The Little Bug that Could

Michael Frankel
Jan 18, 2015 · 18 min read

It takes a “long form” to appreciate a long journey. . . . Although I make my home in Florida on a small sailboat, it is not the only magic carpet with which I explore and experience the world. All voyages, short hops from port to port, long passages across an ocean, or cross-country drives somehow reaffirm my existence in the cosmic scheme of places and times. I have come to realize that it is not the boat or car but the voyage and lifestyle that became the end goal. This point was brought home on one very long car cruise.

It was 1995. My daughter called from Los Angeles — only eleven quick phone clicks away but months by sailboat. She asked, “How do you feel about becoming a grandfather?”

“Great news,” I said. “Fantastic. I’ll be there.”

Jokingly, I accepted the philosophy that a chicken is an egg’s way of making another chicken. And with a little help from my daughter, I was passing on my DNA. What could be more important?

The event was worthy of a special adventure―a land cruise. I quickly changed magic carpets, doubled up the mooring lines on Sabra in anticipation of the upcoming hurricane season, and dusted off my aging 1978 VW convertible Beetle. I donned a floppy sailing hat, put down the top and headed west under the scorching Florida summertime sun and humidity.

The day before I left, the New York Times ran a story on the ad agency that was taking over the VW of America account. The new campaign, Fahrvergnügen, was said to “present driving as a metaphor for a fun life.” The ads would chide rival cars as confining and soul deadening. VW hoped to attract an exclusive club of enthusiasts who “take a stick-shift perspective in a world overrun by automatic transmis­sions.” It went on to suggest that driving VWs was “about having kids, not becoming your parents. Technology that invigorates never isolates.” VW was looking for drivers.

They were beckoning me to hit the road. I was the driver VW was looking for, except that I probably disappointed their financial plans by holding on to my twentysomething-year-old Super Beetle.

Louisiana. The Bug and I completed our first day on the road. We were doing just fine and good company for each other — old and tough. So far the top was down and I was trying for a new all-time-personal-best in top-down driving. My last record was Washington, D.C., to Maine in the early ’80s. Both car and I were much younger then.

While chugging along at 60 MPH, in the slow lane of Interstate 10, everyone passed the Bug and me — eighteen wheelers, Winnebagos, and folks in their tinted-window, cruise-controlled, air-conditioned machines. I did not have to worry about the police. They also passed me regular­ly.

When it rains — which it seems to do for a few minutes every few hours along the humid Gulf Coast — passersby honked and smiled as I waved back oblivious to the raindrops flying over­head harmlessly in my slipstream. I realized that sitting in the open, behind the wheel under a wide-brimmed, canvas hat, is not so different from being in the cockpit of my boat, especially in a heavy breeze and exposed to passing thunderstorms.

I brought along a small Styrofoam cooler mainly for water, but I found that even in the ninety-degree heat and humidity I still preferred McDonald’s coffee. It was early in the trip. Maybe the cooler might come in handy in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico.

Texas. I drove for two hot days across Texas, and I was still several hours away from El Paso and the New Mexico border. The daytime temperatures under the blazing sun were in the high nineties and low 100s. Buzzards were doing slow sweeping circles in the thermals, and “dust devils” danced all over the parched desert floor.

Florida and its humid panhandle took over ten hours to cross. Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana just flew by, mostly on roads elevated over the wetlands of the Mississippi delta. But Texas was another story. A very long story.

Somewhere in East Texas, I bested my continuous top-down driving record. I decided to go for the VW Convertible Hall of Fame and try for a complete cross-country trip in the top-down Bug.

I continued to feel the close similarity between the con­vertible and an open-boat cockpit. Outside of San Antonio the rolling hills reminded me of long, gentle ocean swells. Every time one was crested I had an uninterrupted, 360-degree view of a far-off horizon. The puffy white cumulus clouds could just as well have been over Caribbean islands as this scruffy, dry desert landscape. Earlier, traffic jams around Houston slowed to a crawl in the blazing afternoon heat, just like a windless summer day in the humid stillness of the Gulf of Mexico.

America’s cultural diversity whizzed by on large imposing billboards. It was the land of Cajun Kwik Deli, then Tamale Kitchen, and Hitching Post Cafe. No New York bagels here. Gun racks were more common, and the American flag along with the Christian cross were prominent on the backs of trailer trucks. Portraits of Jesus decorated wheel covers. Displays of patriotism and devotion did not make big trucks less ominous, especially when they zoomed into my rear view mirror growing larger by the second, and looking like they were bent on squashing this little Bug. One of them almost sent me flying out of my seat belt as the driver blew his giant air horn directly over me. I made a mental note to bring along a powerful marine fog horn next time and return the loud discourtesy, decibel for decibel.

