Buying My First Camper: 1974 Never Looked So Good

I checked my phone anxiously. The screen lit up and told me that the time was 9:30 PM. I sighed; it wasn’t that late, but I had to be at work by five the next morning, and the guy should have gotten here hours ago. I pulled up our conversation, quickly typed “getting close?” and sent it. Across the room, my younger brother was brutally beating my best friend Drayvon in a game of Mortal Kombat.

“Is he gonna be here soon?,” Drayvon asked, not taking his eyes away from the screen.

“Not sure, I just texted him,” I replied. My phone dinged, and I was brighter than the phone screen after reading the message.

“Says he’s forty miles out,” I said, the excitement piercing the tiredness of my voice. Jacey, another friend of ours, sighed from the corner. She worked at the town paper mill with me as well, and she also had to be at work early.

It was the end of summer 2016, and a dream was coming true. I was 19, and I’d just finished my freshman year of college. It hadn’t been what I’d expected; the sitcoms and movies I’d spent so much time with growing up had led me to see college as a fun, loose affair full of parties, girls, and new takes on how to educate oneself. While I had definitely had my share of fun in my introductory year, college left me with a lot to be desired. It wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed it. Rather, I felt that at this point in my life I should be doing more. My time was split between a bottom-rung job slinging dishes at a local restaurant, honing my skills as a writer, and constantly studying in order to keep up with the demand of my classes. At the end of the day, it left me feeling empty, almost without purpose.

So I began to re-analyze what I wanted out of life. I knew wanted adventure, something with travel. I also wanted to experience something I’d never tried before. During this period of self-reflection, my mind kept wandering back to my old high school beat-around: A bright orange Volkswagen Bug cut and transformed into a Baja monster. I kept it parked in my father’s backyard until my senior year of high school when it overheated and blew up the motor. With no idea how to fix it, it had been tucked away and more or less forgotten. As I thought more and more about that old beetle, an idea began to form..

I began looking up instructions and tutorials on what it took to rebuild a Volkswagen boxer engine. I had a loose idea that I’d bore the motor out and turn the bug into some kind of beach-crawler. I began to save for the engine kit that I wanted, and in the meantime continued educating myself, watching video after video of engine teardowns and buying several books on the subject. For a month or so I kept on this way, squirreling away my extra money and making a list of everything it would take to get my beetle running again.

That was when I found a travel series on Youtube entitled Hasta Alaska. The show documented the adventures of a man named Ben as he lived four years of his life in a Volkswagen Bus named Copito, traveling the Americas. I was immediately hooked and binged the entire series, by the end of which I’d made up my mine: I wanted to live out part of my life from the comfort of a Volkswagen Bus.

Within a month I’d sold my Bug for $1500 bucks cash. It hurt to see her go, But I knew it was for a good cause. With the money from my beetle in hand, paired with the money I’d saved from my summer job, I spent the last of the summer searching for a bus. It was slow-going; that’s the thing about Volkswagens, when people have one they have a tough time letting go for a decent price. The few I could afford were just short of rust buckets, and usually came without a motor, tranny, or both. I made countless offers, all to no avail.

The last bus I found before I bought my own was a 1968 tin top. That is, it has a metal roof instead of the pop-top of the Westfalia models. It was a beautiful car, and I was almost certain I couldn’t afford it. As I pondered, my offer was rejected. I thought that was the end of it, and I continued to search ceaselessly through craigslist. But, the next morning, I awoke to an email from the gentleman who owned the 1968.

“If you’re still looking, I’ve got another one I could let go of,” he told me. It’d been a long couple of months, and the excitement crept up hard. He sent me several pictures of the bus. It was a Westfalia, which meant it had the pop-top and extra cot (which I desired) and from what I could see the bus was solid. The pictures were mostly of the rear end, but it appeared to be in great shape. He told me it was a 1971; he’d had it parked on a lot for a few years in Idaho Falls, a town several hours away from Lewiston, Idaho, where I lived. He offered to tow it to me for an extra $400.

It was a tough decision; On the one hand, the pictures showed a solid looking car. On the other, I hadn’t seen it in person, and the few pictures he had sent me were far from thorough. But, I was desperate for a van, so I took the risk and agreed. Now it was nearly time to find out if my gamble paid off; my dream car was forty miles away and gaining.

When he arrived, I directed him into the alley behind the house, where the door to the shop was. He was a scruffy looking guy with curly hair and beard. He reminded me of Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws. The bus itself squatted on a Uhaul trailer behind his pickup, the bed of which was filled with an assortment of VW parts, mostly bumpers. He invited me to take a look around the bus before we unloaded it in order to make sure I was happy with the impending purchase. I didn’t know a lot about buses at the time, but I’d done some research. Within minutes I’d deduced that it was not a 1971 model but rather a later model, evidenced by the fact that the motor was a type IV, or “pancake” engine. A quick look at the manufacture date told me it was a 1974. I pointed this out to him and he apologized profusely, more than likely worried that I would no longer want to purchase the bus. Little did he know, I had fallen in love with it already. I let him know that I did indeed want to purchase the van. Together with the help of Jacey, my brother, and Drayvon, we rolled the Volkswagen off the trailer and into the shop.

“You guys smoke,” he asked as we filled out paperwork. Thinking he meant cigarettes, I casually told him no without looking up from what I was signing. A moment later, an acrid stench invaded my nostrils. He’d pulled from his pocket a small pipe and a bag of weed, which he was quickly smoking down. The late hour (it was nearly 11:00 at night) and the fact that I’d hardly slept the night before made it difficult not to burst out laughing as I bought a Volkswagen Bus from the exact stereotype of a person who would own a Volkswagen bus. We finished the paperwork and chatted a little, then said our goodbyes. He left, and Jacey left soon after. Bishop went back into the house, and only Drayvon and I remained, looking over the bus and estimating how much work it would take to get her running again.

“Here, Drayvon,” I said, shoving my phone into his hand, “get a picture. I want to remember this night.”

Drayvon snapped the photo, and as I looked at the sleepy looking young man leaning against the front of the biggest project he’d ever faced, I smiled. 1974 never looked so good.


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