Dave Massie opens up the trunk of a 1991 Volkswagon Vanagon Westfalia camper van at Camano Island State Park, Friday, April 1, 2016. Massie, along with his wife, Chelsea, and Seattle Times reporter Tricia Romano, rented the van for a weekend from Peace Vans, a local van rental outfitter, located in the SODO neighborhood of Seattle.
I never thought I would camp, any more than Harley Sitner ever thought he would own an auto shop.
For years, Sitner’s own Westfalia Vanagon had taken him to a Seattle mechanic. But the business was about to close, and Sitner, a former Microsoftie and entrepreneur who logged years in the tech trenches in Bay Area and Seattle startups, saw an opportunity.
“They were literally closing their doors,” Sitner said. “I was like, ‘No, there’s a real business here.’ ”
Three years and thousands of repaired and refurbished vans later, his business, called Peace Vans, has become such a successful operation — he has up to 100 vans on the Sodo-district lot at any given time — that he’s decided to pursue a rental business. He joins another local company, Black Forest Westfalias, in renting out the popular vans to customers for camping vacations
As the weather turns from rainy to sunny in the Pacific Northwest, the lure of the open road beckons, and the Westfalias are a good solution to bringing the comforts of home to the great outdoors. Increasingly, we want those comforts. We want hot food, a soft bed and a fully stocked refrigerator.
And by we, I mean, me.
I do not camp. I don’t even glamp. I spent eight years in New York and four in Los Angeles. When I want to convene with nature, I rent a cabin on the water and take a stroll outside and once it gets the tiniest bit uncomfortable, I go where it is safe. Inside, where there is electricity and warm food and heat and no bugs.
Campers make dinner as the sun sets over the Puget Sound at Camano Island State Park, Friday, April 1, 2016. The group of friends rented the 1991 Volkswagon Vanagon Westfalia from Peace Vans, and local van rental outfitter, located in the SODO neighborhood in Seattle.
But what if I could have some of the comforts of home — a fridge, a stove, a bed with a mattress and the ability to flee under duress to a city if I became overwhelmed by the idea of camping? Maybe then I could be convinced.
A Westfalia could be the answer. There was only one way to find out: a trip to Camano Island in a Peace Van.
I met with Sitner, 47, the first sunny spring weekend in April. We went through the hourlong checkout where he showed me the ins-and-outs of the van.
It was clear that Sitner had a deep, abiding love of the vehicles. He thrilled at every little nook and cranny (and there were many nooks and crannies), and delighted in showing off the hidden compartments and clever details — like the metal countertop that folds down over the burners to create a cutting board, or how the removable tabletops could slide perfectly into a tiny sliver on the side next to the window.
“German engineering, right?” he said with a grin.
He first got hooked on the vans when taking trips with his daughter. “It’s just the ability to go anywhere and have everything with you. She’s 6, we can go get outdoors and go camping with her and create memories,” he said.
Westfalia Vanagons are the descendants of the Volkswagen Bus; a German company called Westfalia had begun converting them for camping in 1953, adding sleeper pop-tops and accouterments to VW vans. Vanagon production stopped in 1991. Because they are somewhat rare, they are now a hot commodity.
“A well-used ‘project van’ can go for under $10,000,” said Sitner. Or, they can be as much as $50,000. “I tend to tell people to get something reliable that’s not going to need a ton of work, it’s going to cost $20,000.”
Despite their limited availability (or maybe because of it) the Westfalia Vanagons, which are affectionately called Westies, have developed a cult following. One man, Foster Huntington, quit his job in New York designing for Ralph Lauren and embarked on a life of wanderlust: He created the hashtag #vanlife on Instagram.
The #vanlife hashtag trend caught on, and thousands of van enthusiasts have contributed to the hashtag on social media, documenting their trips and tricked-out Westfalias in blissful settings — the edge of Big Sur, on a beach in Albania, in the forest next to the Illinois River or rumbling through the desert in New Mexico.
“They are evocative of a road trip, which in general is a wonderful thing. There’s the sense of exploration and discovery,” Sitner said. “The van has everything you need; it’s a self-contained little adventure-mobile. It has a small footprint — it’s not a big, monstrous RV.”
