May 21, 2017

Home I Go, and Very Slowly – John LaPlante

Happy Ending: Mike, me, and Antonio as I prepare to drive off. In back is  my blue and silver beauty–van turned camper!

Happy Ending: Mike, me, and Antonio as I prepare to drive off. In back is my blue and silver beauty–van turned camper!

Newport Beach, CA — This morning at 9:30—after the massive freeways here have been relieved of their crushing commuter traffic—I’ll climb behind the wheel of my new little camper van and start the long ride home to Deep River.

I’ve been here far longer than usual on my annual get-away from the ice and snow of Connecticut. This has been my 18th winter here with milady Annabelle, lucky me. It happens that she has lived in this warm and sunny place all her life. (If some really icy place were her home, I suspect I’d make it up there to be with her.)

Anyway, tomorrow is when I get going. A kiss and embrace and I’ll start the engine, and with a final wave and toot, begin another long solo trip. One of many I’ve racked up.

The most direct route home is about 3,200 miles. No way will that be how I’ll go. I plan to zig and zag. Take as few Interstates as possible. Stop here and stop there, Look at this and that. See famous sites and little-known ones. Avoid the very big cities—I’ve seen many of them. Don’t want to put up with all the traffic and headaches getting in and out of them.

I’ll be camping most of the way. I expect to stay at a motel now and then. More to my liking would be a hostel, For a rest, a chance to soak my body and do my laundry and  hang out with some interesting folks.

I have no specific “must-sees” in mind. But I’ll visit parks big and small, and museums, I hope, and factories that welcome visitors, and for sure, senior centers and libraries and universities. And get to meet people. That’s a priority.

I’ll be driving on a California permit that gives me two months to get home. If it gets tough and isn’t fun, I’ll be home in two weeks. But I hope to make the most of the trip and get home on the last day of my permit. Why not? There’s no rush. I’m looking at is as maybe my last hurrah. And I’m leaving it up to serendipity.

I flew here in late December, which has been my routine for some years. And I expected to fly home, as usual. What the heck happened?

~ ~ ~ ~

I have to go back about seven years to explain. Annabelle and I did a house swap in France.  I got the idea deep in Chile while on my solo trip around the world. I met a French couple down there. He was an M.D. with a specialty in psychiatry. She was a professor of nursing. They were there for some light mountain climbing.

When he told me they came from Poitiers, I got excited. It’s a small city about two hours southwest of Paris. Famous for an ancient university. But more important than anything else for me is that the Poitiers area is where  my ancestor LaPlante came from—my great, great, great, great, great grandfather, I think.  He was a soldier in New France–the present Quebec. He was one of about 1,100 who arrived in June 1665. Their mission was to protect the colonists from the nasty Iroquois from what is now up-state New York.

The soldiers beat the Iroquois back and restored peace. After thee years the king recalled the regiment home. But there were only 2,500 or so colonists in New France—most living in what is now Quebec City. The troops were given the choice of staying—more strong Frenchmen were essential to get this tiny settlement going. My ancestor was one of the third who stayed in that harsh but welcoming new land.

But his name was not LaPlante then. It was Savignac. A strange thing happened. For some reason still debated. Many of those guys decided to take on new names. To symbolize a new life? Maybe.

He chose LaPlante. All it means is ‘the plant.” So, nothing romantic. Others chose other common words like that as their name—words starting with “La” or “Le.” But I know his name was Savignac because church records were meticulous—the records of baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and deaths. That’s why I also know he came from the Poitiers corner of France, and that his outfit was the Regiment Carignan-Salieres. Those were the names of two colonels.

My two new French friends in Chile laughed off the idea of a house swap when I first mentioned it. “Risky!” they said. “How can you be sure what kind of people will be moving into your house?”

Back in Deep River, I kept up an email correspondence with them. Sent them photos of our pretty town. And my nice little condo, And news about typical events. And we made the swap happen.

We swapped residences, of course—their home and my condo. And everything in them, of course—the kitchen stuff, the books, the computers, the TVs and other electronics, the whole works. Also their big VW wagon and my Buick sedan.  Plus their network of relatives of friends and mine—how important that turned out to be.  I joke now—everything except the ladies! We agreed on a six-week swap. I wanted 12 weeks. “Impossible!” he said. “I’m still practicing.”

It worked out fine in every way. They drove my Buick to Niagara Falls. We drove their VW to Paris—had a picnic lunch in it under the Eiffel Tower—and down through the rich wine country to the Med.

