Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 10, 2004. Eruption on the vanagon list.

One of the characters on the vanagon listserv calls his van Roadhaus, and himself Roadguy. He’s been living in his van for over a year, crisscrossing the US a number of times. He began his adventures before I joined this community, but I gather he did so with great fanfare. On his website he describes the van he bought, the upgrades he chose to make to it, and the elaborate electronic equipment with which he fitted it out. He logged a diary of his travels on his site, created a listserv solely for those who live fulltime in vanagons, and built an on-line directory of vanagon mechanics across North America. Perhaps most importantly, people all over the country have followed his adventures, and many feel that he has let them experience vicariously a way of life that they only dream of.

In the past week his engine blew up. Larry – that’s his real name – posted to the list a plea for help finding and installing a cheap replacement, because his funds were running out and he wasn't ready to end his trip. As he told us,

Some days you rule the road and some days the road rules you. It pains me to say that today was the latter. Looks like my engine is trashed. I need to find a really cheap engine and get it installed for next to nothing ..... or I'm sad to say, the Roadhaus Roadtrip may be over. Regrettably there just isn't enough cash left in the bucket to fund a proper new engine purchase and install.

All suggestions and creative solutions welcome.

The reactions were electric. Most people on the list ask for help at one time or another – frequently for information, often for sources of inexpensive parts, sometimes (like me) for direct assistance with repairs or lodging. But this request brought out a different kind of response from the list community. There weren’t many leads to cheap engines on the listserv, but within a day the suggestion was made – not by Larry – that list members might contribute to a fund to help keep Larry on the road. That led to a modest wave of “how do I contribute” emails, followed by “I contributed $15,” or $20, or whatever.

Then the naysayers came out – those who were offended or angered by the suggestion that we provide financial support to Larry’s adventures. One said,

I'll be looking forward to seeing your weekly reports about your new adventure; "GreensHaus the golf cart experience", when you get back home and think twice about putting another three thousand or more into the RoadHaus adventure.

In response, someone else said,

Was that humor? It's hard to tell without seeing your face or hearing your voice. If yes, that is the dryest funny I think I've ever seen. If no, it sure doesn't help.

Larry has done something that a lot of us have only dreamed about. He has taken his Westy places and seen things for over a year now & supporting that would be a good thing IMHO.

I recall what a ribbing he got when he first appeared on the scene with this hare brained idea of traveling the continent in a VW Vanagon (God forbid) & by God he did it!

Let's find him a motor, hell at the rate my life is going I won't get to see a third of the places he has been and living it vicariously is better than not at all.

But others agreed with the first poster, that Larry had taken on an unrealistic venture and shouldn’t expect help getting himself out of the trouble he had gotten into:

I just gotta tell the group, this adventure was not conservatively implemented. Putting a high-performance engine in a long-haul Westy and expecting a normal lifespan is an exercise in futility. For anyone considering a highly modded engine, Roadhaus' history here should serve as a lesson learned, for this application stick to what's reliable. Hope that's not too harsh, and good luck Larry.

Beyond Larry’s character or the wisdom of his travels, though, the words flew fast and furious about the idea of helping him financially. To wit:

Yall are nuts...........

I remember when it was posted about when the motor got put in roadhouse ... against the advice of some experienced rebuilders on this list, Larry fell for the snake oil of the fly by nighters of Eurocar (i think in Denver) thousands were spent on this ride above and beyond what needed to be done, and now we are talking about passing the hat?


And in a similar vein,


This may get ugly, but it is not my intention. I have a problem with anyone who is looking for food for their table, but has plenty of money for cable TV. In other words, there are many of us that can remove all responsibility in our life, buy all these cool things, and travel the USA, but when push come to shove, most us don't. Why because there is no gold out there. If we do we have to reap the rewards of this free ride.

I'll be glad to help with what ever I can but, only after I have a satellite hookup to the internet, cool wheels, a new interior, etc, etc.....

Sorry Larry, but you'll just need to sell some toys.

And this:

Ask yourselves this question. How many of you contributing to this great cause have gone out of their way to help a newbie on the list keep their $500 car running with a $2000 motor or a $20 donation? Vans that were rusting into the ground, had head leaks, etc? Wouldn't they be worth or our financial support? They do not have the money for GPS or internet links in their vans, or fancy wheels or High powered engines......just people trying to get by and keep their car on the road....NOT joyride around the US.

When I decided to upgrade my stereo to MP3 did i ask for handouts? No, I sold my old radio and didn't go out to eat with the family for 2 weeks. I made it just fine.

