Our Last Ride in our Westfalia Camper

Our Westfalia Camper, also known as Rita, became a bit of a celebrity during our Route 66 Road Trip. The story is unbelievable. At times I wondered if we were in a dystopian comedy. 

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Our Last Ride in our Westfalia Camper: ACT III 

I encourage you to read the first and second acts before reading Rita’s last ride:  

  • Chasing Nostalgia in a Vintage VW Campervan – You’ll learn Rita’s origin story and get a flavor for her intricacies. You don’t want to miss the first stops on our Route 66 Road Trip. The first ACT left us pushing Rita into an empty parking lot in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, then calling Boyd with Rocky Mountain Campervans for instructions to dismantle the steering column. And me having an imaginary conversation with John Wayne. Thankfully, Rita, our Westfalia Camper, sparked back to life. 
  • Our Westfalia Camper is a Diva – In ACT II of Rita’s story, it is clear she has a mind of her own. She required afternoon siestas and regular spa treatments (aka a trip to the mechanic). Plus, we visited El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments. It ended with Rita getting towed and almost canceling our adventure in the Grand Canyon, which is why we arrived late. 

The Grand Canyon

We were late arriving at the RV campground on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Rita’s spot was next to a huge RV with a TV the size of a small movie screen attached to it. The TV was likely worth more than Rita. Hell, the RV was likely worth more than our house. A group of campers surrounded the TV like you’d circle a campfire. It felt like we’d just entered a party uninvited. 

Rita didn’t care. She was making the best of her farewell tour. 

We barely had camp set up when her fans arrived. “Do you mind if we take a picture? What year is it? I’d love to camp in a vintage van. What kind of gas mileage does it get?” I watched from inside the van, nursing a cold glass of wine while Chuck talked with Rita’s fans. “Oh yes, darling,” you could hear Rita purring. 

The elk arrived after Rita’s fans departed. “Oh, look,” I said, snapping a picture of an elk standing in the next site. “Oh no, it’s chewing on their water hose!” Now we needed to worry about vigilante elk chewing on Rita’s parts.  

Hiking the Rim Trail

The next day we left Rita in the RV park with the elk. The park has a free shuttle bus, so we hopped on the first one. We were free from “Rita Worries” for the entire day. We got off at Mather Point and found the Rim Trail. The crowds were thick but thinned once we got away from the overlooks. 

Near Thunderbird Lodge, a mother ran in front of us and grabbed her child by the arm. “Stay with me,” she reprimanded him. She pulled him away from the fence separating us from the canyon. 

Chuck whispered in my ear, “Talk to the chicken.” He knew I was having flashbacks from a family trip to the Grand Canyon many years ago. A sassy five-year-old tormented me with a stuffed animal he carried everywhere. When you’d try to reason with him, he’d shove the stuffed critter in your face and say, “Talk to the chicken.” I wanted to fling the stuffed chicken into the canyon. 

I prayed for all the mothers chasing their sassy children in the park that day. 

Hermit’s Rest 

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We eventually reached Hermit’s Rest to stand under the bell for good luck. “Mary Colter, one of Grand Canyon’s most famous architects, built Hermits Rest in 1914 to look like an old miner’s cabin, complete with a giant fireplace and front porch.” It is stunning. 

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Not ready to return to Rita, we got a beer and sandwich at the Yavapai Lodge. It was full of happy people enjoying the sun and the intoxicating smell of juniper and cliffrose. A man with a gorgeous smile approached us and asked if his family could sit at our table. 

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It turns out they were from Michigan too. Before long, we mentioned our plan to hike a section of the Bright Angel trail the next day. The gorgeous smile guy lived in Phantom Ranch for five years and is a professional guide. He waved his hands and said, “No, no. Hike the South Kaibab trail; it is not nearly as crowded. Then have lunch at the Cameron Trading Post. They’ve got authentic Navajo food.” 

South Kaibab Trail  

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We arrived at the trailhead for the South Kaibab trail only to find the road closed to cars. Apparently, only buses are allowed. Cars were already parked along the road under the no parking signs. “Shit,” we said in unison. “Now what?” I asked Chuck. If he responded, I’m sure it wasn’t fit to print. 

