Breath held. Key poised. The engine turns over. One of the hardest parts about driving an old air-cooled VW Bus is keeping it on the road—the actual asphalt, between the yellow and white lines. The wind caused by any large truck or boxy vehicle as it passes you in the other lane is enough to knock the bus sideways onto the shoulder. If it’s a semi coming down the hill as you’ve just picked up speed, hold on! Clench fits to that huge steering wheel, stay within those painted lines and out of the ditch. I call it land sailing, driving the broadside of a barn.
This broad barn of a vehicle is white and rust-colored. My grandfather sent me a photo that showed the once smooth, white of its youthful exterior in the 1960’s. After many years in the humid, salted winters of the Midwest, it’s a miracle the whole floor hasn’t given out as it has in some parts, but we step over those spots. It is now in middle age, settled and worn—perhaps even battle-scarred—its headlights still maintaining that eager Volkswagen face, waiting for the next adventure.
One of my earliest memories of the bus as a child was camping along the Elkhorn River in Nebraska. Our family split up and slept in the camper-ready sleeping spaces, the big bed made from the bench seat, the canvas cot suspended over the driver’s seat, and the best spot of all: the pop up. My younger brother would crawl up there as if in a tree fort. I took the cot that hung over and across the dashboard. During these hot summer days the yellow seat vinyl warmed up and smelled of like the sun and of plastic, wood, dust and oil. These are the smells of the bus. These are the smells of home.
This bus is one of the few constants from my childhood that is still with me today. Even if, now, the mustard yellow of the vinyl seats is faded, the thin, wooden ceiling panels is falling down in strips. The dash is still “cherry” according to a couple VW guys I know, the card table we used to eat at while camping still props up as it always did. I remember road trips in this bus, especially the one where the bumper was ripped off from trying to haul a trailer. It was welded back on by a farmer but is crooked now, speckled with rust and in need of attention. But the bus is still with me.
Gone is our childhood home in Hadar, Nebraska; we moved from there to a small peninsula in northern Wisconsin, called Door County, when I was 14. Gone now, too, is that home in Jacksonport; I moved out of there for college and eventually Missoula, Montana. Mom and Dad have their own apartment now in Green Bay. No childhood bedrooms with old movie posters or secret stashes. No old kid’s bikes getting cobwebs in the garage. But when I sit in the bus, I am transported back to childhood or those years in high school when it sat in our driveway, or was taken over by my brother’s shenanigans. We all camped in it together for those rare summer weekends as children, and then we all have our stories of learning to drive it, secretly smoking in it, and driving it across country. And we’ve kept it. Kept those family stories, those individual stories, too. And it’s kept us. Not letting go. The fold out table where we played cards is now claimed as my writing space; the old ripped driver’s seat is now covered by a soft, lambs wool seat cover— the rocks on the dashboard I put there from my many adventures out west.
On a whim or maybe as a final realization of what I had been telling him for years, that Missoula was a good place for the bus, my dad decided to give me the Volkswagen for my college graduation gift. Volkswagen enthusiasts come out of the woodwork with their own stories when you drive a distinctive old bus such as mine. In a VW documentary, shown in a Missoula once, was story about a man who said he made a sign delineating what he charges people who approach him to talk about his rig: $1.00 if you want tell him about your bus from college, $2.00 if you want to tell him about your dad’s VW, or $5.00 if you want to tell him how to refurbish or redo this bus. I have thought about implementing a similar system. I would charge the college students who scream at me and give me the peace sign $5.00 off the bat. I would charge the idiots taking pictures on their camera phones of me while in traffic $2.00 at least. Instead, all I can do is roll my eyes, sometimes flip them the bird, and keep on driving.
I’m not going to restore my mismatched white and rusted-out exterior because I’ve got bigger problems. The steering and the breaks are going out. I can’t let anyone else drive because they will literally brake themselves into on coming traffic or sail right off of a curvy road. There’s a reason my guy friends back home call it the “death trap”—it’s not a safe vehicle—and my dad bequeathed it to me along with the barely-working seat belts and that gaping rectangular hole where the radio used to be. That same little younger brother, who climbed into the pop-up had dreams of installing a real sound system that never met with fruition.
The manual I was given by my parent for my Type II bus and is called: How to Keep your Volkswagen Alive: A Manuel of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat (sic) Idiot, by John Muir. I have been told over and over by various men in overalls to read this manual cover to cover, and I see that it would in fact save me a lot of time and my parents’ money.
