1968 VW Baywindow sees the West

Meet Stella.
She’s a 1968 Volkswagen ‘early baywindow’ Bus.
We decided to fulfill our long dormant dreams.
Marco, to revisit the back roads of America in a vintage vehicle, as I had done so many years before. And Caroline, to travel third-class style in the questionable comfort of a Volkswagen and document the experience with our iPhones. Without preamble or discussion, as two minds entwined, we both desired a vintage VW Bus and a week later we owned it. A Neptune Blue bus we christened ‘Stella’.
Chapter One began the day after we bought her with a cruise to Washington State. During the next five weeks we traveled over 2500 miles, spent 21 nights aboard and experienced two more Chapters. 2012 and beyond sees us planning monthly summer voyages to America in search of scenic vistas, vintage nostalgia and the perfect peach.
This is our journey.

Meet Stella.

She’s a 1968 Volkswagen ‘early baywindow’ Bus.

We decided to fulfill our long dormant dreams.

Marco, to revisit the back roads of America in a vintage vehicle, as I had done so many years before. And Caroline, to travel third-class style in the questionable comfort of a Volkswagen and document the experience with our iPhones. Without preamble or discussion, as two minds entwined, we both desired a vintage VW Bus and a week later we owned it. A Neptune Blue bus we christened ‘Stella’.

Chapter One began the day after we bought her with a cruise to Washington State. During the next five weeks we traveled over 2500 miles, spent 21 nights aboard and experienced two more Chapters. 2012 and beyond sees us planning monthly summer voyages to America in search of scenic vistas, vintage nostalgia and the perfect peach.

This is our journey.

TRAVELS WITH STELLA   Chapter 6   March 26th-30th 2013

view Chapter Six supplementary photos here:


TRAVELS WITH STELLA   Chapter Five   September 1st-4th 2012

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The days of summer are in decline. Not only are the mornings cool and dew laden but the evenings are short with the Sun setting before 8 p.m. For this road trip we intended to retrace a former route to Eastern Washington, where daytime temps remain summertime hot and we can enjoy a ‘July’ of our own making. But when we saw a road sign offering diversion to ‘Whidbey Island’, a place we had never been, it took us only the briefest of sidelong glances to conspire a revolution in our plans.

But first some unfinished business - Edison. When we last visited this interesting slough side village we had found a ghost town, the shops being open only on weekends. Now, timing our road trip accordingly we rolled into town early Sunday morning, looking for our breakfast.

Tweets Cafe, set in a rambling timber building of grand proportion, was a treat. Not only was the interior pleasingly retro in it’s curated styling but the food was fantastic and served in astoundingly outsized portions. We gorged on sumptuous quiches and vegetable terrines, plates of fruit and cheeses. Thus fed our breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack all at once, we elected to have a walkabout the village before setting down the road. We found a town tastefully crafted with a careful esthetic eye: shops were exclusively artisan, frontages were all trim and the cottage-like houses sported hand wrought fences which were art installations in themselves. Satisfied on many levels, we rolled out of town eastward towards the Cascades range.

We ambled slowly through the lush agrarian setting, taking in the open views of this broad valley by the sea, and it was by mid afternoon that we hauled ourselves into Concrete at the base of the mountain range to come.

Concrete, as her name implies, is more or less exclusively made of cement. The company town of Portland Superior Cement, (charged with building, what was at the time, the tallest dam in the World) has a very tidy  and purposeful main street filled with agreeably vintage concrete buildings cast in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Back to the Sun dappled and curvy route. We made our way through myriad small towns before coming to a sign: ‘Marblemount, Entrance to the American Alps’. With some alacrity we climb to elevation, rising nearly as quickly as Stella’ temp gauge which acts like an altimeter. Time to shift gears and take to the shoulder lane, elbow on the window.. finger on the wheel, we’re cruising now.

Diablo Lake viewpoint is our terminus for a deserved break before we turn back to the lowlands and our date with Whidbey Island. The view is ethereal. You crane to take in the surrounding granite peaks, still clad with patches of snow; then to view the wind gnarled trees on their rocky footings; on to the precipice falling away at your feet and a lake of a rare translucent green. And in the middle distance, the highway you so lately traveled.. with a trace of glinting cars like so many ants.

The following morning we returned to that road sign which tempted us to Whidbey, and to our high expectations of the unaccounted miles ahead. For it was gloriously sunny, the day was young and we soon discovered an impeccable rolling terrain towards the towns of Oak Harbor and Coupeville.

