Wisconsin to California and back in a 40hp 1966 VW Beetle

slowlane

Observer
Thank you all so much for the compliments. I am glad you are enjoying reading my report as much as am enjoying writing it. I do have a love of the often mocked midwestern states. They have some really neat places hidden away for those who look. I still have a few more entries to complete before this is all wrapped up.
 

slowlane

Observer
Thanks. I'll need to have some more travels first though. I don't get as excited about road trips as I did 10 years ago. I used to be pumped to go anywhere, and happily threw an air mattress in the back of my GMC Safari and travelled cross-country. The past few years though, I have much preferred to explore the area around where I live, with lots of day trips to the Wisconsin state parks and forests along with short forays across the Iowa and Illinois borders. This was my first big trip in 4 years.
 

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blanketslayer

New member
Fellow Wisconsinite here. You have a gift with words and photography and are more brave than me making that trip in the Beetle. It definitely adds to the adventure though and thank you very much for taking the time to share it!
 

slowlane

Observer
Yeah Highway 50 in Nevada is definitely desolate but I was never bored, though its hard to be bored while working to suppress the worst case breakdown scenarios that picked at my brain periodically while admiring this sparse area. At blanketslayer and barongan, thanks for the compliments. I am not sure if I can claim to be a true Wisconsinite for even though I was born here, I grew up north of Dallas, TX before living in Kansas and New Hampshire and then winding up back in Wisconsin a mere 3 1/2 years ago. I do really love Wisconsin though and plan to stay. As far as bravery, I may just be slightly eccentric but everyone at the wedding in Cali who saw the Bug had a similar reaction, "you drove from Wisconsin in THAT!" Yes I am a little crazy.
 

slowlane

Observer
9-16-19

I wake up at 5:00 AM this morning, ready to get outside to check the transaxle's fluid level after a week of leaking. The parking lot at the hotel slopes down toward the middle aisle from both sides, and to properly check the transaxle lube, the car needs to be sitting level. So I put the VW in neutral, release the parking brake, and it pretty much rolls itself into the middle of the parking lot. Having to do this check in the center of the parking lot drive through lane is a big part of the reason for my early waking.

I took out a flash light, the quart of gear lube, and the 17mm hex wrench before squeezing myself under the left rear fender and squirming myself up to the transaxle fill plug. I'm a tight fit underneath the VW, and if I were even slightly bigger, I couldn't have wriggled under here. I weasel my left arm past the wheel, around the exhaust, past the fuel line and clutch cable, and up to the left side of the transmission, where I poke around for the plug which from my angle of vision, I cannot see. Finally I find and remove the plug, and go through the same contortions, only this time with the bottle of gear lube. I squeezed the bottle and fairly quickly refill the trans, as fluid begins running out of the fill hole. I replace the plug, shimmy my way back out from under the car, and look at the clear line running the vertical length of the gear lube bottle to see how much this top-off has used. It has only required about a quarter of the bottle to refill the trans, which is quite a relief.

Now finished, I gather my things back into the car, check out of my room, and leave Delta, Utah for the second time in less than a week. I follow US-6 back northeast to Spanish fork, where I get gas at the base of the mountain pass the VW and I are preparing to summit. My good luck has run out as the wind is absolutely howling down the long pass I need to go up. Damn! I grudgingly point the VW into the bluster and we trudge our way up with the trucks in the slow lane. Mercifully the wind direction changes a few miles in and we are now pushed up the remainder of the climb by a welcome tailwind.

Once over the top, the clouds billowing over these tall mountains begin to thin as I make my way back along Emma Park Road. The sun pokes through the breaks here and there making for nice highlights and shadows upon the rolling foothills leading up to the tall peaks in the distance. I stop the VW in a gravel turnout to take some pictures of this sun-dappled scene. I continue my way on toward the 9000 foot pass awaiting us on US-191. Near the top, there has been a small rock slide and a flagger has the traffic at a halt while a bulldozer clears the roadway. I stop and wait, the VW's engine gasping to idle in the thin air. I decide to turn the struggling engine off while we are stuck here. After about fifteen minutes, the flagger gives us the all clear to resume our way up.

