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You Do Yours

I grew up camping with my family, but didn’t truly understand its allure until I went alone.

person looking into rearview mirror VW camper also visible in mirror reflection of mesa in camper rear window
Illustration by Anna Strain

When my parents were college sweethearts, they answered a bulletin-board advertisement to drive a professor’s Volkswagen bus cross-country and fly back for free. They ditched finals week to do it. Later, when they were married, they bought their own bus — a 1972 Volkswagen Westfalia camper with a pop top and a leaky sink. My sister was conceived in this bus on a trip to Nova Scotia.

I don’t remember much about my parent’s marriage because they separated when I was four and divorced a few years later. They sold the house and moved into their own apartments. My sister and I were to live with our mom and see our dad on weekends. My parents didn’t fight over custody, but they fought over the camper.

I always assumed my mother got stuck with the camper in the divorce; I was shocked when I later learned that she had wanted it. Before she met my dad, my mother never went camping, and she never went camping again after they split up (“And that was fine with me” was her saying). But the camper was paid off, and their other car wasn’t. My mother had only a part-time job, and that was about to end. She needed the camper.

* * *

VW buses slowly entered the US market in the late 1950s, following the success of the Beetle. The buses were marketed as family-vacation vehicles for the nontraditional set. You had to be nontraditional because the bus looked like a loaf of bread.

In the late 1960s, hippie counterculture took an interest in used Volkswagen campers. If you were tuning in and dropping out, a camper was a cheap way to travel and live. It became a symbol of freedom, of rejecting the mainstream, of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was an extension of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — an appropriation of Eastern spirituality. It exuded a meditative self-sufficiency that comes from living in a tiny home on wheels, spending your days just going from one place to another. You could spread the word of peace simply by your presence. There was something missionary about it.

Volkswagen exploited the counterculture’s interest in campers, marketing consumerism with anti-consumerism, declaring different is cool: “You do yours.Walk away from what oppresses you, the VW bus beckoned with its slogan. All you have to do is hit the open road. Freedom is yours. (As long as you have the funds and the privilege to pay for it.)

When she split up with my dad, my mother had two small daughters, no real money, no real job, and a camper. Despite having a master’s degree, she could find only secretarial work, and she drove the camper to her dreaded job, where she was sexually harassed by her boss.

A few months after my parents’ divorce was finalized, the camper caught fire while my mother was driving it. The bus filled with smoke, flames flicked out of the engine, and some neighborhood guy ran over with a kitchen fire extinguisher and tried to put it out. After the fire, the camper was dead.

***

When I was in my mid-twenties, I took a road trip by myself to the Southwest. My father had given me some frequent-flier miles as a gift. I had planned to use the miles to go to Mexico because I wanted to go to a modern-dance workshop there, but these miles were only good for the continental US. Phoenix was as far as I could get. I decided I would go hiking and camping by myself.

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I used the leftover frequent-flier miles to rent a car and drive around. I borrowed a sleeping bag and a tent from my brother. I bought a pair of boots, which I needed anyway. When I told a male friend of my plans, he seemed anxious. “Look, just take a knife at least, OK?” he said.

When I went on this trip, I had a shaved head. I was very skinny. I am barely five-foot-five, and at the time I weighed a little more than 100 pounds. I was 25 years old and queer. One day, near Monument Valley, I was eating alone in a diner and I overheard a trucker ask the waiter if I was a man or a woman and if I was a prostitute. He was sitting at the table right behind me. When the waiter left, the trucker said to me, “Want a cheap date?” I moved to a table on the other side of the restaurant next to a foursome of clean-cut French tourists. (The Southwest was full of European vacationers.)

Another day, I had parked at a scenic overlook to take pictures. I had what felt like several hundred square miles to myself. Then a motorcycle gang roared down the road and pulled into the parking lot. Fuck, I thought to myself, and I started walking quickly back to my car. I didn’t want to run because then they would chase me. I didn’t know what they would think of me — this skinny, androgynous, shaved-headed person with a rental car. I thought if I could make it to my car, I could get inside and lock all the doors. If I didn’t make it, chances were high of my being gang-raped, or threatened with rape, or blocked from getting into my car.

I made it back as the bikers dismounted. I heard them talking as they took off their helmets and unzipped their jackets. They were all middle-aged German dads in polo shirts.

