The first order of business in planning our road trip was to keep it a secret. This wasn’t really for any reason other than keeping it from our parents. Some of the guys were concerned that their parents would try to put a stop to the trip at the first hint of the idea. Our thinking was that we would plan every aspect of the trip out including costs, dates, and a rough itinerary so we could present this, not as a hair-brained plan of careless college students, but as a solid and well thought out excursion. We figured they would be so impressed with our planning that they’d have no choice but to give it their blessing—which more or less ended up being the case.
The secretiveness also heightened our sense of excitement and anticipation.
Most of our meetings took place in a pavilion at a roadside park in Burton, OH—a central location for everyone. The initial visions of the trip were huge. We were talking about driving through Canada up to Alaska then making our way back down the west coast. This was before the age of smartphones (I think only two or three in the group even had cell phones at this time) so we had atlases and foldable maps of the U.S. spread out over picnic tables to study and dream over. No ideas were out of bounds at this point. Everything was on the table for consideration.
The first reality check was the astronomical cost of transportation. We knew gas would become a major expense, but it was the vehicle itself that presented the biggest problem. We needed a vehicle large enough to transport eight young men and their supplies. This meant some sort of large van. We were thinking we would rent one since it seemed like the total cost split between the eight of us wouldn’t be too bad. However, rates were automatically higher for vehicle rentals since we were all under 25. Plus, the ridiculous number of miles we were planning to drive and long rental period we would require drove the price up even further. Our calculations put renting a van into the 3-4 thousand dollar range. We were frugal college students doing this on our own without any financial support or backing from our parents.
This was a problem.
I don’t know what happened first, if we started thinking that buying a cheap vehicle would be a better option or if seeing Big Blue for sale sparked the idea of buying instead of renting.
Big Blue, as she affectionately became known, was a semi-rusty, baby blue, 1985, Ford Econoline van that sat in the front yard of an Amish taxi driver’s1 house just a few blocks from our secret meeting location. On the windshield there was a large piece of cardboard with a hand-written sign that read, “$850.” (Maybe it $1,000? I can’t recall.)
This was intriguing.
In retrospect, I don’t know why we didn’t take our time and shop around a bit more to see if we could buy a slightly better vehicle for a comparable price. Perhaps it was just a basic supply/demand reaction. We needed a cheap van made for hauling people, and there just happened to a cheap van made for hauling people a few blocks away—with an enticing price tag.
We got the van checked out by a mechanic friend who said everything looked good. He didn’t see any issues but added that with a vehicle this old there’s really no telling what could go wrong. Apparently, that was good enough for us!
Each of us went to the ATM to pull out $100 (Andy hadn’t joined us yet so there were only seven of us at this point). We showed up at the guys house, feathered out our bills and asked if he would take $700 cash.
Big Blue was ours!
Big Blue smelled terrible. It must have been smoked in for years and never cleaned. It sat parked for most of the winter in my grandparents garage waiting for its new phase of life. Over Christmas break we arranged a cleaning party. We all climbed in Big Blue together and scrubbed the whole thing down, changed out the spark plugs, and stuffed it full of odor eaters to sit until our May departure date.
We were so proud of Big Blue. This van was going to be the shell that would transport us across the U.S. It even had two gas tanks! (Which later gave us the illusion that we were getting better gas mileage than we actually were.) Big Blue would be the backbone of our epic journey. Did we have our doubts? Sure we did. The van and I shared a birth year, it was covered in rust spots, the odometer had some discrepancies, but it fired up with confidence and we were willing to put our hope and trust in her.
After a few more meetings, we scaled back our dreams a bit and realized driving to Alaska was just going to require too much time and money. We would stay within the U.S. and drive across the northern highways to go through Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Seattle, Olympic National Park, then make our way down the west coast stopping at as many national parks and sites as we could fit in. Then, we would head over to the Grand Canyon and across the southern highways back to Ohio. We had our basic route planned and gave ourselves some extra days to stay longer at a particular place or to take random detours to interesting sites along the way.
We had our vehicle. We had our itinerary. We were full of unbridled optimism.
We were ready to go.
Soon we would discover that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Next – Mt. Rushmore or Bust
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1Burton, OH is nestled in Geauga County, home to a large Amish population. The Amish primarily get around by horse and buggy but will also often rely on taxi drivers to give them rides too and from the grocery store, to run errands, etc. This is what Big Blue’s life had been spent doing.)