I turn the key and the VW sputters to life, but as I give it gas and begin to let out the clutch, the car refuses to go. It just coughs and wheezes in protest while staying put. I am the fourth car in line with about ten vehicles behind me, who I'm sure are just as eager to get going I am. I try again to start moving with worse results, and on the third time the engine dies. The car has been sitting on an upward slope at high elevation for the past quarter hour which has flooded the carburetor. I quickly turn the key while pressing the accelerator, and the starter cranks for a bit before some weak popping and farting emits from the VW's exhaust. The engine coughs out a puff of black smoke before roughly revving up and finally smoothing out. Embarrassed, I throw the shifter into first, let out the clutch, and the car lurches its way forward. The flagger has obviously been amused by my pitiful car's predicament as there is a big grin on her face. I can't help but chuckle a little myself and I give her a wave as we push our way past. The ride down through the narrow high-walled valley back to Duchesne is just as pretty as before. Actually it's even a little better now because I am traveling downhill through it.

In Duchesne I stop to get gas and use the toilet. Walking down the narrow hall back into the store from the bathroom I bump shoulders with a fairly big guy going the other way. We hit hard, like hard enough that both of us are twisted from our paths. Being slightly disoriented from the elevation and the several hours of highway travel, I am not sure if I hit him or he hit me. Either way, I look at him and say I'm sorry. He just gives me a rough scowl and says nothing, continuing to the bathroom. I had planned to get a soda but decide I don't really want to cross paths with him again so I leave empty handed. Driving away from Duchesne, I have visions of that big guy flying up behind me while holding some strange grudge and forcing my helpless VW and I off the road into a rock or ditch in a diabolically calculated revenge. I spend several miles vigilantly watching my rearview mirror. Nothing happens.

Utah gives way to Colorado and by early afternoon I am making my ponderous way through the tourist-filled throng of a gorgeous late summer day in Steamboat Springs. Staring up through the open driver's side window at the deceivingly serene looking ridge of mountains getting closer on my left side, a twinge of anxiety begins to build. I know what horror lurks in those hills. This is what I have been dreading since that breezy carefree zip down several days before; the ominous slog back up Rabbit Ears pass on US-40. Three thousand vertical feet of continuous uphill torture awaits the VW's poor engine on the way to 9400 feet. This steep stretch of road is devoid of level or even shallow breaks for the motor to catch its breath. Adding insult to injury, it's also a heavily travelled section of highway, with a steady stream of much faster traffic working its way up. This is the stuff air-cooled VW nightmares are made of. Feeling sorry for what I was about to put the unsuspecting little car through, I stabbed the accelerator and set off up the pass.

The VW is giving everything it can to fight its way up the mountain. Third gear and pedal to the floor is only resulting in speed a tick under 40 mph. Slowly the speedometer sinks further to just above 35. As I meander around a left-hand corner, out of the passenger window a striking view of the valley below unfolds. There is a turnout and I whip the VW into it to get out and take a couple pictures. Remembering the carburetor mishap earlier today in Utah, I leave the engine running. After some pictures I hop back in the car to resume the climb to the top.

I immediately regret losing the little forward momentum we had by stopping the car when it strains to regain speed. It cannot even reach 30mph now so I leave the shifter in second at about two-thirds throttle, slow to just over 25mph, and the VW grinds it's way up. The whole way to the top, my ears are constantly focused on the engine sounds behind the rear seat. I listen carefully, ready for the sudden rapping of a rod letting loose or banging of pistons flying through the case while the engine roars along at a comically high rpm for the ponderous speed its producing. But in the end, the strength of forty horses prevails and we crest the summit of Rabbit Ears Pass.

There is a large parking area at the top which I take advantage of to let the overworked engine cool off for a while. I open the hood to allow the heat to dissipate better, and walk to the edge of the parking lot. The lot overlooks a boggy meadow with a small stream winding through it, surrounded by a practically equal number of dead and living pines. I sit on a rock at the edge of the slope down to the meadow and relax a while. However, the lack of even the slightest movement of air brings out a small horde of black flies, which waste no time buzzing into my ears and eyes the instant I stop moving. In short order they decide that I will make a tasty meal and begin to bite my legs. Frustrated, I go back and sit in the car for another few minutes. I am ready to leave these bloodthirsty flies behind, so I start up the engine and the VW happily begins its way down the other side of the mountain, no doubt thankful to have survived the last big pass.

