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.