For Sale or Trade, One Reverse-Averse Van

I wrote this Craigslist advertisement in 2018 and am belatedly giving it a home here.

I think the advertisement is the most popular thing I’ve written; it even reached a friend on deployment in Afghanistan. He received the ad with a note that said, “This seems like someone you would know.”

In 2019 I was flipping through an issue of the Adventure Journal and was thrilled to notice that the ad was featured, by Anonymous. My first reaction, was, “Wow! Someone else had a van like mine that wouldn’t go in reverse!

Full disclosure: I ended up donating the car to the junkyard as part of the Sierra Club Vehicle Donation Program.

1988 Toyota Van

condition: salvage
cylinders: 4 cylinders
fuel: gas
odometer: 180000
title status: clean
transmission: automatic
type: van

I bought this 1988 Toyota cargo van in Woods Hole, Ma, in 2007 for $500. It has 180,000 miles and won’t go in reverse.

Before the van, I was driving the Chevy S-10 I inherited in high school, but it caught on fire and the idle was all messed up. I got honked at for going too slow on the highway between Boston and Woods Hole and pulled over for having a cracked windshield. That would never happen in Alaska.

I was hoping to find a van because I needed a place to store my stuff during the leave of absence I was about to take from the MIT/WHOI Ph.D. program. I kept breaking bones and concluded that grad school was not healthy for me, so I took the leave to reevaluate my life.

I test drove the van around the block and thought the $800 asking price was reasonable. I offered $500. The seller asserted that it was worth $800. He was right, and I told him so, but I figured it was only worth a $500 gamble for me. He called me back the next day and I paid $500 cash. I filled the van with all my stuff, parked it in the far corner of a campus lot, and flew to Hawaii.

My first job during my leave of absence was with a construction crew in Hawaii. The owner asked what I was qualified to do, and I said I was in a geology Ph.D. program. He said the only work he had for a geologist was digging ditches. I thought he was joking, so I borrowed framing tools and a belt for my first day on the job. At the worksite, the boss looked at my tools, smiled, and gave me a shovel. I got to drive a backhoe a few times.

During my leave of absence, I decided not to continue the Ph.D. program. I’d return to MIT, write up my results, and leave with a Master’s degree. I found the van untouched, all tires flat, but the engine fired right up. I didn’t have any housing, so I spent some nights in the van, but most often I used a credit card to jimmy the lock of my old dorm room, unless my roommate was there, in which case he just let me in.

I started driving west. My dad bought me studded tires in Montana, and I had the brake lines flushed in Oregon. That was the last time the van needed maintenance.

I drove the Alaska-Canada highway in December. The van was too high-volume for the heater, so it was a very cold drive. I wore ski boot liners on my feet and wrapped up in blankets. My dad and grandma had given me jars of jam, fruit, and pickles in Montana, and to prevent them from freezing and exploding, I drove with them inside my jacket.

I met a cute girl who was also driving to Anchorage. She was driving a Subaru and had skis on the rack, which made me happy. I hoped to run into her again, with the intention of asking her to carry my jars, which would then give me an excuse to meet up with her again in Anchorage. Her sister is now engaged to my girlfriend’s brother. That would happen in Alaska.

It was -40 at night, and I watched the northern lights for hours at a time. I wasn’t staying warm enough sleeping in the van, so I splurged on a Bed & Breakfast in Whitehorse. In the morning it took 10 minutes for the van to get warm enough to shift into gear. That was the first time the van was reverse averse.

When I arrived in Anchorage and unloaded my stuff, I discovered that the empty van was a death trap on snow and ice. With the motor under the driver/passenger seats and no weight in the back, I couldn’t get any traction. I bought 300 lbs of gravel, left the gravel yard, spun out, and returned for another 100 lbs.

The big issue is clearly the transmission. It used to just take time to warm up: 10 minutes of driving before 3rd gear would kick in, another 5 minutes for 4th gear, and usually reverse by then too. But now it won’t go into reverse, even when warm. The last time I left it running for 20 minutes it wouldn’t go forward either.

I had two keys for the van, but I lost them. Fortunately, any Master Lock key works in the ignition.

The rear hatch never had a key, so I drilled holes through the frame where I could pass my bike U-lock through. Most bike locks will fit.

The turn signal arm will fall out if you pull it too hard. This is purely a mechanical issue, unlike the electrical problem of the Chevy S-10 turn signal. In the Chevy, you had to pull the turn signal and indicate a left-hand turn to get the brights to go on.

It took me months to discover the van’s windshield wiper fluid reservoir. It is above the rear right brake light. You have to be going over 40 mph for the fluid to hit the windshield, otherwise, it just launches up over the van. With practice, you can hit the vehicle behind you.

The van’s value is clearly immeasurable. I once traded a Subaru with a blown head gasket for a pair of skis, but the Subaru could still go in reverse. The van might only be worth some homemade canned goods. I love jam.

Photo by Dave Chenault


  1. Man, I thought I had life rough. You win in that too.
    Please blog more. We are all in quarantine. lol

    1. No! Did you guys have one? I brought the S-10 down from Ak, it had been my grandmother’s in California. The S-10 had some great adventures between my brother and me… a tree fell on the pop-up camper, it got graffiti-tagged in NYC, etc. I caught it on fire trying to test the fuel pump in suburban Boston… that could have gone much worse!

      1. I also drove an S10 when I was selling Norwegian sweaters and rag rugs at craft shows. Sold it when I decided I was too old for such foolishness anymore. Mine was red with a black topper. My air mattress fir perfectly in the back when I didn’t want to mess with a tent.

  2. Ask Katie about our silver Toyota van. Can’t remember when we bought it, but we left Madison for Dollar Bay in it and dove it for a few years in Ironwood. Lots of swim team trips.

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