Catching a Ride on the Joy Bus

A dad, a daughter and a 1974 VW Bus. Why we’re restoring the Joy Bus and chasing dreams together.

We did the deal in a McDonald’s parking lot half a mile from the Portland airport after a 20-minute test drive and a rusty glove inspection. It took $6,700, four plane tickets and six months of looking for her. The Joy Bus was ours.

The story began 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.” After more banter about this idea, we began to think, Why not?

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 18-year-olds. The truth is, I wasn’t always willing to embrace the wonder of big, audacious dreams. Nor was I fanning the flame of our children’s dreams to muse about what lies beyond tomorrow.

After 20 years of practice, trials and mistakes, I am becoming a much better father.

Averi and I started riffing on the idea of finding a Bus and fixing it up together as a father-daughter project. “Let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s see where this story goes.”

Aaron and Averi in Joy Bus
Aaron and Averi. Photo by Aaron McHugh.

Our two older children no longer live at home and the reality of Averi’s post-high school departure is motivating to make our time together count. Compounding my awareness of the countdown to Averi’s launch is how her brother and sister left home. After an unsuccessful freshman first semester, our son was admitted into a drug and alcohol recovery program in California. Averi’s older sister passed away Jan. 28, 2011, after 12 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. A vintage Volkswagen Bus became the perfect symbol to envision bumping up our joy meter.

Last summer we started driving around with eyes wide open scanning for our Bus. It became like a Where’s 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.

VW Westphalia but not joy bus
Close but no joy bus. Photo by Aaron McHugh.

I found a 1971 VW Westphalia camper outside of Buena Vista. It was tired. Grass grown up around her, bald tires, sliding door cocked open revealing her romping bruises. 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 1971. Three generations later, it ended up in the front lawn waiting for the grandsons to resurrect her.

After six months of picking fields and alleyways, we concluded that we should revise our search to a Bus that was reliably running and looking decent—one that could be restored with a little love and patience. We found our Bus in Issaquah, Washington. Her original owner coddled her for her first 36 years. The seller clinched the deal by narrating the stories of his 2,500-mile adventure Bus 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, president of the local Pikes Peak VW Club. He made a few investigative phone calls to confirm our Bus’ history. “She checks out solid,” he said.

The 1,300-mile car-camping road trip in 20-degree temps was too adventure-soaked for my brother and his 11-year-old son to pass up. 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 bunked in the Bus on the fold-down camper bed. My brother and I braved the winter brisk in a tent beside the Bus. We warmed ourselves with cheap whiskey and high school reminiscences of our barely running 1974 VW Super Beetle. Our joy meter was topping out.

aaron sits in joy bus
Photo by Carter Moore

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 her. We make a great cleaning team. I must admit, I’m not a great mechanic, so I leave most of the VW wrenching to MotoWorks Restorations.

The story is happening. We are making the time left with Averi count. We’re not just letting time pass to eventually wonder, Where did it go? Instead, we are tilting towards a trail marked “Adventure and Relationship.” I’m not sure I’m up for Averi and Maya taking the Joy Bus to California after graduation. We don’t need to make that decision just yet. For now, she needs to learn how to drive a stick shift.

Until then, the Joy Bus is our excuse to chase adventure, build memories and choose joy—together.

Buses at the Brewery

Get your VW fix at Bristol Brewing Company Aug. 27. The iconic hippy vehicles will gather alongside other vintage VWs, Porsches and European Scooters. And did we mention it’s the release party for Red Baron Octoberfest? Aaron and the Joy Bus will be there too.


Aaron McHugh
Writer, blogger, podcaster and career liberator Aaron McHugh recently accomplished a life list dream of mountain biking the entire 500-mile Colorado Trail from Durango to Denver. His latest book is Fire Your Boss: Discover Work You Love Without Quitting Your Job. @aarondmchugh

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