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The Bus: A family heirloom on four wheels

Courtesy photo | Bill Hicks celebrated his 90th birthday in June with a trip around Ashland in The Bus.
Courtesy photo | Ashland resident Bill Hicks celebrated his 90th birthday in June with a visit from his daughter, Jenny Hicks, and The Bus.

Longtime Ashland residents may remember a bright red and cream 1966 Volkswagen bus in the 1970s and 1980s, with a long-armed geologist behind the wheel.

The bus’s original owner, Ashland resident Bill Hicks, celebrated his 90th birthday in June with a visit from his daughter, Jenny Hicks, and The Bus.

Note: The bus is a boy and his name is The Bus.

“There is no other way to name some vehicle that’s so part of oneself,” Bill Hicks said. “It has its power and character and it’s very individual; it’s like a person.”

He said he purchased the not-yet assembled bus in Germany after striking out in Italy on the search for bus-like transport capable of towing a family. He officially flew “around the world” on his way back to the U.S. from New Zealand, via Europe.

According to the original receipt, Hicks paid less than $4,000 for The Bus — a decent sum for the hardworking man in 1965.

“He always says that the bus was a gift from New Zealand because it was the money he earned there that paid for the bus,” Jenny Hicks said.

He flew back to the East Coast, waited a week for the freshly fabricated ‘66 VW — repaired the steering mechanism that had been damaged during shipping — and bused the family back to San Francisco along the southern U.S.

Jenny wasn’t born yet, but she remembers finding a bow-and-arrow set in the basement, which her older siblings picked up in Arizona on the cross-country trip.

Bill Hicks was hired as an engineering geologist for the U.S. Forest Service and relocated to Ashland in 1969. He found the perfect house on Vista Street — one that suited a “predecided compulsion” to live with forest in the back and town out front.

With a job based in Yreka, he commuted back and forth across the Siskiyou summit in The Bus for more than three years before accepting a post with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Medford.

As a child, Jenny colored on topographic maps in his office until Bill was ready to drive them to Rogue River or Crater Lake in the afternoon, in The Bus.

The Bus tops out at 55 mph on a straight road and 35 mph uphill. Jenny and her husband, Robert, crept over the pass on their latest trip from Southern California to Ashland.

“I was nervous about taking the bus over the pass because it doesn’t go very fast, but I thought well, my dad did this for three years, so we can do it once,” Jenny said.

After a marital separation in Jenny’s childhood, Bill regularly drove to the Sacramento area, where Jenny and her mother lived, to take Jenny, his “gem,” on field trips into gold country. A dragon kite lived under the seat of The Bus next to fishing poles and sleeping bags.

Every summer, they drove The Bus to California’s Central Valley to visit family. One day Jenny was bored in school and her dad picked her up and drove them to Disneyland, recounted Bill’s wife, Paula Daystar.

Jenny estimated The Bus has traveled more than 200,000 miles to date. Old engine records that would confirm its longevity were among items lost to the Almeda fire, which tore through Hicks’ and Daystar’s Talent home in September 2020. The Bus is one of their only remaining family heirlooms.

“The Bus is inside me you might say,” Bill said. “Especially since everything burned, it’s a material example of my life at that time.”

The Bus exhausted three engines by the time Jenny and Robert offered $15,000 and took ownership in 2018. At the time, it was just operable enough to hobble home to Southern California. New brakes, a new transmission and $25,000 later, The Bus was travel-ready.

Though Bill said he briefly considered that The Bus could sell for more than they offered, it became quickly apparent that The Bus was meant for Jenny and Robert.

The exterior color, original Westfalia interior, windows, original vehicle manual and ice box are still intact. The European-style gas heater, which funneled gas under the driver’s seat into a heating system, had to go.

The rare dormobile camper top offers substantial headroom — like a tent built into the vehicle, perfect for hiding from the Oregon Coast drizzle on camping trips, Jenny said.

When she bought it, Jenny skirted a $1,700 registration fee because the vehicle is considered single-owner (within the family) — a bus rarity given that most buses have unknown or multiple owners over the years, she said.

“We would never sell The Bus because he’s a member of the family,” Jenny said. “The Bus is like a sign of my father. I associate it so strongly with my father being there and feeling safe. When we first brought him home, I would see The Bus in a parking lot and I would almost start crying because I was so moved at feeling like my dad was there. I still feel that way.”

In all its years on- and off-road, The Bus has never wrecked. Jenny and Robert had their first mechanical breakdown on the side of Highway 1 heading home from Ashland in June.

The couple’s planned improvements to The Bus include replacing the interior wood paneling, which has water damage from a leak, and new flooring. Jenny plans to honor her father’s years working in New Zealand with traditional Maori designs on the new wood panels.

On June 18, as the family prepared to take a drive around Ashland in The Bus to celebrate Bill’s 90th year, seeing her father’s long arms and legs in the driver’s seat for a moment was a familiar, comforting sight.

Setting aside his walker and taking a seat behind the wheel, Bill said he became “ecstatic” visualizing The Bus driving down the road again. Sliding into the passenger seat, he saw imprints young Jenny made with her feet and knees on the dash decades ago. The heart-shaped sticker she gave him as a child is still stuck on the rearview mirror.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.