Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was just my own dumb luck. Or maybe the all-seeing airbrushed wizard-gods of custom vandom were smiling down on me this summer. In any case, I have to wonder if it was more than coincidence that in this, my first year of van ownership, the 38th Annual National Truck-In was held just four hours away from my house, in Greenwich, New York. Needless to say, I was there.
The history of the van convention is as old as vanning itself. Once vanners realized that there were other groovy freaks rolling around in similar—and similarly tricked-out—vehicles, it didn’t take long for them to start getting together on long weekends, converging on campgrounds to show off their paint jobs, swap conversion tips, camp out in their vans, and generally party like their lives depended on it. (And, to hear many vanners tell it, they do.) Vanners call these events “runs”. Runs can be of any size, and held anywhere, though for pretty obvious reasons they tend to happen in more remote, camping-friendly places. They’re usually hosted by one or more local vanning clubs, whose members handle all the dirty organizational details, from securing the site and selling tickets, to printing T-shirts, to making sure that the trash gets picked up and that special events happen (more or less) on time.
The granddaddy of all runs is the National Truck-In (a.k.a. “Nationals”, a.k.a. “Nats”). This is the annual nationwide van run, and tends to be the largest van-related event of the year. At its legendary peak in the early ‘70s, the Truck-In brought in a reported 4,000 vans. These days, the van count is closer to 600, but the spirit is just as big, and the people who uphold it are just as willing to get down and have a good time.
I like to think that it was with a little bit of this original spirit in mind that I mustered up the guts (and gas money) to get myself on the road to the 38th Annual Nats. And while the gods of location may have been on my side, the gods of weather certainly were not. The forecast for the weekend was temperatures of 100 degrees, followed by thunderstorms. The prospect of parking my van in the middle of some field to voluntarily endure those extremes for four days straight was less than thrilling. But if I was going to be a real vanner, I told myself, I was going to make it to this event, crappy weather be damned.
As I rolled through the town of Greenwich, toward the fairgrounds, the 38th National Truck-In revealed itself to me, a glorious cluster of chrome and metal-flake paint shimmering in the sunburnt grass, beckoning from the highway like some combustion-fueled lost city of gold. Before I even made it to the entrance road, I had already caught sight of a dozen truly badass vans, tucked every which way into a haphazard, Technicolor city of tents, canopies, blankets, and flickering beach towels.
“Vans and Panel Trucks ONLY Beyond This Point”, the sign at the front gate read. And sure enough, off to the side was a separate parking lot, reserved for any vehicle that didn’t fit the description—cars, motorcycles, and a few motor homes. The vehicle restriction may seem harsh to outsiders, but the logic behind it is simple genius: Anyone who enters the event is, by the very definition of the vehicle they arrived in, a vanner—and, it is assumed, will behave by a certain unwritten code of respect toward other vanners. This may sound like a bunch of idealistic bullshit, until you spend a few days there and realize that, within the confines of the event, no one locks their van or even bothers to shut its doors. Food and drink get left on picnic tables and go untouched (unless you count the flies). Camping equipment, suitcases, and even tool boxes sit out in the open undisturbed, for days at a time. Coming from a place like New York City, it truly was another world for me. As one vanner put it, “When you’re here, there’s just certain shit you know you won’t have to worry about.”
In keeping with the generally libertine spirit of the thing, there were no assigned spots either. “Just drive around until you find a place where you think you’ll get along with somebody,” the guy at the admissions gate told me. I arrived on a Thursday, and some people had been there for as long as a week before me. Most of the various van clubs had already shown up and arranged themselves into elaborate circle encampments, or staked out coveted shade spots against the fairground’s many livestock-stable buildings. (Empty, I should point out, of any livestock.) I found a spot on the fringe of the event, next to a beautifully preserved early-70s Dodge done in vintage hippie love-bead style, and a few hundred feet from a bunch of much younger guys with a giant tent blaring Led Zepellin, and set up camp.
