake, we enjoyed the scenery over breakfast and waited until late afternoon to call for roadside assistance. Sitting around idly is our favourite pasttime after all. Two pots of coffee and a round of banana sandwiches later the reliable tow truck joined us on the shore.
A brief, friendly chat (during which the local man asked what would we have done if he’d been late and the tide had come in. Well. Sir, this is a lake, not the ocean, it is not tidal, therefore we are in absolutely no danger. Cue a cocked head, a confused look and a silent return to the business at hand as the facts began to dawn on him), a quick jump start and we were on our merry way again. A minor delay, a little inconvenience, I joked that we were en route to the garage anyway and thanked the guy for giving me something to write about. Little did I know!
Our leisure batteries are pretty new but recently they’ve been draining quickly. We know this. There’s some gremlin in the system stealing our electricity. However, we have worked them pretty hard too, charging and powering our lights and electronics this whole time. Instead of addressing the root of the problem though we’ve been adjusting the frugal way, by either using torches when the lights start to flick dimmer or just seeing it as a sign that it’s time to go to sleep. Luckily, it usually is. Long-term the problem obviously requires fixing, before we talk about installing a set of solar panels. Now we might have another new problem altogether with the alternator. None of this mattered during the last glorious 6 months of summer when the days seemed to last forever (and so we kept finding reasons not to address the issues) but lately its getting dark at 6pm and people need light, that much is established. There is an unsightly and ever-widening rust hole, eating away at the sliding door and the bulbs over the registration plate are fading out. Clearly Dixie was crying out for some T.L.C., shes not been serviced since October 2017 in Bournemouth.
We tried to get to Sligo that day, we really did. Instead Dixie stalled outside a Dublin shopping centre and my conveniently nearby father came to save the day with his trusty jump leads. Not confident enough to try again, we camped for the night in the driveway of 109.
In the afternoon, to our great surprise, Dixie started fine and we set off in the direction of Sligo full of hope, both quietly and cautiously optimistic, leaning back into our seats and listening to the smooth purr of the engine, watching the grey clouds over Dublin disappear in the rear view mirror. The open road stretched out ahead and gradually the traffic thinned, the streetlights blinked orange one by one as we powered passed into the dusk. So dedicated were we to reach our destination that we even braved the dreaded motorway for once. Unfortunately, that modest, unspoken euphoria in the cab lasted only until Enfield when the fuel light warned red and we pulled into the next garage for diesel, reluctantly killing the engine. Not surprisingly, we heard no calm, consistent purr emanating from under Dixies bonnet when her tank was full and the key turned again in the ignition, instead she spluttered and coughed and choked like a chainsmoker in the morning and then… nothing.
Waiting for the AA to come to your rescue is a good time to reflect upon all the money your €99 yearly subscription must have cost the company so far and to count the counties you’ve been rescued from thus far. Is there a maximum number of times a customer can used their services? No, the friendly AA representative told me on the phone, we’re here whenever you need us. No maximum at all? No. So, in theory, one could have a completely dead battery and a completely blown alternator but still get an urgent appointment, get swiftly resusitated and pushed on a little further every day?
Good thing too, because that is exactly what ended up happening. We’ve been lucky in that Dixies engine has been reliable, even when the batteries are not. She hasn’t required a tow or any emergency mechanical operations so the old girl has not technically ‘broken down’ yet but a roadside rescue is a roadside rescue regardless. I’ve lost track of the number of kettles boiled while waiting for the Automobile Association, waiting for anything is a little unnerving and makes me jumpy and the conversation inevitably turns to the other AA. Usually the call-out guy will find us huddled in the back of the van, repeating the Vanners Prayer (“Help us to accept the roads we cannot drive, drive the roads we can and have the wisdom to know the difference“) and howling with laughter.
As I said earlier, we’re both proved really good at procrastinating lately. Mark Twain said “Why put off until tomorrow what you could do the day after tomorrow?” and I can completely see his point. When we have so little to do we tend to reject any suggestion of any reason that might require our presence at any particular place or time, especially something requiring us to be mature, on time or overly concerned, anything official or officious. We’re just not used to dealing with red tape anymore and will go to ridiculously lazy lengths to avoid it. I’m personally having a problem taking almost anything seriously lately. I’m so out of practise.
Stalling at a diesel pump in a busy forecourt late at night is not ideal, obviously we couldnt just sleep there, but it could also be a lot worse. We waited and watched the steady stream of cars and vans and an absolute abundance of taxis stop, refuel, pay and go on their way. Special occasions like these require celebrating and so icecream was purchased, partly to pass the time but mainly to use as an excuse to fellow motorists who also wanted to pump their petrol on Aisle 3. Doffing your icecream cone at strangers, a universal symbol of your intent to stay put until it is eaten.
