Vanagons can park almost anywhere, but a Central Washington backdrop boosts the scenic factor.

Image: Kyle Johnson

► Destination: Naches • 2.5 hours southeast of Seattle

I’m nervous to pour myself behind the wheel of one of Peace Vans Vanagons, where only a few inches of bumper and headlights sit between me and the pavement. The seat forces my back to be ramrod-straight, the steering wheel low on my lap.

Harley Sitner has owned Peace Vans Rentals in SoDo since 2013, but nearly every vehicle he rents and repairs is old enough to vote. This burgundy monster came off the line not long before Volkswagen stopped making them in 1991, and its rear engine placement is but one of its European quirks. He assures me that the boxy 15-footers are easy to drive, despite their “quaintly powered” rebuilt engines.

He’s right. Within minutes I’ve convinced myself that I now have impeccable posture and artfully windblown hair, and can now pull off cutoff shorts or even a knit poncho. I feel like I’ve achieved the kind of hippie cool soundtracked by classic rock, “Ventura Highway” or some early Stones.

From Seattle I head east to Naches, a farming town just outside Yakima; nervous about finding a suitable spot to park the rental camper van, I book a private campsite. Using website—think Airbnb, but for empty acreage that can hold a tent or RV—I’ve secured riverfront sites on the Naches River.

The fastest route would trace I-90 and I-82 freeways almost the entire way. But vanlife—it’s one word these days—is about the journey, so I route myself through Mount Rainier National Park. As I bend the hairpin curve at Chinook Pass, rounding clumps of fire-orange Indian paintbrush and violet lupine wildflowers, I’m in vanlife heaven.

Thirty minutes later, it’s a sweaty heaven. Sitner warned me that A/C is sketchy in the vintage vans, so the only airflow comes through open windows. On my leisurely climb over the Cascades—which, to be fair, goes much faster than the putter I expected—I search the FM dial for distracting tunes as I pant.

People have been living out of vans since before “hippie” was a word, but it’s only in the past decade that the lifestyle took on aspirational sheen. Hashtag vanlife became a way of life, retro style included—BYO brilliant landscape, vintage shades, maybe a surfboard or two. The boxy van and pop-top itself lends counter-culture cred, dismissing the bourgeois trappings of houses and hotels many of us can’t afford anyway.

Yet my campsite is hardly Insta-worthy. I strain a muscle popping the rooftop tent to form the sleeping quarters, then navigate between luggage on the van floor, and fish stray popcorn kernels from between the seats from a mid-route snack. I open every door to encourage airflow in the sunbaked Naches Valley, then quickly erect the bug screens as mosquitoes descend. I’m comfortable, but I quickly learn that keeping the van tidy enough for enviable photos isn’t easy.

Sitner rents his 10 Vanagons complete with dents and dings on the sides, even though his body shop could easily smooth them out. Scarcity has driven up the value of the old vehicles—30-year-old Vanagons go for $50k—and imperfections are part of the deal. But mostly, it helps renters relax about doing their own damage to the rentals. It works.

After a day among the Naches orchards, I return to Seattle through another scenic route. The burgundy Vanagon and I climb White Pass on Highway 12, stopping for the sparkle of Rimrock Lake and then for fresh tomatoes from a roadside stand. Twisting 15 feet of van through parking lots—it turns on a dime!—is addictive.

It takes me five hours to get home, especially when I start to take pride in being passed. When I pull off the road on whims, I’m often followed by other drivers who assume I’ve spotted a special vista. (“Follow the Vanagon” isn’t a bad road trip strategy.)

New cars have more than backup cameras and satellite radio; many—including Peace Vans' new Mercedes—are programmed to tell drivers to take a break when they’ve driven too long or start to swerve a bit. The Vanagon has no central computer, no display screen, no brain. But nevertheless, with every mile it convinces me to do the same thing. I slow down and I take a break.

The Next Generation

This summer, Peace Vans debuted the rental Mercedes Metris, their answer to vintage phobias. Leaner than the finicky VW vans, the Metris has more of a nose than the boxy classics but not quite the snout of a soccer-mom minivan. Inside they boast a pop-top and a similar setup to the Vanagon: a back seat that becomes a bed, a kitchen sink and propane burners.

The Metris drives like any other late-model car, complete with backup camera and airbags (and A/C). The old Vanagons evoke the rational clutter of a sailboat, where every nook hides a crucial doohickey; the Metris has the sleekness of a yacht with wood floors and dark upholstery. Make that a yacht with new-yacht smell.

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