I stopped at a McDonald’s that featured a 1959 Corvette permanently displayed on a platform in the dining area. The walls of the restaurant were covered with posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bogart, and Elvis. Opposite the Corvette, in another prominent display, was an original Wurlitzer jukebox with a stack of 45s. Someone pushed “Wake Up Little Suzie” by the Everly Brothers. It brought back memories and a private smile. (My one brush with fame was being Don Everly’s brother-in-law for a short while.)

I finished the McChicken and ordered a large coffee to go. I was trying to fool my body into thinking the piping hot coffee was to ward off the cold outside. It worked. It also kept the camels away.

As I approached the car, a Buddhist monk wrapped in a bright saffron-colored robe, with shaved head and sandals, was standing in the parking lot admiring my Beetle through thick horn-rimmed glasses. He smiled as I got in. I returned his appreciation of the car with a wave as I drove away. What do you say to a Buddhist monk acknowledging a modern-day classic?

I saw only one other top-down convertible on the road so far. I guess you had to be crazy to do this in the middle of summer along the southern route. A sailing buddy, retired from the Navy and sailing around the world on his boat, said in a recent letter, following his heart bypass operation, “Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional.”

I got up before dawn to make my last push through Texas and into New Mexico. Early in the morning was refresh­ingly crisp in high desert country as I wrapped my hands around a hot cup of coffee. The sun’s rays peered over the mountains behind me and painted the ones in front fiery red. Clear desert air and the stark beauty of the surrounding mesas and sharp peaks made me forget the twenty grueling hours it took to cross this huge state.

Near El Paso, I saw green vegetation for the first time in two days, and closer to the border I saw a thin blue ribbon of water, the Rio Grande River. On the other side lay the same brown landscape but in another country, Mexico. I also saw quite a few border patrol vehicles on the road: a reminder of the vexing immigration issues between our countries.

New Mexico. The state was a big blur through my insect-splattered windshield. Somehow the monotony of ruler-straight roads under a relentless desert sun mesmerized me. I remembered little of this state except for a couple of interesting highway signs. One said, “Prisons in area. Do not pick up Hitch-hikers.” I wondered how many prison breaks they get to warrant the numerous signs. The other one read, “Bridge may ice in cold weather.” That one was amusing in the heat, but I realized winter was quite a bit colder in this extreme desert climate.

A few days earlier a radio newscast covered the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the atom bomb blast in the New Mexico desert. It was easy to see why they chose this bleak countryside.

Arizona. It got even hotter as the Bug and I dropped into the low desert. Somewhere east of Tucson, the Bug refused to start following a normal gas stop. After several futile attempts, I asked if there was a mechanic around. Almost all gas stations on the Interstate have replaced mechanics with racks of snack foods and drinks. However, with the help of a few phone numbers from a friendly attendant, I located a retired mechanic who used to convert VWs into desert dune buggies. He and his son graciously interrupted their Sunday lunch plans and towed me to their shop. A loose electrical connec­tion was found in the fuel pump and mended. I was ready to roll again. The mechanic kiddingly offered to convert my car into a dune buggy as long as I was in town. I thanked him profusely for his Sunday assistance, declined politely on the offer for a desert fox conver­sion, and took off once more into the furnace heat.

I bought the car new in 1978 — the last year Germans made the Super Beetle. With its fake-wood dashboard, maroon metal-flaked paint, tan top, and white vinyl interior, it was called their Champagne Edition. It was a classic before it even rolled off the Wolfsburg assembly line. It was still in very good shape, except for rusting exhaust and heater systems. I had some repairs made to the exhaust pipes in Florida before leaving, but new holes were opening up all the time. It sounded more like a German panzer than a limited edition Volkswagen.

As I hit the desert floor and dry lakebeds of Arizona and California, temperature soared to 126 degrees (53 Centigrade). Fortunately, at highway speed, with a Walkman in my ears, behind dark sun­glasses, and under my big, wide-brimmed, floppy canvas hat all was pleasant and comfortable. I was still drinking hot coffee and occasionally sipping from a water bottle. I was not sweating but I assumed fluids were rapidly evaporating from my body in the extremely dry air. I also ate lots of salted pretzels to compen­sate for loss of salt. In spite of the loud roar coming from such a little engine, the air-cooled Bug was also doing fine.

