The Demon Van of San Felipe

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Demon Van

Back in the days of prairie schooners and hostile savages a trip of one hundred and twenty miles was a serious undertaking full of adversities and vexations. Some of these setbacks reached their climax as an undertaking of a different sort –one involving a rough pine box. But those years are now just collections of sepia toned images on museum walls. With modern motorways come AAA, emergency patrols and friendly natives. What can possibly happen in one hundred and twenty miles?


After nearly twenty years in the San Felipe area, the trip to Mexicali is a ritual I had performed countless times, so many times the required body motions were as automatic as a sneeze. The only difference this time was going to be the vehicle. I needed something with a lot of room. I didn’t trust my old truck to make the journey without its usual complaints of lumbago and arthritis so I borrowed a van from a friend. My friend said the vehicle had not been used in some time but she had dutifully started it every weeks or so. She knew it ran. And it had given her no problems up to the point it had been parked, which was after her husband’s death a few years before.

My purpose for the trip was twofold. I would drop a friend and his wife at a doctor’s office for his physiotherapy session. And then I would pick up several rolls of chain link fence to adorn my lot in the ejido.

I was told by the owner of the van it had a tendency to drain the battery over night. To remedy this, she had a battery bypass installed, which needed a key. Consequently two keys were necessary to start the van, which was not unreasonable. I have rings totaling about 60 keys. They're for trailers, a camper, a workshop, a number of lockups, storage containers and god knows what else. This part of Mexico is fertile pasture for padlocks. They hang everywhere, like clusters of grapes, and might even be the reason the peninsula is shaped like a lock pick.

Arrangements were made to pick up the physiotherapy couple and the journey began early the next morning. The first sign of a problem, however, was when I arrived to pick up the van and couldn't unlock the driver's door. The push latch wouldn’t unclench, even with the lock release popped up on the inside. I pounded around the handle and depressed the button several times before it snapped out and the door finally relented.

The second numbing harbinger was at the gas station when the gauge needle showed a puritanical tendency and couldn’t be made to press up against the letter ‘F’, even after a fifty dollar bribe.

My friend who required the physiotherapy session had suffered a massive stroke a few months before that left him paralyzed on his left side. After much difficulty and the infinitely patient assistance of his wife, he regained some use of his legs, enough to shamble his way across brief distances. In all other departments, he was disenfranchised. His left arm hung limply at his side, he could not speak intelligibly and his face stubbornly preserved its collapsed nature. With half his tongue a strange and lifeless burl in his mouth, he had a habit of drooling without being aware of it. And because it was August in San Felipe, there was a great need to keep hydrated with almost constant applications of water, which amplified the drooling problem remarkably. The man’s good wife was like an expert poker player, on constant vigil for his ‘tell’ and ready with a small towel to remind him of its public occurrence. He, in turn, treated the repeated polishing of his mouth as a one year old in a highchair would, with a sour face and an abrupt turn of the head.

When we were well on the road out of town, I turned on the air conditioner, which I had been informed only partially worked. This was not a lie. It threw out a few columns of moderately refrigerated air. Even still, the overall effect was infinitely more preferable to the hundred or more degrees we were expecting for the afternoon trip back. But after a half hour, I began to suspect that my particular column of air had lost most of its come-hither quality. I had previously noticed my friend fumbling with his A/C vent with his good hand. So I reached out and touched my side of the system. It was blowing a tepid stream at my shoulder. The damn thing had stopped working. I turned it off. It was going to be an uncomfortable trip.

While the van harrumphed down the highway, I tried to orchestrate a configuration of opened and partially closed windows that best brought about medicinal freshets of air without actually blinding us with storms of whipping hair. And that was when we discovered another hindrance. The passenger window didn’t respond to the control console. A small motor hidden deep in the door whirred like a fondled kitten, but the window remained a passive sheet of aquarium glass. My friend’s wife reached from behind and tried the button on his door handle. No effect.

By additionally opening a few of the manual windows and air vents, we finally hit upon the best balance between noise and moving air. I suspected very little of the latter and more than enough of the former reached my friend, who was now reaching for his bottled water with greater frequency.

Demon Van First FlatOur next drama occurred just past La Ventana. I felt a vibration pass up through the steering column and then the normal road noise suddenly changed pitch. The wheel became a lifeless weight in my hands and I knew we had suffered a blow out. There was a dirt road approaching and I wrestled the van over and shut off the engine. I also turned off the battery key, just to be safe.