As predicted, the weather was at 100 degrees and climbing when I got there. My first priority was to get some kind of shade built for myself, as soon as possible. This should have been easy, thanks to the brand new camping canopy I had purchased just for the occasion. However, there were three things I hadn’t taken into account: (1) I had put up canopies before, but never all by myself; (2) I forgot that, instead of actual stakes, new camping equipment comes with spindly little aluminum rods that are only slightly more sturdy than paper clips, and stand up to the touch of a hammer about as well; and (3) the canopy I bought was a total piece of shit. And oh yeah—just as I began to set up, the wind kicked in. The result, for the next two hours or so, was me, already sweaty and sunburnt in the blazing hot sun, running back and forth in an unintentionally hilarious Charlie Chaplin routine in which, just as I’d get one corner of the canopy halfway secured, the other would shoot dramatically into the air, then collapse. Just to add to the comedy, when I finally tightened the rope lines (for all you non-canopy-erectors, this is a standard part of the routine, and shouldn’t be anything particularly extreme), the canopy literally tore apart at the seams. Luckily I had a roll of duct tape—though I was more than a little pissed that I had to use it on a canopy that was less than a day old.
I’ll spare you the rest of the details of my setup—suffice it to say that, if you’re going to attempt a trip like this, always bring sunscreen, and make sure you have about 200 more feet of extension cord than you think you’ll need. I also learned that, if you’re going to be parking your van out in the middle of a 100-degree field, you really can’t have too much shade. This was obviously common knowledge to my more experienced neighbors around me—beside the standard reflective windshield screen, they kept every window draped in sheets and blankets. Some erected separate canopies just for their vans, and a few actually mounted full-sized household air conditioners out their van windows. (“Those people are all from Florida,” an Ohio native would later tell me, with gleeful disdain.)
Once my camp was more or less situated, I set out to explore the scene.
If you’re familiar with my previous (and only other) trip to a van run, then you already know the kind of drunk, debauched antics I got up to. (And if you don’t, you can read all about it here. ) Blame it on the extreme heat, or on me showing up alone, or maybe just the fact that (gasp!) eleven years have gone by since then, but as it turned out, this event would end up being much less about my own intoxication and much, much more about the vans.
My first hint at this came that evening. Until that point, most folks had been holed away, hiding from the sun. Now, slowly and a little behind schedule (this, I would learn, is how all events at Nationals start), some of the more choice vans rolled out of their spots and rumbled into line for the official parade through town. This was my first real glimpse of the level of show-quality custom jobs that come out for this event. Forget about newbies like me with our cookie-cutter storebought conversions—these people are the real deal, the kind of dudes (and, lest we forget, dude-ettes) who devote all their free time—and a good chunk of their finances—to creating a truly one-of-a-kind motor-vehicle masterpiece. This was their big moment to shine, and shine they did: Vintage Cragar mag rims glimmered in the dual glow of a magic-hour sunset and flickering yellow running lights. Scrappy little ‘60s Econolines rattled alongside late-model Sprinters. Wizards, spaceships, skeletons, and a harem’s worth of half-naked fantasy women beckoned to me from their airbrushed tableaus. Lowriders threatened to scrape the gravel, immaculate chop jobs bounced lazily on their hydraulics, and 4x4s towered on oversized tires. Most just cruised, the way vans do. Stereos were cranked, wheels were spun, and more than a few engines were revved. They were vehicles, in the way that, when we were eight years old, we all wished vehicles would be: loud, colorful, outrageous, and unapologetically badass.
Invigorated by this initial show of force, I ventured over to the sizable merchandise area. Like all the big main areas, it was housed in an open-sided pavilion building—the kind of structure that, during more conventional fairground events, probably houses the goat auctions. A large section of the building was devoted to the shirt-printing area, where a revolving multi-silkscreen station, manned by a couple of shaggy, very busy guys, attempted to keep up with the orders for custom 38th National Truck-In T-shirts.
Shirts are a big deal for vanners. Each van run has its own unique shirt printed up, and vanners collect and display them like trophies from a hunt. Indeed, one of the biggest raffle items of the weekend was a special quilt sewn together from vintage, time-softened van run T-shirts, the earliest dating back to 1972. And in the course of four days and nights, I never saw the guys in the shirt-printing area stop working.
If shirts are vanners’ trophies, then patches are their service ribbons—a visible, running history of the places they’ve been and, by suggestion, the shit they’ve seen. Every Truck-In has its official embroidered patch—always in the same red-white-and-blue United States shape—and many a vanner keeps a special vest or jacket around just to show off their patches. During the run, I saw more than a few hardcores walking around with 20 or even 30 patches on their jackets. For my part, I bought my first official Truck-In patch, to match the sticker and dashboard plate that came with the price of admission.
