"Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." ~ John Adams
Sailing Around North America #4--Tinkerbelle
"When you come to the fork in the road, take it." ~ Yogi Berra
"You've got to be careful if you don't know where you're going 'cause you might not get there." ~ Ibid
"We're lost, but we're making good time." ~ Ibid
My mission, when I decided to sail around North America in an antique van with an antique sailboard strapped to the top, almost seemed to follow the philosophy of Yogi Berra. To get lost along the way. To set out slowly and make great haste getting there at my own leisure. To drive carefully without a definite route and take the road not taken. And when, not if, I got lost along the way, to enjoy the discovery.
Because "Not till we are lost," as Thoreau said, "do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."
I bought my 1969 Volkswagen van (picture) a dozen years ago for $1,000 in Tempe, Arizona. The van had 118,000 miles on it when I bought it. I'm not sure if the odometer had gone around a couple of times, but I didn't care. Red, with a white roof, the van boasted 40 horsepower galloping from a mighty 1600 CC engine. I loved her from the beginning but never named her for ten years.
Then one day in 2001, I decide to recreate a trip around North America. At the age of 38, in 1986, I had circled North America--10,000 miles--aboard a used Schwinn bicycle. Now my plan was to take a windsurfing safari in the VW van. But before that happened, about a month before my trip, I read a wonderful little book.
Entitled "Tinkerbelle," by Robert Manry, the book inspired me in a couple of ways. Manry was just an average guy like myself with a wild dream. A newsman and weekend sailor who floated around Lake Erie in a ten-foot boat, Manry wanted to go places slowly. An unassuming guy with a faraway look in his eyes, Manry dreamed of sailing his small craft to England. And damned if he didn't do it!
The name of his small sailboat? Tinkerbelle.
Now, granted, my Tinkerbelle was red, bulbous and slow, while the pixie Tinkerbelle (the Disney character, not the sailboat) was green, sleek, sexy and fast, but otherwise the resemblance between the two was exact. They each brought a smile of astonishment and a shake of the head to those who saw them. They each had magical qualities. They each remained flighty in the extreme, exasperatingly so.
I gutted the interior of the van when I bought it. No, actually the interior was already gutted. But then I installed cabinets and book shelves. I put up curtains. I painted the roof. I wood-panelled the inside doors. I mounted roof racks and applied bumper stickers. Every hippie van should have bumper stickers.
One day, some years ago, after returning from a trip to Las Vegas, the Volkswagen's engine smoked from leaking engine oil. I limped to Phoenix the next weekend, where my brother KJ and I rebuilt the engine in my brother Pete's backyard. In the next five years, I would do minimal maintenance on the old girl. She just limped along fine, and I rarely drove above 50. Every two or three thousand miles, I changed the oil.
Before I left on this "circumnavigation" of North America, I reread a couple of classic books about traveling around North America by van. Certainly John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley may have inspired the spurt of hippies heading for the highways during the Sixties. Almost 20 years later, William Least Heat-Moon and his book Blue Highways (A Journey into America) inspired a legion of followers, a few of whom may have been inspired by the footloose accounts of their parents.
We were all born gypsies. The urge is as much part of our heritage as in our DNA. Whether we trace our ancestors to the original Pilgrims, Puritans or prison ships, we've all come from someplace else. Some of us feel as lost and disjointed as our forefathers and foremothers did when they first saw this shore.
What Steinbeck, and later Least Heat-Moon, discovered was as much an adventure around the country as an adventure inside themselves. And just as scary or exhilarating. Sometimes we need to remain home, face the mess we've made (and absurd gas prices), and forget the road. Other times we need to jump the fences we've built around our lives, and light out for the territories, as Mark Twain would say.
So I faced the music for awhile, managing the mess I made, and then I lit out for the territories in my little rolling home in the spring of 2001.
Steinbeck named his truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote's faithful and magical horse. William Least Heat-Moon called his white van Ghost Dancing. And so I called my van Tinkerbelle and loaded her with books, tools, sail bags, clothes, notebooks, more books, and a bicycle.
While it may be wise to christen the craft that will carry you--Apollo, Voyager, Nina, Pinta or Santa Marie --it isn't necessary. But one should consider naming the vehicle--whether a spacecraft or canoe--that will carry you into the great unknown. And who knows, maybe one day, you and your vehicle will be enshrined in your home town--if you both survive your trip. Perhaps your amazing vehicle will even become a cult object of near deification--unless of course it rusts away!