December 11, 2013

MAINE STREAM: Vanagon memories: Breakdowns, chicken pox, baby raccoons

George Smith

We broke down all across the United States and Canada and loved every minute of our epic cross-country trip in our VW Vanagon. So it is with dismay — and a lot of fond memories — that I read an Associated Press story in this newspaper that at the end of this month, production of VW vans will end.

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Must all good things come to an end? Apparently. The real miracle here is that such a flawed vehicle lasted so long.

I purchased my first VW van in my early 20s. The AP story reported the van was “known for its durability but also its tendency to break down.” Now they tell me!

I had to keep a case of oil in the van, often replenishing the engine, which finally blew in South Carolina. This was the original van, more of a bus than a camper. With a good job, I was able to step up to a real camper next, what VW called a Vanagon.

My orange beauty had been purchased in Maine, driven to Alaska and back, and then traded in. It featured a pop-up top with a sleeping area, small stove top, sink and fridge, comfortable couch that folded out into another sleeping area, and an open arrangement that allowed the driver to move to the back without stepping outside.

Divorced, I thought it would be a great idea to take my 5-year-old daughter, Rebekah, to Disney World one year. We drove down, had tons of fun, and I put her on a plane home so she wouldn’t miss any school days. She still has the Delta Wings the stewardess gave her.

The next summer, I hit the road for six weeks with my dog, Riley, making it all the way to California and back with a lot of adventures along the way. Riley would lay on the sink, which enabled him to stick his head out the driver’s side window as he leaned over my shoulder.

Not long after we returned, I met Linda. The first time she got into the camper, she inquired as to why the sink drain was full of dog hair. Oh, well.

Linda and I embarked on a cross-country trip of our own, and that’s when things really started to go wrong with the camper. A faulty solenoid required Linda to get in the driver’s seat and start the engine while I reached under the rear of the van with a fork and poked at the solenoid to get a spark going.

We broke down in the desert, in Yosemite National Park and elsewhere, and when the camper came to a halt in downtown Calgary, Alberta, I decided to see if the local VW garage could finally fix our mounting problems. That turned out to be a lucky breakdown because the Calgary Stampede — the largest rodeo in the world — was just starting, and we spent three days enjoying the rodeo, returning at night to sleep in the camper in the VW garage’s parking lot, awaiting a needed spare part.

My favorite story from that trip was the night we were in a remote section of British Columbia, the only ones in a roadside camping area, when Linda woke me to exclaim, “Someone’s stealing our gas!” I groaned and turned over in bed, but she insisted, so I jumped down into the front of the camper and pulled aside the curtains.

Closing them quickly, I turned to Lin and whispered, “Come down here.” She did and I reopened the curtain so she could see the six baby raccoons hanging on our front bumper. Their mother was in a nearby garbage can, pulling out food.

We had the camper for many years after we married and added Josh and Hilary to our family. Our most memorable trip with the entire family was to Montana, what came to be known as “The chicken pox trip.”

Josh had chicken pox just before we left, Hilary and Linda had it by the time we got to Montana, and Rebekah got it on the way home. I was ready to turn around as soon as we got to Montana, but they all insisted we continue on with the trip.

The AP story noted “The VW van is so deeply embedded in popular culture, it will likely live on even longer in the imagination.” Those of us lucky enough to have owned these remarkable vehicles won’t have to use our imaginations to remember them. We have a van-load of great memories!

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.
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