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PALM LATITUDES

ON-RAMP : Slow at any Speed

August 13, 1995|Howard Owens

There's something distinctly California about Volkswagen buses, and if you had to pick one spot to drink that in, try Ocean Beach in San Diego County. Although no reliable count exists, there seems to be a van on every block. At the terminus of Interstate 8, with only Sunset Cliffs Boulevard offering a main route in and out of town, buses move in the leisurely tide of autos like a school of multi-hued dolphins--the oxidized blue ones and the faded red ones, the white split-window classics, the tan late-model campers, some with surfboards on racks, others decorated with characters like Tweety Bird, the Tazmanian Devil and the Cat in the Hat.

But the bus that the fans of vans talk about belongs to a 56-year-old wheelchair-bound hippie named Hopper. The 1972 night-sky-colored vehicle, with more than 175,000 miles on it, boasts a startling number of Grateful Dead stickers--Hopper claims there are 135--and a psychedelic mural, which wraps around the van's four sides and extends to the roof. The mural was painted in 1984 by Hopper's friend, Mountain Sun.

"People told me when I got the thing done that I was looking for trouble," says Hopper, "that I would be hassled by cops. But I've never been stopped. I guess they figure that anybody who is the blatant and wild can't be up to anything--that they can't be that stupid."

"You'll never get a speeding ticket in one," says 33-year-old Ted Olmsted, who took his 1971 bus to Nicaragua for a surfing safari several years ago. Self-contained and easy to repair, the van was the only way to make the 8,000-mile trip, he insists. You can sleep in it, eat in it, and never worry about getting stranded.

Andy Rathbone, now a successful computer book writer, is nostalgic about the bus he lived in during college. "It was a good experience," Rathbone says. "I think about it a lot." At a time when he and his wife can afford a Lexus or Infiniti, he's talking about a EuroVan, VW's 1990s version of a bus. "They're just so versatile," he says.

Of course, if Rathbone wants a paint job like Hopper's, it's unlikely Mountain Sun is available. According to Hopper, she's now selling real estate.

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