My husband, Miky, fell in love at first sight. The object of his affections was not another woman. It was a vehicle. He spotted the pretty, polished VW Westfalia pop-up camper on a road near our home in upstate New York. When he drove me up to meet her, I soon joined him in the infatuation.
On impulse, we bought the perfectly preserved, classy dark blue van with two white stripes on her sides from the original owners, a Woodstock couple who had also loved her. I am an ethnic Russian; Miky is Hungarian and we named her with Eastern European flair: Baboulya, Russian for “little grandmother” or Божий Одуванчик “God’s little dandelion” because we knew she was fragile and needed lots of care. The affair launched a series of extravagant plans and indulgences - while our everyday car lived a mundane existence parked in our driveway, Baboulya was garaged in high style, and at a considerable cost.
The impulse to buy Baboulya was influenced by her Westfalian reputation still flourishing since the 1950’s. Campers like Baboulya are still symbols of freedom, hippie flower power, love and peace and Miky and I wanted to be part of that crusade. Baboulya would be our escape-mobile - we could always pack up and go.....freedom.
In September, two months after we purchased Baboulya, we took her on her maiden voyage to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. Even though it was late in the camping season, we basked in the warm weather, swam in the lakes and tasted delicious wine at the wineries. We had the state parks all to ourselves and in the towns and villages people waved as we passed by. Baboulya passed her maiden voyage with flying colors.
During the nastiest of frozen winters, we bundled up, packed her with all necessities and took off for a romantic destination: New Orleans. It was an ambitious road trip from New York, but Miky and I were excited to camp along the way. We would visit his son Greg, bringing him lots of juicy spiced Hungarian sausage. We had total confidence that Baboulya, our little home on wheels, could make the trip.
We began well: On Wednesday, April 4th, we left our home in Rosendale, NY in needling sleet hoping that the weather would warm up as we traveled south. On the first day we could drive only as far as the deserted Locust Lake State Park in Pennsylvania. There the wind gusts were up to 40-50 miles per hour plunging the wind chill down to 28 degrees. Oh well. We were determined to camp. We plugged Baboulya into the camp electric outlet, paid our $32 senior citizen park fee and soon we were toasty warm from our small electric heater. I made a tabouli salad from leftover quinoa and put together a plate of cheddar cheese, Hungarian sausage, red roasted peppers, cucumbers and organic sourdough bread. We listened to Dave Brubeck jazz, Patsy Cline and Bea Palya, a Hungarina gypsy singer on the computer while the ferocious wind blew and whistled. A bottle of Spanish Tempranillo wine enhanced our meal and the music elevated our mood to a nice high. Life was good - for the night.
When we woke, it was snowing. Still wearing my pajamas under my clothes, we packed up fast and headed for hot coffee and breakfast. We arrived in Frackville, PA and there on Main Street in this little town we saw a Russian Orthodox Church with three towering shiny gold cupolas - thoughts of my heritage filled with beautiful choir music, icons and incense rose to the surface and lifted my spirits. We ate a hearty breakfast in the cozy snug diner next to the church. We continued south to what we hoped would be warmer weather and onto more adventures.
As it had the previous day, the wind gusts on the interstate were still powerful at 40 to 50 miles per hour. I could see that Miky was struggling with the steering as the huge semi-trucks raced by and swerved ever so close to Baboulya. The trailers dwarfed Baboulya, their tires so large they came up to our windows. Baboulya shuddered each time a semi passed.
My heart raced. I visualized being blown off the road by a truck with all of our possessions scattered on the highway and I felt the panic coming on. Would I be laid out on a stretcher with my pajamas still on? I hung onto my seat, my knuckles white from the effort. What did we do? Did we really buy a van that was too fragile on the open road? Did I dare say anything to Miky? Did he have the same doubts? OMG, here comes another truck. I asked Miky to take the next exit off the highway to get out of the wind and away from the trucks, and he agreed.
Then: the sputter and clunk, the dead slowing. The buzz of the oil light. The flare and flicker. Then nothing.
We came to a dead stop, some vital fluid dripping from Baboulya’s innards. Where were we? We had come to this sudden halt in front of a Tara-like plantation house and I got carried away with thoughts of white columns and green window hangings that evoked the famous scene of Scarlett O’Hara donning a designer ensemble sewn by her Mammy from the plantation draperies. The wind stopped, the temperature rose, love for Baboulya and the romantic setting inspired confidence: Somehow all would be well. As we waited for the AAA tow truck, we drank a fine bottle of organic Chilean red and toasted one another.
How could we know we were doomed?
At this fateful moment we were sitting on the side of Route 11, a route that stretches from Canada to New Orleans and runs parallel to Interstate 81 - a byway with more scenic diversions and small town countryside intimacies. We unloaded the back of the camper to look into the engine to diagnose the problem. All of our camping equipment, bikes, sleeping bags and cooking utensils were strewn on the grass. We looked like two characters from The Grapes of Wrath.
We did notice that the liquid on the ground looked like water, not oil, which gave us hope. This was fixable. Baboulya cannot die.
A group of black cows meandered by, mooing their satisfaction, dotting the rolling green hills. We raised a toast to this picturesque scene and to the good fortune that we were not on Interstate 81. We raised another toast to the warm weather and our optimistic belief that Baboulya would soon be back on the road and at last, we raised a third toast to becoming members of AAA before our road trip and that this tow would cost us nothing.
The tow truck arrived. Brian, the driver asked us where we wanted our camper taken. We told him anywhere except for a VW dealership as such places know nothing about VW campers. Brian, a rough and tough southern cowboy type took one look at poor Baboulya sitting up on his ramp and said in his growly low voice, “I know exactly where you have to go.”
