Finding Elaine

Sidelined on a highway in Canada with the hazards blinking and check engine light on—not the first time.

Finding Elaine The Prologue to Four Years of Adventure

I never expected to spend the last five years living out of a van, traveling around North America to ride bikes.

After eight years of university, the plan was to lead the monk-ish life of a research scientist, and at most maybe move to Europe for year and get a French girlfriend.

But then I met a drunk named Joe and a beauty named Elaine, and “the plan” went out the window in an ingenuous, chaotic fashion. Adventures, it turns out, are like that.

The detour from conventional city life came about when I was confronted with having to find a new apartment in the dizzyingly expensive Vancouver rental market. The math was challenging; on the fixed and meager income of a graduate student there was no hope in hell I could afford a new bicycle, a season of racing, a vehicle, food and an
apartment. So, I re-evaluated my priorities. Food was necessary, for obvious reasons. The racing and the bicycle were one expense, I decided, and essential for my sanity. An apartment was easily the most costly item in the equation, and also the most frivolous— but if I combined vehicle and apartment, the numbers began to make sense.

I started looking for a van I could call home. After five weeks of scouring Craigslist, I found her. Tan with an orange racing stripe, high top roof, space for bikes, and an asking price of only $5,000. I was in love.

When it was hot outside, Elaine would often develop a violent shake, until she overheated and experienced total power loss. We were told it was a carburetor issue. The only solution we found was to drive primarily at night, when it’s cooler. Sometimes even that didn’t work, and we were stuck on the side of the highway. After two months of driving in the dark, the fuel pump died and we solved the problem with a $30 part.

But there was a catch: the location. This automotive beauty was in Qualicum Beach, on Vancouver Island, a journey that required a two-hour ferry ride followed by a 30-mile ride north from the terminal in Nanaimo. I had never been to Vancouver Island.

I called the owner, Joe. After 37 attempts he finally answered, and we arranged to meet in Nanaimo on Friday at 5 p.m. If all went well, I would catch the second-to-last ferry off the island later that night and navigate my new home up to a friend’s party north of Pemberton.

The prospect of fetching my new beauty on my own was daunting, so I enlisted my eternally gungho friend, Guy Gibbs. With shitty commuter bikes as our only means of transportation, we set off toward the ferry from his place in East Vancouver carrying way-too-big backpacks, stuffed with our sleeping bags. And beers, of course, for the party.

When the ferry landed in Nanaimo just after 5 p.m., I called Joe. No answer. Nine tries later he finally picked up, and it quickly became apparent something was wrong. Not only had the date and time of our appointment slipped Joe’s mind, he had absolutely no recollection of our conversation. Eventually, he agreed to hop in the van and meet us, as he said, “a few miles North of Nanaimo, in Parksville, around 7 or 8 o’clock.”

It was the end of January. It was already pitch dark outside. Guy and I split up our only set of lights and took turns drafting behind each other up the Island Highway, trying to convince ourselves we wouldn’t get bowled over by a transport truck or slide off the road on black ice.

Elaine in her natural habitat, somewhere along the California coast.

The “few miles” turned out to be 25. We smashed it out with a level of enthusiasm only physically possible when a male brain is motivated by the prospect of a party teeming with college chicks. It remains the most white-knuckle ride of my life. Riding on the thin, salty, gravel-strewn shoulder of a 75 mph highway, in the dark, is not advisable. We held a blistering pace, barely avoided both trucks and ice, and arrived just after 7 p.m.

I called Joe again. No answer.

Joe’s online advertisement said he was in Qualicum Beach, so we carried on in that direction. Surely it wouldn’t be long before we saw the van blasting toward us.

In Qualicum Beach, I called Joe again and again. No Joe. Still blindly hopeful he might suddenly appear, I left a voicemail saying we were in town and to call me back. We found a bar and ordered some beer. Guy ordered a hot cocoa, “to warm up.”

Two pitchers later, still no sign of Joe. By 10 p.m., it became apparent Joe had gone completely AWOL. Combined with the sad realization we were going to miss the party, it slowly sunk in we needed to find a place to sleep.

Two pitchers later, still no sign of Joe. By 10 p.m., it became apparent Joe had gone completely AWOL. Combined with the sad realization we were going to miss the party, it slowly sunk in we needed to find a place to sleep.

The final trip in Elaine saw four best friends pile in and drive 2200 miles down the west coast in seven days. It was as if Elaine knew this was her swansong. She behaved perfectly, save for a faulty water pump that Mark fixed in less time than our friend Quinn took to change a tir e. At the end of the trip, our friends proclaimed how much fun they had, and that they couldn’t wait for next year. Little did they know it was the first incident-free outing we’d had in four years.

Feeling pretty charming, Guy explained our situation to a comely waitress and sheepishly asked if she knew anyone with a couch we could crash on. She swiftly deflected his advance and pointed us in the direction of a street named Judges Row, where, she said, “there are tons of fancy vacation homes that lie vacant all winter, and lots with gazebos on the beach. Try one of those. Nobody will bother you.”

We made a quick stop behind the local bike shop, which yielded two bike boxes we intended to use as sleeping pads. We rode down a steep, slippery hill in the dark, a little drunk, looking for the street sign that read “Judges Row.” Much to our surprise, after only a few minutes of searching we found a gazebo right on the ocean. We cracked our beers intended for the party and toasted in celebration, marveling at the level of comfort provided by our bike box ingenuity.

Neither of us really slept though.

I was rudely awoken, just after 6 a.m., by a large chocolate Labrador licking my nose, the only part of my face protruding from my mummy bag. The owners, smiling, waved to us from the beach.

Later that morning we finally heard back from Joe. “I’m really sorry about last night, Will,” he said. “I stopped at the bar on the way to meet you and there was this hot Asian chick. I ended up on a bit of a bender.” His words, not mine.

Two years ago, Mark and I spent most of December living, or rather parking, in Santa Cruz, CA. With perfect weather and a steady stream of visitors, there were always fresh legs among us, and no excuse not to ride every day. Sometimes the odors of the van became too pungent to bear, so showers were had by any means necessary.

After yet another bike ride, 15 miles farther north, we found Joe. And the van. It was a thing of absolute beauty. She started up easily and drove surprisingly well, considering her vintage. After what Guy and I endured to arrive at Joe’s place, I felt as though I had some serious bargaining power.

Joe sold me the van for $4,000. After the ownership transfer was complete, Joe had one final request: we drop him off at the liquor store. He was going to call the woman from the night before.

We dubbed the van Elaine, and over the next four years she covered 100,000 miles and facilitated countless adventures. From the first summer I spent in Colorado—where I got towed over every pass, lived on Nate Hills’ driveway, drank way too much coffee, and bonked more times than I thought physically possible—to the trek through Oregon and California, during which four best friends all slept in Elaine, rode with what seemed like most of Portland in Sandy Ridge, OR, drank way too many $1 beers at happy hour, and drove 2,200 miles in a week just to ride bikes somewhere slightly warm.

Last April, I sold my beloved 1984 Chevrolet G20, but I often retell the story of how I found Elaine and realize that first weekend was foreshadowing the years to come. Like Joe, Elaine was always reliably unreliable.