In the early spring of 1978 I bought a Volkswagen camper-bus. My wife and I loved to camp, and there was the vehicle’s countercultural allure. In our hitchhiking days we saw one coming and knew it would surely stop for us. But I might have bought it because it was bright red. I wish I could find a photo of it.
A summer love affair with a flimsy VW camper-bus.
After years of faithful service, my VW squareback had developed some major problem not worth fixing. Not long after selling it for a pittance, I came across the camper-bus near my office in Twin Falls, Idaho. It was at a one-man auto-repair shop that specialized in foreign cars. The proprietor was installing the engine, which, he told me, he had just rebuilt and power-washed. I said he would sell it for a price I cannot remember now, but he acted like it would be snapped up soon. He was probably right, and he had a beard like mine and was a natural-born salesman. His name was Steve. Why are so many car mechanics named Steve? Oh, and he had just repainted it, too — red. I bought it.
There followed months of return visits to Steve. The “like new” air-cooled engine went through oil like [insert clever simile here]. It burned, and leaked, a lot of oil, especially in hot weather. There also were shock problems, ball-joint problems, wheel-bearing problems, and electrical problems. There were some heated negotiations over repair bills. But we kept the faith, and actually had some very good times with Ruby. Because we never learned the history of the bus, we named her Ruby Tuesday. Not really, but that would have made a better story.
The bus was definitely an older model; the only part of the roof that popped up was a 3-foot-square hatch of white fiberglass, with accordion-like sides. When it was extended, one adult could stand upright beneath it. Two if they were kissing. It had a little fold-out linoleum table and built-in benches — a cute nook for meals. Cate made red curtains, and brightened up the walls with red-and-white-checkered contact paper. The finishing touch was a bumper sticker with red lettering on a white background: “QUESTION AUTHORITY”.
Driving it scared me a bit, not just because I was just behind the tinny front of the bus and a friend of ours was still in a long-term coma after a head-on collision in her VW bus, but also because the whole thing felt like a toy. The wobbly gearshift, which went down to the floor, was so thin that it seemed like it could break right off if I shifted wrong. The front wheels were so far forward that a tiny flick of the wrist could cause a fatal rollover, perhaps end over end. Potholes were to be studiously avoided. The body was so light and caught so much wind on the highway that Cate and I learned to slow down and carefully compensate with the steering wheel whenever we came to an underpass.
On one memorable camping trip we were all alone (with our one-year-old son) in a deep canyon, next to the Snake River in what is now called the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. On the way there, we decided to check out a mountain ghost town named Silver City. The road quickly turned from pavement to dirt. Although the track was still fairly flat, I remember wishing the tires were wider and the chassis higher. Off to the left we saw two cowboys branding calves. They were heating the branding irons in a simple campfire. Their horses waited nearby. It could have been a scene from a hundred years in the past. Just ahead, the road went into the woods, and up. Soon, the angle was extreme. Still worse, the road changed from dirt to nothing but talus — loose, spherical rocks, each a little smaller than your head. I gunned the engine to keep going, and up we went, weaving as the tires struggled for purchase and tipping from side to side like some runaway stagecoach, for about half an hour. Most of the time, there was a steep, snowy drop-off on the left. The sound of the rocks clattering reminded me of a Maine beach in a storm. Cate said, “If we tip over, I’ll either divorce you or kill you; I’m not sure which.”
We made it to the summit grateful, not dead. We explored the town, through patches of snow. I drove very slowly back down that rocky road, and there was a big a sigh of relief when we felt smooth asphalt beneath us again.
There were other trips, too, of course, and summer turned to autumn. Then one day, when I was driving out-of-state visitors out to see the local falls, I smelled smoke as I pulled into the parking lot. I ran around to the back of the bus, where the engine was. I opened the hatch and saw flames dancing on the wires. It took a couple of deep breaths to blow them out. When we were ready to head home, the bus started right up. But the next day, before I had a chance to call Steve, it happened again. And again. The third time the engine caught fire, I was able to blow out the flames but not able to start it afterwards. We had to call a tow truck. I hate to do that. We decided to get rid of the bus. Instead of paying for another repair, we sold it back to Steve.
That’s not the end of the story. As you might expect, Steve resold the bus. We did not know the new owners, but we saw them one day on our way up to Sun Valley in our other vehicle, Cate’s 1951 Chevy pickup. We saw the bright red bus, pulled off the road with the engine hatch open. Three or four people were standing around looking at it. We didn’t stop.