Beetle-Driver: Around the States in 57 days

Bisbee, Arizona; Foto Geri Stocker This trip was going to be something special! I had been to the U.S. often before - sometimes just for pleasure, sometimes on readings organised by Goethe Institute, which were mostly also a pleasure. On my first trip I had started to take some pictures of old traffic intersections, and constantly stopping to take photographs had put a relationship in jeopardy. It seemed pretty pointless to snap just any old natural marvel or building, as there are plenty on postcards, calendars and ready-made slides. And, I soon discovered, plenty of intersections. In Anchorage, Alaska, I found a Beetle within camera range. Well, well, I thought, so far from home! I wasn't to know that beetles would develop into an obsession with me. Over the years I came across them in other states, too. I thought about the sort of posters that lecturers like hanging in their studies: doors on Mykonos or Irish shutters. Why not a poster showing fifty different Beetles from all fifty states? Complete with different licence-plates - much more of a visual treat than our boring ones - it could be very appealing, I thought. From then on I planned all my trips around the Beetle. I mean the Volkswagen Beetle. The Beetle. The Bug. The nickname comes from America, by the way. This description first crops up in the New York Times on June 1st, 1942.

I've never got round to that poster. But a publisher encouraged me to produce a book on stories about the Beetle and my American trip. Okay, I said to myself, this time we'll make a proper job of it! I'll "do" all 50 states in one go. In 57 days I visited the lot - including Alaska and Hawaii on the same day! I have to admit, I did dawdle at times, especially in the Northwest, and in Cincinnati I was sick for a few days - but I wasn't trying to get into the Guiness Book of Records.

Why do people travel in America? Some are looking for emptiness, wide open spaces, infinity. Others want the virgin wilderness. Yet others are living out their childhood dreams, they want, as it were, to shake Lassie's paw. For people who like to be on the move, America is ideal. And anyone who speaks only English can travel for thousands of miles without leaving English speaking territory. Others are after the sun or rapid-rivers. Very few people travel to the States for epicurean delights, although I can't confirm that anyone of my acquaintance is totally prejudiced against American cuisine.

In fact, my friends grumble about how often I go over there. I'm conceited enough to think they're jealous. "What do you go there for?" For them, America is Instant Land, where rice is harvested in easy-cook bags, and coffee bushes grow beans for instant coffee. (The Japanese, by the way, have invented a term for "Can't-stand-Americans - kenbei). Many people resent Americans for their feigned kindness. Well, I find German feigned rudeness even harder to take. America has so much space to offer, you can find anything you you choose - places to see, food to eat, people to meet. All you need to do is travel with eyes and ears wide open, that way you'll soon find what you want.

I've probably got a thing about America. The most harmonious moments of my childhood were the family schenes in "Dennis", "My Three Sons" and "Fury" and "Lassie", which is why the sight of check-patterned shirts, log cabins and pickup trucks still sends me into raptures. Psychologists would call it "patterning". Like many German youngsters I absorbed a lot of American influences in my youth: music, pop idols, coca cola, cigarettes - we left nothing out. Even before I 've first touched down in America it seemed familiar to me. Besides - and it's nothing to be ashamed of - I'm a collector. I wanted to collect all the flag's fifty stars. A childhood hero of mine, in an old Lloyd, had once "traveled the world on 19 horse-power" - and I wanted to do something similar. Though not necessarily in a motorcar. On the motorcar, more like. I traveled like a Yank doing Europe: "If it's Tuesday, it must be Middlebury!"

Cars are not a tricky subject in a country whose inhabitants spend an average of sixth months waiting at red lights. Drive to live, Live to drive I saw on a poster somewhere. A German car in the USA... Not that I'm over-patriotic - in fact I feel awkward whenever I see the "Volks" (i.e. "national" - but more in the way the Nazi used it) in front of anything. But I could hardly find a better way of linking German and American culture - apart, perhaps, from Elke Sommer and Detlef Schrempf. Cars are not in themselves a very rich subject, which is why I am more interested in people connected with them. "Everybody's got a Beetle story!" was the sentence I kept hearing. Beetle-drivers are a species apart. For me the Beetle has opend doors to a Cuban saxophone-player in New Jersey, an ex-Senator in Connecticut, an Austian immegré in Alaska, a simple Jewish family in Delaware (who, despite everything, adore German cars!), a millionaire Beetle-fanatic in Seattle, an anthropologist in southern Illinois with a private Beetle junkyard, and a folk-rock duo from Buffalo, New York; if it hadn't been for the Beetles I'd never have met them! Some meetings happened by accident, others were the result of painstaking research and meticulous planning. The old balancing-act between politeness and persistence.