Of course, displayed alongside these hallowed items was a huge offering of, shall we say, less serious vanner accoutrements. All the usual witty slogans were present and accounted for, in both T-shirt and patch form. (“Instant Asshole. Just add alcohol”, etc.) There was also a pretty heavy selection of tie-dye clothing (not my thing, but whatever), and a wide array of general gearhead-themed stuff, including belt buckles, Hot Wheels vans, every possible manifestation of automotive logos, and lots of Rat Fink stuff (very much my thing). After a lot of painful deliberation, I settled on a “Make Mine Econoline” T-shirt, and a couple of classy patches: “2%” and “Bush Pilot”. I was really bummed that my girlfriend, who was out of the country at the time (no, really) couldn’t be there, so as consolation I bought her a patch that says, “Only a bitch like me could love a bastard like him.” (Here’s hoping you’ll be there to wear that one proudly beside me at next year’s run, baby.)
At dusk, the fairground filled with the gorgeous, smoky smell of outdoor cooking. The consensus, among all but the youngest and/or most alcoholic of the people I talked to, was that the day’s extreme heat—and the dehydration that came with it—made daytime drinking almost impossible. (Full disclosure: Earlier in the day, after my bout with the canopy, I ingested two tall-boys of Miller High Life and promptly passed out for two and a half hours, making me an unusually cheap date—had there been anyone there to date me—and also marking the first time that I officially slept in my van.) However, as night fell, more and more people came out from inside their hidey-holes, and the real party began.
A classic-rock cover band played in one of the main pavilion buildings. It was the first of three bands that weekend, and I won’t pretend to remember the band names. I will say that I thought the first night’s band was the best of the bunch; heavy on the Creedence and Steppenwolf, and light on the Rush.
I took stock of the crowd congregating in front of the band. From what I could tell, the majority of people there were couples, most of them married, quite a few with kids. There were a few pockets of people in their 20s—most notably the Next Generation Vanners, a recently formed club out of Seville, Ohio. (More about them later.) But by and large, most of the attendants seemed to be in their 50s or older—most likely veterans of vanning’s heyday in the ‘70s. I remembered the event program they’d given me when I signed in at the gate that morning, which, among other things, included a small “in memoriam” tribute to the well-known vanners who had died in the past year. It got me thinking about everything that those people must have witnessed in their lives, and the fact that, to my knowledge, no one has ever put together a truly comprehensive, first-person history of the vanning subculture. At the risk of sounding morbid, I feel like somebody needs to get it all down before all these legendary characters start disappearing on us. Perhaps at next year’s Truck-In, a few interviews are in order…
Sometime in the early, early morning, I awoke to the sound of the rain pounding against the roof of my van. This was followed by the ghostly whisper of the wind… and then the hard slap of the canopy poles against my window. I poked my head out the side door. Sure enough, half my canopy rig had come loose in the thunderstorm, and was smacking back and forth against the side of my van. I pulled on a pair of shorts and, armed only with a hammer and a lantern, stepped out into a total downpour. Somehow, half awake and fully soaked, I managed to hammer my pitiful stakes back in place again. Afterward, toweling myself off in the darkness of the van, rummaging through my bag for dry underwear, I muttered to myself, “Livin’ the dream.” And thus the official name of my van was born.
The next morning was abuzz with activity—or at least as “abuzz” as a bunch of vacationing vanners are going to let themselves be. The sun was out again, and hot as ever. I braved the long lines and questionable smells of the public showers, enjoyed the luscious novelty of outdoor bacon and eggs, and watched as, all around me, the owners of the more pimped-out vans hooked up their garden hoses, grabbed their bottles of Armor All, and prepared for the weekend’s biggest event: The Show ’n’ Shine.
The Show ’n’ Shine is the moment when—as the name might suggest—the showiest vans get to shine. Show vans are the truly immaculate, customized vehicles that are made to be shown off, rather than simply driven and slept in. And they’re the real reason to come to an event like the Truck-In. People devote their whole lives to building these vans, and it shows.
“Attention vanners,” the voice on the loudspeaker said. “If you are planning on entering the Show ’n ’Shine, you should already have been there.”
“Vanner time,” my new neighbor Doug laughed, still polishing his door handles.