A sympathetic wind is pushing at the VW's rear bumper, helping the car along the remainder of today's travels. Towards the end of Colorado, on State Highway 125, I pass another vehicle for the first and only time on the trip. Sure I passed several cross-country bicyclists and a few maxed-out semis on the long steep climbs, but the trucks eventually overtook me again later so I cannot truly count them. No, this is a legit pass and then slowly fade away into the distance situation. The fact that the other vehicle is an older overloaded Ford Explorer with a small boat lashed to the roof doesn't matter; the VW did it. This is such a momentous occasion that I even document "PASSED SOMEONE!" in my trip journal that night at the motel in Laramie, Wyoming.

Along Emma Park Road, Utah.


Another picture from a little further down the road.


VW along Emma Park Road, Utah.


View from the turnout going up Rabbit Ears Pass, Colorado.


VW relaxing at the top after surviving Rabbit Ears Pass.
 
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slowlane

Observer
9-17-19

Once again I start my day early, around 5:30 AM. I check the gear lube in the transaxle and am pleased to find that barely any fluid at all is required to bring it to the proper level. A great way to start the day. I leave Laramie at 6:15 as the eastern horizon is beginning to glow. As I travel east away from Laramie toward Medicine Bow National Forest, the sunrise continues to grow in intensity. Shortly after entering the national forest, on State highway 210, I round a corner on a low hill and am taken aback by the almost unreal sunrise that is unfolding. I notice a parking lot on my right and waste no time whipping the VW in, shutting off the engine and jumping out to experience this early morning spectacle.

The sun is still hidden from view behind the pine covered hills, but the sky is blazing with brilliant yellow and orange streaks fading to a rosy pink above me. Looking behind, over the VW there is a line of bright pink clouds casting purple shadows. Above the cloud bank, the nearly full moon shines white through a thin veil of moisture in the pale blue sky. This is easily one of, if not the best sunrise I have seen in my life. I take some pictures and then just stand and watch as it continues to progress. The sun eventually peaks out from behind the trees and casts a faint orange light on the hills to the south. Just as the sun's golden rays are beginning to illuminate the grasses in the meadows at their bases, it goes behind the clouds and the glory quickly fades into a dull grey light. The fire is gone from the sky as it becomes a nondescript cloudy morning. The whole show lasted barely a half hour but I am grateful to have experienced it in such a beautiful place.

I continue eastward out of Medicine Bow National Forest toward Cheyenne. Remembering losing my way in Cheyenne going out to California, I decide to brave US-85 where it joins and runs concurrently with I-25 on the western edge of the city. It works out well, for even though the 75 mph speed limit is well out of range, there is little traffic and in only a few miles US-85 exits I-25 and continues northeast toward Nebraska. The west wind still plays to my advantage as I scoot my way into Nebraska and over the long hill up the butte on Highway 71. US-385 takes me back to Alliance at the gateway of the Sandhills.

First though I take a little detour to see an interesting creation a few miles north of Alliance on State Highway 87. Rising out of the surrounding grasses stands a oddly familiar monument. Here on the prairie a man named Jim Reinders recreated the famous Stonehenge with a twist. He built his own version of well-known megalithic site out of junk cars in the mid-1980's. It is a fascinating creation which has an interesting relationship with the nearby city of Alliance. Originally ridiculed as a blight on the landscape, it has transformed into an accepted cult curiosity, with a gift shop and large billboard covered in advertisements for nearby businesses, obvious evidence of the current local support. The change of heart is not surprising because there aren't many other things to draw tourists into Alliance, other than a quick stop at one of the couple of large travel plazas where US-385 skirts it's western edge.

I am generally easily entertained, and spend nearly an hour meandering through and photographing this assemblage of old American vehicles. Being fairly well-versed in vintage cars, I soon find myself trying to identify each one. I can place most of them, my favorite being a '67-'68 Cadillac ambulance sticking straight up out of the dirt. In the parking lot, nearly all the visitor's cars bear out of state license plates and I even hear a couple speaking in German as they wander amongst the beat up relics. Carhenge is likely the biggest tourist draw in the county. Curiosity for roadside folk art satisfied, I resume my way east out of Alliance and back into the Sandhills.