“Your Volkswagen is not a donkey but the communication considerations are similar. Your car is constantly telling your senses where it’s at: what it’s doing and what it needs. I don’t speak “donkey” but am fairly conversant in Volkswagen.” It took moving to Iowa for me to actually listen closely to the sounds my Volkwagen made. And to fix the problem of the odometer with a paper clip—to look up how the engine works and to somewhat understand it. I have also learned to always have a headlamp, always have a set of pliers and a screwdriver. Dad left me with some duct tape, some extra hoses for the engine vents. I now know I ought to always have an extra set of oil pan bolts as well. Muir says: “You don’t have to think, but you must love.”
I know the dangers of Volkswagen well. I know that if you hear a weird noise like that whining, screaming, and creaking of the front end tire, not to let it go too long because if you do the bearings for the connecting rod will seize up and break. I almost let this happen. The hubcap on the driver’s side tire got so hot; it burned my leg when I hopped out one day. The driver’s seat is right over the tire, it’s normal to brush against the hubcap, Abnormal to get burned. It was barely fixable, the bearings had grown so hot and bound together that it was almost impossible to get the tire off. I was lucky for a mechanic that day. I was lucky I kept my bike in the bus.
I catch my bus repair ideas and camaraderie on the fly. There was Heady Jon, in Missoula, and his brown Westphalia with the purple-tinted windows and stickers/magnets indicating that he’d been highly involved with the most recent Burning Man, one of the clan, man. He fixed my side mirror in the parking lot of the Albertson’s. He was always extremely friendly and verbose when it came to anything, especially his dreams of owning land or his love for Burning Man. He didn’t work but grew weed instead—why on earth I never smoked with him alludes me. He’d call out from his window, Hey man, nice bus! as I parked in the angled slots of 3rd street along the Clark Fork.
Across the river on Front Street was American-Made Tattoos, and outside of their shop was always a little Green Bug with a driftwood fender, wooden luggage rack and fishing poles bent over the wheel wells. It’s “big brother” was a smooth, white bus with the Wonder Bread primary-colored spots painted all over it. This VW guy left me a homemade “WonderBus” T-shirt once on my driver’s seat, “Nice Bus” he told me. All in two blocks of town; Dad was right. Missoula was the place for our family bus.
But I left this place of VW owners to drive away from the West, a reverse pilgrimage some may say, of the caravans of our ancestors, to find my fortunes, my future, in Iowa. It required a sacrifice to leave Missoula, not only the money sunk into the bus but also my red pack sold for tanks of gas.
This drive to Iowa nearly killed the bus, it was too heavy, too hot and I was in danger of dehydration at least twice, sunburn everyday, going broke constantly and always worn-out nerves. And I don’t exaggerate; the bus did in fact quit and die, multiple times, leaving me stranded; once in the middle of nowhere Montana and again in Billings—the first day of the trip.
The driving had been like the usual sailing: taxing and grueling, swaying down the road as I stayed out of embankments and creeks. Smoke wafted from my engine compartment as I crested the biggest mountain pass of my journey, McDonald Pass, into Helena, an 8 or 9,000 foot pass. I was lucky I hadn’t been stranded here. But the bus waited to die for real a few miles out of town on Hwy 12, just as it became remote, and I pulled into a dirt road and hiked a quarter mile-long driveway—it was at least 100 degrees out, no cell service. The residence at the end of the road filled my jug with cold water and let me use their phone. The bus cooled down on its own. I made it down to the freeway and called a friend in Missoula whose dad could assess the bus in Billings and find me a mechanic.
I called the Golden Beetle when the bus wouldn’t start in the Brown’s driveway and he towed me to the shop and slapped “Band Aids” to help the air-cooled engine get enough air to get me to Iowa. I wish I had thought to install most of these myself, but he was funny and thought my adventure was a hoot.
I wasn’t too surprised when the bus overheated in Wyoming on a windy curve of I-90. I pulled over and opened the hatch for the engine to cool down. I hunkered down, ate trail mix and tried to stay out of the sun. I had the four-way flashers on—but little did I know my key was still in the ignition setting. I’m guessing that and the flashers killed my battery. I dug for the jumper cables while on the phone with anyone I thought could maybe know someone near Gillette WY. There were a couple options. In the meanwhile, I found the cables, utilized the back of my Run Lola Run movie poster as a sign and wrote: “I need a jump!” on the back, begging drivers going ninety miles an hour to please stop and help my obviously aged, barely road-worthy vessel. I stood at the side of the interstate for 45 minutes with the cables draped over my shoulders.
