Chasing Nostalgia in a Vintage VW Campervan

Our Route 66 Road Trip in a vintage VW campervan took a few unexpected turns. It started as a quest for #vanlife but ended as a #dystopiancomedy.

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Chasing Nostalgia in a Vintage VW Campervan: ACT I 

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Four hours into our #vanlife adventure, I text my sister, “It’s a hundred degrees, and my eyelids are sweating.” 
She responds with, “How will I sleep tonight?”  
How will you sleep tonight? How will I sleep tonight? I thought as I gazed out the van’s window at the Route 66 sign. I’m sharing a bed which is slightly smaller than a twin bed with my husband. Typically this would sound like fun, but the cushions are the original orange and black checked cushions from 1988. The flat pillows may be older.

#Vanlife 

If you ascribe to the notion that inspiration finds you when you are ready to receive it, then you’ll understand when I say, “I collided with it.” Inspiration found me while I was scrolling through the #vanlife newsfeed on Instagram. I mused to Chuck, “Wouldn’t it be fun to rent a vintage VW campervan and cruise down Route 66?” It was all we talked about for months. 

Our family was not excited about our Route 66 Road Trip in a vintage VW campervan. My sister sent me ominous text messages with no words, just a link to articles. They were often about the perils of van life. It’s amazing how many senior citizens camping in the desert are found dead. When wildfire season started, she sprinkled in alerts about wildfires. She continued to send them for several months after we got home. 

My son, also not a fan of our #vanlife experiment, made his feelings known more directly. “The van will break down. What about robbers? Maybe you should get a dog for protection.”  

“I’m not getting a dog; I’ve got Chuck to protect me,” I responded and received an exaggerated eye roll. 

Finding Rita

In May 2022, we got our taste of #VanLife. #DystopianComedy would be a better hashtag. We laughed. We cried. We baked our skin, turning it into brown, leathery lizard skin. For the first time in my life, I bought nasal spray. Chuck learned how to hotwire a car. Most importantly, we scratched our itch for vintage vans. 

We found our vintage campervan on the internet, a rental from Rocky Mountain Campervans. “Perfect!” A vintage 1988 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon, she fit all our criteria. It felt vaguely like online dating. We didn’t know her name was Rita until later. 

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When we picked up our vintage VW Camper Van in Las Vegas, the reality of our situation was immediate.“The brakes are soft. Oh, and there is no power steering,” Chuck said as we pulled onto the busy street. I remember quietly humming, something I generally don’t do. I think to soothe myself and dampen the tension I could feel bubbling in my stomach. They wouldn’t rent us an unsafe vehicle. Chuck was just over-reacting.  

“Turn up the air conditioning,” I asked. 
“Ah, there is no air conditioning,” Chuck replied. 
I pinched the edge of my already damp shirt to pull it away from my moist body. “Seriously?” 
“Yes, seriously,” he said. His voice tinged with a slight edge. Was that worry in his voice? How did I miss there was no air conditioning in the van’s description? More humming. 

On the Road

After purchasing supplies and getting to know the Van, we relaxed. Our enthusiasm returned. “I feel like a truck driver,” Chuck said as he turned the massive steering wheel and grinned at me. I snapped his picture. Using the hand crank, I rolled down my window so I could hang my arm out the window. I felt like a movie star as the wind whipped my hair around my head.

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With a thud, the built-in kitchen table banged against the wall. The supplies we’d not secured slid across the van’s worn linoleum floor and crashed into the metal door. Like an untuned orchestra warming up for a show, the silverware drawer clinked and chimed. “The van sure is noisy,” I shouted. Chuck didn’t hear me. He had one eye on the speeding cars he wanted to merge with and the other eye on the speedometer. The white arrow was hovering below 30 miles per hour. 

The rental agency said the van’s top speed was 60 MPH. On flat ground. Before the trip, I joked with friends and family, “I hope I don’t have to push it.” This quip would later haunt me. 

Google Maps

Over the whirl of hot Las Vegas air streaming through the triangle-shaped wing vent window, Google blurted instructions to Oatman, Arizona. Our first stop on our Route 66 Road Trip. “What?” Chuck shouted back. “I can’t hear it. Can you turn the volume up?”

