Automobile

2018 Volkswagen California

As a native Californian, I often forget what all the fuss is about. We’ve got our petty rivalries here. The folks in the northern Sierras and Cascades dream of absconding with southern Oregon to create the State of Jefferson. Generalized NorCal types gripe about the superficial bogosity of our brothers across the Tehachapis. Coastal dwellers grumble about the inland hicks. Those of us on the river system grumble about Big Ag in the southern San Joaquin Valley and how its incessant demand for water decimates our fisheries. Meanwhile, the farmers complain about the greedy hippies in Sacramento who won’t let them grow food because of some stupid little fish. Stony shredders up in Tahoe just wanna send it. And everybody hates the moneyed, milquetoast techbros who managed to do what the FBI’s COINTELPRO couldn’t back in the 1960s—demolish a vibrant Bay Area countercultural tradition.

There’s enough day-to-day internecine squabbling and finger-pointing to make a person forget that to the rest of humanity, California is one of the world’s great, mythic places. It’s storied enough that no less than Ferrari has named three cars after it (four if you count the long- and short-wheelbase versions of the 250GT as different automobiles), Ford has a recurring California Special package for the Mustang, and Volkswagen has offered a California model for the past 30 years.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Volkswagen California, that’s understandable, as the model has never been offered in the United States. You are, however, no doubt familiar with its progenitor, the Westfalia pop-top camper. Westfalia-Werke began modifying Volkswagen Microbuses for live-aboard duty early in the storied van’s career and kept at it until—and even after—Westfalia was bought out by DaimlerChrysler in 2001. In 2003, VW launched its in-house version of the California, based on the T5-generation Transporter. Although the current, T6-based California launched in 2015, Volkswagen Nutzfahrzeuge (literally, Vehicles of Use; officially, Commercial Vehicles) recently staged an event celebrating three decades of the van in California, aiming to give writers from around the globe a taste of the Southern California lifestyle. Since the campers were here, the Germans invited American journalists out for a crack at the sort of machine we haven’t seen since the T4 EuroVan went the way of the California grizzly bear after the 2003 model year. Having lived in the Golden State for 41 years, I was largely disinterested in a German tourist’s vision of my home state, so I skipped many of the planned stops in favor of my own beloved roads and spots; I also took a nap, ate strawberries, and listened to loud music.

We picked up our vans in a parking lot at Los Angeles International Airport, truly a wondrous and frustrating locale, its own little Angeleno microcosm. I cued up “Van” by the Descendents, who formed just down the coast from the airport and released their early albums on New Alliance and SST, South Bay record labels at the vanguard of the American underground in the 1980s. Creeping up the chockablock 405, Robert Downey Jr.’s custom 1970 Mustang passed me on the back of a transporter. So far, so good, so Los Angeles. Stopping in Malibu, I picked up some strawberries and a pair of socks featuring the Descendents’ Milo Goes to College album art. Synergy, man. It lives in these canyons. Finally breaking out of traffic, I rounded Point Mugu on Highway 1 and caught sight of a pair of C-130s sitting on the apron at the Air National Guard base.

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