This time the AA were quicker (and much less humorous) as the mechanic arrived without even a greeting, looked Dixie up and down and scoffed at our intended destination. “Sligo? You won’t get as far as the next roundabout in that old thing!” Jeez, go easy man, as if our little vanhouse doesn’t have feelings! Spurred on by his awful but infectious bad attitude, we stubbornly took his educated warning as a kind of challenge accepted and after a brief battery-boosting blast from his plug we were back on the road, headed into the inky night towards Yeats Country.
As it happened, the surly mechanics learned advice was of course right and less that 20 minutes later Dixies batteries were slowly beginning to suffer again. To make matters worse, the light Irish rain chose this moment to come down in sheets, washing the windscreen in watery waves and reducing already bad visibility to almost zero. We were still braving the motorway at the time, with nowhere safe to pull over and so William had an extremely stressful 15 minutes of navigating the van with failing lights and lazy, sluggish windscreen wipers off the dangerous road at the next exit and into a quiet marina we’ve visited before. The palpable relief upon exiting the busy asphalt and slipping silently into safe sanctuary at the deserted waterfront made up for the slight disappointment of only getting halway to our goal. Exhausted, we put on the kettle and got ready for bed, the canal water lapping at the lock and lulling us gently to sleep. I’ve heard laziness is the art of resting before you get tired, we’re perfecting that art. The next rescue would have to wait until morning.
And so we eventually made it to Sligo (only 4 days late) and failed the first test as expected for reasons too numerous to itemise here. We left the testing centre with a list of faults and fixers as long as Williams arm. Along the way however, we did pick up a recommendation for a local garage who might be able to help us. We at The Backwards Van highly regard personal recommendations because really, we know nobody here, and knowing even just one somebody is much, much better. The mechanic was immediately friendly and took Dixie under his greasy wing, perused the test centres detailed diagnosis, scheduled the work to start first thing Monday and organised a retest for us later in the week. Sheepishly disclosing our ‘special circumstances’ of needing the van overnight, every night, the guy appeared a little impressed (we seem to either get ‘appalled’ or ‘amazed’ as stock reactions to our living situation) and he promised to help us out. This is hugely important when you live in a van, to have the understanding that she needs to be at least able to drive out of the garage every evening. Good guy Vinnie put us at ease in spite of Dixies many malfunctioning parts, the alternator would be replaced first and it was great to have that reassurance after a long, uncertain week filled with jumpstarts from strangers. As it was already Friday evening, we decided to stay local for the weekend lest anymore trouble should befall us.
More trouble befell us almost immediately upon leaving the garage. We made it as far as our next stop, the local swimming pool, where we had planned on sweating a few hours away in a hot sauna but said pool turned out to be all shuttered up for the winter season, a fact mysteriously unadvertised on their website. Of course Dixie liked it so much there she then refused leave the carpark. We reminded ourselves its just the starter, nothing more serious, gave thanks for the flat surface and the safe resting spot (even if it was a hotel carpark) and again…we boiled the kettle and got into bed.
Another day, another jumpstart. This time the mechanic was in great form and told us his last call-outs were all to brand new cars, not this type of reliable, workhorse van. There you go, that’s how to make a customer feel at ease! The rest of the weekend we spent parked up by Sligos famous Strandhill Beach, anxiously avoiding troubling the testy engine and eating icecream cones in the grey rain. Tourist season is well and truly behind us now and the beach and boardwalk were mostly quiet save for a few local dogs and their walkers. Every morning we watched from the comfort of our bed as the brave kitesurfers unpacked their kits, inflated up a huge wingspan and set off into the waves for a few hours of intense exercise at the mercy of the sea. Better them than me, I’m so lazy lately that if I had three hands I’d need three pockets. Standing still for a few days is no trouble whatsoever for me. Luckily Sligo is such a beautiful place or we might have felt a little more… disrupted.
That weekend, the comments of the rude AA man back at the petrol pump were hanging over me. We try to be as positive as we can in life, in our words and in our deeds, especially in vanlife which requires a subtle, delicate balance of practicality, humour and not-entirely-giving-a-shit, don’t sweat the small stuff and all that. Neither of us appreciated the mans message nor the tone in which he delivered it. What was his point anyway, that our old van was a piece of crap? Doesn’t he know some things are best left unsaid? It took me back to a conversation we had once in Scotland. One day in late spring on the pretty Isle of Skye, we pulled into a Co-op for supplies and struck up a conversation with the motorhoming couple parked beside us. As it was such a beautiful day we stood around far longer than usual, chatting like old friends about vans, vanning, the weather and the usual. They were driving a Ducato too, with a brand new chassis and a spacious (and to us, extremely luxurious) cab, a real big bathroom and a fixed double bed in a little cupboard dressed up as a bedroom at the back. They happily showed us around. Van envy is a real thing and after a few minutes inside their amazing home on wheels, gaping open-mouthed at modern, genius storage solutions, cabinets that stay closed fast even in transit and so many convenient places to hang the things, I excused myself to roll a cigarette. William and the couple drifted back out to the sunshine too and talk turned to Dixie, our travels so far and our experiences with the engine (bear in mind we’d not had a moments trouble with her at this point in our journey) I expressed our desire for a solar panel, pointing down to my flip flops and up to the wide impossibly blue Scottish sky, replete with fluffy white clouds, hanging leisurely above us. “Next we’ll get a panel fitted” said I, envisioning a day where everything electronic we own is constantly trickle-charging, for free, courtesy of this wonderous ball of fire known as the sun. “Ha!”, answered the relative stranger wryly, “next place for this old thing is the scrapheap!” Ouch!