While weighing the pros and cons of leaving Rita with the other illegally parked cars, a small parking lot appeared. It was like a mirage, but real. There was one spot left. Perhaps our luck had turned! 

If we’d read the brochure posted on the National Park Service’s website, we’d have known private vehicles were not allowed on the road leading to the trailhead. We’d also have known there would be mules on this trial and would have read the information provided in all caps and bold print. “Several recent encounters between hikers and mules resulted in injuries to the packers and the death of some mules. To ensure safety for yourself, other trail users, and the mule riders, when encountering mules on the trails:

  1. Step off the trail on the uphill side, away from the edge. 
  2. Follow the directions of the wrangler. Remain completely quiet and stand perfectly still.
  3. Do not return to the trial until the last mule is 50 (feet) past your position.” 

Forest

No, we did not know about the mule rules and were surprised to meet Forest on the trail. 

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We smelled Forest before we could see him. It was that musty, dusty outdoors scent so unique to horses. The creaking of the leather, stomping of hooves, and the louder than normal trail voices were also a dead giveaway that a team of animals with bossy wranglers were nearby. If you read Rita’s first chapter, “Chasing Nostalgia in a Vintage VW Campervan,” you’ll already know I’m not a fan of the four-legged creatures you can ride. 

Forest’s wrangler was a chatty Kathy and more than happy to talk to us while the other wrangler was dumping sand on the trail. It is a ritual that is repeated regularly. 

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Over the Edge

In the second chapter of Rita’s story, “Our Westfalia Camper is a Diva,” I mentioned I sometimes get a little anxious when hiking in dangerous places. (AKA, you could slip and fall to your death.) Seriously, how many people have died by falling in the Grand Canyon? I found an article using data from the book “Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon.” I should have read this before our trip, as it was oddly reassuring. Yes, people have fallen from the ledge but mostly because they were doing stupid shit like taking selfies or urinating into the canyon.

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There was one sorta close encounter with death. (Maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit.) We needed to pass another couple at a narrow point in the trail. They were going down into the canyon, and we were on our way out. The woman very graciously stepped aside because I’m assuming she was being polite to the old lady. (That would be me.) She stepped onto one of the flat rocks lining the trail. It wobbled a lot. She gesticulated her arms. Her hubby grabbed one of the flapping arms, and the wobbling stopped. In that horrifying second, I imagined her grabbing me and both of us flying off the trail.  

Ooh-Aah Point

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About a mile into the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail is the Ooh-Aah Point. According to Wikipedia, the point is named after a common reaction to the view. Because I have this weird fascination with people falling into the Grand Canyon and dying, I found an article about a Florida woman dying at Ooh-Aah point. She was hiking with friends and taking sunrise photos when she fell. I’d like to know what she was doing—taking a selfie? Tripped? Stood up after having sat on the edge and got dizzy? 

Cedar Ridge

We made it to Cedar Ridge without incident. Chuck walked way out to the edge. I didn’t join him for obvious reasons.   

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Cameron Trading Post 

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Our last adventure of the day before making camp was dinner at the Cameron Trading Post. We didn’t research it. We took Gorgeous Smiling Guy’s word it shouldn’t be missed and ordered their famous Navajo taco. I wanted a beer, but they don’t serve alcohol, so I settled for an Arnold Palmer. It was the second day without a shower, so I’m sure we were a bit gamey. Perhaps this is why they seated us in the back corner. The Navajo tacos were gigantic and super filling. We had leftovers for days.

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The Desert View Campground

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Do you have memories you are not certain are real or a fabrication of your imagination? Stuff you’ve stitched together based on old family pictures, movies, weird recurring dreams, and snapshots of actual memories. 

I have a very vivid one. I’m camping with my parents on a lake shore. I was very young. There are distant sounds of families talking and laughing. You can hear the water lapping on the shore. It is dark. Lights dance and twinkle across the lake. Campfire smoke drifts into the dream. 

While camping at the Desert View Campground in the Grand Canyon National Park, this memory was like a visitor in our campervan. I let it sit with me while I listened to other campers settle down. The campers had just witnessed a total lunar eclipse. Laughter bumped from campsite to campsite. Anxious chatter about the coming blood moon was sprinkled between the laughter.  

