Sitting there at her sewing machine, my wife gave me her attention as I came into the room saying, “Well, I’ve got our trip mapped out; it should only take three months, and around 15,000 miles.” She stopped sewing, looked at me with her loving, caring eyes, and said, “Are you crazy! You can’t be serious, we have three little children!” But I WAS serious.
In 1987 my wife had quit her teaching job at a business university to stay home with our young children; I had quit my job as an environmental scientist with a state agency to strike out on my own as an environmental consultant, so for the time being, we were both jobless. Now, with time on my hands, I wanted to come up to speed on some of the current environmental issues, so my plan was to fly to an environmental conference in Tennessee and then fly to Washington, D.C. to discuss some energy ideas with a friend who had helped design the COMSAT satellite system, and then fly home.
Another travel plan developed, however, when my wife said, “I’m not working, and you’re not working, so why don’t we drive the trip and turn it into a family vacation.” So, sitting down with a map, I looked at driving from Columbus, Ohio, to Tennessee, and then realized we weren’t far from Macon, Georgia, where I had some relatives, and that wasn’t far from Sarasota, Florida, where some of our good friends lived, and that wasn’t far from West Palm Beach on the other side of Florida where my wife had some relatives, and traveling up the East Coast, we had more friends and relatives right up to Boston.
And since I was on a roll at that point, the plan just kept on rolling along right into Boston and then to Chicago, to Little Rock, Arkansas, to the bottom of Texas, down to Mexico City and into Guatemala City, up the West coast of Mexico, into Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, and then up into British Columbia and across Canada, back into the States through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and…………back to Columbus, Ohio! That’s why. . . when I presented my travel plans to my wife and at this point she clearly saw that she got a whole lot more than what she had originally bargained for, she reacted with, “Are you crazy?” One good friend with great concern said, “Nick, I think you’ve gone off the deep end this time.” My reaction was to go buy a twenty-year-old VW camper van!!
In the following weeks, we packed up the van with supplies for us and the kids and lots of spare parts and plenty of oil for the van. My son wasn’t potty trained yet, so we had white disposable diapers stuck everywhere! Before leaving, a friend of ours gave us a little 3×3-inch plaque with a Scripture verse on it that read, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) We set the little plaque in a prominent place on our dashboard as it seemed the perfect motto for our trip.
The next day my wife, our five-year-old twin daughters, and two-year-old son climbed in the old van as I pulled the sliding side door shut. It was like boarding Noah’s Ark only without the critters and the rain. Pulling left out of our middle-class suburban driveway, we worked our way to the interstate, and we were off!
I was enjoying the drive south out of flat Columbus, Ohio, the kids were playing in the back of the roomy camper van, my wife was sitting in the passenger seat reading her Bible and watching the rolling hills grow larger and greener with trees as we drove further south. The sky was a beautiful blue with wispy clouds, and all was serene as the van purred along.
After passing through Kentucky into Tennessee, I noticed a lack of power as the van attempted to climb the hills. I chalked it up, however, to the van only being a four cylinder that was loaded with family and supplies. But as we drove along, and as the hills got steeper, I became concerned about the steady decline in my engine power; then about half way up a very long high hill, it happened.
I felt the van jerk, and looking out the rearview mirror, I saw a huge cloud of gray smoke coming out of the back of the van where the engine was located. I had flashbacks of a burning van I was in earlier in my life that caused me to have visions of flames and a possible explosion. I yelled to my wife to get in the back of the van with the kids and instructed her that when I slowed down, I wanted her and the kids to jump out the sliding side door. My intent was to get the van away from them in case it burst into flames or exploded.
In preparation for the exit, my wife pulled open the side door; then slowing way down, I yelled back to them, “JUMP!” Instantly, they all bailed out holding hands, tumbling into the grass while I kept going till they were a safe distance away; then, I pulled the van to the side of the road, turned off the engine, yanked on the emergency brake, jumped out and ran back through the cloud of smoke to my family. We stood there and watched, but surprisingly, the big gray cloud drifted away, and nothing more seemed to be happening. Still, we waited.
After a good while, I walked back to the van, put my hand against the engine lid to see if something might still be smoldering on the inside, but the lid felt reasonably cool. Lifting the lid with great caution so I could inspect the engine, I feared that I might see all the wiring and parts burnt to a crisp like in my previous van, but to my complete surprise, they all looked fine, only covered with a layer of oil!
Checking the oil in the engine, there was not a drop on my dipstick, but since I had purchased plenty of oil before leaving Ohio, I was in good shape. After refilling the engine with oil, I cautiously tried to start the motor. To my surprise, it started! However, it was running really rough, like it was only running on three cylinders instead of four, and the smoke started blowing out of the exhaust pipe. Putting my hand into the exhaust cloud, I felt it was oily smoke and not a fire-based smoke. Obviously, something had happened to one or more of the pistons, and oil was being blown out of the engine.
The van seemed drivable, so we all got back in, and slowly, very slowly, we continued climbing the long, high hill. Soon, we came to a filling station; we needed gas, and I needed to check the oil. While my wife and kids made a potty run, I started filling the tank with gas and noticed a small puddle of oil forming under the van and realized the engine problem was even more serious than I had originally thought. Praying, I said, “Lord, what do we do now? Is this the end of the trip? We really need your help! Thank you…..in the name of Jesus.” As soon as I finished praying, my eyes were drawn to a white audio cassette lying in the dirt in a nearby parking spot.