We made camp at Fort Ebey, a national historic site and former component of the Wartime Coastal Defense scheme that guarded the marine approaches to the city of Seattle. Set in the coastline clifftops were retracting gun emplacements, a concrete ‘rabbit warrens’ for moving armaments below ground and for our purposes, some very tidy tree shrouded campsites.

Further south, we visited the Historic Lighthouses at Admiralty Head and after a brief ferry crossing to the mainland, Mukelteo Light. Our final destination before trekking North to Canada is the small town of Monroe, Washington. An otherwise non-descript township on the shores of the Cascade mountain ranges, Monroe has a most interesting annual occurance: the migration of the Vaux Swift, a bird who takes nightly cover in a local chimney. Mid-September sees the birds congregate nightly in the air above the elementary school at sunset, making arial swoops and swirls about the tall brick chimney. As the crucial moment approaches, the swifts spool into an ever tightening, tornado-like funnel. Prior to entry, they change from their head-first direction and dive in tail first. Once safely ensconsed, they overlap bodies in a shingle-like design and slow their metabolism to a near-dormant state to conserve energy while roosting. At first light, they evacuate their lair until a return at sunset. A peculiar event watched nightly by locals and visitors alike, and a spectacular event when the nightly numbers exceed 30,000 Swifts!

TRAVELS WITH STELLA   Chapter Four   July 27th-August 1st 2012

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It is August once again, and time for a new season of exploration and adventure. The word ‘adventure’ literally means: what must come.. and it is truly in that sense of the word that we embark in our ‘undertaking of a rather questionable nature.’

Over the winter we discovered Stella had a leaking valve seat and consequently low compression in two of her four engine cylinders. Only one thing for it, pack the bus for a road trip via Vancouver and have a donor engine transplanted from a 1970 VW Westfalia. Our first summer road trip will now be a cautionary four day trial to test the vigor of Stella’s new heart. We’ll make a local tour of Skagit County Washington, the lands nearest to the Canadian border.  Let’s roll the dice, again.

Opting for Skagit was easy: close to major towns should we need repairs, proximate a ferry link to Victoria should we wish to limp home, and as flat and open a space as any to avoid excessive engine strain. Moreover, if you like quaint coastal villages and rural agrarian settings, all with a backdrop of snow clad mountains.. breathtakingly beautiful.

Our voyage took us out of Vancouver on the evening tide of commuter traffic and we passed the night riverside at Ladner, a small picturesque fishing village south of the city. Morning saw us passing over minor roads, wending our way through the agricultural underbelly of the city, and down to the American border. Old Hwy 99 ran arrow straight alongside the Interstate 5 corridor, and we caught fleeting glimpses through the trees of heavy truck traffic from the serenity of our own private highway.

We traced our way through Bellingham to the quaint, old-town suburb of Fairhaven and the start of State Route 11.. the famous 21 miles of Chuckanut Drive. The route goes up and into mountains in such a confined space that there is room for nothing more than a two lane road. It begins serenely enough, your eye roving among the large homes overlooking a yawning blue bay and you already wish to live there. Then you’re shrouded in a tree lined avenue and the road begins to narrow alarmingly, your eye roving no longer. To say the way has become ‘winding’ would be a vast understatement, perhaps sinuous or serpentine, and certainly corrugated, for you are now skirting the undulating folds of Chuckanut Mountain, high above where her hem meets the sea. Roadside pull-outs offer expansive views of an offshore archipelago backed by distant, majestic mountains. Miles of tortuous curves and glimpsed vistas vie for your attentions as does the stone perimeter wall. Then the penultimate bit, a 10MPH hair pin bend at the Oyster Creek Inn before the final gentle rolling miles into an open farmlands where you can unknit your fingers from the wheel and relax.

We discovered an interesting looking backwater of a town called Edison. Unfortunately our visit did not coincide with ‘opening hours’.. businesses are resolutely closed all but weekends. Artisan shops, galleries and bakeshops lined the front street and their rear outlooks are on a charming slough. We shall return.

