Taking to the Road in the Old VW Bus
Campers, RVs and Trailers are Super-Hip Again — For Many Reasons
“I can’t believe you drove this thing all the way from California,” mumbled the gas-station attendant in Maine as he looked at the license plate on my blue 1968 Volkswagen Bus. Despite its rust and dings, what was the big deal? As an outdoors- and travel-loving young woman, I needed an inexpensive way to see the country while sleeping in something more secure than a tent.
The VW Bus gave me the audacity to see the country.
I had tried to get boyfriends to buy vans, but the relationships didn’t work out — with the vans or the guys — so after college I bought the Blue Bus myself.
Together we traveled over steep and narrow 10,000- and 12,000-foot passes in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, usually in first gear. That slow pace forced me to appreciate the sights, from the cliffs of Big Sur to Lake Michigan’s sand dunes to the concrete canyons of Manhattan. I moseyed along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the streets of New Orleans and camped, alone, in National Park campgrounds, highway rest stops and a parking lot in Minnesota during a phenomenal lightning storm.
Alas, production of the Volkswagen Van (or “Bus” to us fans) ended Dec. 31, 2013. I fear this portends a future where young people will not have that freedom of the road where they can camp cheaply within solid walls while honing their independent travelers’ senses and skills.
This is how many of us developed our traveling selves.
My then-boyfriend (now husband), Michael, who had never owned a van, took to my Blue Bus right away, repeatedly hopping from the passenger seat into the back to take a snack out of the icebox or fiddle with something or otherwise savor my little movable home away from home.
“Your owning the Bus when we met,” he said, “was part of your charm.”
One day the Blue Bus died on the freeway in Colma, the town founded in the early 20th century when San Francisco evicted most of the city’s dead residents and transferred them a few miles south to new graves. Colma now reportedly has 1,500 above-ground citizens and 1.5 million below ground. The tow truck dragged my beloved Blue Bus to a mechanic in cemetery town.
The mechanic said it needed a new engine. He offered to buy it for $200 to give to his 18-year-old girlfriend who wanted a Bus to drive solo to the East Coast. After 11 years with my beautiful (beauty being in the eye of the beholder, of course) Blue Bus, I acquiesced — but cried while handing over the pink slip.
Immediately I purchased a used yellow ’76 VW Westfalia camper with red-and-green plaid upholstery and a pop-top so we could stand up inside when we camped.
While Michael and I honeymooned in Africa, his sister and her husband borrowed the Yellow Bus. They’re from Iowa, a flat state. They were, let’s say, “surprised” when they accidentally drove down a steep part of Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The fact that they could look down through holes around the clutch, brake and gas pedals and see the road below didn’t enhance their experience. But they’re not risk-taking travelers — not Bus People. Not like the Australian couple who later bought the Yellow Bus for their drive-across-America adventure.
Next, the brown ’89 VW Vanagon camper entered my life. Michael and I camped in below-freezing temperatures at Mammoth Lakes, in California’s Mono County in the eastern Sierra; and traveled through red (and red-hot) canyons in Utah in August, nicely close to nature but misting ourselves continually with plant sprayers.
On the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, an icy storm’s wind howled and rain beat against the Brown Bus’s roof while Michael and I sipped wine and listened to soft jazz inside.
“I wonder,” Michael remarked, “how the tent people are doing.”
After nine years I sold the Vanagon to a couple in their 70s who wanted to do some cheap and easy camping.
We upgraded to a new VW Eurovan camper, because we’d reached that point in life where we wanted to have air conditioning and to drive up hills with the flow of traffic. We’ve been rolling with the White Bus for the last dozen years of my three decades of continuous Bus ownership.
When I had to sell that first Bus, I wanted it to go to another young woman who could learn independence and the joy of road travel. A month after I sold it, I saw the mechanic’s girlfriend on the freeway, driving my Blue Bus. I honked and cheered.
That’s the way beginner travel is supposed to go.