“I don’t know if I’m gonna make it.”
“Why, what’s going on,” Cory asks over the phone. I can barely hear him over the roar of his ‘60 Volkswagen Type II panel at (relative) speed. He’s on his way from San Francisco to Reno to pick up four new all-terrain tires for the eleventh annual Shasta Snow Trip, running it down to the wire. I’m somewhere near the Wyoming/Utah border, rolling West in my ‘65 VW camper. It’s 3 a.m., I haven’t slept since Nebraska and it’s brutally cold.
“I’m just now getting to the Utah border,” I howl, competing with the supercharged sub-arctic wind blasting through the cracked old door seals of my Bus. “I blew a front wheel bearing in Buttfuck, Wyoming and had to replace it in a parking lot. And it’s so damn cold that I have to stop every hour and a half to hang out in a gas station to warm up my feet so I don’t get frost bite.”
“Damn, dude, that sucks. But you’re almost here, pick up some energy drinks and just charge it.”
“I’m gonna try, but it’s pretty touch and go. It could be because I’m so out of it, but I think the other front wheel bearings are growling, and I’m running out of time.”
“When do you think you’ll be here if you make it?”
“God, I have no real idea, maybe two or three in the morning tomorrow if I’m lucky. But I’ve gotta let you go, I’m running over hard-packed ice on the interstate at sixty right now.”
“Damn. Good luck.”
Weather forecasters all over the Midwest were doing their best Chicken Little impersonations the last week of January, 2011. A real hate monger of a blizzard was scheduled to drag its long, cold claws across the soft belly of the heartland on the days before the eleventh annual Shasta Snow Trip, a Volkswagen Bus exclusive outlaw adventure rally. “Temperatures well below zero . . . wind gusts of 40 mph . . . two feet of snow,” the voice in my head echoed as I desperately wrenched on my Bus, Isabella, to prepare her for an odyssey of abuse. “You’re headed right into it, you fool,” the voice said, “just to put yourself into another dangerous situation. You’re risking your life to risk your life.”
There’s some truth to that. There aren’t many people in the world that’d drive a slow, dangerous, heat challenged 46-year-old car through 1900 miles of apocalyptic winter just to get back behind the wheel to knowingly flirt with the edge for a few days on Northern California’s most treacherous back roads. And, of course, there’s the 1900 mile haul back . . .
The great storm was coming down from Canada. It looked like I’d skirt the worst of it if I left on Sunday, January 29th. The Shasta Snow Trip wouldn’t officially start until 4:20 a.m. (ha-ha, yeah . . .), Friday, February fourth. This would give me five days to arrive in Northern California, more than enough time to deal with any potential breakdowns on the way out. Well, Sunday still found me prepping Isabella for the journey. I gave her a final check sometime in the mid-afternoon and remembered at the very last minute that I hadn’t checked the transmission fluid. It was a damn good thing I did, it was almost bone dry. I spent the rest of the day trying to source the correct transmission fluid. By the time I filled the transmission back up it was too late and I was too tired to hit Interstate 80.
I began the great western trek Monday morning. I didn’t encounter any signs of the storm until a few miles before I crossed into Nebraska, where I encountered a steady spattering of big, wet snowflakes.
The farther West I traveled the worse the weather got. Snowfall stayed about the same, but temperatures dropped like a sex offender’s pants and the wind began to blow the Bus all over the road, not to mention the snow, which dreamily snaked back and forth across the slate grey pavement in wisps. At night, after a few more hours of accumulation, this blowing snow had piled up into one to three foot long triangular drifts up to six inches deep that looked like the teeth of some great predatory beast gnawing into the roadway. Gradually these teeth transformed into strips of hard-packed ice as vehicle after vehicle compressed the snow into the cold highway. Blasting over these horrendous incisors at 55 mph in the angry wind was a bit frightening. Hitting the lip of ice at any angle but straight on upsets the suspension of the car just enough to send it into a brief yet unnerving glide across the ice. This ends with an anus puckering jolt as the tires hook back up to the road with the car ever so slightly skewed off course. Many miles of this in combination with annoyingly persistent high winds and obscenely low temperatures took its toll on me. I found myself a cheap room at a Super 8 at around 9 p.m. in York, Nebraska, some fifty miles short of my goal for the night.
It wasn’t the wind, the snow or the teeth that stopped me, it was the cold. This was the case all the way into Utah. Ambient temperatures where hovering around the 0 degree mark that first night with a wind chills of -13. I wore thermal underwear, jeans, a thick sweater, a pair of winter hunting socks, a pair of hiking boots, quilted coveralls, two winter coats, a woolen winter hat and a pair of fleece gloves. No match for this kind of cold.
My feet were taking the brunt of the abuse. A previous owner of my Bus, like just nearly every previous owner of a split window Bus, felt the pedal pan under the front floor that blocked water, muck and cold air from shooting up into the passenger compartment was frivolous. He probably threw it away, just like that rear bumper the poor girl was missing when I first got her. Anyhow, I stopped early because I could no longer feel my toes when I tried to move them. After I booked my room at the luxurious York, Nebraska Super 8 I picked up a pair of insulated rubber galoshes at Wal-Mart. The tag claimed they would keep my feet warm all the way down to negative forty.
I woke to the same high winds I hoped would die off the night before. Great. And I forgot to put cardboard over the engine compartment vents to keep snow from blowing into the engine bay. Upon opening Isabella’s deck lid I found her 1.7 liter, dual-carbed heart half buried in snow. Photo opp! It was at this point that I discovered all the batteries I left in the Bus, the batteries in my camera, the batteries charging on the parcel tray, and the brand new, unopened spares in my gear bag were completely drained by the cold. Damn.
