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The Cargo Van



I love my Ford Explorer. It is 23 years old and roomy. I’m as comfortable in it as I am in my favorite reading chair at home. And I can operate all the buttons on the dash without looking at them.


It also has a mysterious leak. My mechanic can’t pinpoint its source or even identify the fluid, but he’s certain it portends imminent engine failure.


Not exactly the car you want to take out on a 5,000-mile trip around the country.


I needed to rent a vehicle for my “book tour” for The Rebel Nun, and as anyone who has tried to rent a car in the past year already knows, it’s not an easy thing to do.


With Covid-decimated inventory, rental car companies have trouble filling demand, and they’re charging a fortune when they do. I looked for a small SUV, a mini-van, a mid-sized SUV, a big honkin’ pickup truck—anything that could hold all the books, clothes, golf clubs and gluten-free provisions I needed to take on a two-month trip.


All those things appeared to be available two months before my departure date. Of course, I didn’t know if they’d still be available when I showed up to drive one off the lot. But the prices! At least $3500 a month for everything, even a compact! I now see, lo these many weeks later, that I was trying to rent at the VERY PEAK of rental car pricing.


See: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/20/upshot/car-rental-prices-economy.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20210922&instance_id=40959&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=22059198&segment_id=69553&user_id=e56f2d451ea604fee91a829b66845351


Knowing I was unlikely to make that much money in the entire year from book sales, I needed a cheaper alternative. So, I searched the offerings by price. The lowest priced rental that would hold my stuff was a van.


Not bad, I thought. At $1100 a month (before taxes and fees, of course), it was expensive, but a much more affordable alternative.


I showed up at Hertz two days before I planned to leave—just to be sure there would be said van, and to give myself time to load it up. I had thought it would be one of those vans we used to drive in corporate van pools—minus the second and third rows of seats.


But no! What awaits me in the lot is a nine-and-a-half-foot-tall, eighteen-foot-long cargo van, bright white with HERTZ blazed across the sides.


Okay, I think. It looks like I’ll have plenty of room for my boxes, suitcases and golf bags. (Apparently, I was not alone. Per the NYT article I referenced above, some people, facing ridiculous rental prices opted for U-Hauls, which were cheaper than cars.)

I got in to back it up. What? No rear view mirror? Of course not. It had no windows in the back. What good would a rear-view mirror do? It had a fuzzy, narrowly focused back-up camera that operated when the car was in reverse, but otherwise, I had to depend on limited vision from the side mirrors—neither of which was much help backing out in a busy parking lot. Not only that, it had no cruise control—a brutal reality on thousands of miles of interstate highway—and nothing but an AM radio to listen to. (As if you could hear anything over the rattle of the metal floor panels in the back.)


The theme of this road trip was already “Go with the Flow.” Whatever you can do, do, and don’t complain about what you can’t do! Seeing who is behind me when I wanted to change lanes on the highway was just going to be something I would have to live without.


I drove home and my husband, Ben, and I started loading. He had worried that I had packed too much stuff to fit in a rental van, but quickly, that concern was banished. We stood at the rear door of the half-full cargo space and asked, “what else might we want to bring?” We threw in a desk chair, a couple of folding director’s chairs that came with the Explorer back in 1998, and an extra cooler. And we still had room.


We headed to Denver for a pre-tour memorial service for a man Ben worked for years ago. He drove the first two days, and I pulled the short straw for the third day—a nerve-wracking, cliff-hanging, winding drive over Monarch Pass and one-lane, rocky detours around monsoon damage. I pulled into the Denver Motel 6, thoroughly exhausted.


It took a while to get used to driving something that felt like a lumber wagon. Even with the seat shoved all the way forward, I had to extend my arms straight out in order to reach 10-and-2 on the steering wheel. But while it required a grab bar and a step to get up to the driver’s seat, sitting up so high did provide a terrific view of the traffic ahead of me on the road.


I had underestimated the special charm of a bright white Hertz cargo van. We stayed at a house on a mesa above Ridgway, Colorado, for the first month after our quick trip to Denver. It was a place where everyone knows everyone else, and before long, all we had to do to describe where we were staying was to say, “The house with the Hertz van in front.” Needless to say, it didn’t fit in the garage.


Everywhere I have gone on my tour, the story of the van and its unexpected presence has lightened the mood and elicited laughs. It’s been quite the conversation piece. And even after buying a few new books (of course), a couple of new tee-shirts, and additional coolers and provisions, I still had plenty of room for anything I decided to take along.


Nevertheless, next time I go out on the road, my aching back, shoulders, and hips are begging me to rent something easier on the body. I hope next time I look for a mini-van, I’m able to locate the “mini.”


Next: Ouray Surprise




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