LOVINGLY — a riff on the meaning of the van

Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: LOVINGLY.

I MET HER after she finished work that day. It was hot and humid, even this late in the afternoon. So we walked home slowly, up the hill and onto the road along the edge of the escarpment from where we could see out over Coogee Beach into a Pacific that the heat of the day seemed to have sucked the colour out of.

As we turned onto the road that led home, the late afternoon sun, now low in the sky and directly ahead, silhouetted her, rim-lighting her fair hair in bright outline. It was an effect of lighting I had encountered before, in other places, and the sight of it triggered thoughts of the places we had been.

I remembered not long after we had met and began our liaison. It was just a strip of memory like a few seconds of video. We were in her Kombi and were on the two-lane asphalt that connects Murwillumbah to Tyalgum. Not speeding along, because the road winds through the forest and the hills and her Kombi couldn’t really speed no matter how hard it tried. An old white, commercial model Kombi it was, but it took us places north and south, year after year. It even took her regularly to and from Sydney, where I was, when she lived in Albury where she designed farm dams.

Then there was her Mitsubishi L300. Another van. A yellow van, this time. Another commercial model. We travelled in that, too, and come winter we would drive to Falls Creek in the Victorian Alps and stay in the campsite on the edge of town below the ski fields. It was cold up on the range in those fields, but come night it was also cold, very cold, in the unlined, uninsulated refrigerator of her van down in the campsite.

That memory reminded me how, last year, we had taken another and much-later-but-still-commercial-model Mitsubishi van to the north coast, where her sister lives. That was a summer journey so instead of freezing we had the heat. Like all those other journeys, it was enjoyable and it felt so good to again be traveling through the countryside in a van that was our temporary home.

I have had other vehicles in my life and we have had them too. So, why is it the vans that stand out in memory?

I think it’s because, for some of us anyway, they are more than motor vehicle and simple transportation. They are signifiers, things that we perceive to have other ideas built into them, things that come to represent, to signify, to suggest that other. And what is that other? I think it is ideas like freedom… freedom from the work week, freedom from living in an expensive city, freedom from the ties that bind us to place.

As the noted astrophysicist, the late Carl Sagan said, for most of our existence we have been wanderers. We have been a mobile, nomadic species. Settled life is an artifact of the Agricultural Revolution of a mere ten or so thousand years ago. On the timescale of the Earth, that’s yesterday.

This suggests, tenuously perhaps, that the van is an icon, a physical representation of an idea that is not just freedom but that hints at that great gulf of deep time, those tens of thousands of years before we became a settled species. Maybe that’s reading too much into it. Maybe the van, the temporary or permanent home on the road, really is just a statement in steel of our desire for freedom, to cut and run from our over-regulated, stationary lives.

If that is so then let me add another to the list of implied meanings that some of us might read into the sight of a van speeding down the highway, mountain bikes and surfboards festooning its roofrack. Maybe, just maybe, the van represents rebellion against the everyday lives many of us lead. The van, then, becomes the vehicle of the rebel.

Whatever meaning we apply to the sight of vans turned into homes, I think back to those first journeys with my partner in her noisy old Kombi, and in my mind I still see us us clunking along that road out of Murwillumbah. And, this, I remember lovingly.

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