With a mission like this, you don't suddenly leave on the off-chance. I've seldom found a fax-machine more useful than in the weeks I spent preparing the trip. (That happened in the terrible days before E-mail) I found the addresses of Beetle-fans in American magazines like "Hot VW's" or VW trends". I wrote to clubs who provided me with contacts. Even people in Germany knew people in America who knew people... and so on. I remained hopeful: after all, between 1949 and 1974 the Wolfsburg factory had shipped five million Beetles to America - and some of them must still be there. VW started on a modest scale - exporting 352 models in 1950. What accounts for the car's success? When Perry Clough from Rhode Island proudly showed me the Beetle convertible which he had been restoring for the past two years, he commented laconically: "By the time I'm finished I'll have invested something like 15.000 dollars in the car. It'll be worth between 8-9.000. After all the effort I'll have a car which is slow, noisy, has minute windscreen wipers, feeble headlights and poor heating." This was something I came across time after time: owner lovingly totting up drawbacks. I got the feeling that Beetle maniacs were particularly proud of giving perfection one in the eye. Economy may have been a deciding factor for students, but the car's ultimate success must be due to the Americans' love of eccentricity. And after all, driving a Beetle is always something of a challenge.

The project gobbled up money. I looked for sponsors. Delta Airlines turned me down - it was too piddly for them. I still flew with them, though their two-month "Standby-America-Pass" is unbeatable value. If I say that the two most frequent statements during my trip were "We apologize for the delay" and "Many thanks for your patience!", I'm not being petty or vengeful; I took off and touched down with them over 70 times in all on that trip, and these things happen. Tips for standby travelers: avoid holidays, watch it at weekends, and in general - fly against the trend. Early morning and evening flights are often overbooked, so it's better to fly between ten a.m. and three p.m. Overnights are another expense to consider. I must have faxed 50 hotels. Americans are pretty bad when it comes to replying, but Holiday Inns in particular gave me some amazing discounts. And in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I was given a free night in the "Antler Motel".

They say it isn't the weather that's bad in Alaska - one's just wrongly dressed. Pouring rain in Juneau and at the Mendenhall Glacier, a sizeable monster of bluish ice which is Fred Felkl's friendly neighborhood glacier. In his Black Beeetle, vintage 1955, Fred and I drove ten minutes from his house into the wilderness. Around here there is nothing but wilderness - ten bears were sighted in the capital last year. Fred Felkl left Vienna in 1964 to take a look at Alaska. He's been there ever since. "I'm still looking!" His Beetle-mania is understandable - he is a motor mechanic. Here he is in a good position to study the likelihood of Beetles surviving under adverse conditions: "The rust is appalling, all the body work rusts away, you've got to keep everything dry!" Which is why he only brings out his star vehicle on special occasions.

Foto: T.C.Breuer, Black MountainHe likes the freedom he gets up here, the fact that people are more easy-going than in the lower 48s. Not to mention the landscape, of course! He combats touches of homesickness with music, religion and traveling. He called his two sons Hans and Franz. And then there is the car, also a relic from the Old World.

"A Beetle is ... er... er... is a Beetle!", he enthuses. "How do they put it round here? Nostalgic! A simple car, unique desgn. For urban travel it was unbeatable. The cars they drove then would do ten miles a gallon, whereas a Beetle could manage 25 to 30. Then there's ist simplicity and the way it looks: there's been nothing to touch it for looks".

Even in Germany American license-plates are everywhere: in pubs, flats, among car records, in truck cabins - Wanderlust in metallic form, just like the bagdes on old German walking-sticks. The license-plates are also often called tags. They look promising, as if they hold back secrets. At the same time, they don't keep anything back. As well as being proud of their homeland, Americans are very communicative. Their T-shirts carry the title of their favorite book or sometimes their own name, or else information about their religious calling or sexual orientation.

