The road to Darwin is a long and far one, and can be found just East of Death Valley. In years past, Flower Children followed this Hippie trail and many left fried out Combies there in the desert sand. Today one can find a fast-disappearing car collection where the telephone poles end. Waiting there for many years is a gift for those who love to visit with classic rust.
By Bill Gann
When death is imminent old elephants leave the herd and instinctively travel to the Elephant Graveyard to die among the bones of their brethren. Such behavior is evidently also true of old Volkswagens, or so one might think when visiting the VW graveyard in California’s high desert town of Darwin.
Situated near Death Valley, Darwin is a venerable repository of rusting German engineering. One can walk the Mojave Desert mining town and see old bugs, buses, square backs, and crew cabs with their fenders and bumpers scattered about the desert sand like lost ribs.
Flower-painted buses have made their last magic journey to the high desert town, only to be converted to cat dwellings, doghouses, or garden sheds. Numerous Fifties and Sixties era beetles, shamelessly cut into Baja bugs, have found their final resting places in the hills of Darwin.
A lady named Marian, for example, has what’s left of a ’55 bug convertible cut into a nifty Dune Buggy. Another man named Rich has a 1974 beetle called “George.” He says George was part of a radio station’s commemoration of the fourth anniversary of The Beatles' breakup. No word on what became of John, Paul and Ringo, but George's parts are on the ground and he is frozen in time sitting next to a Bajaed ‘58 bug.
On one visit to Darwin I heard about an old bus that had been skillfully cut to make a sheltered outdoor couch. When I went back to photograph the novelty, the owner had decided cut up what was left of the old Combie into scrap metal. Still one can see several other Hippie barges sitting awkwardly about the town with their noses in the dirt. Old style turn signals lay about like broken tusks, and wind whistles through cracked oval windows.
I first walked Darwin with my camera in reverent wonder a few years back, and decided it would be best to keep the place a secret. Soon people would come with tow trucks, I reasoned. Indeed it looks as if car haulers have come to Darwin a number of times since that visit without me telling tales. Greedy eyed interlopers have looked about the town in search of rare parts, and there has been quite a bit of looting. One of the world’s best but least-attended car shows has been slowly disappearing since that first visit.
So I tell now this not so well kept secret so aficionados can come see what’s left of the local VW collection. Also, meeting some of the highly-evolved Darwinians on my second trip to the village moves me to feel locals are quite capable of taking care of their treasure trove of old cars.
Since that first trip to Darwin, I’ve occasionally showed the photos to various VW aficionados. I’d break out the images, and we’d argue as to whether a particular bus was a ’53 or a ’59, or speculate as to whether a motor in another photo might be a complete 27-horse power with a crank. In those days it became my habit never to tell exactly where I took the Darwin photos.
Recently, while having some work done on "Yellow Wind," (my ’66 bus) at Bob La Coste’s Volkswagen shop in Orange, CA, I got to talking with collector Mike Gregory. Gregory brought up my secret VW graveyard and asked for the 100th time where the damn place was. We agreed that I would at least go back to where I took the pictures to see if the site was still rich with collectable treasure.
So when a desert historical society invited me to photograph a project in nearby Last Chance Canyon, I tacked on a quick side trip into Darwin to see if all was as I remembered. As I pulled into the remote mining town, it occurred to me the place was even nicer, from an old car lover’s perspective, than I remembered. I noticed that among the old bugs and buses was quite a collection of older American-made classics. How did I miss those? Still, my Volkswagen-trained eye soon turned to the many pre-1967 VWs that patterned the landscape like a rusting German quilt. I also noticed that many vehicles once there were now missing.
I went directly to the west end of town where I had once seen many old buses on my first trip, and there were still a few left. It was there I met the Mother Bus and her attending humans, Don and Ida Reese and their son David.
The Mother Bus, a 1967 daily driver, turned out to be the most welcoming microbus I’ve ever met. The Reeses have crafted a wrap-around couch in the interior that converts to a queen sized bed. Ida invites me in to sit and visit, and points out that the bus is called Mother because the old Combie had always been a welcoming shelter and sanctuary for the Reese family.
The Reeses, I don’t think would object to being described as graying hippies. Even if they denied this accusation, it would be hard to explain away 40 annual camping trips in Mother Bus to the hot springs of nearby Saline Valley. It also turns out that Ida is a long time friend of Dee Berg. Dee’s husband, the late, great Gene Berg, and his family have been Reese family friends and Darwin regulars for years.
Don had just done a major rework of the Mother Bus having restored it dozens of times since they bought it with 1800 miles back in 1969. He was eager to show me his rig’s wonderful modifications. A cooking area, remnant of the sort one finds at the back of a teardrop trailer, had been set up over the engine compartment. Inside the motor chamber, a small propane tank sits across from the battery and feeds cook stoves and lanterns.
Tiny lights that Don said he took from old radios because the draw almost no current have been molded into artistic copper fixtures around the bus interior. He says these little lights can be left on for days without running down the battery. He’s raised the battery so that there is now room to store snow chains where the battery once sat. Don removed the stock 10-gallon gas tank and replaced it with a 20-gallon tank he fabricated to fit the same spot. Doors and windows open and close quietly and decisively. Instead of a spare tire, Don carries all he needs to repair a flat tire on the road.
The Mother Bus and the Reeses, seem to represent the very heart of the Sixties VW culture. High school sweethearts since they grew up in Kentucky, the Reeses are now 78 years old. When I made an “Old Hippie” comment, Ida pointed out that at their age one might describe them as old Beatniks.
Don is an optometrist that became noted for designing suspension eye glasses used by astronauts in space. It’s even possible that Steve Martin’s character in the movie “The Jerk” who became rich making no-slip glasses is partly based on Don’s suspension glasses success. The Reeses had attended a Hollywood party attended by several people involved in making the film, and have always suspected Don’s glasses became part of the film's inspiration.
The Reese family pointed out several small clusters of old cars around the village for my photographic pleasure as if they were proud curators of an auto museum. With an hour of daylight or so left before I had to make my way back to Orange County. I made a quick tour of the town with my camera. Racing against time and light, I captured as many old relics as possible in digital image.
Still not satisfied that I had captured the VW essence of the area, I returned a week later to spend two days and a night documenting what is truly one the more enjoyable VW graveyards in the country. On that visit I camped in my own old van on a concrete slab provided by the Reeses. On that visit, I found a number of rusting classics I had missed on other visits.
Finally, just to keep elephant-graveyard legends alive, a man came up to me on the way out of town telling a tale of a complete 1955 Karmann Ghia convertible. He said this classic was stashed a local man’s garage. Excited, I asked that he take me to photograph this wonder. The man said he wouldn’t tell me where the alleged rag top was, claiming he was going to buy it for $300 and he didn't want me to mess up the deal. I found myself reaching for my wallet. In trying to track this car down anyway, I did a little scouting. Both Don Reese and his son David assured me the car didn’t exist and said the chap was simply having his way with me. Still, I did only photograph Darwin’s outside cars and onc wonders what secrets might be hidden in the little town behind closed garage doors.