California. Five days after leaving Florida I arrived in hazy, smoggy LA. For the last few hours there was no more scenery except for eight lanes of freeway traffic and a solid wall of roadside business establishments.

I arrived with plenty of time to spare for the big event. My future grandchild was taking his or her time arriving. With time on my hands, I set out to explore West Los Angeles to see how it had changed since I left more than thirty-years ago.

Brentwood. I spent at least one to two hours every morning reading the New York Times from cover to cover while munching New York‑style bagels and sipping designer coffee. The weather was absolutely perfect for sitting at an outdoor café watching the beautiful people of West LA pass by. Between glances at terrific looking bodies in studied, casual attire, I read horrific reminders of the fiftieth anniversary of bombing Hiroshima and the current ethnic migrations of Serbs and Bosnians. It all contributed to the surrealism of this city.

I walked the beaches and pier of Santa Monica gawking at the ethnic mix that now makes up Los Angeles. Southeast Asian radio stations are common, I heard beach goers speaking Russian, and at the local sidewalk newsstand alongside the Los Angeles Times are twenty-five foreign language papers.

One evening I took a walk around the neighborhood I once lived in back in the sixties. I spotted a house and yard fes­tooned with yellow police ribbons. As I cautiously approached on the opposite side of the street I asked an elderly man walking his dog what was going on.

He looked at me like I had just dropped in from outer space and said, “That was Nicole Simpson’s house.”

Days later I drove by the same spot and saw several tourists taking ghoulish pictures of themselves in front of the infamous crime scene. Of course, they knew exactly what the yellow ribbon was all about.

I found a juice bar serving wheatgrass, ginseng, oat bran, tofu, bee pollen, and carob concoctions to satisfy all your amino acid and vital enzyme needs. “If you’re green inside, you’re clean inside,” read their menu. A nearby bagel place offered eighteen varieties of bagels and cautioned customers to “protect your bagels, cover them with lox.” A small carry out oriental kitchen called itself WOK FAST. And where else would people drive an incredibly long, stretch limousine with gold lettering spelling H-U-M-M-E-R on its super-wide tailgate. The Hard Rock Café had a huge sign overhead with a clock counting the lost acres of rain forest every minute. Los Angeles is a fascinating study in trends, many of which quickly disappear or spread nationwide and across oceans. Contrary to Woody Allen’s assertion that “LA’s only contribution to culture was the right turn on red,” its culture travels far and well.

And there was plenty of reality around, including a man sprawled on the sidewalk along the Santa Monica pier in smelly, tattered clothes propping up a crudely worded cardboard sign: Why lie. I need a drink.

The waiting was over. The big day finally arrived. My grandson took his first breath and became my first grandchild. All was well with the world. It was time to head back to Sabra and the sea.

Sausalito. The San Francisco Bay area provided a brief stopover to see more family and friends and take a short sailing break on the Bay. It was a picture-perfect day. Winds were blowing twenty to thirty knots and the normal summertime fog mercifully stayed far offshore in the Pacific. Sailing along the backdrop of the San Francisco skyline, around Alcatraz Island, and in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge is an experience like no other. It was my first time sailing in the Bay, a memora­ble event and an important addition to my “life list” of waters sailed.

Nevada. After one last designer coffee at Starbucks in Sausalito, I headed east on Route 80 over the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains and into the wild west of Reno, Nevada. I thought I might stay a night in Reno, but one slow drive around the town center and I knew I was not meant for this place. Too many ostentatious hotels, honky-tonk casinos, garish neon signs . . . . I had fallen in love with small towns and open spaces.

Outside Reno, Route 50 leaves the faster and more popular Interstate 80 and heads east across the high desert of Nevada. It’s called “The Loneliest Road in America,” and it lives up to the accolade. At 7 a.m., with the sun just rising, I experienced the same desola­tion as daybreak far out at sea―mile after mile of loneliness. The road ran straight and seemed to dissolve into a shimmering horizon. It alternately climbed over 7,000-foot mountain passes and dipped into long, flat desert valleys and dry lakebeds.

Sometimes thirty minutes would pass without sighting another car in either direction. Even radio reception was poor. I missed the daily news. The Balkan conflict was replaced with you-stomped-on-my-heart-and-left-me-wailing-like-a-branded-calf country music. The longest stretch I’ve ever driven between McDonald’s coffee refills was on lonely Route 50.