An odd occurrence while visiting the small town of Anacortes. I asked a local for the whereabouts of a bathroom and she directed me to the public facilities on ‘O’ Street. A clean modern space for local and tourist alike, I found everything I could want including a loaded Ruger .357 revolver set down atop the toilet roll dispenser. I called on local law-enforcement and then a long wait commenced. Now 10 a.m. is probably a fine time for a coffee break to be sure.. I guess having a civilian standing on a street corner with a ‘piece’ might just well rate as commonplace in Anacortes. Eventually, the gun was surrendered into the hands of a rather insouciant policeman who popped the bullets into his shirt pocket saying, ‘happens all the time.. last week I recovered a gun from the bedside table of the local motel.’  America, home of the free and land of the brave..

TRAVELS WITH STELLA   Chapter Three   September 16th-25th 2011

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September heralds summer’s end in Victoria, Canada with a bracing immediacy. Our climate shifts from a healthy arid clime to a sickly, cold dampness practically overnight. We need to stretch the season just a little bit more and there is only one thing for it.. go east.

Washington will be pleasantly sunny and shirt-sleeve warm once we stride the Cascades range. This time we choose the central route: Interstate-90 and the Snoqualmie Pass due east of Seattle. The western shores were cool, bleak and streaked with fogs.. so much that we could only hear, but not see the famous Snoqualmie Falls. Interestingly, we discovered the resort at the edge of the defile is none other than ‘The Great Northern, of Twin Peaks’ TV series fame. Memories of 90’s TV watching flooded back as we viewed the forlorn Railroad stock used in the series sit idle in a still further state of decay and desuetude at a nearby siding. The ‘Double R Diner’ at North Bend still did a brisk business catering to the ‘Cup o Joe and Cherry Pie’ set, and we were pleased to find the shows title shot ‘Twin Peaks’ painted in mural at the back of the diner.

Cresting the summit, the town of Cle Elum was bathed in a filtered light and it was warm enough to shed layers and pause for a roadside espresso we made in Stella. Descending further, we encountered waves of intense heat and all of its attendant shades of yellow; We had found summer once again.

Yakima and its nearby eponymous canyon offered arid mountainous camping and dust-bowl town amenities, all in a close proximity. We camped three days in the rift with daily junkets to the city for antiques shopping, oddities viewing and the best peaches in the state.

South now, through the oddly named Horse Heaven Hills to a wind turbine park overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. On that day, Stella made a friend. Climbing to the pass, even slower than Stella, was a young fellow shouldering an outsized backpack. It made for an incongruous sight in so minor a back country road, so far from any town. At the upper reaches of the 90’s, it was gaspingly hot and we had to offer this boy a ride somewhere.. anywhere; And in fact, that is precisely where he wanted to go. He’d absconded that very morning from the Yakima rehab center he was so lately deposited in, his sojourn being less than a day. He seemed a good sort of cove but admitted to a private struggle with the drink. We left him in the forecourt of a petrol station on the shores of the Columbia Gorge Highway, where the countless red pin-pricks of light coursed towards Portland and he could bring a close to his 24 hour odyssey.

We slept at a riverside Vineyard. Bedtime musings included: ‘where do you think the nearest Kangaroo lives?’ Portland Zoo, in all probability. So we could rest assured that a Kangaroo resides about 100 miles from us. Within two miles of our morning departure we were brought up short by the strangest of sights: a man nuzzling his Bactrian Camel at the verge of the road. This brought up more questions than answers, so we made our introduction and learned of his private zoo just over yonder hill. He invited us to view his menagerie of Giraffes, Bison, Zebras and yes, even Kangaroos.. but not before Caroline was offered a Camel ride, a bizarre thing to do before breakfast, unless breakfast is in rural Uzbekistan.

Flowing alongside the Columbia’s inevitable route to the sea, we fetched up in Seaside, Oregon where you can ride ‘bumper cars’ and a ‘Tilt-o-Whirl’ in the town’s main street. Regrettably, their season was over but the town was still purposefully extracting coins from willing visitors in a rather desperate and woe-be-gone sort of way. We felt a bit sad for the small town of Seaside and wondered of it’s former glory.

Astoria was a wonder in and of itself. Founded 1811 as a fur trading depot to rival the British claims in the west, Astoria is a time capsule of beautiful historic timber homes and the kind of grand stone buildings that spoke of a very prosperous hey-day. Three days of exploring was not enough: we toured the Astoria Column, an excellent Maritime museum and clambered over the Coastal Defense batteries at the mouth of the Columbia River as well as the wreck of the ‘Peter Iredale’ (1906). The only smudge to spoil the idyll was a midnight visit by three youth intent on stealing my vintage and just acquired VW emblem from our bow. Our new privacy screens worked a charm. When one boy peered into the bus just inches from my returning gaze and didn’t see me, I pounded the window sharply.  Needless to say, I foiled their scheme and set them to running.