After some brief localized downpours mid morning, it is now partly cloudy and warm as I travel through the endless landscape of grassy hills stretching before me like a choppy sea whipped by a strong storm. Periodically I stop to photograph a ranch or small town set against the backdrop the never ending swell of prairie in a desperate but futile attempt to give perspective to the vastness. The feeling of space in the Great Plains doesn't generally translate well in pictures, you have to be here. A train of probably a mile and half in length transforms into a thin grey line, nearly swallowed up in the high green hills it runs along the base of. Though the train is steaming ahead at nearly 60mph, from my vantage point it is crawling in relation to the massive space it traverses. Along the highway, small towns come and go, the odd farm truck or two passes in the other direction, and a rancher on an old tractor bounces along pulling a hay baler through the dried cut grass along the road's shoulder. A few miles later, I pull onto the road's shoulder and turn off the car. Stepping out of the VW, the endless rustling of windswept grass fills my ears as red-tailed hawks soar overhead on the thermals and cattle grazing in large herds dot the slopes in various spots. I can loose myself in a place like this.

Nebraska rolls by and though it has occurred gradually, I suddenly notice on one uphill pull that the VW is maintaining speed without full-throttle. The elevation is decreasing, but the change is so gradual through the Great Plains that it is practically unnoticeable. That is except for the slowly increasing power of the VW's engine as the elevation ticks down toward sea level. Eventually the prairie grasses slowly become infiltrated by patches of corn, which slowly but surely tips the balance in its favor as I continue eastward. Eventually the prairie is relegated to the strip of right-of-way between the asphalt and the unbroken continuum of corn and soy; a stalwart holdout determined to cling to whatever little space can get. By early evening I am travelling north on US-81, and at around 7:00 PM I arrive in Norfolk, Nebraska for my last night in a motel, and what a motel it is. Ha!

It is one of those instances where as soon as I drive up, I know the place is going to be a dump. While making a reservation last night, I discover there are hardly any rooms available in Norfolk for tonight. After a couple of failed attempts, I made a reservation at a hotel chain I have stayed at many times with no real complaints. But this place is complete crap. A messy unmanned front desk, ripped up furniture, and old magazines strewn haphazardly around the dirty lobby greets me upon entering. I eventually find the front desk employee and check into my room. I park around the side and go in. The smell in the hallway takes me back to the middle school locker room at the end of gym class after we had spent the previous hour running laps around the track in the Texas heat. Minus the deodorant and cheap cologne though.

A dirty, rough-looking dude with neck tattoos and a backpack wanders up and then back down the hall as I walk to my room. This is a truly sketchy place. I take everything that looks mildly enticing, even my crappy little portable boombox out of the VW, and put it all in my room. The backpack wearing guy is still wandering around, this time up and down the hallway across from me. Back at the VW I open the hood, remove the distributor cap and take out the rotor before replacing the cap and closing the hood. This will at least prevent anyone lurking around from hotwiring and driving the car away. I grab my hammer out of my tool bag and put it on the nightstand, just in case.

Since I was a kid, I have always take my shower at night before bed and to this day I find it hard to go to sleep without taking one. However the shower looks like it hasn't been cleaned in the past ten guests, so I will pass. I entertain thoughts of a night in my sleeping bag atop the bed, but to my surprise, the bedding looks fairly clean. I watch some TV while taking in the crappiness of my surroundings. What a dump! The crushed box of Kleenex on the desk by the television is a nice touch to complete the decor. Needless to say, I don't sleep well; less than 4 hours total. I wake up just before 3:00 AM and spend the remainder of the way too early morning aimlessly flipping though the ridiculous line-up of TV programming that exists during these hours.

The amazing sunrise in Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming. This is probably the prettiest sunrise I have ever seen.


The VW and moon at sunrise in Wyoming.


One of the many buttes in western Nebraska.


Carhenge north of Alliance, Nebraska.








Bingham, Nebraska.


The Nebraska Sandhills.


A distant train nearly swallowed up by the rolling grassland.


No trip through the Midwest is complete without at least one corn-to-the-horizon picture. Somewhere in eastern Nebraska.