In Fallon, a one-casino village, I found a tanning salon (in the desert???) and a well-stocked pawnshop next to my motel. I went in to browse; more curious about what people pawned to gamble than about seeing them gamble. I was pleasantly surprised to find a folding, stainless steel bicycle, the kind normally stored on cruising boats. The price was right, and I bought it, wondering about the luckless owner so far from the ocean.

Colorado. The desolate beauty of Nevada flowed right into the picturesque landscape of Utah. Nature has carved some dramat­ic scenery with nothing more than wind and water and lots of time. Lots and lots of time. Every crest revealed a new panorama with a foretaste of what the great parks of Canyonlands, Zion, and Bryce had to offer.

“Eagles on Highway,” read one road sign. Motels were adver­tising rooms with a horse stall for an extra $10. Three-stage trailer trucks — twenty-six wheelers — were routinely passing the Bug, blotting out the landscape for a moment, and raising a small hurricane in their wake. I was in the Wild West.

The snowcapped Rockies slowly took shape and we started rising through the Colorado foothills. I passed deep winding ravines and rushing white-water rivers as the low desert bareness gave way to evergreen trees.

In Dillon, Colorado, I gave the Bug a short rest to cool the engine before tackling the continental divide, the highest point along our route. I fueled up with high-test gasoline and lingered over a large coffee at the local McDonald’s.

Across from me in a booth sat a western-dressed, middle-aged couple. After neatly arranging the food in front of them and removing the tray, they bowed their heads, clasped hands across the booth, and said grace. Then they dove into their Big Macs and fries. It seemed pleasantly out of place to see this moment of tranquility and quiet reflection amid the frenzied pace of a fast food restaurant. Praise the Lord and pass the ketchup. Quickly.

The moment of truth arrived for the Bug. It started up Route 6 to Loveland Pass and over the Atlantic-Pacific continental divide. The Little Bug That Could painfully chugged up the winding mountain road, past Keystone Lodge, past the tree-line, past the Arapaho Basin ski slopes. At times we were going no more than 20 MPH. I could almost hear the engine between gasps for air desperately wheezing: Ich denke, ich kann’s. Ich denke, ich kann’s. Ich denke, ich kann‘s.

We made it. The I-think-I-can Bug and I were on top. It was cool and overcast but a beautiful moment to appreciate and remember. It was all downhill from here, all the way to Florida and the sea.

Kansas. East of Denver the road turns absolutely flat all the way through Kansas. This must be where the Flat Earth Society got its start. My mind started to drift in and out of reality. “Should I stop to get an oil change? Good idea. Maybe I’ll meet a pair of Swedish twins hitching a ride to Topeka, the big city.”

A car pulling a boat trailer brought me back to reality. The boat, an ocean-going Nor’Sea 27, was called Dad’s Dream, with a Platte River, Missouri, hailage. Dad had a long way to go to fulfill his dream.

I passed an enormous bean field. The farmer planted a large sign along the road: Happiness is a crock of beans.

As I neared eastern Kansas, the landscape developed a gentle roll, a prelude to the low hill country of Missouri and Tennessee. It was really time for an oil change. I found a gas station with a mechanic who knew something about VW Beetles. He said, “’round here we convert ’em to rail riders.” They strip the bodies and weld a huge roll bar to the frame for off-road driving — not much different from dune buggies out west. Fortunately for me, the Beetle technology has survived and satisfied a lot of varied driving interests. It was no trouble maintaining the car with expert and knowledgeable help. I noticed, however, that most of the mechanics, who knew something about these Bugs, were getting on in years, just like the cars.

Georgia. Nearing Atlanta seemed like a warm-up act for Florida. Not only did it start feeling as damp as a Floridian mangrove swamp, the highway advertisements kept blaring out discount deals and information on Florida’s tourist attractions — Discounts for Disney.

If kudzu is not the Georgia State plant, it should be. For mile after mile along the roadway this creepy vine seems to have strangled every tree, bush, fence post, and abandoned structure in its path leaving behind eerily shaped green monsters―nature’s idea of a creepy topiary garden.

Close to Atlanta I met the remnants of a hurricane, which had recently battered Florida with torrential rains. The speed of the Bug was no longer sufficient to blow off the rain overhead. And the large tires of passing trucks spewed water from the roadway into my face. I was wiping the inside of the windshield as fast as the wipers were going on the outside. The Bug and I both missed the dry deserts of Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. It was time to give up on the top-down adventure. “Who were we to blow against the wind [and rain]?”