They approach their tags in the same way. Mostly manufactured in jails, these show pictures of sunsets, reed grass, peaches, mountains, cedars, birds or aeroplanes, supplemented mottos like "Land of Enchantment", "America's Dairyland", "Live Free or Die!", in other words the motto of each state. Some of them are misleading - New Jersey does not exactly evoke the "Garden State". They put "USA" after "New Mexico" after an option poll revealed that many Americans presumed this state in Mexico. At the same time, the license plates also provide unsought information about the car-owners, and about American history: Veteran. War Veteran. Korean Veteran. Former Prisoner of War. Combat Wounded. Sometimes their is the symbol of a wheelchair. University often have their own plates. For a few dollars more you can have everything custom made. Beetle-freaks often go in for "Ladybug", "Fahrvgn" (from "Fahrvergnügen" - the German word for driving pleasure, the key word in American VW ads), "73 Beetle" or "Kaefer". In Connecticut, for instance, you have to fork out 100 dollars for a vanity plate like this.

In Arizona I was able to bag Beetles on foot. In Arkansas I quickly understood why Bill Clinton wanted at all costs to go to D.C. As for Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana, I dealt with them all in a day. In Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana I persuaded drivers "to follow the Beetle". In California I nearly drowned in Beetles. In South Carolina howeverI was almost buried under a mountain of breakfast pancakes. For Billings, Montana I needed exactly 90 minutes. For South Sioux City, Nebraska, even 85 minutes less. In Missouri I hounded the Director of the Goethe-Institute St. Louis across parking lots for two hours. In Fargo, North Dakota, the taxi-driver took me to his own VW (a buggy), which I photographed while he kept the meter running. In Memphis, Tennessee I was taken up in the lift by security. In Seattle, Washington I was introduced to an electric Beetle. In Albuquerque, New Mexico I spotted a Beetle camper, while in New York I met a woman performance artist who stages Beetle Ballets - no kidding! In Virginia I attended Bug races, but in Michigan I didn't come across a single one on the parking lot of Volkswagen of America Inc. Everywhere I went I met screwballs - it was great!

What a combination this is: a professor who has been researching into Indian languages of the Southwest, who as a Philipino wife, and lives in Southern Illinois! The land is not flat, as I expected, but hilly and friendly. Pictoresque mailboxes perch on the roadside like roosting hens. I follow the scent of Joel Maring's pipe through long grass. An inquisitive family of ducks waddles along behind us. A horse is cropping grass in front of a barn. This idyllic country scene was the last resting place for some twenty Volkswagens. I had always assumed that they would withdraw like Elephants once they felt their last hour approaching. Inside the barn was a Beetle came to this world the very same year as me, 1952. I'm awestruck. It has survived several onslaughts by the Marings unscathed. In her eigth month of pregnancy Ester Maring turned the car over did two and a half somersaults in it and left it lying on ist back. But she did not hurt herself until she unclipped her seatbelt and dropped down head-first. Joel Maring has restored this vehicle at least five times - he probably knows every spare part in three different Navajo dialects. He carries on regardless, nothing can cure him of his obsession. If I were a Beetle, I would probably want to spend my retirement in the beautiful idyll of Macanda, Illinois. Here I would be respected and looked after. So what did Joel Maring specially like about the Beetle?

Foto: T.C.Breuer, Wynn Haven, FLA"At high speed the car is unstable and the steering's tricky. You can't dream and drive, or you'll end up in trouble!" Which tells you at once: this man adores his car!

Why do all Americans between Delaware and Tupperware always build their cities near enormous shopping centers, and not vice versa? Their phone booths are open in three sides, why do they invariably make the door face the noisiest sites? Any anyway: how does an ignorant denizen of the Old World work out on the telephone system, which seems, if anything, to predate Industrial Age? How does such a sophisticated society manage with antedeluvian showerheads which are impossible to move? Why do pieces of toast never fit into the toasters? Have appliances grown smaller over the centuries or have slices of bread got bigger? Why are there such catastrophic deficiencies in trouser design? Why do business people make a point of wearing clothes one size too small? Is there anywhere in the States where salespeople are not pleased to see you? And if not, why not? Is it to do with the Pursuit of happiness? How come the dividing lines between politeness and hysteria are so wavy? Is that why schoolkids in New York City and elsewhere go about in bullet-proof vests? Is this the legacy of the "Wild West"? And while we're about it: why do several of the dead-straight highways suddenly have a hairpin bend? Can we blame one last remaining Communist who refuses to sell his real estate?

Why, in the land of priceless possibilities, are objects in a mirror nearer than they appear? (Or is it further? Or larger? Or perhaps smaller? I'll never know!) But what is Instant Nectar for Hummingbirds? And why, on both sides of the country, do millions of mature burghers consume mouthfuls of burgers? What are we to make of low fat milk, cholesterol-free-toothpicks, non-dairy creamers, sugarfree sugar, protein-fortified dish-towels and Decaf? And if there is such a thing as regular coffee, surely irregular coffee must also exist? (I'm not knocking on coffee, it is really phantastic, if you like your tea very strong!) And why on earth do they tip gallons of chlorinated water down their throats, sometimes disguised as ice cubes? And why do non-smokers regard Mount St.Helens as the Great Non-Smoky Mountain? And so on and so fourth.

