If you have read any of my stuff, you will no doubt realize that I like to camp. And I like to travel. To me, these two go hand in hand.
So, shortly after Jane and I became an “item” in 2004, I convinced her to join me. I still had the Dodge conversion van at the time, so our first camping trip together was the summer of 2004, when I planned to ride my road bicycle the entire length of the Katy Trail in Missouri (238 miles, from Kansas City to St. Louis!) over about a weeks time, camping along the way. Jane followed my route in the van with all the gear we would need. Two nights of sleeping on the ground and she was through. We moteled it the rest of the trip.
In the spring of 2005, I purchased Tullio, the Wünder Bus. It has a built-in bed (unlike like the Dodge), so I convinced Jane that sleeping in the Bus and not on the ground would make ALL the difference! And so, after a few short camping trips that spring and summer, I planned a Grand Tour out West. Jane was apprehensive, yet game enough to agree, so off we went. It was mostly interstate driving and, given my previous experience, I was a little apprehensive about how the bus would perform. The wisdom accumulated with age entered into the equation and I determined not to push the bus on this trip. I learned a valuable maxim while driving a VW Bus: The slow lane is your friend.
Our plan was to hit as many National Parks out West as we could. The Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater, Grand Canyon (both north and south rims), Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Glen Canyon, The Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde were all planned for our giant loop tour.
The bus performed like a champ. We kept the speed at a steady 60-65 mph and it never once complained.
One of the cool things about driving a clean, classic vehicle like a bus is that it makes people smile. It makes people comment, ask questions, and admire it for what it is, an ancient though completely utilitarian beast of burden (although not air conditioned, loud, bumpy and somewhat smelly). A marvel of German engineering on the cheap, even today.
So, it continued to carry us onward on our tour. Until we left the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
It’s a drive of about 280 miles to get from the south rim to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, a long, lonely drive. We had about 200 of the miles under our belt when we stopped at Lee’s Ferry, where the highway crosses the mighty Colorado River, curving back west along the base of the Vermillion Cliffs, across a long stretch of completely desolate high desert prairie. When we took off from our rest stop, the bus hesitated just a brief moment as we were pulling out, but recovered and proceeded to fweem right along.
We got about twenty miles away when, suddenly, it lost power and died. As I pulled off the road, I was glad I knew a little bit more about VW mechanicals than I did back in ’85, so I pulled out the trusty Bentley book and proceeded to troubleshoot. It would turn over, so the engine wasn’t seized. The spark was good, so it wasn’t electrical. I took off the air cleaner and the carb bowls were bone dry. Aha! I deduced the mechanical fuel pump was to blame. No gas, no go.
So there we were, out in the middle of nowhere with a broken down bus at about 2:00 pm. Cell phones? Not on your life! There was absolutely no coverage out there at all. So we waited.
A pitiful few cars passed us. I’m not one prone to panic, but after two or three cars passed by without so much as slowing down, I began to wonder. Eventually, a guy in a little pickup truck loaded with guitars and amps stopped by. He tried his cell phone, also to no avail. He offered to contact the authorities in Jacob Lake, the closest civilization some thirty miles up the road, and have someone come back.
Eventually, after about an hour and a half, a young state trooper showed up. First thing he says is, “You’re gonna have to move that a little further off the road”. This guy was all serious business. So he pushed me up and off the road with his car. Then the local county sheriff showed up. He was a little older than the trooper and I could tell by his big, wry grin that he was thoroughly enjoying our plight, albeit in a friendly, ornery manner.
The trooper offered to call in to a tow service in Fredonia, fifty miles up the road. So he took all my info and did the deed, advising us afterward that it might be an hour or so before the tow arrived. They both wished us well and departed.
So we sat and waited. About an hour and 45 minutes later the tow truck shows up. Fortunately, it was of the modern design, where the bed kneels down and they winch the vehicle up onto the bed. By this time, it was getting on toward night and it was a fifty mile drive to the garage in Fredonia. But we finally got there, ensconced ourselves in the Crazy Jug Motel and waited till morning.
Now you may think this bizarre, but Jane maintains that this episode was the best part of the trip.
We awoke and walked into town (not a very big burg, I think the population was considerably less than a thousand) to find a library where I could search on the Internet for a new fuel pump. It was pretty much a lead pipe cinch that the local parts store would not have a mechanical fuel pump for a 1974 Volkswagen Bus, but I was determined to find one, wanting to keep my bus stock.
I discovered that they are pretty rare. I did find one available- for $250! Discouraged, we hiked back to the motel.
The mechanic told me he was going to just bypass the old pump and put an electric fuel pump in. So much for trying to keep things stock. Whatever, I thought, let’s just get back on the road, which we did the next morning.
To make a long story short, the bus performed flawlessly the remainder of the trip, even going over Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado. And the only part of our dream trip that was unrealized was the trip to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. So, even with the trauma of a breakdown in Nowheresville, the little Westy got us safely back home to Kansas City without further difficulty.
It was Lady Jane’s last camping trip.