Keeping Our Spirits up in the Happiest City in the World

Aside from being identified as the happiest city in the world, San Luis Obispo is also a Mecca of sorts for the VW van community. This is where GoWesty is located, one of the California firms that have managed to rescue many vans and van owners by not only fixing and restoring vans, but by fabricating new parts for our aging vans. So we made our way to Westy Werks, specialists in VW Vanagon workings, to get some running issues and transmission quirks looked at as well as new tires.

Anybody not bitten by the VW camper bug would reasonably argue, “Why not buy a newer camper van?” And they would have a point. There are modern camper vans that are more roomy, more reliable, faster and for which parts are readily available. True, true, true. But there is a definite romantic quality to the humble VW camper van and an aesthetic that, like the VW bug, is oddly hard to resist. Driving around in it elicits thumbs up and spontaneous conversations no matter where we go. Not something that tends to plague the driver of a Winnebago or a Road Trek. While, there are more modern variants that go faster and may be roomier, the tiny perfect sailboat-like cabin and the sound of the underpowered boxer engine in the back are hard to beat once you’ve been bitten. Even Amanda, originally a hardened skeptic of my camper van plan, has grown to somewhat grudgingly love our little white van.

But the cost and difficulty of parts and repairs can be considerable, and without going into the details, our van, though in remarkably good shape for her almost 400,000km, needed some serious attention to which we added some preventative upgrades. All of which is to say that while we had originally planned to spend 2 nights in a tent while waiting for the repairs, the extra work and the weekend would turn it into the better part of a week that we would be vanless.

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In the lot at WestyWerks. Same on the outside. Lots of new moving bits inside.

At first, being without our van was just another part of our adventure. We had tented while hiking in the Grand Canyon, so living out of a tent for few days wouldn’t be too much of a difficulty. But when two days without a van turned into a week, we both started to feel at sea and out of sorts without the familiar comforts of our tiny home away from home. It was oddly disconcerting and unsettling to be living without a home. This was kind of ironic as we have been out of our home for the past year, living with my parents while we renovate our house. Amanda joked that perhaps this theme is the universe trying to tell us something. Lucas tried to cheer up the mood and said we should see the opportunities provided by the challenge of waiting for our van. And as we tried to pare back our belongings to what we would need for a week without a home, we couldn’t help but notice the great number of homeless people in both San Luis Obispo and San Francisco. What must it be like to be really homeless and to have only what you can carry with you to create a sense of home?

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Sign at the Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove, north of Monterey

In truth we are really just sojourners in van life. Vanlifediaries, a web site for those living the traveling life is filled with folks who have more or less abandoned sedentary life for life on the road. Friends of Amanda’s sold their home in Calgary a year ago and have been traveling with their seven-year-old twin daughters around the US, Canada and Mexico working on organic farms and learning about sustainable agriculture. Compared to them our two-and-a-half month foray into living on the road feels like an extended road trip. Jennifer and Mark have a blog as well (4WheelU) and their adventures and experiences and thoughts about farming are very inspiring.

At first we stayed close to San Luis, exploring the incredible mountain biking in the area. We mountain biked in Montana de Oro State Park. We chose a ride that took us climbing up and up the beautiful hillsides until we were atop the cliff side, giving us a breathtaking view of the ocean. The long climb up meant a few breakdowns of a different kind, it also meant a steep rocky and super fun ride down. Riding down, moving fast between and over rocky outcrops requires complete attention, a kind of meditation in motion and by the time I reached the bottom my legs were shaking. Then we headed up to San Francisco for the weekend (see related post). We headed back to pick up our van, taking the scenic route along Hwy 1 as far as road closures would allow us and staying in our tent among the Redwoods along the Big Sur River just outside the now closed Big Sur park. When we arrived back to pick up our van, we were told that it wouldn’t be ready until the end of the day. Not wanting to pay for the rental car longer than we needed to, we returned it and resolved to make our way around by bicycle until our car was ready. We didn’t want to have to lug our bags around all day either, so we dropped everything except what we needed for the day and our laundry at the garage. Now we had pared our belongings back from those we could fit into our van when we left, to what we could carry with us, to now, two bags for the three of us. It is a sobering realisation that we can get along with a lot less than we think we need, and that we rely so much for our comfort and security on those things that make us feel like we have our place.

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Getting some work done by the banks of the Big Sur River. Vanless.

After the repairs, once we were back in our van we all felt a bit better: that snug sense of home again. In the van everything has its place: the flashlights, the map, the snacks in the snack cupboard. I am generally chief organizer and it was nice to put everything in its place. Once we got the car we stocked up on groceries and headed back to Lake Lopez to set up camp for the night. Just after we pulled into our campsite neighboring campers came over to admire our campervan and how setup we seemed. We told them how much we loved van life rather than the challenges of repairs on the road.

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