Ihad wanted one of those Volkswagen camper vans since the '60s, when VW buses and bugs were the hot items of the decade. On my lunch hour, I used to visit the dealership near the ad agency where I worked. I hung around the van on display there, wondering how they got a stove, sink and refrigerator into that small cabinet, and where was the bed? It was so cute. I could see myself with my husband and two small kids on a road trip, heading out for Santa Fe, or maybe the Grand Canyon, in the VW van. Part of the attraction was probably that it was so unattainable. There was no way we could afford it.
Over the years, I didn't forget about it; whenever I saw a VW van, there was still a flicker of the old passion, and I always tried to see if it was a camper with a stove. So when friends I was visiting in Asheville, N.C., said they were selling their VW camper, all I asked was, "Does it run?" and "How much?" before I said, "I'll take it."
The van had been repainted a striking turquoise, and it had the requisite bumper stickers: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention," and "Keep Alaska Wild."
In August 2003, I became the owner of a 1984 VW Vanagon. I was 76, divorced and a grandmother, and I finally had the toy I'd wanted for 40 years. It was the most expansive feeling I've had since the last day of school when I was a kid. I could go anywhere in my van. Now, however, I pictured myself in Florida, sitting on the beach under an umbrella in January.
When we finished signing papers in Asheville, I jumped into the van and headed to Washington. It was a blazing hot day in August, and the air conditioning in the van had expired years earlier. But I was perking right along at 60 miles an hour. Never mind that everything passed me except an old converted school bus pulling a trailer.
Then a sign appeared, "Road work ahead," and before me, on a steep hill, was a long line of traffic creeping forward.
After about 45 minutes, a small red light appeared on my dashboard. The van had overheated! I pulled to the side of the road, opened up the rear overhead door of the van and removed the engine cover. People stared as they slowly went by.
After half an hour, the engine had cooled and traffic speeded up, so I took off again. After spending the night in Roanoke in a motel, I made it the rest of the way to Washington without incident.
The van had overheated only once, I told myself, and it was a really hot day. I was a little subdued, but it was nothing compared with the way I felt a month later when I got the quote on the cost of getting the van in shape to pass Maryland inspection. The garage owner told me it probably wasn't worth the cost of repair. "Even when you've done all this, you've still got a 20-year-old vehicle." You have to wonder when the garage owner tells you not to do the repairs.
I began to think of Jim and Ellen as my "former" friends. Maybe they had a bad mechanic and just didn't know everything that was wrong with the van. Maybe, but I wondered.
I conferred with my two sons and agonized. I looked at ads for similar vehicles. Then I thought, what the heck, I'd have paid about as much if I'd bought a VW van in better shape, and it wouldn't have been turquoise.
I had to take it to a specialized garage to get the camping components fixed. That garage repaired huge motor homes that looked like Greyhound buses. My small van had to wait. I kept calling; the weeks kept passing. Finally, on Jan. 31, I was on my way to Florida. I had on my warmest jacket, plus a wool cap and gloves. In the beginning, the small heater was no match for the 30-degree temperature. Finally things warmed up and I was happy.
Somewhere in Virginia, I stopped for gas. I decided to check the oil, since I hadn't done so in my hurried departure. I twisted the top off the tube that leads down to the oil reservoir. Fully eight inches of two-inch-wide tube came out in my hand. I knew that wasn't right, so I took the tube inside to the cash register and asked the man there for help. He was able to force the tube back where it belonged. Then he showed me the dipstick and how to tell if I needed to add oil. I was okay.
At the next stop for gas, instead of standing by the van while it filled up, I went inside to get warm; the wind was fierce.
Suddenly a man came running. He opened the door to the small store and said, "Is that your green van?" (He must have been colorblind.) When I said yes, he yelled, "The gas is overflowing!"
We ran out. Gasoline was pouring all over the pavement. The pump had failed to cut off when the gas tank was full. I grabbed the pump handle out of the van and jammed it back in place. It turned off.
Gasoline was everywhere. The attendant came running with a plastic tub full of kitty litter. It was not nearly enough. People stared. I knew enough not to start the engine.
I waited a few minutes, and then one of the men suggested we push the van away from the gas, so that I could get going. We did and was on my way again. I was so rattled, I didn't even think till later: Did I pay for all that gas on the ground? Probably.
At around 6 p.m. I pulled into a motel. It was far too cold to camp. That first day had not been an auspicious beginning to my Florida vacation.
Two days later I arrived at the campsite. It was gorgeous! I had my own little tropical jungle on the banks of a river.
The next morning, as I walked a half-mile along the river in the warm sunshine, I saw two 10-foot alligators sunning themselves on the opposite bank. It didn't faze me. All my previous problems were forgotten, and I proceeded to have a most wonderful, month-long vacation, trouble-free, camping in my van in Florida's beautiful state parks.
This year I stayed six weeks.