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Wonderful Wagon

Forest-green Volvo became a love story

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Lauren Watson takes her trusty 1998 Volvo V70 on an adventure.

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Lauren Watson takes her trusty 1998 Volvo V70 on an adventure.

I never imagined I would fall in love with a car, much less a station wagon. But strange things happen when you spend long hours sitting in a box of metal hurtling yourself into the unknown. You grow accustomed to the radio, the open road and the low hum of a five-cylinder engine.

I had just returned to Toronto from a rock-climbing course near Vancouver. Having endured a heart-wrenching breakup, followed by varying degrees of enlightenment, I resolved to do two things: Go back West and do it on my own terms. Citing years of weaseling my way into other peoples' Jack Kerouac-esque adventures, I knew that the one thing that I would need was my own set of wheels.

I got word of a family friend who was looking to get rid of his old station wagon. He claimed it was a pile of junk and was planning to treat it as such, but I managed to persuade him to let me give it a try.

I soon found myself holding the keys to a 1998 forest green V70 Volvo Station wagon. On paper, it was purchased for $1.14 (the 14 cents was the tax).

Over the next six months, I struggled to make my mighty steed roadworthy. My mechanic expressed his concern that the little wagon was unlikely to make it through a summer of driving to and from my job in Collingwood, Ont., and home in Toronto, much less make it across the country. But I had more faith in my Volvo.

I named her Wagon, mostly for the simplicity. I learned all of her kinks, right down to the sneaky trick where you have to pinch your thumb and index finger on the shift trigger to coax it out between park, drive and reverse. I practised folding down the back seats and fit the rear with memory foam (which would turn into my bed) and shelving for my worldly possessions. By the new year, Wagon and I were ready to take off.

Wagon and I drove through the winter storms of Illinois and Iowa and the never-ending flats of Nebraska. We snaked down the I-70 through Colorado and Utah and were spat out amid the lights and sirens of Sin City. That is about the time that the reality of living in my Wagon started to sink in, sitting in her trunk bed, watching the beam of the Luxor tickle the hazy remains of a sunset from the outskirts of the city, I was composed of an emotion that was both childlike wonder and sheer terror. This is exactly what I wanted.

It wasn't long before I realized I was not the only one trying to live a simpler life. In fact, the southern states were littered with like-minded desert rats living in their cars. They came in droves: People looking to escape the creature comforts of society and instead find solace in campfires, long days rock climbing the wild and the freedom to move from one place to another at the drop of a hat.

We would carpool as much as possible, finding a strange pride in the signature aromas that each person's car/home adopted. When the weather went south, we went north. When it was too hot to rock climb, we took rest days. When the weather got cold again, we went back south.

My perceptions of comfort, cleanliness and prosperity were severely altered. When I called home, I boasted about doing research in the Las Vegas library each night or poaching Internet from the Starbucks parking lot to Skype with editors. I got excited about the fact that the local community centre offered yoga classes and showers for $6 a week and made sure all the other campers knew too.

I even learned how to date while living out of my Wagon. One night, walking home from the campfire with a gentleman, who was coincidentally also living out of a wagon, my new lifestyle really hit a new level. We had been rock climbing together for a while and had become quite close. As we paused for a romantic moment at the driveway of our campsites, he leaned in and asked, "So, your wagon or mine?"

On nights when heavy winds and sandstorms plagued the landscape, my reliable Wagon would rock me to sleep, protecting me from the harsh weather.

In the mornings, my eyelids would be illuminated by the sun before I could open them. I would roll and over and watch the frost turn to glistening condensation on my windows before kicking up the trunk hatch and crawling out into the world.

When I got word that the northwest was thawing, I bid farewell to the desert, and headed back to Canada. The road twisted through the States, changing landscape from hard reds and contrasting horizon lines to more muted greens and greys that don't limit one's imagination of where the sky really begins.

The Wagon became my prison, forcing a necessary solitude. In the end, I think that is the only thing that helped me understand where I had been, and what I was really looking for.

Now, I live in Squamish, B.C. I teach outdoor rock climbing and I live in a real house. Wagon now lives in underground parking. Although my bicycle has mostly replaced my Wagon for transportation, every now and then, I find myself sitting in Wagon's driver's seat, stroking her dashboard and scheming where we will go next together.

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2013 A1

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