Tuesday, September 23, 2008

VW Bus Campout at Finnon Lake

Saturday morning came late, sleep seeming too important at the time. I slept in until 10:30 at least. EP had left early for a class in Napa (where I was to meet her later as the poles to our tent were in the back of her car) so the priority became a quick valve adjustment on Little Blue before I would turn her east toward Static’s 2nd Sierra Foothills camping trip so far this year. The spring event was a swarm of BMW bikes from all over NorCal with a few of us bus folk thrown in for spice, but this camping trip would be VW buses only. I was breaking the rule by piling my camping gear into Little Blue’s trunk, but in some cases a VW, even the wrong VW, is better than no VW at all.

Little Blue acting as a giant backpack.

Big Blue was staying home. Actually, Big Blue was sitting square down the street at The Garage, waiting for the final diagnosis on a bad exhaust valve on the 3rd cylinder. The word as of Friday afternoon was that he would most likely need new heads.

With Big Blue down for repairs (and, let’s face it, with most of the interior ripped out, you kinda miss the fun of the bus) it was Little Blue I fired up, loaded up and aimed up the gentle rising slope that leads to Placerville, over 130 miles away. In the Bug, the journey is slow going, but it is faster than the bus. I guessed 3 hours, but that didn’t include sidetracks. And it didn’t take long for me to get sidetracked.

First was the ride through wine country to the east of us. We live west of Sonoma Valley, which is west of Napa Valley, so heading east to the main highway to Sacramento, Little Blue and I are lucky enough to go through both valleys. Normally, we would head south and take a major road over, avoiding the twists and turns that the valleys' back roads throw at you, but EP was at a class at Copia, in the city of Napa, and her Toyota held the secret to my tent’s structural integrity – the poles.

Napa is always a great drive, but this was especially interesting as we are currently on the tail end of harvesting. And it was neat to see who had brought the grapes in and who hadn’t. Some recent heat, followed by some light rain and drizzle had all the grape growers in a mess, trying to figure out the perfect time to pick ripe, yet not moldy, grapes.

I met EP and picked up the poles (and scammed some Fat Tire from the trunk of her car) and took highway 12 out to 80 and turned across the delta. 80 is like any major highway anywhere in America that is flat. Because it is flat and you don’t have mountain views (unlike Central Valley) you tend to lose that connection with California as an existence.

The route.

After a quick stop at Vacaville to check out the VW show there (I didn’t want to pay to get Little Blue in, so I ditched her in the Home Depot next door and walked in), we chugged east through Sacramento in wonderful fall weather (perfect for the VW and the VW driver). The landscape started tipping upward, reminding me I am headed into the Sierras, and letting me know California is back with me.

The Milk Farm sign.

Highway 80 is flat and wide through the delta.

Between Sacramento and Placerville, the road starts climbing toward Tahoe.

I arrived in Placerville and, having learned my lesson last time, fueled up for a run into the boondocks near Mosquito, CA where we would be camping. Fuel included over 7 gallons of gas for Little Blue and a bag of Doritos, two Hershey’s bars, a PowerBar, two bags of ice, a six pack on Red Tail Ale (added to what I already had in the cooler, and $60 from an ATM for me. I noted Placerville was full of antique stores and knew then what I would be doing on the way home from camping.

The road north of Placerville to the campsite.

North Fork American River.

Little Blue and I headed north, then west, and then northwest with about 20 switchbacks in between. The area here is rugged and wild. I pass maybe 2 cars the entire ride. The road looks out over the South Fork American River, and you start the journey plunging down toward it, then cross a narrow bridge, then pound your way up the other side of the valley. Somewhere there after, you see the café and, if you are looking closely, the VW signs taped to the entrance.

Little Blue bumped past the café and over a bridge where the boards didn't match up to Little Blue’s width, shaking the car as I tried to find a smooth way over (later, I would find out that this bridge features a few large screw heads sticking out, one of which had already taken its bridge toll from Static’s tire).

I arrived, sweaty-backed, to find a campground full of buses tucked politely away in their own little spots. Some were familiar; Static is there with his canine, Maggie, in tow. Peter is there. Dick is there in a new bus. A new couple - Aaron and his wife and kid and their dog, Petey, (who figures out how to open the tent zipper during the night) are there in a really nice '70 bay window. Regis, a name I recognize from TheSamba is there with his ‘78 bus, and his wife and kids. Gene, a local, is also there with his bus. A while later, another couple rolls up in their Orange Riviera – Romey and Jen – a great bus and cool people. Carl and his girlfriend and their bulldog, Ginny, is there. Melissa is there.

It is all VW aside from one guy who came in a modern car (to hangout with the VW crowd).

Static's '71.

Gene's '71.

Dick's new bus (a '74?). It has a really cool bed set-up in the back.

