In the autumn of 2016, Ann and I rented a camper van, and for a couple of weeks tried out the campgrounds of northern California. When it was over, I made some hurried notes in my diary:
I won’t make a campervan trip again. Campgrounds are rough and dirty. Slogging to the distant privy in the cold and rain is unpleasant. My old man’s prostate required several trips a night. We enjoyed some dry sunny weather, but not enough. The final night at an RV site close to the Pacific in Half Moon Bay was especially chilly, wet, and unclean. And we got lost in rush hour traffic trying to find the place. Got up at 4:00 the next morning to beat the traffic getting to the van-rental place. Driving in fog over to 101 was harrowing.
Less than two years later, a truck pulled up in front of our house and unloaded the 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia camper that we had bought online, sight unseen from a dealer in Chicago. On August 1, we’re setting off on a two- or three-month trip around the western United States.
I’m reaching true old age (81), my back is unreliable, and we’re taking BK, who in cat years is about as old as I am and requires daily100ml injections to keep her kidneys working. Nevertheless, I have reasons to believe that this van adventure will be much more to my liking than the earlier one. To be frank, I expect it to be just about perfect; a break from ordinary life, a learning experience, and a foray into moral improvement. (I’ll get back to the last point down the page.) All that’s required is to be Boy-Scout prepared. Besides that, there’s another reason to be optimistic that has nothing to do with preparation.
A VW campervan has a delightful je ne sais quoi that’s not found in a converted Ford panel truck like the one we rented in California.
We climb in, we put on a happy face. Ann becomes the flower child she once was; I, a relatively free spirit.
We spread sunshine all over the place. At our passing, people of a certain age flash peace signs and slip back into the age of Aquarius. Classic-car enthusiasts swoon even if they’ve never heard of Woodstock; the van has the original “Chianti-red” paint, it’s rust-free, it’s in showroom condition.
It’s like we’re out walking a Lab pup. We expect to be surrounded by admiring throngs at campgrounds from Caprock Canyons to Orcas Island. You don’t get much adulation when you show up in a Ford.
In the run-up to the purchase, a smart-ass in-law said, “better get a wrench.” It wasn’t funny. I can hardly distinguish a wrench from a screwdriver. But I’m not worried about the van being road worthy; it’s more mechanically sound than its age suggests.
It’s only got 55,000 miles on it. It came with new tires (white walls, of course) and a new engine that’s twice as powerful as the original. And to prepare for the trip, Tom and Roger, two brothers in Austin who have been working on old VWs for around twenty years, have replaced the starter (a common problem with old VWs) and added improvements to defend against heat. It now has an oil cooler (to prevent burning up the air-cooled engine), and, just in case, an oil temperature gauge with numbers on it instead of an idiot light. To help the geezer and the erstwhile hippy keep the happy faces they put on when climbing aboard, they’ve installed air conditioning.
We fear neither Death Valley nor the Pendleton grade. Anyway, if we should encounter mechanical problems, Tom and Roger will take my phone call and consult with less specialized local mechanics wherever we happen to be.
So, the van should hold up fine despite its age. The same applies to me. I had my third back surgery last January. It stopped my pain, and I’ve been disciplined about physical therapy and conditioning exercises to keep it from returning ever again (or at least not in the next few months). To increase the chances of that, we’ve scheduled motel breaks now and then.
It’s possible we’ve failed to prepare for everything, but I doubt we’ve missed much. I’ve been to Home Depot so many times, the clerks call me by name and inquire enviously about the awesome van and the great adventure we’re about to embark upon. Just yesterday, for example, I went over and bought ratcheted tie-downs to hold things in place on the luggage rack. I also laid in a can of tire inflator, flares, and reflective vests (all of which will surely still be in their display-counter packages when we return to Austin).
Today, we’re going to put sound-proofing material under the front floor mats and above the powerful new engine, the noise of which is about like a Harley with modified pipes. I confess I rather like the way that rumble enhances my manliness, but if we don’t shush the thing, we’ll have to don headsets and talk to each other via blue tooth, which would make it a little hard to sing along with Pete Seeger and that would pretty much spoil the trip.
To accommodate Ann’s mobile law practice and my attempt to get a book out of this excellent adventure (commercially successful, please God), we’ve bought folding chairs that are more comfortable than most and have low-set arms that don’t get in the way of using a laptop. (I’ll play at being Hemingway-on-safari pecking away at a typewriter in the shade of a baobab tree, the yipping of coyotes subbing for simba’s roar. I may buy a bush hat, too, and one of those khaki vests with all those little pockets on the front.)
The clever design of the van offers many comforts of home, including, for example, a pop-up top so you can stand up. That’s no small thing; the van we rented in California didn’t have that feature, and for several weeks after we got home, I was unable to rise to my full height.
It has a fold-out table that has plenty of room for two dinner plates at the same time, making possible happy wilderness dining. It has a seven-gallon water tank, a sink (that admittedly runs water of a quality you’d expect from a forty-eight-year-old receptacle), an ice box, and a power outlet for use at campgrounds that have hookups.
Clever design notwithstanding, a VW van is small. The bunk is as narrow as two people can possibly share, but we remind each other that as recently as thirty years ago we enjoyed sleeping pressed up against each other. But for those nights when that young-love thing doesn’t appeal, we’ll put up a tent, one that is, like the van, cleverly designed. It fits flush against the sliding door but can be detached “easily” for trips to the nearest town for beer and other necessities. Assembly time is said to be about fifteen minutes. We’ve not tried it yet, and I’m skeptical, but before we set out, we’re going to put it up and take it down and put it up and take it down until we can manage it the way a GI does his rifle. I’m shooting for fourteen minutes flat. And the thing is big. There are people in New York City who live in smaller apartments than it.
We’ve bought his and her urinals.
The trip will have occasional problems, of course. But as I’ve already mentioned, we’re prepared. One example. We are really good at getting lost, incomparably so, one might say. Never mind that. We’re going to rely entirely on paper maps; a GPS would violate the spirit of this thing that is coming to pass. Then – having put on the armor of mellowness – when we do get lost, we will declaim dramatically the words of G. K. Chesterton that we’ve pasted on the dashboard. “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.”
To this point in our lives, such sang froid has been absent. We are good at being impatient and anxious and pissed off – that sort of thing – but detachment has not yet made an appearance. And that takes us back to the point about the trip offering moral improvement. I figure if we can manage to believe Chesterton’s dictum wholeheartedly when we’re facing off against grizzlies and heavily-armed survivalists in northern Idaho or some other such trial, we may be able to do that now and then after we get back home, in which case we’ll be better people, and the trip will have been more than mere pleasure.
So, hi ho, hi ho, it’s on the road we go. We’re off to see the wizard. Perhaps by way of Never Never Land. Maybe even Narnia.
If I can manage to make them interesting, dispatches from the road are forthcoming. Maybe shorter and more frequent than the usual Geezer offerings. Remember, the delete key can be your friend.