When people see Ronnie Chavez’s 1968 baby blue Volkswagen microbus, they usually take notice in a very positive way.
“Everywhere we go we get smiles, peace signs, hang loose signs,” Chavez said. “People taking pictures of you driving by. And if we’re ever pulled over on the side of the road, or it looks like we’re broken down, people will pull over for you.”
Chavez is a glassblower at Glassphemy, the Pullman glass shop and tobacco accessory store. He is one of the participants from Saturday’s first annual VW Tortoise Run, an event celebrating the VW microbus.
The event included a nearly 70-mile caravan drive from Moscow to the Elk River Campground in Elk River, Idaho, followed by a potluck and overnight camping.
He said the idea behind the event was to bring together local VW enthusiasts and also possibly create some networking opportunities, such as the sharing of ideas and mechanical knowledge regarding the buses.
“I figured it’d be cool because bus people are like a family,” he said.
Although Chavez was disappointed by the low turnout for the event, he noted that they would try it again next year, possibly making some alterations to the event, including a drive to Palouse Falls.
Chavez said he’s had his VW microbus for two to three years, and while owning his own bus seemed like a dream that would never come true, it eventually did.
In 1995 he went to Yellowstone National Park for seasonal work. Even though he was in his senior year of high school, his principal had urged him to temporarily leave school seven credits shy of graduation. It was this trip that stoked his interest in the VW bus.
“It was the coolest experience I ever had,” Chavez said of the trip, adding that he rode in four or five different buses while he was there. Each bus had its own feel and customized interior, he said, from beds, sinks, refrigerators and closets, to paint jobs.
Chavez said driving a VW gives him a sense of freedom and an ability to look at the world in a different light.
“When you’re sitting in that bus, in the front seat driving, everything looks different and you just get a smile on, you’re so happy,” he said. While Chavez said he also has a Toyota 4Runner, he won’t drive it unless he has to.
“I drive (the bus) as long as I can until that snow comes,” he said. “I don’t know; it’s kind of like Prozac. Makes you feel good.”
David White and his wife, Shelley, both of whom are WSU faculty, own two 1984 VW buses: A white one which was recently purchased and runs with a Subaru engine, and a blue one they’ve had for about 10 years.
White said they attended the tortoise run because they needed to give the new Subaru engine a test drive.
The blue bus has a half-white, half-red sliding door with two stylized B's and a pair of socks on the lower half, a tribute to the Boston Red Sox.
White says he and his brother are from Boston, and when the bus’s original sliding door had to be replaced, Shelley and his brother’s wife decided they couldn’t leave it white, painting it red with the baseball team’s logos.
Overall, White said he prefers driving VW buses because they are a cheap, upgradable form of transportation that allows a lot of mobility as long as one has the tools.
“Once you buy the tools, you’ve got them for the rest of your life,” he said, adding that he used to carry a spare engine with him when driving around. If the vehicle broke down and needed a new engine, White could swap engines out by himself in a single day.
VW buses have given White many memories, he said, on trips to Canada, the East Coast and Texas, among others.
Then there was that time in Seattle where his dashboard caught fire due to an electrical mishap.
“The whole dashboard just started melting,” White said of the 1997 incident. “The police were there telling me I had to get this car off the highway.”
After having his car towed across both sides of an Interstate 5 bridge, White was forced to sleep in a U-Haul parking lot while re-wiring the vehicle during the next two days.
“I ate convenience store food and drank beer,” he recalled.
White said it took about nine hours to drive from Seattle back home to Pullman, because although he’d wired things so the engine would run, turning on the headlights would drain the battery too fast.
“I had to buy a battery charger and stop every four hours,” he said.