For me, a road trip is as much about the car as it is the itinerary, sights, sounds, and company. Where a car may ordinarily be a means to reach a destination, on a road trip, the car becomes intertwined with the experience. Part transportation, part home. Where the car goes, you go. A companion.
Hell, I love cars, and to spend a year living on the road, we needed a new one! Our Mazda may have style, spunk, and a handy backup camera I didn’t know I needed, but it lacks the necessary living room/dining room/bedroom multipurpose area.
We needed a wagon for this westward adventure as charismatic as the plan was foolhardy. We needed a Vanagon. Before the seeds of this trip grew into a creeping thistle of a thing, I knew of Vanagons, sure—square and stout manifestations of humorless East German practicality. Rear-engined, water-cooled, and mechanically temperamental. A cab-over driving position suitable for Fred, Shaggy, and Daphne.
But as the contours of this trip came into focus, I quickly realized that only a Vanagon Westfalia would do. To be our companion on this journey, we needed the VW’s charm and engineered ingenuity.
For six months, I monitored the quirky ‘van people’ inhabited corners of the internet. Each Vanagon Westy for sale shows the heart and personality of its previous owners. The scars of hundreds of thousands of miles on the road, too. They’re part-time homes, after all.
Early in my search, I spotted a triumphant-looking van posted for sale in Northern Michigan. It appeared tidy, well cared for, and heavily modified in all the right places: lifted springs, well-sorted mechanicals, attractive militaristic steel box bumpers, and styling cues mimicking late-model South African Vanagons. Most importantly, its 1.9 liter wasserboxer engine had been kit-swapped for a 2004 Subaru 2.5 liter flat four.
Other intriguing vans popped up in all the wrong places: San Diego, Vancouver, Boise, Santa Cruz, and Salt Lake City. I had previous experience traveling long distances to buy cars, then shipping them east, but something about shopping for a cross-county road trip companion so far from home felt like cheating. Like reading ahead in the story.
Angie and I had established a deadline of January 31 to decide if we were going to engage the ejection seats on our lives in DC and parachute into a temporary life on the road. When we made the decision to go forward with the plan, I wanted to quickly force our hand by buying a van. Not making a change—let alone something as life-altering this—is easy. I wanted to make backing out early on much more difficult.
Come early February, the peacocking Westy in Michigan was still on the market. The owner and I sized up one another through a series of emails, and I purchased two one-way tickets to Detroit for that weekend.
When we arrived in Harbor Springs, the deep snow blanketing the far reaches of Michigan’s lower
peninsula was melting under a radiant early spring sun. Bentley and his family had owned “Ranger” for four years and two summer-long road trips—long enough to develop a bond. Bentley gently pointed out the idiosyncrasies of the van—gently, to avoid alarming a potential buyer, but also, I think, to avoid offending the van. In cooler weather, it likes when you slowly warm up each gear, so don’t rush to throw it into reverse. Gratefully, Bentley had spent four years obsessing over the van’s details, making it more reliable, more livable, and more charismatic. Buying a used car—let alone a used car with 225 thousand miles on the odometer—is an exercise in luck and prayer. I put my faith in Bentley’s clear affection for the van and his years of documented maintenance.
Deal done, Angie and I would make the audacious eight-hundred-mile drive home to DC. Each shudder induced panic and each squeak paranoia. But we made it, problem-free. Costs sunken, our options for turning back were diminished as planned. And we now had a traveling companion—Magellan, or “Madge,” for short, to accompany us on our year of exploration.
Over the next four months, we worked to acquaint ourselves with our new explorer. We remedied a lingering oil leak with service to the main seal and prophylactically replaced the suspect Subaru head gaskets. We removed the stock refrigerator, sewed fresh curtains, replaced a faulty power window regulator and motor, installed a propane heater, refreshed the plumbing and auxiliary electrical systems, swapped the fuel lines, and fitted a stylish faux-wood laminate flooring. We ushered Madge through the DC DMV registration gauntlet using every exception in the city code. We gave Madge a deep clean, so the grime of our forthcoming year on the road would have a fresh surface upon which to adhere.
We patched a few dings and bruises—scars of previous adventures. Madge clearly knows the road. A worn business card in the glove box explains that she was sold new in 1991 by Kendall Volkswagen in Anchorage, Alaska. Madge has likely seen our continent from frigid north to sandy south. Likely chugged along the spine of the Rocky Mountains and sweated the heat of the Mojave. Likely shared many sunsets and thunderstorms with its passengers. Vistas and traffic jams.
I don’t want Madge to tell us all the secrets of the road. Maybe just those we need when morale is low or the lift of this path we’ve chosen seems too heavy. She’ll make a trusted companion for this adventure. Our new car.