Melissa's hardcore camping machine.

PJ Alau's 1970 Bus.

Aaron and family's 1970 bus.

Carl's hightop.

Regis and Kris's 78.

Romey and Jen's Riviera.

After hellos and some ribbing about not having Big Blue, I parked Little Blue and set up the tent. About this time, PJ Alau (Peter) decided to give a demonstration on how to recover your seats. It was a fine opportunity to have a beer and watch someone else work their ass off. EP took one look at the picture below - grown men looking at the springs of a stripped passenger seat and said, "oh man, you guys must have been in heaven." silently acknowledging that she may not have been had she been there herself.

Peter stopped after doing the bottom, saving the top for the next day.

Then a few of us headed to the café at the campground for dinner. It turned out that it was Gene’s birthday, so the café had pushed together tables, and his wife and friends were already there. We joined the party, sitting next to the pilots that call the area home (flying in to a airstrip nearby).

The gang at Rock Creek Cafe.

After consuming too much wine and trying to walk back in the dark, we made it back to camp safely using my phone as a flashlight for part of the way and hitching a ride the rest of the way. In minutes I am asleep in my tent.


At 6:30AM, I woke up and the place was still. No one was up. I checked my cell phone which promptly died. Like a fool, I had fallen asleep with it on. Around me, the buses were quiet - a rare scene. I tried to walk quietly in my flip flops down to the cooler to get some water. After that, I headed out to the lake to see the sunrise, and watch the steam drift off the water. There is a wild horse that roams this park they call the “ghost horse” - A retired horse put out to pasture to do with his life as he pleases. I expected to and wanted to see the ghost horse down at the lake, but had no luck (although I did see it a few hours after sunrise).

Then, slowly, life came back to the camp. I noticed that a new bus had pulled in at some point during the night. I suspected right away that this yellow (Butterscotch? Brilliant Orange?) beast can only be Paul from Valley Wagonworks. My suspicions were confirmed by other people waking up, saying they saw him the night before, and soon enough Paul came down and joined the group.

We sat around Melissa’s Vanagon and talked about buses, fishing, Yosemite, Baja, all the trips we should take together, all the things we would do with the buses if we all had the time and the money. My words of wisdom to Paul about not telling the guys he owns a shop doesn’t work as most people know who he is by name.

Paul's bus arrived during the night.

What started the day before, the demonstration on recovering a seat, ends then, with Peter putting the top together. I must say, I really enjoyed seeing it done. And added yet another thing to do to Big Blue once time and money permit.

The finished product (pre-heat gun if need be).

Side by side with the old one.

Paul, admiring the work.

When the sun got high, I took down my tent, and within a half hour, everyone was gone. Paul and his wife, Barbara, who came in that morning in her non-VW, were staying another night as Paul’s shop is closed on Mondays.

Peter and I left and didn't make it out of the park before his bus decided to act up, blowing a part out of his carburetor from a backfire.


...came from here.

I drove back and got Paul’s advice ("Tap it back in."). Paul headed our way on foot as I drove ahead to tell Peter, "tap it back in" and he did. Paul arrived and told him not to worry so much. It will be fine. So after we were all happy with it, we hit the road.

Paul and Peter checking it out.

I followed Peter into town, him driving his bus like a motorcycle around the curves. We found a great place for lunch that makes a tri-tip BLT and he joined me in the close inspection of the local antique shops. Odd, never having had to compete with someone for VW-related stuff at an antique store before. Usually, I can count on EP to double check my work, but here I had to move swiftly to stay ahead of Peter.

The grill where we ate.

The tri-tip BLT. Recommended!

The Cosmic Cafe has...

...an eating area in an old mineshaft.

Lincoln Highway marker.

An interesting thing of note, Placerville sits on America's first highway - the old Lincoln Highway, - as this marker indicates. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the highway, might I suggest some quick internet reading. Really interesting story.

We hit one last antique store west of town by about 10 miles (where I found 13 copies of TRAVEL magazine from the early 50s). After that, in the warm, setting sun of California, I headed home. West of Sacremento, west of Vacaville, west of Napa and Sonoma, west until I am 15 miles shy of the Pacific, Little Blue and I pulled into a parking spot at home. I killed the engine. And hurried inside to see EP.

Follow up links:
Conversation about it on TheSamba
Conversation on IAC


PJ Alau

That carb piece is in pretty solidly now. Now sure how it popped out, but I'm making a note to keep a spare in my emergency kit now.



Wow, what a monster post. Double check the 21st word in the second sentence from the top. Good stuff.

Big Blue's Driver

Out to Our?


Whew, that was a mouthful! Looked like a fun bus camping weekend. Sweet! Eliana and I will be in San Fran in a week, hope we can meet up!

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