It's a tale of new social media, old Volkswagen mini-buses, new friends and old-fashioned doing things for other people, even strangers—and old Route 66.
And then there's the movie. The movie was the whole point.
Christian and Levi Mericle, two Tucumcari brothers, found themselves in the thick of all this, and they're attending the premiere of the movie on Sunday. The movie is called Circle the Wagen. It's about social media, old Volkswagen mini-buses, and the rest. It premieres at 4:30 p.m. at Albuquerque's Guild Cinema on Central Avenue, Albuquerque's cherished piece of Route 66. The premiere is part of the Albuquerque Film and Media Experience, a film festival that is supported by, among others, Robert Redford of Sundance Film Festival fame. There's another showing at 7:30 that evening.
The movie is a nonfiction account of the cross-country journey of a $787 Volkswagen mini-bus, the guy who bought it, his two friends, and the people they met, who gave them all the considerable help they needed.
And part of the movie, 30 to 40 percent, according to Charlie Pecoraro, one of the film-makers, is about Tucumcari, and the beginning and end of the four-year interruption in filming while the mini-bus moonlighted as part of the décor around Tucumcari's historic Blue Swallow Motel.
The bus belongs to Pecoraro's good buddy Dave Torstenson, who christened it "The Croc." They brought another good friend, Ryan Steven Green, to direct the film. The movie is about what happened when the three decided to take Dave's bus on a cross-country trip to document on film the phenomenon of Volkswagen bus owners. The bus owners comprise a close-knit, if far-flung subculture, Pecoraro said, who interact through social media and go way out of their way to help each other out, if it involves keeping old Volkswagen buses on the road.
After near-daily breakdowns, Pecoraro said, the bus gave up in Tucumcari and the trio's money gave out. They found Christian's name on a Volkswagen bus website, and Christian and Levi showed them lots of hospitality while the trio found a way to get money to return to California.
Christian owns a 1971 Volkswagen bus with a dome top, called the Turtle, a name he preserved to honor the man he bought it from, he said, who used it as a home until he decided to cycle across Europe, not atypical activity for VW bus owners, Pecoraro said. Admittedly, Christian said, his limited mechanical skills have meant that the bus languishes in the yard of his mobile home located east of Tucumcari, but he has not given up the hope of one day getting it running.
Christian handles information technology chores for the Eastern Plains Community Action Agency, which is spread out over six widely separated communities in Eastern New Mexico. Levi is a budding poet and writer, who, unlike many who claim the title, has received recognition for his work, which he calls "Christian and dark." The French film magazine Premiere published a short piece about Levi's work about a year ago—in French.
The Croc's breakdown and abandonment occurred in 2007. When the film-making trio returned to California, they left the bus at the Blue Swallow. The owners at the time, Bill Kinder and Terry Johnson, who were "the sweetest people to us," Pecoraro said, pledged to keep the bus for them.
In the four years that followed, Pecoraro said, the trio kept in social-media contact with the Blue Swallow owners, as well as Christian and Levi.
Meanwhile, the bus enjoyed an interim career as a conversation piece and an addition to the Blue Swallow's appeal as an echo of the past and the legacy of Route 66.
It appears in many of the photos that the stream of Route 66 aficionados and others who were captivated by Old Route 66 landmarks, took during the bus's stay there. Pecoraro even sent a painting of the Blue Swallow that features the old bus parked in front.
Bill and Terry had to sell the Blue Swallow, starting in 2010, so Bill told Dave the Croc would have to leave the Blue Swallow's environs. In March, Dave and the crew arrived to reclaim the Croc, and the saga—and the film-making—resumed.
Christian and Levi were again summoned to assist. Together, the five were able to move the bus to a location behind the Blue Swallow, then, at the gentle urging of Tucumcari Police, to another lot. More help was summoned through the social network.
This time, Christian said, at least three VW mini-buses from as far away as Oklahoma converged on the Blue Swallow and the Croc in March 2011.
Before long, the bus had a new windshield and enough new parts to keep it running.
Christian and Levi, neither being mechanics, mostly "stood around and talked to people," as work on the Croc proceeded.
What happened after the Croc and crew left Tucumcari is documented in Circle the Wagen, Pecoraro said.
So, what kind of people own, maintain and travel in vintage Volkswagen buses?
"A bus owner is someone who is more concerned with the quality of life" than material acquisitions, Pecoraro said. "He's more concerned with the journey than the destination."
Because of this, he said, a bus owner will take the old, slow road, like Route 66, and enjoy getting there as much as arriving. Part of that, of course, is because the VW buses are powered by the same tiny, air-cooled 36-horsepower engines that powered their much smaller cousins, the VW bugs.
Pecoraro said he was also impressed with the way VW bus owners will go out of their way to help even complete strangers who own buses.
Pecoraro said he hopes the movie will result in "renewed faith after all the negative news and things that are bad" in the world, and help people restore confidence in each other.