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I fiddled with his iPhone, but the volume was cranked up. Happily, I shouted the instructions back to him. Then carefully laid his iPhone on the floor between the vinyl-clad seats near the two-foot gear shifter protruding from the floor. That particular scene played out many times over the next 14 days, never as joyful.

Oatman, Arizona 

“They bite,” I reminded Chuck as he approached the donkey. He responded with a laugh. You won’t be laughing after it bites you, I thought. Having had a horse knock me down and make a snack out of me as a child, I’ve never been a fan of the four-legged, hairy creatures you can ride such as horses, donkeys, and cows. I recently added goats to the list. I know you can’t ride a goat, but they nibble on your clothes. 

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“We need a name for our van,” I said while eating delicious BBQ pork sandwiches at the Oatman Hotel. (Yes, I said I was a vegetarian, but I recently revised it to flexitarian. Bacon is practically a fruit.) We tossed a few names back and forth and played with the name Ronnie.

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“I don’t know; it feels like a female van. It has a pink flamingo tattoo on the bumper.” As Chuck pondered that statement, I giggled, “The flamingo is like a tramp stamp left over from a wild weekend at a music festival.”  

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Kingman, Arizona 

The Fort Beale RV Park in Kingman welcomed us with a perfect spot next to the bathrooms. I wanted to kiss someone for this windfall as our van didn’t have a toilet. (Nightly pilgrimages to the bathroom happen when you are over 50.)  

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Our first of many visitors during the trip stopped by our site. “What year is it?” He asked as he rocked back on his heels slightly as if to get a better view. 
Chuck proudly responded, “It is a 1988 vintage VW campervan. It’s a rental. This is our first-night camping. The wind made for tough driving.” 
“Yeah, us too.” He jerked his thumb toward his huge RV, which was probably twice the size of our van. “Is it a Westfalia?” He asked, eyeing Chuck. You could see him taking in the beard, the pink flamingo on the bumper, and the stupid yellow croc-like shoes Chuck bought for this trip. 
“Yep, it is a Westfalia Vanagon,” Chuck said, clearly not caring if the guy was pegging him for a hippy. 

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With the meet and greet over, we posted on social media, “Vanlife wasn’t exactly what we thought it would be. It’s way better!” Cozy pictures accompanied it. Our friends were delighted and posted encouraging comments. My sister and son didn’t comment.

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We ate chips with salsa and guacamole, drank a few beers, and started listening to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Since we are fans of his TV shows, we figured the book would be entertaining. We couldn’t take Anthony’s repetitive rant and deleted the book after the 2nd night. 

Naming Ceremony 

Like gloating parents, we announced Rattling Rita’s name on social media. Our friends loved the name; our family remained neutral. 

Route 66

Those first few days were a honeymoon of sorts. We’d gotten over our initial shock regarding the van’s shortcomings and lack of modern technology. The bed wasn’t so bad, but we needed to buy new pillows. Boiling water to make coffee in the makeshift pour-over coffee filter cone was not going to happen. We added to the shopping list a Mr. Coffee Maker. More details I missed or didn’t quite understand in the van’s fine print. 

The wind is no joke in Arizona. Rattling Rita nearly joined the tumbleweeds. I was grateful when we finally parked Rita at the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park in Williams, Arizona. That night I wondered, as I listened to the wind slam into the side of Rita, how much she weighed. Was she too heavy for the wind to scoop her up like a tumbleweed? 

The next morning I was wondering who controlled the music in the campground bathrooms! I hadn’t realized I was in music withdrawals. Rita’s road noise prevented conversations and music sing-alongs. Someone had set the music station to vintage rock – Led Zeppelin, REO, Speedwagon, and Rod Stewart poured into the bathroom/showers. It was awesome. I didn’t want to leave the bathroom. Rod Stewart singing “Do you think I’m sexy?” was rapturous. I wanted to call out while I was sitting on the toilet, “Thank you!” 

Lunch in Ash Fork, Arizona 

“We’ll stop in Ash Fork at the Route 66 Museum and then find lunch,” Chuck promised. The museum parking lot felt busier than it should in a town with a population of 698. A few townies were milling near the museum entrance with six shooters strapped to their waists. A dozen or more horse trailers dotted the parking lot. It should have registered as odd, but I was desperate for a bathroom. 

