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The Bay and Beyond

Posted in Vanagon, Road Trip


How to be humbled by parking in 101 novel and entertaining ways

Sacramento’s heat veritably chewed us up and spat us out, and we left the infernal valley that it’s nestled in panting, parched, and nigh-desperate for the overcast and generally brooding climes of the City by the Bay.

Our destination, initially, was Berkeley, where we figured we’d be able to (more easily than in San Francisco) find an affordable base of operations via Air B’n’B which we could use as a tactical command centre for our excursions into SF.

Prior to locating a place to stay, however, we had a mildly urgent chore to attend to: our beloved Vroomhilde was overdue for an oil change, and given the general level of abuse we’d been throwing at her (in the form of pedal-to-the-floor mountain ascents, fully loaded with our copious cargo of clothes, gear, food, water, humans, and beer) we didn’t want to lapse beyond the change interval this time around for fear of angering the Veedubbaru (our VW has a Subaru engine) gods, and winding up with a smoking, grinding catastrophe on the side of some dusty, ill-fated road.

This task brought us to the Buslab in Berkeley — a collection of pretty awesome folks whose specialty is the care and feeding of VW busses of all vintages, but who also happen to specialize in the sort of Frankenstein engine configuration we’ve got. They’re also the purveyors of sublime recommendations for exploring the local culinary palate, and beyond sticking new oil in our van, they also were indirectly responsible for adding five pounds—give or take—to each of our midriffs by way of our indulgence in the delights on offer at “Lois The Pie Queen”.

All I can say is “Oh my goodness me… a calorie? Another thousand, times three!” Heartbreakingly good food, literally.

Anyhow — back to the Buslab. The gents there fit us in on crazy-short notice, and oiled up our trusty steed in short order (while we were expanding ourselves), and after not very long, we were on our way to explore Berkeley and Oakland. Or so we thought. We zigged where we had intended to zag, and found ourselves on the freeway hurtling directly for the Bay Bridge. Hell with it: to San Francisco, then.

The Trouble With Your Grind

Having no agenda or concept or game-plan in San Francisco is a real mixed bag.

On one level, the heady SF vibe and the near-infinite array of options for occupying oneself make it impossible to be bored here, and wherever you turn, it feels like you’re a tiny ant navigating a strange macrame latticework of odd curiosities and wafting gusts of incense-perfumed air, and unearthing treasures that you never knew you were missing, and catching little glimpses of what — in their brief vignettes — look like wonderfully rich lives being lived inside of the concentrated warren-like nexus of west-coast counterculture (or at least the contemporary simulacra of a prior incarnation of this place when that was the case).

On a completely other level, driving and parking anywhere in the Bay Area is such an unholy sonofabitch that it more or less douses whatever ‘flower-in-your-hair’ headspace you’ve managed to cultivate in kerosene, and does a little mocking dance while flicking lit matches at you. This is not a great town for road trips, unless you can find somewhere to leave your wheels for a few days, and proceed on foot.

We did not succeed in this task, and for the few days we were in San Francisco, our experience was sadly dominated by frustrating hours spent finding new and innovative places to stash Vroomhilde in remote proximity to the accommodations we managed to scrape together.

In the brief periods that we were not engaged in some odd form of vehicular anger management practice, we did, mercifully, manage to soak up some of the SF goodness.

Golden Gate Tie Dye

We took Grizz’ on a tour of the ever-clichéd (but nonetheless still quite wonderful, in a grimy sort of way) Haight-Ashbury area, where we proceeded to further expand the tie-dyed section of our collective travelling wardrobe, languished awhile in Golden Gate Park, and were crushed when we discovered that the photo booth in the back of Wasteland (where we’d shot some of our fave smooching selfies of all time back in 2006) was no longer in commission. Tragedy, that, as we were immensely excited to procure a new strip with Grizz’ countenance added to the frames. Sure, we can always hit another booth somewhere, but the one in Wasteland was awesome: it was one of the old-fashioned black and white booths, that shot actual optical prints on vintage, textured photo paper. The results were a trillion times more compelling than the dye-sub monstrosities littering the world these days. Alas, it is no more.

