On December 31st they're going to stop making the VW Van. Some factory in Brazil will shut down and bring to an end 63 years of one of the greatest, slowest and most dangerous passenger vehicles ever made. New regulations requiring airbags and other safety features make it no longer feasible to maintain production, so they're going to stop making them for the same reason most of us stopped driving them - they're just too damn dangerous.
Driving a VW Van puts you right up where the action is in a front-end collision, with little more than some airspace and a thin sheet of tin between you and the Great Beyond. If you were smart you'd mount a spare tire up in front, but let's face it, if you were smart you also knew were just kidding yourself. On the other hand, the inherent danger and slowness of the vehicle made for a far more polite and contemplative driving experience. Where in a regular car you might worry over things like "Can I pass this truck?" or "Can I make this left turn in time?" In a VW van the answer was always "No. You can't." You never had to worry about traffic in a VW: You were the traffic. And when it came to safety, the only reliable safety feature was the door, which you could use to exit the vehicle just before impact.
Those were the downsides. The upside was that for about a thousand bucks you had a car that could take you pretty much anywhere you wanted to go and give you a place to sleep along the way. The mechanics were incredibly basic and you could change the engine in about an hour with a large wrench, screwdriver, pliers and a milk crate. If you wanted to - or had to - you could even live in the thing... either by yourself or with a significant other. And while there wasn't really enough room in the van to raise a family, many of us discovered there was more than enough room to start one.
I bought my first van, a '68, for $350 from a surfer in Santa Cruz. It looked like hell, but with $20 worth of body putty and eleven cans of spray paint I made it look practically new, then drove it all over California and the southwest canvassing for Greenpeace and trying to "find myself." (I think a lot of us trying to find ourselves eventually found ourselves in a VW Van.) Although I kept it going as best I could, after a year or so it became obvious that I had to kill the van before it killed me. My plan was to cross into Mexico and just keep heading south until she broke down and then just walk away. Apparently Bessie understood this because after breaking down almost daily stateside she started running like a champ - thoughbeit a slow one - once we crossed the border. In fact, she made it all the way to Nicaragua and back. This was back in 1987, with hot wars going on in Nicaragua and El Salvador and rural pacification ("slaughter") in the mountains of Guatemala.
About a month or so into the trip I was in the Guatemalan highlands. The master cylinder for the brakes was leaking like a sieve and they didn't have a new one in Huehuetenango. Since the brake fluid reservoir was right next to the clutch pedal, I figured I could simply attach some hose and a funnel and, by continually pouring fluid into the system, keep the brakes working until Guatemala City. The finishing touch was mounting the funnel in the glove compartment, which not only made for the perfect bracketing device but kept the entire system basically invisible. I bought a gallon of brake fluid and showed my system to the mechanic. He smiled and said "Go with God."
So long as I didn't use the brakes, things were fine. The system only leaked when there was pressure on it, and if you're careful, it's easy enough to drive without brakes. The first time I had to stop entirely was at a military checkpoint high on a plateau about half an hour outside of town. The only vehicle in front of me was a passenger bus, and the soldiers had taken everyone out and lined them up beside it: hands on their heads, documents in their teeth. We were about 500 feet above the cloudline and the sun was low and red, turning the tops of the clouds beneath us a bright, fantastic pink. In the distance I could see the tops of two volcanoes, floating like islands in some fiery, impossible sea.
There was a problem with one of the passengers, a teenage boy in a light blue shirt. The soldier frisking him started yelling and then kicked his legs out from under him. The captain came over and picked the kid up by his shirt, shaking him and raising an arm as if to strike. Then, as if satisfied by the way he cringed, he pushed him back onto the ground.
I’d been in Guatemala less than a week, but was already well acquainted with the various types of military roadblocks. There was the standard Army, Customs, La Policia Judicial and then there were these guys – La Guardia Hacienda – the worst of the lot. By that time over 100,000 people had been killed in the mountains of Guatemala, and I knew that the kid getting roughed up in front of me could’ve just as easily been shot.
The captain shouted some more and the people began filing back onto the bus, then he and his men turned their attention to me. A couple of the soldiers started going through the van while the captain went over my papers. I stood off to the side, watching the clouds below turning more and more fantastic, then quickly fade to grey as the sun went down behind them.
The captain gave me back my papers and told me he and his men needed a ride down the mountain. I told him it was impossible: the brakes in the van were almost totally shot, and with the extra weight it’d be too dangerous. I was trying to be as polite and friendly as possible, but he latched onto the word "dangerous" and started taking things to the next level: “What do you mean, too dangerous?”
