Starre Trip: Across America with an $850 Van

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 07, 2019

We were at Starre’s house on a hill in Norwalk, Connecticut and she pointed to a lovely old wood-trimmed heirloom couch in a corner. “I need to get it to Washington.”

The couch that launched at least one road trip. (Starre Vartan)

It’s complicated. Starre owns the Connecticut house with her ex-boyfriend, but now lives on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. The house is rented. She was in town to find a new tenant, and was heading back. She’d decided it was cheaper to buy a van and drive across the country than to have the couch shipped. She cited figures. She’s a good driver—I’ve always known that about her—and she was right about the finances. Plus she likes to drive across the country, and has done it several times before.

"I consider it a real luxury to be able to drive across the U.S. because it gives me acres of time to think in a way my regular life doesn't allow," Starre said. "There's something about being on the open road that opens my heart an mind."

Starre hits the open road. (Starre Vartan)

I offered to help Starre find a good van. When you write about cars for a living, people ask you for advice about what to buy all the time. The fact is they seldom actually heed the advice, but that’s up to them. Starre's budget was $2,000, later upped to $3,000. She’d sell the van when she got to Seattle, and hopefully not lose too much money. Maybe even make some. The hunt was on.

I’ve done these searches for people many times. I must enjoy it! Craigslist is my friend, and also Facebook’s Marketplace. I try not to buy from dealers, preferring private parties, but you can’t always tell who’s selling a car.

The first van I found was a Honda Odyssey, 2006 I believe, in Westchester County. The price was $2,800, cheap if it was in good shape. It wasn’t. One power door wouldn’t close and the other one was wobbly. There was a front end shimmy. The leather interior was worn and it needed new tires. The air conditioning didn’t work. Still, it ran well.

The car was at a repair shop, and we went into the office to make a deal. As we prepared to make a low offer, the owner said, no, he wasn’t going to sell it to us. We were too critical, he said. He’d prefer to sell his van to some knowledgeable guy who could fix all the little problems. This was a first, being turned down by a seller!

The second van was a 2005 Toyota Sienna in Bridgeport, and it had multiple fairly serious problems, more than the Honda. The vendor wasn't a dealer, just a guy from Haiti who sold cars (bought at auctions) on the side. He said he’d have another, better one later in the week. From there we went to look at a 2006 Chrysler Town and Country that was so bad I nixed it before the owner had even parked. The exhaust was hanging off, it was smoking, and the rocker panels were comprehensively rotted.

The Pontiac had a few flaws, like a crumbling grille. "They all do that," said the old owner. (Starre Vartan)

I went to Ansonia to see another Sienna, but the owner said the last guy to look at it had made off with the keys. Still, just looking at it I could see that the fog lights were missing and the passenger door panel was falling off. Back to Bridgeport and the other Sienna—this one ran well, but the faults were endless—missing fog lights, fuse box cover and window washers, dash cover falling off, rear window latch broken, both taillights cracked, and the clincher—no turn signals.

I've had good luck in the past buying Odysseys and Siennas for people, but all I was seeing was high-mileage cars that had been driven hard and put away wet. The Odyssey's Achilles' heel is the transmission, so that was another thing to be careful about. Some carry "new" transmissions that are just used ones with the same propensity for failure as the originals.

We found a tidy Town and Country parked in a Norwalk driveway but the owner never answered our calls. This was getting to be a challenge! Then a vehicle turned up on Nextdoor, our community bulletin board. A one-owner, 113,000-mile 1998 Pontiac Trans Sport for $1,195. A Pontiac! Now here was something I hadn't considered. Orphan brands face challenges, especially for unique body parts, but something about the one-owner status, low miles and low price appealed. I looked up owner comments, and mostly they said that little things fell off but the vans kept running.

The winner, for $850. (Starre Vartan)

The van was as advertised. We showed up at the appointed time, being careful not to scare the elderly lady (from the old country) who lived there by poking around without the owner present. The van wasn’t rusty, and wasn’t even badly dinged. It drove well, and exhibited only a few flaws—non-functioning air-conditioning, a missing passenger window switch, and a crumbling grille. “They all do that,” the owner said. “The grille on there is a replacement, and it started coming apart immediately.”

We arrived at a deal. $850. The owner got emotional at the handover. It was the vehicle he raised his kids in. It was dependable, even if its grille wasn’t.

Starre said the van needed a name, which had to be female. She wasn’t about to own a male car. I said Chief Pontiac had been an Ottawa Indian, famous for fighting British military rule before the American Revolution. She looked the tribe up, and its current chief is a woman, Ethel C. Cook. “Ethel!” The van had a name.

How could Ethel let Starre down? Well, she didn’t. I’ll let Starre’s road diary take over:

It took five days and four nights.

First day. Norwalk, Connecticut to Norwalk, Ohio (a/k/a “The Firelands,” where Connecticut residents got free land after the Brits burned the town down in the Revolutionary War. A Motel 6. Their beds are horrible. 550 miles.

Second day. Norwalk, Ohio to Onalaska, Wisconsin. Microhotel by Wyndham. Super-comfortable and nice, and only $10 more than the Motel 6. Wow, I never saw the Mississippi this far north, and it was so flooded the trees were all up to their elbows! 1,150 miles.

Third day. Onalaska, Wisconsin to Hardin, Montana. This was a marathon day, 900 miles of driving to avoid Winter Storm Wesley—exhausting. I stayed in Hardin, Montana at a really cheap hotel but was so tired I didn’t care. 2,050 miles.

Fourth day. Hardin, Montana to the outskirts of Billings, Montana. Billings is a great town! Good vegetarian options and top-notch coffee at MoAv. In Alberton, Montana I splurged on a riverside motel. I covered 420 miles that day, making a total of 2,470.

Fifth day. Alberton, Montana to Bainbridge Island, Washington. Stopped in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho—great hipster coffee and avocado toast at Strada. After driving 460 miles, I’d now covered 2,910. I was home.

Starre’s plan was to sell Ethel once she got back to Washington and buy an old Saab. She’d owned two of them and wanted another. But after she and Ethel shared such an adventure will they so easily part? We’ll see. I told her to get after that grille with super glue, or it would fall off on the road. And is that any way to treat a lady?

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