I don’t know exactly when I ditched Nebraska, but if I’d seen that great “WYOMING” sign I might’ve pulled over and set off a barrage of celebratory fireworks. I didn’t notice the sign for the same reason I don’t notice any number of road markings on long trips in my Bus, I was tuned into the vibrations of the vehicle.
Driving an ancient VW halfway across the country is nothing like hopping into a Honda Civic and just plain going. The experience is so drastically different that comparing the two is like comparing traveling in . . . well, a Honda Civic, to traveling on the back of a middle-aged pro football player with no tongue. You know he can run, but probably not as well as he did in his prime. Lots of parts have broken and been replaced over the years (knees, hips, etc.), but you can’t be sure what’s in healthy working order or what’s a few yards away from breaking after so many years of abuse — he sure as hell can’t clue you in, he can’t talk. You’ve got to learn to listen carefully to every whine, growl or belch.
Yeah, it’s pretty much like that. Only an old VW will never get busted for sending boner pics.
It felt good to be free of Nebraska. That state was two days of carnivorous shit; setbacks piling on setbacks, each one chipping away at my window of time. Wyoming was a new hope. Wyoming was Luke to Nebraska’s Anakin Skywalker. But the cruise across the cowboy state was not without incident, my determination continued to be put to the test.
The bitter cold temperatures I encountered in Nebraska were colder still in Wyoming. Nighttime temps with wind chill were hanging around the -30 degree notch. Standing out in the open with this behemoth of a storm touching me directly redefined my entire notion of “cold.” The air itself felt like it was out to get me.
When the deep freeze wind blew, it blew right through me — through the threads of my clothes, through the pores of my skin, through the sinew of my muscles, through the marrow of my bones. Every physical system in my body fired emergency signals to my brain, which was locked in a tumble cycle of fear, disbelief, frustration, anger, discouragement and just plain pain.
The VW didn’t seem to notice, she could’ve rolled straight through to the coast at a steady 60 mph, no problem. I was the weak link, here.
I had no recourse but to continue my strategy of stopping for five minutes every hour and a half to warm up in gas stations. I hated having to do this because I knew how quickly these stops would add up in overall lost time, but I couldn’t come up with any other options.
My enemy the storm proudly revealed a new kind of hate just outside of Rawlins, Wyoming, hard packed ice running from shoulder to shoulder on the roadway.
“Oh, shit.” I clicked on my emergency flashers while slowly lifting my foot off the accelerator. Isabella tracked fairly straight on the slick, uneven surface, and seemed to turn where and when I wanted her to. And I knew the road was essentially straight until Rock Falls, having driven this route a few times before. I derived a small amount of comfort from these realizations. But, shoulder to shoulder ice on the interstate is just plain terrifying; no amount of compounded small comforts can change that.
I was confident that if I kept my speed down, crowded the shoulder and generally drove with the mindset of an open heart surgeon (“slow and deliberate, now, slow and deliberate”) that I could traverse the I-80 ice rink for many miles relatively clear of the shivering specter of death.
But what about the other guy? I was only as safe as the most ham-fisted lunatic currently on the highway. A road in this condition doesn’t just laugh in the face of swift evasive maneuvers; it twists them into catalysts of disaster themselves.
I trundled along the frozen highway at 30 to 40 mph behind a line of semi trucks with their hazards on for at least an hour. There were occasional breaks in the ice, but they were never any longer than a few hundred feet. Speeding up for such sections was pure folly. Sporadically, a semi truck would zoom past me at probably 65 mph and disappear beyond the horizon.
“What the hell are you thinking, you goddamned maniac?” I bellowed something like this each time a semi passed me at speed. “Fuck you for Ice Road Truckers, History Channel! If I’m smothered to death by an 18-wheeled avalanche tonight, my blood will be on your hands!”
The semis I’d been following gradually began speeding up until I was the only vehicle on this section of road running on an illusory safety program. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it didn’t matter if I was going 30 or 60; ninety percent of the vehicles on the road that night were semis. A collision between a speeding semi truck and a Volkswagen Bus traveling at any velocity will almost certainly result in incredible fatality every time. The only recourse for the safety conscious driver was to immediately exit the highway and book a hotel room.
So I sped up.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I cursed at the sickly brown, half-melted wheel-bearing grease splattered on my front left wheel. It was sometime after two in the morning, I was fueling up in Western Wyoming and the temperature was -26 degrees with wind chill.
Miraculously, the gas station’s convenience store was open. I walked inside and met a short man of about 70-years-old in a plaid short-sleeved shirt, tan slacks and a pair of Elderly Man Standard Issue navy blue Velcro sneakers. He was busy restocking a display of Bic lighters next to the cash register.
“Hello,” he replied, looking up just long enough to size me up.
“Hey, I just found out that I blew a front wheel bearing, is it alright if I work on my car in the lot beside your store?”
“Oh, that’s no fun. Yeah, go right ahead.”
Luckily I had one new inner front wheel bearing and one new outer front wheel bearing packed in my spare parts box. I backed Isabella into a spot near a streetlight in the parking lot and set to work. When I got the bearings out I cleaned and closely examined them, they had turned an ugly rust color indicating that they’d gotten too hot, which meant I over tightened the bearings when I last repacked them with grease. Oops.
“– Hey, how’d you like some donuts and a cup of coffee?”
I looked up from my damage assessment to see that the man from the gas station had come over to check on me.
“Wow, that’d be fantastic. Thank you.”
The two free glazed donuts and the large cup of free coffee were a revelation in that cold parking lot. I often don’t realize how much I’ve been neglecting my body on road trips like this until I finally take the time to sit and eat. After I finished my free breakfast the old man came out again with a large LED flashlight.
“Here,” he said. “I thought you could use some more light. Just put it on the dashboard of the grey Chevy Suburban over there when you’re done with it.”
I’ve traveled many miles around the country in Isabella over the past two years. And it’s been my experience that most people will go out of their way to be nice to a polite, smiling VW Bus driver. Whether it’s out of admiration or pity, I can’t be sure.
I had the bearing job all buttoned up in an hour, including my break for breakfast. I will admit to one short cut, the old bearing races appeared re-usable, so I left them in. I had a nagging feeling that reusing them was a bad idea, but I knew I was getting close to the point of no return in terms of drive time lost, so I reused the races and headed back to the interstate. Utah wasn’t far off and I was really looking forward to rehydrating myself with some of their beer flavored water.