Still, she had come all the way from Colorado to Virginia for me. There was no doubt that she was cute, in a timeless way. She still had the potential to fill the emptiness, or at least distract me from it. This isn’t a story about love, after all. It’s a story about escape. Her grizzled driver, mustachioed in the Fu Manchu style, accepted my envelope of hundreds and drove off with the rest of his deliveries in tow.
I spent two months searching the Internet for one just like Janis, and in May I finally found her on eBay Motors. She was a 1971 Volkswagen camper bus, and she was my ideal: rebuilt engine, original mustard-yellow vinyl interior, pristine ivory paint job. The classic hippie van. I was not initially fond of the name Janis, given to her by her previous owner, but I eventually decided that I had no right to rechristen her. She was 20 years my senior, after all.
I began to need Janis in the spring of my freshman year of college. I was at my top-choice university with no responsibility but to carve out the sort of life I wanted for myself. I had ultimate freedom.
Incongruously, my reaction was to fall into a deep depression. Maybe it was the academic shock of Directed Studies that caused me to turn inward; maybe the unexpected surgery and month-long recovery explained why I felt so isolated; or maybe my thoughts of the girl back home were draining college life of its color. But those things might have been bearable if not for my deeper sense of unease. Whether it was the long-term goal of medical school or daily rehearsal for a theater production, everyone around me seemed to have an innate motivation carrying him from one day to the next. I watched six seasons of Lost in as many weeks. I grew claustrophobic within the five city blocks that marked the boundaries of my existence. I imagined my daily walk to and from class grinding down a tread in the sidewalk, like the dirt track worn by the pacing of a zoo animal. I had numerous phone conversations involving phrases like “what if” and “gap year” as I tested the waters of parental sympathy.
I needed escape. It had always worked before. I was raised to rely upon the saving grace of the well-timed getaway in times of strife or boredom. When I was growing up, my family’s consistent solution to the ennui of an empty weekend was a change of scenery. Some weekends it was the beach; others it was rambling adventures through the Virginia countryside. When flights were cheap, it was Disney World. No problem at home or school ever seemed so difficult knowing that, come Saturday, I would be somewhere completely different.
Our greatest escape came when I was 13, after my parents sold their business of 20 years. Freshly unemployed, their lives had—temporarily—become a series of seven-day weekends. Naturally, then, they researched Virginia’s regulations on homeschooling, purchased an RV, and off we went. I complained halfheartedly about being uprooted from my school and friends, but truthfully, I hated my strict Catholic middle school and the exclusive friend groups of kids who summered together at their gated community pools. Instead of making friends and learning how to talk to girls and resolving my bitter feud with Tom Carter after that incident in gym class, I spent eighth grade watching the Newfoundland coastline and Kentucky bluegrass pass by the backseat window.
Five years later, I was yearning for a way out. Unable to find anything good on Netflix (studying for exams was out of the question), I picked up a slim paperback called Into the Wild, by John Krakauer. It was the true story of Chris McCandless, a brilliant college student who burned his money, broke contact with his family, and set out alone for the Alaskan wilderness. Disillusioned with the constant quest for the brass ring, Chris wanted meaning in the here and now. His gospel of freedom yanked me out of my fog into razor-sharp clarity: “The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” A new and different sun. No commitment, no sameness, no boredom. Chris legitimized the plan that had already been brewing in my mind: escape. It had worked before, and it would work again.
By the time I bullshitted my way through my term papers, I had bookmarked dozens of beat-up VW buses on Craigslist and eBay, searching tirelessly for the One. The idea of a gap year grew less and less hypothetical. I saw past the single-minded strivings of my classmates, so fixated and limited in their horizons of economics or music theory that they could not see the multitude of suns that beckoned in all directions. “Careers are a 20th century invention,” said McCandless. “Nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit of a man than a secure future.” For myself, I saw a future alone on the road. If the life in front of me had nothing to offer, I could simply leave it and continue searching.
And so, that summer, Janis came into my life. Armed with a washrag and a toothbrush, I spent June making her beautiful. I worked for two hours with a Q-tip to clean the clotted gray gunk from her door hinges. My grandfather helped me replace her dry-rotted window seals and fix her loose fuel line. My father helped me repair her leaky sink. He patiently endured the jerks, stops, and foul exclamations of my early encounters with manual transmission. I scraped dishes all summer to help pay for her. My mom and sister and I ate powdered doughnuts while parked by the waving reeds of the river one morning, and we drove the winding parkway with the windows down. My best friends planned next summer’s trip to Joshua Tree.
By the end of the summer, I had not camped out alone with Janis even once. Between hustling for tips at the restaurant, friends’ graduations, sangria-flavored evenings on the porch, a fender-bender, and a sudden funeral, life happened and Janis slipped into the background. I liked knowing she was there if I needed her, but inevitably something else was always more important. I only took Janis on one overnight trip, an August weekend with my girlfriend in the Shenandoah Mountains. We walked the green ridgelines and wiped our sweat with bandannas and cooked chili over propane and took photographs and heard or dreamt we heard the snuffling of a bear at night. We had to be home for work on Monday, but still it was America and freedom and happiness and reality.
As the summer drew to a close, something had changed between Janis and me. Trying to recall what had brought us together in the first place, I reread Into the Wild. When I reached the final pages, it was as if I were reading the ending for the first time. For me, the story had concluded with Chris’s triumphant escape from society and transcendent communion with true Freedom. The second time around, however, I understood that Chris died trying to leave the Alaskan wilderness and return to civilization.
This was no act of surrender; Chris was a determined and capable survivor. Rather, he had realized that the meaning he sought couldn’t be found in the woods. Days before he died, cut off from civilization by a river that had burst its banks, Chris marked a passage in his copy of Doctor Zhivago: “Only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness.” “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED,” he scrawled in the margin. I had truncated Chris’s story to make it what I needed to hear.
My solo journey with Janis began and ended at “what if.” I am in my final semester now, set to graduate on time, and engaged in work that I care about deeply. For three years, Janis waited for me in the garage, and last fall I finally watched her ride away behind someone else’s truck. When it came down to it, in the summer after that difficult year, I had to sit in the driver’s seat with the keys in the ignition before I could understand the reasons not to leave the driveway. Chris McCandless discovered the same thing, only too late. As for me, the multitude of suns are still out there, but now I am unafraid to cast my lot with the one that seems brightest, for better or worse. Last I heard, Janis was with some guy in Pennsylvania – what his need for her is, I don’t know. I still miss her from time to time, but ultimately our affair was doomed. She taught me what she herself will never know: there is no worse way to be trapped than by the need to be free.