This is the way we roll: slowly, steadily, and safely

Due to lack of internet access and the incredibly slow but free wifi at the Arcata Wildberries market (otherwise an excellent place), picture posting will be delayed so we can roll on down the road.

July 6, 2018

This is the way we roll: slowly, steadily, and safely

When my father ordered the bus, he was in Europe working for Bechtel Corporation. I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but my father is an Engineering Geologist. In fact, this is one of the most important pieces of information to have about my Dad, and something everyone who knows him knows. One giveaway: for many years Dad’s truck license plates read GEOREGON, and I have a set of his old plates at my house. Robert Frost wrote that “My goal in life is to unite my avocation with my vocation, As my two eyes make one in sight,” and nothing could be truer for my father. His job was not a job—it was his calling, his life’s work. I will write more about geology later (I promise, Dad), but the important part here is what this passion for his field taught me.

In my teens, twenties, and thirties I had many jobs, but none of them were a calling. When I found myself teaching Freshman Composition, I fell in love, and I finally understood how my father felt. Just as Dad could turn any topic to geology, or more specifically, to landslides, so too can I relate myriad subjects to teaching and writing. I am thankful to have this passion for my work, although it is challenging at times, and it is my father’s example that has guided me. When my father turned 80 and Paula organized a great, big, beautiful party for him, countless people came to tell me about what my father had meant to them professionally. “He taught me everything I know about [insert geological term here—soil, slope, landslide, etc].”

This series of folks telling me about my father’s work was both a surprise and not a surprise—after all, I knew his work well as I had listened to him talk about it for years. What was new was the recognition of what it had meant for other people.

In fact, it’s lucky I don’t have a geologic name. When my parents were waiting for me to arrive, my mother wanted to pick out names. She wanted to name a girl “Natasha,” but worried that it paired poorly with “Hicks.” She asked Dad for help, and he suggested a nice geologic name, like Slickensides. Thankfully, my mother made the final choice. But back before I was born, my father was married to another woman (the web of relationships in my family is somewhat complicated by Dad’s popularity with women), and they were living in Europe (after New Zealand) with my older brother and sister.

The way Dad told me the story of the bus was that he saw them for sale in Germany and decided he had to have one. He had an epic plan to have one shipped to the US and drive it from New Jersey, where his wife was from, to San Francisco, where he would now be working for Bechtel. In Dad’s telling, the bus was the vehicle and the adventure that would save his marriage and family. “I wanted to be like the families on television,” he told me, referencing the old TV show Family Affair specifically, a reference that makes sense as my parents had dachshunds named after Buffy and Cissy, the characters on that show. But back in 1965-66, Dad fixated on the bus, and he had it shipped from Germany to New York.

The fact that the bus came directly from Germany accounts for its relative oddity here in the states. These particular busses were largely sold in Germany and England, so over there they are common, referred to as Dormobiles or Kombis. The main difference is how the camper top opens, about which more later. I know the bus arrived in New York because I found the paperwork from the docks once, and all of the information was there. And yes, my father did take the epic trip across country in this very same bus, but it did not heal the rifts in his family.

By the time my father and mother married, the bus was an integral part of their life. They traveled around the Bay Area, and Northern California. As I have said, the bus became part of my childhood, so much so that I never questioned its existence or connection to my father. It was as much a part of him as geology, an instant association for those who knew him (OK, I don’t think it was as important as geology—very little is or was, except for the people my father loves).

When we picked up the bus yesterday, I smelled the smell of the bus for the first time in many, many years. Smell is the most evocative of our senses, and the slightly tangy smell of the bus has not changed in all these years. There are notes of dust, and oilskin, and a comforting smell that I cannot describe. However, we did not make a quick getaway from Larry’s shop, and as a result we are one day behind on our trip, so today is our first day of driving, and we have miles to go before we sleep again. Well, actually Robert is sleeping in the bus right now, parked out in front of the house, and I am up early writing this.

While Larry’s wife was working on the very, very long list of itemized parts and work, we talked to Larry. The most interesting thing we learned that was not about the bus was where Larry is from. “I’m from Saskatchewan, originally,” he told us. I immediately jumped in. “My mom’s family is from there. Gull Lake, halfway between Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat!” Larry’s eyes brightened. “I went to school in Medicine Hat,” he said, and shared the story of Medicine Hat’s name—a Medicine Man lost his hat in the river. As it turns out, it wasn’t the black bowler hat or top hat I was picturing—and why I thought a Medicine Man would be wearing a bowler hat, I have no idea. It was a headdress. I’m not sure why I found it so interesting that Larry and I share knowledge of obscure Canadian locales, but it made me feel much better, somehow.

