Just as one remembers their first kiss, I will always hold mile marker 99 deep within my heart. It was there, less than two hours outside Pensacola, Florida, I had my last breakdown as a gypsy. I say last, because these days, someone calls me their wife.
Two weeks prior, I was packing up the remnants of my quaint cabin in Colorado. Six months I had spent there, attempting to adjust from Van Life. Those months were more excruciating than any break up I’ve ever endured. At the time, I told myself, “Stass, this is the right thing to do.” It was quite the cabin I may add, snuggled into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Every window, gave a breath taking view of those snow kissed mountain caps. I had a wood burning stove, which always made the house smell of summer campfires. I decorated my little abode as if it were an extension of The Van; trinkets strewn everywhere, maps on any wall space I could find, a hammock hung above my bed.
I was twenty days shy of my two year mark in Van Life the day I moved in. To some this may be an eternity, but to many I’ve met, it was just spit in the puddle. I wanted normalcy in the way one simply wants a turkey on Thanksgiving. I believed I had (finally) found a way to integrate my need for adventure and still hold on to love. That’s all this journey was really about, finding my place somewhere in this crazy world and finding the one to make me want to stay.
As I forked over the $1,400 to move in to the cabin, a part of me wanted to cry. They say when you die, your life flashes before your eyes. Well for me, every $100 bill was an adventure I had not given a chance. There were no more future breakdowns, whiskeys with strangers, wrong turns, my hand gliding out the window against the wind…..it was all gone. But I was “in love”. Love makes you do some dumb shit.
Looking back, reflecting on my decision, I was genuinely exhausted from the road. I yearned for constant friends, warm baths, and someone to snuggle with in a normal bed. I settled, I’ll admit it. It wasn’t fair to him nor me. He wanted a woman to ride his coat tails and I’m not the tag along type. I attempted to play this role, one many woman cave into: be obedient, never really say what’s on your mind (until you blow up), always agree with him, and never have an opinion. These pain staking acts were the polar opposite of myself, yet all previous relationships had failed because I was always myself. I’m loud and sometimes obnoxious, I often say too much, and very rarely will I agree….with anyone. Yet I found myself mimicking June Cleaver.
So there I was, broke down on the side of the road, once again. Something deep down told me I was fucked or maybe it was the grinding of metal that had me veering to the shoulder. I attempted to relay this thought to the trucker who pulled over and poured two gallons of antifreeze into my radiator. Before he showed up, I had let the engine cool a bit and popped the hood. To my horror, my radiator was empty. I had just checked it a few days before….full. When the trucker poured the antifreeze in, the green liquid didn’t show itself as I peered down the hole.
Many motorist have seen a young girl in Daisy Dukes under the hood of her hippy van all across the country. I have found myself strandling my 318 more often than I change my underwear. I always knew there was a way off the side of the road, I was never before a damsel in distress awaiting the help of my knight in shining armor. I had what I called my bible, a now beat up-covered in oil and blood- Chilton’s manual. I’ve gotten down and dirty with that thing and always lived to tell the tale.
As much as I would have liked this particular breakdown to be in The Van, it wasn’t. I cheated on my Dodge and bought a 1986 Toyota 4runner.
I was two weeks in of getting acquainted with her when a rod shot through one of her cylinders right there in the panhandle of Florida. Now I said never BEFORE was I a damsel in distress, but fuck me running, I was screwed all the way to Sunday. Contemplating my options, a work truck pulls up along me. David steps out and ask if I need help.
“I got a tow strap in the back of my truck. We can tow it to my house about 30 miles away and take a look at her there.”
Without any hesitation I say, “Sure!”
Over the course of three days, we called around looking for motors, a mechanic, and went to the strip club. I recalled a mechanic in Ville Platte, Louisiana who had assisted me with some repairs to The Van the previous year. He was a Toyota genius and I was confident he could get my girl back on the road. I rented a U-Haul truck and put the Yota on a trailer and headed for The Boot.
“Do you think you can take Amelia to her wrestling practice tonight?” ask Ms. Toni.
“Sure, what time do I have to take her?” I eagerly reply.
“After she gets off the bus. They practice at the Basile high school gym, about a half hour away.”