I scooped as much snow out of Isabella’s engine compartment as I could with my hands, made sure all the electrical connections were clean and dry and gave the ignition key a twist. She wasn’t too happy to get going, but after a bit of coaxing she fired and I let her idle for a few minutes to warm up while I took advantage of Super 8’s continental breakfast. After loading up on free cereal and juice I pulled on my cold weather gear, hopped in the driver’s seat and took off sideways out of the Super 8 parking lot.
The Bus ran pretty much incident free all day, cruising at a confident 60 mph. I can’t say much for me, though. The winds blew stronger then the night before and the wind chill was lower already, even in the light of day.
Combine an ambient temperature of -5 with a 60 mph cruising speed and you get a wind chill of -40 degrees. That’s what my feet had to contest with. And I’ll be damned if my new Wally World boots were performing as advertised. I had to stop every hour to hang out in gas station for a while or so to keep frostbite at bay. But if I stayed long enough to warm my feet completely the Bus would cool down to a point where it was hesitant to start. Awesome. After a few stops I discovered that five to seven minutes was an ideal warm up (cool down) time.
Somewhere around Kearny, Nebraska, Isabella’s hex bar carburetor linkage began to bind up from the cold. After some searching I found a self service car wash from which I could re-lube the linkage, perform a few checkups and get myself out of the murderous wind for a while.
I had to dig out a snow drift to make my way into the only unlocked wash bay, but goddamn was it worth it. The temperature inside felt at least twenty degrees warmer (which was pretty much spot on according to the reported wind chill of -20 there in the mid-afternoon). I shot the old, frozen lube off the linkage with carb cleaner and experimented with Tri-Flow, spray on white lithium grease and WD40. The white lithium grease seemed to free things the best, so I gave the heim joints on the linkage a liberal coating as well as the pedal pivots under the front of the Bus and any other spots I thought might need a bit of re-lubrication. I was back on the road in good mechanical health! But not before I 86’d my brand new Android cell phone in the snow. Fuck.
It took an hour to find a Sprint rep in Lexington. I ended up hitting up a Best Buy where I switched to a backup phone I brought just in case. This took entirely too long, of course, as Sprint’s corporate servers were glitching out due to the extreme weather conditions. I came out of Best Buy two hours later with a new (old) phone and a bad attitude about losing even more drive time. But finding a small note in the tell-tale handwriting of a young female under the windshield wiper of my Bus improved my mood a bit, “My name is Marlie, I’m 23 and I like your car. Call me (308)xxx-xxxx.”
I stopped at a Wal-Mart in Ogallala to warm my bones a few hours later and ended up rewiring my headlights/fog lights in the parking lot. Freezing, exhausted and overwhelmed by the amount of ground I had left to cover in a little less than three days (at this point I’d only covered 629 miles in two days of driving. I had 1,372 miles to go), I was considering booking the cheapest room I could find that wasn’t a meth cooking front and throwing in the stiff, frozen towel. It was just then that I got a call from Cory.
“What up, bro, where you at?”
“I’m still in fucking Nebraska, freezing my ass off. It’s -20 degrees with wind chill here, I’m wearing a snowsuit, two winter coats, and a pair of boots rated to -40 and I’m still fucking freezing,” I whined while cutting out a length of bad wire from under the dash — the ability to multi-task is essential for successful long-distance travel in a vintage automobile.
“Damn, that sucks,” Cory replied from the relative warmth of San Francisco, which appeared as a tropical heaven of immaculate white sands and glistening topless women in my frostbitten mind’s eye. I imagined Cory phoning me from atop his surfboard, gliding along the crest of a perfect cerulean break — he’s been driving old Volkswagens all his life, he can multitask, too.
“Yeah, I’m in a Wal-Mart parking lot right now re-wiring my headlights. I don’t know if I’m gonna make it, man.”
“What? Come on, you’re already on the road, just keep going. Are you running your Mr. Buddy heater,” he asked, referring to the portable, “safe” heater that most of the Shasta trip veterans run while camping in their Busses the night before the event. This small propane heater features a tip sensor which automatically cuts power should the heater topple and a low oxygen sensor that’s supposed to shut the thing off long before one drifts off into the black abyss of eternal slumber.
“I tried running it, but the roads here are too bumpy, it keeps shutting off. And it’s not just that, it’s . . . I don’t know, I’ve got a lot of play in the steering wheel. I knew my steering center pin needed replacing before I left, but I didn’t have the time or money to do it. I thought it’d be OK, but I think it’s getting worse from constantly fighting the wind. And I don’t like the idea of it snapping in half on curvy mountain road.”
“How much does the wheel move before you start to turn?”
“Maybe an eighth of a full turn”
“Eh, that’s not too bad. My steering wheel used to turn almost half way around before it’d work and I did four Shastas like that. It’s probably your drag link. That’s an easy job; we could do it the night before Shasta at the rampaging spot.”
“I dunno, man. …”
“You’re probably just tweaking out because you’re tired and cold. Just take a break for a while, warm up, hit up some coffee and food and hit the road.”
“Yeah, maybe. I’m gonna try and keep going,” I said, testing the now re-wired headlights to make sure they work. They do, multi-tasking for the win. “I’ll keep you posted.”
COMING SOON: Wiley Wheelbearings in Wyoming, Undulating UH-cross Utah, Nocturnal Nincompoopery in Nevada, and Cacophonous Calamity in California!