Features

Stranded In Las Vegas

Words by: Molly Schmidt
Photographs by Molly Schmidt


The day we bought the 1967 Dodge camper van, we drove it to a car park and stripped it. We pulled out the moldy carpet from under the foldout bed and borrowed a vacuum cleaner from a motel across the street to suck up the clouds of dust that decorated the now exposed lino floor. We scrubbed the stove with some cleaning spray we found in the cupboards, and decided to keep the salt and pepper shakers, placing them on the little wooden shelves behind the stove. Even though they were empty and useless, something about the pale brown plastic and the way they said “salt” and “pepper” appealed to us in the same way a white picket fence charms a home buyer. I hung a lucky charm from Peru on the rearview mirror, and we blue-tacked photos from our old Olympus camera on the cupboard doors.

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That afternoon we went to a Walmart and bought a red and blue patterned blanket, pillows, and some camping plates and cups. Next to the pots and pans were handguns, in plastic packets like toys. We stood beside each other, peering at the weapons hung in neat rows. If we were cartoon people there would have been bright yellow question marks bouncing around our temples. As we made our way to the checkout we found a candleholder with little stars cut out of the blue metal and added it to our basket, imagining candle-lit dinners at caravan park benches.

There we were, North America, summer, 2013. High school sweethearts.

We couldn’t quite believe it ourselves. We argued like siblings and held hands like lovers. The heat bore down on our little metal capsule as we drove through the desert-like landscape. Oliver told me he wanted a tattoo. I told him to turn the music down so I could write. The seats were leather, and it took exactly seven minutes of driving for them to become slippery with sweat, and the back of our t-shirts to stick to our lower backs like an awkward boyfriend’s hand. There was no air-con, so we alternated between windows down: hot air scorched our faces as if someone was shoving a hairdryer in the window, or windows up: we felt like we were trapped in a steaming sauna, and the dashboard would get so hot you could get a third degree burn if you touched it.

We formed a love hate relationship with the van. For the most part, it was love. Together we ventured down the west coast, through redwood forest and seaside towns. The dashboard was littered with pastel coloured shells, smooth driftwood and dog-eared maps. We forgave the van for letting mosquitoes in through the skylight, which turned out to be not so secure, and she didn’t mind if we played our music so loud her insides shook. She didn’t like the heat much, and had to be coaxed up hills, but something about that old Dodge camper van stole both of our hearts, and for two months as we travelled the USA, her happy round headlights and faded blue paint felt like home.

We had already decided to pass through Vegas. We were both under 21, which made most of the excitement of the place off limits to us. We agreed to get there in the evening, look at the lights, scrape together enough cash to stay just one night at a hotel (after over a month of living in the van we were dying for a soft bed) and head off the following afternoon, towards the Grand Canyon.

We had stopped in the afternoon to pick mandarins from an orchard, me on Oliver’s shoulders using my t-shirt as a bag, the sun baking our backs. The van was full of sweet smelling mandarin peel by the time we reached the outskirts of Vegas. She had already overheated three times that day, and in the 45 degree heat we were aching to stay somewhere with aircon. Almost every hotel we called was attached to a casino and it was damn hard to find somewhere we could stay without “parental guidance”. At 18 and 19, we were suitably indignant and craving a shower and a beer. Eventually we found the Riviera Hotel, and the receptionist agreed to have us if we promised not to set foot in the casino.

The best thing about Vegas was the lights. And even then, after a night of gawking at the flashing lights and in-your-face billboards, we looked forward to our plans of getting the hell out of there on a tour bus to Death Valley in the morning. Even in the middle of the night in a city in the desert, the only stars we saw were the flashing pink ones outside a strip club.

Our trip the next morning to Death Valley left us with half melted shoes and terrible sunburn. Our clothes were all crispy from dried sweat, but we had some incredible photos on our cameras and were proud to say we had experienced what 50 degree heat felt like. We wearily checked out of the hotel in the afternoon and loaded our bags into the van, ready to make the journey to the Grand Canyon at night, the only time of day cool enough for the Dodgy Dodge van. We had just left the main part of Vegas and were coasting down a hill when it happened. I had my head out the window enjoying the slightly cooler air, and we were listening to the Beatles. I can’t even remember what exactly happened – maybe there was a bang or something dramatic, and then Oliver swerved onto the side of the road and sat there with his head in his hands. “The van is totally fucked,” he said.

