Meet Astrid, our ’98 Chevy Astro Van. She’s a little beauty. Alan is a wee bit in love with her. After we got her we spent a couple of days in Jon & Tam’s driveway in Palo Alto, tricking her out with some storage and a sleeping platform (including our first ikea hack).
We scoured Craigslist for weeks looking for just the right car to go roadtripping in. I was dreaming of a wood-panel sided station wagon a-la Brady Bunch, but they just weren’t big enough (or reliable enough). Or a VW Vanagon, but they were a bit pricey. Or a Subaru Forester, but they seemed too same-same as home. Or a big campervan, but they have V8 engines and would eat gas. We’d never heard of a Chevy Astro until we saw one drive by.
When it came down to it we spent three days looking at Astros until we found Astrid. I mostly picked her because I liked the 4’10” Mexican lady with four kids who’d bought her as her first car when she moved here and driven her for nine years (nearly all the Astros on Craigslist were being sold by Mexicans). Alan mostly picked her because she looks a bit mean. And of course she was purdy and had many bells and whistles and (almost) all her parts.
Astrid ticks all the boxes…
American – for authenticity, as in ‘drove my Chevy to the levy’.
Big, but not too big – V6 to get us over the high mountain passes, but not too much of a gas-guzzler. (Turns out we’re getting almost 20 miles to the gallon, and she’s actually shorter than a people mover although at 7’2” we have to watch it when we park her under cover).
Can sleep inside – very important for a number of reasons, not least of which is the ability to stealth camp when necessary/practical. She’ll come in handy when we sleep in a Walmart carpark (it’s a thing here and I have a hankering to try it) and in order to bush camp on Bureau of Land Management lands, as well as #vanlife ‘overnight parking’ which is allowed in some states. Also, many RV parks don’t have tent sites, and we’re finding that those that do can sell out fast. Astrid lets us camp on a concrete slab if we need to.
Comes with TV and VHS. I didn’t even realise this was on the list, but it really tickles Alan’s fancy, and I think is the thing he loves most about her. Even though the TV doesn’t work because it’s too old to get digital reception, and we have no videos to play in it. In fact, Jon was most enthusiastic about taking out the TV and mounting an iPad in it’s place, but that is a step too far for Alan. I reckon we’ll get to journey’s end without having used the TV at all!
One might think that the first thing to do after buying a car is to register it? Maybe service it? But no! The first thing to do is kit out the inside for sleeping and camping! Luckily Jon & Tam’s driveway is wide and vacant. We spent a day building a platform in the back, pulling out one row of seats and some seatbelts, hacking a support for it from Ikea furniture and rigging a removable sleeping platform. Lucky we had a lot of practice before we left home, and lucky Home Depot cut wood to size – although there was still a lot of hand sawing to be done.
With this important work completed we turned to bureaucracy. One of the difficulties with buying a car can be registering it (for which a social security number and an address is needed, tick) and insuring it (many insurance companies won’t insure you on a foreign license). If I’m moving here for good and should therefore act like I mean it, and since you can only drive legally on a foreign license for up to 3 months, it seemed prudent to get myself a Californian drivers license.
There were three challenges to this.
1. When you come to the USA, any electronic history that could do you any favours ceases to exist. I’m sure that anything incriminating follows you around, but as far as credit ratings and driver licenses – zap! It’s like you just turned 18 again. So, despite having driven for the past 26 years, I found myself having to sit a written road rules test and also doing a behind-the-wheel test.
2. Getting an appointment can be half the battle. The San Francisco office had waits of 6 weeks, and the Palo Alto office had waits of 3 weeks. So it became a game of where-are-the-small-town-DMV-offices-that-are-remotely-near-where-we-might-want-to-be? After a couple of false starts, I ended up with one appointment in San Jose where we registered her and I sat the written test, and then a second (bookable only after you have passed said written test) two days later in a town we had never heard of, called Visalia (chosen purely because it was en route to Bakersfield and had a timeslot). We ended up seeing more of Visalia than we hoped, but more on that later.
3. One must bring a car that is roadworthy. Awesome as Astrid is, she is not technically roadworthy due to her very attractive windscreen chip and also a busted side mirror (since fixed). So we hired another Yaris to do the dirty work.
I want to say that I passed both tests with flying colours. But I just scraped through the written test due to not studying the section on fines combined with my general confusedness around line markings (yellow, white, dotted, double, eek!) I did ace the behind-the-wheel test though. I managed to stop at all the right lines and only lost marks for things that are habits learnt of driving on the left (like checking over my left shoulder too much and my right not enough) and for driving too slow because the speed limit signs blend in to the roadside too much (hello? heard of red paint here?).
Something we discovered is that despite Americans being proud of how well their cars are looked after, generally speaking, this seems to mean they’re washed often, and the oil is changed. But anything more – forget about it. Astrid had a very impressive sheaf of papers for her service history – but turns out nothing but oil had been done for 9 years. We were worried that we were losing coolant, an important consideration when about to drive across desert in 104 degrees, so whilst we were in Visalia and had a hire car for the day we decided to get her checked out. Turns out the cooling system was cactus. Leaking gaskets, faulty water pump, busted thermostat, dodgy radiator, the works. The good news was that everything else was OK. So we ended up getting a whole cooling system overhaul, spending half again what we paid for her and having three days with the Yaris (luckily Sequoia and Kings Canyon NPs were close by) before finally getting her on the road.
And now we’ve roadtripped her through to Moab and we’re snug as a bug inside her while it rains outside. It’s just a like a lounge room, red wine and all. She’s running great. 65 miles seems to be her top speed, after that she gets a good shudder going and rocks around quite a lot. The engine will handle it, but the suspension won’t! But it’s a fine top speed for us, although it does mean we’re often doing 15 miles less than the rest of the traffic, and also the google maps arrival time estimates never pan out. She does need a new tire/tyre so we might get an alignment too and see if that helps her out. A superb side effect of having the engine pulled apart was that the drivers’ side air conditioning, previously cactus, is now working. Thank goodness, I was dreading the desert without air con. If only the TV worked…