The Life and Death of a VW Van

This story come from Jean Marie Spilker, a friend of Roam Oatmeal and an adventurous spirit.

I was pretty lucky the first time my Volkswagen (van #2) caught fire.  My boyfriend and I were on a dirt road out by Steens Mountain in the remote SE corner of Oregon when there was a sizzle and pop under the driver's side of the dash.  This was followed by some small flames.  Fortunately the guy who owned the van before me left a fire extinguisher in the van.  He had told me that these vans were prone to catching fire, and I knew it was true based on what I had seen since in the junkyards when I was scavenging for parts. 

Within seconds the fire was out and the van was filled with a fine white powder.  I didn't want to breathe the stuff from the extinguisher so we opened all the doors on the van and let the wind blow it out into the desert.  Then we sat and waited.  This was long before cellphones so it was pretty uncertain when a car would come along.  The good thing about all the mechanical problems I had with my vans was that I was always prepared to live for several days.  We had five gallons of water and food in the ice box. So we made sandwiches and ate lunch and then afterward I pulled the mess of wires from under the dash and examined the damage.

Even though the wires under the dash looked like a big pile of multicolored spaghetti, when I looked closer I could see that there were only two that had burned in half. Reason had it that if I spliced them back together the problem would be fixed.  And it was true.  Once the wires were once again attached, the van not only started but all of the electrical stuff worked.  We drove away like nothing had happened, save the white dust covering everything.

The second time the van caught fire I was not so lucky.  I was much closer to home this time, and the van would still start and drive, but all sorts of extras like turn signals didn't work.  I took it to my mechanic and he gave me the dismal fate.  It made no sense to rewire it with the rust on the front.  It would just continue to leak and rust and catch fire.  After five amazing years on the road it was time to put her to bed forever.

Jean Marie Buying Van.jpg

I had bought her in 1997, when I was less than a year out of college and filled with wanderlust.  I took her to BC the day I bought her.  Like all good travel companions, I felt that she needed a name, so I named her Haida after the native people of coastal British Colombia.  She took me deep into the north country of BC one fall, then all the way to the end of Mexico’s Baja peninsula.  There were parts of her that I couldn't let go of, especially the engine I had rebuilt by myself on my friend’s mom’s lawn in Canada.  So we bought van #3 for super cheap because it had no engine.  We drove Hiada’s engine to the seller’s house and put it in the new van and the spirit of her continued on down the road.