What's a Dragonflyvan? (From Sporting Classics Magazine)
What's old is new again. Or so it seems with my youngest son Scott's new business venture. Called Dragonflyvans Inc., when Scott first tested the idea with me I thought, "This will never work. Who in their right mind would pay a good bit of change to rent an old VW van to go fly fishing? Or hiking, or camping, or mountain biking, eagle watching, wolf listening, kayaking, canoeing, or sight seeing in the Northern Rockies?"
As it turns out, a lot of people.
At his request, and to test his idea, I borrowed River Room, a 1986 VW van that should be in a junk yard. What a trip.
To restore my soul with a solo overnight fishing trip, I loaded up a rib-eye steak, a good bottle of wine, some snacks for lunch and breakfast, my waders, fly-rod, vest, hat, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch and – needing nothing more because everything else "comes with" the River Room - I tooled up the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River for a couple hours until I was high in the headwaters where the wild trout live.
I drove River Room beyond all the Forest Service campgrounds, beyond the pavement, beyond the noise, beyond the crowds, and left all the other fishermen behind. At the end of a grassy spur a quarter mile from the main gravel road I found an old fire ring near the Tipi Creek. A long flat pool was being dimpled by rising wild cutthroat trout. Beside the old fire ring some thoughtful soul had left a pile of firewood.
I quickly set a River Room camp, set the grill, staged a campfire to ignite later, and then strung my fly rod, pulled on waders, and hiked a short way to the head of a long trout-filled pool to surround myself in the healing vapors only the wild can provide.
I caught a good trout, sat down, and prayed a "thank you" to whatever gods govern wild places such as these.
I was wrong about Scott's business idea.
People want, and will pay a premium, to wheel themselves away from the crowds in one of these simple, efficient, green machines. A compact rig that drives like a car and camps like a dream in wild places where others cannot or will not go, back to the future may just be the future.
Yesterday's consumer may lust for the huge 40-foot RVs of our consumer-driven past - complete with TVs, toilets and king-sized beds - but post-recession Americans want something that doesn't cost them a fortune to pay for, park, license, and maintain. "Give me simple" my friends tell me. No more condos-on-wheels to take me to the familiar; give me wheels into the wild. As night fell I sat by the river, fly rod lying in the grass, and watched the pool darken from grey to black. As the stars broke through, I hiked back to camp, lighted the fire, greased and struck up the grill, poured a drink, and salt and peppered the rib-eye.
Simplicity! These older VW vans are the hallmark of simplicity; in design, in function, in drivability. They are also icons of our collective past, a reminder that not so long ago the world was about truth and beauty, Beatles music, freedom of expression, and an open road ahead of us on one-dollar gas.
First designed in WWII to move munitions by Germany's war machine, the unibody frame construction of these vans allows them to carry one and half their own weight. You can feel this frame strength when you drive one, and they drive like a Cadillac. Ah, those German engineers; after 23 years on the road, these vans don't even rattle.
The Volkswagen Company stopped making these one-of-a-kind vehicles in 1997, and even though demand is growing, building one now would cost more than $100,000. At $100K, there is no reasonable market for them. But because of their fuel efficiency, ease and comfort of driving, camping capacities and mobility - combined with their scarcity – the price of buying one is going through the roof. With an original sales sticker of less than $20,000, a completely refurbished VW camper van can now run $120,000 and up.
Having been born many yesterdays ago, and not getting – I hope – any dumber, I bought River Room from Scott - but only on the promise that when it needed to be rented, I would let it go.
You see, Scott's Dragonflyvans, Inc. is all about renting a piece of yesterday's dream to anyone who wants to visit the Northern Rockies in one of these classic vans. His business plan is simple: refurbish, restore, and rent these classic road-warrior vans to people who want to not only get away from it all, but to do so in style.
Scott told me, "When you drive a Dragonfly van, you're going to have a new and different experience. It is not just about the van, it's about what these vans mean to people. Strangers are going to wave at you and shout things like, 'Nice van, man!' When you're camped, you're going to have visitors. You see another van, wave, and you have a new friend."
He was right. When my wife Ann and I drove River Room just to the city and back, two groups of younger people passed us on the freeway, waved, smiled, and waggled their fingers Hawaii-style to signify admiration and approval.
I should note that the only reason Scott was able to launch Dragonflyvans is that he is an expert VW mechanic and has been driving, repairing, and restoring these vans for 20 years. As Malcolm Gladwell says in his newest book, Outliers, it takes 10,000 practice hours to master things such things as Tiger Wood's golf stroke or a concert piano. Scott has put in his 10,000 hours.
Featured in the photos here are some of his completely refurbished, fully-equipped, rebuilt, and recycled VW vans – all "saves" from our throwaway society. Classics of the road, these vans are now 23 years old and, in some states, are official antiques.
But these are not your stock vans from their years of the production. Not by a long shot. All come with double batteries, stereos, CD-players, and are IPod compatible. All come equipped with special wheels, tires for dirt roads, shade screens, camp chairs, tables, heaters, and the very finest in Coleman™ outdoor camp gear. For more than ten years Scott has tested the camping experience from Alaska to Baja, Mexico: cook and dine outside, circle around a common campfire for communion and guitars; sleep, play cards, read and make love inside. Bad weather is never a threat, and you always sleep high, dry and warm.
On my little solo journey into the wilds of the Northern Rockies, I did not have bad weather, but I kind of wished I had. There is a special comfort and joy one feels when, beating nature, you can snooze in warm sleeping bag above the wet ground while the rain patterns its special music against the roof of your tent or, in this case, a VW van.
Side bar: If you want to go, learn more about Dragonflyvans at www.dragonflyvans.com. Located in the heart of the Northern Rockies in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, or from Missoula, Montana, some of the very best wild cutthroat trout fishing in the world is accessible within an hour from Dragonflyvans outlets. Spokane River rainbows and browns swim almost within casting distance. Outfit yourself at a Cabela's Superstore and get fishing reports only five minutes away. Wade fishing is everywhere while guided floats on the Clark Fork are a snap with friends of mine. The remote hot spots are where - you guessed it - there are no lodges, no cabins to rent, few people, and no place to park big RVs even if you dared to drive one into this magnificent back country.