One by one, the show vans crept their way over to an open meadow at the far side of the fairgrounds and began lining up. For judging purposes, many were arranged by sub-classification: panel trucks, ‘60s first-generation, 4x4s, and even a couple six-wheelers. I won’t even attempt to describe all the beautiful vans I saw there. But a few demand special mention: There was “Chop City” , a chopped-and-channeled flat gray Dodge with a black vinyl limousine roof. There was the “Dragon Slayer” , which features a combined total of four airbrushed wizards, plus a custom star-shaped portal around the bed. The standout among the ‘60s-era vans was “Odd”, which I can only describe as a Dodge modified into an extreme convertible. There was a van decorated entirely with airbrushed scenes from the movie “The Neverending Story” , and two different Wizard of Oz-themed vans. Classic rock titles were a common theme; I counted a “Pearl” (Janis Joplin), “Eat a Peach” (The Allman Brothers), and two “Night Moves”. One van, in a mindblowing meta-twist, featured a full-coverage mural of… other airbrushed vans. There was even, dare I say it, a pretty cool minivan, done up with a spoiler and custom windowless back hatch. My personal favorite, though, was the “Bear’s Den”. On the outside, it’s a completely plain-looking, charcoal-gray van. Peek inside, however, and you discover that the entire interior is a log cabin, hand-built with real log pieces and complete with bearskin rug and a little flickering electric fireplace. Definitely one of the more original concepts I’ve ever seen.
Rather than try to elaborate any further, I suggest that you take a look at all the photos on my Flickr page.
The next day, the big event was the Burnout contest. For those of you who didn’t grow up around wannabe drag racers, a burnout is when the driver of a stationary vehicle, through a combination of flooring the accelerator and riding the brakes, spins his back wheels fast enough to create friction and make the tires heat up, resulting in huge clouds of white smoke. (I say “his” because I’ve never met a woman who seemed at all interested in doing this.) It’s the sort of thing that, at events like this, people pack into the bleachers to watch—and if you don’t understand that, well then you probably aren’t into any of the other stuff I’ve written about here either.
There were several fine entries in the burnout contest that day—and by “fine”, I mean completely loud and smoky and stinking like burnt rubber and otherwise reeking of guilty, destructive pleasure, much to the audience’s delight. But the standout of the day—the “burnout hero”, if you will—was a young man who goes by the name Homebrew, of Ohio’s Next Generation Vanners. (I told you they’d show up again.)
I knew Homebrew was serious when, before the event, I saw him switching out the back wheels on his red ’68 Dodge for a set of what I can only assume are his special burnout tires. When he got up to the burnout area, he lit a cigar and then rolled down all the windows on his van—a crazy move, even among hardcore burnout enthusiasts, since he was basically begging for his van to fill up with smoke. He pulled up to the line, gunned the engine, and let the tires spin. And spin. And keep spinning. Within seconds, the van was surrounded by thick white smoke. A few seconds later, the van was completely obscured. All you could hear was the sound of his engine, and the spinning tires. Then, there was a loud, sharp snap, followed by the unmistakable sound of an engine dying. Homebrew had killed his van. The smoke cleared a little, enough to see the van again, its driver stumbling out, looking like something straight out of a Cheech and Chong movie. And the crowd, as they say, went wild.
Here’s footage of the actual burnout:
There were other, decent burnouts. Then, when it was time to judge (based on the time-honored method of crowd noise), the vans were all lined up together. “What about the kid?” someone yelled. “Bring out the Dodge!” A few guys helped Homebrew push his dead van back up to the line, to an outburst of thunderous applause. It was official. He’d killed his van, but he’d won the contest.
The best, though, was yet to come. There was a lot of speculation about what exactly had killed the van—and how exactly this kid was going to make the 500-mile trip back to Ohio the next day. Someone used a chain to tow the Dodge back to its campsite. Someone else started taking up a collection for him. A small crowd began gravitating toward the van. One guy was a professional mechanic. Two others were fellow first-generation Dodge owners. Somebody knew a junkyard in the area. Somebody else started talking about old Dodge rear ends, and how many bolts it takes to get them apart. I realized that, at that moment, I was probably looking at the single most knowledgeable gathering of ’68 Dodge van experts in America.
It was late afternoon when they started working. And sure enough, before sundown, they had raised the money, gone to the junkyard, found a matching part, replaced the van’s entire rear end, and had it running perfectly by nightfall. All for no charge, without anyone even asking them to help, and with beer and smiles all around.
Because damn it, that’s just what vanners do.