***

After my parents’ divorce (and the death of the camper), my father scoured the classified ads and bought a replacement VW bus for himself: a ten-year-old cream-colored 1968 Westy. It lasted the rest of my childhood.

When I went camping with my dad, I was prone to wandering off. My dad and stepmom would say I got lost easily, that I would often take a wrong turn coming back from the bathroom and be gone a long time. But the truth was that I walked off on purpose to get some space. Camping was supposed to be about being out in the open, but to me it felt claustrophobic. I can still hear the sound of the camper’s side door sliding shut, like closing a family-size coffin.

***

Towards the 1980s, Volkswagen shifted its ad campaign for buses. They went from promoting nonconformity to cheering for family values. The vehicle of Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Deadheads everywhere was now for respectable families who displayed the American flag without irony or radical claim. Dropping out was out. In its place was something to own.

I had just started college when my dad was laid off. He was unemployed for two years and spent his days at the public library reading the newspaper for free. He sold Amway products on the side as he watched his savings quickly dwindle to nothing. He was finally offered a job, a good job, in Iowa, heading an environmental-conservation group. He and my stepmom cleaned out their house in Virginia and packed the last of their stuff into the camper. Somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia, the camper broke down. It was towed to a garage next to a used-car lot. The fuel pump had quit. It was a Friday, and the earliest they could get parts would be Monday, maybe later. And it would be expensive. My dad couldn’t afford the repairs, and he couldn’t afford to miss the first days of his new job. He said, “I’ll trade it in. Give me whatever you got that can make it to Iowa.”

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***

The current resurgence of the VW camper in its new, Instagrammable form (#VanLife) goes along with today’s trendy minimalism, of Marie Kondo–ing your life. It’s something you obtain to get rid of the clutter. Throw out everything that doesn’t bring you joy. Follow your bliss. You can be a digital nomad, hawking your lifestyle for paid posts and product placements in your feed. You can be free and sell your staged freedom to others.

Scrolling through #VanLife photos, you will see mostly heteronormative couples. The women do yoga. The men surf. Their bodies are toned and tanned and sometimes tattooed. They wake up to views of the ocean. They type away on laptops while lounging in a hammock. There is often a guitar and/or a dog, and sometimes a cute toddler.

If you Google “solo female van life” you will find a lot of listicles of things you need to “stay safe and have fun on the road.” They recommend bear spray, a taser, a Leatherman tool, a hammer, an emergency beeper that can send someone a message if you don’t have cell service, and a container to pee in so you don’t have to leave your van if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

***

My first night camping, I tried to heat up a can of vegetarian chili over my stove, which was just a can of Sterno. It took forever to become only lukewarm. It was June, but as the sun set, it was freezing. I did not know that it got so cold in the desert at night. Why do people go on road trips? Why go camping? To find these moments that you couldn’t get if you stayed home? To face your fears? To be in nature and live out a fantasy? Is it even possible to live out your own fantasy without being the object of someone else’s? Is it possible to live your life without being tricked into a codified version of it by branding strategists? I climbed into my borrowed tent with my very small pocketknife and read by flashlight.

I didn’t go to the Grand Canyon because I thought it would be too crowded. Instead, I drove for miles on precarious switchback roads without passing another car. I held up my camera to the dashboard and randomly took pictures because everything was beautiful and otherworldly. I got lost on a seven-mile hike and burst into tears when I spotted the small pile of stones that was the trail marker.

Toward the end of my trip, starved for a shower and companionship, I arrived at a crash-pad motel, the sort of place listed in guidebooks as a way station for campers and young people and crunchy types. I gave a ride to a trio of queer girls to get their car fixed. They were also dancers with short, crumpled, unwashed hair, and I felt I had bizarrely run into my people in the middle of nowhere. They were on their way to a dance-jam workshop or Burning Man, or coming from one and going to the other. We ate lunch together in the local coffee shop. They rolled their eyes and laughed when an older hippie dude walked over and asked their names and cooed at the beauty of one of them, working his oozy, warm, slightly high, sexual vibe, holding on to her hand too long. He said if they were having car trouble, he could probably give them a ride in his camper. “I’m sure I’m going where you’re going,” he said. She responded, “I’m sure you’re not.”

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Andrea Kleine is the author of the novel Eden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), available now. Visit her website.