We left home a year ago. We sold most of our possessions, donated hundreds of books, and stored what we had left in the corner of my mom’s basement. On the day we were supposed to leave, our alternator died. Then the clutch cable snapped. After making the repairs with significant help from our most trusted VW friend and hometown mechanic, Norm, we laid tracks for our first state: West Virginia.
We awoke in the mountains of West Virginia where the humidity settled like a fog and the temperatures hovered in the low 90s. Our first day on the road and we were sweating and the bus clutch cable was still acting finicky. Then Miracle was bit by a stray dog. The bite turned out to be signifiant—flaying her to the bone and dislocating her pinky. That day—that first day—was the only time I entertained the idea of turning back, heading home, calling it quits.
Miracle is much tougher than I am, which is good since she has received the brunt of physical hardships on the road—concussion with neck injuries, West Nile virus with heart swelling, stomach bugs, and the aforementioned dog bite. She has never once considered calling it quits. She has always been steadfast and calm, the voice of reason. Mechanical repairs have kept the bus running; Miracle has been, time and again, the person who crawls under this adventure, who pops open the top of my head and tinkers around enough to keep this crazy thing going, see if we can get in a few more miles, a few states under our belt. Without her, the wheels would have fallen off a long time ago—maybe even before we left home.
So here we are, back in Minnesota for the fourth time. We’re visiting our dear friends at Happy Productions and I’m writing this from the back seat of the bus while Miracle drinks coffee and Jolene takes her mid-morning nap. At the one year mark we’ve covered 38,000 miles and 45 states (some states, like Minnesota, with multiple visits). We’ve driven almost exclusively backroads and have only eaten at a chain restaurant a couple times.* We’ve visited 28 national parks, countless state parks, forests, and monuments. We’ve hunted down some truly inspired wines and ciders and drank our fair share of duds. We’ve blown three 14-inch tires and lucked out each time. We’ve been to three of the corners of the lower 48—Lubec, Maine; Key West; Neah Bay, Washington. We cruised the Blueridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace, and Highway One. We’ve taken long dirt roads and gravel byways up mountainsides. We drove the AlCan and the bus has the scars to prove it: a patched tire, a chipped windshield and more than a few cracks in the paint. We’ve slept on busy California streets and on frozen mountaintops, in prairies where we watched Elon Musk’s weird chain of satellites stream overhead, in stranger’s-now-friend’s houses, on waterfronts where we could hear loons and porpoises and wallowing moose. We’ve watched the sunset and the shooting stars that followed in Utah ghost town, and we stayed cooped up for three days playing Scrabble in a muddy national forest, waiting for the rain to abate in Mississippi.
And, along the way, we produced a little podcast called So You Owned a VW Bus. Our Bus, Adie, has always been the literal and metaphorical vehicle that allows us to talk with fascinating people. Sometimes we are lucky enough to record them and turn them into these 7-20 minute episodes. This bus—this bus which I alternately love and hate, this bus which has cost an extraordinary amount to maintain, which sucks down gas and oil like we suck down wine, this bus which is at once our home—bed, kitchen, and living room—and our recording studio, this bus which is our world entire and yet opens up every morning to our front yard which is the entire world—this bus has introduced us to some the kindest, most entertaining, and generous people the world has to offer.
In a startling revelation to someone who has maintained a dark and persistently bleak worldview for his entire adult life (and for quite a bit of teenage years preceding that), the world is full of good people. In one year on the road, we have never met a jerk. We have never felt in danger. We have never been anything less than completely comfortable. Even when the bus has gone kaput in rural Florida or the middle-of-nowhere Alaska, when the brakes needed work in Tennessee, there has been someone who not only helps us, but welcomes us into their home and shares a part of their life with us. Few things are more humbling than someone taking their time to help you, a stranger, and then afterward sharing their dinner with you. Yet, in state after state, one breakdown after another, that is exactly what has happened. It’s fair to say that we have friends in every state we’ve visited (even the ones where we didn’t break down)—people we talk fondly of, quote, and reminisce about on those nights when our only entertainment is remembering, people we can now call friends. We’ve broken bread with people who would otherwise be strangers and by bread I mean fresh fish, southern BBQ, honest-to-god meals served on plates and real glassware, homemade breads and yogurts and ingredients fresh from their gardens, peaches plucked from their trees and a smoked Thanksgiving turkey at a mountain home in Virginia. If food is the language of love, we are fluent in every regional dialect. We’ve been aided in the worst of times—breakdowns and injuries—by folks we would have never met under any other circumstance. And living the life we chosen for the past year, we’re always at a loss as to what we can offer in return. “Pay it forward,” they say. Again and again and again—“pay it forward.”
We have but a few weeks left on the road—a 2,000 mile route that we plan will take us through the remaining four states we have yet to visit and gather us a few more interviews for the final season of our podcast. Then the trip of a lifetime comes to a close and we’ll begin the monumental task of paying this year and all the kindnesses, all the adventures, experiences—tastes, sights and sounds, all the wonder and beauty, paying it all forward.
*I mean, what else was I going to do when Taco Bell announced the Mexican Pizza returned? If the Beatles reunited—George as an apparition and a zombie John Lennon—you would go, right? It’s the same with the Mexican Pizza, folks. It’s a culinary tour de force unparalleled by its rivals. Never has there been a more perfect combination of crap ingredients that somehow equal exponentially more than their sum.