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Why My Daughter and I Are Restoring Our 1974 VW Joy Bus

Aaron McHugh

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Averi and I in the Joy Bus

It all started when my daughter Averi blurted out this dreamy statement, “When I graduate from high school, Maya and I are going to buy a VW Bus, road trip to California and surf for the summer.” Averi was probably in fifth or sixth grade when she hatched this adventurous plan. After more banter about this idea, we began to think, “Why not? Why not lean into the dream and see where it goes?”

Averi is our youngest of three children. With Averi’s older brother, I would have likely offered a litany of logical facts as to how improbable dreams of surfing the Cali coast would be for two eighteen-year-olds. The truth is, I wasn’t always willing to embrace the wonder of big, audacious dreams. Nor was I fanning to flame the sparks of our children’s dreams to reach beyond their present particularities of reality and muse about what lies beyond tomorrow.

After twenty years of practice, trials, and mistakes I am becoming a much better father.

”Let’s do it. Let’s buy a Bus and let’s see where this story goes.”

VW Bus Westfalia

Averi and I started riffing on the idea of finding a Bus and fixing it up together as a father-daughter project. Our two older children no longer live at home and the reality of Averi’s post-high school departure is super motivating to make our time together count. Compounding my awareness of the count down to Averi’s launch is how her brother and sister left home. After an unsuccessful freshman first semester, our son was quickly admitted into a drug and alcohol recovery program in California. Averi’s older sister passed away January 28th, 2011 after twelve years of living confined within her special needs body.

Our daily life story needs an infusion of more joy. I’m guessing you can relate in some way to the toll that life can take on your resilience and joy. The vision of owning a VW Bus became the perfect symbolic mascot to facilitate bumping up our joy meter.

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1969 VW Westfalia Bus found near Buena Vista, CO

Last summer we started driving around with eyes wide open scanning for our VW Bus. It became like a “Find Waldo” treasure hunt. Averi and I started trading texts, “I spotted one downtown today. Army green. Roof Rack. Rusty.” Even if the VW candidates weren’t posted for sale, we stalked them anyway. Last summer I found a 1969 VW Westphalia camper outside of Buena Vista. It was tired looking. Grass grown up around her, bald tires, sliding door cocked open with all her glorious imperfections on display. We door knocked, left notes on the porch, and tracked down a phone number of the owner. It turned out that his late father purchased the Bus new in 1969. Three generations later, it ended up in the front lawn waiting for the grandsons to resurrect her.

Our new 1974 VW Bus: Adventure Awaits
Our new 1974 VW Bus: Adventure Awaits (photo by Mason Parke)

After six months of picking fields and alleyways, we concluded that we should revise our search to a Bus that was reliably running, looked decent, and could be restored with a little love and patience. We found her in Issaquah, WA. It turned out that this Bus lived its entire life in and around Portland, OR. The original owner retained her for her first thirty-seven years. She then traded hands twice before we chose her. The clincher story for me was the seller had just finished an epic 2,500-mile tour of Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Averi and I were high-fiving with optimism, “This is the one”. We called in a favor and got our friend Scott Witteveen involved. He is the President of the local Pikes Peak VW Club and he made a few investigative phone calls to confirm our Bus’s history. Scott said, “It checks out solid.” The week before Thanksgiving, we purchased plane tickets to fly to Portland and pick her up. The 1,300-mile car-camping road trip in twenty-degree temps was too much adventure for my brother and his eleven-year-old son to pass up.

Road Tripping the 1974 VW Bus Home
Road Tripping the 1974 VW Bus Home

Now a party of four, Averi, Matt, Nate and I boarded our new 1974 VW Bus, and navigated back roads and interstates through five states to bring her home to Colorado Springs. The kids camped in the Bus on the fold-down camper bed. My brother and I braved the winter brisk in a tent beside the Bus. It was a killer trip. We laughed, listened to tunes, told stories, and relived our high school 1974 VW Super Beetle days. Our joy meter was topping out.

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The girls hatching a plan for Adventure

Back in Colorado Springs, my wife confidently proclaimed, “We should name her The Joy Bus”. Done. A perfect name for the joyful story we are aiming to live. Averi and I are tinkering on weekends slowly improving the Joy Bus. I’m not a great mechanic, but Averi and I make a great cleaning team. A forty-two-year-old vehicle requires a high tolerance for imperfection and vision for what she can become. After saving for five months, Averi and I just ordered new custom fabric to hand-make new curtains. We found an artist, Kevin Butler, in Southern California that illustrates a cartoon drawing series called Rad Cars With Rad Surfboards. We asked him if we could purchase a custom edition of only VW RadCars. The fabric just arrived this week and we’re heading to my mom’s place in Denver to sew the new curtains together.

VW RadCars with RadSurfboards-by Kevin Butler
Kevin Butler’s RadCars with Rad Surfboards custom VW Pattern for our new curtains

The story is happening. We are making the time left with Averi count. We’re not just letting time pass and then wonder, “Where did it go?” Instead, we are tilting towards a trail marked Adventure and Relationship. I believe that the Joy Bus deposits made into the relationship between Averi and I will contribute to a lasting foundation for father-daughter bond.

I’m not sure I’m up for Averi and Maya taking the Joy Bus to California in three years for the summer. We don’t need to make that decision just yet. For now, she needs to make it through driving school and learn how to drive a stick shift.

Until then, the Joy Bus is an excuse to live more adventurously, build our memories together, and have a lot more joy. Next month we are taking three teenagers to Shelf Road outside of Canon City, CO for a weekend camping-climbing adventure. This morning we stuffed ten freshmen girls into the Joy Bus and drove them to school after a birthday sleepover. Our Joy meter is successfully pinging the high mark.

Now that you know the full story behind the Joy Bus, when you see us out on the road, give us a honk and a wave. Heck we may even pull over and give you a ride.

Find joy. Chase Adventure. Choose the people you love.

  • Caleb DeMore

    Awesome restoration! I too recently purchased a 74 VW Bus for the purpose of adventure for my family!

    • Go Caleb! that’s awesome. send me some pics am @ aaron mchugh . com