Time like the autumn clouds passed by. Dixie was routinely and seemlessly disassembled every morning and reassembled every evening into perfectly driveable condition in time for collection. We spent these days (which were each grey, dripping with clouds and soaked with endless rain) walking around Sligo (technically a city but that seems a disingenious label, the atmosphere is definitely that of a large country town full of friendly people) and availing of the shelter offered by the many free public buildings and museums. We paced the wet cobbled streets and sought late-afternoon refuge in a quirky cafe with steamed up windows where each customer was greeted like an old friend. I played the strings off every ukelele upstairs in the tiny music shop, we browsed the bookstores and camping stores and watched the swans on the rushing river Garavogue which cuts the town neatly in two like a winding wet ribbon. Sligos favourite son W.B. Yeats found much of his inspiration in the these landscapes and the poet’s words adorn (and brighten up) the walls, giving pause and lending a reflective solitude to the busy urban space at every turn.
Dixie failed the next test too, again as predicted, but we knew that time was tight and that re-test was mandatory. In the mornings, Vinnie dropped us into town (or wherever we chose to pass that day away). He didnt have to do that. These little acts of kindness towards us makes up for all the bad things strangers have said about our house. Rainy days outside the van can be expensive as we pay to sit and drink coffee or spend time in shops and huge retail outlets, places so far from our comfort zone now. We bought a rug and a couple of LED light strips and I replaced my punctured hiking boots but after a few hours of wandering in and out of various buildings and being sold to, we were bored. These labyrinthine superstores are a vicious assault on the senses if you’re not used to them, bright white lights leave you blinking in sterile shock and the music? There must be proof that shoppers buy more when exposed to really bad and really loud hiphop. Everybody certainly seems to move faster. Every thing nice in the place is overpriced, and worse, every thing else is vulgar, underpriced when its components are considered and usually useless, just more cheap plastic junk, mass produced to fill all these shelves and mass consumed by all these people at the expense of our only planets environment…it is a most depressing thought. Take us back to the mountains, the fields and hills and sandy shores and sell us nothing but fresh Irish air and spectacular scenery please!
The next few days without Dixie we chose to stick around the garage instead of heading to town. Entertainment in the form of watching the canal dredging machine at work and exploring industrial estates is much less stressful and far cheaper than shops. I can sit on a wall and watch the traffic for hours. One new exhaust later, we were on our way back to the centre for the third test.
I don’t pretend to know the details of Dixies various mechanical ailments, honestly we couldn’t wait to get the paperwork out of our hands and into somebody elses. I know the exhaust was shot, there was that rusty patch on the door to weld over and our wiper linkages were useless, whatever wiper linkages even are I’m still not sure. True to form, I’d prefer to continue to avoid the responsibility of knowing whats wrong. I know if I read up about the issues one by one I would start to get worried. Whats the point in worrying about an engine when I can’t understand it, nevermind help fix it? Is that laziness, procrastination or being irresponsible? Is it something else entirely, maybe applying selective concern? I came across a quote which made me smile, “no matter what you do, you’ll never be as lazy as whoever named the fireplace”.
Never were two people more relieved to get a vehicle passed its test before. Three people, if you include Vinnie, which we do, he must surely have been sick of the sight of us hanging around for weeks, smoking cigarettes and kicking tyres all day in his car yard.
Maybe we could have avoided all those frustrating roadside rescues had we stopped procrastinating and kept on top of our vehicular maintanance. A stitch in time saves nine after all. I thought that expression refered to mending holes in garments quickly, before they got any bigger but no, its real origins lie in 1700s French sailing terminology and the gruesome necessity of burials at sea. Nine pounds of shot was stitched in to weight the body bag down, with the last stitch passing through some part of the cadaver to secure the sack to the corpse, lest the shot should be lost to the sea. Dixie is not dead yet, quite the opposite actually, she is officially reborn so that expression is not applicable here. What we learned is it can be expensive in the end to avoid servicing your vehicle, especially if you live in it, and at the same time, that kindness costs nothing. Being a nice person includes not insulting someones vehicle. Being a really nice person includes helping stranded vandwellers out and we’re grateful for our mechanic buddy in that regard. I’m still not convinced theres a bigger downside to our laziness or idleness or procrastination though, whatever you see fit to call it, so long as we contain it and it affects nobody but ourselves. Alternatively, we could try to change our ways and be more proactive in life. In fact, I think we will stop procrastinating for once and for all. Starting first thing tomorrow 😉