I stopped early for one last night on the road. I was tired from straining to see through the rain, and I even felt sorry for the Bug. I was growing fond of this aging hunk of metal, rubber, and vinyl. We were two old throwbacks tied together in a rapidly modernizing automatic-transmission, power-steering world.

Florida. The Bug and I rolled into the Tampa Bay area still under waves of thunder­storms, alternating downpours with steamy sunshine. You could almost see the recently dropped rain rising off the pavement as steam. The grand tour of the union was coming to an end. We covered seventeen states in 6,000 miles. The top was down for 5,300 of those miles — a new personal-all-time-best. I consumed seventy-five cups of coffee on the road, almost all of them McDonald’s secret, piping-hot recipe. I averaged eighty miles per cup. The longest dry run between McDonald’s restaurants was 258 miles from Fallon to Eli, Nevada on Route 50. Along with the coffee, I ate six dozen granola bars and countless pretzels.

The Bug consumed about 240 gallons of gasoline, and eight quarts of oil at three oil changes. We drove on eight Interstate Highways of the more than five dozen major highways that crisscross the country on the Eisenhower Interstate System. We managed without a single serious mishap, save for a loose wire in Arizona and a stuck starter solenoid and leaky oil cooler seals, which were replaced in California.

Back on board my boat again it was time to reflect on the land cruise and polish the adventure journal. Besides at­tempting to set an inter-galactic record for long distance, top-down driving in a Champagne Edition Super Beetle, the real motivating force for this adventure was the birth of my first grandchild.

By the time he is able to read this journal, the Volks­wagen Company may have been downsized out of existence and the word beetle may be nothing more than a small creature scurrying around on many legs. People will probably be deconstructed and beamed across galaxies on laser highways. But I hope he gets a chance to relive his grandfather’s cruising adventure, and most of all, pass this journal on to his grandchildren.

_________

Postscript: After completing my nationwide mega-tour of McDonald’s restau­rants, I decided that I needed a McD’s hat to commemorate the adventure. I stopped at eight McDonald’s in the Florida area and basically got the same brusque answer from managers, “These hats are part of the uniform. They’re not for sale.”

With several hundred thousand employees and a very high turnover rate among burger-flippers, there must be millions of these “exclusive” hats all over the world. It did not seem unrea­sonable to think that I earned one after seventy-five coffee pit stops. I wrote the President of McDonald’s, offering to trade my story — with glowing references to the restaurant chain — for a hat.

His people replied to my people:

“We’re delighted to know that McDonald’s played such a big role in your cross country road trip on the way to meeting your first grandson. What an exciting and memorable time it must have been for you. The anticipation and joy you must have felt at becoming a grandfather is a time I’m sure you’ll always remember, and your ‘ode’ is a wonderful way for your grandson to know how excited you were to make your ‘extraordinary trip across the United States.’

Because you made McDonald’s such a big part of an exciting time in your life, all of us in the office here felt you deserve a ‘Golden Arches Good Taste Award.’ In addition, please treat yourself to a meal ‘on us’ with the enclosed gift certificates as you enjoy your new hat.”

I also sent the President of Volkswagen Group of America a courtesy copy of my cross-country log. I was not looking for a new VW, just wanted to share my appreciation for a fine car.

His people also replied to my people:

“At first I casually glanced at the copy, somewhat intimidated by the length. But after reading the first couple of paragraphs, I could immediately see that this required a more lengthy review. So, like you, I drove to McDonald’s to get a large cup of their piping-hot coffee, settled into my chair, and enjoyed your travels across this great country of ours.

By the way, I checked the record and you DID surpass the inter-galactic record for top-down driving in a Champagne Edition Super Beetle (the previous record was only 2,147 miles and a mere thirty-eight cups of coffee).

Congratulations on the new grandchild and here’s to many more happy miles in your ’78 Beetle. P.S. Please accept the enclosed [VW key ring] as a token of our appreciation for your interest and patronage in Volkswagen!”

Surprisingly, both companies answered with personal letters. Who said Corporate America was impersonal and lacked a sense of humor?

Snowbird from Bavaria

Migrations between a small farming village in Bavaria and a Gulf of Mexico port on the west coast of Florida — the Sunshine State

Michael Frankel

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A snowbird from Bavaria

Snowbird from Bavaria

Migrations between a small farming village in Bavaria and a Gulf of Mexico port on the west coast of Florida — the Sunshine State