Oh, I was a Rotarian. So in Poitiers I went to the weekly meetings of the big Rotary Club there. Four times the size of our Deep River club. Annabelle came along. And that was marvelous.  I had a ball speaking French and really getting to know what life over there was really like. Annabelle had studied French long ago and was a good sport about it all.

~ ~ ~ ~

 A bit of background. I was born in the U.S.  My parents were immigrants from Quebec. I’ve been there often. Still have a few relatives there. So I have a great interest in Quebec..

I speak French well and enjoy using it. You have to use a language or you’ll lose it.  One thing I do is listen to Quebec radio via the computer. Streaming radio, it’s called. I listen to two fm stations, one in Montreal and one in Quebec City. They offer light classical music, and their announcers speak good French—contemporary French, with current idioms and slang. Wonderful.

So! I got the idea not of a house swap up there, but of a home stay. With a Quebec family for a month or so. To talk the language, enjoy the culture, experience their life.  I’d gladly pay. I wrote to the two stations, then to a big Rotary Club, then to a university. Didn’t get a single bite.

What to do? I decided I’d go on my own. It was now late October, and the weather was getting cold and the days short. I’d go for two weeks. Drive up. Annabelle chose to stay behind in California and I understood that.

Not long ago, I would have started on a trip like this without hesitation. But bad things have happened to me of late.  Nothing calamitous. But challenging enough to make me feel my age.

On the morning that I got into my Hyundai Sonata to start out, I looked in the mirror and spoke to myself.  “Is this wise? To go with no companion?  What if something goes wrong? Something could.”

And I spoke back to myself. “I really want to do this. Time is running out. I’d getter do it while I can. Something bad could happen at home. I’m going!”

And I turned started my car and headed north. I traveled some 1,500 miles in all.  Crossed into Quebec at a small custom station in Vermont.  Just a mile or two into Quebec I made out big Mount Sutton. It rises beside the small town of Sutton.

That’s where my grandparents lived. My grandfather Michel LaPlante had a maple operation on the flank of Mount Sutton. Tapped trees and made maple syrup every early spring.  On the rise on the opposite side of the village was his farm–an old-fashioned self-sufficiency homestead.  Thirty milk cows. Sunday was the day of rest but they still had to milk the cows twice that day, too. A vegetable garden and small orchard.

My grandma had a big cast-iron stove…baked a huge pot of beans every Saturday for the week. Served her large brood  21 hearty meals a week. She had a handpump for water in the kitchen. Every fall they filled the cellar with firewood they had sawed and split. There was an outhouse in the backyard.

On Sunday mornings my grandfather hitched the family horse to their Sunday carriage. The horse that pulled his plow and hay wagon. And drove them to the little Catholic church they could see in the valley below. They sat through Mass and then lingered on the church steps to greet and chat with their friends. It was their big outing of the week.

Yes, that little church where they had attended so many weddings and baptisms and funerals. I did that when I went with my dad and mom. And later as a grown man visiting up there.

So on this trip, Sutton was my fist stop. I had a nice visit with Tante Rosanne, the last of my aunts. She was so surprised and pleased! I visited  the church, then the church  cemetery. Saw a whole row of my kin resting side by side. Visited the farm, of course. The house had been knocked down and a beautiful expensive country home stood in its place. Sutton has become a famous ski resort, and this was the country home of a wealthy Montreal family. The barn still stood. It had never looked so good. But now it housed riding horses instead of cows.

I visited in the village and got into little talks. Sutton has been transformed. It’s a tourist town with cafes and art galleries and pricy restaurants. If my grandparents and parents could have seen this!

I went on to Montreal and Quebec City and half a dozen small cities. All familiar to me.  Stopped and looked and talked time and again. Stopped at mom-and-pop motels on most nights. But it was just me and the TV set. That’s not my favorite thing, even in French. But found three cozy hostels to stay in. I was so old I wondered whether they’d let me in. They did. Nobody looked at me crossways and I had fun. I spoke French all day.

On Quebec highways, tourist information stations are indicated by a big question mark. Yes, just a huge ?. I stopped at every one I spotted. For tourist advice, but that was my excuse. What I wanted was a little chat. It was magic when I mentioned I was of Quebecois descent. They made me feel like a prince.

I finally made it home to Connecticut with not a single bad thing happening to me. And guess what? I felt  20 years younger.

