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Girl, Bus Fall in Love

Allie Donahue

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Libby Arnosti ’13 and Bella, a 1976 green Volkswagen bus, met online. It wasn’t your typical crash and burn Tinder thing; no, these two will grow old together.

Arnosti, who described herself as a “Volkswagen creeper,” first noticed the ’76 bus sitting in an empty lot across from the Rose Street Safeway in 2008 when she visited Whitman as a high school junior.

“It was one of the things that made me feel like this place in the middle of nowhere could actually be pretty cool,” she said in an email to The Pioneer.

After finishing classes at Whitman, Arnosti stuck around Walla Walla doing communications for Whitman Athletics. Now Arnosti also works as a bilingual para-educator at Pioneer Middle School. Arnosti had had her eye on the bus since high school, and finally, in early March 2014, she posted a sticky note on its windshield, expressing her interest in purchasing it.

A few days later, she got an email back… from the bus.

On Friday, March 14, 2014 at 9:28 p.m., [email protected] (it was asked that The Pioneer not publish this email address) wrote, “I will turn 39 in November of this year. The youngest, yet the largest and strongest of all that have come before me. I’ve been loved, hated, cussed at and praised everywhere I’ve ever traveled to or lived.”

During the next few weeks, Arnosti exchanged 10 emails with the bus.

She explained her love of Volkswagen buses.

“I will turn 23 in July of this year. Since I can remember I have felt a distinct identification with VW buses, and strong attraction to them, their history, their character, and the stories they create. My desire to own one is rooted in an awareness that the VW bus, and everything it represents, precisely reflects who I want to be and how I want to be in the world. This car resonates with me. The awareness of this fact grew organically in me from an early age, and my passion for VW buses is now recognized by my family and friends as a logical extension of my own personality.”

In return, the bus poured its heart out to her.

“I’ve been over this country’s Great Divide in the Rocky Mountains, glided, oh so warmly, through Kansas and Wyoming wheat fields during the Harvest under the full moon to the sound of great tractors as well as crickets galore. I’ve been down the Oregon coastline, from Newport, miles and miles south, on to almost L.A., returning home once again, safe and sound, yet richer, if not a little more worn, for the experience of it all.”

Arnosti wasn’t sure how to feel about the emails.

“I was wildly excited but also a little bit on edge,” she said. There was a sexual undercurrent to the exchange that worried Arnosti.

In one email the bus wrote, “I’m in dire need of a good hot bath, with maybe some good massage all over… based in carnauba [wax].”

Later, it encouraged Arnosti to “Sit on my drivers seat, feel my dashboard, slide your hands over my headliner … get a feel for me, as I to you.”

“It felt like I was courting the bus,” said Arnosti.

Trying to keep perspective, she forwarded the emails to her friends and parents.

“None of them had their creepy sensors set off,” she said.

In the seventh email, though, things changed. The person behind the bus finally came forward.

“Libby, my name is Tim, I’m the owner of the VW bus that has caught your eye and even possibly, your heart.”

Arnosti estimates that Tim (who asked to keep his full name private) is about 60. He is the building manager for a public housing authority for developmentally disabled people.

“I care for a living,” he wrote.

When Tim no longer impersonated the bus, a line in an email raised hackles.

Arnosti had mentioned that she owned the book “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” by John Muir (descendent of the famous naturalist).

Already deeply impressed with Arnosti’s love of Volkswagens, her owning the book pushed Tim over the edge. He owns three copies.

“You. absolutely. scare. me. to. death. Really,” he wrote.

This was love language, and its source was an anonymous, online, older male. But despite hesitations, Arnosti stayed open to Tim.

In a sense, Arnosti explained, Tim seem to be falling in love with her.

Tim bought the bus as a high school graduation gift for his son. He had envisioned a father-son project, refurbishing the entire engine so that his son could drive the bus away to college. But when asked to put up 400 for the project, the son balked. The project was dropped.

“He had his heart broken by his son,” said Arnosti. “It seemed to him that I was mending those pieces that had been broken. I was a weirdly perfect person for this story to come to completion.”

In a way, Arnosti’s relationship with Tim was about love.

“Fundamentally it was about love of the bus … this crazy love for this bus … That’s what connected us,” she said.

After that last dramatic email, Arnosti went to meet Tim on April 1, 2014. He told her that he had been up all night thinking and that he had decided that Arnosti was the right person to inherit his beloved bus. He signed the title over to her then and there, for free.

Arnosti named her new bus “Bella,” a derivative of Tim’s email address. She had the engine work done by a man named Rocky Jennings, whom she called Walla Walla’s “Volkswagen savant.”

Hardware taken care of, now Arnosti is working on decorating.

The floor is covered in rugs, including one she took out of her neighbor’s dumpster. Her aunt sewed her pillows with fabric Volkswagens, and Arnosti just sewed a sleeping cushion for a backseat bed. Soon she hopes to make curtains.

Arnosti is obsessed with Bella. She talks about her any chance she gets, and she just changed her profile picture on Facebook to a shot of her leaning through Bella’s passenger-side window.

But it’s not really Bella herself that Arnosti loves.

“It’s the idea,” she said. “I think there’s such thing as having profound love for an idea.”

For Arnosti, Bella symbolizes possibility and the unknown.

“These are ready made adventure cars,” she said.

This summer, Arnosti hopes to have that adventure. She plans to travel around the country with Bella, meeting other people with Volkswagen buses. On her trip, Arnosti wants to photograph bus owners with their buses. She will put it all together into a photo book with text blurbs called, potentially, “Volkfolks.”

There are already a few published photo books of Volkswagens, but the books don’t show the bus owners.

Arnosti thinks that people are missing from Volkswagen literature.

“How many people care about portraits of buses, versus care about the people [who own them]?” she said. “I mean, come on.”

As a symbol of adventure, Bella served as the connecting point between Tim and Arnosti, people from such different worlds that one would never expect them to be friends.

That’s Bella and Arnosti’s story. Arnosti knows that other buses and their owners have stories, too.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “Physically I think the bus is just freaking adorable, but that’s not all it is. It’s about the people.”

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Girl, Bus Fall in Love