On our second day in the Bay, we flung ourselves a bit further afield in order to track down and investigate the notorious Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, a bizarre little café out on the left edge of town, credited with the advent — for better or for worse — of artisanal toast. Yes. Artisinal toast (A.T.).

I’d first read — both about the A.T. phenomenon, in all its twee glory, and about Trouble, the oft-credited (and maligned) originator thereof —  in an article in PSMag ( link ) earlier this year. The portrait of the owner, Giulietta Carrelli, woven in the article was wonderfully intriguing to me, and had been rattling around my brain for months. Consequently, Trouble was an inevitable destination on our trip. I can’t say whether I was more intrigued by the odd origins and backstory, or the rather peculiar constraint of the menu (Grapefruit juice, coffee, coconuts, and, of course, fancypants toast), but a pilgrimage had to be made.


The coffee was excellent. The grapefruit juice, eye-poppingly spectacular. The toast? Scrumptious. The coconuts? I haven’t the foggiest idea, as I wasn’t in the mood for a coconut that day. The vibe? Conversational. From the barista to the patrons, I got the sense that you could easily turn up for a quick coffee, and wind up embroiled in a four-hour gab session with whomever happened to be around. Lamentably, the day that we tracked Trouble down coincided with a work deadline; I was scheduled to hand over some project deliverables to a client that afternoon, and figured I’d kill two birds with one stone: sample Trouble’s wares, check the place out, and knock off a couple hours of work at the same time. A ritual performed a thousand times in a hundred cafés, so a natch way for the afternoon to unfold. Right?

Not-so at Trouble.

I was — after about 15 minutes of clacking away, hunched on a stool in the corner of the front window — informed that they had a policy against ‘devices’ inside the café. Okie-doke — no sweat. I was politely (with actual genuine politeness, not the saccharine passive-aggressive variant) informed that I could work outside if I liked. Sure! I like the outside, sounds great.

Hrrrm. There’s no actual seating outside — merely a strange arrangement of brick abutments and driftwood. No problem, I’ll just park myself on this weird wooden ziggurat, and… shit. No wifi, obviously, at a device-free café. Ok, no sweat: portable Karma hotspot dingus to the rescue. What’s that? This neighbourhood is too remote to have coverage? Of course it is.

And it’s starting to rain lightly?

I suppose I’ll just pack this frustrating crap back into my bag, then, and simply enjoy this utterly-next-level grapefruit juice. Which, I suppose, is exactly the point.

In the end, while utterly unproductive, the visit to Trouble wound up reminding me immensely of the time I spent four hours hunkered down on the floor of a Kyoto subway station, my laptop jacked into the ISDN port of a payphone (back when ISDN was a thing… and payphones were a thing…), trying to upload crap to a client back in Toronto, failing miserably, and having a completely peripheral but wholly satisfying cultural experience nonetheless. The more shit changes…

The climax of the day came when, after buying a pound of beans from Trouble, they informed me that they had no grinder, but “there’s gotta be someone up the street who’ll grind’em for you… just go fer a walk thattaway, bro…”. After striking out at a small variety of establishments, we stumbled across an organic grocery market. “Yay!”, we exclaimed, certain that they’d have a grinder, and that we’d be able to coerce them into letting us avail ourselves of its functions. Well — a grinder they did have, but we were buffaloed by an unexpected question: “Uhhhh… are your beans organic?”

Apparently organic is like kosher, and once a thing is made sullied and unclean by (potentially) unorganic stuff, it cannot be clean again, spiritually or otherwise.

Which is how we wound up toting around a pound of unground Trouble for two weeks before spitefully ramming it through a decidedly unkosherganic grinder at a Trader Joe’s in Santa Barbara.

Take that, hippies.

Snafubarus, underbites, and audio angels

On the way towards our accommodations near the Castro district, after visiting Trouble, we travelled via Portola Dr., which does a bit of climbing and descending. While punching the accelerator a bit to keep up with traffic on the climby bits, I noticed Vroomhilde’s temperature readout climbing a bit higher than normal, followed by a larger-than-normal drop as soon as we crested the hill, and started zooming down the other side. For a van whose running temperature has seemingly never wavered north or south of the 85°C-92°C range, seeing temperatures of 78°C-97°C was startling, to say the least. Made doubly so by the fact that I’d seen a similar fluctuation happen a week or so earlier on our mountainous traversal from the coast to Redding. All of which prompted us to head back to Buslab the next day for some deeper investigation.

