[This is the fifth and final part of the true story of my ’76 VW Camper’s fire and resulting odyssey]

As the night grew darker and we drove across North Carolina toward I-81, Denise asked me how long I could keep driving. I told her all night, no problem. In truth, I wasn’t fond of all nighters. I was so relieved at a functioning van, though, that I put some tunes on the stereo and just drove. Never underestimate the power of good tunes to extend your driving capacity, especially if you can sing along (James Taylor comes to mind instantly).

As we hit I-81 (in Virginia, I think) I told Denise to go lay down in the back cabin seat and get some rest. I kept driving. As we moved further north, the temperature dropped steadily.

At 2:00am or so, the temp had dropped enough that it was pretty chilly (it’d hit the low 40s). I pulled over, went into the back, and fired up the propane heater (“Heats like the Sun!” was its slogan). It was a catalytic heater on which you screwed a small can of propane for fuel. Car heat, you ask? Remember–I’m in an air-cooled Volkswagen Transporter. There’s no such thing as car heat. Remind me sometime to tell you about heat exchangers and how they’re the biggest failure of German engineering (including exhaust gas leaking into the passenger compartment–but that’s another story).

At any rate, Denise woke up enough to mumble something, and I told her to go back to sleep. I drove on into the night, or morning as it was becoming. After 3:00am, we entered a neat part of I-81 where you drive through four states in a few hours: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. I was into Pennsylvania and passing Greencastle, PA by 4:30am.

Believe it or not, we pulled into our driveway in Mount Holly Springs, PA at 5:45am. We made incredible time. I didn’t care if the van died on the spot now–we’d made it home. Denise decided to freshen up and head back down I-81 to Greencastle for her interview. I thought she was insane.

Me, I called Michelle Oliver at Cumberland Valley School District and called out sick. This was a bit strange, because daily substitutes didn’t usually call in sick, but I was beyond remorse.


Denise got the job, a half-year long term sub position with Greencastle/Antrim School District.

After flawlessly motoring almost 700 miles that night, the van never ran smoothly again with the Weber carburetor system. I made endless adjustments to it, but never got it to avoid stalling at stop signs.

Eventually I replaced it with a dual carb system, which elevated my van to the unheard of mileage of 22 mpg. Unfortunately, the dual carbs had no built-in chokes. This meant that my engine backfired for fifteen minutes every time it needed to warm up.

Finally I replaced the dual carbs with fuel injection again–I even used some parts from my charred system (they’d put the burnt parts in a cardboard box for me in Savannah–I’d never thrown them out). I learned a lot about VW Bus engines.

The propane heater is gone now, but not before it melted my heavy parka because of too-close contact. I have the parka with its melted spot to this day (the heater departed my ownership shortly thereafter).

John Heath is (I’m sure) in happy retirement now, fooling around with VWs in his spare time–he deserves it.

The VW Bus itself was sold the following fall after 17,000 miles to Bruce Kelly to help pay for my wedding. I’ve seen it in a field by his old house in the last year. I’ve thought about buying it back and trying to restore it. Do I dare?