A farm road in eastern Nebraska.
 
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slowlane

Observer
9-18-19

At 5:00 AM I decide I've had enough of this crappy hotel and gather my things back into the VW. The car is still there and it appears nobody messed with it, which is a relief. I am so eager to leave this place behind me that I don't even check the engine's oil level. I just fire the car up and go. I leave Norfolk for the darkness shrouded cornfields beyond.

Overhead the stars are out and the moon is shining bright, casting a ghostly outline along the edges of the multitude of small puffy clouds that gradually fill in to the east. On the eastern horizon, a flicker of pale light flashes every so often as I motor towards it. After about half an hour of eastward travel, I can plainly see those faint flickers are bolts of lighting produced by a large thunderstorm to the southeast. Each brief flash of light momentarily illuminates billowing thunderheads before they once again disappear into the blackness.

The increasing morning light is beginning to reveal the extent of the storms spanning the horizon as I near the Iowa border. Shortly into Iowa the rain begins, first with the occasional large drops which resonate with a loud metallic "pang!" upon impacting the VW's sheet metal. Under the line of thick clouds, a muted band of pale pink and orange light is blotted out in spots by patches of grey downpours. I skirt just north of the massive lightning show in the heart of the storm, but don't get past before the sky suddenly lets loose in a torrent of rain. The VW's wipers try their hardest but can't keep up with the deluge from above. Just as quickly as it came, the rain subsides into a steady shower and the sun peaks through the gap between the horizon and the dark clouds above. The sun reflects on the water-soaked strip of straight road ahead, illuminating a brilliant orange pathway undulating over the rolling green hills.

Continuing east, the VW and I eventually break out from under the clouds into the sun and bright blue sky of a late Iowa morning. The past few stops I've made, I noticed that upon letting off the throttle, the engine braking seems weak and the gas pedal has required a few quick jabs before the engine settles down to its normal idle. Upon exiting the highway for gas in Ames, the engine refuses to rev down and no amount of blipping the throttle affects it.

I pull into a spot at the end of the parking lot, get out, and open the VW's hood. I naturally look at the carburetor and can plainly see that the idle screw is not sitting down against its stop. I push the linkage closed by hand and it seems to move easily, with no binding or roughness. The throttle cable looks good, no frays or kinks, the barrel nut attaching the cable to the carb moves smoothly in its bore, and the return spring is connected where it should be. But every time I pull back on the linkage and let go, the throttle returns while leaving that gap between the idle screw and stop. Strange. I remove the return spring to inspect it. The spring looks okay except that instead of closing up tightly when there is no tension on it, there is a small space between each coil. I actually laugh out loud when I realize what has occurred. The throttle return spring has been stretched out due to the massive amount of full-throttle driving the pokey engine has endured over the past 4000 miles.

Looking around at the various people quietly filling their gas tanks behind me, I feel a little self-conscious about my sudden outburst. Pay no attention to the man standing next to the dirty old Volkswagen cracking up while staring at the small spring he holds in his hand. To restore the spring's tension, I cut a couple coils off, re-bend a hook at its end, and reinstall it on the carburetor. I fire up the engine and stab the throttle a few times. Each time, the engine idles right back down to where it should. For a final test, to replicate the conditions that had usually resulted in the throttle sticking, I hold it steady at part throttle and then slowly let off the gas. The engine responds well, with the rpm's instantly falling back down when I release the throttle. Problem solved, I go into the station store, wash up and buy a Dr.Pepper before heading back onto the highway.

Along the roadside, patches of deep purple punctuate the fading green of late summer. The New England Aster has bloomed. This pretty plant is relatively tall, usually 3-4 feet in height around these parts, and patiently waits until the very end of the summer season to unveil its blossoms. The top of each plant flares out and opens up in a large clump of one and a half inch round flowers; many thin purple petals surrounding a golden center. Generally this aster flowers in conjunction with the several varieties of goldenrods native to the area in a spectacular send-off for the waning summer. But this year the goldenrod blooms are nearly spent so the aster looks a bit lonely without its yellow companion.

