Rattling Rita, our vintage Westfalia Camper is a diva. She required afternoon siestas, regular spa treatments, and constant attention from her fans everywhere we stopped.
Our Westfalia Camper is a Diva: ACT II
If you’ve not read ACT I of Rita’s story, Chasing Nostalgia in a Vintage VW Campervan, stop and read it before reading ACT II. I promise you’ll enjoy the second ACT more. You’ll learn Rita’s origin story and get a flavor for her intricacies. You don’t want to miss the first stops on 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. Now we were back on the road for ACT II.
El Morro National Monument
I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. You meet someone, and a conversation happens. Suddenly, they are everywhere you go. First, they are outside the store, then in the restaurant by the strip mall, and at the post office. Somehow they know your name. But their name is a complete mystery. Now you are too embarrassed to say, “So what was your name again?” That is how it was with me and the “El Morro National Monument.”
For weeks Chuck talked about El Morro like I should know exactly what he was talking about. I should have just Googled it when I had the chance. Now I had no cell service, and our next stop was El Morro. So I fessed up. “Remind me, why is El Morro a National Monument?”
It was as if he was waiting for the question. “It’s a large rock with petroglyphs. The pioneers carved their names on it,” he said very neatly.
The irony wasn’t lost on me. “Ah yes, now I remember. I think it was in the book I read by Sandra Dallas, Westering Women.”
I scanned the horizon, hoping to see it. Surely if it has been a popular spot for hundreds of years, you could easily identify it. When we turned into the entrance, I was a bit shocked. I would have driven right by if it weren’t for the large National Monument sign. Thank God I wasn’t trekking around this desert in 1750 looking for water. I would have died, I thought ruefully.
Little did I know there would be plenty of opportunities to flirt with death. The helpful Park Ranger handing out advice and trail guides suggested we go in the opposite direction than the arrows on the trail map. “I find it’s much easier,” he said, leaning in and pointing to the arrows. “When you are on the top, groove marks cut into the rock mark the trail. Stay between them and don’t get too close to the edge. We don’t want you falling off.” He smiled.
“Wait, what? Are we going on top of the rock? I thought the carvings were along the bottom?” I said. His comment about it being “much easier” was still ringing in my ears.
“You’ll want to see the Ancestral Puebloan ruin, Atsinna. It is on top of the rock,” he said, still smiling. “Oh, a rattlesnake was spotted near the steps this morning,” he said almost as an afterthought. “Be on the lookout for it.”
I like hiking, but recently my depth perception has been slightly off. I’m not sure how to describe it. Add in the possibility of falling to my death while hiking on an uneven, slippery sandstone terrain, and I swear my vision blurs. It’s like I’m taking baby steps on a very narrow balance beam. You may be thinking, “Then why are you hiking to the top of El Morro?” FOMO. Yep. Fear of Missing out. I’ve sat out before, and I’ve always regretted it.
The view of the plains was worth the battle with my anxiety. Exploring the ruins ignited forgotten fears from raising two independent kids. “I wonder how many Indian toddlers fell to their death,” I asked Chuck as we hiked across the smooth rock. I shuddered, thinking about it.
We didn’t see any rattlesnakes, but we did meet a friendly couple. They’d just ascended El Morro going the hard way. On their way, they found his great-grandfather’s inscription on the rock trail. His grandfather, Isaac Holland, was part of the famous Beale Wagon Train. Feeling a bit giddy since I hadn’t just died by sliding off the edge, I asked if we could get their picture.
After finding Isaac’s inscription and most of them mentioned in the guidebook, we returned to Rita. We ate lunch slowly, and people watched.
School kids were lining up to get on their bus, and construction workers sat in the shade taking a break. I’ll admit we were procrastinating a little. We were both thinking, “Will Rita start?” Chuck turned the key. She rattled to life.
El Malpaís National Monument
The road stretched in front of us in a wavy, surreal line. There were no cars, cell service, gas stations, or buildings of any type. This was probably not the ideal destination for Rita, our temperamental Westfalia Camper. The Ranger Station was closed too. “The name El Malpais is from the Spanish term Malpais, meaning badlands, due to the extremely barren and dramatic volcanic field that covers much of the park’s area.” Thank you, Wikipedia.
Occasionally we’d pass a sunburned hiker walking on the side of the road. The original plan was to go hiking. We feared we’d find ourselves stranded and looking like one of those sunburned hikers if we stopped. We barely slowed down to take any pictures. The lava fields looked like they bubbled up from a hidden spring. I scanned the horizon looking for a volcano but found none.
As a midwesterner, I’m enchanted by the mile-long freight trains in the west. I have no idea if they are a mile long. This may be a gross exaggeration. We trailed alongside one particular train for miles. It felt like a race, a bit of much-needed entertainment from the monotony of a long drive.
Socorro, New Mexico
Do you remember the 1984 Faberge Organics shampoo commercial with Heather Locklear? (I wanted her hair. I’ll wait here while you watch it.)