Toni was the mother of a friend I had roomed with in New Orleans when I was twenty years old. Her and her husband Dwain had a farm in Point Blue, Louisiana where I would frequent on my travels. They would pay me to do small odd jobs on the property and feed me three square meals. I enjoyed their company, especially Mr. Dwain. He had lived on the property his entire life and could tell you the story of the day he planted every piece of foliage or tree.
Amelia was one of nine children who had lived down the road from the Aquillard’s. She was the oldest out of her “set”. Amelia had a younger sister, Jaden, and a brother, Oran. I had met Amelia and Jaden the year prior when I rolled into town one afternoon.
They would ride their bikes down to the farm after school and assist me with chores or play in The Van. Once Amelia climbed a piece of bamboo until the stalk fell over, landing safely on her feet. I then cut it down, using it as trim for the drop floor in The Van. I would tell the story to van visitors about the fearless Cajun girl when asked the origin of the bamboo.
Amelia reminded me a lot of myself when I was her age. At the age of nine, she was more mature than some of my friends. She was physically and mentally strong, yet could be quiet as a mouse. Jaden was the loud and spunky one, with no mouth filter. Together, they both entertained me, literally running circles.
Ms. Toni and I had surprised Amelia when she came to the farm to discover I was the one taking her to wrestling practice. When we finally began driving to Basile in Ms. Toni’s SUV, we both could not contain our excitement to see one another.
“Daddy told us you came back Stass. He said he saw your truck this mornin’ at the Blue Junction.”
I found her statement to be a bit odd as I had never met her father, even though he lived just a few houses down the road. How did he know I had a new truck? Then I remembered how Ms.Toni attempted to get us to meet on a previous visit a month or so earlier. Thanks to present day technology, it was easy and legal to stalk people through Facebook. I wasn’t interested as I was going on almost a year with a man in Colorado. I blew him off, kicked him to the curb, and didn’t give the guy a chance.
After wrestling practice, I was in no hurry to bring Amelia back and decided to get root beer floats at Chuck’s. The weather wasn’t exactly ice cream weather, but this was a special occasion. We slowly sipped on my favorite childhood dessert and caught up on what had happened since the last time I saw her last year. Her mother and father split up, with her mother moving closer into town with all the children. She would visit her dad on his days offshore and now went to Ville Platte Elementary instead of Chataignier. They had a smaller yard now and weren’t able to ride their bikes too far.
When we returned to the farm, I sat on the couch retelling the story to Toni and Dwain how one of the boys at wrestling practice ran into a closet, too afraid to wrestle Amelia. Then, there was a knock on the door.
“Come in!” Toni yells from the kitchen sink.
I was always curious about the man down the road. There he was, standing in the doorway and not looking like anything I had always imagined. He was thin and muscular, had a full set of teeth, and manners that made my heart melt.
“Dan, have you met Stass?” Dwain asks.
I smile from the couch and we lock eyes.
“No, I have not,” he says, looking back at Dwain.
“Stass is our friend from Chicago who travels all around the country in her van. I’m sure you’ve seen it here before.”
“Yes, I have sir.”
“Stass, Dan is from New York. He worked on a dairy farm milking cows.”
“Oh really, where in New York? I visited Albany last year, it was beautiful.”
“Upper state New York. Syracuse. I have never been to the city,” he says in such way, I can hear my heart thumping out of my chest.
Dwain and Daniel make small talk as I have such an incredibly hard time tearing my eyes away from this man. He had this strange southern twang married with a New York accent and was nowhere near the hill rod I always pictured. The smile never left his face nor mine.
Like a “ding!” at the end of a timer, I knew he was the one. Game over, the end. I always hear couples say “I just knew.” I always thought it was a crock. I was speechless, I didn’t utter another word until I said goodbye as he walked out the door. When he looked at me one last time, I knew, that he knew too.
“Daddy said ya’ll went on a daaaate.” Jaden teases as she sits next to me.
I laughed and shot a look at Daniel. The night before, he took me to a restaurant called the Silver Slipper to see his friend Jack play. I chose to wear my “Crapzilla” Shirt, Frank Zappa taking a shit surrounded by trees.
To the both of our surprise, he showed up wearing a shirt of Willie Nelson giving the finger. I feasted on the best crawfish etouffee I have ever had as well as Daniel’s jokes. No one had ever made me laugh the way he did that night nor had no man ever not try to impress me. I’ve had men bend over backwards, going out of their way on dates attempting to be the best suitor he could be. Daniel was just…..Daniel. A little bit crazy, yet so full of life.