A shirtless man in his mini-bus pulled up to give the bus a jump and get the engine started again. His wife plied me with water and food. The shirtless man was efficient and of few words. As soon as we heard the engine start and got the idle set, by wedging the gas pedal down with a block, he was off and I repacked while it charged. Then it was back down the road, onward, destination: Ames, Iowa.
My first welcome to the Midwestern VW culture was not unlike Heady John’s enthusiasm for my parking prowess. At a Jug ‘N Loaf gas station in Spear Fish, South Dakota, I met a member of an honest-to-god Volkswagon Rescue Squad. He’d restored his own split bus and new exactly by looking my rig up and down for less than 10 seconds I’d been having overheating problems all day. He offered help, advice, camaraderie, and then tools, free mechanical work and a joint. We got along splendly. We fixed by broken speedometer with a paperclip by the light of a cellphone flashlight his girlfriend was kind enough to offer, as well as finding us the paperclip. He explained what checking the points actually meant, because I had not actually understood it when the Gold Beetle guy showed me, and he offered me his number and email address and told me to join his Facebook page, and took a picture of us before I headed down the road. It was smooth sailing from there, and I made it to Ames, Iowa without any more problems.
But I was not at the end of my VW’s troubles once settled in Iowa. The first Iowa road trip for a school project to Ledges State Park proved to be just another Volkswagon adventure. I was making a video of the bus, shots of the road through the windshield, wind through my hair. What I hadn’t counted on was an oil pan bolt coming loose and causing the bus to leak oil for ten miles of out Ames. We pull into the state park’s parking lot just as the oil light comes on, only to then watch as the rest of the oil bled out as if shot. Dying. Furiously, I stomped and swore and pulled out my hair. Why was it doing this? I knew not to turn the engine over and to leave it. I called for a ride, I found a park ranger. We settled in to jerry-rig a plug to fill it back up. The park ranger came and shoveled some cat-litter type gravel over the oil to soak it up. I spent the rest of the evening under the engine, the camera continued to roll. We had a great film in the end. This was a true bus movie, something always happens with a Volkswagon and at least this time I could fix the problem myself.
Our jerry-rigged plug didn’t work and we had to leave the bus overnight. I had never abandoned her like this before and it was tough. But by some twist of fate, I found a bolt that week. I was chatting up my physical therapist who I was seeing twice a week for a dislocated knee cap rehab. He had a sweet little restored bug and I was complaining about my recent bus frustrations. He said he’d bring in a bolt for me; he had extras. Within two days, I hopped a ride back out to the bus, crawled under it and fitted the bolt in. Filled it with oil, she started right back up. Happy to be chugging along, once again.
Taking care of the Volkswagen really is a labor of love. People ask me why or how I put up with this, how is it I drove across the Midwest alone with out a radio in this deathtrap that rattles and whistles and overheats and bleeds oil and creaks and cracks and cost a fortune? Is calling it a family birthright, an heirloom an inheritance—sugar-coating it? Yes and no. It’s easy to be proud that the bus still runs after all of these years—it’s another thing to drive it in the middle of December to a hot spring in Montana, fingers numb around the steering wheel. It’s easy to love the wind in my hair, the sun on my arm, the horizon in the window; it’s another to stand on the side of the road with jumper cables in the scorching heat of Wyoming.
I didn’t know how hard it was to drive the bus. I now understand why mom didn’t like driving it, how tough it was to steer, to keep on the road. How hard you have to hold the pedal for the clutch into the floor. The tricky gearshift. My mom’s sighs when it would stall, or sway or struggle up the hills are my sighs now. The caution my dad drove with as he hauled a car full us around is my caution now as I ease into intersections. The caution of lugging an old, tired and unreliable vehicle up and down roads, up and down the countryside is a family tradition.
Why do I put up with it? Because it’s fun. Figuring out the leak on my own was thrilling and satisfying and an accomplishment I had only dreamed about previously. Not having to tow the bus when it died at Ledges State Park made me feel alive and able to accomplish anything, because I can indeed accomplish anything if I sit and figure out. And that’s why my dad left the bus with me. It’s a project, it’s a story, it’s an adventure and it keeps us connected. Our phone calls invariably start with: “How’s the bus running?” and when it’s running well, it usually means I am too.
Erin Schmiel is an MFA candidate in Iowa State University’s Creative Writing and Environment Program. As a full-time teaching assistant and Blog/Social Media editor at Flyway Journal and Environments, Erin cooks, drives and rides her bike to stay sane.
© 2014, Erin Schmiel