Adventures in a 1960 VW Van

In 1970 many people in their 20s had Volkswagen vans for daily transport, moving of household goods, and camping out at music festivals, but few attempted journeys as challenging as the one my beloved life-partner Janice and I had.

Our VW van was a 1960 tradesman’s van with a crude bench seat in front, and minimal fittings in the back. There was a Masonite partition between the two sections, and a commercial license plate on the front bumper hinting that this vehicle was never made for pleasure; it had been a ‘work truck’. Nonetheless, we were wanting a  VW van in the worst way, and the $300 price tag was just within our college students’ budget.

We had great plans for this German refugee of ten years in the trades, so we got it and painted with Battleship Grey Tremclad and a roller in the carport of our White Rock apartment.  That was when Janice’s brother Jimmy drank the turpentine, thinking it was the white wine.

Sharen wanted to paint our van in the “psychedelic” motif that was in vogue at the time, but the grey was on sale by the gallon at the local hardware store, so that would have to do; we could always add the psycho decor later.

Somebody must have heard me, because when I came out the next morning, I saw that one of them had artfully painted that bright red Fist of Revolution onto the van’s flat face in place of the factory VW logo. Sharen seemed pleased with the new addition, but feigned some annoyance when she pouted, “Now it looks like a big grey goose with a red nose!” And thus was our funky van christened with the last of the home-made wine: “The Grey Goose.”

But that van was really slow (even compared to other ‘VeeDubs’).  We had a ‘mechanical man’ neighbour who performed a compression test and determined that the reason it was so slow was because it had been using just 3 of its 4 cylinders to produce its meager power.

We chugged along for another few weeks when I spied another van collapsed out behind an old repair shop.  That one looked like it had been seriously  napalm bombed. Tires, headliner, upholstery, everything was burnt black, including some unrecognizable lump of what looked like a pile of charcoal left behind, stuck onto the rusted remains of the driver’s seat.

Walking around to the back, I tugged on the engine bay cover. Its hinges were burnt through and it came off in my hand, revealing what appeared to be a very new engine in undamaged condition.  We walked up to the office to ask this tough old lady about the dead van resting in her back lot.

“Yeah, it obviously caught fire,” she grunted. “The driver died, and the insurance company just left it here.  I’ve called them a few times, but they’re not interested in having it hauled away. Too bad. It was a brand new van. Guy only had it less than a month.  Yeah, the guy, he got burnt up real bad.  I don’t think they ever found all of him in there. You want it, I’ll let you have it for fifty bucks, but only if you get it out of here by the end of the week.”

We checked our wallets and told her we’d take it. And so it came to pass that our go-to parts source was “Rosie the Wrecker” at the south end of the Patullo Bridge.  For $5 she’d give you a wheel, a tire, and even a hubcap, if it had one. Maybe sit down and offer you a Lucky Logger beer to close the deal.  Rosie was OK.

The only thing wrong with the engine was we had to replace all the burnt wiring, change the filters, purge the fuel system, and change the oil. I called on a couple of my engineering student friends to give us a hand.  Two flats of beer later, and the install was done.  Sunday evening we switched on the ignition, punched the gas and, after some whining and popping, she came to life again with classic valve tapping and cooling fan whine.

“It’s… alive– IT’S ALIVE!!”

Our sluggish 1960 van had just gotten a relatively powerful 1970 heart transplant. Man, what a difference!  We could actually keep up with traffic now.  We had our funky looking van with an updated, brand new engine.

One short-coming was that it didn’t even have an AM radio, and we didn’t have enough bread left over to get an 8-track, so any music had to be provided by the crew.  Nobody minded—we had two guitars and a mandolin.

So, in the summer of 1970, Janice and I, her brother Jimmy (since recovered from his drinking bout) his girlfriend Sharen, and our other friend John Grogan, got some camping stuff together and took a trip up the Fraser River to see what real mountains looked like.

You need to understand that the front seat of our van was nothing more than a tatty bench. I removed that Masonite partition to make it easier to climb back and forth. Behind the seat was pretty much nothing but a metal shell. Before we departed I had built a nearly double-sized bunk, hinged at the center-line such that it could be folded lengthwise to form a long bench.  Very soon the crew decided the bench was a dumb idea and went for the far cozier option of the full bed with cushions and sleeping bags.  This was a more efficient use of storage space too, since all the camping gear could be stowed away under the larger bunk.

This entire circus was powered by that spanking new, mighty 55 horse engine, cranking through a 1960 transmission, all bouncing down the road on the stock springs and shocks.  I avoided thinking about the condition of the four replacement tires we got from Rosie, or of that pile of cinders we’d left still firmly melted around the driver’s seat of the donor van, now RIP at the bottom of a long drop at the end of a of a disused logging road.

