Way back in the day when I had shoulder-length hair, wore bell-bottom jeans, and played electric guitar in a garage band, my aspiration was to buy a Volkswagen microbus and head cross-country to California where I would seek fame and fortune on the rock music scene. In other words, I aspired to be a hippie.
My hopes were dashed, in part, because VW buses were hard to come by in Appalachia. Also, I wasn’t a very talented guitarist and could not sing. The clincher was that my father required me to either stay in college, enlist in the U.S. Navy, or come home to gain experienced in porcine husbandry. In other words, I would become hired help at a local hog farm.
Among these choices – and because the Vietnam draft was on – staying in school made the most sense, no matter that my artistic and romantic development would be severely retarded. For years I still dreamt of a VW bus painted with neon Flower Power symbols, trundling down Route 66 with riffs of Jimmy Hendrix guitar solos booming from the stereo speakers.
So, when my fiancé and I rolled into the local Walmart parking lot recently and beheld not just a “hippie school bus” but a VW microbus welded on top, with a stove-pipe chimney exhausting wood smoke into the chilly November air, I was magnetically attracted to what we learned was the home of a roaming young family.
The 1953 Chevy school bus and microbus are covered in artwork reminiscent of my late 1960s glory days. Like the music I grew up with, the paintings have meanings and messages that the traveling family believes are much needed in a polarized nation.
This is the mission of the “Dragonfly Bus.”
LeRoy Herr, Hathor Planckton, their two children, dog and cat have no fixed address. Their home is on four wheels with a second-story observation deck (microbus), an antique wood cook stove for heat and meal preparation, and interior walls adorned with their own paintings that are sold wherever the bus stops – usually at Walmart parking lots.
Local artists and citizens are invited to paint their own images or messages on the exterior of the bus. In this way, says Planckton, the Dragonfly Bus connects artists and communities wherever they stop: “This is our project. Our aim is to bring people together.”
This also helps explain the eclectic imagery covering the sheet metal of the Dragonfly Bus. The art ranges from caricatures of Jim Morrison, John Wayne, Prince, Marilyn Monroe, and other pop culture heroes from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s to trippy sea creatures, peace symbols, slogans, rock band album cover psychedelic graphic elements, and even Robert Crumb-reminiscent comic characters.
Planckton, Herr and their children choose to stop at Walmarts because of plentiful parking and a guaranteed potential audience for their “project.” The Arkansas-based discount giant has replaced courthouse square retail shops as the place where crowds of local people gather to shop and fellowship.
Herr, seated inside with a border collie in his arms, explains how the bus also serves as a “tiny house” for the family, a type of artist’s recreational vehicle. He’s the mechanic, pilot, and scrounger; Planckton ensures that visitors understand this is their home and chosen mission.
Many people are fascinated about how two vehicles can be melded into a mechanical hybrid, not only roadworthy but a testimony to recycling and sustainability. Of course, the artwork generates questions and comments all associated with what people wonder, even if they don’t ask: “Why are you doing this?”
For Herr and Planckton, being tied to fixed address and calling it “home” is not the lifestyle they desire. They are happier on the road, carrying their art and messages of love and solidarity to communities wherever a Walmart parking lot beckons.
In every community and state, old hippies like me are drawn to the Dragonfly Bus like moths to a porch light.
As we said our goodbyes to the unusual family and entered the store to do our shopping, I gazed one last time at the double-decker bus and thought: “That could have been me 50 years ago at the wheel of a VW microbus painted in psychedelic colors and designs, with Love Generation music playing loud, girls singing, and a cloud of patchouli incense trailing behind.”
Alas, the threat of hog farming and a low draft number kept me from making the transformation.
ν Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor. He resides in Tennessee.