A woman greeted me when I burst into the museum, “Are you staying for lunch?” For a fleeting second, I thought, “Have we just wandered into Hotel California?” Chuck arrived right behind me and responded, “How much?” For a total of $15, we each got a bowl of chili, potato salad, a BBQ pork sandwich, chips, and ice tea. The best and cheapest lunches for the entire trip. 

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The seating was family-style. We found space at a table with a woman dressed in a prairie dress and cowboy hat. She was discussing with the person to her left how to drive a team of horses. A man with a leather vest, cowboy hat, and a fine handlebar mustache joined us. He knew the woman with the cowboy hat. We did not join in the conversation but kept our eyes averted and quickly ate our lunch. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was odd. 

The joke was on us. The town was celebrating the 24th annual Ash Fork Pioneer Day. They were in costumes. We just missed the parade. Luckily we got to join them for their chili cook-off, a fundraiser for the museum. 

Wupatki National Monument 

Nearly 20 years ago, I took my kids to the Wupatki National Monument. It hasn’t changed and is worthy of a stop every 20-30 years. It is a gem of a park. After showing Chuck the blowhole, which my son still remembers, we ate lunch looking across the prairie.

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Check out our video of me blow drying my hair over the blowhole! 

Flagstaff, Arizona

I received a text from my sister: 
Sister: Are you in Flagstaff?
Me: Yes. Camp is set up.
Sister: You are in a fire danger area! Winds 40-60 MPH! 
Me: Yep, that is the current situation. I don’t see any smoke and the wind has died down.
Sister: I’m so reassured. 🧯 🚒 🔥
Me: I don’t see any fire trucks or 🔥 so I think we are good. We can speed away if we see fire. 

Weeks later, she was still miffed about that text exchange.

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Winslow, Arizona 

At the top of every hour, “Take It Easy” blares from a little speaker near the door of the Standing On The Corner gift store. “Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.”  After taking our pictures, we could not resist the call of the music. Talk about marketing! I asked the sales clerk working behind the counter, “Do you get sick of that song?” She replied in a very serious voice, “No, I love it.” We love it too. Thank you, Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne.

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Quirky Americana 

I read on the back of a Route 66 Arizona brochure, “…plenty of quirky Americana to feed your nostalgia.” Chuck riding a jack rabbit certainly qualifies as quirky Americana. Since 1949 the jackrabbit has been giving rides. You, too, can find it in front of the Jack Rabbit Trading Post in Arizona.  

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The Wigwam Motel #6 in Holbrook is another uniquely American tourist stop. By sheer luck, we stumbled upon it. We didn’t opt to sleep in a Wigwam; maybe next time. 

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Petrified Forest

“My Great Grandmother gave me a chunk of a petrified tree when I was a kid. Since then, I’ve wanted to go to the Petrified Forest National Park. I’ve still got it. I can show it to you if you’d like,” Chuck said with such joy it was hard not to smile. It was hard to decline his offer of a personal viewing of his piece of a petrified tree, but I said yes to visiting the park. 

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A Park Ranger was handing out maps and hiking recommendations in the visitor’s center. I suggested we eavesdrop to get an idea of which trails to hike. “Oh, we are doing all of them,” Chuck said without any hesitation. He let me squirm for a minute, “It’s less than 5 miles, don’t worry.” I consulted the trail map and did my own math. He was correct with Blue Mesa as the most challenging. “It features a 3-5 mile loop drive. A steep 1-mile trail enters the vibrant badlands, with equally colorful petrified wood.” 

Painted Desert Inn

The one-mile Painted Desert Rim Trail was a lovely stroll. The trailhead is by the Painted Desert Inn, which we nearly skipped. If you find yourself in Petrified Forest, do not skip this National Historic Landmark. The murals are a national treasure. 

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1932 Studebaker

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“A 1932 Studebaker shows where a section of the original Route 66 crossed the park.” I read from the park brochure as we made our way down the 28-mile park road. It was lunchtime when we pulled off the road to snap a picture of it. “How about PB&J sandwiches for lunch?” I asked with the same enthusiasm that Chuck offered to show me his rock. Traveling with Rita had some advantages, like a well-stocked small fridge and cupboard.  

