The year: 1978, The season: Late summer. The sound track: Grease.
Since I’ve been a child I’ve been fascinated with the idea of living in a trailer. When the opportunity presented itself in 1978 to travel cross-country from the East Coast to the West Coast, I immediately warmed to the idea. Especially once I saw our vehicle,a bright orange Volkswagen camper with a small fridge, plaid curtains, small counter and table, all built-in. Adorable! Yes!
That 1973 Volkswagen camper van seemed to fit the bill for a cross-country jaunt with our young family. Our kids were going into Kindergarten, 3rd and 6th grade. All reasonable ages for such an adventure, we figured.
The camper had a sling that went across the front seats when parked. It seemed a perfect sleeping place for my youngest daughter. Only later did we realize it was a few inches too short for her. The van had a pop up top and slept two in the back when the back seat opened up to a snug, uncomfortable double bed. We added a small tent to the mix for either ourselves or two of our daughters. Many nights we watched in dismay from our tent as the van lurched back and forth as the sisters fought it out. There were always three kids waiting to be fed in the morning.
Neither of us had ever camped, but we soon got set up with the help of a salesman in a well equipped camping store. My husband had been a boy scout so I figured he must know what he needs to know. We packed a few boxes of clothes and household goods to take with us, stocked the mini fridge, went to AAA to get our maps and set off.
When I announced our travel plans to my parents it was as if I’d told my mother we were driving off alone in a covered wagon through Indian country. She looked shocked and unsettled. She made me promise I would call her every night from the road to let her know we’d survived another day of potential Indian assaults. My husband quickly nixed that arrangement. Remember this was before cell phones, emails, etc. and finding a public phone each night was not guaranteed. I promised to send postcards. I think she doubted that she’d ever see us again when we waved goodbye.
As you’ve probably suspected, our trip had its ups and downs. We immediately got soaked to the skin our first night out in a campground in Thousand Islands, NY. We found ourselves surrounded by a half-inch of water in our tent, our bed rolls and sleeping bags just barely above the water line. That grim start was followed by a glorious ferry ride across Lake Ontario where we hung everything out to dry, and somehow it did. We now felt like veterans.
One of our daughters became immediately enamoured with the idea of sleeping in a Holiday Inn holidome. After the first rain-soaked night, she quickly determined that camping was not that much fun and that if she pushed, she could do better. She only wanted a pool and private bathroom.
Holiday Inns were heavily promoted in the AAA travel book that we foolishly provided to her for reading material to pass the hours. Every day she lobbied for a motel in which to spend the night. We quickly determined that a motel every few nights was probably an excellent idea, so every few days we let her find our evenings’ destination. After a day on the road, life was a lot simpler in a motel rather than a campground for a family of five. At least for our family!
We bribed the kids with lots of donuts as I remember. Every morning wherever we could find them, we bought a dozen donuts to keep the troops quiet. We did our best to stay off interstates and a newly published book by Jane and Michael Stern, called Road Food, became our bible. A recommended restaurant would seem like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow after a long day of driving. I studied restaurants and my daughter studied motels. Snacks came out about 4pm. Roadfood worked out about 40% of the time. Often, we’d drive for miles only to find the recommended restaurant closed. But we lived in hope of a great evening meal. That became the focus of each day. Forever foodies.
One night the weather was so bad that we all somehow slept together in the van, finally falling asleep from pure exhaustion. I’d never experienced such a long and violent storm system. Lightning and thunder and hail crashed around us the entire night, but we were safe and dry.
Earning our stripes
Another night, leaving a campground in the early morning, a deer came out of the woods and crossed our path. Danny remembers looking the terror-stricken creature in the eye right in front of the VW windshield. I was looking in the glove compartment, so I was spared that memory. The crash happened so quickly that we just kept driving, relieved that we didn’t crash the van, but guilt ridden because we didn’t stop to see if we could have helped the deer, although, God knows how we might have done that. Blood and fur now marked the front of Volksie. We’d been to battle.
When we reached the badlands, we finally felt we were Out West! The state campground we stayed in supposedly had herds of wild buffalo. No Indians, but bona fide buffalo. We didn’t see any on our drive into the campsite, but we kept our kids looking out for them.
But that night, my husband and I were in the small tent as the kids slept in the van. We’d been asleep for only a short while, when we heard a strange snorting sound. We froze in fear, suddenly feeling very vulnerable and in unfamiliar territory.
“What is that?” The sounds came closer. “I smell wet fur.” Closer still. We crouched in our tent, remaining very still. “It’s a herd of buffalo, coming through the campground,” my scientific husband said knowingly. “Shhhh.” “What are we supposed to do?” Flee? Wake the children? Make a run for it to the nearby bathroom? We couldn’t see out, but it was clear that the buffalo were coming through. Do they attack people? Are they like bulls? We knew nothing of buffalo behavior other than what we’d seen in the movies and that in no way prepared us for this moment. After what seemed like an eternity, they were gone. No more snorting or furry smells or what to do when. We survived. All was quiet on the Western front.
That was the most excitement we had heading west. My jaw dropped in wonder as we finally drove towards the Rockies. Volksie didn’t have any power to spare, so we crossed those mountains slowly. It was a lot to take in for Eastern folks.
We soon discovered that our cute van had an intractable problem that we could not fix: vapor lock. At high altitudes or in high heat it would start missing and eventually stall out. Mechanics all shook their heads letting us know that 1973 was a bad year for VW vans.
Saying goodbye to Volksie
Generally the breakdown would be in the middle of nowhere. This did not help my husband’s spirits. He kept getting more and more frustrated by the unpredictable break downs. He eventually could get it started again but only after several hours of waiting it out. It plagued us going West, but especially returning to the East. At one point, my husband admitted to considering pouring gasoline on the whole van and setting it on fire. He sold it within two days of our return. I didn’t dare try and stop him. I still think fondly of Volksie and our Western Adventure .
Next time with an Airstream?