When I think about my cousins, that commercial springs to mind. My maternal and paternal great-grandparents had a bunch of kids. And their kids all had kids- and so on, and so on. Facebook makes keeping in touch a lot easier, but there are a lot of them. When I put two and two together, I realized a visit with my cousin Janice who lives in Socorro, New Mexico, was possible; I was nearly as happy as Heather was in the 1984 shampoo commercial.
Janice’s dad, Uncle Bill, was my mom’s twin brother. I have this frightening memory of him. He took me hunting for nightcrawlers. Mind you, this was after dark, like full-on night, and I was only 8 or 9 years old. It was my job to watch for bears while he scrambled around in the bushes catching worms. I didn’t see any bears. I have no idea if he caught any nightcrawlers.
Janice’s mom, Aunt Mary, was wonderfully exotic. Everything my mom wasn’t. She was Italian, direct, loud, and had the most wonderful laugh. Our visits to their cabin on Boot Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were the highlight of my summers.
Socorro isn’t exactly on Route 66, but the slight detour was worth it. Janice knows how to create an atmosphere. Besides the largest charcuterie board I’ve ever seen, the Route 66 tablecloth her parents purchased on their honeymoon graced the table. One of my cousins commented on a picture I posted on Facebook, “They got their kicks on Route 66?” My niece said, “That is some charcuterie!”
The wine with dinner fueled the reminiscing. I love hearing family stories. They all pre-date me. My invitation to the family arrived about ten years too late – all the fun happened before I arrived. “I always thought your dad was so handsome,” Janice said wistfully. “He was so kind and gave Jeff and me really great advice when we were thinking about buying property.” This jolted me slightly. It wasn’t the first time someone described him as handsome. I suppose he was in a rugged cowboy kind of way. It was the advice comment that got me. He didn’t hand it out often.
Once my sister called him, frantic because her cat had climbed a tree and wouldn’t come down. She was confident it needed to be rescued. He said, “Look out the window. Do you see a bunch of dead cats hanging from the tree branches? It got itself up there, and it will get itself down.” You’d have thought that was that. No, he arrived after dark with a ladder. The cat leaped into his arms. He was a softy. I still look for dead cats hanging from trees. I’ve yet to see one.
Why We Took This Trip
A comment he made to my mother changed my life. It was, in many ways, why we took this trip. My father had heart disease and died when he was 65. I overheard him say to my mother, “I wasted way too much time chasing the almighty buck.” The sadness in his voice was profound. He died not long after. I was in my early twenties.
Retirement at the first possible moment was always the plan. On May 4th, Chuck and I retired from our jobs at the University of Michigan. To our colleagues, we said, “May the force be with you!” On May 5th, we flew to Las Vegas for our Route 66 Road Trip in a vintage van. A perfect way for us to make the transition into our new life. Route 66 is associated with new beginnings. Meeting Rita was an unexpected gift. A reminder life is short, and if it hands you lemons, you better know how to make lemonade.
Chuck’s phone chirped with a message from Boyd. They’d found a new starter. There was a mechanic in Santa Fe who could install it. Can you be there on Thursday?
Rita’s First Spa Treatment
We posted on Facebook, “Rattling Rita’s spa treatment! Should be on the road soon.”
Friends responded with “Yikes!!! Is Rita still rattling?” and “OMG, She’s getting the works!!”
My sister texted, “Come on, Rita.” Perhaps my sister is coming around? She wasn’t a fan of our idea to spend two weeks camping in a Westfalia Camper.
Later that day, I got a text message from my son.
Son: How is Rita? Your post was very stressful.
Me: Much better. Thanks.
Me: She works great now. The starter was bad from the get-go. Glad it is fixed now.
Son: You guys didn’t have to pay for it did you?
Me: Oh no.
It’s shocking when suddenly the roles switch between children and parents.
Our original plan was to camp near Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico after we left Santa Fe. As I mentioned before, running out of gas was a worry. And now we were a bit anxious Rita wouldn’t start when we turned the key. The wildfire updates from my sister were flying at me like live updates from the Super Bowl. We figured our family would never forgive us if we died in a wildfire because of Rita. So, we changed plans.
The El Rancho Hotel
We got a room at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico. Chuck described it as an inexpensive, historic hotel on Route 66. My expectations were obviously set very low. Entering the lobby is the closest I’ve come to time travel. When the charming desk clerk handed us the keys, it was like he waved a magic wand and cast a giddy spell. We couldn’t stop smiling. Anxious to explore our new space, we collected our gear from Rita. We didn’t look back. Maybe I imagined it, but it felt like Rita was pouting like a 13-year-old girl.
The El Rancho Hotel was where all the Hollywood stars stayed during its heyday. Again, I found myself looking for John Wayne. I imagined him strolling down the lobby staircase or lounging near the fireplace. With our squeals over the decor and fondling of the lobby’s furniture done, we found the 49ER Lounge. It was time to celebrate our good fortune.
Rock music was humming in the background, and there were seats at the bar. We were in our element. A few cocktails later, a security guard came around the bar and stood in front of us. “Do you own a white VW van with a pink flamingo on the bumper?”
Oh God, what now? I thought. Has she erupted into a ball of flames?
“Yes,” Chuck said, jumping up.
