EXACTLY 20 years ago next month, I shaved my head and announced my plans to make my home in a VW bus. My parents were thrilled.
“This is what you learned in college, to live in a van down by the river?” wailed my mother. “And by the way, that haircut makes you look like a thumb.”
My dad agreed that I was a little young for a midlife crisis but sympathized with my wanderlust and allergy to paying rent.
“Be careful,” he said as he handed me a wad of cash and a shiv. “And remember to park level or you’ll wake up with a headache.”
Then I was on my way, blasting the B-52s’ “Roam” from my 1983 Volkswagen Westfalia, which is either glorious genius on a chassis or the most impractical piece of crap ever invented, depending on who you ask and how much money they’ve poured into theirs.
Along with a pop-top camper and orange disco stripe down the side, my dear Westy sported two comfy beds, compartments for all my worldly possessions, a cute propane stove and a doll-sized refrigerator that I could never get to work. (It also had a faulty oil valve that I would find out about five months later when the engine exploded somewhere north of San Francisco, but that is a tale for another time.)
Despite the warm beer, I loved having a house on wheels. I meandered up the California coast, watching the sun set off Zuma Beach and sleeping in the shadow of Hearst Castle. I picked up garbage at the Shakespeare Festival for gas money and once faked a tarot card reading for a bag of sandwiches in Big Sur. (At night, I made ramen on my teeny stove and read by candlelight from my carefully curated library of ten books (which included Ram Dass’ Be Here Now, a collection of poems by Adrienne Rich and a paperback copy of Anna Karenina because it was really long.)
I did indeed spend some time sleeping near several rivers, though I was run out of a gutter punk enclave for using soap. (Let me say here that I in no way mean to make light of the danger and tragedy of true homelessness; my safety net was always just a collect call away.)
I did encounter some skeevy characters (again, when there’s more time and wine), but mostly my adventures were blessedly benign. Like the morning I woke up to a cluster of Japanese tourists peering into the gaps between my Guatemalan print curtains.
What had seemed like a secluded pullout in the redwoods the previous evening was in daylight revealed to be the parking lot of the Mount Tamalpais Visitors Center, and my tin can van was now sandwiched between two massive steel-sided buses.
I slid open the door to a flurry of camera flashes. The group leader translated that if I was amenable, the visitors would love to look inside a “real hippie house car.”
So I made dandelion tea on the stove and popped the camper up and down, then showed them my bookshelf and my pan-religious dashboard altar (the tarot cards, two of my wisdom teeth and a Buddha statue wearing a Star of David and a crocheted cross given to me by a Mexican abuelita at a rest stop near Santa Barbara.)
The entire tour took all of 30 seconds, but never before or since have I felt so proud to show off my digs. I wasn’t just some weirdo living in a van—I was a tourist attraction!
Road warrior Forrest Bone can relate. He and his wife, Jeri, are the Southeastern reps for Tin Can Tourists, a club for car campers with an appreciation for old school aesthetic. Founded in 1919 at a campground in Tampa, FL, the Bones revived TNT in the late 1980s after they acquired a 1940s vintage Airstream trailer and were treated like celebrities everywhere they went.
“Neither of us had ever traveled much, I came from a family of eight kids and there was no time for vacations,” says Forrest, a retired teacher. “Jeri and I ended up going on a 5000 mile trek across the country and saw all the places on our bucket list, the Grand Canyon and Death Valley and such. But so many people just wanted to see our rig.”
The Bones have been cruising down the motorways ever since, opening their doors and collapsible chairs to the curious. They split the year between home camps in Florida and Michigan, where they’ve also restored several more land yachts, including a 1949 rare masonite-sided Airfloat. “Oh yeah, we’ve got it bad,” chuckles Forrest.
Wannabe wanderers can salivate over the fancy woodwork and adorable flourishes when TNT teams up with Seaside Sisters for the second annual Tybee Trailer Trot this Saturday, April 25, when more than 90 Silver Streaks, Starflights and other mobile palaces roll in for viewing at River’s End Campground. ($10 takes you inside the dolled-up domiciles and benefits local charities; walking and gawking is free.)
More hipster than hippie, the multigenerational vintage trailer community is enthusiastically dedicated to the freedom and fun of living on the road—in epic style.
“The best part of this is meeting all the great people and seeing how they’ve decked out their trailers,” says Forrest. “And we also get to inspire others to do the same.”
Oooh, just talking about it has me itching to sell off all our schlock and purchase a pretty bubble-shaped Shasta to tow behind a late-model F-150 (way faster than my old VW’s dinky four-cylinder dealio.)
So, yeah, you might see me poking around the Tin Can camp this weekend, shopping for early retirement. Or better yet, maybe I’m due for my actual midlife crisis...the road beckons, though I’d probably gonna keep my hair this time around.
I may even still have Dad’s shiv for the glovebox.