The morning dawned with coastal fog, then wind, then rain. As summer had come to an abrupt end, we steered North for Canada.

TRAVELS WITH STELLA   Chapter Two   August 20th-28th 2011

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- east of the Cascades

Electric City was visited for no other reason than its name, but what we found was the town that time forgot.. witness the signage advertizing school supplies: 10 pencils for .67 cents!

We’re in the fruit belt now, and to our delight we saw a building loom up on the horizon displaying to all and sundry ‘Fruit’ and ‘Antiques’ in red 16 foot letters.. our kind of place. Imagine, a 16 pound box of ripe Apricots for only $10 and peaches .50 cents a pound.

An easterly course was maintained round hill and dale of yellow stubble fields, lately harvested of their cereal. The undulating landscape was like a quilt shaken out and just settling back on a bed. Above, an intense azure dome turned down to the gold coloured disk at all horizons and we scratched our way like a beetle across its surface. Without the aid of an occasional road sign you could quickly find yourself ‘all at sea’, diminutive and lost in such terrain. East being little more than a questioned point on your internal gyro just ahead on the meandering blacktop.

Reardan crossed the plain to meet us and we were greeted by an interesting site: an in-the-works, down-at-heel, maybe someday museum, display of vintage railway carriages. Very photogenic in the last red rays of the day, we lingered long scampering about the rolling stock. Finally, we proclaimed ourselves satisfied with the good-luck find and camped in the lee of a Union Pacific boxcar. All in all a very good day.

If you ever wanted to know what 1962 was really like, go to Spokane. Everything was dated about the place: a gorgeous, lovingly designed car parkade with hand painted signs at entries, vintage clocks on every colour-coded level (pink, orange, brown etc) and arching buttresses cast in immaculate concrete. And that’s the thing.. everything looked pristine and bright and new; grassy verges were green and clipped, street were wide yet innocent of traffic, and a toy-like vintage aerial tramway over a downtown river gorge for the amusement of all. One of the more striking edifices downtown sports a jaunty red skeleton radio tower on its roof with sinister black wires radiating outward to every adjacent rooftop.. (secret military-industrial-complex experiment perhaps?). But the true time warp evidence was a block-long, multistory vintage facade office building for sale on a main street downtown: reduced to $300,000.. about the price of a humble condominium back home!

We’ve come to within mere miles to the Idaho border, but that will have to wait for subsequent chapters. Time to veer to the South-West and a curious sounding town called Ritzville. I don’t think much has really happened in Ritzville since the advent of sliced bread and it seems to have been impervious to any superficial change since the time of the Second War. The word ‘Novelty’ comes to mind, but not in the sense of the  new.. instead it’s the magical experience of finding yourself cast in a roll on a period movie set. Look here to see the ‘Whispering Palms’ lounge, or go there to visit ‘Ritzville’s Pretty Good Grocery’. There was even an antiquated railway station sporting the logo of a long defunct carrier.

On the road again, we retreated trackless miles West.. up over the Cascade range again, through the rabbit hole and back to reality.

Overall, Stella proved herself a good traveling companion and we logged over 1100 miles in 9 days abroad.

It is now September, and time for a brief respite at home and for a few more interior comfort changes before we embark on Chapter Three.

Washington, here we come.

Travels With Stella   Chapter Two  August 20th-28th 2011

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- west of the Cascades

Washington State Route 20, said to be one of America’s most spectacular mountain drives, will take us clear across the state; from coastal plains, through the ‘American Alps’, into an arid never never of bleak yellow wide-open spaces.

The farmlands in the vicinity of Mt. Vernon recede quickly in our wake, and ahead the forested reaches of Mt. Baker (10,778’) envelop us as we crest the rolling foothills to our rest break at Concrete. The words ‘Welcome To Concrete’ on the cement silos are a holdover from a Hollywood movie ‘This Boys Life’, starring Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio, filmed at Concrete in 1993.

Climbing out of the foothills and into a circular vista of snow clad mountains, we take pause at Lake Diablo lookout to survey aerie the reservoir so far below. These waters are part of a hydro-electric scheme to generate power for Seattle and her environs.