Chuck snored quietly. It was our third night without a shower, so the occasional breeze fluttering the windows’ canvas coverings was welcomed. Campfire smoke snuck in with the breeze. Someone in the campground had a persistent cough. A baby cried but was quickly quieted. This experience is the closest I’ve come to recreating that murky childhood memory. I fell asleep feeling oddly happy and nostalgic for my parents. 

There are many reasons to stay at the Desert View campground. The night sky, the view of the Grand Canyon, and the Indian Watchtower are a few obvious ones. The clean bathrooms and shaded campsites are the most important. 

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Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Rita was running like a champ! Maybe Tino had fixed her. Maybe standing under the bell at Hermit’s Rest was the good luck we needed. We had several hours to burn before our reservations at 2 pm for the Antelope Canyon Tour in Page, Arizona. 

Horseshoe Bend 

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 Our first stop was the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River. There is not much to say, but the bathroom sign said volumes. 

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Glen Canyon Dam

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Our second stop was the Glen Canyon Dam. Still feeling pretty good about Rita, we stopped for a look around. Rita was a bit spicy after our short stop at the dam. Chuck turned the key, and Rita’s engine turned over hard. It was like we just poked a sleeping bear. It sounded like a groan. We held our breath, and she roared to life. 

Lake Powell

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In hindsight driving on Lakeshore Drive around Lake Powell wasn’t our best idea. It was hot, and it was about the time Rita liked to take a siesta. We stopped a few times to snap a picture. Fearing Rita wouldn’t start, we cut the drive short. 

Antelope Canyon 

We hung out in the parking lot for several hours, waiting for our tour of Antelope Canyon. I think we both knew Rita was up to something and didn’t want her to be the reason we missed our tour of Antelope Canyon. We nearly missed the tour while planning this trip because we forgot you need to make reservations months in advance. Protip: It fills up quickly, so be sure to book early.

So we sat in our hot box called a Westfalia camper and waited. It was worth every second and all the effort getting there. When we posted pictures afterward on Social Media, friends said things like:

  • Fake news. Nature can’t be that beautiful. Must be photoshopped. It’s a conspiracy to sell plane tickets and Airbnbs.
  • I need to put this on my bucket list. Amazing. 
  • The world is a beautiful place.
  • I love that place! It’s magical. 
  • Amazing and Beautiful and Spectacular. 

They were all 100% correct except for the cheeky fake news comment. That was our friend Aubrey. We love her, and it was funny. 

Rick, our tour guide, was excellent. It wasn’t a photographer’s tour, but he pointed out all the best places to take pictures and was a wiz with iPhone cameras. 

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There are many more pictures in our gallery

Hello Avis 

Surprise, surprise, surprise, Rita wouldn’t start again. Chuck called Boyd again. This time the conversation went something like this, “This is Chuck. Rita won’t start again.” Boyd was pleasant as usual, asking all the previous triage questions. Chuck finally interrupted Boyd and said in a shockingly stern voice, quivering slightly, “I don’t trust her. I just can’t take any more.” It was like we were breaking up. Boyd was conciliatory, “Whatever you want. I totally understand…” There was more, but you get the idea. 

With the help of two kind souls, Chuck pushed Rita up a slight incline and around the corner to an empty parking spot behind the hotel where we were staying. (We desperately needed a hot shower.) No, Rita wasn’t a stick shift; believe me, we would have tried that old trick. The next day we rented a beautiful black Ford Edge from Avis in Page. It was love at first sight. Sure, I’d miss Rita; she’s like that ratty old sweatshirt with the really cool band logo from 1984. Of course, we named our new wheels Avis. 

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We cranked up the air, plugged our coordinates into the snazzy dashboard, turned up the music, and hit the road. 

Sedona, Arizona 

Hiking in the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness, we used our America the Beautiful Park Pass. While debating how to use the pass to pay for our entrance, another hiker walked by and said you’ve got to use your senior discount whenever possible. It’s one of the luxuries of being a senior citizen. It was hard not correcting him to explain, “No, we aren’t 62 yet; we’ve got a regular pass.” We exchanged a look as we watched the grey beard walk away. 

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Montezuma Castle & Tuzigoot

On our way to Jerome, Arizona, we stopped at a couple of National Monuments, Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot. I was secretly thrilled neither required me to hike in dangerous places. 

