Monday, February 27, 2006

Van Culture


From Times Argus:

Some 'vanaholics' are still living the dream of the 1970s
By ARIEL BREWSTER Columbia News Service

They call themselves van fans, vanners, van addicts and vanaholics, and 30 years after the heyday of the shaggin' wagon they're still roving the roadways of America."Once you drive a van, man, you will never go back. It's a party wagon, man," said Beth Allen, a fervent van fan from San Francisco.For devotees, the hobby is about more than getting from here to there: It's about individualism and personal freedom, whether they're living an itinerant counterculture lifestyle or parked safely in the suburbs."It's a utilitarian thing," said Doug Nykanen, 48, from Oakville, Ontario. "You stay in it, party in it, whatever. It's a self-contained unit."Nykanen has been a vanner since he was a teenager in 1976. "Early on there was a lot of rebelling," he said. "It was part of the counterculture. You could get away from home for the weekend and do whatever you want."The average age of a vanner back then ranged from 16 to 24, Nykanen said. "The early van-ins were really raunchy. But now there's kids and families and it's evolved into something more community-oriented."Though van club membership is graying, people who were too young to partake during the '70s are discovering vans and connecting to "mobile culture" through Web sites where they chronicle their customization projects. Allen, a 39-year-old graphic designer, runs Don't Come Knockin', a retro-styled Web site at www.rockinvan .com, where enthusiasts post photos and find resources like "tips for living in your van without being hassled by the Man."Allen's "van lust" started a few years ago with a 1981 Dodge she painted purple with orange flames and drove across country on tour with her punk-rock band. She is in the early stages of forming a van club she calls Rockin' Vanners."You have to at least had sex in your van once, or be trying to," Allen said of the club's membership requirements. "And you have to play music of some sort, and you have to have a van, of course."

The first national van-in was held in 1973 with more than 1,000 vans converging in Tiger Run, Colo. More than 6,000 vans showed up for the legendary debauchery of the third National Truck-In held in Bowling Green, Ky. But attendance has declined since the 1970s.No one knows exactly how many vanners are still out there, said Nykanen, who works on another Web site,
http://www.vannin.com/."People in vanning really try to stay away from being organized," he said. The two biggest events are the February van Council of Councils — held in Anaheim, Calif. this year — and the Van Nationals, which will be in Harrisonburg, Va., in July.Yearning for an authentic vanning experience, Allen drove her '95 Chevy van to a van-in in Hollister, Calif., a few years ago but was disappointed by what she found."It was a different scene than our scene," said Allen, comparing the aging vanners to her peer group of hard-partying punk rockers. Instead of the mile-long convoys of customized vans they had heard about, they found campers and even minivans. "They're just so family," Allen said with disdain.

Some of the newest van fans are young enough to be the grandchildren of the original counterculture generation. For 20-year-old Jeff Bourne, classic rock was his entry into vanning. He calls his van the "Tony Van Danza.""Plain and simple, the Grateful Dead define the van culture," Bourne wrote on his Web site. "For the past 35 plus years, deadheads have followed Jerry G. and the gang around the country in microbuses."Bourne and two of his high school buddies in Jacksonville, Ill., scraped some money together and spent nine months fixing up a '91 Chevy G-10 cargo van.The van is outfitted with mirrored ceilings, wall-to-wall shag carpeting, purple curtains, black lights and a rainbow-colored couch. The exterior is painted with classic rock iconography: a Jerry Garcia mural, multi-colored Deadybears and Led Zeppelin lyrics.The van's name supposedly came to them as they were listening to the radio and perfecting the paint job in Bourne's parents' garage. Bourne says one of them misheard the lyrics to an Elton John song, "Tiny Dancer," thinking that the "Hold me closer, tiny dancer" refrain was "Hold me closer, Tony Danza."With 200,000 miles on the odometer, the van breaks down frequently and has never made it to a van-in."I've heard of rallies out West," Bourne said, "but we haven't gotten all the way across the country yet."Bourne and his buddies fondly recall cruising around town with 12 people squeezed inside, tailgating at home high school football games and taking road trips to music festivals."The best part is that people wave and smile and stuff. Like 50-year-old guys throwing peace signs," Bourne said.Bourne's parents were tolerant during the van customization project, despite some of the activities associated with van culture."The connotation of vans is drug use and rock 'n' roll and marijuana and rampant sex," Bourne said, "but they definitely thought it was cool. If you're going to travel, you might as well do it well."

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