Letting go of the gas pump handle, I walked over and picked up the cassette. The side I picked up was blank, but when I turned it over, I saw that it was a music cassette by a Christian band I recognized. It was Petra’s album, Not of This World, and again my eyes were drawn to the middle song called—“Not by Sight.” I thought about the plaque from our friend that was sitting on our dashboard and was reminded that indeed we are to walk not by sight, but by faith! Right then and there, I decided that no matter how bad our situation “looked,” we would go on in faith trusting the Lord.
Filling the van up with oil and with a full tank of gas, we headed back out to the road and continued coasting down hills, and at a snail’s pace, climbing them, all the time fogging the folks behind us with oil smoke. After about ten miles and a couple of stops to dump more oil in the van, the engine seemed to be getting more critical. It was starting to get dark as evening closed in, and I began to wonder what to do. In another mile or so, we saw a truck weigh station, and I decided to pull in. There were only a couple of guys working in the isolated station with no trucks that needed weighing.
After going into the little building to inquire about a nearby auto repair shop, one of the guys said he had a friend that worked on VWs but more as a hobby rather than as a business, but he thought he might be able to help. He assured me that there were no auto repair shops nearby, and his friend was my best bet for getting the engine repaired. He called his mechanic friend, who suggested that we stay the night at a nearby state park, and then drive, if I could, to his place in the morning. He said he lived back in the woods, and we would never find his place in the dark. He gave us directions to the park and his place and planned on seeing me the next day at 9 a.m.
We limped our way to the park, paid for a camping site, parked the van and got ready for bed, but before drifting off to sleep, we prayed and thanked the Lord for a safe place to stay and for a plan to get the van fixed. Waking early the next morning and figuring this was probably going to take more than one day to fix, I got out the only “tent” we had which was a screen house, set it up, and moved the family, sleeping bags, food, water, and cooking stuff into the screen house. My family looked like they were in a cage for all to see as folks walking by on the nearby trail looked rather strangely at them. In my wife’s own words, she recounts, “I remember feeling very silly; everybody knows you use a tent with sides to go camping, not a see-through screen house! What kind of novice campers were we?? Obviously, we hadn’t taken Camping 101 or if we took it, we must have royally failed it!!! The passers-by had no idea we had a camper van that was in the shop being repaired.”
This was back before the days of affordable cell phones, so as I drove off, there was no way for me to stay in contact with my wife or to let the mechanic know I was on my way. Leaving early to make sure I had plenty of time to get to the mechanic’s house, I followed his map through the narrow, secluded wooded park roads. It seemed like I was about half way there when the van died—it just quit. It was 8 a.m.; I got out my tools and tried working on the engine, cleaning oil off the connections and such to try to get it started again. By 9 a.m. I was hot and thirsty and realized I had left all the water with my family, and there was no other water in sight.
Hunting around in the van, I found a quart of apple sauce; figuring that it had liquid in it, I drank the whole jar, which did little to quench my thirst. Back out on the engine, I needed to get it started to get to the mechanic. About twenty minutes later, I stood up from the engine and felt something funny happening inside of me! All of a sudden, I felt as if I had just drunk a very large glass of cool water!! I thought, “Wow!” It took about twenty minutes for my body to break down the fiber in the apple sauce into liquid, and I felt completely refreshed and no longer thirsty! Loudly I said, “Thank you, Jesus!!”
A few minutes after that, I saw a large tractor coming toward me—it was the mechanic! He said he figured I may have broken down on the way, so he came looking for me. He hooked up my van, towed it to his house, and drug it up a very steep hill to his large garage. Even in perfect running order, my van never would have made it up his hill. In short order, he found the problem—a hole had been blown through a piston head! That explained the loss of power and the large dark oil cloud that traveled with us.
Our answer-to-prayer-mechanic said it would take him a few days to get parts and rebuild the engine, so we’d need to stay at the park till he was finished. He drove me back to the park where we lived in our screen house for all to see for three days. I got pretty good at changing my clothes in a sleeping bag though my wife and family chose to take the long walk to the shower house. We literally came to understand what it meant to “live in a glass house.” More than a cliché, it became our awkward reality.
After the van was fixed, our friendly and extremely helpful Tennessee mechanic picked me up and took me back to his place, and I drove our new happy, healthy, purring-like-a-kitten van back to my family. It was the start of a new day and the beginning of our three-month, three-country, three-kid, 15,100-mile trip. We loaded up the van, piled in, pulled the ark door shut, and we were off . . . with a new engine and a renewed faith.
“For we walk by faith, not by sight.” — 2 Corinthians 5:7 (KJV)
Copyright © 2013 by William D. (Nick) Nichols
Post Script: Our trip covered all the places mentioned except we never made it to Guatemala because we were robbed on a subway train underneath Mexico City and banditos got my passport–but that’s another story for another time.
[This story is dedicated to Karen and Denise DeMars who met up with us in Boston during our long road trip. Karen also took the photo of our family aboard the USS Constitution at the top of the story. Thank you Karen and DD, you guys are awesome! --Nick]