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Rita’s Cardinal Rule

Our idyllic journey through the Petrified Forest skidded to a halt when we made a sharp turn onto Blue Mesa Drive. Rita’s gas gauge dipped way below ¼ tank into the red zone. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned our vintage VW campervan’s cardinal rule, never go below a ¼ tank of gas. We didn’t exactly panic. The gauge swung out of the red zone closer to the ½ tank mark when we were on level ground. 

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There was lots of math. We finally determined we’d have just enough gas to make it back to Holbrook, Arizona. Thank you, middle school math teacher, for making us do all those damn story problems. 

That evening Chuck plotted gas station stops for the rest of the trip. 

Rattling Rita takes a Siesta 

The next day we headed to Socorro, New Mexico to visit my cousin Janice and her husband Jeff. Chuck found the perfect spot to refuel in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. After refueling, I thought, “We’ve got this.” Chuck turned the key and pushed the ignition switch. Rattling Rita was silent.

I watched a stray dog limp towards us as Chuck chanted, “No, no, no!” Thankfully we had one bar of cell service. Chuck made his first call to Boyd with Rocky Mountain Campervans. “Hi Boyd, this is Chuck. The van won’t start.” Boyd’s chipper response, “How handy are you?” “Not very, but I can follow instructions,” Chuck replied, eager to solve this problem and get back on the road. 

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Chuck pushed Rita into an empty parking lot just 30 feet away. During this maneuver, I steered and thanked our lucky stars we hadn’t stopped at the first gas station we passed when we arrived in town. It had been packed with trucks and people. This gas station wasn’t nearly as popular, just that damn stray dog limping by us every couple of minutes. I felt like I was a bit actor in an old western. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see John Wayne materialize by the side van and say, “How are you doing there pilgrim? Do you got a problem?” I would deliver my line perfectly, “Hello cowboy. Any chance you’ve got a spare van?” 

While I was daydreaming about John Wayne, Chuck fetched Rita’s tool kit. I watched as Boyd talked Chuck through dismantling the steering column. Boyd’s theory was that the jerry-rigged ignition switch was loose. The ignition switch sparked, and so did Rita. We were back in business. “I think Rita likes a siesta in the middle of the afternoon,” Chuck said. Oh, how right he was. 

With false confidence, we were back on the road. Boyd thought maybe the starter was going bad. “Keep me updated,” he said. “I know a guy in Santa Fe who can fix it.” Boyd knows a lot of mechanics. This should have been a clue, but we ignored it.   

ACT II – Is Published

We hope you enjoyed reading the first Act of Rita’s story, “Chasing Nostalgia in a Vintage VW Campervan.” There is plenty more! Will Chuck lose his marbles? Will Rita make it back to Las Vegas? How many mechanics could Boyd possibly know? The second Act of Rita’s Story is now available, “Our Westfalia Camper is a Diva.” 

The final Act is coming soon. We explore the Grand Canyon and briefly date Rita’s cousin, Avis. Our last ride in Rita is harrowing. I’m still experiencing flashbacks. If you sign up for our newsletter, you won’t miss a minute of Rita’s story. 

Acknowledgments 

Rocky Mountain Campervans customer service gets 5 stars. They wanted Rita to start just as bad as we did. The desert was just too hot for her. She isn’t built for it. Yes, they gave us a discount. Yes, they are retiring Rita. We would rent another van from them, just not a vintage VW campervan. 

My brother-in-law commented on a Facebook post, “Got to give it to you two. You have been very patient with Rita; if that had been me, I would have called her mother and asked to send her sister over to replace her.”  To which I replied, “careful for what you ask! You never know which sister you might get!! Ha.” 

All kidding aside, getting a replacement wasn’t possible. They don’t have spare vans hanging about, and we were miles away from Las Vegas, where we picked Rita up. Also, each time we fixed Rita, we thought the problem was solved. Sure, we could have left her on the side of the road, but karma has a way of catching up with you. 

A huge thanks to our friends and family who cheered us on. It was like they were along for the ride. 

Special thanks to Janice and Jeff for opening up their home and sharing a special meal with us. (You’ll read about it in Act II.) 

And lastly, to our writers’ group for their feedback and ultimately improving this story. 

Pictures 

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