1974 VW Westfalia

David Shawcross

One mid-summer day in ‘86 I walked along Palo Alto’s High Street with my brother Charles. As we approached a derelict VW Camper parked on the street I remarked it looked like his. I didn’t mean to say I thought it was his for that would have been an insult. This filthy vehicle with the messages scrawled in the clinging dirt suggesting that someone should wash it had little in common with the sparkling machine I’d seen one fall day the year before. He had just bought it from the original owner and was going camping in Canada the next week. His latest prize was an all white tin top camper, lightly used and well maintained by the previous owner. An ice box, sink and fold down bed and closets and cubby holes everywhere would make camping a lark. He was just thrilled with his treasure.

“I hate that thing! he said. “I just use it as a rolling storage container.” Close inspection showed it was filled to the roof with all nature of stuff. After a brief explanation of how this all came about I found myself drawn inexplicably to offer to buy that camper. I asked what he would take for it? You don’t want this thing he answered. I was warned it might blow an engine at anytime and it was the worse car ever built. I told him I wanted to buy it. Being a good brother he sold it to me cheap because he felt he was doing me a disservice! I bought it! For $1,500 I became the owner of a 1974 VW Westfalia Campmobile with 74 thousand miles on the speedometer.

I bought it and like my brother I wasted no time in taking it camping. I was thrilled when I drove it over the hill to Big Basin State Park and set up camp amidst the redwoods. Driving that bus was unlike any driving experience I’d ever had. It put a big grin on my face that lasted days if not weeks. The big bus steering wheel and the long shift lever reaching up from the floor all the way to my hip made me feel like I was driving a Greyhound, especially with the engine in the back revving thru the gears and making lots of air cooled engine noise which was music to my ears. Shutting it down in the peacefulness of the forest created that contrast I find to be the great spice of life.

I had always enjoyed car camping in tents of various sizes and shapes as well as backpacking. I was even doing winter snowshoe backpacking. I never considered sleeping in a camper to be camping. That is not until that first night in Big Basin as I fell asleep remembering my childhood reading of Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and His House on Wheels. I was enthralled with having discovered a new reality promising adventures to come with just a turn of the key. I liked being Tom Swift and I liked my House on Wheels…

Well, that’s how it all began. Like Bogart told Henreid at the airport in Casa Blanca it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Thirty five years later White Bird and I have been on many adventures. She takes us anywhere we want to go and I keep her in fine tune, ready to fly….