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We'd been dating for barely two months when the idea of a cross-country road trip was first mentioned. Cruising across Long Island toward the Atlantic in Liz's sister's Saab, top down and a hint of December sun, we knew we'd finally found a good excuse to quit our boring dotcom jobs. We'd travel for months, make a big 'ole web site, write stories, and maybe sell some handcrafted soap along the way. That was the winter of 2002.
Soon after returning home from that weekend trip, we spent many nights poring over the westfalia.org classifieds. We knew our road trip vehicle would be nothing other than a VW camper, but we really had no idea about what model, year or condition of car we were hoping to find. Liz sent about 100 emails and made a few dozen calls to prospective car sellers. Occasionally we'd get excited about a particular van and consider buying a couple of plane tickets to Minnesota or somewhere equally far from home to take a look, but we'd usually find some local distraction and begin the search anew a week or so later. We even went so far as to almost purchase a car -- sight unseen and motor untested - through an ebay auction. I guess you could say we were slightly bipolar about the whole car buying deal - one week we wouldn't even utter the word 'vanagon', then the next week we'd be checking how fast we could get some money orders and auto insurance.
Although we liked the style of the pre-1980s buses, we narrowed our search to the post-1980 Vanagons for their updated interiors. We also capped the date at 1990 since most vans that year or newer were out of our price range. After looking at a couple local cars and a few gigs worth of online photos, we were slightly disappointed to see that most of these vans looked like they'd been driven wildly across country a couple dozen times. And judging from the mileages, many of them had.
Then, one late night, we found a gem among the rust heap - a 1980 Vanagon with low miles on the chassis and a kindly, older owner who garaged her in the winter and "drove her gently" only a few times each year. All the car attributes were one consideration, but often we'd make a decision to pass or look closer based on the vibe we got from the owner and the car in general. It was nearly a year after we owned the van that we learned this is one of the suggested methods for assessing a used Volkswagen, according to How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by John Muir. He writes:
"Let your mind and feelings go over the car and the idea of the car. What has its Karma been? Can you live with the car? Assume the good old Lotus and let the car be the thing. At this point some revelation will come to you and you will either be gently guided away from that scene and can start looking again or you will still be attracted toward the car and can continue with your inspection."
If we'd had this book from the beginning we might have more consciously tried the whole Karma and Lotus thing, but I suppose we approximated it in our own feel-the-love kind of way.
(Note to prospective buyers of used Vanagons: buy Muir's book before your start looking. It's got some really helpful checklists and car-buying tips.)
Back to the car eventually dubbed Badunkadunk. She was listed for sale in Sterling, Virginia, just a few hours drive from our (then) home in Brooklyn. We spent about a week talking and emailing with the owner, then decided to take the plunge and drive down to check her out. The ride to Virginia in our rental car was spent phoning Sterling mechanics who would look at the car before we arrived, Geico to see how quickly we could activate a policy, our banks to find out about wire transfers, and the Virginia DMV to learn about registration and titling info. We'd only booked a one-way rental car with the secret hope that we'd be driving back a day later in our lovely Vanagon. In retrospect, we should have planned to not make any decision during that initial visit. As it turned out, we went into it feeling rushed and pressured to make a decision since we'd gone to all the time and expense to travel a few hundred miles for a test drive. We'd grown weary of the search for the perfect car, Spring was upon us and we were anxious to be done looking.
The van looked and ran like a champ and overall we were pretty impressed. I guess you could say the Karma was right. Amazingly, we were able to sort out all the ownership details during that weekend and we're driving home Sunday night to the smell of gasoline and the noise of an overworked motor.
So there you have it, the story of Badunkadunk, the last year or so. As for what she went through for her other 20-odd years, we can't say, but we're pretty sure it involved circus people.
© 2002, 2003 Anthony Hecht and Liz Jones. All rights reserved.