Behind the purple aster and ripening prairie grasses along the highway, the green of the massive fields corn and soy is fading as the time for harvesting is drawing near. A few corn fields have been cut already, leaving behind only a scattering of shredded husks and rows of stubble in the damp brown earth. The fields of soy have mostly yellowed here, with just a few green patches left in the wettest areas. The cornstalks bend east in unison while their leaves flutter in the strong west wind blowing the VW and I ever closer to home.

The generally flat terrain covering much of central and eastern Iowa suddenly gives way to long rolling hills as I near the Mississippi River. The highway winds down the bluffs flanking the river valley. The weather is much improved over my dreary Mississippi crossing on the way out. I look up and down the valley as I drive along the US-151 bridge spanning the river. Framed by the steep hills on each end, the water sparkles below me in the wind as the VW buzzes its way over to Wisconsin. The car valiantly tackles the climb back up the bluff on the east side of the river, the roar of the engine amplified off the vertical sandstone walls of the highway cut on either side.

After a few miles the steep hills once again give way to a gently rolling land. Once again I am passing pastures of black and white spotted dairy cows, fields of corn and soy, bright silver grain silos, and big old farm houses in various states of repair. The numerous marshes along the way are beginning to fill with small flocks of geese, grouping together in the early stages of preparation for their big convoy south. The oak and hickory trees covering the low hills are showing bits of brown and yellow respectively. The tips of a row of huge old maples lining a farm driveway glow orange. Overhead from a clear blue sky, the sun shines its warming rays across this familiar landscape.

4600 miles travelled.

Nearing the end of the morning rain in Iowa.


A beautiful day to be back in Wisconsin.


Bugs on the VW.


Grungy rear wheel from leaking axle seal. The fender also has a nice greasy line across its underside. The next morning I replaced the damaged spacer with a new one for a good sealing surface. No leaks yet as of writing this.


All cleaned up again. I am incredibly proud if this little car. It now has 70000 miles on it since I rebuilt it, including two California trips. Not bad for a formerly ruined car that spent 20 years sitting in a field in Texas.
 
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slowlane

Observer
In Conclusion

The grandeur of the mountains, solitary remoteness of the western deserts, and never-ending sky of the Great Plains will never cease to move me. These places are all special and I am grateful to have the opportunity to visit them. However, their beauty is usually accompanied by a feeling of vague uneasiness, that I don't really belong in those lands. Here in the Midwest, I feel at home. There is something peaceful about the mild landscape that surrounds the area of Wisconsin where I live.

I have only been here for a little over three years but have come to really like it; to the point where for the first time in my life, I want to stay somewhere. There are things I can definitely complain about. The hoards of biting and generally obnoxious flying insects that swarm from late May to early August for instance. Or the less than perfect weather that can leave you in a week and a half long stretch of unbroken clouds in February, seemingly endless chilly rains in April or October, and stifling humidity in July that will make an 85 degree day as miserably sweaty as a hundred plus was growing up in Texas.

But I would trade the view from a mountain summit for a time I spent in the Scuppernong Prairie on a perfect late summer morning. I was lying on a foot bridge with a spring-fed stream gurgling along below me while bright yellow sunflowers danced above in the cool wind and puffy white clouds drifted across the deep blue sky. Or sitting on a moss covered rock on a grey October afternoon at the edge of a kettle bog covered in a damp reddish mat of vegetation rimmed in pale yellow cattails, the whole area walled in on three sides by hills glowing with yellow aspens and oaks of dull orange and dark crimson.

I spent a good chunk of my adult life dreaming about going to this place, moving to that place, and seeing another. I never spent enough time exploring and appreciating where I was. I still have a list of places I would like to get to and do head out at least once a year, but I am enjoying discovering where I live for a change. Since moving to Wisconsin, I have spent the meager $28 required to gain a year's worth of access to the state parks and forests. I take day trips all over the southern part of the state, from the Mississippi River bluffs to the sandy dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline, seeing what there is to see. I have been pleasantly surprised at what I have found.


Thank you to those who have followed along on this adventure. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Tim
 
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Ace Brown

Adventurer, Overland Certified OC0019
Of course I knew your report would eventually come to an end. I enjoyed it enough that I was a touch saddened. Really nice writing.


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Tadpole

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As a former Beetle owner, I especially enjoy your trip reports. Thanks for taking the time to write them up.
 
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