The Story of The Great Pumpkin: My VW Bus and Me
For me, it was love at first sight. Not the kind you might experience with another person, or even with a place, like Leadville. This was different. This was love of a vehicle.
And I know, some of you can relate.
It was January 1998 and I was in search of my traveling journalist vehicle. I had sold everything I owned and had whittled my possessions down to two suitcases, a trunk full of journals and some family photos. I left Leadville, looking for a reprieve, and headed south toward warmer weather to execute the next phase of my traveling-journalist plan. Every day, I searched the Arizona Republic classifieds, until my dream vehicle appeared – in print – one rainy Sunday morning:
1974 Westfalia. Incls all camping gear, new clutch & tires, 2 Brits flying home, quick-sale required. Only $1,200. Lv msg at KOA site #194.
A phone number was included, but I wasn’t going to risk a call. Three weeks into my search, I had learned that if you didn’t jump on a good deal, someone else would. I had already been beaten to the punch a few times.
Driving across to west Phoenix, the highways were eerily empty; a fog had descended on the valley floor and misted the desert with an unusual density. When I arrived at the KOA Kampground, the haze-seemed to have cast a spell on the normally early-to-rise RVers; not a soul was stirring.
I turned down one of the aisles toward site No. 194, my headlights burned through the mist and suddenly I caught a quick glimpse of my future. My heart leapt. It was nothing like it read in the ad. This time, it was better.
It was a bright orange, 1974 VW Westfalia bus -The Great Pumpkin! It was a two-story, two-bedroom traveling house, equipped with a sink, a stove and a refrigerator. It was perfect! Sure, it appeared dwarfed compared to the giant looming RVs camped around it. And, yes, it might have shown a rust spot or two. But for me, it was love at first sight!
The owners were nowhere around, so I spent the entire day at that KOA – waiting, and wondering why anyone would place such a “for sale” ad and then not be available to close the deal.
“I think they left with another couple in a bigger RV early this morning. Probably won’t be back until tomorrow,” announced one neighboring camper once the morning had started to shake everyone loose. He must be wrong, I thought. Who would post such an ad and then leave, I thought as the KOA clerk placed another phone message regarding the ad on the bus’s windshield: “Maybe the wind and rain will blow them away,” he sympathetically suggested.
It wasn’t long before word spread through the campsite about my determination. I met all kinds of wonderful people that day, from all across the country. I heard all about their stories and travel adventures. They brought me snacks and hot coffee. They would honk and wave at me as I sat in my mom’s Buick that rainy Sunday, waiting, all, day long.
By the end of the day, there had been no sign of the owners. Perhaps they would be gone for the night. Reluctantly, I wrote a note, bigger and bolder than the weather worn messages that the clerk had posted. I folded it up and wrote, “Read me first!” on the outside. I stuck it on the windshield among a soggy pile of post-its, knowing that to remove the other notes would have been bad karma.
As I prepared to leave my post, the skies finally cleared. Looking at The Great Pumpkin one more time in my rearview mirror, I saw the sunset glow orange and I knew. I knew that big orange bus would be mine. It was destiny.
That next day, I got the call. “Hi, this is Alex, calling about the bus.” I immediately recognized the English accent; the ad had said two Brits. My note had worked!
“I have to tell you,” he explained, “We had no idea that we’d get the response we did. Otherwise we never would have left for the night. We were bombarded (think heavy English accent) when we returned. Not only were all those notes stuck to the windshield, but everyone in the bloody campground came to us, saying that we must call you first. They said that you waited here all day for us yesterday. Is that true?”
Well, when he said it like that, it did sound a bit manic. But I stood my ground. I had seen my future: traveling through the forests of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, trekking down the Baja Peninsula, and finally back to my beloved Leadville.
“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “And if you haven’t sold it, I’d like to come right now.” My hope had been restored when I met Alex and Katherine, a wonderful English newlywed couple. After getting married in England, they flew to British Columbia (his dad lives there), saw The Great Pumpkin, fell in love with it and bought it. They had just completed a three-month honeymoon, traveling through the Rocky Mountains, down through Washington, Idaho, Montana, circling through Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and chasing the warmer weather, their travels finally ended in Arizona.
They had to sell the VW bus and return home to England, deeply saddened by leaving their first home together as a married couple.
I had not divulged much more about my life other than my traveling-journalist plans, and that I was staying with family in Arizona, until I found my dream vehicle.
It was clear to all of us that fate was playing its hand. But if I had any doubts, they were quickly put to rest when the couple answered my question: what was your most favorite place you visited during your Rocky Mountain honeymoon?
Leadville, Colorado, they said, it was love at first sight! Ah, yes there’s magic – and The Great Pumpkin – In The ‘Ville!