At the risk of having my “green” card revoked, I will admit that I’ve always enjoyed driving my car, preferably a five-speed junker from another decade, a car with stories to tell. Even in Europe where a grid of passenger trains connects the rural crevices with the urban armpits, I clung to my road-tripping ways by purchasing, from its ninth owner, a Volkswagen camper van that had already clocked over three hundred thousand miles and chewed up two engines all under one coat of paint–the factory sunflower yellow had turned to Melba Toast umber by the time I got it. That van had an almost indescribable odor, like a Rif Valley hashish lab masking the scent with pine needles and vodka, all underneath the scent of something I’ve always called the “Volkswagen smell” (anyone who has ever owned an old Beetle will know this right away).
The van also came with a spectrum of stains on the carpet, rips in the seat, and, of course, a collage of stickers so thick on the back that I was positive people followed me just to finish reading them (or they were following me for other, more sinister reasons).
These stickers were a patchwork life story of the van in countless languages: stickers from camping sites, cities, beaches, almost everywhere it had been in twenty-plus years. My favorite was a faded bumper sticker featuring a man under an umbrella peeking over the top of his sunglasses on rainy beach. It read: “The Weather is here. Wish you were beautiful!” That play on the famous “wish you were here” postcard ranks for me in the upper echelon of all bumper stickers, in the rarified air of “Gas, Grass, or Ass, nobody rides for free,” and “If you’ve seen one nuclear war, you’ve seen them all.”
On a trip through Southern France, the engine threw a rod, just outside San Tropez (not an inexpensive place to break down), where she was put to rest, finally ending her road tripping days.
I suppose I could write what I would call a “Tales from the Van” creative non-fictionesque alter-egoist semi-humorous memoir (among other hyphenated modernisms that seem to fit), but what fun would that be. I’m much more interested in what happened in the van in the twenty years before I got it. Writing platitudes be damned. “Writing what you know,” translates for most into “Writing what you think you know,” which as it turns out, is often off the mark.
Perhaps the story begins on an automotive assembly line in 1974, or better yet, the birth canal of Mother Volkswagen.