Janice and I had been married for three years. I was the eldest of the lot and the owner of the van, making me the Captain of this rolling ship.  Janice was my ‘Operations Officer’ and defacto ‘den mother’ of the rest of our passengers.

‘Jimmy’ was Janice’s junior by four years. He’d come to Canada just emerging from a cloud of soul-searching, having recently decided to desert from an Alternative Service placement in New York’s Bowery district. He was a conscious objector of the Vietnam War who allowed his conscience get the better of him, thus escaping the oppressive regime in Washington that was sending young men in their thousands into what was considered by many to be an immoral war.

But Jimmy was a marked man, being sought by the FBI. They even came round his parents’ block, interviewing neighbours who might know of his whereabouts.Thanks to our Liberal Canadian government he could not be extradited back into Richard Nixon’s clutches (three cheers for Pierre Trudeau!).

Jimmy became our musical director, being the member with the largest song book, and also the biggest booming guitar. During our days on the road he was the usual sound track, and by night he was always the one to pull out the instruments and get everyone to gather at the campfire for hours of memorable song circles. He was also expert at building the most impressive campsite bonfires.

Jimmy met Sharen at a coffee house in Vancouver’s artsy Gastown district about a month before, where he’d been playing his folksongs. Midway through the evening this attractive young woman boldly came over to our table and asked if she might join us. By the end of the evening she and Jimmy had become fast friends, and she was invited to join us on our upcoming road trip. Born in Seattle, she came to see what the Vancouver scene had to offer. She seemed a bit kooky to me, but she was always ready with a nice smile and more outdoor experience than most of us. I couldn’t help liking her.

John Grogan (aka ‘New York Johnny‘) came up with Jimmy on a lark. A tall and gangly 18 year-old, he was the youngest of the bunch, but his boundless energy made him the life of the party. He could always be counted on to be the first to pitch in, get the campfire going, haul water, or provide entertainment by joking or having a go at some challenging physical feat like, say cliff diving into a bottomless pool or scrambling up some tricky rockface. He was quickly promoted from ‘team mascot’ to  ‘full member’. This completed the compliment of crew as we cast off the lines and headed off into the unknown wilds of the fabled Rocky Mountains.  Or so we thought!

In those days of ‘people in motion’, every town on the way to the mountains was filled with young people toting backpacks, standing on corners, hoping to catch a ride to paradise with other folks ‘groovin’ to the beat’.  It was a pilgrimage of self-discovery such as we’d never experienced before or since.

It was in the junction town of Hope where we picked up Mike and Dawn from California.  They had hooked up only days before down in Oregon and were going our way. Dawn was sitting on the curb reading a book, and Mike was this tall, blond, bearded and perfectly tanned mountain man. The girls in the back sat up and took notice–“Pick him! Pick him!”, they shouted, jumping up and down like 14 year olds.  The guys noticed he had a big rope coiled around his huge backpack and…an ICE-AXE strapped onto it. One of the boys quipped, “Wow, this dude looks like he’s ready to conquer some mountains.”  We decided to take the pair of them on board. And so, with Dawn and Mike now in, we were to become seven:  Jimmy, Sharen, John Grogan, Dawn, Mike, Janice and me.

Left to right: Dawn; Johnny; Janice; the Author; Sharen; Jimmy; Mike

As the miles rolled on, we all were steadily awe-struck by the natural beauty we never expected to see.  Our crew, noses pressed against the windows, were insisting we pull over to admire every waterfall and vista along the way. A few of them had wisely brought cameras from home, but they were nearly out of 35mm film already. The journey’s tone had risen by several notches and the increasing excitement level was palpable.HOCKING004

A few of the group were reading the book Dawn brought with her about some hipster in California called Ken Kesey. He had a gang of hippies he called the Merry Pranksters, and they were riding around the a converted school bus.  That was the day everyone  decided we would henceforth be the Canadian edition of those California pranksters.

Janice reads up on Kesey at Fraser Canyon campsite

And so it was that we bonded together on  that day at Spences Bridge, halfway up the Fraser Canyon, on our way to our fantasy land in the thin, cold, and fragrant airs of the Canadian Rockies.

We were all babes in the woods—none of us had so much as seen a real Rocky Mountain before, so every day, around every bend, it was like natural magic revealing itself.  It was our introduction to a world we never knew had existed.

We followed the wild Fraser River’s rapids up between narrow canyon walls as the terrain became drier and the weather got hotter. We camped along its banks and ate fresh fruit that grew high on the sunny slopes.  A day or two later we left the roaring Fraser to begin following the equally impressive Thompson River where it joins in at the town of Lytton.  From there the road runs east very close to a series of angry cataracts creating standing waves that reached above the roof of the van.  We sat in the shadow of the steep rocks and enjoyed the swirling winds at the waters edge, long into the afternoon.