But the most important question is this: why do we Germans copy the Americans in so many respects? Je ne sais pas. By now I've been in the States eight times, and every time I've come home with yet more questions. Who knows if they'll ever be answered, but in any case philosophers claim that answers aren't what life is about. Apparently only questions are valid. Add one more: if America is God's own country, when is He finally going to do something about it?

At first sight, Waterbury, Connecticut is an appealing provincial city in New England: respectable, tidy, peaceful. But even here, nothing is certain anymore. "In America today", I was told by Bob Dorr, President of the Connecticut Volkswagen Association, no more porches are built facing the road. In the old days, people used to sit out there and talk to people, but now it's too risky. People prefer to build a deck in the back. The upshot is you have less and less chance of meeting people. The idea behind the Volkswagen club is to lure people out of their houses again, and the excuse is the Volkswagen. We want to encourage partnership and friendship thru socialising.

Bob knows about socialising - after all, in 1983, at the tender age of 32, he became a member of the Connecticut Senate. One of his ancestors was even Governor of Rhode Island. As well as his passion for Beetles, shared with his wife Mary Ann, he is a great fan of Jamaica and a reggae-freak. He has to work in one trip to the island every year. Bob is the second Woodstock veteran I've met. Out of his skull! "The Beetle", Bob goes on, "is the most easily recognised car in the world. If you've got a Beetle you've got a world-class car." This explains why the CVA also has members in Japan, India and Europe, with whom they keep in touch partly by E-mail. Bob Dorr quotes Marshall McLuhan: "The world is a global village!"

Foto: T.C.Breuer, MissoulaDuring my stay I did manage to learn one ore two things. Coffee pots with orange spouts always contain caffeine-free... what else - coffee. Though a certain amount of coffee culture has been spreading - mainly from Seattle. Try Café Latte. Anyone who wonders why so many Americans are overweight should look at the size of the portions: as if they wanted to prove afresh every day that no one in this marvelous country needs to suffer want. The principle of being shown to your seat: "Wait to be seated" is valid everywhere, probably up to and including the electric chair.

To make small talk it is a good idea to learn by heart some of the legendary names and historical homeruns or touchdowns, then you'll be accepted more quickly. Walking is a habit you should wean yourself off. As Elmore Leonard wrote: "Here it's illegal to be seen on the street!" And be careful with large-denomination banknotes: if you pay with a hundred dollar bill, you'll immediately be suspected of laundering drug money. The fact that people call you by your name every second sentence, although they have only just learned it, is not necessarily meant personally. And if a waiter asks you: how are you today, it doesn't mean he has a clue how you were the day before.

The whole country hums with motors, cooling plants and airconditioning units, even all night. America is always on the move. A favourite myth is "We never close!", the truck-stop owner says. "We don't even know where the front-door keys are!" I'm on a continuous learning-curve. At some point or other, I promise myself, I shall not climb into a patrol car thinking it is a taxi.

It has been said that traveling narrows rather than broadens the mind, and this applies to me. Lots of things which did not resemble a Beetle I ignored. Heroically and idiotically serving my mission, I resisted all temptations; only in the case of Zinfandel, carrot cake, cinnamon buns, Pacific salmon and Cafè Latte did I succumb. I set foot everywhere, but in the end never had my feet on the ground. There again, it is not such a bad thing to travel with a theme, a red thread running thru your journey. It meant that I had to peer into corners and take "Ho-Chi-Minh-Byways" off the beaten path. Whatever you're after: joggers on the highways, mailboxes, diners, closed-down drive-in cinemas, town sign-board, neons, motels or trucks - the trip swiftly develops ist own momentum. Like Sancho Pansa, Comapnion Chance is always at your side, helping to weave the route together. I had no idea what I really wanted from America. I left that to the Beetle, and it worked out ist own agenda. It went on and on and on... and it achieved a very high rating on the open-ended scale of mythical meaning. Who can ask for anything more? In contrast to the ancient TV quiz, I tool my winnings away with me and I wanted to go back.

(© 1993. Translated by Anthony Vivis)

© Thomas C. Breuer Rottweil
2.7.2012 - 00:00