Stella makes the grade, and we summit at Washington Pass in the mid afternoon for a well deserved break, for her as well as us.. hill climbing at 28 MPH is tiring. You know what they say about getting behind a VW Bus. We weren’t kidding when we posted a cautionary yellow SLOW sign in our rear window.

Descending now into a new cloying heat, we break at Winthrop.. a ‘spaghetti western’ sort of town with a hale devotion to the tourist dollar. We gave up ours at one of the ubiquitous main-street ice-creme shops.

We round out the day with a ‘self guided’ tour of the North Cascades Smoke Jumpers Base on a back road in the Methow Valley. This is a staffed station that dispatches parachuting fire fighters to the scene of remote forest fires. Moreover, this is the place where the ultra dangerous method of ‘Smoke Jumping’ was first conceived.

We made camp riverside in a small town interestingly called ‘Twisp’. We’ve had our first taste of summer heat today and the forecast calls for much more to come.

not TRAVELS WITH STELLA - the renovations

Back to our Island, with Stella sporting her new clutch, it’s time for some serious renovations. It’s still August outside and we want to get back on the road, pronto.

Despite arriving with a clean and fully functional interior, I wanted a return to her roots as a ‘Kombi’ (cargo transporter) and craft a space that’s quickly convertible back to an empty shell for occasional use as a truck.

Start by chucking out all the upholstery and tearing out the shelves, wood trims and cabinetry. Add paint, soundproofing and a removable table and carpet. Commission privacy screens for the windows and a full sized fitted foam bed. Stella was transformed from a quaint woodlands pokey caravan to a clean, modern open-plan space in one week flat.

Chapter Two will take us over the Cascade Mountains to Eastern Washington State.

Let’s Roll.

TRAVELS WITH STELLA   Chapter One   August 12th-13th 2011

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Our journey began the morning after we bought the bus. Firstly, find a good coffee then head South to Blaine, Washington for breakfast.

We meandered the back roads and slowly started to discover the personality of the bus. All of this within a handful of miles to the border.. a false sense of security perhaps? Mechanically I was rather dubious if her clutch would not like to give out momentarily. ‘You pays your monies, you takes your chances’ comes to mind but the owner accepted half the asking price so any problem is resolutely my problem.

Unscripted road trips enlist a remarkable sense of freedom and we were making the most of it.  A departure from life’s usual time sapping distractions, we stopped at any point of interest, drank beer while idly waving off flies, and napped when the day got hot. Days spent in leisure always feel longer, just like how childhoods days seemed to drag on and on.. We fetched up at Birch Bay State Park for the nights camp before our return to Canada.

Sure enough the plot thickens, life’s little distractions return with a vengeance and the real adventure begins.. clutch failure! She now won’t disengage so I could only start her in first-gear and she goes forth with a lurch. Makes for an interesting Border Line Up wait, start-lurch-shut off-repeat.  ad-nauseum. Vancouver bound, we closed in on the city at speed and she cruised blithely, while I stressed a future of red-lights.

Safely back in Canada, we spent the evening at Ladner Dike, riverside. We were having an evening drink, considering a suitable name for the Bus when I promoted ‘Stella’ as a possible candidate. No need to debate it, confirmation came to visit shortly thereafter in the form of a dusky grey horse named ‘Stella’!

GOING TO SEE ABOUT A BUS - Vancouver BC, August 11th 2011

These are our first impressions of the bus. A rather limited search for a Volkswagen bus yielded some very poor vehicles and this was the second of three to view in one evening. Our other choices were a yellow 1973 bus with no door lock and a screwdriver for ignition key, and a red 1970 bus with the cargo area festooned with plastic bags stuffed into myriad rust hole in the floor. In hindsight, the blue 1968 bus was a good choice.

I know well that ‘haste makes waste’, but I cast caution aside and jumped at the chance to buy this one after only two days of searching on Craigslist. It was clean, running and more or less ready to go.. and I think getting it for half the asking price was a factor too. So, ‘more is lost by indecision than wrong decision’ is the motto for the moment.

We arrived at Vancouver on a mission. Our camping gear was already stowed in the trunk of my BMW, so that same night we headed South for the border in our new VW.

After all it was August, and we wanted to go outside and play. From the moment of inspiration (read impulsiveness) to buy a VW camper to being owned by one took less than a week.

We’re on our way.