Last Tuesday I dropped off our 1991 VW Westy, Hi Ho Silver, at Peace Vans in Seattle to put it on their “sell” listing. As I handed the keys to Harley, the owner, my emotions were similar to what I felt when I took one of my precious old kitties to the vet for the final shot. The drive in from PT was grim. However since my beloved Kathy passed in 2020, I really didn’t use the van for what it was intended – getting out on the road, together, with no destination in mind except each other.
Now a little background for the uninitiated hippie roadtripper: A Westy is a Volkswagen Vanagon converted into a camper by the German company Westfalia. They came equipped with a pop top (comfortable standing room), two bunks (upper, lower), a two-burner propane cooking system with a sink, potable water and a propane fridge that also ran on electricity.
Westies have no head which Kathy, a plumbing genius, easily overcame with a “pee can” engineered from a modified Clorox bottle and which served both boys and girls’ needs. I’ll never forget my 5 year old grandson, in a Seattle city park, buck naked and showing his younger nieces how to properly operate the system, including flinging the final contents out onto a picnic lawn.
Over the years, Westies became the ultimate roadtripping vans. They are also capable of morphing into a nice around-town car at the drop of a hat – the perfect one car family van. And 1991 was the last year they were produced, making it an instant collectors item — the Model A of camper vans. That being the case, they also command top dollar in the used van market.
VW vans are not the Toyotas of the desert. They need loving care and occasional rejuvenation. Enter Seattle’s Peace Vans, the loving care guys and gals in Seattle’s Sodo district who will do whatever is needed to keep your Westy on the road and running like melted butter.
Silver – yes, it really is silver with a purple stripe painted along its side – got its name from the dearly departed love of my life, Kathy, as she was blasting down a switchback dirt road into Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border. Windows were all wide open and Lyle Lovett was blasting on the stereo. With heavy heart and heavy foot, she ripped around the umpteenth switchback, exhilarated by the rapid drop and her ability to skid around tight corners, she started yelling “Hi Ho Silver Away” as she cranked the steering wheel around and waved one arm outside the window like she was riding a bucking bronco. At the same time I was in the passenger seat holding on for dear life to the “oh shit” handle.
Over the 30 years we owned Hi Ho Silver, we traveled 240,000 miles from Vancouver Island to Big Bend National Park in southern Texas. Our favored stomping grounds were in the western deserts – places like Joshua Tree, Inyo, Death Valley, Great Basin, Steens, Capitol Reef, Chaco, Hovenweap, Vantage, and all those little golf courses and painting spots in eastern Washington and Oregon, … the list goes on.
To bring Silver up to date, we engaged Harley and Co several times to progressively rebuild almost everything but the motor, which had been rebuilt earlier in bulletproof fashion.
One of the most creative projects we had with Harlely and crew was to figure out how to get more shoulder room for two aging cozies sleeping in the bottom bunk. The process took about six months. First they built a skeletal mockup and sent us out on an extended road trip. The problem was solved. When we returned, they removed a cabinet and water tank and beautifully rebuilt that corner of the van, just behind the stove. From then on, we slept shoulder to shoulder for warmth — heaven, as if on a cloud.
Kathy and I felt like family whenever we had Peace do some additional work on Silver. They knew that we had absolute trust in the quality of their work and advise on how best to keep Silver on the road.
It had been almost a decade since I had last walked into the Peace Van reception area. There were still a bunch of old tires and tee shirts in the corner, and the work bays are so immaculate you could eat your lunch off the floor. I was immediately greeted by a masked Harley who extended sincere condolences about Kathy’s passing before getting down to the business of marketing Silver. I think he knew how hard this was for me. This year I celebrated 60 years of partnership and 30 years of Silver-lined roadtrips with the love of my life. Parting with Silver which, in many ways, symbolized our final 30 years together, felt like the culmination of a life, not just Kathy’s but ours — the couple we created.
In order to put a little sparkle into this bleak momentous day, Harley took me out back to have a look at one of their pop-up Mercedes Metris conversions. I lit up like a birthday cake with 30 candles, bowled over by this modern house on wheels, no bigger than a Westy, but oh so modern. The minute I stepped inside I started dreaming of all the places I could go. A new Silver? A new life?
It would be a real stretch. But WOW, to get back on the road again, Lyle Lovett on the stereo, open all the windows and let her rip.
Possible? Perhaps. It’s all a matter of attitude – how you approach each day. As my friend Michelle said to me the other day, “go with it, wherever it takes you.”
Flashback: Silver wasn’t the first Francis family van.