Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 22, 2005 Buses by the Beach.

Originally I was heading to Grand Rapids to go to a Vanagon event, Buses by the Beach. Unlike most VW events, which are solely for fun, this one is also a fund-raiser. Four and a half years ago, Brien was in a plane crash in which he nearly died. He spent nine months recovering from his physical injuries, sorting out whether he could still make a living repairing clocks with one hand pretty badly damaged, getting over the death of the pilot, and figuring out what was important in life after an event that so totally changed things and could have ended it all together.

One of the things that surfaced was a desire to help other people recovering from severe burns. Which led Brien and his friend Todd (in the pictures to the left) to dream up Buses by the Beach, to bring together two important parts of their lives. It seems a good match to me. Vanagon people help each other, with no thought of anything in return. So using that goodwill to further something that’s become a core part of his identity seems right for Brien. The funds are raised through camping fees, a major raffle, t-shirt sales, and most of all a two-for-one matching grant from Todd’s company. They go to a group called the Phoenix Society, which helps burn survivors with information, access to resources, opportunities to meet each other, legal advice, and a host of other services. Buses by the Beach raised almost $10,000 this year, and Brien and Todd were ecstatic.

The event is held every year at the same time as a major car show, which is also a fund-raiser for burn survivors. So on Saturday, all the Buses by the Beach campers (except for Matilda, of course, since she’d been towed in) lined up in a procession to head over there. I’d never been to a car show before. Hundreds of old cars were lined up in rows in a huge parking lot. I like old cars, and some of them were just delightful, great huge rounded vehicles with immaculate paint jobs and polish that made them glow in the bright sunshine. I was particularly taken with an Oldsmobile from the 1950s, in a deep purplish burgundy with gleaming chrome decorations. In another area a small group of vintage Carmen Gias, on a cross-country tour celebrating their fiftieth anniversary, were lined up along with a couple of lovingly restored VW pickup trucks. Herbie the love-bug was there too, on a tour to promote a new Disney movie, I think. I’m often quite out of it on popular culture, so I had no idea who or what Herbie was, but everyone else was incredibly excited as the trailer in which he is transported pulled in and the famous white bug emerged.

Since this is a burn survivor event, the car show was full of fire engines of many vintages, fire fighters, EMTs, and hospital burn unit staff. I helped Sara at a table where we were handing out lunches and selling t-shirts, and she seemed to know everyone who came by, whether from Brien’s own hospital stay or his work in the community since then. T-shirts sold like hot cakes, and by early afternoon we had run out of adult sizes. One man asked how he could join “the club,” so we told him there was no way to join, but if he bought a shirt he’d be part of it. So he did. The lunches were supposed to be only for burn survivors, Vanagon folks, or people affiliated with the show, but we had way too many, so we ended up giving them to whoever was hungry. It was a hot day, and we had cases and cases of bottled water, which we offered to everyone passing by, as they all looked like they needed it. If we’d had sunscreen, we probably would have been pushing that on these fair-skinned blonde northerners as well.

By mid-afternoon we all headed back to our campground at the “beach” – actually a small murky pond that flowed into the Rogue River. Lots of children were playing in the pond. I joined them, only to find the water absolutely freezing. I spent a while pushing Todd and Jenna’s daughter Jen on the swings, and played with all the dogs I could find. One of them, a big golden retriever tied to her van, whined piteously to attract attention to her lonely state. Whenever I stopped scratching her ears she cried so sadly that I actually wondered if something might be wrong. She was just a good faker, though, and I fell for it hook line and sinker.

Saturday night there was a chili contest and pot luck dinner. Todd and Brien asked me to be one of the chili judges, perhaps because I was a newbie from far away. So along with the other four judges, I purposefully sampled the fifteen or so pots of chili that had emerged from the vans. To our surprise, we pretty well agreed on which was best, an unconventional chicken and white bean dish. Our official duties completed, we filled our bowls and chowed down on far more chili than we could reasonably hold.

After dinner the awarding of raffle prizes began, a process made quite lengthy by the incredible number of prizes. Anyone who wants contributes items to raffle off, and some are much better than others. There were some really beautiful t-shirts contributed by the company that had tie-died the shirts we were selling, and I was sorry not to win one of them. There were also a few matchbox toy VW buses, which I’ve coveted for ages. On the other hand, I was very glad not to win the bus dog-bowl, or the set of VW dishware, or the beer that had some kind of VW bus label, or the elegant but very large wire sculpture of a VW bus. On balance, given how little space I have in my van, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t win anything.

After the raffle, a pair of musicians played in the shelter where we’d been dining, but most folks seemed happy to just hang out by their vans talking. These are very mellow events. This one was started by Brien and Todd and their families, and at the first gathering they met a few other families who have become good friends. As the event grew in steam it gathered adherents, so now there’s a whole crew of regulars who gather each year. Anyone who is friendly and likes the vans and their people is welcome. The story of

All photos of vans at Buses by the Beach taken by Roger Van Till.

Matilda’s engine had traveled, so lot of people met me with an expression of “oh, you’re the one who got towed in!” I’m not sure this is a good basis for celebrity status, but oh well, whatever. My fifteen minutes of fame?

Sunday morning dawned gray and rainy. There had been plans for a float trip down the Rogue, but a fierce downpour squelched that idea. These events – like the kayak symposia and the music festivals – seem to have a natural life cycle. At the beginning, early Friday afternoon, everyone is excited. The first people arrive, they eagerly meet each other, look for old friends, exclaim about each new arrival as the campground fills up. Saturday they’re in the swing of things. They’ve gotten used to being there, and are busy – comparing vans, repairing vans, discussing their families or children, talking about people who didn’t make it, selling t-shirts, whatever. The big “official” events that draw everyone together happen Saturday night – the potlucks, raffles, music, speeches of thanks. People stay up late talking around campfires or drinking beer or whatever they like to do.

Then Sunday morning all of a sudden the end is in sight. It always seem to rain on Sunday, which dampens the moods as well as the gear. People’s minds turn to packing, the drive home, getting a chance to recuperate Sunday evening before they go to work Monday morning. There are always events planned on Sunday, but they aren’t well attended because attention has already turned elsewhere. Sunday is always a bit of a letdown – a few people trying to keep the spirit going but confronted by the critical mass heading in a different direction.

And so Brien towed Matilda and me back to Rockford, and Buses by the Beach came to an end for the season.

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