His friendly competitor, Mike Kane, owner of Black Forest Westfalias, agrees: “There’s an appreciation out there — I don’t know if it’s nostalgia or what. Most people who rent them already know about them. They are looking for a Westfalia.”
Indeed the vans are so popular that Kane’s two vans are booked for all but two weeks of the summer; and Peace Vans’ four vans were booked at about 40 percent capacity at press time.
Dave Massie sets up an LED lantern that was provided by Peace Vans in the back of a 1991 Volkswagon Vanagon Westfalia at Camano Island State Park, Friday, April 1, 2016.
“It’s just wonderful to be a part of the community and be able to plug into that,” Sitner said. ”I went camping last week. The people across from me, they have a van, and now we share a beer, and are hanging out and talking. It was cool,” he said.
I was about to find out firsthand. I hopped into “the Pilchuck,” a 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia with a burgundy exterior and pale-gray interior. Though it had stickers from Burning Man on its windshield (the Pilchuck had been Sitner’s personal vehicle), taking one to the Burn is strictly verboten.
Sitner sat next to me as we drove around the block a couple of times. At first it was awkward to be so tall and close to the front. (The engine is in the back). The positioning of the wheel at a flatter angle reminded me of driving a very small version of a school bus.
I bid farewell to Sitner and picked up my friend Chelsea (her husband, Dave, would meet us later). Our destination was Camano Island State Park. Sixty-seven miles from Seattle, it was close enough for a quick jaunt but remote enough to feel like a getaway. We’d arranged a sample rental for two nights. Peace Vans usually requires a weeklong minimum rental during summer months, offering rentals for as few as four nights during the offseason.
We arrived at the campground and set up “camp,” pulling out firewood and taking out the things we’d need for cooking. Though the van came with a fully loaded fridge and inside stove, we opted to use the portable stove and enjoy the weather.
Peace Vans come stocked with everything you could think of. Wine opener? Check. Plates, cups, pots, pans? Check. Salt and pepper? Check. Lanterns, dishwashing soap, something to sit on, a small table, fresh grounds from local company Conduit Coffee and a French press for the morning? All of the above. They even come with tents if you’re weird like that and want to sleep outside.
After an afternoon of Frisbee, we cooked burritos and roasted marshmallows. Afterward, we made our beds; the couple took the pop-up top and I slept “downstairs.” The vans are well-suited for a couple and a kid or two; four adults would make it a tight squeeze. It was better than sleeping on hard ground, but it was still chilly at night. The camper van couldn’t fix that; you only get heat if you run the engine.
We spent the next morning cooking breakfast — this time inside the van as the weather wasn’t so dreamy — and playing cards. It was so cozy it was tempting to stay inside all day, but Chelsea rallied us up and out into the world, where the sun had slowly started to peek through cloud cover.
We hiked a three-mile trail in the 173-acre beach park and enjoyed classic Pacific Northwest views — a collection of bleached drift logs and breathtaking scenery of Saratoga Passage.
My friends headed home and I stayed another night. Yes, that’s right, I successfully camped by myself and did not burn anything down. I cooked dinner and read by the campfire, and sipped some of the 2bar bourbon, a locally made spirit, provided upon request to customers by Peace Vans.
The next morning, I bid adieu to the campsite and toured the island’s rural scenery of wide-open fields and lush forests. I took the advice of a guide at Cama Beach State Park, where adorable cabins are for rent (and already heavily booked for summer), and took a road (fittingly, Sunset Drive) that eventually led me to English Boom Historical Park, overlooking Skagit Bay. I got lost a few times, but I didn’t mind; I could prepare lunch and sit at the water and read, free of charge.
There, the thing Sitner had told me would happen, happened.
A couple parked next to me and asked me about the van. They had a friend who had rented one down in Florida; it seemed neat. We talked about the allure of van life. Two people, who never would have talked to me, did.
Weeks after my trip, I found myself feeling wistful whenever I saw the vans on the road, already nostalgic. I could agree with Sitner’s sentiments. “They are just joy machines, really,” he said. “Everyone who drives them smiles.”