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Illustration by Drew Shannon

She was a thing of beauty.

White and gleaming. Ready for adventure, wherever four wheels and our minds could wander. She would ferry us safely across waters and roads and state lines. Cocoon us as we slept within, fitful and with happy dreams, if interrupted on occasion by moonlight visits from stealthy field mice.

We named her Camper, our 1991 VW Westfalia Vanagon. Imaginative? Hardly, but apropos. For more than 20 years, she – and Camper was surely a motherly spirit – doubled as our “glamper” and my daily driver. Shuttling children to school, to the grocery store, to rowing and soccer and drama practice. I was living more #VanWife than #VanLife; it suited me fine. Living in a van is not all it’s cracked up to be.

But being in a van? That is special and unique. Camper came with a built-in refrigerator and two-burner stove. She slept four and had an enviable turning radius. In a line of school drop-offs, she stood out – the anti-minivan. Camper was different, and driving that cool van, I was happy to bask in her glow. Maybe her cachet would rub off on me in some small way. Cool by association.

Weekly, others approached to ask about her age, her ups and downs. Was she for sale? Never, I smiled.

Camper was slow and temperamental. She necessitated a lifetime membership in our provincial automobile association to save us from all manner of calamities. A dead battery on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, fluid leaks in E.C. Manning Provincial Park. A nerve-wracking breakdown on the Okanagan Connector in the dead of winter. Camper was not for the faint-hearted. She demanded care and attention and patience, and we delivered.

We kitted her out in flare from GoWesty, a mecca of hard-to-find parts and #WestyLife products. A Fiama canopy, Thule bike rack, custom wheel rims – four for summer, four for winter. We bought special headlight covers and equipped her with a more powerful engine. Not that speed was ever the point with Camper. The joy was in the journey, four-way flashers blinking as we chugged uphill in high second or low third gear (Camper had a manual transmission). A signature look. And sound.

You could hear her coming from a block away. The distinctive “dugga, dugga, dugga” chug of her engine brought our dog onto the back porch, tail wagging.

Her capacity seemed infinite. Sopping wet soccer equipment, boxes and bags of groceries, Christmas trees, weekend summer swim meet supplies, road trip and camping paraphernalia. She could handle it all. No load was too much, including us, her family of four plus a 10-pound lap dog piled in for good measure.

And of course, we camped. We criss-crossed the highways, byways and even the logging roads of our British Columbia home, ventured east to the fossil beds of Saskatchewan, and clocked thousands of miles south along the scenic Oregon coast and to the giant redwood forests of California. We pulled up to campsites, always on the lookout for other Westys, and the chance to swap stories and commiserate about idiosyncrasies.

Measuring time with every trip, our boys grew from toddler seats to forever bumping their teenaged heads on her ceiling. On our trips, they were in constant motion, eager to bike, swim, explore, then at twilight climb up into her loft to giggle and whisper before drifting off to the sounds of birds and owls and crackling campfires.

We planned future empty-nester journeys. We’d meet like-minded travellers and perform the ritual Westy Wave to passing drivers, an acknowledgment of our membership in a small, happy club of Camper people. Three-hundred thousand kilometres down and so many more to go.

Until one fateful fall day, decades of love and care were no match for the rental car speeding toward Camper at full force. Her metal frame crumpled and bent and snapped. Her strength protected my husband from serious harm. She wore the damage better than her foe, a rental SUV rendered a tangled mess of crushed plastic panels and inflated bags – a swift and brutal write-off.

For months, Camper’s injured frame waited for scarce parts. We faithfully planned a return to our favourite camping spot on Vancouver Island for August, holding out hope for her recovery. But in spring, the hoist revealed structural damage that could not be overcome. We would never hit the open road with her again. It was time to say goodbye.

Despite the mechanics’ strange looks (perhaps they understood Camper wasn’t just another wreck awaiting resurrection), I placed a hand on her dented frame, still white and gleaming, to whisper thanks. For the memories, the good days, the family times, the long and winding roads we’d travelled together. Thanks to her, we’d bonded as a family, introduced our adventure-loving children to the gooey seduction of s’mores and experienced the beauty and wonder of the wider world beyond our own backyard. Her memory will be a joy, forever.

At the parts auction, hands will raise. To bid, to claim her remains. Her parts will be scattered across the Westy universe. There is solace in knowing that others will benefit from the love and care we showered upon her. Camper may yet continue to travel onward, keeping a bower for others.

I will remember to wave.

Claudia M. Laroye lives in Vancouver.

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