~ ~ ~ ~

 Here at Annabelle’s two months ago I began thinking of my return flight to Connecticut. And remembered my splendid road trip to Quebec. I wondered, why not drive home? Yes, why not? In the same casual and  relaxed way. And that’s how I got the idea of making the long ride home to Connecticut in a little camper.

I chose a good moment to mention it to Annabelle. She’s certainly chalked up a lot of adventures of her own. But she’s getting along in years, too. She declined. Understandable. She didn’t have the same interests of language and family

Then I spread the word to family and friends. Nobody was ecstatic. They advised caution.  Great caution. I’m sure some considered me nuts. That didn’t surprise me. But as I’ve said, doing it is important to me. And here I am, ready to go.

Oh, I had to find a camper.  A must was a rig that I could park in a single parking spot. So many are so huge! Offer nice amenities but what a challenge driving them around.

I started searching while I was in Morro Bay with my daughter Monique and her hubby David at Christmas. No big argument from them. Just “Caution!”

David was a big help in feeding me leads about promising vehicles. When I moved down here to Annabelle’s, he continued to send me leads. He made a hundred-mile round trip to check one out for me. He was disappointed.

A friend up there named Martha also steered me to a couple of possibilities. They didn’t pan out.

I searched here at Annabelle’s. Looked at this one and that one. Studied Craig’s List time and again. With Annabelle, I made a 120-mile trip up to the city of Riverside to check one rig that sounded perfect. Disappointing.

One day online I read of a 2002 Ford van called the Chateau. It wasn’t a camper. It was a seven-passenger van. It was loaded with nice features. Even a ceiling drop-down screen to watch DVDs. There were photos of the van. It looked terrific. The price was $4,900. Definitely in my budget.

It was for sale at an outfit called FamVans.  Just a 25-minute ride away. I called and spoke to a salesman named Mike Malvey.

He told me the Chateau model was the top of the line. Was in excellent condition. Had 180,000 miles on it.  Wow! That’s something to think about! But I went and looked. The photos had not exaggerated. It had a tiny scrape on one side. And a small ding in the front bumper, and another at the back. It was better than I expected.  I was excited.

I told him about my cross-country plan. He looked dubious. I understood that. I’m no kid. But I gave him details about some of my long-distance travels and her perked up.

“Tell me,” I said to him. “What’s wrong with this van?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it.”

That’s not a surprising thing to hear from a used-car salesman.

“Let  me explain how we do business,” he continued. “We have a complete staff here, including good mechanics. We check every vehicle. We sell 20 per week, week in and week out. More than a thousand a year. Have been in business more than 20 years. But I want you to check us out.”

He smiled. “Look! I understand your concern. Take it for a day. A weekend. Take it to any mechanic of your choice. Have it checked thoroughly. We’ll pay for that. Then show us his written report. We’ll take it from there.”

“Sounds good. But I don’t know any mechanic here.”

“No problem. We’ll take it to a Ford agency near you. They’ll do the checking. Give you their report. We’ll pay for it. Then you decide.”

Very fair, I thought. He did that. I got the report. The form had some 30 items on the check-off list. Every single one got checked off as “Good.”  Remarkable, I thought..

At my next meeting with Mike—yes, we were using our first names now—I asked about the whopping 183,000 miles. Who wouldn’t?

“That’s really much for a van of that age.  We got one in the other day. A Ford. Owned by an airport shuttle service. Its odometer said 900,000 miles. And still in service.”

I whistled at that.

I was curious about one thing. How come the Chateau looked so good. I put the question to him.

He turned to his computer. Looked up the Chateau. “This is the second time we sell it. The first time was when it was about 18 months old. We chose it to a Japanese man for family use. He traded it in for another. That’s the story. Not that unusual.”

“A Japanese man, you say. Well, I’ve been to Japan. I know how people over there take care of things.”

He nodded. “You’re probably right.”

“Well, I’ll pay $4,500.”

He smiled. “Sorry. The price is the price.”

“How about at least a senior discount?’

He smiled again. And shook his head. “Sorry. No.”

I test-drove it, of course. I used to drive a van of this size routinely at Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Conn., when I was the director of its Elderhostel program. Often filled with passengers. That kind of driving all came back to me now.

I had searched for a high-rise model, with more headroom. In this one I couldn’t stand fully.  But adapting wouldn’t be difficult.

Mike and I discussed some details. I had no place to keep the van till departure time. I had to make modifications. Could I keep it at FamVans? I had no tools. I might need a hand on some jobs.