“Did ya’ll kiss?” she whispers in my ear.
I’m positive my face was beet red. Not wanting the night to end, I recommended we go to the strip club. We drove an hour to Port Allen and spent the rest of the night at The Crazy Horse Cabaret. Normally, I would be up at the stage shelling out dollar bills, but I didn’t move from my seat once. Daniel and I sat there talking like, what he says, we were the only ones in the room. I guess we’re both crazy.
Being too drunk to drive back to Ville Platte, we got a room at the sleazy motel next door. Daniel was only able to get my bra off that night. I didn’t want to make this about sex as I knew it could easily ruin any new relationship. I’m happy we didn’t as I was about to learn how he had moved to Louisiana 10 years ago, took over his father’s construction company, and now works offshore doing 14/14’s.
Eight days. That’s all it took for me to be convinced to go back to Colorado to get my van and break up with the man I had left behind. Daniel actually told me he loved me on the third day, beating the previous record of six.
I’ll save the events of my last days in Colorado for another time. I will tell you, it took me over a week to leave as I had about six breakdowns just attempting to get out of the state, almost as if something was making me work my ass off to get what I wanted. What I yearned was Daniel’s smile and there was not a goddamn thing in the world that was going to stop me. When my steering wheel started on fire in Oklahoma, I couldn’t help but laugh even though I had absolutely no lights the rest of the way. I silently told The Van Gods to go fuck themselves one last time.
I arrived back in Louisiana on April 14th, the same day Daniel came home from offshore and we picked up right where we left off. My plan was to stay in the Aguillard’s “little bunker house” on their property and continue my relationship with Daniel, but he had other plans in mind. He convinced me to move in and we made it official a few days later during a crawfish boil with Toni, Dwain, and the kids on our back porch.
“Stass, will you be our stepmom?” Jaden yells from the back seat of Daniel’s truck.
Daniel and I look at each other and bust out in hysterical laughter. I had only been at the house a few weeks, yet it was like I had lived there forever. The kids made the transition much easier, almost like little liaisons. Amelia would give Daniel woman advice, Jaden called out any white elephants in the room, and Oran enjoyed having someone else to constantly ask for milk. I tell Daniel we need a cow to keep up with that kid.
“Get married! Get married! Get married!” the kids repeatedly begin chanting. They begin to scream so loud, they overpowered the French radio station we had on. I had tears in my eyes and my stomach hurt from the uncontainable giggle fit I was having. Just as the first night we had met, we both looked at each other and knew.
On May 12th, after Daniel’s next hitch was over, he brought all the kids out on the back porch and had Amelia seat me in a chair.
“Will you marry us?” he ask.
He slips on an Australian Opal engagement ring on my left hand.
“Yes, of course.” I reply.
We got married three weeks earlier than we had originally planned. On our visit to the courthouse to receive our marriage license, we began to joke how funny it would be to just do it right then and there. We convinced the clerk, the secretaries, and finally the judge, to marry us. We left the Evangeline Courthouse on May 21st as Mr. & Mrs. Adams, filled our bellies at The Steamboat, bought a couple bottles of wine, and made love the rest of the night at our campsite outside of Willie’s in Washington, Louisiana.
We didn’t tell a soul except Daniel’s brother Robert. You see, our original plan was to have the Justice of the Peace marry us beneath our oak trees surrounded by our friends and family. We decided to make a parody out of weddings in general and had a “fake wedding”. When everyone was seated on hay bales, Robert rushed to put on a borrowed royal purple minister’s costume and stood on a concrete staircase we had set up where we would to be wed. Robert played a black Baptist minister screaming “Can I get an Amen!” to the crowd, Daniel and I drank from hidden flasks we pulled instead of saying “I do”, Daniel threw me over his shoulder after being commanded to make out in front of everyone, and we rode away on our four wheeler. I even threw my wedding cake against a tree. It was a shitshow, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
On October 23rd 2012, a young woman from Illinois set out on the open road in her 1971 Dodge Campervan. Her intention wasn’t to travel the country for three years, to find love, nor was it as a means to mend her broken soul. She left simply because she had nothing to lose as she had already lost everything. What she found was not only herself, but also her faith in that “life is good”.