At 22 years old, Morgan Johnson knows the ins and outs of a few things. She's lived in Oregon, Montana and Colorado, and she's done everything from selling vacuum cleaners to managing a King Soopers grocery store for a few years.
But when she decided to quit her job and give the Great Western Road Trip a try, she didn't know anything about cars other than that they get you places and cost money to fix. But when she decided to buy a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle for a trip that would cover thousands of miles, she faced a sink-or-swim learning curve that's an inevitable part of old Volkswagen ownership.
Now, she chatters about valve adjustments and wheel bearing tightness like an old hand. More importantly, she has joined the ranks of auto enthusiasts. Before, cars were just something that carried her to and from work. Now, she's approaching full-on gearhead status.
A Volkswagen Beetle wouldn't be my first choice for an epic road trip car, but those old German workhorses have the kind of charisma that can entice a young lady like Morgan Johnson into the strange world of auto enthusiasm. Needless to say, the car — packed to the gills with three or four passengers and all of their crap at any given time — broke down a lot during the trip. But with a little help from friends and strangers and by asking a lot of questions, Morgan's understanding of how cars work grew considerably. But so did her appreciation for cars; bugs in particular.
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I met Morgan and two of her travel companions when we were all stopped in front of Utah's Great Salt Lake one evening this summer. It was nearly 10 p.m., and the sun was finally sinking below the horizon, turning the lake's surface into an iridescent orange sheen. The only way to get to that part of the lake, as far as I know, is from I-80, so I was surprised to see an olive drab green Beetle, Colorado tagged and topped with a bulky, tarpaulin covered bindle, come trundling down the offramp toward the beach parking lot. I had to find out who was bold enough to take a road trip in a car like that.
Morgan and her friends, Johnny and Cherri, live in Boulder. They all explained, with that sort of fresh faced excitement you seen in young people caught up in an adventure, that they planned to drive all the way out to San Francisco, then up the coast through Oregon to Seattle. They didn't really have any plans other than that, just a chunk of free time, a little bit of money, and a knack for finding things cheap on Craigslist.
By then, only a couple of days into the trip, they'd already broken down once, and were making their way ever so slowly due to the car's limited capacity to carry a ton of weight.
The Journey Begins
Morgan had quit her job as a grocery store manager in Boulder just before the trip. She'd been working there for three years, and had always wanted to take a long road trip around the American West. She didn't know much about cars, but she did know enough to realize that her rusted-out Jeep wasn't going to cut it. But one day, when she was buying a saxophone from some guy off of Craigslist, she noticed that he had a lot of old Volkswagens in his yard. One of them — the army green one — was for sale for $1,600.
A lot of people would say that going from a rusted out, inoperable Jeep to a Volkswagen that's been sitting around since 1997 is leaping from the frying pan into the fire. But Morgan said she was enchanted by the car — which she always refers to as "she" — and bought it with some money she'd saved for the trip. Mike, the Volkswagen nut who sold her the car, unwittingly became her on call mechanic as soon as he handed over the keys.
"I told her when she got it to drive it around for a few days before leaving on her trip, but she just took off," he told me at a Volkswagen rally we all attended together a month later. "I'd say I got 200 texts while she was out driving the thing."
"I sent him a lot of pictures of my finger pointing at something and asking, 'What's this part? How do I fix it?'" she explained.
The trip lasted about a month, and the trio (they picked up another person in California, completely stuffing the little car) saw a lot of amazing scenery. But they also met people they wouldn't have met if they weren't driving an old car that broke and made them stop and smell the oil filter. Here's a breakdown of their itinerary, by geography:
- Boulder, Colo.: Morgan, et al hit the road, headed north through Cheyenne before hanging a left on I-80 toward Utah.
- Evanston, Wy.: The car's fanbelt broke. Johnny skateboarded five miles to the nearest town, but everything was closed. But he met a lady who had a bunch of random fanbelts laying around. None of them fit, so they tied a piece of rope around the pulleys and drove it to someone or other's friend's house. The guy had a bunch of old Volkswagens, and they found a fanbelt that worked until they could buy a new one.