The security guard cocked his head to the side and said into the walkie-talkie attached to the bulletproof vest with “Security” in large white letters across the back, “I found them.” Then he looked at us, “You’ve left your lights on.”
Relief flooded through me as I suppressed a cocktail-fueled giggle. Chuck dashed out to deal with Rita. I was confident her battery would be dead. A few minutes later, he returned, “Rita started. No problem.”
The security guard returned after his shift ended. “How did you know we owned the van?” I asked.
He laughed and said, “I was a profiler in another life. It wasn’t hard to figure out.”
Rita’s Trip to the Emergency Room
Our stay at El Rancho buoyed our spirits. We were ready for the Grand Canyon South Rim. We held our breath, and Rita started. Just a quick stop in Flagstaff for lunch and gas, then we’d set up camp in the RV park. Fingers crossed, we’d sneak in a hike before dinner.
Everything was going according to plan. But you knew this was coming. Rita wouldn’t start again. This time we were at a busy gas station in downtown Flagstaff. We didn’t panic as much because now we were pros. Chuck fiddled with the switch. Maybe Rita just needed a quick siesta? We Googled reasons why a Westfalia camper doesn’t start. Basically, waste time avoiding eye contact with the millions of people who wanted our spot by the gas pump. There was literally nowhere to push her.
After 30 minutes, it was time to call Boyd. Of course, Boyd knew a mechanic. A tow truck was called.
Boyd’s Flagstaff Mechanic
Rita was loaded onto a flatbed truck and taken to Boyd’s Flagstaff mechanic. After she was unloaded, the mechanic didn’t mince any words, “Get everything you want out of the van now.” We grabbed our backpacks, camera, and a few things to entertain ourselves for the next hour or so. The mechanic disappeared. The tow truck driver waved goodbye. We stood alone in the driveway. It had an odd feeling of abandonment, like when your mom forgets to pick you up from school, and you are the only person in the parking lot.
We wandered over to the front of the shop, where there was a small covered porch and a bench. The shades were all closed, and the door was locked. We rang the doorbell. The door opened, and the same mechanic who, two minutes ago, told us to get our stuff out of the van stood there. He had a name patch with Drew stitched on it. He didn’t say anything, just looked at us. It felt like a game of chicken. Who would talk first? Finally, Drew said, “I told him we close at 5. We’ve got a lot going on today. We don’t work on the weekends.” It was after 2 on Friday the 13th. I could feel panic lurking in the weeds.
“Fill out the form and put the keys in there,” Drew pointed to a locked metal box attached to the building and firmly shut the door. Chuck filled out the form and put the keys in the box.
We sat in silence on the small bench.
Another customer pulled into the parking lot. He rang the doorbell, and Drew opened it. They played chicken too. This time the customer spoke first. We watched like school kids observing older kids on the playground. Drew shut the door. The man turned to us and grinned, “Hi, my name is Darrin. Drew is always like that at first. He’ll warm up.”
It didn’t take long, and we were sharing our story. I screwed up and called him Darryl. He laughed and said, “No, that is my other brother.” Laughter bubbled. Now we were practically friends. Eventually, Darrin offered to let us stay at his townhouse in Flagstaff if they couldn’t fix Rita today. “Don’t worry, I’m not a serial killer,” he reassured us. Now nervous laughter bubbled. “Here is my number,” Darrin said. “I’m going to run some errands. I’ve got nothing planned for tonight. I can give you a lift to a hotel.”
Darrin left. We peeked around the side of the building. Rita was in the same spot. It was now after 3:30. We needed a backup plan. Our new best friend, Google, was opened. We found a hotel and car rental agency and agreed to pull the trigger at 4:30 if Rita wasn’t fixed. By that point, we’d retrieved everything we owned from Rita. It was piled around us on the tiny front porch. We looked like homeless people.
At 4:15, Darrin returned. We said a ride to the hotel would be great. We’d repay him by buying his dinner. We were about to pile all our crap into his car when Rita poked her grill around the corner of the building.
An older mechanic with Tino stitched on his shirt, and a thick German accent opened her door and got out. “Fixed,” he said. Rita sat there humming, waiting for us to load all our shit back into her. “The battery connection was bad,” Tino said as he walked by us and through the shop’s front door.
“Tino is a German genius when it comes to cars,” Darrin said. “Did you guys still want to have dinner?” he asked, hopefully.
“Oh man, sorry, we’ve got a two-hour drive to the Grand Canyon,” Chuck said. Darrin looked so sad.
I sent a picture to my son when we were back on the road.
Son: I knew this was going to happen.
The Final ACT
We hope you enjoyed reading the second Act of Rita’s story, “Our Westfalia Camper is a Diva.” You’ve come this far on the journey with us; you don’t want to miss the final ACT, “Our Last Ride in our Westfalia Camper.” 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 it.
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.
And lastly, to our writers’ group for their feedback and ultimately improving this story.
We’ve got plenty of pictures in our galleries. Check them out, share them, and then share this post. Let us know if you find a picture you love.
- Route 66 Pictures
- National Parks and Monuments
- Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona
- Jerome and Sedona, Arizona
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