March of the Microbuses

July 5, 2011
The Shasta Snow Trip (SST) is unlike any other vintage vehicle event. Open exclusively to pre-1968 Volkswagen Microbuses, this outlaw winter romp is the stuff of legend among VW junkies. The idea is simple: make it from the bottom of the Mendocino National Forest to the city of Mount Shasta, California, over some of Northern California's gnarliest dirt roads, in less than two days. This is no mellow cruise through hippie country. Tackling roughly 500 miles in a vintage tin can requires skill, preparedness, and a pinch of insanity.
March Of The Microbuses Night Time
The seed germinated in 2000, when then-thirty-three-year-old Brian Piercy of San Anselmo, California, crossed the snowed-in Mendocino Pass in a six-volt '65 VW Single Cab. The next year, he organized a winter expedition on the back roads of Northern California, open to anyone with a split-window Microbus. Three vans ran the first annual Shasta Snow Trip. Thirty-seven started this year; twenty-nine finished.
The split-window bus's road behavior is a double-whammy Nader Nightmare. The weight of the flat-four mounted behind the rear wheels amplifies the swing-axle suspension's affinity for explosive oversteer, and the Microbus's high center of gravity feeds its proclivity for rollovers.
But those who abandon fun for safety doom themselves to a life of underachievement. There's no room for them on the SST. As Piercy says, "You've got to push your bus to find its limits -- that's kind of what it's all about."
This is a trip that gets into the bones. It's a real do-it-yourself adventure -- danger, mud, and carburetors in the age of the digital shut-in.
Something will break on the Shasta Snow Trip. Could be a valve. Could be a transmission mount. Could be the driver's resolve. The roads are battered, the distance is great, and the drive is challenging. There are rivers to bog down in, ledges to roll off of, rocks to smash into.
March Of The Microbuses Parked Side View
The average SST bus is an unholy amalgam of random Germanic parts. Preparedness is the difference between reaching the destination and a DNF. Each bus carries -- at minimum -- a tool kit, spare parts, tire chains, a tow strap, food, water, and a CB radio. If something breaks and the driver doesn't have the necessary parts or tools, someone on the CB might.
Snow has been scarce on the past few SSTs, but it's still an important part of the experience. The Sunday after the trip is snow day, and the only serious goal is to stay on the road. A small caravan bombs down the unplowed road to Gumboot Lake, eager to battle the deep, wet snow. Here's how to do it: The technique is to line up the front wheels with any tire tracks in the snow and pour on a steady speed in first or second gear. Like a giant slot car, the VW follows the tracks. Big steering inputs can burst the front wheels out of the tracks, but on uncut snow they'll just push straight ahead -- in the author's case, straight into a ditch. To steer on uncut snow, enlist a friend to push the front of the bus sideways until it's pointing in the desired direction. Get back on the gas and gun for the summit.


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