We camped our way upstream past the towns of Kamloops and Salmon Arm. When we reached Revelstoke, we ended up stopping at their pub for a supper break. That stop turned into a wild Bacchanal with many like-minded folk, most of whom were like us — discovering life on the road this magical summer.  After ‘last call’, we had to say goodbye to the rest of our “Revellers”, and cram back into the Goose (or beneath it) to sleep very soundly.

I was rudely awakened by the sound of a garbage truck emptying a dumpster. It was 6AM and I felt dreadful.  I opened the driver’s door and tumbled out onto the empty parking lot, got back up and looked around.

The bin man nodded a ‘sorry’, and held up the two-fingered ‘peace sign’.  My head was pounding and my mouth was very dry. I was a bit dizzy and a bit queasy, but the clear mountain air felt good to my smoke-filled lungs.  They really ought to forbid smoking in pubs. Ugh, and that terrible skunkweed they were passing around at the next table. What in God’s Garden was that stuff?

Someone was stirring in the back of the Grey Gooose. The rear hatch opened upwards and one long, spidery arm came out to hang limply, knuckles dragging on the ground. Then a head-full of long red hair emerged.  It was Johnny. He raised his head and squinted at me like he was trying to remember who I was. Then the head dropped down once again as the other arm came out, and the rest of the body began to slinky down onto the pavement. At length this lanky giant lay in a shapeless heap. After some time had passed, the head rose up again, and there was John’s smiling face.  He flashed me a toothy grin and a cheerful, “Hey, Tom! Good morning!”

We decided to let the rest of the pranksters sleep until they woke up rather than attempt to convince them to fall in ranks for morning inspection. The two of us went around to the main street and found a small coffee shop just opening.  We chose a booth and sat behind a full pot of fresh coffee and I asked John about his plans for the future.  He admitted he didn’t really have any, but he did say he was thinking of living in the mountains some day. It seemed like a great idea; land was cheap, and maybe he could grow enough vegetables to tide him over the winter.

When we returned to the van, some of the crew were awake. It took us about 20 minutes to convince the rest of the pranksters to get it together. There was a gas station at the corner, and the kid who was opening was good enough to let them use his rest rooms.  None of them were in the mood for a hearty breakfast.

Our next stop was Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park. Now we felt like we were really getting into the mountains.  From the summit campground, trails radiated out in all directions.  We hiked steep trails past wild, rushing ‘brooks’ where one false move could send a hapless hiker downstream to some serious injuries.  Other trails led to stunning views of jagged peaks above icy glaciers. Oh, we truly were ‘in the mountains’!  We hung around ‘Glacier’ for several days, but we had barely scratched the surface of all there was to see and do there. We swore we would return again soon to see more of this alpine wonderland.

By then I had stopped worrying about the Goose’s foibles and began to take her mechanical reliability for granted. Regular fill-ups and oil and tire checks seemed to be all she needed in order to keep ticking along. She was the ‘Official Airline of the Canadian Pranksters’.

We passed through Yoho National Park in one day, stopping only to clamber to the base of a very tall waterfall that formed cyclonic winds of air and water around us the higher we got, until we could finally climb no higher.

As we neared a crucial road junction, we encountered some fellow travellers coming from the other direction. They warned us that both Banff and Lake Louise had been overcrowded with “gorby tourists”. Soon there were about a dozen of us standing in a circle swapping tales of our travels.  Somebody began passing around some smoke that was definitely not ‘skunkweed’. 15 minutes later the pranksters had decided that our time would be better spent were we to skip those touristy centres in favour of Jasper National Park.

Heeding their advice, we turned left at the major intersection of the Trans Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway.  That seemed to be a good decision because the vistas just kept getting more awesome the further north we travelled. We passed some unbelievably turquoise alpine lakes and a beautiful old lodge constructed of logs, then the road began climbing to Bow Summit, one of the two high passes en route to the townsite of Jasper, farther to the north.

More azure lakes! We took time to do some short hikes to several more thundering waterfalls, then the road twisted around on itself between steep rock walls and equally steep drop-offs, until we arrived at the base of Parker’s Ridge.

We pulled the van over and got out onto a great field of ice and snow.

How crazy to be able to gambol in all that snow with the sun blazing down under such a deep blue sky. From there  we hiked uphill to the crest of the ridge, far above timberline. What we saw on the other side really took our breath away. High snow-covered mountains  stretched away into the distance for as far as we could see. We sat down to rest and to take in that stunning view. It felt like we really had arrived at our destination.

“Rocky Mountain High!”

Could anything top this?

(End of Part One) “I just can’t stop this ramblin'”!

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