When my van broke down in Rock Hill 2 weeks ago did i instantly fire up my mobile internet link and ask for money for my new alternator? NO. I walked to Advance and bought one and installed it with my own tools that i always bring on road trips. I didn't need to have it towed to a mechanic.

Now granted, it would be cool to joyride around the US. But don't ask for handouts. Sell some of your toys. That's what those of us in the real world have to do when times get tough....draw money out of savings, etc. With all that has been done to this vehicle, I seriously doubt its owner is broke.

And a quick shot on the subject:

Clearly I have no problem helping people in need, but I will not donate to the rich. That's probably how they got rich, by crying wolf!

And this, from someone who has watched the Roadshow from the start:

Oh, the perverse irony of it all, after all this time assuming Larry was independently wealthy. How else could we explain his preoccupation with expensive and experimental engine conversions? His spurning of much good advice given here? His condescending ridicule of anyone criticizing his extravagant lifestyle?

Most of you who so vehemently support Larry's rescue don't know the history of this project. That's because you are suckers, armchair Vanagonites intoxicated by a story you started reading at chapter 12. Ahhh...the fantasy of it all...

Ye who are new to this list hearken unto the wise and elderly, the odyssey is fraught with tragedy and joy. To best share the joy of the Vanagon lifestyle don't sabotage your own reputation.

Still, I sent my small donation. No skin off MY nose ...

(Larry did not accept that contribution.)
Then we started to get the wisecracks:

I would be happy to auction my genuine roadhaus T shirt presented by Larry his ownself to the highest bidder with ALL proceeds going to the refurbishment of the roadhaus. I will entertain bids with a starting bid of $50 for this genuine article of clothing actually carried in the roadhaus and honorably presented to me by Lar himself in absentia. The size fits one of portly proportions (L). It has been lightly worn on true Vanagon expeditions to include North Rim and other fine venues.

So let your dollars speak! Some live vicariously through Larry's adventures and misadventures. Don't let your dreams be dreams. Don't cowboy up, pony up! I accept paypal. Pmail for details.

And this one:

I plunked down a buck for a Pennsylvania Powerball ticket tonight...170+ million in the pot. If I win...a brand spankin' new engine Fedx-ed to ya and installed...all on me!

But people started reacting to the criticism:

I just sent $20 to paypal for Larry. $10 to help out, and $10 just to spite the negativity on the list. I'm very disappointed with some of the people on the list. I can remember a day when the list was a place of positive information and good will for those who share a common pleasure. I can only hope that when I need help I can count on some of my fellow volks. It's not destination, but the journey in life that makes it all worth while.

And this comment:

While I'm sure Larry isn't poor, I can sympathize with the fact that he's got a cash flow problem at the moment. Some of you have valid reasons for not wanting to help, and I don't think any less of you for that. But for crying out loud, don't belittle the people who *do* want to help!

My pride would probably never let me ask the list for help if I were in Larry's situation, but if I did it's refreshing to know there might be people out there who'd want to assist me. Kinda makes me feel better about humanity, you know?

And this one:

Let's not get into this debate about donation, help, etc. It's about each one's value. And to me, both side have very good reasons to do so. It's about values. And I understand that.

So, I think it's very important not to put pressure either way. Everyone is free to give or not to give, without feeling bad or cheap. I am sure many people that do not like to give cash give some of their time to their community, and to this community. Think of all the help given and miles that have been driven to give some help, a place to sleep, to fix the van, good meals, etc. giving is not only about money. Many of the ones who said they were not comfortable with sending some cash belong to the most helpful persons here. Money has something special about it and it goes deeply inside one's education and values.

I decided to help Roadhaus as a sponsor (just few bucks). You might call me naive. But what Roadhaus has done is a dream to me. I may not do it, but it's great to see him doing it.

The other reason I decided to help is because Roadhaus represent the true american values: a great country, great spaces, great people and Roadhaus went to meet this America, and put this down to earth America back on the front stage. As a French/Canadian, this kind of adventure gives me some faith back in America.

To me, it's just a little help to keep this dream going.

Another French Canadian who has traveled with Larry was passionate in his defense of the man and his travels:

Larry is one kind of a human being, one of the best folks I had the pleasure to meet in the past 5 years, his dream of traveling, his dream of freedom, is search for knowledge, discovery, is passion for people, landscape, ‘is peaceful way of thinking, his love for nature is something that we should all applause, respect and embrace... he is living the VW Westfalia ultimate dream, the real stuff....the risk he took was big, what he had in return is immense, there is no words to describe what he ‘as become as a human being.

In Everybus, I could see in his eyes that he had the will and spirit to continue as long as he had some money left for fuel & food....and a working engine, each new morning, he is all excited, where to go, what to see... like a child his. He perfectly know that one day he will have to go back to reality, but am sure that now it is not the time.....yet.