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Jerome, Arizona 

We fell in love with Jerome when we visited years ago while we were “Looking for Maynard on Route 66.” If you read that post, please keep in mind I wrote it 10 years ago. It was one of my first blog posts. We didn’t run into Maynard Keenan during this visit either.

But we had a hell of a pub crawl! 

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Goodbye Rita

We returned to Page, Arizona, to collect Rita from Affordable Auto Repair. You can’t rent a car in Page or anywhere in the area that allows you to return it in Las Vegas. We were destined for a final ride with Rita. 

“The van is running now but do not turn it off between here and wherever you are headed,” said the shop manager. Boyd knew a mechanic here too. “But we need to buy gas; she’ll never make it to Las Vegas.” It came out as a whine like petulant children. The shop manager shuffled from foot to foot near the van’s window and said, “It won’t hurt it to put gas in while it’s running. I can’t guarantee it will start, so don’t turn it off.”  

At that point, I’m sure we looked like frightened children staring at him with big saucer-like eyes. I don’t think he wanted to part from us because he continued, “At mile marker 18 just over the Utah border, there is a parking lot with porta-potties. They are a real eye sore; you can’t miss them. It is the trailhead for a cool hike into the hoodoos. But it’s not for you; next time you visit, you can hike it. Come visit me, and I’ll give you a list of the best local hikes.”

Rita’s Last Ride

We started Rita and waved goodbye as now we were friends with the shop manager. Why he offered the hike recommendation is still a mystery. The first two hours back to Las Vegas were uneventful. The porta-potties at mile marker 18 whizzed past the window, and now it was time to buy gas.

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I couldn’t exit Rita fast enough; the idea of filling her with gas while I was sitting in the passenger seat made my bowels turn to liquid. “Need to run to the restroom,” I tossed over my shoulder, leaving Chuck at the pump. I could see the guy at the next pump eyeing Chuck suspiciously. Rita was idling hard as Chuck stuck the nozzle into her side. 

I bought two large bottles of cold water and a handful of Tootsie Rolls suckers. Rita was still idling hard but with a full gas tank. Chuck was waiting behind the wheel. I held up the suckers offering him a sweet treat, and we were back on the road. We passed signs promising, “Mountain Driving, Strong Crosswinds, Falling Rocks, Road Construction.” The signs delivered all their promises. It was pretty much your worst nightmare. 

The van’s windows were tightly closed to prevent the HOT desert sand from blasting into our faces. The outside temp was 102 degrees. The dust clouds whirled past the window, sometimes forming dust devils to dance with the tumbleweeds. My filthy blue handkerchief was tacked to the window to create a makeshift sunscreen. It wasn’t doing much to keep the blistering sun from turning the vinyl seat red hot and burning my leg. “I’m pretty sure this is what the hell is like,” I said. “How much further?” I wondered and looked for Chuck’s iPhone.

Too Hot

“OMG!” I gasped and snatched up Chuck’s iPhone. I waved it in the air. Blew on it. I held it under the air vent. But the overheated symbol wouldn’t budge. I searched for my iPhone, but it, too, was too hot to handle. 

Rita was running rough. The last mechanic’s words rang in my head, “Don’t turn off the van. I can’t guarantee she’ll start.” The expressway was practically a parking lot. “What if she stalled and wouldn’t start?” Horrible nightmares were playing out in my imagination, including one where Chuck is run over. How would I call 911?! 

By the mercy of my guardian angel, the Apple symbol appeared on the iPhone’s screen. “Google Maps is back,” I shouted over the road noise. Carefully I laid his iPhone in the shelter of the seat’s shade and fanned it with a travel brochure. The entire time, Chuck remained stoic. Like a gladiator preparing for battle, he never took his eyes off the road. Quietly we took our place in the six lanes of afternoon rush hour traffic lumbering into Las Vegas. 

We pulled into the parking lot where we’d picked up Rita two weeks ago. Chuck turned the key, and Rita was quiet, ending our chase for nostalgia on Route 66.  

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Acknowledgments 

Rocky Mountain Campervans’ customer service gets five stars. They wanted Rita to start just as badly 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, “Be 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, we thought the problem was solved each time we fixed Rita. 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 their home and sharing a special meal with us. 

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

Photos

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