By the time we rolled out of Larry’s in search of tires, I was excited and scared and ready to go. How did we go? We went slowly, with a bit of stalling at first, but Robert quickly got the hang of driving the bus. Now we are almost all packed up, and we will leave soon. I am nervous about the driving, although luckily I am not the one driving, so I keep reminding myself that Dad drove this bus across country, up and down I-5 from Ashland to Sacramento to see me or Fresno to see his family. When my parents first moved to Ashland from San Francisco, Dad even commuted from Ashland to Yreka, CA, a relatively short distance if you leave out the Siskiyou Summit, at 4310 feet the highest point on I-5. The summit, often simply called “the pass” is a challenge for many cars. I remember going over it my Volvo at 40 miles per hour, and the Volvo clearly indicated to me that she was not interested in doing that very often, much less as a daily commute. So I am reminding myself of all that this morning, and I am also feeling thankful for the people we will say goodbye to today. After we got married up here, I cried all day on the first day of our honeymoon as we drove to the coast, uncontrollable sobs at times and a general leaking of tears. I wasn’t crying because I was sad; I was crying because I was so touched at all the love showered on us at the wedding, from the beautiful job Dad and Paula did with the yard, to the generosity of Paula’s group and friends coming together to help with the food, to the streamers (with turtles!) that Bree made, to my oldest and “Beast” friend traveling to be there. I feel like that again because there was a lot of work to get us to this point of being ready to leave, and I am so lucky to have these people in my life.


Update: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 7: 26 pm, July 6, 2018

There is no wifi or cell signal here, but there are wild elk. Really. Right next to the prairie (meadow). I’m sitting at the table in the back of the bus with solar lanterns glowing and the sky starting to go dark. On account of bears, there won’t be much cooking tonight. I am so tired, and I know I can’t post this until tomorrow, but I wanted to write it. A young girl is approaching us and taking pictures of the bus. That’s just one of the things I didn’t expect. Robert is setting up dinner, and all of a sudden and all day I keep realizing: this is really happening. This is real life, and I am rolling down the highway with my favorite person on earth, and we are in a 1966 red VW microbus but no shovels, rakes, or implements of destruction.

It was hard to leave my Dad, and I thought some part of him wanted to jump in the back to ride along, and I thought I saw some happiness at seeing the old red bus finally moving again. I was relieved when the bus didn’t stall as we pulled out of his street.

One of the things I haven’t written about is the driving part. I think I mentioned that I didn’t learn to drive until I was 28, but Robert didn’t start learning to drive stick for real until May. Our friends helped him out—thanks to the PT and I hope your clutch is OK– but there had been a considerable amount of concern about the practicality of us actually doing this. I trust Robert in general for he is kind, capable, and usually unflappable, but on our maiden voyage from Larry’s shop, it was impossible to ignore a certain amount of stalling and rolling forward and backward towards cars that we really wanted to not hit. I was in the shower this morning trying to remember how twisty the coast road was (answer: VERY), and worrying.

We set out across the Applegate valley, the place my mother’s family settled after crossing the Oregon Trail. I tried to imagine the old farms as related to me, but I also spent a fair amount of time saying “Brake! Brake!” And standing on the floorboards of the bus. I do not want people to think Robert was speeding, not an actual possibility in this car, or that he was deliberately being unsafe. It simply took a few miles to learn the way of the bus, and by the time we reached Grants Pass, we were moving through traffic easily, and Robert told me he was happy to see me sitting more and braking less.

I first felt the bus come back to life in that valley, the golden fields, the old clear cuts and fire scars vivid against the pale blue summer sky. From time to time the odor of marijuana swept through the bus, so Dad is right when he says the pot farms are there. I can’t quite explain just how I felt the bus come to life, and I do realize that I have a tendency to anthropomorphize (OK Perhaps more than a tendency. Those who know Squishy will understand). But I heard the engine go from “rumble rumble fart sound fart sound” to a smooth, almost purring sound, and by the time we hit Crescent City, I wasn’t even paying attention to Robert’s town driving: we cruised right through.

One of the things I didn’t anticipate was listening to Robert talk to the bus. He uses the same voice with our pit bull, Buddy, so it felt familiar and reassuring. “OK, big guy, we got this,” he said as we attempted out first hill (high point today=Rattlesnake Mountain, 3000+ feet). Every so often one of us would break out into song, even singing Dad’s songs, and periodically Robert would yell, “I love this bus.” You have to yell a bit in the bus to be head over the engine and the wind with the windows open. His voice lit up when we stopped for a break: “I really think I’m getting this, “ he said, and I told him he was. It was all starting to feel like a normal thing to be rolling up and down in the bus. “I feel like I’m starting to understand what he needs, “ Robert said, and I could hear the bus’s answer as he smoothly went through the gears needed to climb the hills. By the time we got to the campground, Robert was driving like an old pro, and if the bus died on entering the space, at least we were right where we were supposed to be.

The other thing I didn’t fully anticipate when we were planning this trip was the attention we would receive. All other busses and air-cooled vehicles give you a thumbs up or peace sign as you pass, as do many other drivers. Actually, the rubbernecking was an occasional problem as we needed faster cars to pass us in passing lanes, and they wanted to slow down to see the bus. When we stopped for lunch at Jedediah Smith State Park, we met two couples where both women owned busses, and one of them knew more about our bus than we did. “66, “ she said, “And a splitty. You are really lucky.”

We are really lucky. I am again so thankful and filled with love for all the people in my life, and I am also very tired because I was too excited to sleep this morning, so now I will eat some lentil soup, look out for bears, and fall asleep with my favorite person.


About the campground (updates for Alicia on Northern camping): Nice place, all sites are good. We had 64—great tent pads and private. Flush toilets, working showers, elk, bears, bunnies, and banana slugs. Also: Stellar’s Jay feather!

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