When I got out I saw two healthy tires, so I went around to the other side of the van and my mouth fell open. The front right tire was completely gone. Where it should have been there was a Tim Burton Christmas wreathe made from black licorice strings.

The spare tire was under a carapace of metal hanging from the rear door of the van. The tools were inside under a bench. When I saw the jack I groaned. It was a little hydraulic cone the size of my foot and looked like it couldn’t pry open an eyelid. I had to scour the area for flat rocks to wedge the thing off the ground enough so it could touch the frame without playing out its reach. Then I noticed the lug nuts wore ornamental plastic caps which were too large for the business end of the tire iron. Removing them was like pulling doorknobs off bus station bathrooms.

When the spare tire was mounted and the nuts cranked tight, I lowered the van, using the triple-jointed insect leg lever supplied with the jack. The thing had a trick knee and constantly buckled. But when the tire finally touched the ground and the van continued to sag, the tire put up next to no resistance. It slowly spread out as the weight heaped on it with each reverse turn of the clumsy lever. Finally I pulled the jack free of the vehicle. The spare tire looked like a Hollywood ad for collagen, morose and preposterously pouty. I found a gauge in the glove box and checked the pressure. Ten pounds.

We put everything back in the van but when I tried to get in, the door wouldn’t open. Even the inside handle couldn’t open it. So I had to climb over my disabled friend to get to the driver’s seat. And that was the way it had to be for the rest of trip.

A painfully ginger and slow crawl to La Vantana brought us to a rather vacant reception at the snack counter. We were informed there was no air pump available. Our schedule was now a horse with a broken leg. But then someone announced he had a 12 volt pump he would let us use. He handed us a small cardboard box which we reverently carried to the van.

The pump looked like a tie clip on life support. We attached it to the valve stem and plugged the cord into the cigarette lighter. The thing sounded like an electric can opener with a deviated septum. I judged the piston was the size of pellet gun ammunition so it was going to be a long wait.

After several snacks and gallons of water, we were on our way again. Without a spare tire. Of course if we had not been constrained to a tight schedule, we probably could have circled the planet three times without suffering any calamities. But because we were driving without a spare tire while trying to keep to a schedule, Murphy, Barrett, Peter and a dozen other principles joined forces with bouncing balls, crumbling cookies, some unlikable apples and a singing fat lady to persecute the other front tire. They took this hobby to a fatal level on the outskirts of Mexicali. The other front tire disintegrated in exactly the same way its brother had.

Demon Baja VanThe schedule was now on a morpheme drip. I walked across the highway to a drive-thru snack venue to borrow a phone for a taxi. By the time I returned, my friends had flagged down a cab. I told them I would stay and repair the tire. They gave me an address and phone number and left to be fashionably late for their appointment. I went back to the snack stand to cancel the taxi and get directions to a tire shop. There was one a mile up the road.

It was about a hundred degrees by then and I hoisted the spaghetti tire onto my shoulder and began stumbling along the shoulder of the highway, a wavering haze of commercial buildings belly dancing in my peripheral vision. My shirt was on rinse cycle when I finally arrived at a taller. It was a busy day for the patrón. There were five people ahead of me. While the clang and huff of steel and pneumatics echoed in the work bay, I surveyed the rows of available used tires. I found a pair in good condition, of the right size and price. A workman finally got to my tire and had it replaced in ten minutes. I told him I would buy the other tire but needed some time to get back to the van and return with the second casualty. The patrón called out to another worker to temporarily replace him while he helped me load the spare into the back of his car and drove me back to the van. He used a floor jack from the trunk of his car to change the blown tire and I followed him back to his shop to have the second tire replaced and installed.

Now I had two good front tires and the original spare was back in its carapace, ready for another emergency. I reasoned my friends were finished with their appointment by now; it had been over an hour. I crawled to the driver’s seat from the passenger side and turned the battery bypass key. A small spark jumped from it behind the dash. But the van started so I unfolded the paper with the address then promptly drove past the road I should have turned up. Instead, I went almost to the border before deciding to turn around.

I stopped at a gas station to buy a map. Apparently a map of Mexicali is as rare as a Davy Crockett lunchbox in Afghanistan. At my fourth failed attempt in as many locations, I asked a clerk for directions. He gave me the impression he didn’t know, but he offered directions anyway, which served to get me utterly lost. I asked someone else, and received good directions except they were 180 degrees off and for a while I was driving away from my destination. I asked a guard in a parking lot to direct me to Wal-Mart (I remembered being told the medical building was near Wal-Wart).

