It was a stressful morning after quite the stressful week. The effort spent getting my ducks lined up to leave town typically makes me question the value of vacation - at least short ones. Freedom of the open highway was one last errand away when it appeared in front of us, the virtual symbol of road trips, a mint, split-windshield, ’66 VW microbus. The paint job was immaculate, the body shiny brown and the trim lovely beige, a peace sign stuck on the driver’s rear-view mirror.
Now VW buses that appear in front of you typically don’t stay in front of you for long. Built for comfort, not for speed they are. Well, maybe not comfort either. By the time I was cogniscent of what was before me, this relic of the sixties was behind me, but lo, there on the right was a parking lot filled with buses of all sorts. Hippy buses, camper buses, flat-bed buses and even a bus with a Beetle body welded to the top. A bus show! Vacation schedule or not, this was worth a U-turn.
My first “People’s Car” experience began with the sale of a 1959 MGA that I had purchased out of a field for $250. I took that Brit car down to its frame and, with a bit of grown-up assistance, rebuilt it to factory specs. I bought it when I was a sophmore and had it finished just in time for the senior prom (except for a working speedometer). The MG was gorgeous, all tricked out in sparkling Old English White paint, silver-spoked wheels and a brand new, black rag top. It was joy on the back roads of western Pennsylvania that summer, but that tiny car was not going to get me and my stuff back and forth to the University of Connecticut, some 500 miles away. I sold it a doctor friend of my parents for $1000 and decided upon a ’68 VW microbus as my transportation solution. He was christened “Gus the Bus”. Too much!
There were high hopes for epic adventures in this fine vehicle and I was certainly not disapointed. Quick discoveries included finding comfort in the slow lane as we put-putted our 45-mph way up ancient Appalachian hills; the need to dress warm, for heat had difficulty finding its way from the rear-engine to my feet; then there was the engine idle that functioned intermittently, leaving me to negotiate my first foray into the chaos that is Boston traffic with one foot on the clutch, one on the brake and my right hand feathering the accelerator at red lights.
The epic-est bus trip of all-time was the Banff/Jasper expedition. Click for the entire previous post OR read on...
I worked most of the summer of ’75, but had a serious case of travel fever left over from my Euro wanderings of the previous summer. In the meantime I had picked up a yellow, ’68 VW Bus and christened it “Gus The Bus”. It seemed wise to finish up a summer of labor with a good, long, Gus road-trip to the Canadian Rockies. The plan was to drive the 2300 miles, basically non-stop, to Banff with two guys from Pittsburgh and two from Connecticut. We had plenty of adventures along the way, but we were about two miles from our border crossing at Sweetgrass, Montana when I spied two young ladies who were hitching their way into Canada. I passed them by, not wanting to be joined by strangers for our trip thru customs, not to mention wondering how I could possibly fit two more people and their packs into the crowded bus. I was of course loudly overruled by my companions when they learned of my stupidity. I turned around, drove back and before letting the girls in the van asked them if they had any thing on their persons or in their packs that might prove problematic at the border. They assured me they were clean. I was stupid, I let them in.
So there we were in the middle of the day, in the middle of the prairie, in the middle of the continent. A white Cadillac driven by a 60-something couple was being taken apart by the Canadians. I couldn’t even imagine what they were going to do with a hippie-bus, full of seven 20-year olds. It is still unclear to me what these customs guys were thinking, but they asked us our destination – “Banff”. “Purpose of your trip?” –“Backpacking.” “Do you have any firearms?” – “No.” “Well then, have a good time!” “Thank you, sir.” I kept driving and after about a mile the “ladies” broke out two joints and asked us if we’d like to partake. I went nuts. I could have lost my bus, not to mention spending my college years in a Canadian jail. They were left off shortly at Milk River where they could hitch west to Waterton Lakes. The story wasn’t over however. A week later as we hiked through August snow in Jasper National Park, we followed bear tracks into the campsite where we were planning on tenting that night. My friend Michael informed me then that he was glad he had brought along his father’s pistol and that he would move it from the bottom of his pack to the top. I guess bad riders can be friends as well as strangers.
Gus made it back from Alberta despite one buddy swerving off the road at 65 mph and putting it up on its two right wheels. ('Twas Providence I believe that put us back down on all four.) Then there was the oil change in eastern Wyoming of which details will be released in the year 2050.
Despite the punishment of that 5000 mile trip, the bus just kept going. That winter we chose to sleep in Gus on a -30F New Hampshire night rather than do the unthinkable – get a motel room. The engine started the next morning, but every time I let the clutch out the frozen transmission fluid would stall it out. That problem was solved by working the shift lever back and forth until the 90-weight fluid softened enough to let those gears spin.
In our last major outing Gus was critically wounded. A group of us went to the White Mountains to see the autumn foilage and camp near timberline at Greenleaf Hut. The hike up was simply astounding as it seemed I was walking through a life-sized topo map. The peaks were all glistening with white, hoarfrost from a storm that had passed through the night before. Middle elevations were conifer green and the oaks and maples of the valleys below were ablaze in yellow and orange. It would have been a perfect trip except for the bad water I drank and the fact that Gus’ starter was malfunctioning. It was easy enough to jump start. You just had to remember face down hill when you parked. Unfortunately as we jumped the bus to drive five hours back to campus, something broke in the motor. It sounded really bad. There were however no other transportation options, so as I lay on the floor of the bus, enjoying the gastroenteritis I picked up at the hut, we kept driving. The clanging sounds from the engine slowly intesified and the entire bus began to shake. We didn't have the nerve to switch it off when we refueled. It was 2 AM when we finally broke down with a dead engine, five miles from campus.
At autopsy it turns out the torque of jump starting old Gus had partially torn the flywheel loose from the crankshaft. This threw the engine out of balance which eventually ripped it loose from the motor mounts and doomed us to the early morning breakdown. I discovered this by removing the engine and carrying it with three friends into our dorm’s basement. There with the help of "How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures For The Complete Idiot" , I tore that engine down and rebuilt it during finals with the hope that the bus might ferry me back to Pittsburgh for Christmas.
One suggestion I followed that was not in the book was to coat the cylinders, pistons, etc. with STP so that all the moving parts would be lubricated from the moment of first ignition. This turned out to be my last great story with Gus as I reinstalled the engine on a 20-degree day with snow blowing through the college parking lot. Turns out the STP was a bad idea, at 20 degrees it is the proverbial molasses in January. The frigid lubricant combined with the stiffness of new rings made it impossible for the starter to turn the engine over. The solution? The hair of the dog that bit me. We put that Vee-Dub in fourth gear and pushed it around the parking lot until everything softened up and with a shot of ether down the carb that bitty engine “roared” to life once more.