He told me more than once; "It's not about the van, it's all about the community and people who owned those" Well, lets show him now that's true! You need one night around a campfire with this gentlemen, you will understand why after. I am jealous of him and his trip, am not afraid to tell him.

This is only a small sample. Passionate emails on all sides of the argument flew back and forth for days.

So why I am I regaling you with all of this, you who never chose to be on the vanagon list and couldn’t probably couldn’t care less about a failed engine?

Well, to me this kind of argument offers fascinating insights into how listservs operate, how people behave, how we think about each other’s choices in life, what moves us to generosity, and how we react to others’ generosity.

For some people – the majority of those who posted, I think – Larry’s travels have been interesting and enlightening. They have “seen” places they wouldn’t have seen otherwise, gotten a glimpse into a different way of life through his experiences. They enjoyed that, and felt it was worth supporting him in return when he needed help. Putting on my economist hat, the benefit they derived from his travels was easily greater than the cost to them of contributing to the new engine fund. So they figured they would help, just as I contribute to public radio because I derive great pleasure from it.

For others, Larry’s travels were in one way or another misguided, and they had told him so from the start. Now they felt it absurd for him to be asking for their help. Their objections to his travels varied. A number of people felt that he had little technical knowledge, had come to the list for advice, and then ignored that advice. So when he ran into technical problems he shouldn’t come back to them asking for more help, and especially not financial help. One person felt that living and traveling in a vanagon (or probably in any other vehicle) was lonely and boring. That person criticized any travels like Larry’s as a futile activity doomed to lead to unhappiness in short order.

For another group, it is galling that, despite having run out of travel funds, Larry obviously is not poor. After all, as they pointed out, there are people on the list who could never afford to take off fourteen months from work and go on the road. There are people on the list who would have to sell their vans to pay medical bills or go without modest luxuries to keep their van in order so they can drive to work each day. So requests for financial help from someone who has not held a job in over a year are a slap in the face.

These folks seem bothered by the idea that many people – those who know him and those who don’t – are willing to help him even if he did bring his problems on himself and even if he is financially better off than many of us. Perhaps correctly, they seem to feel that this simply isn’t fair. People who don’t even know Larry are willing to reach out hand to help him, because he has struck a chord with them and they want to give something in return. Those same people might not be willing to help someone who is patently in greater need.

The spat over Larry’s engine says something about our choices about how we use our own money, and about our feelings about other people’s decisions about use of their money. No one seemed to really mind that Larry had stopped working to take his trip. Some did seem resentful of the fact that he could afford to do it. But some of the resentment seemed to come from people who could have made the same choices financially but preferred to work more and have more money, and therefore didn’t have the time to take such a trip. And some of the admiration came from people who could probably have afforded the choices Larry made, but for other reasons were not willing to go on the road. In my experience there are many such people – they could change their lives, save the money, and go on the road, but they have children, or they value their stability, or they want to be part of a community, so they don’t actually make the choice to go. Those seem to be the people who say they live vicariously through Larry and want to keep him out there so they can continue to enjoy their travels.

This spat raised another question. There are a lot of people on the road living in vanagons. Most of them are simply out there, living their lives, enjoying their travels. They don’t have websites with the URL on their rear windshield, they don’t create listservs, they don’t regale the vanagon list with months of discussion of their plans before they go. From Larry’s point of view, it’s the way he “serves his public.” If he didn’t put himself out there, the people who enjoy following his travels wouldn’t have that opportunity. But some people suspect the public nature of his adventures. They feel that his travels are not simply a man following his inclinations, but a man on a voyage that derives its meaning from the publicity campaign that has accompanied it. Not quite as bad as traveling with a television crew filming the adventure for prime time broadcast, and there isn’t a live webcam on the windshield of his van, but it’s something like that. Why?

It reminds me of the dissatisfaction of ordinary people when faced with the rich and powerful or the famous. The rich, powerful, and famous are not really any different from the rest of us, but somehow they get all the attention, they are the ones who are noticed when they do something interesting, they are the ones who get credit for innovation. That can really bother people who feel themselves to be just as distinctive or interesting, but without the publicity and the praise.

I don’t write any of this in order to pass judgment on Larry one way or the other. I’ve met him, he is a friendly, intelligent, reflective man. In many ways his travels are like mine – we’re out there in our vanagons because we want to be on the road, not because we have strong feelings about German engineering or the idea of the “volks” wagon – the people’s car. The responses to his plight show that he really does have a following. And a look at his website shows that he created that following deliberately. All of which is fine with me.

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