I suddenly realized two things: 1) contradicting him in front of his men had been a grave mistake, and 2) he was very, very drunk.
“Look…” I said, reaching under the front bumper and smearing my hand with brake fluid from the master cylinder... "Very bad."
"Why are you driving?"
I smiled and showed him the system I’d rigged up. “I'm going to get it fixed in Guatemala City. It’s okay for one person… but for all of us?” I shook my head.
“There is no emergency brake?”
“No.” I said, “This is my emergency brake...” putting my hand on the driver's side door.
The soldiers took turns peering in through the passenger side door at my jerry-rigged braking system, alternately nodding and shaking their heads at its brilliance and obvious danger. The van shouldn't have been on the road at all and I knew I was in trouble, but nowhere near the trouble I'd be in trying to get down the mountain with the weight of six extra men and their weapons.
Although we talk a lot about the First and Second Amendments, the Third Amendment to the Constitution - the one about not having to take in soldiers - that's a really good one too. They don't have it in Guatemala.
To our collective horror, the captain ordered everybody in the van. Five soldiers and their guns piled into the back while the captain sat up front with me. I filled the fluid hose up to the funnel and handed the jug to the Captain, making sure he understood it was his job to keep pouring when I said to. Then I fired up the engine and started down the mountain.
As much as I’d like to blame the drunken commandante for everything that happened next, ultimately it was my fault. Everything would’ve probably been alright if I’d just kept it in first gear, but for some reason, whether out of habit, anger, or sheer stupidity, I shifted into second and we were on our way.
As I expected, all the extra weight rendered the brakes just about useless, and the pedal was on the floor after the first switchback. I started pumping on the brake pedal muttering “Shit!” over and over again and told the captain to start pouring. The road was dropping steadily and soon we were in the clouds, everything turning white around us. The van was winding out to the top of second gear, thirty miles per hour and gaining, so I yanked out the emergency brake as far as it would go, just to let everyone know how screwed we were.
We hit the next turn way too fast and the gravity of the situation, literally, became apparent to everyone. I told the captain to keep pouring while I pumped frantically on the pedal, feeling just the slightest bit of resistance starting to come back, but nowhere near enough. I started assessing everything along the roadside in terms of its stopping power. Sometime during the the next minute one of two things was going to happen: we were either going to crash into the mountain or fly off the side, and if we were going to crash we were going to have to do it soon.
When the speedometer hit thirty-five I yelled “Hold On!” and slammed into first. The engine screamed and everyone, along with their guns, flew forward, the captain hitting the windshield, hard, with his head. I pulled hard to the right and drove into an embankment, hoping the bushes would soften the impact.
All things considered though, it ended up being a damn fine crash, as good as we could’ve possibly hoped for.
The soldiers scrambled out the back and the captain started yelling at me for trying to kill them. “I told you!” I yelled back, no longer bothering to speak Spanish, “I fucking told you the brakes were no good!” My adrenaline level was off the charts and I was yelling way louder than I should have before I caught myself. The captain was covered in brake fluid, staring at me with wild drunken eyes and for the second time in less than a minute I wondered if I was about to die.
My ass got saved by the soldiers who kept saying “Tranquilo… Tranquilo…” over and over again, pulling at the door to let the captain out. They understood the danger we’d been in, and that if I hadn’t crashed going into the curve, we would’ve all flown off the mountain coming out of it.
Two of the soldiers placated the captain while the others helped me push the van off the embankment and onto the siding. The right front end was tweaked a bit, with the bumper pushing the wheel well up against the tire. I searched around the mess inside the back for the crowbar, gulping down air and listening to my heart pound - hollow and sick from adrenaline. As I started working on the wheel I heard a truck coming down the mountain. It was a flatbed stake truck and the soldiers flagged it over. The captain got in front while the rest of them climbed into the back. I looked at them and put my hands together in prayer, closing my eyes and saying "Gracias." over and over again.
When they were gone I sat down in the ditch, closed my eyes and just sat for awhile feeling the mist tingling against my arms and face. The crowbar wasn’t really working and I figured I’d probably have to take the bumper off entirely and then try again. Maybe even jam the bumper in there and try using it as a crowbar. And if that didn’t work I could try something else. Or just climb in back, go to sleep and deal with it in the morning.
Suddenly I had all the time in the world...
(If you enjoyed this tale of brake failure on the high road to adventure, check out my e-book "Take to the Hills: Clothing the Sierra Madres" - only 99 cents at Amazon!)