Volkswagen made my particular Vanagon GL popup camper in 1986. It was a first-class ride in the ‘80s, when freeway speeds were safely under 65 miles-per-hour. The population was about 1/10th of where it is today.
Today, dodging modern cars traveling 90 mph on the freeway seems like the national pastime. Vanagons aren’t fast. They prefer the slower pace of country life and long adventures through winding mountain roads.
She’s off-white in color with only some minor dents and dings and outfitted exactly how a vehicle of this era should be, updated with the best accessories and relatively reliable… at least I thought.
Canada or Bust
Traveling 6,300 miles from our home in Southern California on our way to Canada with this old girl was something special. She’s a real fighter, as she proved by scaling the highest peaks of Oregon, Washington and Vancouver Island with relative ease. Things were going smoothly for a while, except for one particular cloudy afternoon when my wife and I climbed back inside the warmth of her brownish colored interior after a 5 mile hike through a rain forest in Ucluelet BC. I had cranked the ignition. It turned over, and I drove off in the direction of the rented cabin, just east about three miles away. We didn’t get far. Maybe two blocks by my estimate before I heard a noise like finger nails scratching across a chalkboard. Her alternator sheered off its solid metal bracket and whipped like crazy in the engine compartment, tearing off all the belts from the power steering pump to the air conditioning compressor. It crushed my oil dipstick like a toothpick. The red light on the dash went mad, flashing in my face as a reminder to monitor the engine before simply driving, after all, it was a byproduct of 32 year-old technology. I should have known better.
I recovered from my haze, realizing that I was shit out-of-luck in the middle of Vancouver Island’s west side with no one around, except for barking dogs. I had to laugh. Either that or cry. A good laugh made me feel better, so I did.
I believed I had prepared for any mechanical disaster. Every good, well-versed, Vanagon owner is always prepared for a failure of some part or piece. It comes with the territory of owning a vehicle this ancient. My ace-of-spades was in my wallet and I reached for it.
I had the AAA road service card with 200 free towing miles at my disposal. I’d been a member for 21 years. I also had an extra set of engine drive belts stored neatly in a case above the cab. I was feeling better. The voice on the phone at AAA made every attempt to let me know that a flatbed was dispatched to my location. She had a soothing voice. Don’t worry, be happy.
Then it rained. Hard. It came down in buckets as I fumbled around the engine compartment at the back of the Vanagon to determine the extent of the damage. It looked just terrible inside. Better after the engine smoked cleared from burning fan belts. It needed a high-caliber mechanic with a welder for a broken alternator bracket, a part that hasn’t been produced for several decades.
I had pulled off the road with flashers lit up. My wife was up front with our dog Jersey. Jersey is a small female Labrador, black as coal and smart as a whip. She knew something was wrong with dad’s camper van. Jersey that is… Janey did her best to calm the dog, and I struggled to pick up the pieces of metal that had been sheered off the alternator bracket at 4,000 rpm, basically the only component that you don’t want to break on an engine like the German-built Wasserboxer. It doesn’t run so well when the water pump is not turning. At that moment, it couldn’t turn anyways because it had several rubber v-belts melted and wrapped around it tighter than an anaconda.
Another reminder of my predicament was that in less than 12 hours we had to be checked out of the cabin that overlooked a wild, raging river. It was an off-shoot of the even wilder Pacific Ocean. Or so, the locals said. Salmon and bears were everywhere along that river. Or so they say. I watched every day and I never saw a bear, not even an angry spawning fish.
If the rain did anything, it cooled me down. Janey was calm, which helped tremendously. She decided to walk back to our cabin with Jersey while I waited for the tow vehicle. Rain on Vancouver Island is often no more than a light falling during the summer months that we had been there, but not on this day. The cloudy sky opened up and let loose, fortunately, Janey had a rain slicker and Jersey had fur. Did you know that Labs have two layers of fur?
How could I have been so un-prepared? Well, things happen and for now anyway, I concentrated on finding a fix, at least to get us back to civilization, which was miles away on the other side of Vancouver Island.
Night had fallen when the tow truck arrived. The driver had an attitude. I could sense it the moment he stuck out his chest and refused to engage in small talk. He was late for pizza dinner at home and I was an inconvenience. I quickly called around and found one of “two” automotive repair shops nearby. It was open and agreed to take a look at the Vanagon that night, if I could get it there before it closed. I didn’t have much of a choice. I suffered through the ride as Mr. Personality spent his time on his cell phone talking to his pizza connection.
Only His Second Vanagon
The tow truck arrived at Ukee Automotive Service, which was on the outskirts of Ucluelet. This quaint village was a major hiking destination for travelers from around the world. Not a great place to breakdown, but a wonderful place to fill your lungs with clean air.
Things could have been worse, I convinced myself, as the tow truck driver pulled up to the repair shop. That’s when the proprietor, Greg, came out and immediately shouted over the torrential downpour, “This is only the second Vanagon I’ve ever worked on.” He laughed. Not the news I wanted to hear. He had just opened his shop two months prior, and I had to trust that he alone would get us back on the road and home again, thousands of miles away. Good luck.
The trip to Vancouver Island was planned months in advance. We had already spent many weeks camping in the Olympics in Washington and along the coast of Oregon, much of it for only $10 per night thanks to the National Parks Service. That’s the great thing about Vanagon campers, these are self-contained vehicles, complete with stove, frig, running water and an upper and lower bed. Again, Vanagons are slow as pure thick maple syrup. But if you’ve looking for a way to cut out hotel expenses, while living under the stars, it’s the way to travel. Think small though. Inside it’s only a little bigger than a walk in closet.
The Next Morning
I was up at 5 a.m. the next morning, waiting for my $70 taxi to the nearest car rental agency in Tofino. With the Vanagon at the repair shop, I figured it might take a week before Greg figures out how to get us out of this mess. Vanagon parts can be rare as chicken’s teeth. Unless he was a magician, it would be a long, long week.
Boy was I wrong. After renting the car I putted into his shop and heard the familiar tune of a four-cylinder engine. The sound of my Vanagon. ALIVE. He had fixed it. “Up since 5 a.m.,” he crowed loudly over the engine’s idle. I texted my wife. She was shocked as was I and Greg assured us his early morning welding job would work and get us back home. And true to his word, it did. We traveled from Ucluelet to Vancouver then ferried into Seattle and crossed the upper half of Washington onto its Eastern side on our return home. Then onto the Sierra range down Highway 395 for hundreds of miles, past all the ghost towns and wobbly antique shops and finally into Southern California.
Two months on the road. 6,300 total miles. 17.5 miles-per gallon, a bruised ego and a battered bank account. The only thing that came out unscathed was that little AAA road service card I keep in my wallet.