Ever done a little online shopping after opening a bottle of wine? Ever end up buying something really frivolous? What about an ambulance? Yep, turns out the ol’ online-wine-shopping can really escalate! A few nice glasses of red on the couch in some interim housing in Lauderdale between yacht work, and the next minute, I’d won myself a bid on a retired 1988 Chevrolet search-and-rescue ambulance from a place called Fossil, Oregon, population 393.
“Ain’t no busses that’ll take y’all this far” the owner chuckled, a hint of pride twinkling at his untouchable remoteness. Six months after wiring him the payment for the ambulance, I finally had a window of time off to go retrieve her. My dad, who had just retired from his career as a truck driver, met me at a hostel in Portland, Oregon. The plan was to: a) see if this ambulance I paid $3,750 for six months ago truly existed and would actually run; b) drive it as close to Fort Lauderdale as she would go; and c) spend some quality time with Dad — and his “Dad-can-fix-it” demeanor.
We went out brewery hopping in Portland that night to commemorate our mission: The Rambulance Retrieval. We bought Greyhound tickets to the farthest town possible, where the seller would pick us up and drive us into the unknown. On the bus the next day, I thought about my awaiting vehicle for rambling: for moving ahead without any specific route or direction, as the word is defined. No strict itineraries, no guest areas, no need for polish, no standards — just my very own vessel for freedom, with me at the helm, as unruly and unkempt as I pleased. Open roads beckoned!
A crinkly, WD-40-stained and diesel-scented man with grease-embedded fingernails holding a cigarette stub picked us up at the barren bus stop and drove us southeast through dry hills and truckstop towns towards Fossil. In a couple of hours, we pulled into his property, littered with torn-apart vehicles and a barn-style workshop. Amongst the dusty, haphazard projects, there she shone: The Rambulance.
Outside, her orange and blue stripes gleamed. Inside, her shelves held medical equipment, manuals, old cassette tapes, and a box of Tampax from the 1980s. Everything seemed intact — even the flashing lights worked! An ambulance she was, and an adventure-mobile she would be. I slid my hands over the sun-warmed, pale brown vinyl seats. She smelled musty and vintage, a combination of Dad’s old truck and a secondhand record shop. I climbed up into the driver’s seat, grinning from ear to ear.
It took at least three tries to start her — no fuel injection, and both batteries had to be manually turned on and off on the massive switchboard. The rule later became: “He who forgets to turn off the batteries, owes the other a beer.” At the nearest gas station, the gas attendant told me stories about riding in the back of this ambulance when he broke his arm as a kid, and how his brother got picked up in it when he had alcohol poisoning. Absolutely tickled by the switch beside the steering wheel to flip between the two gas tanks (which would soon reveal themselves as greedy guzzlers), we filled up and headed out. The locals along the way came out to bid farewell to their retired county ambulance, looks of confusion and curiosity on their faces as we fumbled and bumbled down the road, into the unknown.
We blew a tire in the Mars-like red rock lands of Utah, where the sign at the closest gas station read: Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere, and another sign read: Closed. We finally reached Moab on an old spare, where we had the best chile relleno and margaritas I have ever tasted while Ramby was fitted with new tires. We traversed the country roads and sub-alpine towns of southern Colorado, savoring the cool mountain air and the quiet cell-phone void. We took a wrong turn and ended up parked overnight in the backyard of a hair salon in a place called Cuba, New Mexico, where the elderly, Spanish-speaking owner charged us $5 and let us use the bathroom in her mobile home.
By the time we got into the Texan sun, we realized that life on long desert highways without a working air conditioner was going to be miserable. We ended the trip in Oklahoma, a decision based on my time frame and the cost of fuel as much as the lack of air conditioning. We left the Rambulance there with friends, and although I couldn’t bring her back to my transient working life on yachts, I knew she’d be there for me whenever I needed her.
Experiencing historic Route 66 and exploring the ancient ruins of the Pueblo people; finding an unlikely bottle of Dad’s favorite Scandinavian spirit, akvavit, in a small town, and sharing it over games of cribbage; enjoying a well-earned, locally crafted beer in whichever state we found ourselves for the night — these were the small joys that made for an unforgettable trip.
I learned things about my Dad I had not known. I realized how alike we are in many ways. I pushed him out of his comfort zone, and he surprised everyone back home with his stories. I returned to Florida feeling grounded. The Rambulance had renewed my spirit — in a way, she had saved me, just like she had saved the countless souls she had carried down the road before me. What had seemed like the most unnecessary purchase I ever made had evolved into a story my Dad and I would share for the rest of our lives.
Sonja Mejlholm, of Vancouver Island, has been a yacht stew and chef for eight years. Follow her adventures on Instagram at ramblesonja.