Van Life Is Not What I Thought It Would Be

A True Story About Being Stranded

Harley Bell


A van with a big teddy bear
Ralph the van with Big Bear in the boot. Photo supplied by author.

We were screwed. The engine of our van wouldn’t start and we were meant to be leaving town. Today. This was our chance to adventure except we never made it out of the driveway.

Here’s what happened.

My partner and I had been planning for months. We ran out the lease on our apartment and decided to hit the road. We wanted to try our hand at being digital nomads. I was going to write a book. She was going to code. We had a van and his name was Ralph. Literally everything we owned was inside. On the day of departure, we packed ourselves in. I turned the key in the engine, the lights came on across the dashboard and the car clicked. Then nothing. One cylinder stuttered but the rest would not speak. I revved it, hoping. But it wouldn’t start. We were stuck in the driveway.

Then there was a knock on the window and the neighbour had heard our cacophony. He was nice enough to tell us that we flooded the engine. He could smell it on the air. Unburnt fuel was coming out of the exhaust. Then with a smile that meant he wanted to help but didn’t know how, he left us to our plight.

It is hard not to read into these things. Was this a sign that we weren’t meant to leave the city?

I am not mechanically minded but this ordeal has taught me about spark plugs. As if theoretical knowledge could help alleviate the stress that permeated through our brains. Apparently, with an internal combustion engine, there is an insulated plug that screws into a cylinder head. When the key is turned, the plug should deliver a spark that ignites the air and fuel in the combustion chamber. Then the engine should start. But if it cannot perform this function, then the spark travels back to towards the earth and dissipates. But it wasn’t the spark plugs that were broken.

It was the head gasket. There were exhaust fumes in the cooling system. The van was toast. It was now nothing but a metal hull that housed our lives. It’s almost funny how quickly adventure can turn into reality. With one simple turn of a key, we were screwed.

It would be an expensive fix. Too expensive. More expensive than the cost of the van. Before this, we…



Harley Bell

I write about writing, creativity and business. I'm currently working on a poetry book, titled Wild Altar.