DIETRICH: The Little White Van

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, July 12, 2023

It’s a gray afternoon and we are traversing Alabama. Today, we make our run across the Yellowhammer state. My wife only ever pulls over to buy gas or let me pee.

This is how we live. In the past years, we have traveled all over the U.S. doing my little one-man show, living on gas-station burritos, while our friend stays at our house watching the dogs.

In the backseat is a guitar, along with all our hanging clothes. We travel, eat, work and sometimes sleep in our little white van, which resembles a plumber’s van. It’s the same kind of van driven by the LabCorp guy who visits your place of employment to collect urine samples.

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It’s not a masculine-looking vehicle. It’s small, a four-cylinder. When the engine revs it sounds like a little cat hacking up a hairball.

In our years traveling we’ve become connoisseurs of gas station restrooms. We can simply look at a filling station and know whether the bathroom is going to be a total horror show.

Like last week, a restroom in South Georgia took the grand prize. The men’s room urinal was detached and lying on the floor. And the commode had been removed so that there was nothing but a giant festering hole in the ground. And that’s not even the worst part. I WAITED IN LINE TO USE THIS BATHROOM. But I couldn’t do it.

My wife and I turned right back around and ran to the van. I told my wife, “Quick, find a cow pasture!”

Believe me, I know I’m giving you too much information, but I’m only telling you that we have spent a lot of quality time in cow pastures together over the years.

But anyway, when you travel you have to make do. Especially when it comes to creature comforts. That’s why we love our van. It’s sort of like our mini home. I’ve seen my wife take a bath in the backseat using nothing but a wet wipe and a shot glass. I’ve changed my entire wardrobe in the front seat during Atlanta rush hour.

There are paper cups littered on the floorboards, bags of peanuts, empty Chili Cheese Fritos bags. We even brew our own coffee in this car. We do it with an electric coffee maker plugged into a cigarette lighter.

Also, we always carry an electric cooler — which is basically a little refrigerator containing all the essentials anyone needs to survive after a full day of travel. Namely, beer. Also pimento cheese.

You probably think I’m kidding about this. I rarely kid about beer.

Sometimes we drive all night and when we sleep we steer with our feet. Often, we pull over in empty alfalfa fields, abandoned shopping complexes, or vacant filling station parking lots to make a sandwich. You never know what weird things you’re going to find on the side of the road.

Once, we stopped at a vacant filling station outside Tuscaloosa to make sandwiches. I was getting stuff out of the cooler when I noticed something on the ground beneath me. A purple piece of clothing.

I thought to myself, “Huh, this must be an article of my wife’s clothing that fell out of our car.”

So I reached down to pick it up.

As soon as I touched it, my hand mushed into something warm. I knew I’d made a mistake. It was a pair of purple Dora the Explorer underpants that were filled with a substance plentiful in most barnyards and diaper bins. And because this is a family column, I will refrain from saying anything more about these Purple Underpants from Hell.

I’ll simply tell you that I flung the garment into the air and screamed like a man who’d just grabbed a handful of apple butter.

My wife leaped out of the driver’s seat and said, “What happened? Are you hurt?”

“AAAGGGHHH!” was my response.

I was running in circles, holding my violated right hand in the air. I do not have a strong stomach and I have an extremely sensitive gag reflex. How sensitive is this reflex? Dentists fear me.

But being on the road isn’t all that bad. We don’t live a glamorous life — we drive a LabCorp van for God’s sake. But my wife and I have been lucky enough to live a pauper’s dream.

We’ve seen the sun come up over the Arizona desert. We’ve watched the wind turbines in Texas. We’ve been soaked by rain in Seattle. We’ve done Appalachia in autumn. Kansas in the Summer. The Carolinas in the snow. We’ve eaten pierogis in Buffalo.

I’ve pulled the old traveling man’s trick of ironing my clothes by placing them beneath my motel mattress. I’ve eaten enough gas station food to endanger my lower-intestinal health. We never unpack our suitcases. We simply live out of them, even when we’re at home.

No wife wants to live this way, I know that. No little girl grows up dreaming of marrying a fool who drives a utility van all over creation. She has given up her comforts to spend life on a highway with her mildly eccentric husband. I think about this a lot.

Chances are she will read this tomorrow morning. When she does I want her to know that being stuck in this little white van together, visiting open pastures and living in hotels has been the second-greatest adventure of my life. The first great adventure was loving her.

The third greatest adventure was definitely the purple underpants thing.

Author, artist, musician, columnist Sean Dietrich is better known as Sean of the South.