How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive*

Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.
— Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

True confessions. Yes, I still drive a VW Van. In the summer of 1969, after hitchhiking up the Pacific Coast, across Canada, into New York, and stopping to meet up with my college roommate in Chicago, I purchased a marginally running VW bus with my entire life savings of $400.  The original tiny home on wheels. Volkswagen busses were high on the coolness factor during the sixties. You could always assume a ride–when a VW bus came rambling down the highway–and join the party.

Before: Old engine pulled from 1984 Vanagon

Now, almost a half century later, I reflect on the fate of my fifth bus, a 1984 Vanagon, suffering from a tired engine. As we age, repairs become more commonplace, in the form of hip and knee replacements, bypass heart surgery, and treatments for cancer, to name a few, with the intention of extending our quality of life. This vehicle, that provided a sense of tranquility and shelter over the years, was more than an assemblage of steel, glass, and wires. A place of refuge might best describe what the bus offered me.

In a culture that encourages discard and replace, rather than maintain and keep, why not give the VW a second life that offers me a sense of joy when I am behind the wheel. What better practice than to reflect on the relationship between how we take care of ourselves and how we care for our possessions. In a world where more devices are becoming extensions of ourselves, we have to be careful not to fall into a progress trap, a technological improvement that turns out in the longer term to be a backward step. Just look at all the labor-saving devices, yet we constantly hear the American mantra: I am so busy, I don't have enough time, I am so tired. Where has our saved labor gone?

After: Rebuilt engine

Back to 1969, I am waiting for a ride on the Pacific Coast highway in Big Sur, and someone before me has scratched on the back of a highway sign, Dig the Slowness. Driving down the highway at 55-60 mph in my VW bus is keeping true to that philosophy.

Keep on truckin',


* How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive refers to definitive repair manual that was published in 1969 and owned by every do it yourself hippie mechanic.