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We poured almost a whole bottle of coolant in her, but man she was hot. We kissed her bonnet, we pleaded, we begged and we prayed. But at seven o’clock, in the middle of nowhere, our 1967 Dodgy Dodge decided she had had enough. We were too late to get to a mechanic, knew next to nothing about cars between us, and didn’t have enough money to pay for the rest of our trip if we couldn’t sell her. The last leg of our trip to Los Angeles and our flight to New York relied on us selling the van. This all lead to one of those classic tearful phone calls to home. After listening to me sob for ten minutes straight, Mum put me on to my stepfather who tried to explain lots of technical engine things to me, whilst I tried to understand these technical engine things, interrupting with lots of “but where is that?” and “I don’t know what that is.” Luckily for us a really nice couple stopped beside us and must have felt sorry for our wide-eyed, tearful faces. The man looked at the engine himself, whist his wife said; “There there, it’ll all be okay,” about twenty times.

It wasn’t okay.

After telling us that our van was “totally fucked” as kindly as possible, they pointed us in the direction of a mechanic that could look at the car in the morning. We pushed the van to the side of the road and pretty much rolled there, trying to ignore the terrible sounds she was making. We decided to sleep in the car park and hope they could fix her in the morning.

I remember at about one in the morning we heard voices beside the van. Very slowly sitting up, we peered through the curtains and saw two guys in hoodies exchanging packets of something. We were almost certain they would have guns, and when they started raising their voices getting closer and closer to the van, our survival instincts kicked in and we decided to get the hell out of there. We scooped half of our belongings into whatever we could carry, and called a taxi as quietly as possible. The men had left by the time the taxi arrived, but the driver himself said we were insane to be sleeping there. He drove us to the closest hostel and told us to look after ourselves, very seriously.

In the morning the mechanics agreed to look at the van first. We sat in the waiting room to hear the verdict, chewing our nails and going to town on the M&M machine. They came back after about half an hour shaking their heads. The parts we needed were about the same price as our flights home, and they couldn’t get them for at least a week. They said sorry lots, but it didn’t seem to help.

We spent the entire day trying to sell the van. We put ads online, we rang around everyone we knew in the States, the mechanics spoke to their friends and we even rang crushers. The crushers wouldn’t take it because it was too big. No one else would take it because we bought it in Canada  – something about illegally importing a vehicle. We tried to sell it to the mechanics for parts, but they wouldn’t have it either.

We stood in our home, in the car park of a mechanic on the outskirts of Vegas and packed everything we couldn’t fit in our packs into garbage bags. Pots and pans, books, cans of food, blankets, pillows, paper towel…we stuffed it all in like Christmas stockings and walked to the nearest church and left it on the doorstep. It hurt, like leaving home. We shut the door of the van and called a taxi. We took a photo of me, kissing her bonnet. I tried so hard not to turn around and look back at her, but I did, the whole way around the corner. Just before we turned I noticed the mechanics sitting in the yard pointing at something and waving – looking up I saw a double rainbow, and smiled a little, at least.

Despite our plans to “pass through” Vegas, there we were on the third day, in the same hostel as the night before. It was a tiny little roadside hostel, with plastic air refreshers and mints in a jar at reception. We ordered pizza and ate it in bed, with our arms round each other. We couldn’t afford the bus to get to LA, and we were silently struck with the idea of being stuck in Vegas forever. It was so hot we were in our undies, the fan as loud as a blowfly in our ears. Suddenly we were laughing. Loud belly laughter that made our bodies twist and tangle in the bed sheets. I got my journal out and wrote 15th August 2013. Stuck in Vegas. Indefinitely. We used our last stack of coins to order chocolate lava cakes from the pizza place and fell asleep with chocolate on our faces.

I often wonder what happened to that van. Did the mechanics strip it and use it for parts? Did a homeless guy decide to call it home? Did some other backpackers find it and decide to fix it up? I sort of like not knowing. I get to make up the end of the story. Perhaps it’s crushed in a pile in a junkyard. But perhaps it’s off having new adventures of its own, just like we are.