- Utah: They met me at the Great Salt Lake. We parted ways (because an old VW is the only car that my car can drive faster than) until later that night. They caught up with me and we camped next to the Bonneville Salt Flats.
- The Nevada Desert: Nevada in summer is hell on Earth. With all that weight piled into the little car, it began to overheat and lost power. So they parked under a bridge and slept there until it was dark and cool outside. Once they got up into Tahoe, the weather was cooler and the car worked OK.
- Sacramento/San Francisco: They went to Pride, crashing with some guy they'd found on Craigslist in the Castro. Morgan found out that one of the reasons the car had been overheating was because of the bag strapped directly to the roof. It blocked airflow to the engine, which is cooled by air. So Morgan bought one of those cool metal and wood roof racks on eBay and poor Johnny, who had been crammed in the back with all that crap for a little while, got a reprieve. They also got an oil change (I'd told them that because VWs don't have oil filters, it's a good idea to change it every 2,000 miles).
- Humboldt County/The Lost Coast: Three days of backpacking on the Lost Coast and a day spent tripping balls on mushrooms in a redwood forest were car-free, thus devoid of mechanical problems.
- Portland, Ore.: The car smelled like gas, and they found not one, not two, but three fuel leaks. The big filler hose and some of the fuel line were dry rotted. The filler hose was a specialty part, and Morgan ended up skating 10+ miles on a hot summer day trying to find the right one. Morgan noted that "Portland isn't a good place to skate — the roads are shitty." She also replaced the fuel filter and the distributor cap and rotor.
- Washington State: A friend wanted to take a different, more reliable car to Seattle, but Morgan said, "You haven't experienced the bug yet. You gotta feel what it's all about." John Muir couldn't have said it better himself, and although the car broke down soon after hitting the road, they managed to get it started and didn't stop until they'd hit the grunge capital of the world.
- Onward to Idaho: The car, of course, broke down again. This time, the battery cable was loose (for those of you who know bugs, good thing the damned thing didn't catch on fire!) and there was another fuel leak from another dry rotted line. They used someone's brother's AAA card for a free tow to nearby Boise, Idaho. Morgan also had to fix some frayed wires in the dash when the lights stopped working. By this time, Johnny had strep throat, and Cherri had really bad poison oak from their redwood frolic.
- Evanston, Wy.: The car died and wouldn't start again. The carburetor was leaking gas and the engine was running too hot. The tips in the pea shooter exhaust had completely melted. They took the Greyhound the rest of the way home, and Morgan and Cherri came back later to get the car with a Uhaul.
Although they'd had to tuck their tails between their legs and take a bus the rest of the way home (and Greyhounds in the West aren't like those sleek new D.C.-to-N.Y.C. jobs, they're bleak, Morgan wasn't ready to give up on her bug. She talked Mike, the guy who'd sold her the car, into taking a look at it. The valves were way too tight, and she'd missed spotting a spark plug wire that had come loose. The thing had been running on three cylinders (one or two, if you count the cylinders with valves that were stuck open) for hundreds of miles.
But when Morgan, Cherri, Mike and I went to a bug rally a few weeks later, the car was purring (well, a clattery Volkswagen purr). Better yet, Mike had taught a man to fish, so to speak, and Morgan had a more thorough understanding of what those valves do, why they need to be adjusted, and how the car's ignition and carburetion systems work.
"I learned a lot about engines and how they work and how to fix things," she told me as we watched souped up bugs scream down the drag strip. "I was told owning one of these cars would make you learn how to have a lot of patience, and it really has."
If you live in Colorado or Wyoming, don't be surprised if you see a little army green bug chug up a gnarly hill near a trailhead in the middle of nowhere. Morgan isn't afraid to drive her car and now, she knows its limits and how to fix it.
Of course, she only knows how to tinker with Volkswagens (and by today's standards, a VW Type I scarcely qualifies as a car), but it's a start.
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston; Morgan Johnson