Mexicali is a town writhing with traffic. Painted lines on streets are treated as suggestions. Speed bumps are strong suggestions. Traffic lights are three colors that shade into each other without distinct transitions. Car horns are used to accompany whatever song is playing on the radio. And motorcyclists drive like bank robbers making a get-away. In short, Mexicali is a Jurassic bedlam where a small mammal feels trapped beside shadows of giant, gnashing reptiles. The ability to panic stop in an instant is indispensable. But the first time I had to do it in the van, when someone to my right decided to turn left across my lane, the vehicle pulled so hard to the side that I found myself facing oncoming traffic. So on top of everything else, there was a brake problem.

I drove past Wal-Mart, looking for the street address of the medical building. That’s when I realized the numbers on the buildings didn’t seem to have any pattern. I threw up my arms and turned up a street. I needed to find a phone booth. The street was incredibly narrow. It would require very thin pall bearers to carry a coffin up it. After threading through several of these pinched alleys I found a place to turn around and made my way back to Wal-Mart. They didn’t have a map of Mexicali either.

I tried to use the pay phone outside the store but the coin slot had been vandalized. Only the card well was available. So I stood in line to buy a Calling Card. The smallest denominator was five dollars, so that’s what it cost me to make a local call to the physiotherapist’s office. My friend’s wife told me to stay put and they would come to Wal-Mart.
When they arrived we decided to have some lunch before collecting the rolls of chain link. When we finally went out to the van, I turned the battery bypass key then the ignition key. Nothing. I twisted the ignition key on and off several times. Then I smelled something burning. Suddenly a blanket of white smoke rolled out from the left dash. I reached under and snapped my hand back when I felt something hot.

I turned the battery key off but the smoke kept pouring out. So I ducked my head under the dash and saw a wire glowing red. Without thinking, I yanked it free. And I pulled the other wire off too, just to be sure.
We opened the doors to clear out the smoke, all except the driver’s, of course. I flipped up the hood to study the problem. There was some kind of relay bolted to the firewall above the battery. I followed the wires from the bypass key and cut them from the relay and battery. I tried to rewire it, but the still wouldn’t start. I stared at the relay for almost ten minutes then took out my steel utility knife and wedged it between a terminal and one of the relay connectors. Reaching through the open driver’s window, I turned the ignition key. The van started immediately. I pulled my knife, put it back in its case and lowered the hood.

“No more,” I told my friend’s wife. “We’re going back.”

She was happy to agree and I saw my friend nodding slowly in his seat.

I had brought a few tapes for the van's cassette player and now plugged one in. A little music would help soften the edges of our ragged trip. The player accepted the tape, remained silent and refused to eject it. Why were we not surprised?

We stopped to buy more water. The afternoon sun was glaring through the passenger side and without air conditioning, the van was becoming a kiln. My friend drank water furiously and I saw sweat pouring from his forehead. With his good hand, he used a facecloth to wipe his mouth and face. After about fifty miles I pulled over and reached over him. With the button held down and the motor whirring, I flattened my hand against the glass and pressed downward. The window slowly opened. When it was half-lowered, I climbed back behind the wheel. When we were back at highway speed, I glanced over and saw the look of relief on my friend’s face, his head angled toward the breeze that sang through his open window.

The last indignity, a final parting barb from the van before we reached San Felipe, was at the military checkpoint near the Ensenada turnoff. In all the trips to and from Mexicali over the years, I have never been inconvenienced driving toward San Felipe. The guards have always flagged me through. But this time they wanted to search the vehicle. They motioned for the rear door to be opened, which meant turning off the van to give them the key. I dreaded not being able to start the engine again. So I tried to explain through open windows as I crawled to the back and began folding up the collapsible bunk to expose the rear door handle. I managed to get it open. They politely poked and prodded a few things then flagged us on. We secured everything and buckled up, but when I put the van into gear the engine died.
I climbed over my friend, who by now must have felt like a Magic Mountain ride, and lifted the hood. The guard looked amused as I pulled out my utility knife and wedged it in the ‘G’ spot. He even held the hood up as I climbed back over my friend and squirmed into the driver’s seat. The van started and the guard was kind enough to pull the makeshift shunt free, close the hood and hand me the knife while I pampered the accelerator pedal so the engine wouldn’t stall. And we were on our way again.

It had been a very long day and the arches of San Felipe never looked so good. At least once in a lifetime, one should view them from the trenches of a demon van.