“Not a problem.  Keep it here. Just ask and we’ll let you borrow whatever you need. And we’ll help you find a young guy to help you as needed.”

One more question. Did I have to register it in California? I’d register it in Connecticut when I got home. It would be crazy to have to register it in one state, then the other.”

“We know the law. There is a simple solution. I’ll give you a document. You’ll have a permit on the windshield. You will be able to drive it to Connecticut with the previous owner’s plates. They’re on the van now. You’ll be allowed to make that single trip home. Nothing for you to do here. No California sales tax to pay. You’ll register and pay the tax in Connecticut. That’s all there is to it.”

There was considerable discussion, but that was the essence of it. We shook hands on the deal. I paid a deposit. It worked out just as he said. I kept the Chateau at FamVans for more than a month. He let me use his dealer’s plate to do errands with the van.

He introduced me to one of his workers, Antonio—Tony. Mexican. Born there. About 35. Working at FamVans for 13 years. Took a liking to him. He was talented and enthusiastic.  He called me “Senor John.” I liked that.

Nearly all the employees were Mexicans. They impressed me. And I liked the culture of the place. They worked hard. Seemed to enjoy their day. Were friendly.

One small detail. I spotted a popcorn machine in the office. It was filled fresh every morning. I love popcorn.

Mike was one of three brothers. His older brother was president. He was the sales manager. A younger brother ran the huge parts department.

FamVans had 200 vans and cargo trucks on the lot. Very busy. This was really a full-service place. Twenty workers doing everything from A to Z, including complete engine changes and rebuilds. Every vehicle got scrubbed and washed when it arrived. And spiffed up for delivery.

Antonio said “Yes, senor” to everything I asked.

Here are some of my changes to the van.  I removed one of the two big seats in the second row. I had the second one turned around, so it faced backward. I was going to remove the 3-passenger back seat. But I moved it back 18 inches and adapted it into a bunk. Got a 4-inch foam mattress custom cut for it.

Installed two three-drawer cabinets. Built a shelf along one side. Put in a one-burner propane stove and an ice chest. Even a homemade potty, for emergencies only. The carpeting was very clean. I put in carpet runners to keep it clean. Built a wooden step to rest on the ground by the big sliding door. Made it much easier for me to get in and out. Did this and did that.

Oh, important. Behind the back bench I installed a big plywood shelf. It was the width of the van and  two-feet wide. I could store suitcases and boxes under it. I had lots to take home. And loads of  everyday stuff on it. I am delighted with it.

The Chateau had tinted windshields. I liked that. People couldn’t see in. But the tint on the window by the driver gave a distorted view when I looked out at an oblique angle. That was a problem..

Antonio used a razor to make a crescent-shape cut and peel off that corner of the film. Excellent. Then did the same thing on the other side.  I asked why he bothered. “Not good if they look different, senor!”

Oh, I forgot to mention that the van had a gps navigation system. At the last minute it was discovered it had a problem. Not fixable. Mike gave me a new Garmin instrument. I’ve set it up.

Antonio made even more small changes that I requested when I picked it up. He installed two brackets for me. I’ll hang my clothes neatly on them.

I had one final request.  I asked him to drive the Chateau to the front of the lot and park it there, with the big FamVans’ sign showing right behind. And had Luis, the foreman, to

take a photo of Mike and Antonio and me side by side. They were busy but good sports about it. I wanted it as a souvenir of this very nice experience.

We shook hands.  I was glad I had tipped Antonio. He deserved it. Mike had kept his word in every way. We shook hands and promised to keep in touch. They were waving to me as I drove off.

I would be departing in three days. They knew that. Mike said, “If something comes up, don’t hesitate to call me.” This was a no-warranty deal. But his words made me feel good.

Well, tomorrow morning is the big moment. I’ll get home to Deep River when I get home. Maybe in a few days. Maybe in several weeks. We’ll see.

I’ve never lived in a chateau. But now I have a nice little one on wheels to live in.

Gosh, I’ve written a lot of words to tell you all this.  God bless you if you’ve reached this last paragraph!

Editor’s Note: John Guy LaPlante is a veteran writer and journalist. His award-winning columns and articles were previously published in the Main Street News. He is the author of two books, “Around the World at 75. Alone! Dammit!” and “Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83! Dammit!” He completed his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine in early 2010 after a 27-month tour of duty. John always welcomes comments on his articles. Email him at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com

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