Buslab Image: California Report

We managed to book an Air B’n’B (a quaint little backyard cottage a half-mile from Buslab, rather conveniently), dropped off Vroomhilde’s contents there, and then brought Vroomhilde in for a bit of nail-biting (on our part) and diagnostics (on Buslab’s part). The list of possible scenarios that were presented to us upon describing the phenomenon I’d observed were as follows:

  1. Nothing was wrong, and I’d simply never noticed this fluctuation before through my own inattention
  2. the headgasket had blown a fucking leak
  3. the radiator fan wasn’t kicking on (bad thermo-switch?)
  4. there was a big air pocket in the cooling system
  5. mystery gremlins were at work trying to kill Vroomhilde

I’d also consulted the mind-bogglingly knowledgeable folks at the Vanagon forum that I frequent, and their initial suspicions echoed those put forth by Buslab’s mechanics.

Ack. Begin the diagnostics, and crosseth thine fingers.

And wait until tomorrow for answers.

A few things really helped to soothe the anxiety around whether Vroomhilde would be temporarily grounded, thereby impinging on our fast-approaching excursion to Yosemite (one defining feature of which was an inflexible campsite reservation schedule).

The first of these cosmic mitzvahs was that the wee cottage we were renting was mercifully (or mercilessly, depending on how you look at it) close to the caloric quagmire of Lois the Pie Queen.

The second was that the wee cottage we were renting was also home to a wonderful dog named Rusty, whose astonishingly ugly-but-charming underbite was a magnificence to behold.

The third little bit of awesome was that I was able to hang out with a friend, the wonderful Audioangel (AKA Rashida), who I hadn’t seen in fourteen years! I met Rashida back in the year 2000, when I was visiting San Francisco for work for a couple of weeks. I’d wound up attending the launch party for Epitonic, one of the early web-radio stations, with a few co-workers, and met Rashida there (she worked for Epitonic). We got to talking about music, got along like a house on fire, and wound up hanging out a few more times while I was in the area. Thanks to her, I found out about and was able to attend the awesome Luke Vibert (aka. Wagon Christ, aka. Plug) + BJ Cole (an incredible pedal-steel guitarist) show — a show I would’ve been totally oblivious to, despite being a huge fan of the Vibert/Cole collaboration album, Stop The Panic, at the time.

Needless to say, meeting up to check out some of her friends DJing at a local bar in Temescal, Oakland, and shooting the breeze for a few hours was a genuine treat, and the best possible byproduct of getting stranded due to vehicular/mechanical woes.

In the end, after a 24-hour case of the cold-sweats, the tests that eliminated the worst-case scenario came back negative: a leakdown test, where pressurized air is forced into the cylinders of the engine, and any leakage is observed (in order to reveal a head gasket leak, where combustion gasses vent past the gasket into the engine coolant), showed no leakage, and thereby confirmed that our head gasket was still intact.

Additionally, a hydrocarbon sniffer test (where they stick a fancy robotic nose into the coolant to see if your engine is farting exhaust gasses out the wrong hole) said that our proverbial shit didn’t stink. Nice.

Huge sigh of relief, there, as a multi-thousand-dollar catastrophe was averted.

The solution wound up coming from a rather amazing chap named Ben, who posts on the Vanagon forum, and who makes his living performing top-notch Subaru engine conversions on Vanagons in Montréal: “remplacer la thermostat!”

Sure enough, after conveying this bit of insight to Buslab, they pulled the stock ‘stat, and discovered that it was — as Ben had correctly intuited, from over forty-seven hundred kilometers away — sticking, and not responding properly to coolant temperature increases (or decreases), thereby causing the erratic coolant temps at the readout and presumably throughout the system.

$400 in diagnostic labour, a $20 part, and one friendly frenchman’s brilliant brain, and we were back on the road.

Next episode: Yosemite tunnel vision

The chronicle of three mutants of varying size, and their adventures in Vroomhilde, the rolling Space Rhino.

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