We headed south to Staunton, Virginia about 30 miles away, a city nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian mountains. Miky and I were sitting up front in the high semi-truck cab with Brian who was attempting to have a conversation, while anxiety crept into our thoughts. I looked back at Baboulya. Her headlights, like two large sad eyes stared back at me. Where were we going?
We got off Interstate 81, rounded a corner and then we saw it - a sea of VW camper vans standing in a huge field - all ages, sizes and colors. There must have been 50 of them and miracle of miracles; someone was still there, working late into the evening. Keith, the owner and Hans, the camper van specialist saw us coming. They took one look at Baboulya on the tow truck ramp and fell in love too. Of all the
Westfalias they have seen and treated, she was by far the prettiest.
After the initial introductions, we knew that we had come to the right place. Keith and Hans specialize in fixing and rebuilding VW Westfalia engines. People from all over the United States travel to Virginia to have their campers worked on by Keith and Hans. Baboulya was in good hands.
Brian took us to the nearby Econo Lodge motel to spend the night and await news of Baboulya’s fate in the morning. Miky and I slept well, still holding on to the thought that it was water on the road, not oil.
That same evening, because Keith and Hans were so enamored of Baboulya (she was, after all, in great shape for a 1991 camper van), they opened up a couple of beers and put her on the lift immediately to see what had gone wrong.
“Catastrophic” was the word Hans used on the phone the next morning. Baboulya was dead.
Slowly after the initial shock, we were able to process his explanation. The idiot light that was supposed to go on to indicate that a water hose had broken and spilled all our engine coolant on the road, had malfunctioned, did not light up. We had no clue we lost the coolant, the engine became hotter and hotter and then at last, too late, the oil light lit up. The head gasket blew. The sad part, Hans tells us, is that the engine was in very good shape; the previous owners had taken exquisite care of the camper.
Keith and Hans laid out all the options. There were three. My heart pounded with hope that not all was lost. Could Baboulya live on? Was there really a way we could keep her? The first option was to wait until Monday, over the weekend, when Keith would patch up Baboulya and we could take our slim chances on continuing the road trip - giving her intravenous sips of water and oil all the way... The second option was to rebuild the existing VW engine - this would take until June or July and the third option is Hans’ specialty - to transplant a 2012-2014 low mileage Subaru engine which is compatible to the VW engine into Baboulya. The third option would allow us to drive stress-free for the rest of our camping lives. But it would cost all the money we have saved for our retirement. There was a fourth option - the sensible one: to admit Baboulya was dead and leave her to the auto graveyard to be scavenged for parts.
That made the most financial sense but it hurt. I began to cry into my cafe latte at Starbucks. My breakfast bite of bacon and Gouda remained uneaten, soggy, chilled. Miky has expressive soulful eyes and I read his misery all too well as it mirrored mine. Give everything we have to...Baboulya?
We stuffed our overnight things and computers into our backpacks and pocketbooks and left the Econolodge and biked one and 1/2 miles to Complete Auto Works where Baboulya would be relegated to the graveyard. We wrapped up the final details with Keith and Hans - they gave us a discount on labor because of our dire circumstances and we gave them a bottle of wine in gratitude. Dirk Robertson, who worked part-time for Complete Auto would take us to Hertz to rent a car to go home.
On the way to Hertz, we connected with Dirk, a Scottish man in his sixties who, out of curiosity, came to the United States from Scotland eight years ago and stayed. He had a VW Beetle which Keith and Hans were restoring and Dirk worked with them part-time to help defray the cost. He spoke of Keith and Hans in superlatives. I looked back at Miky in the back seat. Did we do the right thing relegating Baboulya to the VW graveyard? Dirk also wrote mystery thrillers and his books can be found on Amazon and in all the Barnes and Noble stores. I nearly jumped out of my skin when he told us that he also writes reviews for new books under consideration for MacMillan Publishing in New York. I piped up that I have written a memoir and he said, he will, of course, write a review. What luck! I’m thrilled! Maybe a small break for me? If I get a break with my book, we could pay for a new engine for Baboulya?
No sooner had I entertained this pleasant thought, than we heard a loud metallic noise stemming from Dirk’s car. What now? The temporary license plate which had been adhering loosely to the car, had fallen off and onto Interstate 81 with a final, decisive clatter. There were huge trucks and semi’s with trailers whizzing by at full speed, (memories of the passing trucks raised my anxiety level) as we started backing up on the shoulder of the interstate highway.
Thoughts of being crushed and scraped off the Interstate crept into my mind. This could not be happening. After all, here I was getting a possible new book deal. Could Baboulya, fatally wounded, be making it up to me? I considered the serendipity. I waited for another sign.
Dirk stopped the car and walked back to get the license plate and miraculously retrieved it without being flattened. But no such luck for the plate - it’s bent and unreattachable.
We drove to Hertz and back, a distance of about 40 miles without plates - but were blessed - not one police car appeared to stop us. At Complete Auto, we transferred all of our camping equipment from Baboulya to the rented car.
We took one last look at Baboulya and then with tears shining in our eyes, we came to a simultaneous decision - the heart transplant - the Subaru engine no matter the cost. We made a commitment to ourselves in our retirement to enjoy camping with Baboulya as long as we could still climb into the pop up bed. (And there is always a doggie ramp option when we are too stiffened by age). We were not ready to give up the dream.
It was 4:30 pm on Friday. It had been 48 harrowing hours since we left home on Wednesday. Baboulya was in the VW camper hospital; she would be getting the heart transplant. She would have specialists performing the operation and we would pay for it. Money and passion well spent. I caressed her side and murmured, “We will see you in July.”